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FBI agent: Probe of suspected Saudi spy revealed no written communications

Ahmad Abouammo's attorneys say there's no evidence he gave Saudi officials the personal information behind dissident Twitter accounts in exchange for money and a luxury watch.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The government’s case against an accused Saudi spy hit a stumbling block Monday as a lead FBI investigator testified she found no written correspondence confirming that ex-Twitter employee Ahmad Abouammo passed any private user information to Bader Al-Asaker, a close associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

“I did not see any written correspondence where Mr. Abouammo directly provided private user information to Mr. Binasaker [Al-Asaker],” Special Agent Letitia Wu said.

Under cross-examination by Abouammo’s public defender Angela Chuang, Wu said she reviewed tens of thousands of pages of records from over 30 entities that turned over documents during the FBI’s investigation. “Of the warrants that were issued, I did not see written correspondence where that information was transferred,” she said. “I also believe there were other ways of communication where Mr. Abouammo communicated with Mr. Binasaker.”

Wu did not identify those other ways of communication.

During direct examination, prosecutors unfurled a trove of digital evidence connecting Abouammo to Al-Asaker, from their first meeting in June 2014 when Al-Asaker toured Twitter’s headquarters, to a meeting in London on Dec. 5, 2014, when the pair allegedly discussed @Mujtahidd, the handle of an anonymous activist and rumored royal insider who tweets gossip and criticism of the Saudi royal family.

Abouammo, a former manager of media partnerships for the Middle East and North Africa region at Twitter, stands accused of using his inside access to gather private data on the @Mujtahidd account that he gave to Al-Asaker in exchange for $300,000 and a luxury watch.

Wu and her partner Special Agent Jonathan Kingsley confronted Abouammo in the driveway of his Seattle home on Oct. 20, 2018. Wu would later testify during cross-examination that Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin Sampson was also there as an observer, but that he identified himself only as an attorney.

She said Abouammo immediately asked if they were there because of a New York Times article where anonymous sources said intelligence officers warned Twitter in late 2015 about Saudi Arabia operatives grooming another Twitter employee called Ali Alzabarah to spy on certain accounts.

Wu said Abouammo then “said something to the effect that he felt bad because he had introduced Ali Alzabarah to KSA officials. At the time he specified that it was Mr. Binasaker."

Alzabarah was charged in 2019 with acting as an unregistered foreign agent, but had fled to Saudi Arabia after he was confronted by his employer in 2015.

Wu said during their interview she and her partner asked Abouammo if he accessed the account.

“He indicated he had looked into the account but stated that he did not have access to any of the technical details such as the IP address affiliated with the account,” Wu said. “However, later in the interview he admitted that he had accessed the account. We showed him an exhibit where it listed that he accessed the @Mujtahidd account more than 20 times.”

She continued: “The defendant indicated that Binasaker was persistent in trying to find someway to shut down or suspend the account. It was clear this account was irking Mr. Binsaker and had asked Mr. Abouammo repeatedly to access the account.”

Sampson asked Wu if Abouammo passed any details about the account to Al-Asaker. She answered, “When we asked if he passed any information to Mr. Binasaker he responded, ‘You tell me. Did I?’ And we responded, ‘We're asking you.’ And to that statement he responded, ‘I didn’t.’”

Wu testified that Abouammo said he left Twitter for three reasons. Twitter wanted him to relocate to Dubai to run its fledgling Middle East office. He also did not get along with his supervisor. “And then the third reason was the mounting pressure from contacts within Kingdom of Saudi Arabia government,” Wu said. "He specifically mentioned Mr. Binasaker.”

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She added: “He stated that Mr. Binsaker was unhappy with his his decision to leave Twitter because Mr. Binsaker considered his role within Twitter to be an important one and expressed general dissatisfaction that he had chosen to leave."

But Abouammo’s attorneys say he stayed within the confines of his job as a liaison between high-profile Saudis and other Twitter employees who could get them blue-badge verification and suspend or deactivate imposter accounts. After he left Twitter to go work for Amazon in May 2015, he continued fielding requests from Saudi officials for verification, but passed them on to his predecessor.

Under cross-examination, Wu also said she did not unearth any written requests by Al-Asaker for Abouammo to access the @Mujtahidd account.

“However, in the interview, he stated that he was intensely pressured to look into the account,” Wu said.

Chuang pressed: "Intensely pressured is different than agreed to, isn’t it?”

Wu answered, “In my investigation with Mr. Abouammo, he acquiesced to look into the account. There was no direct written correspondence where he provided user information directly to Mr. Binasaker.”

But prosecutors believe they have plenty of circumstantial evidence to show that Abouammo looked up the personal information for various critics of the Saudi regime using an internal Twitter tool called “profile viewer” in violation of the company’s employee policies.

Authorities arrested Abouammo in November 2019 and charged him with acting as a foreign agent without notifying the U.S. government, and fabricating evidence. Wire fraud, conspiracy and money laundering charges were added in 2020.

Prosecutors say the dual U.S.-Lebanese citizen laundered $200,000 worth of the bribe money through a bank account in Lebanon, and an additional $100,000 through a shell company he created called Crycl LLC. Last week, the jury saw an array of wire transfers and bank statements corroborating the monetary exchanges in February and July 2015 and January 2016.

Wu said her interview with Abouammo lasted two to three hours, and that she and her partner spent an “awkward” 30 minutes waiting for Abouammo to return after he disappeared upstairs to hunt for the watch and retrieve an invoice he said would confirm that he did legitimate consulting work for the Misk Foundation, a charitable organization affiliated with the Saudi government that Al-Asaker helped run.

The invoice would show that Abouammo was paid $100,000 for a year’s worth of media and advertising consulting.

Abouammo was unable to locate the watch, but emailed the invoice to Kingsley. Wu testified the attachment’s metadata showed the invoice was created on Oct. 20, 2018.

Abouammo also handed over his phone and re-downloaded the Twitter app so the agents could view his direct messages with Al-Asaker. In one message from July 7, 2015, Al-Asaker sent him a photo of a form that looked to be a wire transfer. "I'm sorry for the delay in the transfer how are you and how is your new job?” he asked, to which Abouammo responded, “Everything is good, praise be to God. Do you want anything from Twitter? Documentation or anything?”

"Mr. Abouammo explained that this wire was the one that he had mentioned earlier for consulting services for Crcyl LLC,” Wu testified. “After Kingsley took a picture of this image, he returned the phone to Mr. Abouammo. And while Agent Kingsley was inspecting the photo he had taken, I observed Mr. Abouammo delete this photo from his direct messages.”

The trial continues Tuesday, and will likely go to the jury later this week.

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