After Khashoggi, US aims to shield dissidents from Saudi threats
As authoritarian regimes try to silence critics around the world, American authorities are working to protect dissidents in the U.S. from harassment and threats. Prosecution against a man who harassed critics of Saudi Arabia, most of whom are women, exemplifies that effort.
| Dubai, United Arab Emirates
It began with a message that appeared on Danah al-Mayouf’s phone from an anonymous Instagram account – a promise to help her “crush” a $5 million lawsuit she faced from a pro-government Saudi fashion model.
But, the mystery texter said, she had to meet him in person.
It was December 2019, a year after the killing and dismemberment of prominent U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, and Ms. Mayouf feared possibly being kidnapped and taken back to the kingdom like others.
“I can’t meet someone I don’t know,” Ms. Mayouf ultimately responded. “Especially with all the kidnappings and killings.”
Now, she’s glad she didn’t go. U.S. federal prosecutors have arrested the man behind the messages, Ibrahim Alhussayen, on charges of lying to federal officials about using the fake account to harass and threaten Saudi critics – mostly women – living in the United States and Canada.
A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment on the charges. A lawyer for Mr. 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 U.S.
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 Mr. Biden had vowed to treat the kingdom like a “pariah” and deemed Prince Mohammed responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.
From Jeddah, Mr. Biden said he raised Mr. Khashoggi’s “outrageous” murder with Prince Mohammed and was “straightforward and direct” about human rights issues, without elaborating.
“If anything like that occurs again,” Mr. Biden said of Saudi government efforts to target dissidents abroad, “they’ll get that response and much more.”
While some accuse Mr. 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 Mr. Alhussayen in New York underscores that federal officials are increasingly scrambling to prevent those rights abuses from occurring on U.S. soil.
The kingdom’s campaign to silence criticism has played out in America for some time. In 2019, U.S. 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. Mr. Alaoudh alleges he was also harassed by Mr. Alhussayen although he is not named in the complaint. “It’s a much larger campaign by the Saudi government to reach people outside.”
Mr. 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 Mr. Alhussayen had taken screenshots of Mr. Khashoggi’s Twitter posts dating back a year before his death and kept photos of Mr. Khashoggi on his phone this year, revealing an obsession with Saudi dissidents.
Mr. Alhussayen 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.
Mr. Alhussayen’s victims routinely checked their phones to discover new waves of vitriolic attacks. As women critical of the Saudi government, they said Mr. Alhussayen’s warnings were part of a powerful campaign unleashed by legions of social media trolls.
“MBS will wipe you off the face of the earth, you will see,” Mr. Alhussayen reportedly told Ms. Mayouf, the Saudi activist, referring to the crown prince by his initials.
He allegedly threatened Ms. Mayouf with the fate of well-known Saudi women imprisoned in the kingdom, filling his texts with expletives.
From New York, Ms. Mayouf hosts a popular YouTube show that delivers biting takes on Saudi-related current events and criticizes prominent officials.
For her and a few other victims, there were signs that Mr. Alhussayen’s intentions went beyond causing offense.
After Ms. Mayouf rejected his help with the lawsuit and refused to meet, he lashed out. He attempted to obtain her location, the court filing said, “to surveil and further harass” her in person. The complaint did not elaborate.
“I do believe some of them are here, in the U.S.,” she said of online bullies who flood her and her American fiancé with death threats each day. “I’m afraid something might happen to me.”
She and her fiancé moved 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 U.S, also believes Mr. Alhussayen 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, Ms. Aljohani fled the kingdom and the stifling grip of her parents in 2016. She fears her family will kill her if she returns.
Ms. Aljohani said she was shaken when Mr. Alhussayen reached out in 2020 from his fake Instagram account with a cryptic picture of her close family member.
But she, too, earned his ire when she didn’t respond. Mr. Alhussayen allegedly told her he wanted to spit in her face. He said he hoped she met the same fate as Nada Qahtani, a Saudi woman who was fatally shot by her brother in a so-called “honor killing” in the kingdom in 2020.
In recent years, Ms. Aljohani has refrained from publicizing her critical opinions of the government because of what she described as a relentless smear campaign.
But a lower political profile hasn’t helped. She, and the others, live in fear of their government’s reach.
“The Saudis are paying big money to fix their image and the way they see it, we’re ruining it for them,” Ms. Aljohani said. “I feel like there’s no place that’s safe.”
This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.