Recently, Former Twitter employee Ahmad Abouamma was sentenced to 42 months in prison by the United States Department of Justice for sending Twitter users’ information to the Saudi Royal Family and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Abouamma, 45, worked as a media partnerships manager for the Middle East and North America (MENA) region for Twitter between 2013 and 2015. Abouamma was helped by two other Saudi citizens named Ali Azabarah and Ahmed Almutairi.
The incident is in stark contrast to how Saudi treats dissent on social media in the region. Saudi Arabia has been known to safeguard the ruling family’s autocracy rigorously. In doing so, several Twitter users, including writers, advocates, and journalists, have been sent to jail. A recent one was in April when Saudi court sentenced Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi citizen and 34-year-old mother of two children, to 34 years in prison for tweets protesting the government. She was in Saudi on vacation when she was arrested.
A 72-year-old Saudi-American named Saad al-Madi was sentenced to life imprisonment in Saudi Arabia for posting tweets from his home in Florida. He was suddenly accused and imprisoned upon his return to the country.
Over the past five years, Saudi Arabia has been carrying out surveillance and harassment of Saudis living in the US. According to the FBI and other groups, the country’s officials have been implementing a campaign of repression under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Some of the Saudis interviewed by the FBI said they were told not to return home.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington responded to an inquiry from the Associated Press and stated that the notion that the country’s government or institutions harass its citizens abroad is ridiculous.
Spying on Twitter was a common thing
This isn’t the first time an incident has occurred with Twitter as well. Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, Twitter’s former head of security, has testified that the Twitter has previously been infiltrated by spies from at least two other countries.
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Tracking social media accounts is part of Saudi’s larger agenda of keeping dissent under check. According to research group Freedom House, Saudi Arabia took action against people from nearly 14 countries over criticizing the government.
Saudi doesn’t even spare its own spies
In an earlier instance, a top ex-spy Saad Aljabri of Saudi Arabia was warned by a friend at a west Asian intelligence service that he might face a similar fate as the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi (Saudi journalist who was assassinated by agents of the Saudi government at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey) and so he fled from the nation. He stated that the team of mercenaries was sent by Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He further detailed that the team was called Tiger Squad and had serial killers in it.
What happened to Ahmad Abouamma?
Abouamma shared, accessed, monitored, and sent Twitter user data of over 6000 people back to the region. In return, he received expensive gifts like a Hublot watch that he put on sale on Craigslist for $42,000. His culpable co-defendant fled to the KSA before facing trial.
According to investigations, Ahmad Abouamma, a dual U.S.-Lebanese citizen received his first bribe in December 2014 from an official who worked for the KSA. An official who was the head of the private office of the royal family, and who served as a Minister of State was involved in these transactions. Abouamma was sentenced for fraud, international money laundering, and showing false records during investigations.
Abouamma was sentenced on Wednesday in the U.S. district court for the northern district of California. He was convicted also of lying and producing fake documents to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to plead his innocence. Abouamma will be under supervision for three years post serving the three years sentence. Another fellow Twitter employee Alzabarah who is at large is also suspected to be involved in accessing accounts
Foreign Official-1 is suspected to be the brain behind the spying operation on Twitter. His real name is Bader al-Asaker and he is an advisor to the Saudi Crown Prince and leader Mohamed bin Salman. He walked free despite being accused of creating Twitter employees to fetch private user information. He is known to be walking free and being active on Twitter with over 2 million followers. Abouamma and Alzabarah are known to watch people on Twitter on the orders of al-Asaker in return for a huge sum of money.
“This case revealed that foreign governments, here, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) will bribe insiders to obtain the user information that is collected and stored by our Silicon Valley social media companies,” Stephanie M. Hinds, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California said in the report.
Meanwhile, on Twitter
Coincidentally, the Crown Prince’s cousin and his arch nemesis Al Waleed bin Talal Al Saud became Twitter’s second largest shareholder in October when he followed through with his $1.9 billion equity commitment to Elon Musk.
The prince was detained in November 2017 by the Saudi government along with 200 others on unproven corruption charges.
A group of 19 investors made a $7.1 billion equity commitment to Musk in May to cover the $44 billion Twitter acquisition. Prince Al Waleed later made a Securities and Exchange Commission filing of the deal that made him Twitter’s second largest shareholder after Musk.
Together, the prince and his publicly traded investing firm, Kingdom Holding, hold 34.948 million shares, or 4%, of Twitter. Al Waleed holds 95% of Kingdom Holding.
It was never this rosy between Al Waleed and Musk. He was initially working to block Musk’s Twitter takeover. “I don’t believe the proposed offer by @elonmusk ($54.20) comes close to the intrinsic value of @Twitter given its growth prospects.” Alwaleed tweeted in April.