Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has approved an operation to capture or kill dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated in 2018, according to a declassified U.S. intelligence assessment released on Friday in a way choreographed to limit damage to U.S.-Saudi ties.
Khashoggi, an American resident who wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post critical of the Crown Prince’s policies, was killed and divided by a team of agents linked to the Crown Prince at the Kingdom Consulate in Istanbul.
Riyadh has denied any involvement in the Crown Prince, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
“We believe 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 report, which was published 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.
When US President Joe Biden declassified the report, his predecessor Donald Trump’s refusal to release it in violation of a 2019 law reversed, reflecting a new US will to challenge the kingdom on human rights issues to the war in Yemen.
>> Read more: Under Joe Biden, the United States cools relations with the Saudi Crown Prince
However, Biden goes a fine line to preserve ties with the kingdom as he seeks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with his regional rival Iran and to address other challenges, including fighting Islamist extremism and promoting Arab-Israeli ties.
Washington choreographed events to mitigate the battle, where Biden on Thursday spoke with the Crown Prince’s 85-year-old father, King Salman, in a conversation in which both sides said they confirmed their decades-old alliance and promised cooperation.
But Biden’s administration is considering suspending arms deals with Saudi Arabia that constitute human rights while limiting future military sales to “defensive” weapons, say sources familiar with the government’s thinking.
The murder of the journalist and US legal resident Jamal Khashoggi shocked the world. As of today, we will have a new global policy bearing his name to impose visa restrictions on those involved in extraterritorial attacks on journalists or activists.
– Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) February 26, 2021
A State Department spokesman said the US’s focus was on ending the conflict in Yemen, even though it ensures that Saudi Arabia has everything it needs to defend its territory.
The declassified intelligence service, prepared by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, reiterated a classified version of a report on Khashoggi’s assassination 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 growing tensions with Iran and to promote US arms sales to the kingdom.
For two years we bet that the truth would be made public:
The highest levels of the Saudi government, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are responsible for the brutal assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.
There must be responsibility, and we will continue to press for it. https://t.co/gAdf9apsPU
– Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) February 26, 2021
Biden’s new head of national intelligence, Avril Haines, has pledged to follow a defense bill for 2019 that required her office to release a declassified report on Khashoggi’s murder within 30 days.
The 59-year-old Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist living in self-imposed exile in Virginia who wrote statements to the Washington Post critical of the Crown Prince’s policy – known to some in the West as MbS.
On October 2, 2018, he was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul with a promise of a document that he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée. A team of agents connected to MbS killed him there and divided his body. His remains have not been found.
Riyadh originally published conflicting stories about his disappearance, but eventually admitted that Khashoggi was killed in what he called a “villain” extradition operation that went wrong.
Twenty men were arrested in the assassination and five senior officials, including deputy intelligence chief Ahmad Asiri, and Saud al-Qahtani, a senior MbS assistant, were fired.
In January 2019, 11 people were prosecuted behind closed doors. Five received death sentences, which were commuted to 20 years in prison after being forgiven by Khashoggi’s family, while three others received prison sentences.
Asiri was tried but acquitted “due to insufficient evidence”, the prosecutor said, while Qahtani was investigated but not charged.
As part of Biden’s rebalancing of ties with Saudi Arabia, he will only communicate with King Salman, the White House has said, a move that could allow Washington to distance itself from the Crown Prince, 35 years old.
It will restore the protocol broken by Trump and his son-in-law and top assistant, Jared Kushner, who maintained a direct channel to the Crown Prince.
MbS has consolidated power since he overthrew his uncle as heir to the throne in a palace coup in 2017 and sought public support by overseeing popular economic and social reforms.
But he has also had opponents and women’s rights activists detained and persecuted risky foreign gambits, some of which struck back, such as the intervention in Yemen, where a war between Saudi and Iranian agents has created a humanitarian crisis.