By Mike Carter / The Seattle Times
A Seattle man facing charges he was paid by the Saudi royal family to access the private information of Saudi dissidents, media personalities and others while working at Twitter is described as a loyal family man and loving husband in letters submitted to federal court ahead of a detention hearing scheduled for Friday afternoon.
Prosecutors are asking that Ahmad Abouammo, a 41-year-old U.S. citizen, be held in custody as a flight risk pending his removal to San Francisco, where he and two other men have been charged in a criminal complaint filed in the Northern District of California. Twitter is headquartered in San Francisco and the charges allege Abouammo and another Twitter employee, Ali Hamad Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen, provided a Saudi official with confidential information on Twitter users of interest to the royal family. A third man, Ahmed Almutairi, a Saudi citizen with ties to an organization run by the Saudi royal family, also was charged.
Abouammo was described in letters of support submitted to the court as a caring, family man who helped an abused sister move from Egypt to America and then took on the responsibility of caring for the woman’s disabled daughter. “He never hesitated taking care of them,” wrote Adnan Abouammo, an uncle who lives in Wenatchee.
Zeina Abouammo, his wife of 10 years and the mother of their three children, wrote to the court to say her husband “has always been very supportive, understanding, optimistic, honest and caring.”
“He’s the type of person that sees the glass half full,” she wrote. “During the past year, we both suffered from mental health problems. Yet he was always strong and hopeful. Ahmad is my backbone, my rock and my companion.”
According to court documents, Abouammo moved to Seattle in 2015. Reports indicate he worked for Amazon and documents show he started his own limited-liability consulting firm through which the FBI alleges he funneled some of the Saudi payment money. He is charged as acting as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. attorney general, and with “destruction, alteration or falsifications of records in a federal investigation” over allegations that, while FBI agents waited to question him downstairs, he hastily printed out a phony consulting contract to justify a $100,000 payment from a Saudi official the agents had asked him about.
Federal prosecutors allege that, over a period of five years, Abouammo was paid at least $300,000 in cash and given a luxury wristwatch worth more than $30,000.
Court documents indicate that Abouammo has been under investigation by the FBI since autumn of 2018. He was arrested Wednesday at his Queen Anne condominium on a warrant issued out of San Francisco.
The FBI alleges Abouammo was recruited as a spy for the Saudi government at Twitter in 2014, when he was put in touch with a man identified in the criminal complaint as “Saudi Foreign Official-1.” The official approached him during a tour of Twitter headquarters by a group of Saudi entrepreneurs and obtained his contact information. At the time, according to the charges, Abouammo was a media partnerships manager at Twitter, responsible for the Middle East and Africa regions.
The charges allege that the foreign official later that year met Abouammo in London while Abouammo was attending a conference and gave him a watch as a gift, in violation of the company’s ethics policies. The watch was described as a Hublot Unico Big Bang King Gold Ceramic, valued at more than $30,000.
Within a week of that meeting, the charges allege Abouammo “began accessing private Twitter user information of interest to Foreign Official-1 and the Saudi Royal Family.”
While the complaint does not name the targets of Saudi interest, it describes one as a “prominent critic of the King of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Family with over 1,000,000 Twitter followers,” and another as a Saudi media personality. The charges allege that in January 2015 Abouammo accessed a Twitter account at the request of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud and that Foreign Official-1 is linked to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
The complaint marks the first time that the kingdom, considered a U.S. ally through its massive oil reserves and regional security arrangements, has been accused of spying in America.
The arrest comes a little more than a year after the slaying of Washington Post columnist and royal family critic Jamal Khashoggi, who was allegedly lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and killed on the orders of the crown prince. While the prince has said he bears ultimate responsibility for what happens in the kingdom’s name, he has denied ordering the slaying.