A former Twitter employee convicted of using his position at the company to spy for Saudi Arabia will spend more than three years in prison.
Ahmad Abouammo, 45, was convicted in August of acting as a foreign agent without notifying the Attorney General, conspiracy, wire fraud, international money laundering, and falsifying records in a federal investigation.
According to prosecutors, Abouammo began receiving bribes from Saudi official as early as December 2014. At the time, he was working at Twitter as a Media Partnerships Manager for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
“Evidence at trial demonstrated that Abouammo accepted bribes from officials of the KSA in exchange for accessing Twitter user accounts and conveying information on dissidents and critics of the KSA to their government officials and the Saudi Royal family,” the Justice Department said in a press release Thursday. Abuammo then “lied to the FBI investigators and falsified a document when questioned about the transactions in October 2018.”
The KSA official was the head of the “private office” of a royal family member who was a Minister of State and then became Minister of Defense and Deputy Crown Prince, the DOJ said.
That official apparently met with Abouammo in London in December 2014 and provided him with a luxury watch, which Abouammo said was worth $42,000 when he later tried to sell it on Craigslist, the DOJ said.
“After the meeting in London, Abouammo began repeatedly accessing private information about several Twitter accounts, at least one of which was the account of an influential user who was critical of members of the Saudi Royal Family and the KSA government,” the press release noted. Evidence also showed that after Abouammo traveled to Lebanon in February 2015, a bank account was opened in the name of his father in Lebanon and Abouammo obtained access to that bank account.
That account, according to the government, received $100,000 that same month from the foreign official. Prosecutors said Abouammo laundered that money by sending it to the U.S. in “small wire transfers with false descriptions.” The account received another $100,000 after Abouammo left Twitter, along with a note from the official “apologizing for the delayed payment.”
When the FBI interviewed Abouammo at his home about the scheme, he “provided false information to the FBI investigators and provided a false invoice for one of the payments he received from the foreign official,” the DOJ said.
Abouammo was born in Egypt and is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Lebanon. He previously lived in Walnut Creek, California, and currently resides in Seattle, Washington with his wife and three children.
He faced up to 10 years in prison for the charge of acting as an agent of a foreign government and 20 years for each of the other counts.
According to the DOJ press release, U.S. District Judge Edward Milton Chen described Abouammo’s conduct as “serious and consequential,” adding that “exposing dissident information is a serious offense.”
The sentence is less than half of the 87 months that prosecutors requested, although it matches the request for supervised release. The government had also requested that Chen impose a $30,000 fine, but no fine was imposed. Chen did issue a forfeiture money judgment of $242,000, representing the value of the watch and cash Abouammo received as bribes.
“This case revealed that foreign governments, here, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) will bribe insiders to obtain the user information that is collected and stored by our Silicon Valley social media companies,” said U.S. Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds for the Northern District of California in the press release Thursday. “In handing down today’s sentence, the Court emphasized that defendant shared the user information with a foreign government known for not tolerating dissidents, and he did so while working with his even more culpable co-defendant who fled to the KSA rather than face trial. This sentence sends a message to insiders with access to user information to safeguard it, particularly from repressive regimes, or risk significant time in prison.”
Abouammo was originally charged alongside fellow Twitter employee Ali Alzabarah and Ahmed Almutairi, a Saudi national, in November 2019. They are reportedly believed to be in Saudi Arabia and are wanted by the FBI.
According to a Los Angeles Times report, Abouammo’s attorney, federal public defender Angela Chuang, told jurors that the case was the result of a botched investigation and Twitter’s own mishandling of user data. She said that the government and Twitter “need a way to save face” after his alleged co-conspirators fled the U.S., and that Abouammo’s case was “the best they could come up with[.]”
Chuang did not immediately respond to Law&Crime’s request for comment on the sentence.
According to the DOJ press release, Chen will allow Abouammo to self-surrender on March 31, 2023, to start serving his prison sentence.
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