There was a time when espionage involves sending agents behind enemy lines.
Fast forward, with the internet, governments halfway across the globe can spy on others through hacking among other methods, and obtain most if not all of targets' information as long as that data is put inside an online server, cripple systems, spread propaganda or targeted fake messages, and more.
But for officials in Saudi Arabia, they would rather have both.
As detailed by the U.S. Department of Justice in a website post, a federal jury convicted a former Media Partnerships Manager for the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region at Twitter for acting as a foreign agent without notice to the Attorney General, conspiracy, wire fraud, international money laundering, and falsification of records in a federal investigation.
Prosecutors believe that the spy helped Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, silence his critics.
The verdict follows a two-week trial before the Honorable Senior U.S. District Judge Edward M. Chen for the Northern District of California.
According to court documents and evidence presented at the trial, Ahmad Abouammo, a Lebanese-American, was a Twitter employee working for Media Partnerships Manager for the MENA region.
The evidence at the trial revealed that Abouammo took bribes in exchange for accessing, monitoring, and conveying the private information of Twitter users to officials of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Royal family.
Abouammo's job at Twitter was responsible for protecting Twitter user information, and disclose violations of Twitter’s security policies, as well as reporting gifts from those with business dealings with the company
Because of the sensitivity of his job, the officials at Saudi Arabia had an eye on him.
According to the evidence presented at trial, Abouammo began receiving bribes from an official of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as early as December 2014.
It all began when the foreign official personally met Abouammo in London, and provided Abouammo with a luxury Hublot watch worth around $42,000 at the time.
After the meeting in London, Abouammo began repeatedly accessing private information about several Twitter accounts, at least one of which was an influential account who was critical of members of the Saudi Royal Family and the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Abouammo also continued to communicate with the Saudi Arabian official, including regarding the account he was told to target.
In 2015, Abouammo traveled to Lebanon, and opened a bank account under his father's name. Abouammo who obtained access to that bank account, received $100,000 from the official of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Abouammo laundered the money by sending it into the U.S. via small wire transfers with false descriptions.
Abouammo left his job at Twitter in May 2021, joined e-commerce titan Amazon and, shortly thereafter, received another $100,000 into the bank account in Lebanon accompanied by a note from the official apologizing for the delayed payment.
Abouammo responded, in part, by asking whether the official wanted any additional information from Twitter.
In total, Abouammo received $300,000 worth of cash.
It was in 2018, when FBI agents visited Abouammo at his residence to ask about his involvement in the scheme.
When questioned about the accesses of Twitter user information and his receipt of bribes, Abouammo initially lied to the FBI investigators.
Abouammo even went as far as falsifying an invoice for one of the payments he received from the foreign official.
But because the evidence was clear, Abouammo was arrested on November. 5, 2019.
On July 28, 2020, a federal grand jury returned a superseding indictment charging him with acting as an agent of a foreign government without providing notice to the Attorney General; conspiracy to commit wire fraud and honest services fraud; six counts of honest services fraud and wire fraud; international money laundering; and falsification of records in a federal investigation.
The jury acquitted Abouammo of five of the counts pertaining to wire fraud and honest services fraud. The jury returned a verdict that Abouammo is guilty on all the remaining counts.
Abouammo faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison time for acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, and another 20 years in prison for each of the other counts. In addition, each count for which Abouammo was found guilty carries up to a $250,000 fine and additional periods of supervised release to follow the prison term.
According to Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division:
And according to U.S. Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds for the Northern District of California:
"One consequence of this good fortune is that companies in this district often collect and store vast amounts of data from customers and vendors. In this case, 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. Abouammo’s decision to accept bribes in exchange for providing to a foreign government the protected information of customers could have untold damaging consequences. As this case demonstrates, we will not tolerate the misuse of personal information or attempts by foreign governments to recruit secret, malign agents at American technology companies. Where such misuse violates the federal law, offenders will be prosecuted."
Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, added that:
"Authoritarian governments rely on transnational repression to shape the world in their favor and stifle dissent. We remain dedicated to protecting the United States from all threats foreign and domestic, which includes efforts by foreign governments to stalk, harass, or intimidate the people within our borders."
Special Agent in Charge Sean Ragan of the FBI’s San Francisco Field Office, said that:
"This verdict reaffirms the FBI's dedication to stopping transnational repression from any foreign government and sends a clear message that justice will be brought to those who threaten the freedoms of an open society."
It's worth noting that the U.S. Department of Justice also charged another former Twitter employee, Ali Alzabarah, for his role in the scheme.
However, Alzabarah, who performed website maintenance for the company, fled the U.S. for Saudi Arabia when Twitter confronted him for accessing the personal information of over 6,000 accounts.