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Trail of records links ex-Twitter employee to Saudis

A parade of digital evidence bolsters claims that Ahmad Abouammo met with a top aide to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman before accessing dissident Twitter accounts, and that he was richly rewarded for his efforts.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — At the trial of ex-Twitter employee Ahmad Abouammo, who stands accused of spying for Saudi Arabia, a painstaking paper trail revealed the scope of his ties to the royal family and its associates.

Wire transfers, bank receipts, phone records and emails made for an incriminating portfolio that shows Abouammo's cozying up to Bader Al-Asaker, a top aide to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

Prosecutors say Abouammo used his inside access at Twitter to view private data on dissidents that he passed to Al-Asaker in exchange for $300,000 and a Hublot watch. Abouammo, who managed media partnerships for Twitter's Middle East/North Africa region, faces charges of acting as an agent of a foreign government, wire and honest services fraud, laundering money internationally, and fabricating evidence.

Abouammo's lawyers have argued that he was merely doing his job; cultivating a relationship with a business leader in one of Twitter's emerging markets.

Abouammo met Al-Asaker on June 13, 2014, when he toured Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters with a group of young Saudi entrepreneurs sponsored by the Prince Salman Youth Center.

Records show they shared sporadic phone and email communication that September and October, then made made plans to meet again in person in London, where Abouammo was attending a work conference in early December. Al-Asker said he was in Paris, but could fly to London for one day. The pair met on Dec. 5.

On Jan. 17, 2015, Al-Asaker sent Abouammo an email following up on a discussion from that meeting in London.

“Salam brother. As we discussed in London for Mujtahid file,” it read. The email displayed in court on Friday came with an attached dossier on a popular subversive Twitter account with the handle @Mujtahidd.

The anonymous account, supposedly run by an insider, drew the government’s ire for its critical tweets about members of the royal family.

"It is an account with the aim of speaking out some confidential information and leaking some hidden facts about Saudi Arabia and its royal family,” the dossier read, adding that the account violates Saudi Arabia’s "anti-cybercrime law” by “slandering and defaming” members of the royal family. “For example, @Mujtahidd was the first to announce that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is suffering from Alzheimer [sic].”

The dossier adds that @Mujtahidd spread “false rumors” about other royals, including Bin Salman.

In September 2014, when an "All Things Considered" story about @Mujtahidd prompted Twitter communications director Rachel Bremer to send it to Abouammo in an email. He responded, "Of course I am aware of it:) I have had a few people in Saudi Arabia share their concerns about his account with me but nothing serious. I have heard from a few 'trusted' sources that the account is owned by a royalty."

He then added in a reply message: "Quickly to clarify those that spoke with me about the account aren't government:)"

Records created by Twitter’s data security team show Abouammo viewed the personal details connected with the @Mujtahidd multiple times throughout January and February 2015. In March 2015, he tried to get the account suspended. An internal email exchange shows Abouammo complaining about the account sharing private information, though the reviewer did not find @Mujtahidd in violation of Twitter’s policies.

In February 2015, he also viewed private data for another troublesome account with the handle @Hsanatt. An email from Feb. 2, 2015, also shows Abouammo’s attempt to get the account suspended for impersonating a member of the Saudi government.

When a Twitter employee responded that the request cannot be processed unless Twitter is contacted by the person allegedly being impersonated or their representative, Abouammo contacted Al-Asaker. Records show Al-Asaker filed a complaint with Twitter directly, and the account was removed.

Al-Asaker later wrote in a June 2016 email that he had been able to identify the person behind a dissident account. The translated email to an unnamed recipient, shown only to the jury in hard copy form, called the Twitter user “very capable and cautious” and said he used encryption to hide his tracks.

Only portions of the email were read aloud in court by FBI Special Agent Letitia Wu.

“What happened is that we followed him out of Twitter and he made two mistakes,” Al-Asaker wrote. “[H]e is in Saudi Arabia and we are 100% sure of that.” The email also notes the IP address associated with the account, which prosecutors say Abouammo supplied.

Bank records show Abouammo was richly rewarded for the efforts. On Friday, prosecutors showed the jury statements detailing three wire transfers between 2015 and 2016, each one for $100,000.

The first two were sent to a bank account opened in his father’s name in Lebanon. The deposits were made by Al-Asaker in February and July 2015, and Abouammo transferred some of the funds to his Bank of America checking account from February through July of that year. In January 2016, Abouammo created a limited liability company called Crcyl, and Al-Asaker wired another $100,000 to the company’s JP Morgan Chase account.

As for the watch, Abouammo listed it for sale on Craigslist, but rejected an offer of $20,000. “I don’t have the receipt. It was purchased in London for full price,” he told an interested buyer in January 2015, just after returning to California from London.

“The watch is brand new, never been worn, no blemishes no issues,” he wrote. “Let me know if you change your offer please.”

Editor note: A previous version of this story said Al-Asaker claimed he had been able to identify the person behind @Hsanatt. In later testimony, the FBI revealed it does not know which dissident account Al-Asaker was referring to.

Follow @MariaDinzeo
Categories / Criminal, Technology, Trials

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