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Twitter being sued for letting Saudi spies collect data to target and kill dissidents

Twitter logo. (Dreamstime/TNS)
October 15, 2021

Ali Al-Ahmed, the leader of the human rights organization Institute for Gulf Affairs, is suing Twitter for negligence in hiring two men who allegedly collected private data about dissidents on behalf of the Saudi government.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in the federal court for California’s Northern District, Ahmed names Twitter and the two alleged Saudi spies — Ali Alzabarah and Ahmad Abouammo — as defendants. The lawsuit argues that with access to private user data, the Saudi government was able to target and even kill some dissidents.

In November 2019, the Department of Justice charged both Alzabarah and Abouammo with working within Twitter at the behest of the government of Saudi Arabia to obtain private data from dissidents and known government critics, including Ahmed himself.

Ahmed’s lawsuit describes himself as a political refugee who has been granted political asylum in the U.S. The Protocol reported he has remained in the U.S. since 1998.

Ahmed’s lawsuit alleges that after Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal bought $300 million worth of Twitter stock in 2011, an amount representing a 5.2% stake in the company, Talal was imprisoned and potentially tortured before signing over large portions of his assets to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The lawsuit argues Twitter should have known the Saudi prince held an influential stake in the social media platform and thus failed to exercise proper precautions to protect user data when it hired Alzabarah, who is a Saudi national.

The lawsuit argues that if Twitter “performed an appropriate background and screening test, it would have revealed that Alzabarah and Abouammo had troubling and suspicious relationships with key members of the [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia].”

The access Twitter gave to these accused Saudi spies had deadly consequences, according to the lawsuit.

“Several Twitter users, who either followed Mr. Al-Ahmed’s Twitter
account and/or had direct contact with him through the use of Twitter’s private messaging feature, have disappeared, been arrested, or have been executed,” the lawsuit states. “One such example is Abdullah al-Hamid, a Saudi Dissident and follower of Mr. Al-Ahmed’s Twitter account, who was jailed and ultimately died in custody.”

Ahmed also argues further wrongdoing by Twitter when his Arabic-language Twitter profile, @AliAlahmed, was suspended “without explanation, warning, or justification” in May 2018 and alleges the account suspension was allowed to appease the Saudi government and preserve Twitter’s access to a large part of its Middle Eastern market.

Ahmed argues that despite knowing about the DOJ’s criminal prosecution of Alzabarah and Abouammo, Twitter has not overturned Ahmed’s 2018 account suspension.

“While Twitter may wish to play the victim of state-sponsored espionage, Twitter’s conduct in punishing the victims of this intrigue, including Mr. Al-Ahmed, tells a far different story: one of ratification, complicity, and/or adoption tailored to appease a neigh beneficial owner and preserve access
to a key market, the KSA.”

Twitter has declined a request for comment on the lawsuit from Protocol.

In July 2020, the DOJ expanded the criminal charges against Alzabarah, Abouammo and an alleged Saudi accomplice, Ahmed Almutairi, CBS News reported. The federal case against the three men is ongoing.