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  • A Saudi flag flutters atop Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 20, 2018.

    A Saudi flag flutters atop Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 20, 2018. | Photo: Reuters

Published 6 November 2019

The data was then “sold” to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and the Saudi regime. The case is the first time federal prosecutors have charged Saudis with acting as agents of a foreign power inside the U.S.

Two former employees of Twitter and a third man from Saudi Arabia face United States charges of spying for the kingdom by digging up private user data and giving it to Saudi officials according to a complaint filed Wednesday by the Justice Department.

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The story, which was broken by the Washington Post, reveals that the U.S. is charging Saudi citizen Ahmad Abouammo and U.S. citizen Ali Alzabarah, both of whom previously worked at Twitter; as well as Ahmed Almutairi, also a Saudi citizen of accessing data on more than 6,000 Twitter accounts, including one tied to a confidant of murdered journalist and critic of the Saudi government, Jamal Khashoggi.

The data was then “sold” to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and the Saudi regime. The case is the first time federal prosecutors have charged Saudis with acting as agents of a foreign power inside the U.S.

According to the complaint, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began monitoring the Twitter employees in 2014. Investigators contacted the big tech company at the end of 2015 when they informed executives that the Saudi government was grooming employees to gain information about the company’s users.

Alzabarah joined Twitter in 2013, rising through the ranks of the engineering division to a position that gave him access to personal information and account data of Twitter customers. 

The New York Times reported that Alzabarah grew increasingly close to Saudi intelligence operatives, who eventually persuaded him to peer into the accounts of users they sought information on, including dissidents and activists who spoke against the crown.

He quit the company in 2015 and went back to Saudi Arabia to join MBS's MiSK Foundation, a tech-centric nonprofit.

In a similar manner, Abouammo, a media partnerships manager at Twitter, began getting access to user data - one of the users was a prominent critic of the Saudi royal family and had more than one million followers on Twitter - within a week after meeting with an unnamed Saudi official in the United Kingdom in 2014, according to the complaint. 

The Saudi government then paid him in a series of wire transfers at least US$300,000. He has since moved to Seattle for a marketing job at Amazon.

Last year, The New York Times reported that Saudi operatives had groomed a Saudi employee at Twitter whom Western intelligence officials suspected of spying on user accounts to help the Saudi leadership. 

Coincidently in a new report published Monday, Human Rights Watch points out that militants, clerics and all perceived critics of MBS and the Saudi regime, faced a deep crackdown since the latter’s rise to power two years ago after the removal of his uncle Muhammad bin Nayef by King Salman.

The report goes on to say that the practices of arbitrary detentions of dissidents, intimidation of their family members, endless summonses for interrogation, and prosecutions in “blatantly unfair trials on spurious charges,” despite not being a new phenomenon within the kingdom, have “accelerated and increased” since 2017. 

The new form of persecution of political activists started in September 2017 - three months after MBS became crown prince - when dozens of clerics, academics, intellectuals, journalists, and human rights activists were arrested in what was widely understood as an attempt to crush down dissent voices.

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