Twitter on Friday said it had “removed or suspended thousands of accounts with ties to governments in the Middle East,” including a former close media adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who reportedly ran a pro-regime online troll army and was implicated as involved in the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
According to the New York Times, that adviser, Saud el-Qahtani, had 1.3 million followers on the site before he was banned, although his account had mostly gone quiet in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. A Twitter blog post said that Qahtani was “permanently suspended” due to “violations of our platform manipulation policies” alongside six other accounts that posed as legitimate media outlets but were in fact “engaged in coordinated efforts to amplify messaging that was beneficial to the Saudi government.”
In the blog post, Twitter also announced that thousands of other accounts had been removed. Those ranged from pro-Chinese government accounts “attempting to sow discord about the protest movement in Hong Kong” and United Arab Emirates/Egypt-based accounts spreading pro-Saudi propaganda and misinformation about the Yemeni Civil War. Others were tied to political parties in Ecuador and Spain. The Times wrote:
In addition, Twitter suspended a separate network of 267 accounts connected to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. The accounts were operated by a private company called DotDev, and the information operation focused on Qatar and Iran, according to Twitter.
The social media company said it suspended 4,258 inauthentic accounts operating from the U.A.E. that tweeted about subjects like the Yemeni civil war, 259 accounts connected to a political party in Spain and that falsely bolstered public sentiment and 1,019 accounts in Ecuador with links to a local political party that amplified tweets and hashtags about President Lenín Moreno’s administration.
Qahtani, alongside former two-star general and architect of Saudi Arabia’s disastrous intervention in Yemen Ahmad al-Assiri, were officially dismissed from the crown prince’s entourage last year as part of a cover-up operation designed to portray Khashoggi’s brutal murder as resulting from the actions of rogue personnel rather than the crown prince’s ongoing, brutal crackdowns on dissent. Twitter did not comment further when reached by CNN, though Qahtani has also been accused of overseeing the torture of jailed women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul.
Prior reporting by the New York Times has hinted at the scale of Qahtani’s online efforts to root out opposition to the totalitarian Saudi monarchy. In addition to directing particular ire at Khashoggi before his death, the Times wrote, Saudi officials coordinated with “social media specialists” via encrypted chat services WhatsApp and Telegram to disseminate “lists of people to threaten, insult and intimidate; daily tweet quotas to fill; and pro-government messages to augment.” Additionally, Saudi intelligence services reportedly recruited a mole at Twitter that they directed to “peer into several user accounts.”
According to the Washington Post, the Saudi government has “refused to clarify Qahtani’s legal status,” leading to speculation as to where he is currently located and whether or not he continues to advise the crown prince in a more private capacity. While Saudi prosecutors “detailed his prominent role in the [Khashoggi] operation,” the Post wrote, he was not one of 11 people actually prosecuted over the murders.
Saudi Arabia’s ongoing intervention to suppress Houthi rebels in Yemen, already tainted with widespread accounts of war crimes, reached another level last week when the rebels launched a massive drone attack on a Saudi oil field and refining facility that reportedly knocked out double-digit percentages of Saudi oil production. The Trump administration recently cleared the deployment of a small number of U.S. troops to bolster Saudi air and missile defenses in response; Saudi officials vowed to use “necessary measures” in retaliation, raising wariness about a potential conflict with Iran, which the U.S. and Saudi Arabia claim provided drone technology to the rebels.