Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler approved an operation to capture or kill murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, according to a released U.S. intelligence report as the U.S. sanctioned some of those involved but not the crown prince himself.
Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies, was killed and dismembered by a team of operatives linked to the prince in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
The Saudi government, which has denied any involvement by the crown prince, issued a statement rejecting the U.S. report’s findings and reiterating its position that Khashoggi’s killing was a heinous crime by a rogue group.
U.S. President Joe Biden tried to make clear that killings of political opponents were not acceptable to the United States while preserving ties to the 35-year-old crown prince, who may rule one of the world’s top oil exporters for decades and be an important ally against common foe Iran.
In a television interview yesterday, Biden said he told Saudi King Salman that Saudi Arabia has to tackle human rights abuses as a precondition to dealing with the United States.
“(I) made it clear to him that the rules are changing and we’re going to be announcing significant changes today and on Monday,” Biden said on Spanish language network Univision.
U.S. officials also said they were considering cancelling arms sales to Saudi Arabia and limiting future sales to “defensive” weapons, as it reassesses its relationship with the kingdom and its role in the Yemen war.
“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 U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in the four-page report.
The intelligence agency based its assessment on the crown prince’s control of decision-making, the direct involvement of one of his key advisers and his own protective detail, and his “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi,” it added.
“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 (his) authorization,” it said.
In declassifying the report, Biden reversed his predecessor Donald Trump’s refusal to release it in defiance of a 2019 law, reflecting a new U.S. willingness to challenge the kingdom on issues from human rights to Yemen.
“This report has been sitting there, the last administration wouldn’t even release it. We immediately, when I got in, filed the report, read it, got it, and released it today. And it is outrageous what happened,” Biden said on Univision.
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.
In announcing the decision to bar entry by 76 Saudis under a new policy called the “Khashoggi Ban,” the State Department said it would not tolerate those who threaten or assault activists, dissidents and journalists on behalf of foreign governments.
The Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Ahmed Hassan Mohammed al-Asiri, Saudi Arabia’s former Deputy Head of General Intelligence Presidency, and Saudi Arabia’s Rapid Intervention Force (RIF) in connection with Khashoggi’s murder.
The Treasury accused Asiri of being the ringleader of the Khashoggi operation and said several members of the hit squad sent to intercept the journalist were part of the RIF, a subset of the Saudi Royal Guard which answers only to the crown prince.
The U.S. intelligence report judged that RIF members would not have acted without the crown prince’s approval.
Before the announcements, U.S. officials said the sanctions and visa bans would not target the crown prince.