A demonstrator outside the Saudi embassy in Washington in 2018. Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation that led to the 2018 murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. intelligence report declassified by the Biden administration says.
“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” the report, from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, says.
The report says it is “highly unlikely” that Saudi officials would have carried out such an operation without the authorisation of the crown prince, known as MBS, and since 2017 the de facto ruler of the kingdom.
“We base this assessment on the Crown Prince’s control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi,” the report says.
MBS, the report says, viewed 59-year-old Khashoggi as a “threat to the Kingdom and broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him.”
Khashoggi was last seen walking into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 to obtain papers to marry his Turkish partner. Initially the Saudi government denied any involvement in his death, but by the following month the CIA had already reportedly privately concluded he had been assassinated at the direct instruction of MBS.
But today’s release of the declassified report is a critical step in the ongoing search for justice, and a clear shift in how U.S.-Saudi relations will be conducted in contrast with the administration of Donald Trump.
Trump had previously bragged about helping the crown prince in a conversation with the investigative journalist Bob Woodward, and said he believed that MBS didn’t order the killing. “I saved his ass,” Trump said.
President Joe Biden promised to “reassess” the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia during his campaign for the White House, over humanitarian concerns during the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, the country’s abysmal human rights record at home, and the crown prince’s involvement in the killing of Khashoggi.
Now Biden says he will “recalibrate” the relations with the strategic ally of the U.S. in the region.
The lawsuit filed last year in Washington, D.C., on behalf of Khashoggi’s partner, Hatice Cengiz, and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a rights group founded by Khashoggi before his death, alleges MBS “manufactured an opportunity to murder him.”
Saudi officials ensured the journalist could not pick up paperwork for his wedding at the Saudi embassy in Washington, the filing says, forcing him to apply to the consulate in Istanbul, where the gruesome murder took place in October 2018.
Turkish and Western intelligence agencies allege he was drugged and strangled by a hit squad shortly after entering the building, and his body cut to pieces. His body has never been found.
The murder in Istanbul shocked the world after details of the killing were steadily leaked by Turkish officials. Saudi officials eventually admitted Khashoggi was murdered by their agents during a failed operation but persistently denied the crown prince’s involvement.
MBS’ critics quickly dismissed the Saudi version of events, pointing out that such an operation would never proceed without the consent of the powerful heir to the Saudi throne.
While MBS, 35, launched himself as a promising young Saudi prince, who would modernise the Kingdom’s economy, and most importantly, address its appalling human rights record, Khashoggi’s murder has haunted his international image for the past two years.
Overshadowed by the regional rivalry between Ankara and Riyadh, Saudi and Turkish investigations and court proceedings have failed to meet international standards and have not yielded real accountability.