Federal prosecutors in San Francisco on Friday blocked the pretrial release, at least temporarily, of a Seattle man charged with being a paid spy for members of the royal family in Saudi Arabia in a criminal case that marks the first time the oil-rich kingdom, a strategic U.S. partner in Africa and the Middle East, has been accused of spying in America.
Following a detention hearing Friday afternoon at the federal courthouse in Seattle, U.S. Magistrate Judge Paula McCandlis agreed with arguments by attorneys representing 41-year-old Ahmed Abouammo that the dual U.S./Lebanese citizen does not pose the sort of flight risk that would justify holding him at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac despite the high-profile and political nature of the case. McCandlis said she would impose restrictions on Abouammo's movements, order him to surrender his passports and have him wear a global-positioning monitor, but said he could go home.
Prosecutors protested, asking her to hold her order until 4:30 p.m. Friday so the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Northern District of California -- where the charges were filed Wednesday -- could appeal her decision. The notice of appeal was filed within 90 minutes, and Abouammo's release was put on hold indefinitely.
Christopher Black, Abouammo's Seattle defense lawyer, said the whole issue may be moot because Abouammo has agreed to surrender himself to officials in San Francisco, where another detention hearing has been scheduled Nov. 12. It won't hurt his case there that a judge in Seattle ordered him released, he said.
Abouammo and another man were charged Wednesday in a criminal complaint filed in San Francisco alleging that, while working in management at the headquarters of Twitter they were paid to provide private information on specific Twitter users to a government employee directly tied to the Saudi royal family. Among the individuals they allegedly gathered information on were a prominent Saudi dissident described in court papers as having more than a million followers, media personalities and others.
A third man, with ties to an organization linked to the royal family, was also charged.
In arguing for keeping Abouammo in federal custody, Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Greenberg said the Department of Justice is particularly concerned that the Saudi government will whisk Abouammo and his family back to Saudi Arabia before he can be brought to justice. Greenberg told the court that the other former Twitter employee charged in the case, a Saudi citizen identified as Ali Hamad Alzabarah, returned to Saudi Arabia with his family within days after he learned of the investigation. Greenberg said there is evidence the Saudi government helped him flee U.S. justice.
"The Saudis are known to assist their citizens in fleeing the country," Greenberg said, pointing out to the judge that the case involves hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments and what he called an "international conspiracy."
Abouammo's wife and uncle from Wenatchee were in the Seattle courtroom for Friday's hearing. Zeina Abouammo, his wife and mother of their three children, openly wept after it was explained to her that prosecutors would appeal the order releasing her husband.
According to court documents, Abouammo moved to Seattle in 2015. Reports indicate he worked for Amazon and documents show he started his own limited-liability consulting firm through which the FBI alleges he funneled some of the Saudi payment money.
He is charged as acting as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. attorney general. He is also charged with "destruction, alteration or falsifications of records in a federal investigation" over allegations that, while FBI agents waited to question him at his home, he went downstairs and hastily printed out a phony consulting contract to justify a $100,000 payment from a Saudi official the agents had asked him about.
Federal prosecutors allege that, over a period of five years, Abouammo was paid at least $300,000 in cash and given a luxury wristwatch worth more than $30,000.
On Friday, his attorneys said Abouammo has recently filed for bankruptcy.
Court documents indicate that Abouammo has been under investigation by the FBI since autumn of 2018. He was arrested Wednesday at his Queen Anne condominium on a warrant issued out of San Francisco.
The FBI alleges Abouammo was recruited as a spy for the Saudi government at Twitter in 2014, when he was put in touch with a man identified in the criminal complaint as "Saudi Foreign Official-1." The official approached him during a tour of Twitter headquarters by a group of Saudi entrepreneurs and obtained his contact information. At the time, according to the charges, Abouammo was a media-partnerships manager at Twitter, responsible for the Middle East and Africa regions.
The charges allege that the foreign official later that year met Abouammo in London while Abouammo was attending a conference and gave him a watch as a gift, in violation of the company's ethics policies.
Within a week of that meeting, the charges allege Abouammo "began accessing private Twitter user information of interest to Foreign Official-1 and the Saudi Royal Family."
While the complaint does not name the targets of Saudi interest, it describes one as a "prominent critic of the King of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Family with over 1,000,000 Twitter followers," and another as a Saudi media personality. The charges allege that in January 2015 Abouammo accessed a Twitter account at the request of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud and that Foreign Official-1 is linked to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
The arrest comes a little more than a year after the slaying of Washington Post columnist and royal family critic Jamal Khashoggi, who was allegedly lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and killed on the orders of the crown prince. While the prince has said he bears ultimate responsibility for what happens in the kingdom's name, he has denied ordering the slaying.