Saudi Arabia Accused of Using Twitter Employees To Spy on Users in America
Saudi Arabia reportedly ‘kidnapped, tortured and handed harsh jail sentences to anonymous critics of the regime.’
A former Twitter employee has been convicted of failing to register as an agent for Saudi Arabia and other charges after gaining access to private data on users critical of the kingdom’s government in a spy case spanning from Silicon Valley to the Middle East.
An Egyptian-born American citizen and former media partnership manager for Twitter’s Middle East region, Ahmad Abouammo, was charged in 2019 with acting as an agent of Saudi Arabia without registering with the U.S. government. A jury found him guilty on six counts, including conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. The jury acquitted him on another five charges involving wire fraud.
Abouammo spied on users of the social media app for Saudi Arabia, which according to the Times of London then “kidnapped, tortured and handed harsh jail sentences to anonymous critics of the regime.”
The case marked the first time the kingdom, long linked to the U.S. through its oil reserves and regional security arrangements, has been accused of spying in America.
A 2019 FBI complaint alleged that Abouammo and a Saudi citizen, Ali Alzabarah, who worked as an engineer at Twitter, used their positions to gain access to confidential Twitter data about users, their email addresses, phone numbers, and IP addresses, the latter of which would be used to identify users’ locations.
The Times of London reported that after Abouammo left Twitter in May 2015 and moved to Seattle, the Saudis used Mr. Alzabarah as a mole inside the company “who was able to retrieve the private data of more than 6,000 users, including phone numbers and IP addresses.”
Among the users Mr. Alzabarah spied on, the paper reported, was Omar Abdulaziz, a dissident based in Canada and friend of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered in the Saudi consulate at Istanbul on October 2, 2018. Two of Mr. Abdulaziz’s brothers are in jail in their home country.
A third man named in the complaint, Ahmed Al-Mutairi, a Saudi citizen, was alleged to have worked with the Saudi royal family as an intermediary.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that Abouammo was found to have used his position at Twitter to find personal details identifying critics of the Saudi monarchy who had been posting under anonymous Twitter handles, and then supplying the information to an aide to Prince Mohammed, Bader al-Asaker. According to the indictment, the paper said, the Saudi government first contacted Abouammo in May 2014, asking him to arrange a tour of Twitter’s San Francisco office for a group of Saudi “entrepreneurs.”
Paying for inside information from Twitter is not the only way the Saudi regime has spied on dissidents: Friends and associates of Khashoggi were also hacked using Pegasus spyware supplied by an Israeli security company, NSO, the Guardian reported.
The conviction sheds light on the murky world of foreign infiltration of some of America’s best-known companies and casts a shadow on Twitter’s already controversial connections with the Saudi kingdom. One of the biggest investors in the San Francisco-based company is Prince Alwaleed of Saudi Arabia. According to an SEC filing, on a single day in May, Prince Alwaleed bought 490,000 Twitter shares for $20 million. The total value of the Saudi royal’s shares in Twitter are estimated at $1.3 billion, according to Forbes.
The U.S. complaint alleged that user data of more than 6,000 Twitter accounts was accessed, including at least 33 usernames for which Saudi law enforcement had submitted emergency disclosure requests to Twitter. Abouammo was arrested in November 2019 and released on bond. He had pleaded not guilty. The FBI lists Messrs. Al-Mutairi and Alzabarah as wanted.
Abouammo’s attorneys and Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Associated Press.