Updated Feb 26, 2021 - World

U.S. releases report finding Saudi prince approved Khashoggi operation

Mohammed bin Salman

Photo: Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Kingdom Council / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has released an unclassified report assessing that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) approved the operation to "capture or kill" Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Driving the news: The White House also announced sanctions on entities implicated in the murder, though not on MBS directly. Officials also announced a new "Khashoggi ban" under which individuals accused of harassing journalists or dissidents outside their borders can be barred from entering the U.S.

Why it matters: The grisly October 2018 murder of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul sparked worldwide outrage and calls for the U.S. to fundamentally reevaluate its relationship with the Gulf kingdom.

  • Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines pledged in her Senate confirmation hearing to comply with a law passed by Congress in 2019 that required ODNI to release the names of the Saudi officials believed to be responsible or complicit in Khashoggi's killing within 30 days.
  • The long-awaited report was blocked from public view for over a year by the Trump administration, which shared close ties with the royal family and cast Saudi Arabia as central to its Middle East strategy.

What it 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 4-page summary of the intelligence community's findings reads.

  • "We base this assessment on the Crown Prince's control of decision-making in the Kingdom since 2017, 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."
  • "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."

Details: Upon the release of the report, the Treasury Department sanctioned Ahmad Asiri, the former Saudi intelligence chief and close MBS confidant, for his "direct role in the Istanbul operation."

  • The unit close to MBS that carried out the operation, the Rapid Intervention Force, was also targeted for sanctions.
  • Senior administration officials also announced that the State Department will begin documenting "programs by Saudi Arabia and other countries that monitor, harass and or target dissidents or journalists" through its annual human rights report.
  • Individuals accused of carrying out such initiatives will be subject to the "Khashoggi ban," along with their families. 70 individuals have already been listed in a first tranche that focuses on Saudi Arabia.

The big picture: In five weeks, Biden has ended support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen, frozen a large arms deal and snubbed MBS by declining to speak with him directly. The moves come after Biden referred to the kingdom as a "pariah" on the campaign trail.

  • “We’ve been speaking quite frankly with Saudi leaders about the need for a different kind of relationship, based not only on our shared interests — and we do have many shared interests — but also one conducted with accountability and transparency and also taking into account the values of the United States of America," a senior administration official told reporters on Thursday.
  • 'The aim is recalibration, not a rupture," the official said, adding that Saudi Arabia had “lost both political parties and the support of the American people."

Background: Jamal Khashoggi was a prominent Saudi journalist and royal insider who became an outspoken critic of MBS in 2017 after the newly appointed crown prince began cracking down on dissent, even as he led a campaign of social and economic reforms.

  • Khashoggi fled Saudi Arabia in 2017 and went into self-imposed exile in Virginia, where he wrote columns for the Washington Post that were frequently critical of the regime.
  • On Oct. 2, 2018, Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to retrieve marriage documents and never came out.

The ensuing investigation into his disappearance drew global media attention and demands for answers from the Saudi government, which intensified amid reports that Khashoggi had been killed and dismembered with a bone saw by a team of operatives waiting inside the consulate.

  • Former President Trump, whose son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner had a close personal relationship with MBS, ultimately chose to publicly stand by the Saudis in November 2018, even after the CIA reportedly concluded that the crown prince had ordered the assassination.
  • In a lengthy statement, Trump called Khashoggi a suspected member of the Muslim Brotherhood, speculated that "we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder," and pointed to billions of dollars in weapons sales and investment that Saudi Arabia had agreed to.
  • MBS has denied ordering the murder or having any knowledge of the operation, but acknowledged in 2019 for the first time that he bears "responsibility" because "it happened under my watch."

The state of play: Biden spoke to Saudi King Salman for the first time as president on Thursday, one day after he told reporters that he had read the Khashoggi report. A White House readout of the call stressed the importance of the relationship and did not mention Khashoggi or MBS.

  • A senior administration official said the initial pressure on Saudi Arabia appeared to be showing results, including in the release of prominent women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul.

Update: Saudi Arabia "completely rejects the negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report," according to a statement from the foreign ministry.

  • "The Kingdom rejects any measure that infringes upon its leadership, sovereignty, and the independence of its judicial system," the statement added.

Read the full report.

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