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Suspicions raised over disappearance of close MbS aide and suspected Twitter spying mastermind Badr al-Asaker Open in fullscreen

Florence Dixon

Suspicions raised over disappearance of close MbS aide and suspected Twitter spying mastermind Badr al-Asaker

Baadr al-Asaker (R) pictured with Saudi King Salman [Facebook]

Date of publication: 9 June, 2020

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Saudi dissidents are speculating about the fate of MbS aide Badr al-Asaker, who fell from grace last year following reports he masterminded a spying operation from inside Twitter tracking critics.
The prolonged absence from social media of one of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's closest allies, Badr Al-Asaker, has raised suspicions he has been arrested after falling foul of the powerful young leader.

Asaker, who runs both bin Salman's private office and his charitable tech education foundation Misk, was named in the US media in November last year as the mastermind behind a Saudi government bid to place agents in Twitter headquarters to identify and track down dissidents.

Prominent opponents of the Saudi government tweeted on Monday questioning Asaker's whereabouts, after noticing that his usually active social media account had fallen silent for over a month.

Exiled political activist Omar Abdul Aziz, who has himself been on the receiving end of Saudi spy operations, tweeted: "Where is Professor Badr al-Asaker?"

Just hours after Abdul Aziz's tweet, Asaker's account posted for the first time since 6 May.

Tweeting a video of Egyptian intellectual Dr Mustafa Mahmoud, Asaker made a vague statement asking God to protect the health of Muslims.

"Life's challenges force us to acknowledge the blessings hidden by familiarity. It is God Almighty who gives us the blessing of health, so retain it and thank him. We ask God Almighty to protect us and to heal every Muslim patient," said the tweet.

However, two sources in the Saudi opposition told The New Arab's Arabic-language service that Al-Asaker was arrested during a recent purge of senior royals, whom the crown prince allegedly accused of plotting a coup to overthrow him.

One of the sources claimed that the tweet was sent from Asaker's account in response to the growing questions over his whereabouts.

The source added that a similar tactic was used in the case of detained cleric Salman Al-Awdah, when authorities sent text messages from his phone after his arrest.

Twitter spy scandal

The news comes several months after Al-Asaker found himself at the centre of a scandal that further tarnished Mohammed bin Salman's ambitions to portray the country as moving towards more modern and liberal norms.

Last November, the US Department of Justice charged two former Twitter employees and former employee of the royal family of spying for the Saudi government by passing on private user data of some 6,000 suspected dissidents to Riyadh in exchange for cash and designer watches.

The complaint did not directly name Al-Asaker or the crown prince, however prosecutors referred to "Foreign Official-1, who subsequently (in early 2015) became the head of Royal Family Member-1's private office".

Both The Washington Post and The New York Times identified the "official" as Al-Asaker and the "royal" as Mohammed bin Salman.

The complaint described Asaker grooming Twitter staff members and paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars to track down the email addresses and other personal details belonging to social media accounts that had spoken out against the Saudi regime.

Al-Asaker has also been linked to the grisly murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.

According to Turkish media, Riyadh's head assassin, Maher Mutreb, phoned Al-Asaker's number four times during the time period where Khashoggi is estimated to have been murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Saud Al-Qahtani, another former close aide to bin Salman and key architect of Khashoggi's murder according to CIA, MI6 and Turkish investigations, swiftly vanished from public life after the allegations surfaced.

During his disappearance, rumours spread over his fate, with one prominent Saudi critic alleging he had ben poisoned by MbS. However recent signs that Al-Qahtani may be planning a comeback have debunked such speculation.

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