In 2017, Saud al-Qahtani--advisor to the Saudi Crown Prince--was rather active on social media.
In one Twitter post, he stated: “Does a pseudonym protect you from #the_black_list? No 1) States have a method to learn the owner of the pseudonym 2) the IP address can be learned using a number of methods 3) a secret I will not say.”
While it should be understood that once you put something out on social media, it’s there for anyone to use against you. But it’s quite another thing when the threat is coming from a figure who served as director the Saudi Federation for Cyber Security and Programming, legal advisor and a media consultant for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
That’s who Saud al-Qahtani was when he made his Twitter debut.
And what he was talking about in his 2017 tweet was a campaign to harass and target dissidents of the regime. To that end, he started the hashtag “#The_Black_List” in which he called on Saudis to suggest online critics to target. Now, just one week after Twitter management decided to stop all political advertising, two former employees and their handler were charged by the US government for espionage. For Saudi Arabia.
Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, and Saudi national Ali Alzabarah, were charged for snooping into thousands of private accounts seeking personal information about critics of the Saudi royal family.
The case represents the first time that federal prosecutors have charged Saudis with deploying agents inside the United States.
“Saudi agents mined Twitter’s internal systems for personal information about known Saudi critics and thousands of other Twitter users,” U.S. Attorney David Anderson in San Francisco said in a statement.
Prosecutors claim that Alzabarah and Abouammo were recruited by a third Saudi, Ahmed Almutairi, who was working on behalf of the royal family. All three are charged with acting as illegal agents of a foreign government.
Abouammo appeared in a Seattle court on Wednesday, while Alzabarah and Almutairi are believed to be in Saudi Arabia. Both Twitter employees allegedly conducted surveillance in 2015 and left the company later that year.
In a statement, Twitter said it is aware that "bad actors" will try to undermine its service and that the company "limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees."
"We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable," the company added.
However, in a related twist, one of the accounts accessed belonged to a prominent dissident, Omar Abdulaziz--a friend and coworker of murdered Jamal Khashoggi. Last month, he sued Twitter for failing to inform him about a state-sponsored hack of his account, which led to government agents discovering his plans for a social media protest.
Abdulaziz, who had won political asylum in Canada, said Saudi agents stepped up their harassment of him in July 2018 and arrested his brothers in Jeddah. The agents asked him to meet at the Saudi embassy in Ottawa. He declined, and a few months later, Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.
Under MBS, the kingdom is trying to shake off its ultra-conservative image, but so far it’s been cosmetic, and backtracking at the best of times. Recently, they lifted the 35-year-long ban on cinema. The Kingdom has also ended its ban on women driving, but then proceeded to arrest female activists who had pushed for the ban.
Human rights organizations have tallied dozens of Twitter-related prosecutions in Saudi Arabia.
There’s a fairly clear trail, and it goes beyond targeting dissidents and into the realm of ordinary complainers.
In 2014, a Saudi man in a wheelchair named Dolan bin Bakheet was sentenced to 18 months in prison and 100 lashes for using Twitter to complain about his medical care.
That same year, an eight-year prison sentence was upheld for a Saudi man who mocked the king on Twitter and YouTube.
As for Saud al-Qahtani, he was dismissed right after Khashoggi’s murder and sanctioned by the U.S., while Western media labeled him the mastermind of Khashoggi’s kidnapping and murder. Recently, his name resurfaced in recent days in speculation as to whether he was dead after having become too great a liability.
By Michael Kern for Safehaven.com