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Ex-Twitter employee guilty of Saudi espionage

August 10, 2022

Ahmad Abouammo has been found guilty of selling personal data on Saudi dissidents to the Saudi government. Abouammo's alleged partner in crime at Twitter, a Saudi national, fled the US before he was charged.

A Twitter logo is seen outside the company headquarters in San Francisco, California, U.S., January 11, 2021.
Prosecutors said the former employee 'sold his position to an insider of the crown prince'Image: Stephen Lam/REUTERS

A former Twitter employee has been convicted of spying for the Saudi government.

Ahmad Abouammo, a dual Lebanese-US national, was a media partnership manager for Twitter's Middle East region. Abouammo quit Twitter in 2015, joining Amazon, according to court documents.

He was charged in 2019 of acting as an agent for Saudi Arabia without registering with the US government, among other things.

After a two-and-a-half weeks of trial at a San Francisco federal court, Abouammo was found guilty on six charges on Tuesday, including acting as an illegal agent of a foreign government, money laundering and fraud, according to a copy of the verdict.

Jurors acquitted him on another five charges involving wire fraud.

US Attorney Stephanie Hinds said in a statement that "the government demonstrated, and the jury found, that Abouammo violated a sacred trust to keep private personal information from Twitter's customers and sold private customer information to a foreign government."

What was Abouammo's case?

The FBI said in a 2019 complaint that Abouammo and a Saudi citizen, Ali Alzabarah, a former engineer at Twitter, used their positions within the company to access confidential user data.

The FBI said both accessed personal data including emails, phone numbers and IP addresses, which can be used to identify a person's location.

Another Saudi man, Ahmed Al-Mutairi, with close ties to the Saudi royal family, allegedly acted as an intermediary, according to the FBI.

The complaint alleged they accessed personal data of over 6,000 Twitter accounts. 

Saudi law enforcement officials then submitted emergency disclosure requests — or requests for disclosure of non-public information about Twitter users — for at least 33 of those accounts surveilled.

What happened at the trial?

Prosecutors said Bader Al-Asaker, a close adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, recruited Abouammo to dig up personal information on Saudi dissidents.

They said Abouammo received at least $300,000 (roughly €290,000) and a luxury watch worth around $20,000, and that he concealed that money by depositing it in a relative's account in Lebanon and then having it wired to his own bank account in the US.

Abouammo's defense team argued that he had accepted gifts for doing his job, but that there was insufficient evidence of him breaking the law. 

Defense attorney Angela Chuang also disputed the amount of money Abouammo received, saying he received around $100,000 from someone close to the Saudi crown prince.

Chuang downplayed the significance of a luxury watch, saying it amounted to "pocket change" in Saudi culture, where giving lavish presents was not out of the ordinary.

The FBI has Al-Mutairi and Alzabarah on their wanted list. Alzabarah left the US before being charged.

rm/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP) 

Correction, August 10, 2022: A previous version of this article misspelled the name Ahmad Abouammo. DW apologizes for the error.