The Saudi government apparently groomed a mole inside Twitter to keep tabs on dissidents as part of a wide-ranging operation that also unleashed vicious social media attacks on them, The New York Times reported Saturday.
The mole was part of a sophisticated online effort “dictated” by controversial Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and carried out by his advisers to quash domestic and international criticism of Saudi Arabia, according to the Times.
One of the dissidents viciously attacked as part of the ongoing operation was the late Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. Each morning he awoke to a vile onslaught of Twitter attacks, said the Times.
“The mornings were the worst for him because he would wake up to the equivalent of sustained gunfire online,” Khashoggi’s longtime friend Maggie Mitchell Salem told the Times.
The Saudi government finally admitted Friday that Khashoggi was killed inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 — during a physical altercation, according to state-owned media. Turkish officials, who reportedly have an audio tape of Khashoggi’s death, say he was murdered in the consulate by a Saudi hit squad and dismembered under orders of the government. The Saudi version of events has been largely met with derision.
Hundreds of workers at a Saudi “troll farm” in Riyadh are tasked with bashing dissident voices on Twitter, said the Times, which based its report on American and Saudi officials, experts, and seven sources involved in the operation or briefed about it. The Times also viewed messages describing the workings of the troll farm. Twitter has been popular in the country since the Arab Spring uprisings began in 2010.
The far-reaching operation also appeared to include the “grooming” of a Saudi who began to work for Twitter in 2013, and infiltrated dissident accounts and obtained personal data two years later for Saudi intelligence, Western intelligence sources told the Times. He was fired in 2015, even though Twitter could find no evidence that he had turned over information to Saudi intelligence, the Times reported.
Khashoggi was working to battle online abuse, and had wired money just weeks before his death to another Saudi exile, who was assembling a volunteer crew to combat the government’s Twitter trolls, the Times reported.
Twitter could not immediately be reached for comment.