U.S. & Saudi Arabia

U.S. intelligence report states that MBS approved the 2018 operation in Istanbul to capture or kill Khashoggi

Print edition : March 26, 2021

Jamal Khashoggi speaking at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London on September 29, 2018. Photo: Middle East Monitor/Handout via REUTERS

This image taken from CCTV video shows Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, the day he was killed there. Photo: CCTV/Hurriyet,AP

U.N. Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on January 29, 2019. She and her team of experts spent a week in Turkey to investigate the murder. Photo: Cemal Yurttas/DHA via AP

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout/REUTERS

U.S. President Joe Biden. Photo: Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

The Biden administration releases a U.S. intelligence report that spells out Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi, but it is clear that the U.S., for fear of a trusted ally seeking new strategic partners, has only sought partial accountability from the Saudi leadership.

It has taken the United States government more than two years to officially acknowledge that the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed on October 2, 2018, on the orders of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Within weeks of the killing, the Turkish government provided proof that the Saudi government was responsible for the murder. Agnes Callamard, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, had carried out a thorough investigation of the killing and concluded that it was a “state-sponsored” crime. She had called on the U.S. government to share its findings on the killing with the international community more than two years ago. She said that the public release of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-backed document would make it more difficult for the rest of the world to ignore MBS’ personal involvement “in the killing and dismemberment” of Khashoggi.

The U.S. Congress passed a law in late 2019 ordering the then U.S. intelligence chief to submit to lawmakers the unclassified intelligence report outlining the “advance knowledge and role” of any Saudi official in “the directing, ordering or tampering of evidence in the killing of Khashoggi”. The Donald Trump administration chose to ignore the legally binding request from Congress, arguing that such a move would compromise the intelligence-gathering capabilities of U.S. security services.

The Joe Biden administration did not stand in the way of the report being released, bowing to the will of the bipartisan majority in Congress, and on February 26, Avril Haines, the new Director of National Intelligence, released the four-page report. It reconfirms the findings of Turkish investigating agencies that a team of Saudi agents specially dispatched for the purpose killed Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. MBS and the Saudi government have continued to vehemently deny any official role in the killing, saying that rogue elements of the kingdom’s security forces were the only ones responsible for it. “The crime was committed by a group of individuals who have transgressed all pertinent regulations and authorisation of the authorities of the agencies where they were employed,” a statement from the Saudi Foreign Ministry said.

The U.S. government report states that the killer squad sent to Istanbul reported directly to MBS and concludes that it had acted on his orders. The report does not go into the horrific details of the torture that Khashoggi had to endure at the hands of the Saudi agents. After he was beaten and strangled, his body was cut into parts with a chainsaw. The Turkish authorities had provided the CIA with graphic tapes soon after the incident.

Also read: Riyadh's role in Khashoggi's death

Much of the evidence authenticating the involvement of MBS in the killing remains classified. However, it is the first time that the U.S. government has officially stated that the Crown Prince was responsible for the killing of Khashoggi. “We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” says the report. It reveals some previously undisclosed details about the Crown Prince’s absolute control over the kingdom’s security apparatus and says that “[t]he Crown Prince viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the Kingdom and broadly supported using violent means if necessary to eliminate him”. According to the report, MBS “probably fostered an environment” in which his associates feared that any failure to carry out his orders could lead to their arrests. “This suggests that the aides were unlikely to question Mohammed bin Salman’s orders or undertake sensitive action without his consent,” the report says.

The report goes on to say that the hit squad and those involved in its planning were acting under the supervision of Saud al-Qahtani, a close adviser and friend of MBS. He was previously Saudi Arabia’s media czar. He had on an earlier occasion said that he never took any decision without the prior approval of the Crown Prince. The report also states that seven of those involved in the Khashoggi killing belong to the elite Rapid Intervention Force (RIF), which has played an important role in suppressing dissent and arresting the opponents of the Crown Prince. The RIF was created on the orders of MBS. “[M]embers of the RIF would not have participated in the operation against Khashoggi without Mohammad bin Salman’s approval,” the report says.

Trump protected the Crown Prince

The release of the report is being viewed as a public rebuke by the U.S. to the de facto ruler of the kingdom. Before the report was released, President Joseph Biden had announced that he would only communicate with King Salman, the ageing Saudi ruler, on official matters. The previous administration used to only deal with the Crown Prince, who has been running the Saudi government since becoming the heir apparent. However, there is no ban on senior officials from the Biden administration speaking to the Crown Prince.

The Trump administration had bent over backwards to protect the Crown Prince from the repercussions of the heinous crime. A smiling Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Saudi capital, Riyadh, after the Khashoggi murder, where he was shown exchanging pleasantries with the Crown Prince. Trump did not waste any time in giving MBS the benefit of the doubt. It is unlikely the U.S. intelligence report would have ever seen the light of the day if Trump had won a second term. The first country Trump visited after winning the presidency was Saudi Arabia. Arms deals, which Trump had claimed were worth more than $110 billion, were signed. His administration gave Saudi Arabia the green signal to continue the brutal war it is waging in Yemen.

The Trump administration may have used the evidence it had accumulated against the Crown Prince to arm-twist the Saudi government into adopting a favourable diplomatic stance on Israel and confine the Palestinian cause to the back burner. The Saudi government had encouraged its close allies such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to go ahead and formalise diplomatic relations with Israel, which happened through agreements called the Abraham Accords, even though Saudi Arabia itself is not a signatory to them.

Also read: Saudi journalist silenced

Saudi Arabia and Israel were openly wishing for a second term for the Trump administration, united as they are in their hostility towards Iran. The two countries are against the resumption of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. Just before demitting office, the Trump administration signed two major defence deals worth $750 million with the Saudis involving the sale of precision guided munitions. The Biden administration suspended the deal immediately after taking over but has not cancelled it. The other big U.S.-Saudi military deals remain unaffected by the latest developments.

While on the campaign trail, Biden had strongly criticised Saudi Arabia, going to the extent of describing it as “a pariah state” with no “redeeming social values”. He was also disparaging of the Trump administration’s policies towards the kingdom, particularly on the Khashoggi issue, which had become a “cause celebre” with the liberal intelligentsia in the U.S. Khashoggi was a columnist with The Washington Post and was a legal U.S. resident closely connected with U.S. think tanks. “You don’t bring bone saws to fights,” candidate Biden had said. “It is embarrassing but it is also dangerous.”

Biden’s cautious approach

But after taking office, Biden was advised by his close foreign policy and national security advisers to take a more cautious stance on the Khashoggi issue. The President’s national security team advised him against issuing a travel ban or filing criminal charges against MBS as his administration had originally contemplated. There was a fear that a key ally in the region would be alienated. The U.S. security establishment wants Saudi cooperation in its confrontation with Iran. The kingdom also hosts U.S. soldiers on its soil. “The relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any individual,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the media.

Twenty-four hours before the report was released, Biden had a telephonic conversation with King Salman. According to the U.S. State Department, Biden told the Saudi King that he would work to make the relationship between the two countries “as strong and transparent as possible”. The Biden administration then announced sanctions against Saudi officials linked to the Khashoggi killing, including the former Saudi chief of intelligence and members of the paramilitary unit that went to Istanbul. The U.S. State Department also announced visa restrictions on 76 Saudi officials involved in human rights violations and suppression of the media. Blinken said that similar visa bans would be imposed on officials from many other countries that have put restrictions on the media and put the lives of journalists at risk. The media is under severe restrictions in countries such as Egypt, another U.S. ally, but there is very little criticism in Washington.

Many high-profile Biden supporters have expressed their disappointment over the steps taken by the Biden administration. They are of the view that tougher U.S. sanctions should have been imposed on Saudi Arabia and point out that U.S. law bars the export of military hardware to security units involved in gross human rights abuses. MBS also serves as Saudi Arabia’s Defence Minister. At the same time, many analysts admit that it has been a long time since Washington has sent such a strong message to the House of Saud. The message is loud and clear: the U.S. and the West are not comfortable with the idea of the 35-year-old Crown Prince succeeding his father and being on the throne for a long period of time.

Also read: The MBS-led purge of the Saudi Royal Family

The royal family itself is split on the issue of MBS succeeding his father as events in the last couple of years have revealed. It will be difficult for him to accede to the throne without U.S. acquiescence. Trump will be no longer around to play the role of the godfather to the young Crown Prince. The International Criminal Court and other international agencies will no doubt in the near future investigate the Khashoggi murder and the war crimes the Saudi-led military alliance has committed in Yemen. Yemen is experiencing one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes the world has seen. More than a hundred thousand Yemenis have perished as a result of the war MBS instigated more than six years ago. The Biden administration has ended its support for the Saudi-led war and removed the terror tag the Trump administration had imposed on the rebel Houthi movement. The Houthis are in control of the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country.

Ron Wyden, the Democratic Senator who played a key role in getting the intelligence report declassified and released, said that the U.S. was sending a strong message to the Saudis that “lawlessness won’t stand”. He added that, however, more needed to be done “to ensure that the Saudi government follows international laws”. He called for more stringent sanctions to be imposed on the Crown Prince, including financial and travel restrictions.

It is clear that the Biden administration has only sought partial accountability from the Saudi leadership for the Khashoggi murder. The fear in Washington is that if the Saudis are pushed too hard, they may seek new strategic partners. MBS has a good working relationship with both Russia and China, both of which coordinate their moves to control the energy market. The U.S. allies the United Kingdom and France will be more than willing to step into the breach if the U.S. imposes a total arms embargo on the kingdom. And the Saudi leadership knows that if the Republicans come back to power, MBS will no longer be persona non grata.

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