Before he was killed, journalist Jamal Khashoggi gave $5,000 to a friend to create an online group aimed at drowning out the reported hundreds of pro-government trolls on Twitter. Those trolls criticized and tried to silence Khashoggi, and they are still trying to silence his friend — Omar Abdulaziz.
Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd speaks with Abdulaziz (@oamaz7) about his efforts to prevent the government from silencing dissidents and journalists. He says thousands of dissidents and political activists are being jailed inside Saudi Arabia and outside the country.
“Honestly, I'm not going to stop,” he says. “We have to keep fighting. And the whole entire world should know what's really happening in Saudi Arabia."
On his reaction when he first heard Khashoggi was killed
“In the beginning, I was in a denial mode, so didn't want to believe that he was killed. But you know, I just wanted to wait to hear the official news from the Turkish government, but now they already announced that. Honestly, it was a shock, not just for me, for the whole entire world. Killing an innocent journalist inside the embassy of his country, it is a horrible thing.”
On his relationship and work with Khashoggi
“I knew Jamal since a very long time, but in the past, we had our disagreements. But a year and a half ago, he left Saudi Arabia. Then we started to talk about the situation in Saudi Arabia and then day after day, you know, we became like friends, and the relationship between father and son. So more than just colleagues. So yes and the Saudi trolls, they were attacking Jamal because he was writing his own [journalism] in The Washington Post. And so [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman], they were spending billions to promote the picture for him and for his vision. And Jamal with one article, would change the whole story.
“So they were attacking him, insulting him, threatening him all the time. So they would do the same with me but not the same level. So I said once we were in the group, I asked the members, and Jamal was one of them, I said, 'Guys, I do have an idea of creating an army to combat the Saudi trolls.' Jamal really liked the idea. I said, 'But here's the problem: I have no cash. I cannot do anything. We have to get the Saudi activist phone numbers to activate their Twitter accounts, and we cannot do that with Saudi phone numbers because then they're going to be in danger.' So Jamal said, ‘I'm going to give you 5,000 American [dollars], get some SIM cards and give the activists the numbers that they need.
“We had our policies. You cannot use very bad language. You cannot threaten someone. You cannot be a supporter of a radical group or something like that, or then you're not going to join our team because we want to spread a clear message. We are talking about freedom of speech. We're talking about human rights violations. So we do not want to use the same language that they're using … against us.”
On the pro-Saudi government trolls
“Maybe people would find that strange, but in Saudi Arabia, we have no parliament. So the only place where we can expose our ideas or opinions is Twitter. And people started to talk against the government, so they said, ‘Let’s create this army to stop or to dominate the local narrative.’ This is what happened. So now they're paying so many people about $2,000 to $3,000 monthly just to work and disarm.”
"It's their land. It's their place. If they're going to kill me, nobody knows.”Omar Abdulaziz
On the two men who visited him in Canada and asked him to go back to Saudi Arabia
“[The Saudi government] sent two representatives to me, and they also brought my brother with them. And they said, 'OK here's the thing: We do have a message from [Mohammed Bin Salman], the current prince. He really likes you. He really listens to you. He admires your work, and he watches your videos. And he wants you to be back to Saudi Arabia.' I said, 'OK thank you, but I cannot trust you.'
“I would be jailed or may be killed. It's their land. It's their place. If they're going to kill me, nobody knows.”
On how Khashoggi’s death has inspired more Saudis to speak out against the government
“So first of all, just I want to mention one thing because Jamal, he always said, that ‘I'm not a dissident. I'm a journalist.’ And just I want to mention that. But the Saudi government, they wanted to silence Jamal. And now, they're having thousands of Jamals everywhere. They wanted to silence just only one guy and look what happened. The Western media started to focus more on Saudi dissidents, started to focus more on the human rights violations that happen in Saudi Arabia. So they just made this stupid mistake, a stupid mission. It's a big failure for them.”
On how his activism has impacted his family
“Honestly, two of my brothers are jailed. One of them, the one who came here a few months ago to Montreal, is in jail.
“Because of me, yes. And the group of my friends also are jailed because of me. And they said, 'OK, you want them to be released? Shut up. As simple as that.' I don't know whether they're still alive, or they killed them. Honestly, I don't know.”
This segment aired on October 26, 2018.