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Ex-Twitter worker is found guilty of spying for Saudi Arabia

A former Twitter employee was found guilty of spying for Saudi Arabia and releasing private user information of those who publicly criticized the country in exchange for large sums of money.

Ahmad Abouammo, 44, was accused of using his position as an engineer at Twitter to access confidential  data about users, their email addresses, phone numbers and IP addresses that can give up their location.

He then passed that information on to a Saudi government official in exchange for a luxury watch and hundreds of thousands of dollars, prosecutors claimed.

An 11-person jury found Abouammo guilty of spying, money laundering, falsification of records and one count of wire fraud on Tuesday. He was found innocent on five other counts of wire fraud.

He is scheduled to return to court Wednesday for a hearing.

Former Twitter employee Ahmad Abouammo was found guilty of spying for Saudi Arabia and releasing private user information of those who publicly criticized the country in exchange for large sums of money. He is pictured leaving Santa Rita jail in Dublin, California in Nov. 2019

Abouammo, a dual US and Lebanese citizen, worked for the social media platform from 2013 to 2015. He managed media partnerships with high-profile users in the Middle East and North Africa.

Prosecutors claimed the father-of-three was recruited into the spying scheme in 2014 by Bader Al-Asaker – also known as Bader Binasaker – an aide to then-Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The pair met when Al-Asaker was touring Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco, California and forged a relationship shortly thereafter, The Wall Street Journal reported.

In December, approximately six months later, Abouammo met with Al-Asaker in London while on a work trip. After the trip he flew back to the US with a watch valued at more than $40,000, investigators claimed. 

‘That luxury watch—it was not free,’ prosecutor Eric Cheng said during closing arguments last week. ‘The kingdom had now secured its Twitter insider.’ 

Prosecutors said that a week after the England trip Abouammo began accessing data from the anonymously run account ‘mujtahidd.’ Al-Asaker reportedly wanted the account suspended, however it still remains active today.

Cheng also argued that Abouammo took bribes of amounts close to triple his annual salary for almost a year.

‘They paid for a mole,’ he argued. ‘We all know that that kind of money is not for nothing.’

Abouammo’s public defender, Angela Chuang, argued he was just doing his job while employed at Twitter. She also claimed the ‘government hasn’t proven beyond a reasonable doubt’ that Abouammo was acting as a spy for Saudi Arabia.

The prosecution, however, pointed out that Abouammo received multiple payments of $100,000 each into a bank account in Lebanon that was created under his father’s name. He then made wire transfers of $10,000 to a US account.

He also failed to report the watch or monetary payments to Twitter, violating company policy requiring workers to disclose any offerings worth more than $100. 

Chuang agreed Abouammo should have reported Al-Asaker’s gifts to his then-employer, but argued that ‘misstep wasn’t enough to convict him.’ 

‘We just spent the last two weeks in a glorified HR investigation,’ she told the court, adding that it was ‘important to make the distinction between breaking federal law and violating workplace policies.’ 

Prosecutors also alleged Abouammo recruited his Twitter colleague, Ali Alzabarah, into the scheme and introduced him to Al-Asaker.

Alzabarah, who worked in website maintenance, allegedly used his employee credentials to access email addresses, birth dates and other information about Twitter users who made posts criticizing the Saudi royal family.

Officials believe he provided the Saudi government with the personal information of more than 6,000 users in 2015.

When Twitter asked Alzabarah why he was accessing the user data, he reportedly fled the country and submitted his resignation letter via email why traveling to Saudi Arabia.

Alzabarah and another man, Ahmed Almutairi, where both charged by the US Justice Department with acting as illegal agents of a foreign government for their roles in the scheme. 

Almutairi is also believed to have returned to Saudi Arabia. The FBI has issued arrest warrants out for both men. 

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