Intelligence report: Saudi prince 'approved' operation that killed Jamal Khashoggi

Brittany Shepherd and Michael Isikoff
·8 min read
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, meets with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at Al Salam Palace in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Monday, June 24, 2019. (Jacquelyn Martin/ Pool via AP)
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2019. (Jacquelyn Martin/Pool/AP)

The Biden administration on Friday afternoon released an intelligence report that concludes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to capture or kill Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside his country’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018.

“The world was horrified” by the journalist’s murder, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after the report’s release. He added the administration would respond with a “Khashoggi ban” — a move that would effectively block from entering the U.S. any individuals who, acting on behalf of a foreign country, are engaged in “extraterritorial counterdissident activities.” He then placed 76 Saudis on the list, including many who were involved in operations to kidnap or intimidate other Saudi dissidents overseas.

“While the U.S. remains invested in its relationship with Saudi Arabia, President Biden has made clear that partnership must reflect U.S. values,” he said. “To that end, we have made absolutely clear that extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents and journalists must end. They will not be tolerated by the United States.”

The disclosure of the brief four-page declassified report, based on a CIA assessment, comes after more than two years of controversy about Khashoggi’s death that has upended relations with one of America’s oldest allies in the Mideast. The release by President Biden’s director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, also comes after a congressional requirement in 2019 that the CIA’s conclusions about the murder be made publicly available — a step the Trump administration refused to follow but which Biden pledged to comply with during the presidential campaign.

The report provides little new information about what actually happened to Khashoggi and leaves out damning but classified details about the Saudi operation that was briefed to Congress in 2018. But it reaches the conclusion that the crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler and the son of 85-year-old King Salman, was directly involved based on the CIA’s assessment that he had “absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without” his authorization.

The report also notes that a 15-member Saudi hit team that carried out Khashoggi’s killing included seven members of the crown prince’s “elite personal protective detail, known as the Rapid Intervention Force.” The Rapid Intervention Force, a subset of the Saudi Royal Guard, “exists to defend the Crown Prince, answers only to him and directly participated in earlier” operations targeting dissidents “at the Crown Prince’s direction.”

The hit team also included officials with the Saudi Center for Studies and Media Affairs that was led by Saud al-Qahtani, a close adviser to the crown prince who has been described as his right-hand man. The report says U.S. intelligence has “high confidence” that al-Qahtani — along with other members of the hit team — “participated in, ordered or were otherwise complicit in or responsible for the death of Khashoggi on behalf of Muhammad bin Salman.” (Among those identified as participating in the operation were two notable names: Ahmed Zayed Asiri, at the time the deputy chief of Saudi intelligence, and Abdulla Mohammed Alhoeriny, the brother of the president of Saudi state security.)

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a press conference in Manama, Bahrain in 2014. (Hasan Jamali/AP)
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a press conference in Manama, Bahrain, in 2014. (Hasan Jamali/AP)

Khashoggi’s killing was widely condemned by governments and human rights advocates around the world as a shocking act against an independent journalist who had dared to criticize Crown Prince Mohammed.

It was even more stunning given Khashoggi’s prominence. He was his country’s best-known journalist and a frequent commentator about Mideast affairs on television shows and at think tank conferences around the world. He also had previously served as a Saudi government spokesman in Washington and London.

But with the rise of Mohammed as the most powerful figure in the kingdom, Khashoggi’s sharp critiques of the authoritarian crackdowns inside his country drove the journalist into exile in the United States, where he wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post. “The Crown Prince viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the Kingdom and broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him,” the U.S. intelligence report states. It cautions, however, that while Saudi officials had “pre-planned an unspecified operation” against him, “we do not know how far in advance Saudi officials decided to harm him.”

Khashoggi, 59, had entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, in hopes of obtaining documents proving he was divorced from his wife in Saudi Arabia so that he could marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. But when Khashoggi failed to come out, Turkish authorities leaked that they had audio recordings from inside the consulate that captured the efforts by a Saudi hit team to kill him and dismember his body.

Among those recordings — later quoted in a report by a United Nations special rapporteur — was a conversation that a leader of the Saudi hit team, Maher Mutreb, an intelligence officer, had with a forensic doctor, Dr. Salah Mohammed Tubaigy, just moments before Khashoggi entered the consulate.

Mutreb asked the doctor whether it would be “possible to put the trunk in a bag,” to which Tubaigy replied: “Joints will be separated. It is not a problem.”

A still image taken from CCTV video obtained by the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet claiming to show Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on Oct. 2, 2018. (CCTV via Hurriyet via AP)
A still image taken from CCTV video obtained by the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet claiming to show Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. (CCTV via Hurriyet via AP)

Moments later, when Khashoggi entered the consulate, Tubaigy — according to the Turkish recording — said “the sacrificial animal” has arrived. Once inside, the U.N. report says, Khashoggi was anesthetized, and suffocated with a plastic bag, after which his body was dismembered, purportedly with a bone saw. His body has never been found.

The release of the report comes the day after a phone call between President Biden and Saudi King Salman in which, according to a White House readout, the president “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law.”

But there was no indication from the White House readout that the president raised Khashoggi’s murder and the crown prince’s complicity in it. At the same time, Biden stopped far short of fundamentally disrupting ties with the kingdom, long a key U.S. ally in the region. “The President told Salman he would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible,” the readout says.

The Saudi government initially denied any involvement in the killing, but Mohammed acknowledged in 2019 that he maintains some responsibility for Khashoggi’s death. “I get all the responsibility because it happened under my watch,” he said to a journalist in a PBS documentary.

Meanwhile, even after receiving a copy of the classified CIA report a few weeks after the murder, then-President Donald Trump protected the crown prince, insisting there was no smoking gun that proved his complicity in the slaying. Trump also vetoed a series of bills aiming to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia in July of 2019, frustrating lawmakers who argued the Saudis should also be held responsible for the bombings of civilians in Yemen as well as for Khashoggi’s death.

The Committee to Protect Journalists and other press freedom activists hold a candlelight vigil in front of the Saudi Embassy to mark the anniversary of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Washington on October 2, 2019. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)
The Committee to Protect Journalists and other press freedom activists hold a candlelight vigil at the Saudi Embassy to mark the anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s death in Washington on Oct. 2, 2019. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)

Bob Woodward’s book “Rage” details a conversation between Woodward and Trump in January 2020 in which Trump said, in reference to the crown prince, “I saved his ass” after pressure mounted in Congress for answers and accountability.

“I was able to get Congress to leave him alone,” Trump is quoted as telling Woodward. “I was able to stop them.”

Instead, the Trump administration issued sanctions against the 17 Saudi individuals identified as being involved in Khashoggi’s death, al-Qahtani among them.

During his presidential campaign, Biden vowed to make the Saudis “pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.” He also said that there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

The release of the long-delayed report is unlikely to satisfy human rights advocates who have called for full disclosure of what the U.S. government knows about Khashoggi’s murder and strong steps to deter the Saudis from other repressive measures. The Friday disclosure “is only a small part of the evidence we’re seeking from the U.S. government about the murder of Khashoggi, including regarding U.S. officials close to MBS who potentially facilitated a cover-up,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). “Biden should move to voluntarily disclose all of this information now.”

Human rights advocates also called for sanctions against the crown prince — a step the administration declined to take. While saying the report was an important step in obtaining justice for Khashoggi, “not clearly sanctioning the Saudi crown prince is a missed opportunity,” said Seth Binder, advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “No individual should be above the law.”

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