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The first clue popped up on Omar Abdulaziz’s phone four years ago. A Saudi dissident attending college in Montreal, Abdulaziz got a cryptic message from Twitter. His account had been penetrated by a “state sponsored” actor. He should take precautions to protect his personal information, the company advised, offering no further details.
Abdulaziz didn’t think much of it at the time. He changed his password and switched to two-factor authentication. “I thought this is, like, a problem, it was solved and it’s not happening again,” says Abdulaziz. “I didn’t know how big that was.”
Bigger, as it turned out, than he could ever have imagined. Although he had no idea at the time, Abdulaziz had found himself in the crosshairs of an extraordinary corporate espionage operation — conceived in Riyadh and allegedly orchestrated by a top deputy to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS — to steal personal data from thousands of critics of the Saudi regime.
The story of the espionage plot — and its devastating aftermath for a man who would later become one of Abdulaziz’s closest collaborators, Jamal Khashoggi — is the subject of “Influence Operations,” Episode 6 in the new season of Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland” podcast: “The Secret Lives and Brutal Death of Jamal Khashoggi.”
“There’s a direct trail of blood drops from this hack to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” said Mark Kleiman, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who is representing Abdulaziz.
It was a trail that led straight to the doorstep of MBS. The crown prince, who the CIA has concluded authorized the operation that killed Khashoggi, is identified as “Saudi Royal Family Member-1” — and his secretary as “Foreign Official-1” — in a pending Justice Department indictment alleging wire fraud, money laundering and other crimes associated with a plot to plant two Saudi spies inside Twitter.
As “Conspiracyland” reveals, MBS is even said to have boasted about his role in the criminal scheme. “It was us. We did that. We have our guy at Twitter,” he allegedly told an associate. (Spokesmen for the Saudi government have declined multiple requests for comment.)
To understand how consequential the Twitter plot was, it’s important to understand the unique role the social media company’s platform had become in the Middle East. As is well known, Twitter was the primary form of messaging among democratic activists during the Arab Spring protests that convulsed the region starting in 2011.
Yet even after those protests were crushed in the years that followed, Twitter still loomed large — and nowhere more so than in Saudi Arabia. In a closed society, with no established forum for democratic debate, Twitter was the one platform for political discourse and much other discussion, says Abdulaziz.
“In the United States, you have the Congress. In Saudi Arabia, we have Twitter,” he says. “It wasn’t only a platform for us to talk about what we do believe. It was a place where we would gather, where we would see people, you know, who share the similar ideas or beliefs or who would try to do anything peacefully to change the situation in our country.”
And often they did so anonymously. All the more reason that the lively exchange of ideas among Saudi Twitter users — and the biting attacks by some of them on the rulers of their country — alarmed the regime, especially the rising new power in the royal court, MBS. So starting in 2014, Bader al-Asaker, MBS’s personal secretary and the director of MiSK, the prince’s personal foundation, launched an audacious plot to identify — and shut down — regime critics on Twitter.
In June of that year, Asaker was on a tour of Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, where he was greeted and shown around by Ahmad Abouammo, a young U.S.-Lebanese citizen, who at the time was chief of the company’s Middle East partnerships tasked with managing Saudi Twitter accounts.
In classic spycraft fashion, Asaker cultivated Abouammo. He arranged to meet him in London, where he gave him an expensive luxury watch worth $20,000. It was the start of up to $300,000 in jewelry and cash that the Saudi official showered on Abouammo, with a chunk of it routed through a Beirut bank account set up in the name of one of the Twitter employee’s Lebanese relatives, according to an FBI affidavit entered as evidence in the case. And in exchange, according to prosecutors, Abouammo turned over the details of a widely read anonymous Saudi account critical of the Saudi regime — information that Asaker had requested. (Abouammo has pleaded not guilty to the charges.)
At the same time, Asaker recruited yet another Twitter mole, an engineer named Ali Alzabarah, who turned over the personal details — the emails, phone numbers, direct messages and IP addresses — of 6,000 users.
All of this was music to MBS’s ears. Saad Aljabri, a former senior Saudi counterterrorism official who was ousted by MBS, has alleged in a lawsuit against the crown prince in the United States that the de facto Saudi ruler boasted about his role overseeing the plot, leading to his comment “We have our guy at Twitter,” according to an account provided to “Conspiracyland” by Aljabri’s son Khalid.
When Aljabri pushed on whether the royal court’s spy inside Twitter was a Saudi citizen, MBS allegedly replied that he was in fact an American, an apparent reference to Abouammo, who has dual U.S. and Lebanese citizenship. And, tellingly, MBS told Aljabri that the spy had been paid 1 million Saudi riyals for his services — an amount roughly corresponding to the $300,000 that prosecutors have alleged Abouammo received from the Saudis.
One of the remarkable aspects of the Twitter plot is that the FBI first informed Twitter executives of the scheme in late 2015. And yet seven months later, the company's CEO, Jack Dorsey, met with MBS during his “charm offensive” tour of the United States recounted in Episode 5.
Why would the CEO of one of America’s biggest social media companies meet with a foreign official whose operatives had, according to the FBI, just stolen his company blind? There were other factors Dorsey and the company had to consider. In the preceding months, another Saudi royal, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal — the fabulously wealthy Saudi who 25 years earlier had paid Donald Trump $20 million for the superyacht once owned by Jamal Khashoggi’s arms-dealer cousin Adnan — had upped his stake in Twitter to $350 million. That made him and his company, Kingdom Holding Company, one of the five biggest shareholders in the U.S.-based social media giant.
All the more reason for Dorsey to stay on the Saudis’ good side, as was clearly visible when the Twitter founder met the Saudi crown prince in New York, says Kleiman, Abdulaziz’s lawyer.
“There’s this amazing photograph we’ve gotten our hands on” from the meeting, says Kleiman. Dorsey “had lowered himself, and his head was bowed and inflected toward MBS as he was shaking MBS’s hand. Here he is practically curtsying to the guy. It’s got to be galling to anybody who’s been put at risk for this.”
A Twitter spokesman declined to comment on why Dorsey would have met with a foreign leader whose spies had allegedly just infiltrated his company. The spokesman in an email said only that Twitter had notified affected users about the theft of their information and cooperated closely with government investigations. “We remain committed to protecting the public conversation from abuse by state actors,” said the spokesman, who asked not to be identified by name.
Abdulaziz would later form a close alliance with Khashoggi, exchanging hundreds of messages about ways to counter MBS’s digital repression — oblivious to the fact that the Saudis had scooped up personal details that would help them penetrate his phone and read their exchanges in real time.
But there were clues about what the Saudis were up to hiding in plain sight.
In August 2017, Saud al-Qahtani — MBS’s right-hand man and enforcer, who had created a “blacklist” of regime critics — published his own ominous tweet. “Does a pseudonym protect you from the #blacklist,” he wrote. “No.”
The Saudis, he added, had technical ways of figuring out who the critics were and even their IP addresses. It was, Qahtani wrote, “a secret I’m not going to say.”
It is worth noting that, as Qahtani was writing his warning, Khashoggi himself had not fully broken with the Saudi regime he had faithfully supported for several decades.
Despite his fervent backing of the Arab Spring and his calls for greater democracy and freedom of expression, Khashoggi was still trying to find a way to avoid antagonizing the royal court. As first reported by Wall Street Journal reporters Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck in their book “Blood and Oil,” Khashoggi proposed to the Saudi Information Ministry that he create a new U.S.-based think tank that would counter negative news coverage of the kingdom (and that he be hired as a consultant to advise the group).
But that overture never got far. He would soon be offered a chance to write op-ed columns for the Global Opinions section of the Washington Post. In his debut piece he took off the gloves, lambasting MBS for his crackdowns and arrests of dissidents. “Saudi Arabia Wasn’t Always This Repressive,” read the headline. “Now It’s Unbearable.”
It was a column, along with similarly hard-hitting follow-ups, that won him plaudits from dissidents like Abdulaziz, leading to a collaboration that within a year would result in Khashoggi’s murder.
Next on “Conspiracyland”: Episode 7, “A Tale of Two Women”
As Jamal Khashoggi becomes more forceful in his attacks on MBS’s harsh crackdowns, he forms an alliance with Omar Abdulaziz, the dissident, wiring him money to fund an operation to counter Saud al-Qahtani’s army of trolls. But as he does so, his personal life becomes ever more complicated. He marries one woman — a flight attendant for Emirates Airlines — in an Islamic ceremony in northern Virginia. Then, just months later, he becomes engaged to another woman, a Turkish graduate student, leading to his fateful trip to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
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