Saudi crown prince approved killing of Jamal Khashoggi, US report says
Declassified CIA assessment links Mohammed bin Salman with brutal murder of journalist
Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman “approved” the operation that led to the brutal murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, according to a declassified report released by the Biden administration on Friday
The release has renewed focus on the ruthless murder of the US-based journalist at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The four-page redacted document confirms the reported findings of the CIA inquiry into the murder.
“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” the report said.
“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,” it added.
The Biden administration’s decision to release the findings was expected. Director of national intelligence Avril Haines told senators during her confirmation hearing last month that the CIA report would be declassified and released.
It marks a change in US policy following President Donald Trump’s refusal to publicly release the report, in defiance of several members of his own party and human rights groups.
The suspicion that Mr Trump was seeking to protect the Saudi regime, and the ambitious heir apparent known as MBS who was close to Mr Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, was underscored by the president’s comments.
In November 2018, he downplayed the crown prince’s role in the Khashoggi murder. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” he said, despite the fact that the CIA had determined by then that MBS had indeed approved the operation.
Mr Biden’s decision to release the report is an indication that he is willing to directly link the House of Saud to the murder and attempted cover-up. He referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” during last year’s presidential campaign, and has condemned the kingdom’s human rights records.
The president’s decision earlier this month to stop US arms sales and any other support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen showed that he was following through on his election promises.
The White House also indicated that Mr Biden would only speak with King Salman – his counterpart as head of state – rather than the young crown prince, a further indication of the change in stance in Washington.
But managing the Saudi relationship is also a delicate balancing act for the new president. Saudi Arabia has long been a close Arab ally of the US in the region. A shared interest in containing Iran has served to bring the two countries closer together in recent decades.
Mr Biden had been expected to possibly sanction Mohammed bin Salman on Friday in response to the killing, but he stopped short of doing so. Instead the treasury department sanctioned Major General Ahmed al-Assiri, a close aide to MBS as chief of intelligence, who was not included in the Trump administration’s original sanctions list in the wake of the murder.
That decision will disappoint many who had hoped that MBS would be held fully accountable for the brutal murder.
A White House readout of the phone call between Mr Biden and King Salman on Thursday said that Mr Biden committed to making the bilateral relationship “as strong and transparent as possible”. The president also raised human rights issues, but it was not confirmed that he spoke of the Khashoggi murder with the 85-year-old king, though it is likely.
Mr Biden’s actions so far have indicated that he will not embrace the authoritarian kingdom in the same way as his predecessor did. Mr Trump famously chose Saudi Arabia as the destination for his first foreign trip as president.
Landing in Riyadh in May 2017, Mr Trump was greeted by a display of military jets trailing red, white and blue smoke, he attended a lavish ceremony where hundreds of robed men performed a traditional sword dance, and was awarded the country’s highest civilian honour, the gold-plated collar of Abdulaziz al Saud by King Salman. The trip culminated in a $110 billion arms deal between the two allies.
Mr Biden has indicated that such a cosy relationship will not be replicated under the new administration. But the dramatic reset of relations between Riyadh and Washington that many may have hoped for in the wake of the Khashoggi killing is unlikely to happen.