SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — In December 2014, Ahmad Abouammo, a manager of social media partnerships for Twitter, met in London with a high-level official for the government of Saudi Arabia. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Saudi official wanted to discuss a Twitter account belonging to an anonymous activist who tweets critically about the Saudi royal family under the handle @Mujtahidd. Abouammo, whose job at Twitter gave him access to the personal information of its users, might be able to help.
A day later, the Saudi official had his mole and Abouammo returned to San Francisco with a luxury watch, prosecutors said Thursday at the opening of Abouammo’s criminal trial in federal court.
Abouammo, a dual U.S.-Lebanese citizen, stands accused of abusing his inside access at Twitter to supply Saudi Arabia with private information on its critics — including their phone numbers, email addresses and locations. He faces charges of acting as an agent of a foreign power inside the United States, wire and honest services fraud, laundering money internationally, and fabricating evidence.
“Power. Greed. Lies. This will be the story told by the evidence. It is one in which defendant Ahmad Abouammo, for a six-figure sum, joined a scheme to cheat his employer by selling access to insider information of accounts he was supposed to protect, at the direction of officials of a foreign government,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin Sampson said in his opening statement to a 12-member jury Thursday morning. “When his scheme was exposed, the defendant engaged in lies and a cover-up.”
Sampson said Abouammo met Bader Binsaker (Bader Al-Asaker) in June 2014 when the top aide to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman toured Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters with a group of young Saudi entrepreneurs sponsored by the Prince Salman Youth Center.
For Al-Asaker, Abouammo was an important contact, as he managed media partnerships for Twitter’s Middle East and North Africa region and was one of the only Arabic speakers at the company. “He wanted to recruit a mole,” Sampson said.
Sampson said Al-Asaker “wanted someone to keep tabs on @Mujtahidd,” and that Abouammo accessed the account seven times between December 2014 and the end of February 2015 using Twitter’s internal “profile viewer” tool.
Yoel Roth, head of safety and integrity at Twitter, said on the stand that Abouammo would have no legitimate business reason to access an account using profile viewer. “If an account hasn't recently been active on Twitter its handle is eligible to be reclaimed and assigned to another user. That's the only circumstance under which a member of the social media partnerships team would need to use profile viewer,” he said.
Roth also said the company has a policy against employees receiving gifts worth more than $100.
Sampson said the watch, a Hublot that Abouammo later tried to sell on Craiglist for $20,000, was “just a down payment.” He told jurors that Abouammo received at least $300,000 from Al-Asaker through payments wired to Abouammo’s father’s bank account in Lebanon.
According to a federal indictment, Abouammo quit Twitter in 2015 and went to work for Amazon in Seattle, but he continued to field requests to shut down certain Twitter accounts and help get Saudi government officials verified by contacting his former colleagues on Al-Asaker’s behalf.
“He went on about his life as if he’d gotten away with it,” Sampson said.
But in 2018, when the FBI paid Abouammo a visit in Seattle, Sampson said Abouammo excused himself from the room and quickly faked up an invoice to show that money he received from Al-Asaker was for a consulting gig, rather than a bribe. When asked about the watch, prosecutors say Abouammo said it was a “junky” Halo timepiece worth only $500.