The princess' escape

“Shoot me here. Don’t take me back,” she’d screamed as commandos dragged her off the yacht. Then she disappeared.

The princess' escape
Dubai. (Photo by Karen Dalton)

Full story: A princess raced to escape Dubai’s powerful ruler. Then her phone appeared on the list.

I joined journalists from around the world in investigating military-grade spyware as part of the Pegasus Project, which later won a George Polk Award. For one story, I chronicled the fateful failed escape from Dubai of Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, daughter of one of the Persian Gulf’s most powerful autocrats:

The princess had been careful, so she left her phone in the cafe’s bathroom. She’d seen what her father could do to women who tried to escape.

She hid in the trunk of a black Audi Q7, then jumped into a Jeep Wrangler as her getaway crew raced that morning from the glittering skyscrapers of Dubai to the rough waves of the Arabian Sea. They launched a dinghy from a beach in neighboring Oman, then, 16 miles out, switched to water scooters. By sunset they’d reached their idling yacht, the Nostromo, and began sailing toward the Sri Lankan coast.

Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, the 32-year-old daughter of Dubai’s fearsome ruler, believed she was closer than ever to political asylum — and, for the first time, real freedom in the United States, members of her escape team said in interviews.

But there was one threat she hadn’t planned for: The spyware tool Pegasus, which her father’s government was known to have used to secretly hack and track people’s phones. Leaked data shows that by the time armed commandos stormed the yacht, eight days into her escape, operatives had entered the numbers of her closest friends and allies into a system that had also been used for selecting Pegasus surveillance targets.

“Shoot me here. Don’t take me back,” she’d screamed as soldiers dragged her off the boat, roughly 30 miles from the shore, according to a fact-finding judgment by the United Kingdom’s High Court of Justice. Then she disappeared.

More from the Pegasus Project

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