A former Twitter media partnerships manager who took bribes from a representative for the Saudi royal family in exchange for sensitive data about dissidents has been sentenced to three and a half years in federal prison.
Ahmad Abouammo, 45, a U.S. citizen who was arrested back in 2019 on charges that he spied for the Saudi government, last worked at Twitter in 2015. He served as a media partnership manager focused on the Middle East and North Africa, and federal investigators found that he was recruited in late 2014 by Bader Al Asaker, a close associate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon (MBS).
The investigation found that Abouammo met with Al Asaker in London in December 2014, at which point they believe Abouammo agreed to provide sensitive information about dissidents. Abouammo was given a Hublot watch valued at $42,000 which he later tried to resell on Craigslist. And the FBI says that, while at Twitter, Abouammo repeatedly accessed sensitive data on several individuals, including one influential user, an account known as @Mujtahidd, that had over two million followers and was highly critical of the Saudi Royal Family.
Subsequent payments to Abouammo, laundered through a Lebanese bank account belonging to his father, totaled $200,000, including a payment that arrived after Abouammo had left his employment at Twitter. He would then move from Walnut Creek to Seattle, where he was arrested in 2019.
Investigators say that Abouammo also lied to investigators when he was questioned about one of the transactions in 2018.
This week, Abouammo was sentenced to 42 months in prison, after his August conviction on charges of 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. He's also been ordered to pay $242,000 in forfeiture of the bribes.
"This case revealed that foreign governments, here, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) will bribe insiders to obtain the user information that is collected and stored by our Silicon Valley social media companies,” said U.S. Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds in a statement. "In handing down today’s sentence, the Court emphasized that defendant shared the user information with a foreign government known for not tolerating dissidents, and he did so while working with his even more culpable co-defendant who fled to the KSA rather than face trial. This sentence sends a message to insiders with access to user information to safeguard it, particularly from repressive regimes, or risk significant time in prison."
Abouammo was convicted alongside another former Twitter employee, Saudi national Ali Alzabarah, who investigators say looked up real-time location data on a dissident identified as Omar Abdulaziz, a close friend of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Alzabarah fled the U.S. before federal authorities could arrest him in 2019.
Experts have noted how the case against the two men showed how early in MBS's reign he seems to have begun aggressively chasing down dissidents — he was named deputy crown prince immediately after the January 2015 death of King Abdullah, which is exactly when this espionage effort was taking place.
"Mr. Abouammo violated the trust placed on him to protect the privacy of individuals by giving their personal information to a foreign power for profit," said said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, in a statement. "His conduct was made all the more egregious by the fact that the information was intended to target political dissidents speaking out against that foreign power."
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