US federal prosecutors have arrested a Saudi man on charges of lying to federal officials about using fake social media accounts to harass and threaten Saudi critics — mostly women — living in the US and Canada.
Ibrahim Alhussayen, 42, was charged with lying to federal authorities during three interviews between June 2021 and January 2022. The FBI says he told investigators he didn’t use any social media accounts other than those in his own name.
Alhussayen’s victims routinely checked their phones to discover new waves of vitriolic attacks. As women critical of the Saudi government, they said Alhussayen’s warnings were part of a powerful campaign unleashed by legions of social media trolls.
A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment on the charges. A lawyer for Alhussayen did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
A complaint unsealed last month in federal court in Brooklyn points to a wider investigation into online harassment campaigns targeting Saudi dissidents in the U.S. and their relatives — part of a trend of transnational repression that has alarmed American authorities in recent years as various autocratic governments seek to punish critics overseas.
Earlier this year, for instance, the Justice Department revealed a plot by operatives acting on behalf of the Chinese government to stalk, harass and surveil dissidents in the US.
The complaint comes as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues to clamp down on opposition, both in the kingdom and abroad, while working to burnish an image as a liberal reformer. The Saudi government has maintained in the past that its critics incite violence, broadly defined, and pose a threat to the kingdom’s security.
Nonetheless, President Joe Biden met — and shared a cordial fist-bump with — Prince Mohammed at a diplomatic summit last week in Saudi Arabia.
The scenes drew scathing criticism from fellow Democrats and rights groups after Biden had vowed to treat the kingdom like a “pariah” and deemed Prince Mohammed responsible for Khashoggi’s killing.
From Jeddah, Biden said he raised Khashoggi’s “outrageous” murder with Prince Mohammed and was “straightforward and direct” about human rights issues, without elaborating.
“If anything like that occurs again,” Biden said of Saudi government efforts to target dissidents abroad, “they’ll get that response and much more.”
While some accuse Biden of abandoning his promise to put human rights at the heart of his foreign policy with his trip to the kingdom, the arrest of Alhussayen in New York underscores that federal officials are increasingly scrambling to prevent those rights abuses from occurring on US soil.
The kingdom’s campaign to silence criticism has played out in America for some time. In 2019, US prosecutors alleged Saudi Arabia recruited two Twitter employees to spy on thousands of accounts including those of American citizens and Saudi dissidents.
“This guy is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, Gulf research director for Democracy for the Arab World Now, a Washington-based human rights watchdog. Alaoudh alleges he was also harassed by Alhussayen although he is not named in the complaint. “It’s a much larger campaign by the Saudi government to reach people outside.”
Alhussayen was a graduate student at two universities in Mississippi. But online, the FBI says he was “@samar16490,” an account that ruthlessly insulted and threatened young women on Instagram with the apparent aim of aiding the Saudi government.
Between January 2019 and August 2020, he allegedly maintained regular contact with a Saudi government employee who reported to an official at the royal court.
Prosecutors also said Alhussayen had taken screenshots of Khashoggi’s Twitter posts dating back a year before his death and kept photos of Khashoggi on his phone this year, revealing an obsession with Saudi dissidents. (Source: AP News)