Saudi Arabia infiltration of Twitter revealed as workers 'spied on dissidents' for MbS

Saudi Arabia infiltration of Twitter revealed as workers 'spied on dissidents' for MbS
Two men have been implicated in a Twitter spy case.
3 min read
20 February, 2020
They had been spying for MBS, reportedly [Getty]
New details have emerged about two former Twitter employees who have been indicted on charges of acting as undeclared agents of Saudi Arabia after accusations they had been spying on critics of the Kingdom.

Ahmad Abouammo, 41 and Ali Alzabarah, 35 are accused of spying on Saudi Arabian dissidents for Mohammad bin Salman's office.

They are accused of collecting and handing over data on users who criticised the country's royals, according to a criminal complaint lodged by the FBI.

The personal information of these users reportedly included phone numbers and IP addresses, and were such that they could be used to track them down in real life, a source told BuzzFeed News.

According to the publication, both men supplied this information to Bader al-Asaker, the head of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's charity and private office.

Alzabarah reportedly spied for the Saudi Arabian government inside Twitter for almost five years starting from May 2015 until he was exposed in December last year, the FBI claims.

Alzabarah and Abouammo, a colleague on Twitter's global media team together accessed the information of some 6,000 Twitter users and delivered them to Saudi Arabia.

The Washington Post first broke the story in November 2019, but since then fresh details about the two men's work in Twitter and the extent to which they spied on critics of Saudi Arabia has come to light.

MbS has also been implicated in the hacking of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos [Getty]

While Azabarah and his family fled to the kingdom shortly after Twitter confiscated his laptop and escorted him out of the company. Both he and Abouammo are indicted in the US federal court on charges of acting as undeclared agents of the Saudi government.

Alzabarah went to the US in 2005 on a scholarship from Saudi Arabia, and in August 2013 he joined Twitter as a site reliability engineer. The nature of his job gave him extensive access inside the social media platform.

He met Abouammo, who joined the company in November 2013 as part of its global media team and was responsible for growing usage in the Middle East.

According to FBI documents, a PR firm representing Saudi Arabia asked Abouammo to verify their Twitter account, which led to longer-term collaboration.

Buzzfeed alleges that a former Twitter colleague said the company had been unprepared to deal with staff who might hand over private data to foreign governments.

"Nobody told us that we would be approached - that we would be intimidated into giving any kind of Twitter information," the source said.

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In February 2015, Abouammo introduced Alzabarah to his Saudi contacts, and the latter was made the chief executive of the Misk Initiatives Center, which is linked to the non-profit Misk organisation founded by Mohammed bin Salman.

Alzabarah accessed the data of more than 6,000 users and took notes on users' movements.

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