He spearheaded a frenzied online McCarthyism by announcing an official hashtag, #The_Black_List, and asking his followers to suggest names for it so they could be tracked and punished. He made clear whose authority he acted on.
“I am an employee and faithful implementer of the orders of my lord the king and his highness the faithful crown prince,” he wrote on Twitter.
Over time, Mr. al-Qahtani increasingly went after people in the real world, too. In 2017, the Saudi journalist Turki al-Roqi criticized on Twitter the arrest of a man who had complained about a delayed train. Mr. al-Qahtani forced Mr. al-Roqi’s resignation from the online news site he ran and pressed him to tweet against a detained cleric. Mr. al-Roqi refused.
“Am I talking about an adviser and a minister in the highest establishment in the state, or a teenager specialized in defamation and hacking?” Mr. al-Roqi later wrote about the incident.
But just as Mr. al-Qahtani had failed to cover his tracks in his early days on Hack Forums, so were later exploits by his electronic spying operation exposed.
Technology researchers have identified five phone hacking attempts linked to Saudi Arabia in May and June 2018, most of them successful. They suspect there are many more. Mr. Bezos says his phone was hacked then, too, after he received an encrypted video via WhatsApp from Prince Mohammed. But Mr. al-Qahtani’s fall came not from his electronic espionage, but from his connection to the killing of Mr. Khashoggi. In sanctioning him and 16 other Saudis, the United States Treasury Department called him “part of the planning and execution of the operation.” The State Department barred him and his family from entering the United States.
Inside Saudi Arabia, however, he has paid no significant price, other than the loss of his official job titles. When the first ruling in the trial of the suspects in Mr. Khashoggi’s killing was announced in December, the prosecutor’s office said Mr. al-Qahtani had not been tried because of a lack of evidence.
And while he has remained in the shadows since the killing, United States officials and many Saudis believe that from some unknown location he is still commanding armies of bots and overseeing the kingdom’s electronic spying operations.
Ben Hubbard is the Beirut bureau chief for The Times and the author of “MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman,” from which this essay is adapted.
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