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A spying scandal and the fate of Western Sahara

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

There's another spy scandal involving Pegasus, the Israeli spyware that's been used to hack phones around the world - this time in Spain, where it was found on the phone of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. There are signs that this could be linked to a long-standing tension with Morocco over a disputed territory in North Africa.

Here to talk us through this tangled web of espionage and geopolitics is Jose Bautista. He's an investigative journalist based in Madrid. Jose, welcome.

JOSE BAUTISTA: Hi. My pleasure.

FLORIDO: Let's start with the spying. Why are there suspicions that Morocco could have been involved in installing this spyware on the Spanish prime minister's cell phone?

BAUTISTA: Last year, a network of journalists called Forbidden Stories - they published a great investigation showing that Morocco spied on more than 10,000 devices and phones using Pegasus. Two hundred numbers - 200 phones where Spanish phones - you know, including politicians, journalists, human rights activists.

FLORIDO: Why would Morocco want to spy on the government of Spain?

BAUTISTA: Well, first of all, in May and June of last year, when the Spanish government was being spied with Pegasus, Spain and Morocco were having its worst diplomatic crisis in recent history - the worst. Why? Because Morocco is in war at this moment against Front Polisario (ph), which is a group fighting for the self-determination of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony in Africa, and this territory is now under control of Morocco.

FLORIDO: OK, so we need some background here. Western Sahara is a disputed territory bordering southern Morocco. It's largely controlled by Morocco, but separatists there have been fighting for independence for decades. So why is there tension between Morocco and Spain about what happens in Western Sahara?

BAUTISTA: Well, actually, by the end of 2020, December, President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that the U.S. was recognizing Morocco's sovereignty on Western Sahara. It was the first time the U.S. has done this step. And, you know, the - what we call the butterfly effect - a little decision by President Donald Trump just some days before leaving the White House has changed completely the diplomatic relations in this part of the world. So somehow, Morocco now feels its momentum to get control over the territory to abandon negotiations.

FLORIDO: Spain had historically taken a pretty neutral stance on the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco, but it recently announced its support for a plan by Morocco to give Western Sahara some autonomy on domestic issues. Are there any details about what motivated this change?

BAUTISTA: Well, yes, actually, the Spanish government was desperate to have - to bring back its good relation with Morocco. And the price Spain - or the Spanish government was going to pay - well, you can see. Spain is now supporting the position of Morocco instead of supporting the neutral position that historically not only Spain, but also other countries have defended.

FLORIDO: Why is the fate of Western Sahara so important to Spain and other countries?

BAUTISTA: Western Sahara was the last Spanish colony. And it was more than a colony. It became a province. So the - both populations, the Spanish and the Sahrawi people - they are very close because of historical ties and also because of how close those societies are.

FLORIDO: Has the Biden administration taken a stance on this issue or shifted its stance since?

BAUTISTA: Donald Trump decided to recognize Morocco's sovereignty on Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco recognizing Israel. And so Biden, at the beginning, when he came to the White House, some people thought that he would reverse Trump's decision, but he didn't.

FLORIDO: Well, now we have this spyware twist in the story. Does it have the potential to shake up this agreement between Morocco and Spain on Western Sahara's future?

BAUTISTA: I think so. We still have to see if the government or any official source can confirm the origin of this spy faction with Pegasus, but it's going to be problematic for sure.

FLORIDO: That was Madrid-based investigative journalist Jose Bautista. Jose, thanks for joining us.

BAUTISTA: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.