How Saudi Arabia Weaponized Twitter to Target MBS Critics

November 7, 2019
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by Patrice Taddonio Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist

Berlin, Germany - February 14: In this photo illustration the app of Twitter is displayed on a smartphone on February 14, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo Illustration by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia’s government cultivated two Twitter employees to access the private information of dissidents on its behalf, the U.S government alleged in federal charges unsealed on Wednesday.

The two men, former site reliability engineer Ali al-Zabarah and former media partnerships manager Ahmad Abouammo, were charged along with a third man with acting as agents of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. attorney general. Zabarah, a Saudi national, and Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, both exited the company in 2015. According to The Washington Post, this is the first time U.S. prosecutors have publicly accused the Saudi government of operating spies inside America.

“We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law,” U.S. Attorney David Anderson said of the charges.

Earlier this fall, in The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, FRONTLINE explored how Mohammed bin Salman’s government has embraced Twitter as a vehicle to quash dissent and attack critics. The film touched on the existence of an investigation into Zabarah as a potential mole within Twitter, which was reported by The New York Times last year.

“It’s the first case we’ve heard of something like this,” Bill Marczak, a cybersecurity expert who has tracked Saudi digital operations, told FRONTLINE’s Martin Smith in the below excerpt, going on to describe how the company informed people who were potentially impacted: “This was the first time that Twitter had ever sent out one of these, you know, ‘state-sponsored threat messages’ saying, ‘Oh, some nation-state is trying to access your account.’”

Twitter plays an outsize role in the kingdom’s discourse: Two-thirds of the country is under 30, with the largest population of Twitter users in the Middle East. Soon after Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince, he sought to turn the popular platform into a tool for consolidating his grip.

“MBS began to realize that shaping the debate on Twitter, manipulating the debate, intrusively watching what people were writing and thinking, was going to be part of how he would control power,” David Ignatius of The Washington Post told Smith.

As the film showed, Prince Mohammed would task a close aide, Saud al-Qahtani, with influencing opinion on Twitter through hundreds of real and fake pro-government accounts. Qahtani’s electronic force, which became known as “an army of flies,” would hurl scores of insults and sometimes threats at critics of the crown prince — including exiled Saudi dissident Sa’ad al-Faqih.

“It’s not effective in terms of discrediting, but it is effective in terms of intimidation,” Faqih told Smith.

In addition to being targeted by the “army of flies,” private information linked to Faqih’s Twitter account may have been accessed by Zabarah, the Twitter engineer who is now officially alleged to have been working with the Saudi government.

As The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia recounted, in 2015, after Western intelligence officials learned that the Saudis had developed ties with Zabarah, Twitter fired the engineer (though there was no evidence he had shared information with the Saudi government). Twitter alerted Faqih that his account might have been among those targeted.

Twitter made no public comment at the time of Zabarah’s firing, but the company said in a statement on Wednesday that it “limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees,” and that it “understand[s] the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable.”

Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times, who helped break the story of the al-Zabarah saga last year, told Smith in the film that after being fired from Twitter, al-Zabarah left the country for Saudi Arabia, and is now working for an organization linked to the Saudi royal court.

For more on how Saudi Arabia has weaponized Twitter to target critics of its crown prince, watch The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in full. The film is streaming on FRONTLINE’s website, on the PBS Video App, and on YouTube.

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