Trial of accused Saudi spy showcases royal distaste for online critics
At the trial of an ex-Twitter employee accused of spying for Saudi Arabia, a prominent scholar’s testimony highlighted the Saudi royal family’s effort to quash dissent on social media.
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Monday’s testimony in the trial of Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen accused of supplying Saudi Arabia with information on dissidents while working for Twitter, focused on the kingdom’s effort to control social media and clamp down on critics as the government shifted away from strict Islamism toward a more nationalistic agenda under its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“It’s important to keep in mind that in Saudi Arabia there had previously been a lot of discipline and control of the public that had been enforced by the religious authority. They were lessening that to move in a new direction,” Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, said on the stand Monday. “There was basically a new political orientation towards nationalism that became used much more to keep people in line.”
Diwan said that the ascendance of Mohammed bin Salman, known colloquially as “MBS” coincided with a cultural shift in the kingdom. The religious police lost power, and a very young population began to organize online discussion groups to push for change.
“There were a lot of young people doing satirical humor, organizing themselves into discussion groups to talk about what’s needed in society,” Diwan said, noting the rise of satirical YouTube channels and Twitter as a forum for political debate. “People I knew started to referring to Twitter as their public square or their parliament. They felt much more free to have open discussion to meet with like-minded people and think about what kind of change they wanted to see in the kingdom.”
But Diwan said the government was quick to try to quell political unrest and control the online environment, primarily on Twitter, where government critics enjoy the freedom to express their views anonymously.
“There was much more effort to control discussion on social media,” she said. “People who had become prominent on social media and had influential followings and had been critical — many were arrested.”
Enter Abouammo, who faces charges of acting as an agent of a foreign government.
Prosecutors say Abouammo, a former media partnerships manager for Twitter’s Middle East and North Africa region, used his inside access to gather information on the users behind dissident Twitter accounts that he turned over to Bin Salman’s top aide Bader Binsaker (Bader Al-Asaker) in exchange for cash and a luxury watch.
The jury also heard from Nicholas Hanggi, a forensic examiner with the FBI, who confirmed several wire transfers made from a Bank Audi in Lebanon to Abouammo’s Bank of America account in 2015. Abouammo, a dual U.S.-Lebanese citizen, is also accused of laundering bribe money through a bank account in Lebanon, disguising the funds that he transferred to himself through phony descriptions like “family fund” and “down payment of an apartment in USA.”
Al-Asaker connected with Abouammo during a June 2014 visit to Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters with a group of young Saudi entrepreneurs sponsored by the Prince Salman Youth Center.
Al-Asaker is also secretary general of the Misk Foundation, an organization established by Bin Salman in 2011 that focuses on “youth empowerment,” but also on shaping the use of social media to reflect well on Saudi Arabia.
“Responsible use of social media was a big theme,” Diwan testified. “Misk was very connected to the crown prince and his agenda and it was described as a way to get close to the ruling family. Being close to power is important.”
She also said Al-Asaker acted as bin Salman’s right hand man, traveling with the crown prince to diplomatic functions in the United States, helping him pursue his political strategies and even having a hand in his personal finances.
Prosecutors say Al-Asaker also recruited Twitter engineer Ali Alzabarah to act as a mole. Alzabarah fled the country after he was found out and fired by Twitter in 2015, but not before accessing over 6,000 users’ private data.
Abouammo quit Twitter in 2015 and went to work for Amazon in Seattle. He was arrested in 2019 and released on bond following a protracted legal battle over his detention.
Finding it likely to prejudice the jury, the federal judge overseeing Abouammo’s trial barred Diwan from referring to Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, whose kidnapping and murder is widely thought to have been approved by bin Salman. But she was allowed to testify about @Mujtahidd, a popular anonymous account Abouammo is accused of exposing at Al-Asaker’s request.
“Mujtahidd represented itself as a royal family insider account where they would comment on what was happening inside the royal family and talk about scandals or corruption or just predict was going to happen in the family from an insider perspective,” Diwan said. “Obviously you would not be allowed to speak about the royal family in that way. It’s against the law to say anything challenging or negative about the king or the royal family. Being anonymous allowed them to operate.”
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