Former Twitter Employees Charged With Spying For Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the signing a power-sharing deal between Yemen’s internationally recognised government and Yemeni separatists, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Photo: Bandar Aljaloud / AP)

The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday announced charges against two former Twitter employees, accusing them of spying on behalf of Saudi Arabia, the Washington Post reports.

The former employees, Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, and Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, allegedly accessed the private information of Twitter users at the request of a Saudi official with close ties to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

A third individual, Ahmed Almutairi, also a Saudi citizen, is accused of acting as an “intermediary” between Alzabarah and the Saudi official and has also been charged with spying.

According to a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco and published by the Post, the Saudi official is likely Bader Al Asaker, who operated a charity belonging to Bin Salman, whom the CIA has linked to last year’s murder of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The complaint states that Asaker began “cultivating” Twitter employees for the purpose of obtaining private user information on behalf of the Saudi government that it could not otherwise obtain. The targets, according to the complaint, were critics of the Saudi royal family.

Abouammo is said to have worked at Twitter between November 2013 and May 2015 on media partnerships in the Middle East and North Africa. Abouammo met Asaker, according to the complaint, on multiple occasions, once while leading a tour of Twitter’s San Francisco office for a group of so-called Saudi “entrepreneurs.”

Abouammo, who has also been charged with falsifying an invoice given to the FBI, reportedly later spoke with Asaker by phone and met with him in London in 2014 where he was gifted an expensive watch, said to be valued at roughly $US20,000 ($29,078). He later attempted to sell the watch on Craigslist, the complaint says.

Roughly a week after the London meeting, Abouammo allegedly began accessing the private email address and phone number of a “prominent critic” of the Saudi royal family with over 1 million followers.

The complaint says in total Abouammo received roughly $US300,000 ($436,173) from Asaker.

Alzabarah, meanwhile, is said to have accessed the Twitter user data of over 6,000 Twitter users, including at least 33 usernames for which Saudi Arabian law enforcement had submitted emergency disclosure requests to Twitter, according to the complaint.

Gizmodo has reached out to Twitter for comment and will update when we hear back.

Alzabarah reportedly entered the U.S. on a scholarship and obtained degrees in computer science prior to be employed as an engineer at Twitter between August 2013 and December 2015.

Almutairi, who allegedly acted as an intermediary for Asaker, controlled a Saudi social media marketing company doing work on behalf of the charity belonging to the crown price, as well as members of the Saudi royal family. He reportedly travelled to the U.S. in August 2014 to study English and left the country in May 2015.

According to the Post, one of the accounts accessed by Alzabarah belonged to Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent Saudi dissident who is said to have viewed Khashoggi as a “father figure.”

[The Washington Post]

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