Two Twitter employees have been charged with spying for Saudi Arabia and accessing private Twitter user data for the Saudi government.
The federal criminal complaint, filed Nov. 5, is the first time the U.S. Attorney has accused the Saudi government of spying in America.
One of the employees, 41-year-old Ahmad Abouammo, lives in Seattle and was arrested on Tuesday (Nov. 4).
"I was like 'oh, my God, this is horrible,'" said a neighbor who lives nearby.
Neighbors shared photos of Abouammo getting arrested Tuesday afternoon at his Queen Anne home.
"He didn't resist arrest or anything. They just cuffed him and he left," neighbors said.
He's one of the two Twitter employees accused of spying and accessing people's personal data for the Saudi government - particularly, people who were critical of Saudi Arabia.
The complaint alleges Saudi Arabia of recruiting the two U.S. Saudis to gather personal information on thousands of accounts.
"I was thinking counterfeit credit cards, money, something like that. But never that," the neighbor said.
Federal prosecutors say Abouammo was a manager at Twitter responsible for the Middle East and North Africa region, involved with assisting notable accounts like brands and celebrities, including the Saudi royal family.
Documents indicate the crimes where Abouammo used his access to provide Saudi officials users private data happened from 2014-15, and that Saudi officials paid him with a watch worth at $20,000, plus wired him at least $300,000, and more to one of his relatives in London.
Abouammo left Twitter in 2015 and moved to Seattle, but the federal criminal complaint says he continued contact with Saudi officials and kept accepting money.
A former FBI agent from the Bay Area said any type of influence by foreign governments raises major concern.
"The FBI is not going to allow foreign nationals just steal personal data of U.S. citizens and pass it on to foreign governments," said Jeffrey Harp, a retired special agent in charge with FBI San Francisco.
In October 2018, FBI agents from Pao Alto came to Seattle to question Abouammo in his Queen Anne home. There, FBI officials say he lied to agents and obstructed the investigation. The documents say he "knowingly falsified and transmitted to agents of the FBI a falsified invoice in order to obstruct a pending federal criminal investigation."
"I saw it. I was going to Starbucks and I had to turn around and get my sister, and I said the feds are in Queen Anne!" the neighbor said.
Neighbors and social media indicate Abouammo lived in Queen Anne with his wife and two young kids.
"He seems like a very nice guy. His whole family just seems like a nice family. They mind their business. My heart goes out to the others in the family," the neighbor said.
Abouammo is a U.S. citizen. The FBI is still looking for two other people involved – Ali Alzabarah (Twitter employee) and Ahmed Almutairi. Investigators believe both have fled to Saudi Arabia.
A Twitter spokesperson said in a statement:
We would like to thank the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice for their support with this investigation. We recognize the lengths bad actors will go to try and undermine our service. Our company limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees. We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work. We're committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights.
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