Two former twitter employees were charged by the Justice Department with spying for Saudi Arabia. One of the employees, Ahmad Abouammo, was arrested yesterday for reportedly spying on three twitter accounts for the Riyadh government. Abouammo, who is a U.S. citizen, was also charged with obstructing an FBI investigation by falsifying an invoice.
The second employee, Ali Alzabarah is a Saudi citizen who accessed personal information of thousands of accounts for the Saudi government. One of the accounts of interest belonged to a well-known critic of Saudi Arabia, Omar Abdulaziz, who became close with the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi who was ordered to be killed by the Saudi crown prince.
U.S. attorney David L. Anderson said in a statement regarding the case, “The criminal complaint unsealed today alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter’s internal systems for personal information about known Saudi critics and thousands of other Twitter users…We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.”
There is a third suspect who is a Saudi citizen who acted as the intermediary between the Saudi officials and the two twitter employees. All three men are linked to a Saudi official who runs a charitable organization belonging to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The complaint states they were working for Prince Mohammed “with respect to his online presence” on Twitter.
Majority of the spying was elevated in 2015 after King Abdullah died and Mohammed’s father took the throne, reports. Brookings Institution senior fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes said the case shows “just how early’ the pursuit of Mohammed’s critics began as well as ‘a willingness to pursue these people even when it involves the subversion of major American corporations and the targeting of people in friendly countries.”
Additional information in the complaint shows that Abouammo was paid at least $300,000 and was also given a watch worth roughly $20,000. Abouammo was arrested in Seattle where he moved in 2015 after he resigned from twitter. While working with Saudi officials, one of his targets, who was referred to as “Twitter User 1” in the complaint, was a “prominent critic” of the Saudi kingdom and royal family who had over one million followers.