How Will the US Deal with Foreign Official-1 in the Twitter Spy Scandal?
The San Francisco federal jury is deliberating the fate of Ahmad Abouammo, an ex-Twitter employee accused of using his inside access to gather and pass on dissidents’ account information to Bader Al-Asaker, a top Saudi government associate connected to the royal family.
While overseeing media partnerships in the Middle East and North Africa for Twitter between 2013 and 2015, a Saudi official — referred to in the criminal complaint simply as “Foreign Official-1” — recruited Abouammo to covertly divulge personal information of Saudi dissidents.
Prosecutors believe they found a “shopping list” of accounts recovered from “digital notes” found in Al-Asaker’s Google account that reveals a number of Twitter handles Al-Asaker wanted to look up, including @Mujtahidd, the handle of an anonymous activist and rumored royal insider who tweets gossip and criticism of the Saudi royal family.
Abouammo faces the possibility of decades in prison; 20 years for each charge related to conspiracy, money laundering and fraud, and 10 years for acting as an unregistered foreign agent.
But while much of the focus has been on Abouammo and his accomplices, the buck didn’t stop with them. “Foreign Official-1,” the real engineer behind the operation, has a name: Bader al-Asaker, a top adviser to Saudi Crown Prince and de facto leader Mohamed bin Salman. Al-Asaker’s identity was revealed in 2019 not long after the charges were brought.
According to the FBI’s criminal complaint, al-Asaker acted on behalf of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to cultivate “employees of Twitter in an effort to obtain private user information that it could not obtain elsewhere.” U.S. Attorney Colin Sampson described al-Asaker’s directions as a “shopping list of Twitter users that he wanted an insider to keep track of.”
In fact, al-Asaker is still in plain view and active on Twitter with over two million followers, even after the FBI tied him to the illegal activities of Twitter’s now-former employees.
Te real mastermind — al-Asaker — has gone completely unscathed, presenting a contradiction in U.S. foreign policy. “It is weird that we have sanctions against Saoud al-Qahtani for the murder of Khashoggi, but not against Bader al-Asaker for infiltrating Twitter and doing this operation in US soil.”
The full damage posed by al-Asaker and his accomplices is unknown since only a handful of the identities of the 6,000 accounts accessed are even public knowledge.
Hundreds of human rights advocates were targetted by the spies, causing their sources in Saudi Arabia to be killed, tortured, or dissapeared.
Saudi aid worker Abdul Rahman Al-Sadhan was one of al-Asker’s victims. Al-Sadhan was detained by Saudi Arabia in March 2018 at the Red Crescent Society’s office in Riyadh without a warrant or charges against him.
Rights sources affirmed that he was detained after his anonymous Twitter account was hacked. Al-Sadhan was taken to trial for running two satirical Twitter accounts.
On October 2021, an appeals court in Saudi Arabia upheld a lengthy prison sentence for the aid worker, sentenced in April 2021 to 20 years in jail by a counter-terrorism court in Riyadh.
The appeal court issued to keep the initial ruling of the 20 years imprisonment followed by 20 years travel ban.
The scandal, and involvement of a top Saudi official, begs deeper questions about the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia that will surely go unanswered.
With President Biden first bumping al-Asaker’s boss on a state visit last month, the United States is likely to simply wash its hands of the scandal and move on; as it’s apparently much easier to focus on the pawns.