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Saudi Twitter Spies: The Line Between Espionage and Terrorism

By Regina DiMaggio

In November 2019, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) charged two former Twitter, Inc. employees with spying on certain users of the social media giant who were critical of Riyadh and providing personal information to the Kingdom’s officials.  The landmark case is the first time that federal prosecutors have charged Saudis with deploying agents inside the United States. The Wall Street Journal notes, “the charges are unusual because they allege wrongdoing by citizens of a close Middle Eastern ally of the U.S. and detail a sophisticated conspiracy to infiltrate Twitter’s workforce and leverage access to its systems to spy on individual users of the social-media platform.”

The complaint, filed in federal court in San Francisco, accuses Ahmad Abouammo, Ali Alzabarah, and Ahmed Almutairi of acting as illegal agents of a foreign government. Mr. Abouammo is accused of accessing, in December 2014, the email address of a Twitter user that was a prominent critic of the Saudi government who had more than 1 million followers. According to the U.S. complaint, two months later, Saudi Arabia began making payments to Mr. Abouammo via one of his relatives. Although Mr. Abouammo left Twitter in 2015, his contact with a Saudi official continued, and further solicited former colleagues to help with requests of closing certain Twitter accounts.

Additionally, the FBI also charged two other men, Ali Alzabarah and Ahmed Almutairi, with acting as illegal agents of a foreign government by providing private information about Twitter users to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Mr. Alzabarah allegedly accessed the personal information of over 6,000 Twitter accounts in 2015 on behalf of the Saudi government. The Justice Department also accused a Saudi national, Ahmed Almutairi, of operating as an intermediary between the two Twitter employees and the Saudi government.

The question now posed is: although the former Twitter employees were charged with spying, can their actions be considered terrorism?

The connection between global terrorism and social media corporations has motivated a legal discussion of whether social media companies should be held liable for allowing terrorists to access information from their platforms. Terrorism claims make it a crime to provide “material support” to terrorists. “Material support” is defined in 18 U.S.C. SS2339A and 2339B, stating, “whoever provides material support or resources or conceals or disguises the nature, location, source, or ownership of material support or resources, knowing or intending that they are to be used in preparation for, or in carrying out, a violation of the law.” Considering the connection between material support and terrorism, Congress enacted the USA PATRIOT Act, criminalizing the provision of assistance to terrorists which specifically prohibit providing “communications equipment” to terrorists. This poses a problem for social media companies as their platforms offer individuals and organizations the opportunity to network and encourages the “free flow of information.” The exchange of information may be construed within the definition of “material support” if the information is exploited for terrorists groups. When considering whether the “material support” is intentional, it does not matter that the social media companies are inadvertently supporting the terrorists groups, but rather, it only matters that the “material support” provides terrorists with information that achieves their goals.

For international regulatory bodies, cyberterrorism is easier to identify and define because any intrusion into a private or public server is a violation and thus any hack, threat, or disruption to a computer network can be considered a legal form of cyberterrorism. An exchange of information between social media networks might fit closer within cyberterrorism definitions. In the case of the Saudi spies, former employees violated and disrupted Twitter’s private sectors’ regulations when releasing private, personal information of users to the Saudi government.

Although the case seems to deviate towards a terrorism and/or cyberterror viewpoint, applying these legal theories to the case at hand would be a lofty risk as the Saudi government is not an identified terrorist group. In fact, the Saudi government has been a close ally of the United States, and alleging these claims would raise problematic tensions between the two countries. This is why the United States crafted spying claims against the defendants for their actions.

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