Saudi Arabia recruited two former Twitter employees to gather personal data about critics of the regime, US court complaint reveals
It was alleged that the picked individuals were showered with designer watches and tens of thousands of dollars for carrying out the secret mission of targeting opposing voices.
The Saudi Arabian regime is yet to overcome the impact of the Jamal Khashoggi episode where it is accused of plotting the murder of the US-based dissident journalist in the country’s consulate in Istanbul last year. And now, it has been accused once more of targeting critical voices against its leaders and policies on social media. Prosecutors said on Wednesday, November 6, that Riyadh recruited a couple of former Twitter employees with the purpose of gathering secret personal information on accounts numbering thousands and including those of prominent opponents.
As per the complaint unsealed in the US District Court in San Francisco, the details of the coordinated effort by Saudi officials to pick employees at Twitter to probe private data of the social media accounts — including email addresses linked to those accounts as well as the internet protocol addresses that can help to track a user’s location, were revealed. The accounts looked into included those of a popular critic of the Saudi government with over a million followers and a news personality. They were not named though.
The complaint even said that the employees picked for the secret mission and did not require access to Twitter users’ private data were also rewarded with a designer watch and showered with tens of thousands of dollars sent to secret bank accounts. The two persons are Ahmad Abouammo, a 41-year-old American citizen, and Ali Alzabarah, a 35-year-old Saudi citizen, who were accused of acting as agents of Riyadh without registering with the US government as foreign agents. The FBI Seattle Field office arrested Abouammo on Tuesday, November 5. He made his initial appearance in the US District Court in the Western District of Washington where a bail hearing was scheduled for Friday, November 8.
A third person also featured in the scheme of things
The complaint also spoke about a third person — Ahmed Almutairi, a 30-year-old from Saudi, who along with other officials convinced the above-mentioned men to use their employee credentials to reach the non-public information about certain users on the platform. According to the prosecutors, Almutairi worked as a social media adviser for the Saudi royal family. According to the complaint, Almutairi flew Alzabarah to Washington DC in 2015 when a Saudi delegation paid a visit to the White House. "Within one week of returning to San Francisco, Alzabarah began to access without authorization private data of Twitter users en masse," it added.
Riyadh did not issue any immediate statement through its embassy in Washington in connection to the matter while its state-run media did not acknowledge the charges either. The complaint also marked a new low in the time-tested relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia as it was for the first time that the Middle East power was accused of spying on the soil of its long-term ally.
The latest allegations are set to affect Washington’s links with Riyadh, which has a dubious human rights record, yet again. It was just over a year ago that the murder of Khashoggi, a columnist with the Washington Post and a staunch critic of the Saudi government, had put things in jeopardy. Washington’s inconsistent response to the veteran journalist’s brutal murder left the Trump administration facing a backlash.
Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch, told the Associated Press the latest allegations reveal the extent to which Saudi government went to control the flow of data on Twitter.
That the Saudis had made some serious planning to curb freedom of expression on social media became known when Saud al-Qahtani, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s former top adviser and director of the cybersecurity federation, started a hashtag “Black List” to target critics of Riyadh. He tweeted in 2017 saying the government knows ways of unmasking anonymous Twitter users and he was not going to say how the procedure works. He was even sanctioned for his suspected role behind the killing of Khashoggi and his Twitter account was suspended a few months ago for having violated its manipulation rules.