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Man Accused of Helping Saudi Arabia Spy on Twitter Critics Pleads Not Guilty

A former Twitter employee accused of helping Saudi Arabia spy on its critics pleaded not guilty Wednesday to 23 criminal counts, including acting as an unregistered foreign agent and obstructing an investigation.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A former Twitter employee accused of helping Saudi Arabia spy on its critics pleaded not guilty Wednesday to 23 criminal counts, including acting as an unregistered foreign agent and obstructing an investigation.

According to a superseding indictment issued July 28, Abouammo used his inside access as a Twitter employee to help Saudi Arabia obtain the private information of dissidents who criticized the oil-rich nation’s government and royal family on Twitter. Abouammo worked as a media partnerships manager for Twitter’s Middle East and North Africa region from November 2013 to May 2015.

Abouammo, a dual U.S.-Lebanese citizen and father of three in his early 40s who lives in Seattle, was arrested in November 2019 and released on bond following a protracted legal battle over his detention.

An unnamed Saudi Arabian official met Abouammo during a May 2014 visit to Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco and started communicating with him through emails, phone calls and personal meetings, according to the indictment.

In December 2014, the Saudi official gave Abouammo a watch worth at least $20,000 during an in-person meeting in London, federal prosecutors claim. Abouammo did not report the gift to his superiors as required by Twitter policies at the time, prosecutors say.

After receiving that gift, prosecutors say Abouammo used his inside access to obtain the email addresses and phone numbers of two vocal opponents of Saudi Arabia without authorization from Twitter. One of the Twitter users was a prominent Saudi critic with more than 1 million followers, according to previously filed court documents.

An email from the unnamed Saudi official to Abouammo’s employee account in January 2015 contained an attachment regarding one of the targeted Twitter users with a message stating “as we discussed in london,” according to the indictment.

In February 2015, the same foreign official deposited $100,000 in a recently opened bank account in Lebanon in the name of one of Abouammo’s relatives. Abouammo had access to that account and later received wire transfers from it, prosecutors say.

In March 2015, Abouammo sent the unnamed Saudi official a private message through Twitter stating, “proactive and reactively we will delete evil my brother.”

After Abouammo left Twitter on about May 22, 2015, the Saudi official continued to pay him at least $200,00 over the next eight months, according to the indictment.

Before Abouammo resigned from Twitter, prosecutors say he helped connect his co-defendant, former Twitter employee and Saudi Arabian citizen Ali Alzabarah, with a man who acted as an intermediary between the Saudi government and allegedly corrupted Twitter employees. Federal prosecutors say that intermediary is Ahmed Almutairi, of Saudi Arabia, also a charged co-defendant in the case.

Alzabarah allegedly accessed the private data of more than 6,000 Twitter users, including information that can be used to identify and locate dissidents, such as IP addresses and dates of birth, according to a criminal complaint filed in November 2019.

Alzabarah repeatedly accessed one prominent Saudi critic’s Twitter account between May and September 2015, including on Sept. 28 when the Twitter user reported this account had been hacked or compromised, according to federal prosecutors.

After Twitter managers confronted Alzabarah about his unauthorized access of user accounts on Dec. 2, 2015, and placed him on administrative leave, Alzabarah absconded to Saudi Arabia and started working on social media influence projects on behalf of the foreign government, according to the indictment.

Alzabarah and his co-defendant Almutairi are believed to be in Saudi Arabia with outstanding federal warrants for their arrest still pending.

Abouammo faces 23 criminal counts, including acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, conspiring to commit wire fraud, aiding and abetting wire fraud, money laundering and falsifying records to obstruct an investigation.

Prosecutors say Abouammo lied to the FBI and provided a false invoice to show money he received from a Saudi official was for a consulting gig, rather than a bribe.

He faces 10 years in prison for acting as an unregistered foreign agent and 20 years in prison for each set of charges related to money laundering, wire fraud and obstruction of justice.

Abouammo’s public defender Ellen Valentik Leonida pleaded not guilty to all counts on behalf of her client during a virtual court hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alex Tse on Wednesday.

During a status hearing before U.S. District Judge Edward Chen later Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin Sampson said prosecutors plan to invoke the Classified Information Procedures Act to withhold top-secret information related to the Abouammo investigation. Sampson said prosecutors don’t intend to use that material at trial.

Abouammo’s attorney Leonida objected to withholding that information from the defense.

“The fact that the government doesn’t intend to use any of the material doesn’t mean that it’s not potentially exculpatory or relevant,” Leonida said.

The public defender said she intends to file a motion for a bill of particulars, which could require prosecutors to release more detailed information on the charges against her client. Chen asked both sides to meet and confer before filing any motions.

A further status hearing was scheduled for the afternoon of Oct. 21.

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