A suspected agent of the Saudi government attempted to kidnap a regime critic on American soil, according to the critic and multiple U.S. and foreign sources familiar with the episode. The young Saudi man says the FBI saved him from becoming the next Jamal Khashoggi.
Abdulrahman Almutairi is a 27-year-old comedian and former student at the University of San Diego with a big social-media presence. After Almutairi used social media to criticize the powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman over the October 2018 murder and dismemberment of Washington Post contributor Khashoggi, an unidentified Saudi man accompanied Almutairi’s father on a flight to collect Almutairi against his will and bring him back to Saudi Arabia, according to The Daily Beast’s sources.
“The Saudi government realized I was a threat,” Almutairi told The Daily Beast, revealing for the first time an ordeal that might have culminated in a whole new crisis: the kidnapping and rendition of a Saudi dissenter on American soil. Only timely intervention from the FBI broke up the plot, two sources say.
“If I go back to Saudi Arabia,” Almutairi said, “I’ll be killed in the airport.”
Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, has investigated the Khashoggi killing. She drew attention this week by calling for an inquiry into allegations that MBS hacked Jeff Bezos’ phone. Callamard is familiar with Almutairi’s story, although they haven’t spoken, and considers it credible. She told The Daily Beast that it’s part of an ominous trend, particularly now that MBS has skated for Khashoggi’s murder.
“There is a pattern of the Saudi authorities, particularly over the last two years, targeting individuals—high-profile people with a big Saudi audience,” Callamard said, “either because they’re critical of MBS or the government or not just for what they say but what they don’t say, if they’re insufficiently supportive.”
Almutairi has previously spoken about the harassment he received as a critic of the Saudi government, most prominently to PBS’ Nick Shifrin, including a mysterious phone call from a Saudi trying to get Almutairi to come home for a “family reunion.” But he has not, until now, revealed the attempted capture. “I couldn’t afford to speak out earlier, my situation was so intense, and all I wanted was to get out of it,” he explained. But over a year later, Almutairi doesn’t speak with his family, lives for protracted stretches out of his car, and generally fears for his life.
On his YouTube channels, which have 200,000 subscribers between them, and his Instagram, where he has 208,000 followers, he’s posting through it. About the only positive thing Almutairi sees emerging from the ordeal was his social-media rebirth as a comedian, something he started as a response to the horror show in his mentions. But the harassment may have worked. In the new year, Almutairi told The Daily Beast, he’s going to stop speaking out against the Saudi government.
“My criticism against the government won’t do anything. It’ll just turn more people against me,” Almutairi said. “I’m trying not to use the term ‘political dissident.’ I want to influence my country for the better.”
That desire prompted Almutairi to cheer when MBS took power.
As he saw it, the sclerotic, wealth-soaked royal court finally had a dynamic, young reformer on the rise. MBS was out to fix what was wrong with the country: women forbidden to drive, an economy driven entirely by oil extraction. While Almutairi studied finance and marketing at the University of San Diego, he posted videos on his Snapchat and Twitter accounts boosting MBS to his growing legion of followers.
With his expenses paid by the Saudis’ stipend for subjects’ education abroad, Almutairi’s life online was about promoting reform within his home country, the sort of liberalization MBS touted. A frequent topic was the rigidity of the Saudi religious establishment, whose dark portrayal of America didn’t match the place he saw up close. But his growing audience—one of his recent Arabic-language videos has 842,000 views—became a problem for Riyadh.
On Oct. 2, 2018, agents of Saudi Arabia murdered and dismembered journalist Khashoggi in Istanbul, a crime the CIA assessed MBS ordered.
The brazenness and brutality of the Khashoggi slaying made it one of the biggest stories in the world. Yet for all the damage it momentarily did to the reputation of a prince who melted the heart of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, MBS quickly saw to it that the crime had no lasting impact. The Trump administration, with which he had cultivated close ties, quickly spared him from consequences. On Oct. 11, 2018, barely a week after Khashoggi’s murder, Trump said that sanctioning Saudi weapons purchases from the U.S. would be a self-inflicted economic wound.
MBS denied involvement—and still does. And at first Almutairi believed him. “I was in denial,” Almutairi remembered. “MBS would never do an atrocity like that.” But the accruing reports tying the murder closer and closer to MBS prompted him first to break with his political hero, then to post about his disillusionment—and soon after to denounce MBS online.
Death threats quickly piled into his mentions and onto his messaging apps. One picture sent to him contained a beheaded body. Another showed a flayed, severed head. “You will eat a bullet,” he said someone texted him, seemingly a reference to MBS’ nickname, the Father of Bullets. “They say I’m supported by the Muslim Brotherhood—I’m openly agnostic!” Almutairi said.
More disturbing to him was a different kind of text, one that he still receives. “I get ‘come home’ messages daily,” Almutairi said. Whether the Saudi government is behind them, he can’t know, but his suspicion lingers.
Then someone he describes only as a source in Saudi Arabia told him that his life was in danger—and that living in California did not mean he was safe. It prompted Almutairi to call the police during the week of Oct. 25, 2018.
What happened next he would only learn from an FBI official he said he spoke with: Without Almutairi’s knowledge, his father flew to Los Angeles, and he wasn’t alone. Accompanying his father was someone Almutairi does not know.
But they never arrived in San Diego. The FBI was waiting for them at LAX. According to two additional sources familiar with the incident, the FBI intercepted both the senior Almutairi and the unidentified Saudi man and sent them back on a subsequent flight. The FBI declined to comment for this story.
Almutairi said the FBI debriefed him after the airport interception. “I was shown a picture of someone who came with my dad, who I didn’t recognize,” he said. Almutairi has no way of verifying it, but he believes the man worked for the Saudi royal court.
In July, Middle East Eye’s Dania Akkad first reported that in November 2018, a timeline consistent with Almutairi’s story, the FBI met with at least four Saudi dissidents in the U.S. to warn them of threats to their lives emanating from the kingdom. The dissidents were not named, but one of them, Akkad reported, “runs a popular YouTube channel critical of the Saudi government.”
The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment by press time.
The near-miss was not the end of the harassment. Almutairi deleted his Twitter because of the non-stop threats. As he previously told PBS, he was forced to drop out of school shortly before he was to graduate after the Saudis cut off his scholarship, his $1,800 monthly allowance, and his health insurance. He was without a way to afford his rent, his bills, and his medications. Almutairi took restaurant work, but the low pay required him to visit food pantries. For three weeks he was homeless.
“I remember Thanksgiving 2018,” he recalls. “I was homeless, sleeping at the beach. I saw everyone with their families and stuff and it almost killed me, psychologically,” he said. “It’s really hard to process, suffering for what I had said. I wish Saudis would live like Americans. We deserve a better life.”
These days, Almutairi doesn’t speak to most of his family, out of fear that he’ll put them in danger. They received messages saying “you have to get him to stop” making his MBS-critical videos. He is sure that his father was coerced into boarding the plane to Los Angeles.
“Abduction is part and parcel of the way the Saudi government has operated for many years,” said Callamard, the UN special rapporteur. But until MBS became crown prince two years ago, “most victims were part of the royal family. It appears now that their kidnapping attempts are expanding.” Being a Saudi dissident living in America is no protection, she warned: “Absolutely, they will keep trying to lure people in the United States. The only reason why they haven’t succeeded is because the U.S. intelligence agencies are doing their job.”
The impunity with which MBS acts also follows a long pattern. As defense minister, he launched a devastating war in neighboring Yemen—with the active cooperation of the Obama administration—that has decimated the country. He seized power in the kingdom in a move applauded by Friedman and other prominent commentators.
On Tuesday, The Guardian reported that before the Khashoggi murder, MBS sent Jeff Bezos a malware-tainted video file over WhatsApp to extract potential blackmail material from the richest man in the world—who happens to own the newspaper that Khashoggi worked for and which has crusaded for accountability on the execution. After the murder, and the Post’s aggressive reporting, MBS messaged Bezos “private and confidential information about Mr. Bezos’ personal life that was not available from public sources,” according to UN officials. The MBS message came months before the National Enquirer—whose publisher once issued an MBS-boosting magazine—reported that Bezos was having an affair. All that corroborated a March 2019 op-ed published in The Daily Beast from Bezos security aide Gavin de Becker alleging that “the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone, and gained private information.”
“At a time when Saudi Arabia was supposedly investigating the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, and prosecuting those it deemed responsible, it was clandestinely waging a massive online campaign against Mr. Bezos and Amazon targeting him principally as the owner of The Washington Post,” Callamard and her UN colleague David Kaye said in a Wednesday statement. Saudi Arabia’s U.S. embassy called allegations that the kingdom was behind the hack “absurd.”
These days, Almutairi focuses on his two YouTube channels and his Instagram account. “I use comedy to convey positive thoughts and empower young Saudis,” he said. “I think I’m a living example: I was once homeless, now I’m not, and I’m starting two companies in California. My story, especially to people who saw it happening on social media, can be inspiring to a lot of Saudis.”
But his vlogs are pivoting away from Saudi politics in the new year. Without school, Almutairi is focusing on his comedy. In March, he plans on launching a YouTube show called “America on Wheels,” which he envisions as a conversational comedy filmed in his car that introduces a Saudi audience to young Americans and their issues. It sounds like if Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee operated as a tacit rebuke to the Saudi religious establishment. He’s also applying to film school at USC.
“My message to the American people,” he said over text, “please don’t brush the Saudi people with the same brush you use with MBS. We have no choice but to nod our heads and agree, he is a dictator.”
But even his comedy contains limits set by his ordeal. He recently passed on an offer to tell jokes in Saudi-allied Dubai. “The UAE? Nah, bro,” he said.
And while Almutairi may have given up commenting on MBS on social media, that has not left him feeling any safer. Even in sunny California, he constantly wonders what might be coming for him around the next corner, since the threats keep popping up on his phone. Some say things like “we’ll pay someone to kill you. It’ll look like an accident in L.A.,” Almutairi said. Nonchalantly, he added, “I expect that to happen at any moment.”