Another Saudi journalist was reported tortured and killed at the hands of Saudi authorities last week, but this time the Saudis may have actually had assistance from Twitter in uncovering the identity behind a controversial account which led to the detention of the journalist.
Arabic news source The New Khaleej was the first to report that Saudi journalist and writer Turki Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Jasser died after being tortured while in detention after his initial arrest last March. According to the report his arrest came after it was learned that he he administered the Twitter account Kashkool — which was known for highlighting human rights violations and crimes committed by the royal family and government officials.
The Twitter account is still online after it stopped tweeting to its 183,000 followers early lost March — prior to that it appeared to tweet frequently in Arabic and sometimes in English. The New Khalieej report was the first to reveal that authorities identified Al-Jasser’s online identity using informants in Twitter’s regional office located in Dubai.
And following up on the story, the UK’s highest circulation newspaper Metro late last week published an explosive report that quickly went viral as it cited sources confirming leaked information out of Twitter’s offices in the region led to the arrest of the dissident journalist.
According to the Metro report:
“They got his information from the Twitter office in Dubai. That is how he was arrested,” a source, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Metro.co.uk.
“Twitter has become insecure for dissidents or critics. Everyone speaks under threat and pressure.”
“The accounts of Saudi dissidents are spied on. We are not safe using Twitter.”
The source said Saudi authorities have placed moles inside the American social media giant’s office in Dubai, making all dissident activity on Twitter unsafe amidst an increasing crackdown by Riyadh.
A former top adviser to the Royal Court, Saud al-Qahtani, recently issued threats to Twitter users, stating a year ago that authorities would seek to uncover fake online names. According to the Metro report, Qahtani said, “Does your nickname protect you from the #blacklist?’ Al-Qahtani wrote online. No. 1. States have a way of knowing the owner of the name. 2 – IP can be identified in many technical ways. 3- The secret I’m not going to say.” This suggests the Saudi “secret” backdoor may have been to have an intelligence presence within the Twitter office itself.
The Metro report found further:
The source also claimed that Saud al-Qahtani, the former adviser to the Royal Court, leads a ‘cyber spy ring’ and has contacts inside the Dubai Twitter office. They allege that a so-called ‘Twitter mole’ handed over information on Al-Jasser, leading to his arrest earlier this year.
Given the current outrage and media scrutiny of Saudi leaders in the wake of the October 2nd murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it’s surprising that the mainstream media has yet to dig further into the details of Turki Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Jasser’s death.
The “Kashkool” account (@coluche_ar) — believed to be run by Turki Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Jasser who was “disappeared” and now reported killed — routinely mocked crown prince bin Salman, such as in the below tweet about a state visit by President Sisi of Egypt, who appeared humiliated when MbS failed to observe protocol:
السيسي صاير ملطشة.
سفير MBS يطرد السيسي من التشريفات.
سبحان من خلق الذل والخور في قلب هذا السيسي. pic.twitter.com/IklE7TpmsB
— كشكول (@coluche_ar) March 8, 2018
Twitter sought to distance itself from these fresh allegations as al-Jasser’s story went viral last week. A Twitter spokesperson issued the following statement to Metro:
“We do not comment on individual cases for and security reasons. Twitter has a well-documented, strong track record of protecting user information and data. We require law enforcement to meet a high legal threshold and to undergo strict process when making information requests to Twitter. As a company, we will always err on the side of protecting the voices of those who use our service.
The statement failed to mention, however, whether or not the company was conducting an internal investigation focused on its Dubai offices.
A Middle East Eye report from last year exposed just how aggressive Saudi authorities have been in attempting to root out anonymous dissenting speech on social media. At that time and since the Saudi authorities had posted messages to official state accounts asking citizens to inform on each other over “information crimes”.