The spy network identified Abdulrahman al-Sadhan as being behind anonymous tweets on what was then Twitter, leading to his arrest, torture and a 20-year prison sentence for supporting terrorism and prejudicing public order.
The novel case, filed under the federal RICO statute, cited repeated security failures that allowed the informants working for Twitter to send information about thousands of anonymous users to the Saudi regime while royal funds were invested in the company, becoming one of its largest shareholders.
Various Saudi officials and the kingdom itself were also named as defendants in the scheme. They would typically qualify for sovereign immunity under U.S. law, but there is an exception for commercial ventures, which is typically invoked in contract disputes rather than investments.
“Each member of the Saudi Criminal Enterprise participated in a conspiracy to chill anti-authoritarian advocacy by, among other conduct, unlawfully obtaining personal identifying information of political dissidents to identify and target them and kidnapping, torturing, stalking, harassing, threatening, and killing other political dissidents,” the lawsuit said. “Twitter became a participant tool of transnational repression to silence voices of dissent beyond Saudi Arabia’s borders in the United States and abroad.”
The case built on the 2022 conviction of Ahmad Abouammo, who ran Twitter’s media partnerships in the Middle East and took hundreds of thousands of dollars to pass on information about critics of the Saudi rulers. Two others who were indicted fled the country.
In 2015, the suit notes, the FBI warned Twitter that it had a problem with Saudi spying. But top officials including former chief executive Jack Dorsey met with Saudi leaders, and the kingdom increased its stake in the company that year.
Chen wrote that initial Saudi investment had been much earlier, long before the spies were hired. That suggested the company was a victim and not a participant in the scheme.
“As alleged, there is no realistic basis for finding X engaged in a conspiracy with the [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] and knowingly turned over Mr. Al-Sadhan’s information to the KSA,” Chen found.
The company identified the spy within two days of the FBI warning and handed over his laptop. “If X was engaged in the conspiracy, it is more likely that X would have allowed Mr. Alzabarah to take the laptop and make it unavailable to investigators, since the laptop likely would have evidence implicating X’s involvement in the conspiracy,” Chen wrote.
He also noted that Dorsey’s trip was publicized, another reason to discount that it was part of a secret scheme to betray Twitter users.
Chen also found that the victim’s sister lacked standing and that the RICO statute of limitations had expired.
The Federal Trade Commission has brought multiple actions against Twitter for security lapses, and its former head of security told Congress last year that other countries also had spies inside the company, and that executives were still failing to limit and track what employees were doing.
A different suit against Twitter over its role in the Saudi spying was dismissed when a judge found that the plaintiff had not established that the alleged leak of his information in 2015 led directly to the country hacking his phone three years later, then imprisoning his family and friends.