Saudi official linked to Khashoggi murder accused of trolling Newcastle critics
A Twitter account believed to be run by a Saudi official and close associate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been harassing journalists and critics of the recent Saudi Newcastle United takeover on social media.
The Twitter account at the center of some of the online attacks - "@KateStewart22" - is believed to be run by Saud Al-Qahtani, a Saudi government official who has been accused by the CIA of being involved in the brutal 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Al Jazeera journalist Ghada Oueiss named Al-Qahtani as the person behind @KateStewart22 in a lawsuit filed last year against several defendants over a series of serious online attacks, harassment and hacking incidents.
The account, which has 25,000 followers, tweets in both English and Arabic and has been "trolling" those critical of the kingdom’s £370bn Public Investment Fund purchase of the Newcastle United football club.
A 'digital henchman'
The account retweeted and posted dozens of times in response to the accusations made this weekend, denying any official association with the Saudi government. At one point the account tweeted that "a large group of UK sports journos" were trying to discredit them "and anyone high profile who supports the club and Saudi Arabia".
"But if they think they'll stop me they've got another [thing] coming!," the profile tweeted.
The KateStewart22 account got into a public spat with The Mail on Sunday’s chief sports writer Oliver Holt last week, after he tweeted criticism of what he called a "murdering, misogynistic, homophobic, despotic" regime in Saudi Arabia.
"KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] is a monarchy and well-loved by the people there. Who are you to label it authoritarian?," the KateStewart22 account tweeted in response, accusing Holt of "sly racism" and having a "blatant agenda".
"There are many low-grade, hypocritical, desperate 'journos' on here trying to bait #NUFC fans. They’re rattled the takeover happened and we have a new manager. Anti-Saudi/Newcastle bias and agenda is there for all to see. But who cares? We’re the RICHEST club in the world!," the KateStewart22 account continued in a separate post.
Court papers filed by Al Jazeera's Oueiss accused Al-Qahtani of being a "digital henchman" to Saudi Crown Prince MBS. KateStewart22 is a "masked Twitter account created and operated by" Al-Qahtani and "an unidentified person based in England", the court documents allege.
Middle East Eye reached out to the KateStewart22 account for comment but did not receive a response by the time of this article's publication.
Oueiss, a friend of the late Khashoggi, said the person behind the Twitter account had her phone hacked under Saudi government orders after she publicly accused MBS of being responsible for Khashoggi’s murder.
Fake nude photos of Oueiss were shared online, while KateStewart22 and other "Saudi troll accounts" harassed her on social media.
Saudi Arabia's 'modus operandi'
Al-Qahtani ran social-media operations and served as chief propagandist for bin Salman.
US intelligence officials also accused Al-Qahtani of being the ringleader in the operation to murder Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Recordings obtained via bugs that had been placed in the consulate by Arab and Turkish intelligence services allegedly proved that Al-Qahtani called officials in the consulate during Khashoggi's visit, telling a hit squad to "bring me the head of the dog".
'[KateStewart22's] interactions with people are like a guide as to who others should attack'
-Marc Owen Jones, professor and expert in Gulf politics
Meanwhile, a CIA investigation found that MBS had exchanged at least 11 messages with Al-Qahtani just before and after the Khashoggi murder. This led the US government to conclude that the crown prince had ordered the killing, which he denies.
While Al-Qahtani was said to have been placed under house arrest following the release of the US intelligence report, he has since come back into the court's favour and is believed to be back at his propaganda work on social media.
Professor Marc Owen Jones, an expert in Gulf politics, told the Daily Mail that the KateStewart22 account seems to align with typical Saudi tactics.
"The modus operandi is about seeking out those who dare criticise Saudi, and trying to intimidate them and silence them. That’s something that KateStewart22 does. Her interactions with people are like a guide as to who others should attack," Jones told the newspaper.
"She’s constantly talking about Newcastle, and the more fans that follow her the more they’ll see her rhetoric. She gives them an anchor on which they can base a lot of their justification for the takeover… she legitimises an aggressive and hostile discourse against the media."