Twitter has allowed a senior Saudi official and aide to Mohammed bin Salman to maintain a verified account with more than 2m followers despite allegations that the official recruited and paid Twitter employees to secretly report on dissidents’ anonymous accounts.
A US jury on Tuesday convicted one of the former Twitter employees, a US-Lebanese national named Ahmad Abouammo on charges that he used his position at the social media company to spy on Twitter users on behalf of the Saudi government. Two other named defendants, Saudi citizens Ali Alzabarah and Ahmed Almutairi, are on the FBI’s wanted list and are believed to be in Saudi Arabia. Both are accused of acting as unregistered agents of Saudi Arabia.
Abouammo’s conviction has raised new questions about Twitter’s handling of the breach, and why it has allowed a close aide to Prince Mohammed, a chief of staff named Bader al-Asaker, to maintain his account.
The 2015 infiltration of the company helped the Saudi government to identify individuals who were criticising the kingdom’s government from anonymous Twitter accounts.
In one case believed to be connected to the breach, a Saudi court sentenced an aide worker named Abdulrahman al-Sadhan to 20 years in prison following allegations that he used a popular anonymous parody account to mock the Saudi government.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Asaker was not charged by prosecutors but a superseding indictment filed in July 2020 states that the aide – who is identified 53 times in the document as “Foreign-Official-1” and was named during Abouammo’s trial – was at the heart of the conspiracy.
Prosecutors have alleged that Asaker, who has headed Prince Mohammed’s private office since before he became crown prince, promised Abouammo and Alzabarah gifts, cash, and future employment in exchange for non-public information about the Twitter users who were of interest to the Saudi government. Asaker also paid a total of more than $300,000 to an account in Lebanon set up in Abouammo’s father’s name.
“He wanted to recruit a mole,” Colin Sampson, an assistant US attorney, said of Asaker. After receiving a watch from Asaker, Abouammo began looking up information about a pseudonymous Twitter account that was critical of the Saudi regime.
The superseding indictment states that Asaker met with Alzabarah and Almutairi on 14 May 2015, while he and Prince Mohammed were on an official delegation to Washington.
The government’s account is partly confirmed by Almutairi’s own Instagram account (he is also known as Ahmed Aljbreen), which shows him shaking hands with the crown prince on 14 May 2015 while both were at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, Virginia, just outside Washington.
On 23 November last year, he appears to have attended the Asian Champions League final at the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh, according to his Instagram account, which is public.
Days later, according to the indictment, Alzabarah returned to San Francisco and began accessing Twitter’s computer system, retrieving information about dozens of Twitter users, including accounts that had posted embarrassing information about the Saudi government and Prince Mohammed. The information was then communicated to Asaker.
While the FBI has said in its alert that it is seeking any information about Almutairi, his Instagram account indicates that he was riding a motorcycle just days ago and is leading a normal life.
While Twitter has not responded to specific questions about Asaker’s account, a company spokesperson said in 2021 that it acted swiftly at the time of the incident when it learned there were malicious actors accessing Twitter user data.
The company also said it was committed to “protecting the public conversation” from abuse by state actors. Twitter announced in 2019 that it had permanently suspended nearly 6,000 accounts linked to Saudi Arabia which it said had violated its policies regarding platform manipulation. In 2020, it said it removed 33 accounts that had ties to the Saudi government, because the accounts had been created to impersonate Qatari officials and make statements that were favourable to Saudi authorities.