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 recognized government and Yemeni separatists, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.
Photo: Bandar Aljaloud / AP

The Department of Justice (DOJ) 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.

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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.

In a statement to Gizmodo, a Twitter spokesperson said the company recognizes the lengths bad actors will go in attempts to undermine its service. “Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees,” they said.

The spokesperson added: “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. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work. We’re committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights.”

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According to the complaint, Asaker began “cultivating” Twitter employees for the purpose of obtaining private user information on behalf of the Saudi government that it could not otherwise elsewhere. The targets, it says, 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.”

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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 $20,000. 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.

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The complaint says in total Abouammo received roughly $300,000 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.

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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.

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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 traveled 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.”

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[The Washington Post]

Update, 6:45: Added comment from Twitter.

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Dell Cameron

Privacy, security, tech policy | Got a tip? Email: dell@gizmodo.com | Send me encrypted texts using Signal: (202)556-0846

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