From Trump supporters to a human rights attorney: the digital influencers who harassed a journalist
In 2020, digital influencers in the US targeted a Gulf-based journalist online. One of them, currently under investigation by the FBI, was likely paid by a Saudi prince for her tweets, in possible violation of US law. Others play the role of attorney, consultant and journalist and have possible ties to foreign entities.
On June 9, 2020, Florida resident Sharon Van Rider retweeted a picture of a woman in a hot tub. The leaked picture, obtained through a phone hack and in some cases deceptively manipulated to make the woman appear nude, had gone viral. Thousands of Saudi-affiliated users directed misogynistic insults at the woman. The target of this campaign? Veteran Al-Jazeera journalist Ghada Oueiss, whose prime-time show features sharp, incisive interviews with established Middle East commentators.
Van Rider was relentless in her online attacks, calling Oueiss “a liar,” claiming she had “sold [herself] to terrorists to get a story” and worked for “a network airing antisemitism.” She also publicly praised Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
“It was weird that an American citizen, who does not speak Arabic…who does not know me… tweets about me day and night,” Oueiss told Forbidden Stories.
Van Rider, it turned out, was paid for her pro-Saudi tweets, according to an investigation by Die Zeit. Van Rider had met with Sattam bin Khalid al Saud, a Saudi prince, in Dubai in April 2019, and subsequently attacked Oueiss online as part of a small group of female Trump supporters.
Official documents accessed by Forbidden Stories and its partners reveal the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) opened an investigation into Van Rider’s activities, aiming to uncover who funded her and whether she violated US law. In a 2022 deposition before German lawyers, Van Rider said she was paid by an intermediary on behalf of al Saud to circumvent the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). FARA is a US law that requires anyone in the US aiming to influence American opinion for a foreign official, such as a Saudi prince, to register with the Department of Justice and file public reports. Failing to do so can constitute a violation of federal law and lead to fines and imprisonment. (Van Rider’s claims were confirmed with a person present at the deposition. The FBI and the Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comments.)
Al Saud’s influence in the US could extend beyond the digital campaign against Ouiess. In her deposition, Van Rider said she attended a 2019 meeting in Miami during which the Saudi prince paid approximately $175,000 in cash, via an agent, to an American citizen close to right-wing circles. The cash was meant to fund online activities attacking targets, among others, called the “media project” or the “Twitter project,” said Van Rider. (Van Rider has previously changed her version of events regarding the “media project” and declined to comment. Al Saud did not respond to requests for comment.)
While individuals like Van Rider have, for years, engaged in disinformation for profit, experts are currently unsettled on how to define them. According to Dr James Forest, a professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell, the term “digital influence mercenary” represents a growing field responding to a global demand. “It goes back to what mercenaries in warfare have always been. They are basically fighting on behalf of whoever is paying them to fight,” he said, but underscored that Van Rider and the Trump supporters may have also been ideologically motivated.
That states like Saudi Arabia might use the services of foreign digital influence mercenaries comes as “no surprise” to Forest; Russia, Libya and Iran have used locals to amplify their narratives abroad, he said.
Involving Americans in a Saudi-led harassment campaign is logical, according to Marc Owen Jones, an associate professor of Middle East Studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, who studied the online attacks against Oueiss. “From a disinformation point of view, it’s one thing to use bots and trolls, but if you can organically have Americans absorbing Saudi talking points, then replicating those talking points in their own social media networks, then in theory, those talking points could then go viral amongst the Republican community online,” he said, although he found that in the case of the campaign targeting Oueiss, it was “poorly executed.”
For over six months, Forbidden Stories investigated the world of digital mercenaries who attack journalists and engage in influence campaigns for foreign actors as part of its “Story Killers” project. The project is an international collaborative investigation into the global disinformation-for-hire industry led by Forbidden Stories with more than 100 journalists from 30 outlets, stemming from the work of Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh. In addition to the group of Trump supporters, we found individual professional influencers in the US involved in attacks against Oueiss, who may have ties to foreign entities.
But those who post online for foreign recruiters are difficult for authorities to track, as they are often paid through intermediaries. Van Rider, Forbidden Stories found, was paid by a Lebanese intermediary with ties to Saudi Arabia. “For me, [Van Rider] was not the real problem. The real problem was people who would pay her to do that, because if it wasn’t her, it would be anyone else,” Oueiss said. “If she stops, someone else will start.”
From Dubai to Sweden: funding an online harassment campaign
One Saturday in April 2019, Van Rider attended an unusual dinner. At the Billionaire Club, in a dazzling 35-story, five-star hotel in central Dubai, she dined with prince al Saud, according to the deposition and flight tickets obtained by Die Zeit, a member of the consortium. In attendance were two Russian strippers; a representative for Saud al Qahtani, an MBS aide who allegedly oversaw the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and commanded an army of internet trolls for the Saudi regime; and two representatives of the cybersecurity company DarkMatter, Van Rider said in the deposition and recorded phone conversations obtained by the consortium.
Al Saud, Saud al Qahtani’s representative and the DarkMatter employees discussed how to discredit Oueiss, who they accused of bad-mouthing MBS. At al Saud’s request, DarkMatter would hack her phone. (Karim Michel Sabbagh, then CEO of DarkMatter, told Forbidden Stories that DarkMatter was not involved in the hack, and the meeting in Dubai was “incompatible with and unacceptable to the firm’s mission.” Al Saud told Forbidden Stories there was no discussion to hack Oueiss’s phone that evening.)
The next day, al Saud and Van Rider discussed a “media project,” she said in the deposition. Al Saud would fund the project and told Van Rider that a man named Jerry Maher would communicate next steps. Between November 2019 and March 2020, Maher transferred at least four installments of $2,500 to Van Rider, PayPal receipts obtained by the consortium show. (Al Saud told Forbidden Stories he did not pay Van Rider and said Maher, a friend, did not work for him. Maher said he did not recall the transfers and did not pay Van Rider on behalf of al Saud.)
By then, Maher had been nurturing ties with Saudi Arabian elites and officials for years. Also known by his birth name Daniel Ahmad El Ghoch, Maher is a former presenter for a Saudi TV channel and chairman and CEO of Sawt Beirut International, a Lebanese media outlet that reportedly partnered with a media empire primarily owned by Saudi billionaire, Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal, in 2021. Maher is media advisor to Bahaa Hariri, a Saudi-Lebanese billionaire close to the Saudi regime, whose father Rafik and brother Saad were both prime ministers of Lebanon.
Maher left Lebanon in 2010 and began living in Sweden, where authorities granted him protected status, reserved for people subject to threats to ensure the secrecy of their personal information, such as their home address. (Swedish authorities confirmed that Maher is benefitting from protected status, but declined to answer further questions due to the secrecy of information that this status confers.)
Maher has since publicly attacked critics of the Saudi regime online. In 2018, when Saudi agents murdered Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Maher tweeted that those investigating the murder would “burn in hell.” In January 2019, in a tweet that gained over a thousand retweets and likes, Maher attacked Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and Washington Post owner, writing, “If you make yourself an enemy of Saudi Arabia, you will be destroyed, disparaged and terminated by God.” (Maher has faced legal repercussions in Sweden and reportedly in Lebanon for his online behavior. Maher declined to answer questions but said most of our reporting was false.)
Oueiss was surprised to learn of Maher’s involvement with the network of Americans attacking her online. Maher had been an Al-Jazeera guest, and on air he represented the voice of the Saudi regime, but the two were cordial. Upon reflection, though, one detail struck Oueiss. In February 2019, Oueiss invited Maher on her show; he defended Saudi Arabia’s stance on Khashoggi’s murder, saying he believed the Kingdom was dealing “responsibly” with the case. Later, backstage, Maher told Oueiss he believed MBS ordered the murder, according to Oueiss’ recollection. “He is capable of being the mouthpiece of a dictatorship. He is capable of doing anything for you if you pay him,” she said. (Maher strongly denied telling Oueiss that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s killing.)
Oueiss interpreted Khashoggi’s murder as a warning to any journalist who criticizes or questions the Saudi regime, and it felt like a direct threat. “Maybe what they did to Khashoggi would happen to me because they attacked him on social media and then they killed him,” she told Forbidden Stories.
Oueiss considered Khashoggi a mentor. In 2018, mere months before his murder, Khashoggi had advised her to block and ignore “the army of flies,”–Saudi Arabia’s network of automated Twitter accounts developed by MBS aide al Qahtani–that was targeting both Oueiss and Khashoggi.
Oueiss chose another approach. Shortly after the first jacuzzi pictures were tweeted, in June 2020, she wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post that conveyed a strong message: “I’m a female journalist in the Middle East. I won’t be silenced by online attacks,” the title read.
The U.S.-based group of Trump supporters responded swiftly. Forbidden Stories also identified two professional influencers in the US who participated in attacks against Oueiss who may have ties to foreign entities.
Online attacks and advisory services
Maria Maalouf, a Washington, DC-based journalist of Lebanese origin, claims to be the co-chair of Prolific Solutions, a US-based consultancy firm that allegedly works with foreign governments. Van Rider named Maalouf in the deposition as part of the “media project” attacking Oueiss and alleged she was funded by al Saud, the Saudi prince. Neither Maalouf nor Prolific Solutions appear in the US government’s FARA registry, suggesting a possible violation of federal laws. (Maalouf, Prolific Solutions and the Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment. Al Saud said he did not pay Maalouf.)
Another professional influencer who attacked Oueiss online is Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based attorney who echoes narratives close to those of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Azerbaijan and Israel in videos, opinion pieces and Television appearances. Offline, Tsukerman offers “offensive” and “defensive” “information warfare” services through her US-based company, Scarab Rising and advocates at the UN Human Rights Council with a shady Yemeni NGO, the Yemeni Coalition of Independent Women. In the summer of 2022, Tsukerman accompanied the NGO on Capitol Hill to lobby representatives about reinstating the Houthi rebels, widely considered to be backed by Iran, a known rival of Saudi Arabia, on the list of foreign terrorist organizations. In another context, in 2018, she spoke at a conference organized in New York by a pro-Saudi lobbying group for a Saudi-funded NGO.
“This breadth of activity is precisely the sort of activity that our Department of Justice would likely want to look into…to figure out whether or not there is a need to register [with FARA] and whether or not there has been some violation of the law,” Joshua Ian Rosenstein, an attorney specialized in FARA, said. Neither Tsukerman nor her company appear in the FARA registry. (Tsukerman said she does not echo the narratives of governments. She claims she is not subject to FARA. The head of the Yemeni Coalition said she did not know of FARA.)
In addition to targeting Oueiss, Tsukerman, who holds a law degree from Fordham University, has insulted several critics of the Saudi regime on Twitter. After Khashoggi’s murder, Tsukerman publicly questioned the work of independent investigators, defending MBS. (Tsukerman said she also criticized the Saudi government online and holds a different position than Riyadh on Khashoggi’s murder.)
For Owen Jones, there will always be a space in the digital landscape for people ready to defend the undefendable—or “the attack dog,” he explained. There is a consistent market for someone who is “not afraid to say anything out there and go on record” but also “has qualifications from a good university,” he said about Tsukerman.
On Twitter, the online attacks against Oueiss are ongoing. Today, Oueiss blocks them, but has sometimes wanted to disappear from the public eye and quit journalism.
“It’s a new way to kill journalists virtually, silencing them. Instead of paying someone to assassinate you physically, you pay someone to assassinate you virtually through social media. You kill the character,” Oueiss said. “Instead of killing the body you kill the words, you kill the questions.”