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Meet the Saudi mastermind behind the Twitter spy scandal Open in fullscreen

James Reinl

Meet the Saudi mastermind behind the Twitter spy scandal

Asaker runs MbS' private office and heads the prince's Misk Foundation [Getty]

Date of publication: 8 November, 2019

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Bader al-Asaker's laudable image takes a hit amid revelations that he had masterminded a Saudi government bid to place spies in Twitter offices to crackdown on dissent.
At first glance, Bader al-Asaker is an influential player in Saudi Arabia's ruling elite who empowers young people to blossom as entrepreneurs while tweeting inspirational missives to his 1.5 million followers.

That laudable image took a hit this week amid revelations that Asaker had masterminded a wholly different social media activity - namely a Saudi government bid to place spies in Twitter offices to reveal the identities of Saudi dissidents.

The Twitter scandal, together with Asaker's reported links to last year's murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, raises tough questions about the go-getting official and the Misk Foundation he runs for Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.

"Scratch beneath the surface of Asaker's Misk and you quickly realise that it's not really what it claims to be," Sunjeev Bery, director of the United States-based anti-autocrat campaign group Freedom Forward, told The New Arab.

"The crown prince and his henchmen keep trying to present themselves in a positive light, yet behind the scenes they spy on dissidents' Twitter accounts and are willing to take a bone saw to anyone who disagrees with them."

Earlier this week, the US Department of Justice charged three men of spying for Saudi by digging up private user data of suspected dissidents and passing it to Riyadh in exchange for money and luxury watches.

A complaint accuses Ali Alzabarah and Ahmad Abouammo, who used to work for Twitter, and Ahmed Almutairi, who then worked for the Saudi royal family, in a spy ring that tapped data from some 6,000 accounts.

The 24-page document does not name Asaker or the crown prince directly. Instead, prosecutors refer to "Foreign Official-1, who subsequently (in early 2015) became the head of Royal Family Member-1's private office."

The Washington Post, which broke the story, and The New York Times, have identified the "official" as Asaker and the "royal" as Crown Prince bin Salman, who is the kingdom's de facto ruler and is better known as MbS.

Asaker runs MbS' private office and heads the prince's Misk Foundation, a charity promoting entrepreneurship among young Saudis that partners with Bloomberg, the United Nations and its cultural arm, Unesco, to host glitzy symposiums in New York, Paris and elsewhere.

The complaint describes Asaker cultivating Twitter employees and paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars to discover the email addresses and other private details related to Twitter accounts that had criticised the kingdom.

It was not the first time that Asaker has made headlines for his non-philanthropic work.

Last year, Turkish sources revealed that the head of the Saudi hit squad that killed and dismembered dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi phoned Asaker four times as the grisly operation was carried out.

Turkish pro-government daily Yeni Safak reported that Riyadh's head assassin, Maher Mutreb, placed four calls to Asaker's mobile phone as he carried out the murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.

Saudi officials initially denied links to Khashoggi's killing, but later described a "rogue operation" that did not involve MbS. The CIA reportedly concluded that the prince ordered the hit. A trial in Saudi of alleged plotters has been widely criticised for lacking in transparency.

Running spy rings and dismembering journalists is worlds apart from Asaker's public image. He typically appears in public groomed, bespectacled, sporting a goatee and either traditional Gulf robes or a western suit.

Asaker's Twitter feed promotes MbS' stated goals of modernising Saudi Arabia's economy and finding jobs for a bulging youth population. Recently, he tweeted that Misk will "encourage creativity and develop leadership skills among youth for a better future".

His Instagram account, which has 83,000 followers, has the tag-line: "Initiative is the foundation of success."

According to Arab News, a Saudi newspaper, Asaker also runs the King Salman Youth Center, a youth business committee of the Riyadh chamber of commerce and has also helps run an air conditioning firm in Riyadh.

Asaker has a habit of showing up for meetings with colleagues, but then ostentatiously taking phone calls and walking out, in what our source said was an apparent bid to make himself look more important than others

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a well-placed source described Asaker as a Machiavellian opportunist who cared little for anything other than impressing his boss, MbS, and advancing the powerful young prince's agenda.

Asaker has a habit of showing up for meetings with colleagues, but then ostentatiously taking phone calls and walking out, in what our source said was an apparent bid to make himself look more important than others.

Misk did not answer The New Arab's request for an interview.

At Misk, Asaker seeks to get young Saudis into the workforce, while organising events around the world to promote entrepreneurship. A Misk meeting in New York in September featured soccer great Thierry Henry and ex-Unilever boss Paul Polman.

On November 18-19, Misk will host a Youth Forum at the headquarters of UNESCO, the UN's agency for culture, in Paris.

Human Rights Watch, Freedom Forward and other campaign groups have bashed Misk events as efforts to burnish Riyadh's tarnished image after the Khashoggi murder, crackdowns on dissidents and the carnage from military operations it carries out in neighbouring Yemen.

"There are potentially thousands of prisoners of conscience jailed in Saudi today. Who knows how many more citizens have been silenced using the information that the Saudi dictatorship gained through its infiltration of Twitter's operations?" said Bery.

"It begs the question, why is the UN partnering with such a tainted organization?"

The UN has appeared resistant to scrap tie-ups that are understood to involve funding. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric declined to comment on ongoing cooperation between Misk and the UN's youth envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake.

UNESCO spokesman Alexander Schischlik said the agency was under an "obligation" to work with members. UNESCO condemned the Khashoggi murder, Schischlik told The New Arab, but Riyadh was a "valuable partner in many issues, including heritage protection, and culture".

James Reinl is a journalist, editor and current affairs analyst. He has reported from more than 30 countries and won awards for covering wars in Sri Lanka, Congo and Somalia, Haiti's earthquake and human rights abuses in Iran.

Follow him on Twitter: @jamesreinl

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