SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Ahmad Abouammo, a former media partnerships manager at Twitter, received a luxury watch and $300,000 from Bader Al-Asaker, a top Saudi government associate. He is accused of accepting these gifts in exchange for accessing the Twitter accounts of Saudi government critics and conveying their confidential information to Bader Al-Asaker, a top aide to the the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
But that’s not the whole story, Abouammo’s attorney told the jury at the close of his criminal trial on Thursday. “The government gave you bits and pieces to create the picture they wanted you to see,” federal public defender Angela Chuang said in her closing argument. “They want you to disregard everything else and throw out what doesn’t fit their story.”
She refuted the government’s theory of an overarching conspiracy linking Abouammo to Al-Asaker, Ahmed Almutairi — a Saudi social media strategist who claimed to have ties to bin Salman — and Ali Alzabarah, Abouammo’s Twitter colleague who is also accused of accessing Twitter accounts for the Saudis.
“They are probably in a conspiracy together, but Mr. Abouammo isn't part of it,” Chuang said. Prosecutors have lumped the four together, she said, but the FBI found no direct evidence that Abouammo ever handed confidential data over.
“The government and Twitter need a way to save face” by trying to pin its case on Abouammo, Chuang said,
Prosecutors believe they found a “shopping list” of accounts recovered from “digital notes” found in Al-Asaker’s Google account that reveals a number of Twitter handles Al-Asaker wanted to look up, including @Mujtahidd, the handle of an anonymous activist and rumored royal insider who tweets gossip and criticism of the Saudi royal family.
Other accounts on the list included @Gharib-fi-watanhihi, @Sama7ti, @Mark al-‘Arabi, @Al-Mutajhahhim, and @Mustanir.
The jury also saw redacted evidence of account information Alzabarah passed to Al-Asaker in June 2015, including the IP address of @abull3abas_q1, and a location for @Dxdzul, whom Alzabarah wrote was “not in Saudi Arabia, he goes back and forth.”
Alzabarah remains at large, having fled the U.S. in 2015 after being confronted by Twitter management. He managed to make it Los Angeles and board a flight to Saudi Arabia with his wife and child despite being under FBI surveillance.
"The people the government really wants are not here because they messed up,” Chuang told the jury. “To make up for that, the government has done its best to smoosh information about Mr. Alzabarah and Mr. Abouammo to put them together as much as possible. They are hoping you won't be able to tell the difference between Abouammo and Alzabarah and that it will all blur together. But you know better.”
Prosecutors believe Abouammo recruited his co-worker by introducing Alzabarah to Al-Asaker, who is also referred to as Bader Binasaker and runs the Misk Foundation, a charitable organization established by MBS.
Abouammo told FBI agents who showed up at his house to interview him in October 2018 that he “felt bad” for having introduced Alzabarah Al-Asaker.
Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen who was interested in getting a job in Saudi Arabia, also met Almutairi at Twitter and sent Almutairi his resume the day before they met in person at Twitter in Feb. 2015.
"The government is trying to make a big deal about the fact that Abouammo felt guilty, but that shows how little they have. An introduction does not equal a conspiracy,” Chuang said. "If I introduce Bonnie to Clyde and they go off and rob a bunch of banks together, that doesn't mean my plan all along was to introduce them so they could do those things.”