Two former employees of Twitter and a third man from Saudi Arabia face U.S. charges of spying for the kingdom. Their job was to dig up private user data in exchange for payment. Saudi Arabia Twitter spies acted for Mohammad bin Salman.
The U.S. Justice Department filed the complaint.
According to the complaint filed against them on November 6, Ali Alzabarah and Ahmad Abouammo, who used to work for Twitter, and Ahmed Almutairi, who then worked for the Saudi royal family, face charges of working for Saudi Arabia without registering as foreign agents.
The indictment points an unusually public finger at Saudi Arabia, and in particular at Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) not long ago accused of killing Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist writing for the Washington Post. MbS maintains warm ties with President Donald Trump despite his violence.
Saudi Arabia has not yet publicly remarked on the complaint.
THE CIA IS OUT FOR MBS BLOOD
On November 7, King Salman met with the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel, in the capital Riyadh. The palace released no details on the topics discussed at the meeting, which was also attended by the Saudi foreign and interior ministers and the U.S. ambassador. This is not the first time King Salman gets an earful about his son’s illegal and reckless activities.
Many Republican and Democratic lawmakers are already deeply critical of Riyadh’s conduct of the war in Yemen, which by all accounts mirrors the Assad regime killing civilians in Syria.
According to the Washington Post, which initially reported the charges, MbS name appears in the complaint as Royal Family Member-1. Despite the pressure, Trump has stood by the prince whose name is now synonymous with death and violence.
This is not the first time King Salman gets an earful about his son’s illegal and reckless activities.
The charges also put Silicon Valley companies in the spotlight once again over how they protect the intimate details they collect about their users. To include employees with no legitimate reason for accessing the information.
SPYING AGAINST DISSIDENTS
According to the complaint, Abouammo repeatedly accessed the Twitter account of a prominent critic of the Saudi royal family in early 2015. At one instance, he was able to view the email address and telephone number associated with the account.
He also accessed the account of a second Saudi critic to get personally identifiable information.
Twitter uncovered Alzabarah’s unauthorized access of private data and placed him on administrative leave in late 2015, but not before he had tapped data from over 6,000 accounts, including 33 for which Saudi authorities had submitted law enforcement requests to Twitter, the complaint said.
The U.S. Justice Department said in a news release:
This information could have been used to identify and locate the Twitter users who published these posts.
The U.S. accuses Almutairi of acting as a go-between for the Saudi government and the Twitter employees.
The FBI arrested Abouammo, who is a U.S. citizen, in Seattle, Washington. The other two are presumed to be in Saudi Arabia, the department said. The U.S. ordered Abouammo to remain behind bars pending a detention hearing Friday.
SAUDI ARABIA TWITTER SPIES
Mohammad bin Salman’s government paid the two former Twitter employees cash and other rewards for their services. One received an expensive watch.
Abouammo later claimed the watch was worth $35,000 in communications with prospective buyers on Craigslist.org.
They appeared to have been cultivated by a senior Saudi official, identified by the Washington Post as Bader al-Asaker. He is Prince Mohammad’s close adviser who now heads the crown prince’s private office and charity MiSK.
One man posted a photo of himself with the crown prince during his visit to Washington in May 2015, while another flew to Washington from San Francisco during the same time, the Justice Department complaint says.
The Saudi embassy and government media office did not respond to a request for comment. Reuters could not reach al-Asaker and he did not reply to an emailed request for comment.
Twitter said it was grateful to the FBI and U.S. Justice Department.
We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service. Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees. We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable.
Twitter would not comment on how it became aware of the two men’s activities or whether it alerted law enforcement.