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Ex-Twitter employee convicted in Saudi spy case

A jury delivered a mixed-bag verdict in the case of Ahmad Abouammo, a former twitter employee accused of spying for Saudi Arabia, finding him guilty of acting on behalf of Saudi Arabia in exchange for a luxury watch and cash, but did not find him culpable for the conduct of a co-worker who was also charged.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal jury found ex-Twitter employee Ahmad Abouammo guilty Tuesday of spying for Saudi Arabia and furnishing the FBI with a fake invoice to disguise a payment of $100,000 he received from a top Saudi official connected to the royal family.

The jury, whittled down to 11 after one member tested positive for Covid on Monday, deliberated for three days before returning a verdict finding Abouammo guilty of acting as an unregistered agent of the Saudi government. But they did not find him culpable for conduct committed by his co-worker, Ali Alzabarah.

Alzabarah’s tenure at Twitter overlapped in part with Abouammo. The site reliability engineer was also charged with spying for Saudi Arabia, taking over after Abouammo left the company in May 2015.

He fled the country in December 2015 after Twitter management confronted him, escaping FBI surveillance and boarding a flight with his wife and child to Saudi Arabia where he took a job at the Misk Foundation, a charitable organization established by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and run by Bader Al-Asaker, a close aide of the prince.

Abouammo was accused of using his inside access to gather non-public information on Twitter accounts critical of the Saudi regime and passing that information to Al-Asaker. In exchange, Abouammo was gifted a luxury watch, and three $100,000 payments wired to a Lebanese bank account in his father's name.

According to an indictment, Abouammo lied to FBI agents when confronted at his Seattle home in 2018, saying the watch was only worth $500 and that the last $100,000 wire from Al-Asaker was for legitimate freelance consulting work.

Abouammo’s attorneys said these lavish gifts were merely tokens of appreciation for Abouammo’s work as a media partnerships manager where he helped verify Saudi royal family Twitter accounts and escalated complaints about imposters on the platform.

Prosecutors had a different take. “The money had strings attached,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin Sampson told the jury at the start of the trial last month. He called the watch a “down payment” for future spying.

Juror Roy Herren, 64, said he and fellow jurors agreed. “We did not buy that it was a gift," he said in an interview after the verdict, noting that Abouammo had the watch appraised and tried to sell it on Craiglist for around $42,000.

“From our perspective, if a powerful character gives you a gift, you don’t immediately turn around and try to sell it. We saw it as a down payment," Herren said.

The $300,000 was also staggering, and he said the jury could not believe the Saudis would expect nothing in return for such a princely sum.

The jury found Abouammo guilty of six of the 11 counts against him: acting as an unregistered agent of the Saudi government, wire fraud, honest services wire fraud against Twitter, conspiracy related to the fraud, money laundering, and fabricating evidence to cover up his crimes. Herren said that from the first day of deliberations, the jury needed to decide whether Abouammo had acted on behalf of the Saudi government. "We went multiple days on that one," he said.

He added that while the government presented no direct proof that Abouammo ever handed confidential data over, the jury knew Abouammo and Al-Asaker used an encrypted messaging service to communicate.

"It wasn't clear what data got transmitted to the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia]," he said. "What were left with was circumstantial. We know they used WhatsApp to communicate. It's frustrating to know there were communications but we didn't know what they were. No one ever produced a statement from the defendant to the KSA about what his bank account was, yet the transfer occurred."

Herren said it was telling that a Bank Audi account was opened in his father's name "just when the defendant happened to be in Lebanon. It sure looked like it wasn't his dad who opened the account."

Also charged in the conspiracy were Ahmed Almutairi — a Saudi social media strategist who claimed to have ties to bin Salman — and Alzabarah, Abouammo’s Twitter colleague who was also accused of accessing Twitter accounts for the Saudis.

The government claimed Abouammo brought Alzabarah into the scheme by introducing him to Al-Asaker. Alzabarah also met Almutairi at Twitter in February 2015, just months after Almutairi connected with Abouammo.

Prosecutors said Abouammo accessed an account with the handle @Mujtahidd multiple times, to gather information on the popular anonymous activist and rumored royal insider who tweets gossip and criticism of the Saudi royal family.

After the jury left the courtroom, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sampson asked U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer to detain Abouammo pending sentencing, saying his conviction and connections make him a flight risk.

"This case involved actions by the government of Saudi Arabia. The defendants acted under their direction and control. And so the government's view is that the court cannot find by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant is not likely to flee," Sampson said.

He added that the Saudi government has assisted in the case, and its consulate in Los Angeles helped exfiltrate Alzabarah. "They are actively involved," Sampson said.

His public defender Angela Chuang objected. "He is absolutely not going anywhere. He has a wife and three young children here," she said, noting he has been out of custody since November 2019.

Breyer said he would allow Abouammo to remain at liberty in the Northern District of California until a hearing Wednesday.

Abouammo hugged his wife and left the courtroom with his attorneys. They all declined to comment on the verdict.

“The Northern District of California is home to many of the most innovative technology companies in the world. One consequence of this good fortune is that companies in this district often collect and store vast amounts of data from customers and vendors," U.S. Attorney Stephanie Hinds said in a statement. "In this case, the government demonstrated, and the jury found, that Abouammo violated a sacred trust to keep private personal information from Twitter’s customers and sold private customer information to a foreign government. Abouammo’s decision to accept bribes in exchange for providing to a foreign government the protected information of customers could have untold damaging consequences. As this case demonstrates, we will not tolerate the misuse of personal information or attempts by foreign governments to recruit secret, malign agents at American technology companies. Where such misuse violates the federal law, offenders will be prosecuted.“

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