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Saudi Man Bullied Dissidents via Instagram and Lied to F.B.I., U.S. Says

A Saudi citizen who prosecutors say used an anonymous Instagram account to harass and threaten dissidents, most of them women, has been charged with lying to federal officials, according a complaint unsealed Tuesday in federal court in Brooklyn.

The man, Ibrahim Alhussayen, 42, is accused of lying to federal officials about using the account to intimidate Saudi citizens living in the U.S. and Canada known to be critical of Saudi Arabia, where the prince has cracked down on critics through surveillance, kidnapping, detention and torture.

The charges come as President Biden prepares to visit Saudi Arabia next month, in a bid to lower gas prices and rebuild relations fractured in the wake of the 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Virginia resident.

The complaint underscores an aggressive effort by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his top advisers to muzzle critics of the government and its policies. In Riyadh, the country’s capital, hundreds of young men work at a troll farm to drown out those voices at the direction of those close to Prince Mohammed.

But the charges in Brooklyn illustrate how those efforts have also taken hold in the United States. In 2019, the Justice Department charged two Twitter employees, who had access to users’ personal information, with obtaining information on both American citizens and Saudi dissidents who opposed the country’s policies, in order to aid the kingdom.

Mr. Alhussayen, starting around that year, had regularly been in contact with a Saudi citizen employed by the kingdom’s ministry responsible for sports, the complaint says. The Saudi sports commissioner, Turki al-Sheikh, is one of the advisers closest to Prince Muhammad.

Mr. Alhussayen sent private messages in English and Arabic to deliver warnings like “If you have not been raised well by your family, we will discipline you” and “MBS will wipe you of the face of the earth, you will see,” in reference to Prince Mohammed, the complaint says.

It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Alhussayen has retained a lawyer. He had been living in the United States since at least 2013 on a student visa, and was recently taken into custody after an arrest warrant was issued on Saturday.

One of the women that prosecutors said he targeted for harassment lives in New York and had criticized the Saudi sports commissioner, Mr. Sheikh. He attempted to obtain her physical location by claiming that he knew of her “problems” with Mr. Sheikh, and said he could arrange a meeting between the two, if he was able to meet up with her first, the complaint says.

He likely sought to “surveil and further harass” the woman in person, officials said.

The sports commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Mr. Sheikh, who is not directly named in the complaint.

Prosecutors said that Mr. Alhussayen also took an apparent interest in Mr. Khashoggi, taking screenshots of Twitter posts before his death and keeping images of him on his phone this year. The dissident writer and Washington Post columnist was dismembered by Saudi agents in Istanbul in 2018, a brutal killing that U.S. intelligence has concluded was ordered by Prince Mohammed.

President Biden is set to meet with Prince Mohammed in mid-July while he visits Riyadh, plans that have sparked waves of criticism from human rights groups and some fellow Democratic politicians.

Others who Mr. Alhussayen is accused of threatening include a Saudi woman who renounced Islam and sought asylum in Canada. The complaint says he sent her ominous messages in 2020 asking about her mother, and also wrote to her former fiancé with comments like “do you think you going to be safe?”

He also told a different Saudi woman, who has petitioned for asylum in the United States as her family seeks to kill her, that he hoped to spit in her face, officials said.

She has disagreed with Saudi policies online, and Mr. Alhussayen commented on her account in February 2020 that he hoped she would “have the same fate” as Nada al-Qahtani, who was fatally shot by her brother while on a bus in the city of Dammam a month earlier.

Mr. Alhussayen was charged with concealing material facts and making false statements after prosecutors said he claimed that he did not have any social media accounts in three voluntary interviews with federal agents between June 2021 and January this year.

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