Ex-Twitter employee found guilty of spying on Saudi dissidents

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Kate Munsch/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Kate Munsch/Reuters

A former Twitter employee has been found guilty of spying on Saudi dissidents using the social media platform and passing their personal information to a close aide of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

A jury in a federal court in California found Ahmad Abouammo, a dual US-Lebanese national, had acted as an unregistered agent of the Saudi government.

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 Prince Mohammed’s aide Bader al-Asaker.

In return, Asaker is said to have given him a $20,000 watch and paid a total of more than $300,000 to an account in Lebanon set up in Abouammo’s father’s name.

According to the indictment, the Saudi government first made contact with Abouammo in May 2014, asking him to arrange a tour of Twitter’s San Francisco office for a group of Saudi “entrepreneurs”. The group, which included Asaker and other employees of the crown prince, visited San Francisco the following month.

Asaker then asked Abouammo for help in having Prince Mohammed’s Twitter account get “blue tick” verification and asked for his contact details. In November 2014, the indictment says, Abouammo was contacted by another of the defendants in the case, Ahmed Almutairi, a Saudi social media marketing consultant working for the royal family, including Prince Mohammed.

Almutairi, who is accused of acting as a middle man for Asaker, requested an “urgent meeting” near Twitter headquarters in San Francisco to discuss their “mutual interest”, according to the indictment.

In December, Abouammo flew to London to meet Asaker, who is alleged to have given him the luxury watch and at least $20,000 in cash. Within days, Abouammo started illegally accessing the personal data of a Twitter user who was a critic of the Saudi regime, the indictment said, and then accessed the details of another critic in February 2015.

The same month a first payment of $100,000 was paid to the account set up in Abouammo’s father’s name in Lebanon, to which Abouammo had access. Another $200,000 was paid into the account after Abouammo resigned from Twitter in May 2015, the indictment says.

Before leaving Twitter, Abouammo introduced the third accused in the case, Ali Alzabarah, to Almutairi. Alzabarah is also accused of spying on Saudi dissidents for Asaker, but the Californian jury did not find Abouammo criminally responsible for Alzabarah’s activities.

Alzabarah is said to have met Almutairi at the residence of a Saudi diplomat in Fairfax, Virginia, in May 2015, during a visit to the US by Prince Mohammed. He fled the US with his family to Saudi Arabia in 2015 after being confronted over his actions by Twitter management. Once in Saudi Arabia, he was given a job at the Misk Foundation, a charity established by Prince Mohammed and run by Asaker.

Almutairi is also believed to be in Saudi Arabia. Warrants have been issued for the arrests of both men.

Related: Former Twitter employees charged with spying for Saudi Arabia

Abouammo was found guilty of lying to the FBI when he was first confronted by agents in October 2018. He claimed the watch Asaker had given him was only worth $5,000 and produced a falsified, backdated invoice purporting to show that one of the $100,000 payments was for legitimate consultancy work for Asaker.

The judge turned down a prosecution request for Abouammo to be held in custody until a hearing on Wednesday. His defence counsel argued he did not present a flight risk as he had a wife and three small children in California.

Paying for inside information from Twitter is only one of the ways the Saudi regime has sought to spy on dissidents. Friends and associates of the murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi were also hacked using Pegasus spyware supplied by an Israeli security company, NSO.