Ex-Twitter Workers Charged with Spying for Saudis as Part of Kingdom’s Growing Crackdown on Dissent

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The U.S. Department of Justice has charged two former Twitter employees with helping Saudi Arabia spy on thousands of the kingdom’s critics. Ali Alzabarah and Ahmad Abouammo are accused of giving the Saudi government detailed information about users, including telephone numbers and email addresses linked to the accounts, as well as internet protocol addresses that could be used to identify a user’s location. The charges are being filed just over a year after the brutal murder of Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Turkey. A new report by Human Rights Watch finds that one year after Khashoggi’s brutal murder Saudi Arabia continues to arbitrarily detain countless activists, regime critics and clerics. The report says there is a “darker reality” behind Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s widely touted initiatives for Saudi women and youth, including mass arrests of women activists, some of whom have allegedly been sexually assaulted and tortured with electric shocks. We speak with Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The U.S. Department of Justice has charged two former Twitter employees with helping Saudi Arabia spy on thousands of people, including critics of the kingdom. The Twitter employees are accused of giving the Saudi government detailed information about users, including telephone numbers and email addresses linked to the accounts, as well as internet protocol addresses that could be used to identify a user’s location. The charges are being filed just over a year after the brutal murder of Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a scathing new report by Human Rights Watch on Saudi Arabia which finds, one year after Khashoggi’s brutal murder, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s kingdom continues to arbitrarily detain countless activists, regime critics and clerics. The report says there’s a darker reality behind Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s widely touted initiatives for Saudi women and youth, including mass arrests of women activists, some of whom have allegedly been sexually assaulted, tortured with electric shocks.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, several top Trump administration officials recently joined financial industry executives at a Saudi investment forum known as Davos in the Desert. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, President Trump’s son-in-law, senior adviser Jared Kushner led the U.S. delegation. Other attendees included Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone Group; Dina Powell McCormick of Goldman Sachs; and Larry Fink, CEO a BlackRock.

We’re joined now by Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, author of the new report titled “The High Cost of Change: Repression Under Saudi Crown Prince Tarnishes Reforms.”

Welcome to Democracy Now! Thanks so much for being with us, Adam. Start off with this whole issue of the Justice Department going after the former Twitter employees for spying on dissidents in Saudi Arabia. What do you know?

ADAM COOGLE: Well, the Justice Department yesterday revealed indictments of three Saudis for — two of them Twitter employees, for allegedly, essentially, accessing particular information on users at the request of the Saudi government. What I find really unique about this situation is that they’ve identified the person who was essentially handling the Twitter employees as a very, very close confidant of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. His name is Bader Al Asaker. And he is the head of MBS’s personal office, as well as the head of his charity, called the MiSK Foundation.

And what’s also interesting about this situation is how far back this goes. So, in 2014, MBS really hadn’t risen on the scene of Saudi politics yet. He was still kind of a rather anonymous prince. His father was the crown prince and defense minister, but he was sort of a minor official working for his father. Yet, at the same time, it does appear that somebody from his circle was making these contacts at Twitter and requesting user information. And it appears to me, from the indictment, that around the time that King Abdullah died on January 23rd, 2015, that these contacts sort of increased. And you can see the calls increased, and the requests for, I think, the identities of certain Twitter accounts increased, as well.

The Saudi authorities have made absolutely no bones about it in terms of Twitter. They are interested in limiting free expression. They do not want Saudi citizens to be able to go onto that platform and express themselves freely, to criticize the crown prince or to criticize the crown prince’s plans. And they’ve taken steps to limit it as much as possible, both through arresting Saudis directly for what they tweet, but also, you know, engaging massive troll armies to target for harassment dissidents and critics online.

And now we see even a darker side, where it appears as though, at least at some point in time, they may have had the ability to unmask anonymous accounts through using contacts that were working directly for Twitter. So this is very, very troubling. And it also reminds me of a very dark tweet that was made by the former royal court adviser, Saoud al-Qahtani, who is also well known for his alleged role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October of 2018. He tweeted in August of 2017 that, you know, Saudi citizens who wanted to tweet criticism of the government through anonymous accounts were not safe. He tweeted that they had the ability to obtain their IP addresses, and he also said he had a secret way of obtaining their personal information that he was not going to say. And this was a tweet he made directly. I don’t know if at that time, in 2017, that the Saudi authorities had had any sort of ability to get information directly from Twitter. I mean, obviously, the activity in the indictment is from 2014 to 2016. But it certainly is very concerning.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Adam, could you talk about some of the changes that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman instituted within the security agencies as a result of which he now directly has appointed or oversees precisely people who are involved in these kinds of operations, and also how Saudi Arabia has deployed commercially available surveillance technologies to hack into the online accounts of government critics and dissidents, in particular Pegasus? Could you talk about that?

ADAM COOGLE: So, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince in June of 2017, we saw some massive shifts. And most notably, the authorities began to meticulously restructure the country’s security agencies. They took the previously very powerful and independent post of minister of interior, Ministry of Interior, and they removed the prosecution service as well as the counterterrorism functions in the domestic intelligence agency and created them all as separate agencies reporting to and overseen directly by the royal court. They also purged from the system Muhammad bin Nayef and his loyalists, who had previously overseen the security — many of the security agencies. And they removed other heads of agencies that were not loyal to the king and the crown prince.

After this was completed, over the summer of 2017, we immediately saw a rapid escalation in the level of repression in Saudi Arabia, beginning with mass arrests in 2017 of clerics, intellectuals, academics, probably dozens, up to even hundreds, of people. We saw in November of 2017 the so-called corruption arrests whereby the authorities targeted businessmen, current and former government officials, as well as royal family members, and held them at the Ritz-Carlton, where they allegedly mistreated them and extorted them to hand over their financial assets in exchange for their freedom, continuing on through the arrests, the mass arrests, of the women, human rights activists in May 2018, who were also held at an unofficial place of detention and allegedly subjected to pretty brutal torture. And this continued up through the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. And, you know, so we saw after that Mohammed bin Salman and his father reorganized the security agencies and had them firmly under their grip, they were able to immediately go and target dissidents and activists and others, going after them and really arresting people, wide ranges of people, even people that were reformists and people that nominally supporting the crown prince’s plans.

I think what’s interesting about the mass arrests beginning in 2017 to point out is that while obviously freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia has never been respected and Saudis have always been targeted and arrested who dare to criticize government policies or cross red lines in their public speech, what we saw after 2017 was really categorically different and much worse than what we had seen before, both in the sheer number and types of individuals who were arrested, but also in the introduction of really pernicious and malicious abusive practices, most notably, like I mentioned earlier, the holding of detainees at unofficial places of detention, where allegations of mistreatment were pretty rampant, including an allegation made by The New York Times that one man died as the result of his treatment in the Ritz-Carlton. We’ve seen, of course, the extortion of individuals to turn over their monetary and financial assets in exchange for their freedom. We’ve also seen the Saudi authorities go after family members of detainees, instituting arbitrary travel bans, threatening them not to speak out. And this has continued.

Now, one of the other pernicious practices that it’s important to point out is the Saudi authorities acquiring and use, apparent use, of advanced cybersurveillance software against Saudi activists and dissidents. It seems clear that a well-known Saudi activist in Canada, named Omar Abdulaziz — he had his phone analyzed by an independent group, and they discovered on his phone a software called Pegasus, which is created by a group called the NSO Group based out of Israel. And this software essentially turns the phone into a spying device. It allows whoever can access the phone to turn on the camera, to turn on the microphone, to see everything on the phone that the individual is doing. And what’s really scary about the fact that they embedded this software into Omar’s phone is that Omar was in touch with — it’s no secret that Omar was in touch with Jamal Khashoggi in the days and weeks before he died, so it’s very possible that the authorities saw all of their exchanges that were going on and their plans for, you know, scaling up their activism in defense of basic rights in Saudi Arabia. So, in addition to Omar, we know that two or three other individuals have also claimed that they were the targets of Pegasus attacks made by Saudi Arabia, including a researcher from Amnesty International in the U.K. and another Saudi dissident living in London. The fact that the Saudi authorities turned these products —

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what’s happening with women — I mean, the fact that when Mohammed bin Salman announced that women would be able to drive, the very women activists who had been fighting for women to be able to drive were then imprisoned?

ADAM COOGLE: Yes, that’s absolutely correct, Amy. Mohammed bin Salman, in September of 2017, announced that women would be able to drive in 2018. And that very day, somebody from — a high-level government official called the country’s most well-known women’s rights activists and threatened them not to say a word about the end of the driving ban publicly, on Twitter or anywhere else. They seemed intent on not allowing the women to claim credit for the reforms, even though these are the women who put this issue on the map over years, as well as other women’s rights issues and discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia. And going beyond that, they outright arrested the leading activist, all of the leading activists, beginning in May of 2018, just a mere week or two before the lifting of the driving ban.

And this is what I was talking about earlier. While the authorities have attempted to justify their mass arrests by saying, “Oh, we’re targeting only extremists,” in fact, many of the people that they’re targeting are reformists and people who absolutely support some of the crown prince’s policies. I think the authorities, by arresting the women human rights activists and subjecting them to horrendous mistreatment, as well as putting them on trial for a host of rather frivolous actions that do not resemble recognizable crimes — I think they’re trying to send a clear message to Saudi society that their input is unwanted, that the government is going to make its decisions and that there’s no space for any sort of civic activism or citizens’ petitioning of their government for positive reforms.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Adam, what message is being sent by those like Jared Kushner and Steve Mnuchin and the Energy Secretary Rick Perry and BlackRock and the other financial institutions represented at the so-called Davos in the Desert, when so many were saying they should boycott, what others call “Disgrace in the Desert”? Thirty seconds on the significance of this, what this kind of meeting does for bin Salman.

ADAM COOGLE: Well, it’s very challenging for me or any other Saudi watchers to see how there’s going to be accountability for the abuses that we’ve seen under King Salman and Mohammed bin Salman, when people seem to be returning to business as usual despite the fact that there’s been no accountability for any of the really, really terrible allegations of abuses that have come out, whether it be Jamal Khashoggi or the treatment of the women rights activists and others. And I think, unfortunately, this administration has sent the Saudi leadership the signal that they can essentially do what they want and that there won’t be any real meaningful pressure on them to reform or to end some of these pernicious practices. And, you know, I think it’s a real cause for concern that so many officials that boycotted the event last year are returning despite the fact that the Saudis have not made any real steps towards accountability.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Coogle, we want to thank you for being with us, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. We’ll link to your report, “The High Cost of Change: Repression Under Saudi Crown Prince Tarnishes Reforms.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back in 30 seconds, what’s happening to the bees? Stay with us.

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