A Saudi dissident suing Twitter over a massive 2016 hack says the platform's incompetence got multiple whistleblowers killed

SuppliedAli al-Ahmed, founder of the Gulf States Institute.
  • In July 2020, the US accused two Saudi nationals employed by Twitter of hacking accounts critical of the kingdom and passing their personal information to Saudi intelligence.
  • One of those allegedly hacked in 2016 was Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi scholar and activist living in exile in the US.
  • He is currently suing Twitter for damages, saying the 2016 breach led to the deaths of his whistleblower sources in Saudi Arabia.
  • Al-Ahmed said the people identified in the breach, many who used anonymous accounts to pass him information, have since been targeted in Saudi Arabia.
  • “I know some of them have died, many have been tortured, and remain behind bars,” al-Ahmed told Business Insider.
  • Twitter declined to comment.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A US-based Saudi dissident who is suing Twitter over a 2016 hack says the company’s incompetence led to the death and torture of whistleblowers inside Saudi Arabia.

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 Ali 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 criticised 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.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a signing ceremony following a meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin with Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on October 14, 2019. (Photo by Alexey NIKOLSKY / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo by ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty ImagesCrown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on October 14, 2019.

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. A spokeswoman for al-Ahmed told Business Insider that “there were dozens at least who were in direct contact with Ali and have gone missing as a result of those identified from his Twitter account.”

“The difference between 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.”

Jack DorseyPRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty ImagesTwitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

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, told Business Insider 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.

Ali al-AhmedAPSaudi scholar Ali al-Ahmed seen in Washington, DC, in 2018.

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.

Business Insider contacted the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC, for comment, but is yet to receive a response.

The latest in a string of embarrassments for Saudi Arabia

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.

In early July, four US senators wrote to President Donald Trump to ask his administration to pressure the Saudis to release al-Jabri’s children.

In a letter seen by Business Insider, the State Department responded: “Any persecution of Dr. Aljabri’s family members is unacceptable. The Department has repeatedly requested the Saudi Arabian government to clarify the status and nature of the Aljabri children’s detentions, and will continue to urge their immediate release.”

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA - DECEMBER 14 : Saudi defence minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) and Deputy Crown Prince and the Minister of Interior of Saudi Arabia Muhammad bin Nayef (R) attend an opening ceremony of new Shura Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 14, 2016. (Photo by Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Royal Council / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal CouncilThen-deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and then-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in Riyadh on December 14, 2016.

Several prominent royals detained in Saudi Arabia have also secured the backing of US senators and rights groups in recent months.

Mohammed bin Nayef, the former crown prince ousted by Mohammed bin Salman in a 2017 coup, was arrested in March 6, 2020, and is set to be charged with treason and corruption.

US lawmakers from both parties have met bin Nayef and al-Jabri’s causes with sympathy.

“We need to know right now where he is and if he is safe,” Rep. Francis Rooney, a Republican from Florida, tweeted of bin Nayef on July 16, 2020.

Rep. Jim Himes, a Democrat from Connecticut, also tweeted: “It is not OK for the Trump administration to ignore the disappearance of one of our strongest counterterrorism allies, Mohammad bin Nayef.”

A State Department spokesperson told Business Insider in July: “Saad al-Jabri was a valued partner to the US on countering terrorism … Saad’s work with the United States helped save American and Saudi lives. Many US government officials, both current and former, know and respect Saad.”

Lawyers and lobbyists have also launched a campaign in Washington, DC and London to free Princess Basmah bint Saud, a vocal Saudi activist and author, who has been detained in the kingdom’s notorious al-Ha’ir prison for a year.

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