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How Saudi Arabia infiltrated Twitter with bribes and bling

A 26-page complaint filed in a California court details how two employees exchanged user data for money and influence
The two former Twitter employees were tapped by Saudis with close ties to the royal family (AFP)

Late last October, FBI Agent Letitia Wu stood inside the newly built Seattle home of Ahmad Abouammo.

Three years earlier, according to a complaint filed in a US District Court in California this week, US citizen Abouammo had used his position at Twitter to spy on Saudi dissidents on behalf of a Saudi royal court official.

For his efforts, he had received a $20,000 gold watch and at least $300,000 from the official, sometimes channelled through a relative’s Lebanese bank account, parsed out in transferred dribbles and used as a down payment on this new home.

US charges former Twitter employees with spying for Saudi Arabia
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Now Abouammo was telling Agent Wu that, well yes, he had looked up the details of a Saudi Twitter user - named in the complaint as ‘User I’ and identified by the Washington Post as Mujtahidd, an anonymous Twitter user known for posting Saudi scoops. But he had only received $100,000 for his consultations, and the watch? It was “plasticky”, “junky” and worth $500, he told her.

Agent Wu wasn’t buying it. Abouammo showed her a photo of a $100,000 wire transfer receipt, sent from the official, to prove what he was saying, but then, she testifies in the complaint, deleted it immediately from his phone - while she watched.

The watch story was also a fraud. It wasn’t a “Halo”, as Abouammo claimed, but a Hublot Unico Big Bang King that records obtained by the FBI showed he had tried to hawk on Craigslist for $35,000.

But perhaps the killer moment was when Abouammo offered to get Agent Wu invoices showing another $100,000 he had been paid once he left Twitter to help the same official. He went to his bedroom, telling her not to follow him and, Wu believes, created the invoice and emailed it there and then to the FBI, who could see, from its metadata, it had been made that very day.

This is just one episode laid out in the 26-page complaint filed against Abouammo and two Saudi citizens, Ahmed al-Mutairi and Ali Alzabarah, that has raised concerns over the degree to which Twitter protects user data and has also shed light on the early days of Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power.

'Deleting evil'

The details paint a picture of Abouammo, who worked as a media partnerships manager at Twitter, and Alzabarah, one of the company's site engineers, as a pliant duo, willing to share potentially devastating information about dissidents and others with the Saudi government in exchange for money, favours and influence, managed by royal insiders equally as obsequious.

Abouammo told the Saudi official through a Twitter direct message that "proactively and reactively we will delete evil my brother".

While Abouammo appears to have been largely directed by the foreign official, Alzabarah's spying venture was mostly managed by Mutairi, who described himself, according to the complaint, as an advisor for a "VVIP 1st Degree Member of the Saudi Royal Family".

In May 2015, Alzabarah wrote to his wife saying that Mutairi had called him and told him that a royal court official wanted to meet him "where he is right now". And so Alzabarah, he explained to his wife, was off to Washington, DC.

There, according to the complaint, he spent around seven hours at a home in Fairfax, Virginia, leased by Saudi officials. A week later, he set off on a seven-month binge during which he would access the data of more than 6,000 Twitter users, regularly sharing information with Mutairi.

'I was expecting help at least for what we did for them'

- Ali Alzabarah, former Twitter employee

One of those months was spent on leave from Twitter, in Saudi Arabia, yet he continued to access private user data 8,000 miles away, and, at times, was connected to Mutairi's company's networks.

But the complaint suggests that Alzabarah grew increasingly restless for just compensation.

A month into his spree, he asked the foreign official whether he could receive reward money for the information he had been sharing. The complaint notes that right around that time Saudi Arabia had offered $1.9m for "information that would avert terrorist attacks".

And back in the kingdom that July, he wrote out a point-by-point memo demanding greater compensation for his efforts, including becoming a member of the foreign official's charity and help with an undisclosed issue involving his father.

"Father's matter is trivial, and I was expecting help at least for what we did for them," he wrote in an Apple Note later found by the FBI. "Now they know the issue, a phone call to the man in charge and the problem is solved."

Eventually, Alzabarah seems to get at least some of what he wants. According to the complaint, he quits his job at Twitter, sending his resignation email while flying to Saudi Arabia where he started to work for the foreign official's charity and also on a team with Mutairi, monitoring and manipulating social media "for the benefit of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia". 

He does not, however, appear to have been given a golden watch.