Washington, February 27 – Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved of an operation to capture or kill dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was murdered in 2018, according to a declassified US intelligence assessment released on Friday (Feb 26), in a manner choreographed to limit damage to US-Saudi ties.
Khashoggi, a US resident who wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post critical of the crown prince’s policies, was killed and dismembered by a team of operatives linked to the crown prince in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
Riyadh has denied any involvement by the crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.
“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 US Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in the report posted on its website.
“We base this assessment on the Crown Prince’s control of decision-making 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,” it added.
In declassifying the report, US President Joe Biden reversed his predecessor Donald Trump’s refusal to release it in defiance of a 2019 law, reflecting a new US willingness to challenge the kingdom on issues from human rights to the war in Yemen.
However, Biden is treading a fine line to preserve ties with the kingdom as he seeks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with its regional rival Iran and to address other challenges including fighting Islamist extremism and advancing Arab-Israeli ties.
Washington choreographed events to soften the blow, with Biden on Thursday speaking with the crown prince’s 85-year-old father, King Salman, in a call in which both sides said they reaffirmed their decades-old alliance and pledged cooperation.
The declassified intelligence, prepared by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence, echoed a classified version of a report on Khashoggi’s murder that Trump shared with members of Congress in late 2018.
Trump’s rejection of demands by lawmakers and human rights groups to release a declassified version at the time reflected a desire to preserve cooperation with Riyadh amid rising tensions with Iran and to promote US arms sales to the kingdom.
Biden’s new director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, has committed to complying with a 2019 defence Bill that required her office to release within 30 days a declassified report on Khashoggi’s murder.
The 59-year old Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist living in self-imposed exile in Virginia who wrote opinion pieces for the Washington Post critical of the policies of the crown prince – known to some in the West as MbS.
He was lured on Oct 2, 2018, to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul with a promise of a document that he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee. A team of operatives linked to MbS killed him there and dismembered his body. His remains have not been found.
Riyadh initially issued conflicting stories about his disappearance, but eventually admitted that Khashoggi was killed in what it called a “rogue” extradition operation gone wrong.
Twenty-one men were arrested in the killing and five senior officials, including the deputy intelligence chief, Ahmad Asiri, and Saud al-Qahtani, a senior MbS aide, were sacked. (Reuters)