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Former Twitter worker convicted of spying for Saudi Arabia

Case marks first time kingdom, long linked to US through massive oil reserves and regional security arrangements, has been accused of espionage in America

A sign is pictured outside the Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, Monday, April 25, 2022.  (AP/Jed Jacobsohn)
A sign is pictured outside the Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, Monday, April 25, 2022. (AP/Jed Jacobsohn)

SAN FRANCISCO — A former Twitter employee has been convicted of failing to register as an agent for Saudi Arabia and other charges after accessing private data on users critical of the kingdom’s government in a spy case that spanned from Silicon Valley to the Middle East.

Ahmad Abouammo, a US citizen and former media partnership manager for Twitter’s Middle East region, was charged in 2019 with acting as an agent of Saudi Arabia without registering with the US government. A jury found him guilty on six counts, including conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. The jury acquitted him on another five charges involving wire fraud.

The case marked the first time the kingdom, long linked to the US through its massive oil reserves and regional security arrangements, has been accused of spying in America.

Prosecutors in federal court in San Francisco told jurors that Abouammo sold Twitter user information for cash and an expensive watch some seven years ago.

His defense team contended that he did nothing more than accept gifts from free-spending Saudis for simply doing his client management job.

“The evidence shows that, for a price and thinking no one was watching, the defendant sold his position to an insider of the crown prince,” US prosecutor Colin Sampson said in final remarks to the jury.

Defense attorney Angela Chuang countered that while there certainly appeared to be a conspiracy to get revealing information about Saudi critics from Twitter, prosecutors failed to prove Abouammo was part of it.

Abouammo quit Twitter in 2015 and took a job at e-commerce titan Amazon in Seattle, where he lives, according to court documents.

Jurors deliberated for three days before finding Abouammo guilty on 6 of the 11 charges against him.

Trust traded for cash?

Abouammo was arrested in Seattle in November of 2019.

Prosecutors accused Abouammo and fellow Twitter employee Ali Alzabarah of being enlisted by Saudi officials between late 2014 and early the following year to get private information on accounts firing off posts critical of the regime.

The then-Twitter workers could use their credentials to glean email addresses, phone numbers, birth dates and other private data to identify people behind anonymous accounts, prosecutors said.

Abouammo remained free on Tuesday pending sentencing, despite concerns expressed by prosecutors that he might try to flee the country.

Alzabarah, a Saudi national, is being sought on a charge of failing to register in the United States as an agent of a foreign government as required by United States law, according to an FBI statement.

Chuang contended in court that prosecutors were trying to punish Abouammo for Alzabarah’s actions.

“As much as the government wishes that was Mr Alzabarah sitting at the table right now, it is not,” Chuang told jurors.

“And that is on them, they let Mr Alzabarah flee the country while he was under FBI surveillance.

A third man named in the complaint, Saudi citizen Ahmed Al-Mutairi, was alleged to have worked with the Saudi royal family as an intermediary.

The FBI still lists Al-Mutairi and Alzabarah as wanted.

Abouammo’s attorneys and Twitter didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

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