Saudi National Suing Twitter Over a Massive 2016 Breach Which Got Multiple Whistleblowers Killed
Ali al-Ahmed, a US-based Saudi national who is suing Twitter over a 2016 hack says the company’s incompetence led to the death and torture of whistleblowers inside Saudi Arabia, Business Insider reports.
Last month, US prosecutors charged Ahmad Abouammo and Ali al-Zabarah, two Saudi nationals who worked for Twitter between 2013 and 2016, with spying for a foreign government. They are accused of passing the personal information of accounts critical of the Saudi government to the kingdom’s intelligence agencies.
Now Al-Ahmed, a Saudi scholar living in exile in the US, has come forward as one of those dissidents. Al-Ahmed is the founder of the Gulf States Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC. He has often criticized the kingdom on Twitter.
In a civil suit filed in the Southern District of New York, al-Ahmed seeks damages from Twitter, alleging that many of those exposed have since been killed or tortured, according to a copy of the complaint seen by Business Insider.
Twitter declined to comment.
“It is very distressing and it really hurts me greatly because I know some of them have died, many have been tortured, and remain behind bars,” al-Ahmed told Business Insider.
In the lead-up to the hack, al-Ahmed had been in regular communication with a number of anonymous Twitter accounts run by employees of the Saudi government and pro-democracy activists inside Saudi Arabia.
The hack revealed their phone numbers and email addresses, and enabled the Saudi state to identify and silence them, he said. al-Ahmed did not identify specify the number of accounts affected.
“The difference between being their being free, or not free, is our connection on Twitter,” al-Ahmed told Business Insider.
“I feel it is my fault in a certain way, as I was the cause, I was the reason. I didn’t do anything wrong, but it really hurts me and I feel responsible.”
In a press release announcing the suit on July 1, 2020, al-Ahmed’s attorney David Schwartz wrote: “Twitter is responsible for several of al-Ahmed’s contacts being arrested and tortured by the GSA [government of Saudi Arabia].”
One of those killed, according to al-Ahmed, is Abdullah al-Hamid, the founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, a human-rights group in the kingdom. He died in Saudi state custody in April 2020.
On Wednesday, Bloomberg identified another of al-Ahmed’s contacts that had been targeted as a result of the hack: Abdulrahman al-Sadhan. He vanished on March 12, 2018, after Saudi state security agents turned up at his office in Riyadh. His current condition and whereabouts are unknown.
Schwartz, the lawyer, said that he believes Twitter is in the wrong on several grounds. He said they include breach of contract, reckless endangerment, and breaching the Violation of the Stored Communications Act.
Al-Ahmed is also seeking damages from Twitter from the May 2018 suspension of his Arabic-language Twitter account, which he used to communicate with people inside Saudi Arabia.
He says this has deprived him of an income and a platform to inform his 36,000 followers. He also has an English-language Twitter account, with nearly 14,000 followers.
Schwartz and al-Ahmed are now working to secure other plaintiffs to bolster their case. Schwartz told Business Insider there may be other similar claims against Twitter that come after al-Ahmed’s.
“This is not a massive class action at the moment, but it could turn into that,” he said.
al-Ahmed and Schwartz have taken Twitter head on, accusing them of pandering to the Saudi authorities.
“Because of the total lack of screening, restrictions and intervention, Twitter was a part of these efforts to silence al-Ahmed and his large following for speaking out against the Saudi government,” Schwartz wrote in the complaint.
Al-Ahmed’s claim is the latest of several lawsuits and campaigns to sully Saudi Arabia’s reputation in 2020 alone.
Earlier in August, Saad al-Jabri, a former Saudi intelligence chief, sued Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a US federal court, alleging the prince sent a hit squad to kill him in Canada. Two of al-Jabri’s children were kidnapped in Riyadh earlier this year, and have not been seen since.
Schwartz said that Saudi authorities had also made attempts on al-Ahmed’s life “on multiple occasions,” but did not elaborate.
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