Tuesday, March 28, 2023

FBI arrests Saudi man for using fake accounts to harass and intimidate country critics

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates ( Associated Press) – It began with a message that appeared on Danah Al-Mayouf’s phone from an anonymous Instagram account – in “crushing” a $5 million lawsuit from a pro-government Saudi fashion model promise to help. ,

But, the mystery texter said, she had to meet him in person.

It was December 2019, a year after the assassination and dismemberment of prominent US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and al-Mayuf was suspected of possibly being kidnapped and taken back to the kingdom like the others.

“I can’t meet anyone I don’t know,” al-Mayuf eventually replied. “Especially with all the kidnappings and murders.”

Now, she’s glad she didn’t. US federal prosecutors have arrested the man behind the messages, 42-year-old Ibrahim Alhussain, on charges of lying to federal officials to harass and threaten Saudi critics – mostly women – living in the US and Canada.

watch: Top Saudi diplomat discusses US relations, human rights, oil production, Iran and Israel

An FBI spokesman declined to comment on the allegations. A lawyer for Alhussein did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did the Saudi embassy in Washington.

A complaint left unresolved last month in federal court in Brooklyn points to a broader investigation into online harassment campaigns targeting Saudi dissidents and their relatives in the US – part of a trend of international repression that has prompted US officials in recent years. Concerned because various autocratic governments want to. Punish critics abroad.

For example, earlier this year, the Justice Department uncovered a conspiracy by operatives acting on behalf of the Chinese government to chase, harass and survey dissidents in the US.

The complaint comes as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues to crack down on opposition both in the kingdom and abroad, working to burnish an image as a liberal reformer. The Saudi government has said in the past that its critics incite violence, are broadly defined, and pose a threat to the security of the kingdom.

Nonetheless, President Joe Biden met Prince Mohammed at a diplomatic summit in Saudi Arabia last week and shared a cordial fistfight with him.

The scenes drew sharp criticism from fellow Democrats and rights groups when Biden vowed to treat the state like a “pariah” and blamed Prince Mohammed for Khashoggi’s murder.

From Jeddah, Biden said he raised the “outrageous” killing of Khashoggi with Prince Mohammed and was “straight and direct” about human rights issues, without elaborating.

“If something like this happens again,” Biden said of the Saudi government’s efforts to target dissidents abroad, “he will get that response and much more.”

While some accused Biden of abandoning his promise to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy with his visit to the state, Alhussain’s arrest in New York underscores how federal officials are treating those rights abuses in the United States. They are scrambling fast to stop being on earth. ,

The state’s campaign to silence the criticism has been going on in the US for some time. In 2019, US prosecutors alleged that Saudi Arabia recruited two Twitter employees to spy on thousands of accounts including US citizens and Saudi dissidents.

“This man is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Abdullah Aloudh, director of democracy, Gulf research for Arab World Now, a Washington-based human rights watchdog. Aloudh alleges that Alhusain also harassed her, though her name is not mentioned in the complaint. “This is a huge campaign by the Saudi government to reach out to people outside.”

Alhusayan was a graduate student at two universities in Mississippi. But online, the FBI says he was “@samar16490”, an account that brutally insulted and threatened young women on Instagram with the explicit purpose of aiding the Saudi government.

Between January 2019 and August 2020, she reportedly maintained regular contact with a Saudi government employee who reported to an official at the royal court.

Prosecutors also said that Alhussein took screenshots of Twitter posts from a year before Khashoggi’s death and placed pictures of Khashoggi on his phone this year, revealing his obsession with Saudi dissidents.

Alhussein was accused of lying to federal officials during three interviews between June 2021 and January 2022. The FBI says he told investigators that he did not use any social media accounts other than his own name.

Alhussein’s victims regularly check their phones to detect new waves of vitriol attacks. As for women critical of the Saudi government, she said Alhussain’s warning was part of a powerful campaign launched by a legion of social media trolls.

watch: Examining the motivations of Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia

“MBS will wipe you off the face of the earth, you will see,” Alhussein reportedly told Saudi activist al-Mayouf, referring to the crown prince by his initials.

He allegedly threatened al-Mayouf with the fate of famous Saudi women imprisoned in the kingdom, filling his texts with abusive words.

From New York, Al-Mayouf hosts a popular YouTube show that cuts to current events relating to Saudi and criticizes key officials.

For him and some of the other victims, there were signs that Alhusayan’s intentions went beyond committing a crime.

Al-Mayuf rejects his help in the trial and, refusing to meet, he drops out. He attempted to obtain her location, the court filing said, “to monitor and personally harass her”. The complaint was not detailed.

“I believe some of them are here, in America,” she said of the online threats that fill her and her American fiancée with death threats every day. “I’m afraid something might happen to me.”

She and her fiancée left after pro-government accounts posted their home address on Twitter.

Moudi Aljohani, a prominent Saudi women’s rights activist who petitioned for asylum in the US, also believes Alhusyan was trying to gain her trust and lure her into a face-to-face meeting.

After speaking out on social media against the country’s male guardianship system, Aljohani escaped from the clutches of the state and her parents in 2016. She fears that her family will kill her if she returns.

Aljohani said she was shaken when Alhusyan reached out to her fake Instagram account in 2020 with a cryptic photo of her close family member.

But when she did not answer, she also got angry. Alhusayan reportedly told her that he wanted to spit in her face. He said he hoped he would face the same fate as the Saudi woman Nada al-Qahtani, who was fatally shot by her brother in a so-called “honour killing” in the kingdom in 2020.

In recent years, Aljohani has avoided making public his critical opinion of the government, describing it as a relentless smear campaign.

But a lower political profile hasn’t helped. He, and others, live in fear of the reach of his government.

“The Saudis are paying big bucks to fix their image and the way they see it, we are ruining it for them,” Aljohani said. “I feel like no place is safe.”

Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.

Nation World News Desk
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