Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman complicit in Jamal Khashoggi's murder, US report says

Deirdre Shesgreen, USA TODAY
·7 min read

WASHINGTON – Saudi Arabia's crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, approved an operation "to capture or kill" Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, according to a newly declassified U.S. intelligence report released Friday.

U.S. intelligence officials based their conclusion on several factors, including the direct involvement of a top Salman adviser in Khashoggi's murder and "the crown prince's support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad," the report says.

"Since 2017, the crown prince has 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 the crown prince's authorization," says the four-page document released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).

Lawmakers said the long-anticipated report demands a forceful U.S. response – including possible penalties for the crown prince, who is known by his initials as MBS.

The U.S. intelligence community implicates Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of a Washington Post columnist.
The U.S. intelligence community implicates Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of a Washington Post columnist.

“The highest levels of the Saudi government, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are culpable in the murder of journalist and American resident Jamal Khashoggi," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

"The Biden administration will need to follow this attribution of responsibility with serious repercussions against all of the responsible parties it has identified, and also reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia," Schiff said.

The Biden administration signaled 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 engage in extraterritorial attacks on journalists or activists."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the new visa restriction policy would apply to 76 Saudi individuals believed to have engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.

The Treasury Department announced sanctions against Ahmed al-Asiri, a high-ranking Saudi military official who was fired from his position after Khashoggi's murder.

The crown prince was not targeted in Friday's actions – a decision Blinken defended as part of a strategy to preserve a pivotal U.S. alliance.

"The relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual," Blinkensaid at a news conference Friday. He reiterated U.S. support for the kingdom's ability to defend itself.

"And so what we've done by the actions that we've taken is really not to rupture the relationship but to recalibrate it," Blinken said.

He argued the release of the intelligence report was itself a significant step, shining a "bright light" on Khashoggi's murder. He said the Biden administration was conducting a review of weapons sales to ensure the United States stopped shipping offensive arms to the kingdom.

Blinken's remarks are likely to anger and disappoint lawmakers and human rights advocates.

A human rights group founded by Khashoggi called on President Joe Biden to slap steep penalties on Salman.

“The Biden administration and other international governments should hold MBS accountable for Khashoggi’s murder by imposing on him the full range of sanctions, including asset freezes,” the group, Democracy for the Arab World Now, said in a statement Friday. “The Federal Bureau of Investigation also should open a criminal investigation into the murder of a U.S. resident, as they have of other Americans executed abroad.”

Lawmakers applauded Biden's initial steps, but they want a more sweeping overhaul of the U.S-Saudi alliance and direct action confronting Saudi Arabia over its human rights record.

“Today the United States government finally acknowledged what the rest of the world has already known: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally approved the operation in which Saudi assassins brutally kidnapped, dismembered and murdered journalist and American resident Jamal Khashoggi," Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Friday.

"I am hopeful it is only a first step and that the administration plans to take concrete measures holding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally responsible for his role in this heinous crime," Menendez, D-N.J., said.

The intelligence report was released one day after Biden spoke by phone with the crown prince's father, Saudi King Salman, billed as a routine conversation between heads of state as Biden begins his presidency. A White House summary of the conversation made no mention of the Khashoggi killing and said the men discussed the countries’ long-standing partnership.

A mural in Istanbul depicts slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed inside a Saudi consulate in the Turkish city.
A mural in Istanbul depicts slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed inside a Saudi consulate in the Turkish city.

Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who had been critical of the Saudi ruling family, was killed inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018.

The crown prince denied he ordered Khashoggi's killing. Saudi officials acknowledged that operatives from the kingdom carried out the killing, but they portrayed it as a rogue operation gone awry.

In 2019, a court in Saudi Arabia sentenced five people to death for Khashoggi's slaying, but it placed no blame on the royal family. Critics called the Saudi proceedings a "mockery" and a whitewash.

The DNI report notes that a 15-member Saudi team that arrived in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, included seven members of the crown prince's "elite personal protective detail, known as the Rapid Intervention Force (RIF). The RIF ... exists to defend the Crown Prince, answers only to him, and had directly participated in earlier dissident suppression operations in the Kingdom and abroad at the Crown Prince's direction."

"We judge that members of the RIF would not have participated in the operation against Khashoggi without … Salman's approval," the report says.

Intelligence officials noted that MBS viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the kingdom and supported silencing him.

"Although Saudi officials had pre-planned an unspecified operation against Khashoggi, we do not know how far in advance Saudi officials decided to harm him," the report says.

The Trump administration refused to release the unclassified report on Khashoggi's murder, even though it was mandated by Congress. President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, cultivated close ties with the royal family, and Salman in particular.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G20 summit June 29, 2019, in Osaka, Japan.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G20 summit June 29, 2019, in Osaka, Japan.

Trump refused to publicly condemn the Saudi leader's role in Khashoggi's death.

"It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!" Trump said in a statement nearly two months after the killing. "The world is a very dangerous place!"

During closed-door briefings, Trump's CIA Director Gina Haspel told members of Congress that the crown prince directed Khashoggi's killing. Friday's release is likely to fuel the debate over America's alliance with Saudi Arabia – and over MBS' future as Saudi Arabia's king-in-waiting.

In the wake of Khashoggi's killing, lawmakers in both parties pushed for a reassessment of the U.S.-Saudi alliance, voting to ban some weapons sales to the kingdom. Trump nixed those efforts, but Biden signaled a willingness to be more confrontational with the Saudis.

Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who crafted the legislation mandating the DNI report, said he wanted "a clear statement by the U.S. government that (MBS) was responsible" as a form of accountability. The provision required the DNI to provide Congress with a list of all Saudi officials responsible for Khashoggi's death.

Malinowski said he hoped the report would spur a debate about the crown prince's leadership.

"This is about holding individuals accountable and sending a signal to the Saudi leadership that perhaps giving this one reckless individual absolute power for the next 50 years might not be the best idea,” he said last year.

In 2019, a top United Nations expert on extrajudicial executions similarly found "credible evidence" that high-level officials in Saudi Arabia – including MBS – were involved in Khashoggi's death.

The U.N. investigation, led by special rapporteur Agnes Callamard, provided details, including snippets of conversation between Khashoggi and his Saudi killers. Callamard urged the U.S. government to open an FBI investigation into Khashoggi's slaying and pursue criminal prosecutions in the USA for those responsible, among other steps.

More: Why grisly UN report on Khashoggi murder will not change Trump policy toward Saudi Arabia

'Come with us': A year after Jamal Khashoggi's killing, Saudi Arabian crackdown persists

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mohammed bin Salman complicit in Jamal Khashoggi's murder, report says