PICTURED: Two former Twitter staff charged with spying for Saudi

PICTURED: The two former Twitter staff charged with spying on social media users for Saudi Arabia in exchange for cash and gifts

  • Ahmad Abouammo, 41, and Ali Alzabarah, 35, were charged on Wednesday
  • They are alleged to have spied on those critical of the Saudi royal family
  • A third man, Ahmed Almutairi, is accused of acting as their go-between
  • On Thursday, King Salman met with the CIA director at the palace in Riyadh 

Two former Twitter employees who are charged with spying on social media users for Saudi Arabia in exchange for cash and gifts have been pictured.

Ahmad Abouammo, 41, a US citizen, and Ali Alzabarah, 35, a Saudi who lived in California, were charged in San Francisco Federal Court Wednesday with spying on Twitter users critical of the Saudi royals.

Ahmed Almutairi, 30, a Saudi marketing official who allegedly acted as a critical go-between to the pair and an unnamed Riyadh official, was also charged. 

Abouammo and Alzabarah were allegedly directed by an unnamed Saudi official who worked for someone prosecutors refer to as ‘Royal Family Member-1,’ which The Washington Post reported was Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  

It comes as the Crown Prince’s father, King Salman, hosted the CIA’s director on Thursday at the royal palace in Riyadh. 

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Ahmad Abouammo, 41, (left) a US citizen, and Ali Alzabarah, 35, (right) a Saudi who lived in California, were charged in San Francisco Federal Court Wednesday with spying on Twitter users critical of the Saudi royals

The king and Gina Haspel ‘discussed a number of topics of mutual interest’, the official Saudi Press Agency said, without offering details. 

A senior Saudi official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the kingdom had not yet looked at the criminal complaint unsealed Wednesday.

‘But what I can tell you is that we expect all our citizens to abide by the laws of the countries in which they live,’ the official told reporters in Washington.

On Wednesday US Attorney David Anderson said: ‘The criminal complaint unsealed today alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter’s internal systems for personal information about known Saudi critics and thousands of other Twitter users.’

His statement added: ‘US law protects US companies from such an unlawful foreign intrusion. We will not allow US companies or US technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of US law.’ 

The lawsuit comes as US-Saudi relations continue to suffer strains over the brutal, Riyadh-sanctioned murder last year of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who wrote for, among others, The Washington Post.

A critic of Crown Prince Mohammed, Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

According to the Post, US intelligence has concluded that the prince himself was closely linked to the murder. 

The third man charged, Ahmed Almutairi, 30, is a Saudi marketing official who allegedly acted as a critical go-between to the pair and the Royal court was also charged

Abouammo and Alzabarah were recruited in 2014-2015 to use their positions in Twitter to gain access to private information related to the accounts of critics of Riyadh, the indictment says.

A third man Ahmed Almutairi, 30, a Saudi marketing official with ties to the royal family was also charged on Wednesday.

Almutairi was allegedly a key go-between who arranged contacts between the two others and the unnamed Saudi official.

The indictment said Almutairi controlled a social media marketing company that did work for a royal charity and members of the royal family, ‘including Royal Family Member-1.’ 

While Abouammo was paid over $300,000 and received a Hublot watch worth $20,000 for his part, Alzabarah’s payment was not detailed.

Abouammo and Alzabarah were allegedly directed by an unnamed Saudi official who worked for someone prosecutors refer to as ‘Royal Family Member-1,’ which The Washington Post reported was Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (pictured earlier this week)

However, the the filing said Alzabarah quickly fled the US with his family in December 2015 after Twitter management confronted him about his unauthorized accessing of user information for some 6,000 Twitter accounts, including accounts of known prominent dissidents and royal family critics.

All three are charged with acting as illegal agents of a foreign government, a charge that can indicate both illegal lobbying and espionage.

Abouammo was also charged with destroying, altering, or falsifying records related to a federal investigation.

‘These individuals are charged with targeting and obtaining private data from dissidents and known critics, under the direction and control of the government of Saudi Arabia,’ said FBI Special Agent John Bennett.

‘The FBI will not stand by and allow foreign governments to illegally exploit private user information from US companies.’

File photo shows a sign outside of the Twitter office building in San Francisco

The Justice Department said Abouammo was arrested on Tuesday in Seattle, Washington, but that both Alzabarah and Almutairi remain at large and are believed to be in Saudi Arabia.

Federal warrants have been issued for the arrest of both. 

A senior Saudi official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the kingdom had not yet looked at the criminal complaint.

‘But what I can tell you is that we expect all our citizens to abide by the laws of the countries in which they live,’ the official told reporters in Washington.  

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