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Defense calls feds’ case against accused Saudi spy full of holes

A federal jury is deliberating the fate of Ahmad Abouammo, an ex-Twitter employee accused of using his inside access to gather and pass on dissidents’ account information to a top Saudi official connected to the royal family.

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.”

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During its closing, the prosecution displayed a meticulous timeline to show how the scheme played out, beginning when Abouammo met Al-Asaker, who is also referred to as Bader Binasaker, on a tour of Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters on June 13, 2014. The pair later met in London on Dec. 5, 2014, where they allegedly discussed @Mujtahidd. Abouammo then returned to the U.S. with a Hublot watch valued at around $40,000.

“That luxury watch was not free. It came with strings attached,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Cheng said, noting that just a couple of days later, Abouammo began accessing @Mujtahidd account.

”You’ve heard that a media partnerships manager might have had limited reasons to access certain information," Cheng said. "Don't be fooled. There was no such business case here. This was spying — on an account critical of Saudi Arabia because Mr. Binasaker asked the defendant to do so.”

In late January 2015, Abouammo flew to Lebanon where he opened a Bank Audi account in his father’s name, to which Al-Asaker made two deposits of $100,000 in February 2015 and July 2015. Cheng said the account was disguised as belonging to Abouammo’s father “to conceal what was really going on.”

Money was transferred from the account in $10,000 increments to Abouammo’s Bank of America checking account on March 10 and June 11 of that year — the basis of the government’s money laundering wire fraud charges.

Abouammo departed Twitter on May 22, 2015, and took a job in Seattle with Amazon. The government claims the July 2015 wire transfer was a “late” payment, evidenced by a Twitter direct message where Al-Asaker tells Abouammo “sorry about the delay in transfer.”

A third transfer was made by Al-Asaker to the Lebanese account in January 2016, which Abouammo allegedly tried to disguise by claiming it as a payment for legitimate freelance consulting work for MISK. "Because he had already left Twitter, he tried to make the deposit look legitimate,” Cheng said.

He reminded the jury that Abouammo excused himself during the FBI’s interview at his home and disappeared upstairs for 30 minutes. Cheng said Abouammo used that time to fake up an invoice for $100,000 with a listed address for a home that had not yet been built.

He said Abouammo also lied about the value of the watch, calling it “junky” and worth only around $500. "He thought he could get away with it,” Cheng said. ‘But he didn’t."

Chuang attacked the prosecution’s timeline during her closing as “carefully curated” and misleading.

“The full story matters. That's why I'm not going to show you a timeline. Because that over-simplifies things. It misleads you into thinking the the things on the timeline are the only things that matter,” she said.

For instance, the government left out Nabil Borhanu, a venture capitalist who was friends with Alzabarah and allegedly helped facilitate Alzabarah’s escape. Borhanu, who was given immunity by the government in exchange for his testimony to the grand jury, was not called as a witness at trial. But the defense read a transcript of his testimony where he said Alzabarah was frantic the day his account accesses were discovered by Twitter.

Borhanu said Alzabarah called him on Dec. 2, 2015, and asked him to pick him up at Alzabarah’s apartment. He drove around with Alzabarah as his friend used his phone to call Al-Asaker and the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles. He heard Alzabarah tell Al-Asaker: “I think they know and I need to leave.”

Borhanu said he thought Alzabarah was overreacting.

“He was in pretty much in panic mode,” Borhanu testified to the grand jury. “He told me 'they're accusing me’ and he looked into the Mujtahidd account and he gave the other accounts as well. I told him I didn’t think it was serious and that he was exaggerating his reaction.”

Borhanu acknowledged that he helped Alzabarah ship his family’s belongings to Saudi Arabia and unload his car after he fled.
Chuang said the government tried to “minimize” Borhanu’s involvement, saying he played more of a role in the conspiracy than Abouammo.

If convicted, Abouammo faces the possibility of decades in prison; 20 years for each charge related to conspiracy, money laundering and fraud, and 10 years for acting as an unregistered foreign agent. His sentence would be set by U.S. District Judge Edward Chen, who will consider federal sentencing statutes.

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