How a Former Twitter Employee Became an Accused Saudi Spy
for years lived a Seattle lifestyle not unlike many of his neighbors. He owned a million dollar house, drove an Audi sport-utility vehicle and worked at
That life was upended this past week when the husband and father of three was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was charged with acting as an agent of the Saudi Arabian government while working, years earlier, for
Mr. Abouammo, 41, bought the house in the North Queen Anne neighborhood in Seattle in August 2017.
Mr. Abouammo, a dual U.S. and Lebanese citizen, was effectively recruited by a rising lieutenant in the Saudi government, according to the complaint. The official, who wasn’t identified in the complaint, is
according to a person familiar with the case. Mr. Al-Asaker has since become head of the private office of Saudi Crown Prince
Mohammed bin Salman.
Mr. Al-Asaker couldn’t be reached for comment.
Mr. Abouammo hasn’t entered a plea, according to his lawyer, who declined to discuss the charges against his client.
The complaint, filed in court Tuesday, alleges that the Saudi official—Mr. Al-Asaker, according to the person familiar with the case—carefully developed the contact with Mr. Abouammo and appears as the mastermind of the operation and the paymaster.
Mr. Abouammo, according to the complaint, fed his Saudi contacts information on two Twitter users who were regime critics, one of whom had more than a million followers and the other who was allegedly posing as a member of the Royal family.
Mr. Abouammo, who family and friends in letters to the federal court in Seattle described as a loyal and responsible family man, also provided support for a sister with a disabled daughter who needed numerous eye surgeries.
He was pursuing a master’s degree from Harvard University’s Extension School, part of its continuing-education program, according to a letter from his wife of 10 years, Zeina.
The FBI also charged two other men—
—with acting as illegal agents of a foreign government by providing private information about Twitter users to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Alzabarah also worked at Twitter, and Mr. Almutairi controlled a social media company that works for the Royal Family, and helped recruit Mr. Abouammo, according to the FBI. Both are Saudi citizens and are believed to have returned to the kingdom, according to the FBI, which has issued warrants for their arrest.
Neither could be reached for comment. The Saudi Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“Insider threats pose a critical threat to American businesses and our national security,” FBI Special Agent in Charge
John F. Bennett
said in a statement after the arrest.
Mr. Abouammo began working at Twitter in San Francisco in late 2013 as a media partnerships manager for customers in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the criminal complaint.
About six months after joining the social media company, Mr. Abouammo was asked to set up a tour of Twitter’s headquarters for what was billed as a group of Saudi entrepreneurs, according to the complaint. Among them was a foreign official who ran a charitable organization for a member of the Royal Saudi family, according to the complaint. That individual was Mr. Al-Asaker, a person familiar with the investigation said.
The visit sparked contact between Mr. Al-Asaker and Mr. Abouammo, according to details int he complaint, that eventually led to his arrest in Seattle on Nov. 5.
Federal prosecutors accuse Mr. Abouammo of using his ability to access personal Twitter user data to feed information on critics of the Saudi government to his contacts in return for multiple payments.
Mr. Abouammo, for instance, is accused of accessing in December 2014 the email address of a Twitter user that was a prominent critic of the Saudi government who had more than 1 million followers. He accessed the email information several more times in the following months, according to the government’s complaint.
Twitter wouldn’t address specifics about the case. “We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service,” the company said in a statement after the arrest, adding it limits the access to sensitive account information to a small number of specially trained and screened employees.
A few months after the visit of Twitter’s San Francisco offices, Mr. Abouammo and a Saudi official, according to the complaint, were in regular contact. The two arranged to meet in London.
Mr. Almutairi, one of the Saudi citizens also charged in the case, was employed by a company working for the Saudi government and contacted Mr. Abouammo in November 2014 ahead of the London get together, according to the complaint.
Mr. Almutairi also managed the contact with the other charged Twitter employee, Mr. Alzabarah, according to the FBI.
The FBI said Mr. Abouammo, while on a work trip to a Twitter event, met the Saudi official—Mr. Al-Asaker according to the person familiar witht he case—in London on Dec. 5., 2014. Within a week, the FBI said, the Twitter employee began collecting information on some of the social-media platform’s users. Two months later, Saudi Arabia began making payments to Mr. Abouammo via one of his relatives, according to the U.S. complaint.
Mr. Abouammo left Twitter in May 2015. Contact with a Saudi official continued and they, the FBI alleges, requested help in getting some Twitter accounts closed. Mr. Abouammo, who continued to receive payments from the Saudi officials, contacted former colleagues to help with those requests, according to the complaint.
Contact between the Saudis and Mr. Abouammo continued for months even after he had relocated to Seattle and began working at Amazon, the FBI alleges.
He began working for Amazon in 2015 soon after leaving Twitter, according to his LinkedIn profile. He stopped working at Amazon about a year ago. His last job at Amazon, similar to his role at Twitter, was as a media partnerships manager responsible for the Middle East and North Africa, according to his LinkedIn page.
Mr. Abouammo ceased working for Amazon over a year ago, a company spokeswoman said, without providing details on why he left.
Mr. Abouammo, who holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington in communications and political science, held various marketing jobs, according to his LinkedIn profile, including a stint in 2007 and 2008 working for a Saudi bank in Riyadh. After he left Amazon, he listed his job as a digital consultant.
The FBI says it first contacted Mr. Abouammo in Seattle in October 2018 about his contacts with the Saudis. In the course of that interview, Mr. Abouammo made what the FBI said were false statements. Mr. Abouammo said the Saudi officials had given him a watch valued at around $500 and said he has received $100,000 from a Saudi official, according to the complaint. He tried to sell the watch for $25,000, the FBI says, and he received at least $300,000 in payments. The FBI said he also falsified an invoice.
Mr. Abouammo now also faces a charge of trying to mislead investigators in addition to acting as a Saudi agent.
Mr. Abouammo’s financial fortunes this year took a dramatic turn. He filed for bankruptcy in August. In the filing, he said his income had fallen to $15,000 as of that date, from $159,000 last year and $252,900 in 2018. His main source of income, according to the bankruptcy filing, was rental income via Airbnb. At one point, he also was a driver for ride-hailing firm
Mr. Abouammo appeared in court Friday. The judge ruled he could be released with GPS monitoring. Prosecutors appealed the ruling, arguing Mr. Abouammo represented a flight risk. He, for now, remains in detention.
Write to Betsy Morris at firstname.lastname@example.org
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