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Walnut Creek: Twitter hit with racketeering suit over disclosure of confidential user info to Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Case involves manager who used to live in county
(Stock image)

A "criminal enterprise" that includes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and had ties to Walnut Creek "unlawfully surveilled, killed, tortured, disappeared, kidnapped, extorted and threatened perceived dissidents to suppress speech globally and to export terror and repression into the world's democracies, including within the United States."

So begins a racketeering lawsuit filed last Tuesday in federal court in San Francisco against Twitter Inc., the Kingdom and a number of co-conspirators that include two former employees of Twitter who allegedly supplied confidential personal information about Twitter users to the Kingdom and its agents.

According to the complaint, the defendants were part of a racketeering enterprise that operated to target and retaliate against supposed Saudi dissidents, including the plaintiffs, for speaking out against the Kingdom and its royal family.

The plaintiffs are brother and sister and because plaintiff Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan is currently imprisoned and held incommunicado, both of their stories are told by his sister, Areej Al-Sadhan, in a 51-page complaint accompanied by 746 pages of exhibits.

The roots of the lawsuit go back to the Arab Spring of 2010 when protests erupted in the Middle East against a number of Arab governments.

In the words of the complaint, "young people largely built this grassroots movement on Defendant Twitter's platform, often using aliases to protect themselves and family as they organized and voiced their anger."

The complaint alleges that in 2014 and 2015, two employees of Twitter, Ahmed Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah, accessed confidential information of more than 30,000 Twitter users -- including their names, birthdates, IP addresses and other private information -- and provided it to individuals acting on behalf of the enterprise.

Abouammo allegedly lived in Walnut Creek and was a "media partnerships manager" at Twitter covering the Middle East and North Africa regions.

The complaint alleges that Abouammo was asked by a representative of a "U.S.-Saudi Arabian trade organization in Washington D.C." to arrange a tour of Twitter headquarters for a delegation of Saudi entrepreneurs.

That visit occurred on June 13, 2014 and began Abouammo's recruitment. Ultimately, Abouammo delivered confidential user information to the enterprise from January to May 2015.

Alzabarah lived in San Bruno and worked at Twitter as a "site reliability engineer," maintaining Twitter hardware and software.

Alzabarah allegedly had obtained a scholarship from a U.S. organization known as the "Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission" that administered scholarships for Saudi students to study in the U.S. The complaint alleges that the cultural mission was actually used "to surveil, stalk, and harass dissidents in the United States."

Alzabarah was recruited in February 2015 and like Abouammo, he delivered confidential user information to the enterprise, in his case over the period from May to November 2015.

While working for Twitter, Abouammo and Alzabarah allegedly received cash, gifts, and promises from the enterprise. Abouammo received over $300,000, and Alzabarah, when he later fled the United States, received a lucrative position at a foundation in Saudi Arabia.

The fundamental purpose of the scheme, according to plaintiffs, was to gather intelligence on anonymous Twitter users critical of the Kingdom and the Saudi royal family "so that the (enterprise) could terrorize and punish people into silence."

According to the complaint, in late 2015, U.S. intelligence agencies informed Twitter about the activities of Abouammo and Alzabarah.

Abouammo and Alzabarah were indicted in the Northern District of California in November 2019 and tried in August 2022.

Abouammo was convicted on five counts including acting as an agent of a foreign government without notice to the attorney general, wire fraud and money laundering. In December 2022, he was sentenced to 42 months in prison. His appeal is pending but he has been ordered to commence serving his sentence on May 24.

According to court records, Alzabarah's case is still pending.

The plaintiffs allege that Twitter has had an ongoing financial relation with members of the enterprise. The complaint says that beginning with a $300 million investment in 2011, the Kingdom, through a private investment fund, has been a stockholder in Twitter.

According to the complaint, when Elon Musk purchased Twitter on Oct. 27, 2022, the Kingdom "rolled over" its existing investment into the 'New Twitter" (an investment allegedly worth $1.89 billion at the time) and today is the second-largest shareholder after Musk.

Plaintiff Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan is a citizen of Saudi Arabia. He attended middle school in the United States and, after returning to Saudi Arabia for a few years, moved to the U.S. in 2008 to attend college. He graduated with a business degree from University of California at Berkeley in 2013.

An affidavit from his sister attached to the complaint says that while Abdulrahman was living in the U.S., "he created an anonymous satirical Twitter account, a parody of Saudi government religious figures calling out issues in the country and the hypocrisy of the Saudi regime."

He returned to Saudi Arabia in late 2014 and began "humanitarian work" for an organization known as the Red Crescent Society.

His sister alleges that Abdulrahman's confidential personal information was in the material provided to the enterprise by Abouammo and Alzabarah.

On March 12, 2018, when he was 34, he was allegedly kidnapped by the Kingdom's "secret police," detained, tortured and kept in solitary confinement, then "put through a sham trial and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment followed by a 20-year travel ban."

His family has not been able to speak to him since August 2021.

His sister, plaintiff Areej Al-Sadhan, is an American citizen and lives in San Francisco. She grew up in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia but has not been there since 2009. She is suing on her own behalf and as a representative of her brother.

She alleges that she has been active in trying to bring information about her brother's situation to worldwide attention and she says that because of that, the Kingdom and its agents "have stalked, harassed, threatened, and intimidated me."

She says that she actively speaks out on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and has "filed complaints with the United Nations and shared details of my concerns with many organizations, including the American Bar Association and human rights groups MENA Rights Group, ALQST, the Freedom Initiative, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Human Rights Foundation."

She has also petitioned the U.S. Department of State and her local county and state representatives for assistance.

The plaintiffs' claims are filed under the "Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act," the federal statue commonly referred to as "RICO."

RICO was enacted in 1970 during the presidency of Richard Nixon and was initially intended to be used to prosecute organized crime families. In the years since, it has been used more broadly.

RICO actions may be brought against the members of a criminal enterprise that has engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity including crimes such as murder, kidnapping, extortion and bribery.

Actions under the RICO statute may be commenced by the federal government or by private individuals. Among the available remedies are forfeiture and treble damages.

RICO cases can be among the most complex cases in federal court and this one has many complications, including a defendant that is a foreign sovereign entity and another that is a prominent American social media company alleged to have participated in the enterprise -- at least in part -- by employees who have already been prosecuted by U.S. authorities.

As has become standard since Musk's acquisition, a request for comment from Twitter on the lawsuit immediately returned the "poop" emoji.

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