WASHINGTON – Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammad Bin Salman cleared an operation to “capture or kill” the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, for a new one released US intelligence report Published Friday.
US intelligence officials reached this conclusion based on several factors, including the direct involvement of a senior adviser to Bin Salman in Khashoggi’s murder and “the Crown Prince’s support for the use of violent measures to quench dissidents abroad,” the report said .
“Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control over the kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, so it is highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this kind without the Crown Prince’s approval,” the four-page document from the office said of the National Secret Service.
Lawmakers said the long-awaited report calls for a forceful US response – including possible penalties for the crown prince, known by his initials as MBS.
“The highest levels of the Saudi government, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are to blame for the murder of journalist and American-based Jamal Khashoggi,” said House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
“The Biden administration must follow this assignment of responsibility with serious implications for all those responsible it has identified and also reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” said Schiff.
However, the Biden government quickly signaled that it would not take action directly against the Crown Prince.
The State Department said it would use a “Khashoggi ban” to impose visa restrictions “on those who carry out extraterritorial attacks on journalists or activists”.
Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said the new visa restriction policy would apply to 76 Saudi individuals believed to threaten dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the killing of Khashoggi.
The finance department also announced Sanctions against Ahmed al-Assiri, a senior Saudi military official who was dismissed from his position following Khashoggi’s murder.
But the Crown Prince was not targeted in the actions on Friday – a decision that Blinken defended as part of a strategy to preserve a central US alliance.
“The relationship with Saudi Arabia is greater than any individual,” Blinken told reporters at a news conference on Friday. He said America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia remains important and reiterated US support for the kingdom’s ability to defend itself.
“And so with the measures we took, we really didn’t break the relationship, we recalibrated it,” said Blinken.
He argued that the publication of the intelligence report was a significant step in itself and that it shed a “bright light” on Khashoggi’s murder. And he said the Biden administration is conducting an ongoing review of arms sales to ensure the U.S. stops shipping offensive arms to the kingdom.
Blinken’s remarks are likely to anger and disappoint lawmakers and human rights activists.
ON Human rights group The company founded by Khashoggi called on President Joe Biden to punish bin Salman with heavy fines.
“The Biden government and other international governments should hold MBS accountable for Khashoggi’s murder by imposing all sanctions on him, including asset freezing,” the group “Democracy for the Arab World Now” said in a statement on Friday. “The Federal Bureau of Investigation should also open a criminal investigation into the murder of a US citizen, as it has done with other Americans executed abroad.”
Legislators have welcomed Biden’s first steps, but they want a broader overhaul of the U.S.-Saudi Arabia alliance and direct action Saudi Arabia is facing because of its human rights record.
“Today the United States government has finally recognized what the rest of the world already knew: the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman personally approved the operation in which Saudi bombers brutally kidnapped, dismembered and murdered journalist and American Jamal Khashoggi,” Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, said Friday.
“I am confident that this is only a first step and that the government is planning concrete measures to hold Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally responsible for his role in this heinous crime,” Menendez said.
The intelligence report was released the day after Biden spoke to Saudi King Salman by phone. This has been billed as a routine conversation between heads of state when Biden begins his presidency. In a summary of the conversation in the White House, the murder of Khashoggi was not mentioned and instead it was said that the men spoke about the countries’ longstanding partnership.
Khashoggi, a US citizen who criticized the Saudi ruling family, was killed in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.
The Crown Prince has denied that he ordered Khashoggi’s murder. Saudi officials have acknowledged that activists from the kingdom carried out the killing, but they have portrayed it as a failed rogue operation.
A court in Saudi Arabia in 2019 sentenced five people to death for Khashoggi’s murder, but the royal family was not to be blamed. Critics have called the Saudi process “ridicule” and whitewash.
The DNI report notes that the 15-strong Saudi team that arrived in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 included officials who worked for or were associated with a wing of the Saudi royal court.
“The team also included seven members of the personal protection detail of Muhammad bin Salman’s elite, known as the Rapid Intervention Force (RIF),” the report said. “The RIF … exists to defend the Crown Prince, responds only to him and, at the instructions of the Crown Prince, has participated directly in previous operations to suppress dissidents in the kingdom and abroad,” the report said. “We are of the opinion that members of the RIF would not have participated in the operation against Khashoggi without the consent of Muhammad bin Salman.”
Intelligence officials also note that MBS viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the kingdom and assisted in silencing him.
“Although Saudi officials planned an unspecified operation against Khashoggi in advance, we do not know how far in advance Saudi officials decided to harm him,” the report said.
The Trump administration had refused to publish the unclassified report on Khashoggi’s murder despite being commissioned by Congress. Former President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner had close ties with the royal family and particularly with Bin Salman.
Trump also refused to publicly condemn the Saudi leader’s role in Khashoggi’s death.
“It could very well be that the Crown Prince was aware of this tragic event – maybe he did it and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said in a statement almost two months after the murder. “The world is a very dangerous place!”
But during closed briefings, Trump’s own CIA director Gina Haspel told members of Congress that the Crown Prince directed Khashoggi’s assassination. The release on Friday should fuel the debate about the American alliance with Saudi Arabia – and about the future of MBS as the waiting king of Saudi Arabia.
After the murder of Khashoggi, lawmakers on both parties urged a reassessment of the US-Saudi Arabia alliance, including banning some arms sales to the kingdom. Trump undid those efforts, but Biden has signaled a willingness to be more confrontational with the Saudis.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat who drafted the legislation for the DNI report, said he wanted “a clear statement from the US government that (MBS) is accountable” as a form of accountability. The provision required the DNI to submit a list to Congress of all Saudi officials responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
Malinowski said he hoped the report would spark a debate about the leadership of MBS.
“This is about holding individuals accountable and sending a signal to the Saudi leadership that giving this one ruthless person absolute power for the next 50 years may not be the best idea,” he said in an interview in the past year.
In 2019, a leading UN expert on extrajudicial executions also found “credible evidence” that high-ranking officials in Saudi Arabia – including MBS – were implicated in Khashoggi’s death.
The UN investigation, led by Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard, revealed new details, including scraps of conversation between Khashoggi and his Saudi killers. Callamard called on the US government to initiate an FBI investigation into Khashoggi’s murder and, among other things, to prosecute those responsible in the US.