Saudi Crown Prince Is Held Responsible for Khashoggi Killing in U.S. Report
But the Biden administration stopped short of directly penalizing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, calculating that the risk of damaging American interests was too great.
WASHINGTON — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia approved the assassination of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, according to an intelligence report that the Biden administration released on Friday that offered the world a reminder of the brutal killing.
An elite team of operatives helped carry out the killing, the report said. The team reported directly to Prince Mohammed, who cultivated a climate of fear that made it unlikely for aides to act without his consent, according to the report. It omitted the brutal details of Mr. Khashoggi’s death, including the dismemberment of his body with a bone saw after Saudi officials lured him to their consulate in Istanbul.
But the Biden administration took no direct action against Prince Mohammed, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, instead announcing travel and financial sanctions on other Saudis involved in the killing and on members of the elite unit of the Royal Guard who protect the crown prince. The administration concluded it could not risk a full rupture of its relationship with the kingdom, relied on by the United States to help contain Iran, to counter terrorist groups and to broker peaceful relations with Israel. Cutting off Saudi Arabia could also push its leaders toward China.
Lawmakers of both parties praised the release of the report, but some Democrats, including Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, spoke out in dismay that the administration stopped short of more severely punishing Prince Mohammed for the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, a legal permanent resident of Virginia who was critical of the Saudi government in columns he wrote for The Post.
“There are ways to bring about more personal repercussions without completely rupturing the relationship,” Mr. Schiff said in an interview.
Still, he added: “This is an official U.S. government statement that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia has blood on his hands, and that blood belongs to an American resident and journalist. And I think that’s very powerful.”
The 2018 assassination of Mr. Khashoggi and the brutality of his death, detailed in news reports at the time, shocked the world. And it disgusted American officials, including the C.I.A. director at the time, Gina Haspel, according to current and former intelligence officials. Ms. Haspel and the other American officials listened to a recording obtained by Turkish intelligence that not only captured Mr. Khashoggi’s struggle against Saudi agents and his killing, but also the sounds of the saw being used on his body.
The Saudi government issued a blistering response to the report’s release and the penalties, rejecting the document as a “negative, false and unacceptable assessment” about its leaders.
“It is truly unfortunate that this report, with its unjustified and inaccurate conclusions, is issued while the kingdom had clearly denounced this heinous crime,” the statement said. It noted that the kingdom had “taken steps” to prevent a repeat of the killing; it prosecuted eight people in connection with it.
Much of the evidence the C.I.A. used to conclude that Prince Mohammed was culpable in Mr. Khashoggi’s killing remains classified. But the report’s disclosure was the first time that the American intelligence community had made its conclusions public, and the declassified document was a powerful rebuke of the crown prince, a close ally of the Trump administration, whose continued support of him prompted international outrage.
The release of the report signaled that President Biden, unlike his predecessor, would not set aside the killing of Mr. Khashoggi and that his administration intended to try to isolate the crown prince.
“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,” said the report, issued by Mr. Biden’s director of national intelligence, Avril D. Haines.
The decision to rebuke the Saudis without punishing Prince Mohammed directly was the result of a weekslong debate among aides to Mr. Biden, who during the 2020 campaign called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state with “no redeeming social value. Two years earlier, Mr. Biden called out the Trump administration for its inaction after Mr. Khashoggi’s death, calling it “embarrassing” and “dangerous.”
Mr. Biden’s newly formed national security team advised him that he could not bar the heir to the Saudi crown from entering the United States, nor weigh criminal charges against him, without breaching the relationship with a key Arab ally, according to officials.
They said that a consensus emerged inside the White House that the cost of such a breach, in terms of Saudi cooperation on counterterrorism and in confronting Iran, was simply too high.
For Mr. Biden, the decision was a telling indication that his more cautious instincts had kicked in.
In an interview with Univision on Friday, the president said that he “spoke yesterday with the king, not the prince.” Mr. Biden added that he had “made it clear to him that the rules are changing, and we’re going to be announcing significant changes today and on Monday” to hold the Saudis accountable. “It is outrageous what happened.”
Ultimately, the Biden administration announced penalties against Saudi officials, including a travel ban and freezing of assets of the kingdom’s former intelligence chief and sanctions against members of a paramilitary unit that took part in the assassination.
The State Department also announced visa restrictions against 76 Saudis accused of suppressing or harming journalists, activists and dissidents, and more will eventually be applied to others around the world as the administration expands enforcement of a new “Khashoggi ban,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said.
“The relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual,” Mr. Blinken said Friday at a news conference at the department. “What we’ve done by the actions that we’ve taken is really not to rupture the relationship, but to recalibrate it to be more in line with our interests and our values.”
Dennis Ross, a former Middle East negotiator and foreign policy aide in administrations of both parties, applauded Mr. Biden for “trying to thread the needle,” calling the matter “a classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests.”
“We are now doing things that show a clear difference from Trump on democracy and human rights,” Mr. Ross added in an interview.
The four-page intelligence report contained few previously undisclosed major facts and reiterated the C.I.A.’s conclusion from 2018 that Prince Mohammed ordered the killing of Mr. Khashoggi. It made its case based on smaller pieces of evidence and the C.I.A.’s understanding of the crown prince’s control of the kingdom, which intelligence officials have long said led them to a high-confidence conclusion of his culpability.
Prince Mohammed viewed Mr. Khashoggi as a threat and “broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him,” the intelligence report concluded. American intelligence agencies learned that Saudi officials had planned an unspecified operation against Mr. Khashoggi, but the report said the United States has not learned when Saudi officials decided to harm him.
Members of the hit team flew to Turkey on Oct. 2, 2018, after Saudi officials lured Mr. Khashoggi, who was seeking paperwork to marry his Turkish fiancée, into the consulate in Istanbul.
While the team arrived in Istanbul prepared to kill Mr. Khashoggi, American intelligence agencies were not confident that was their only authorized option.
The spy agencies could not rule out that Prince Mohammed might have preferred to capture Mr. Khashoggi, an American intelligence official said, adding that the C.I.A. and other agencies have high confidence in their judgment that Prince Mohammed was responsible for an order to either capture or kill Mr. Khashoggi. His body was never found.
According to the report, Prince Mohammed “fostered an environment” where his aides feared that any failure to follow his orders could result in their arrest. “This suggests that the aides were unlikely to question Mohammed bin Salman’s orders or undertake sensitive actions without his consent,” the report said.
The report listed 21 others involved in the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, including members of the hit team.
The operatives worked for the Saudi Center for Studies and Media Affairs, at the time led by Saud al-Qahtani, a close adviser of Prince Mohammed’s. Mr. al-Qahtani’s official job was the media czar for the Royal Court, and he was once in charge of a campaign to use social media to attack Saudi dissidents online. The report noted that Mr. al-Qahtani had said publicly that he did not make decisions without the crown prince’s approval.
The report said that seven members of Prince Mohammed’s elite protective detail, called the Rapid Intervention Force, or R.I.F., were part of the 15-man team that killed Mr. Khashoggi. The unit has carried out a campaign of kidnapping, surveillance, detention and torture to crush opposition to Prince Mohammed.
“Members of the R.I.F. would not have participated in the operation against Khashoggi without Muhammad bin Salman’s approval,” the declassified report said.
From the moment Mr. Khashoggi’s death was discovered, Saudi officials sought to deflect blame from the crown prince. The Saudi government imprisoned eight people in connection with Mr. Khashoggi’s death, trying them largely secretively. Though five were originally sentenced to death, after one of Mr. Khashoggi’s sons said he and his siblings had forgiven the men who killed their father, a Saudi court reduced the sentences to prison terms.
Mr. Schiff said he met with White House officials on Friday to press for “more personal repercussions” on the crown prince.
“I don’t think the president should be meeting with him. I don’t think the president should be talking with him,” Mr. Schiff said. “I think the administration should explore ways to go after assets that he controls.”
Ahead of the report’s release, Mr. Biden spoke to King Salman of Saudi Arabia. And officials have said Mr. Biden will speak only with the king, his counterpart as head of state, though others in the administration might speak directly with the crown prince.
Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey, who was the assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Obama administration, said that a “visa ban for M.B.S. should be mandatory” under existing law “if the secretary of state has credible information that he committed a gross human rights abuse, which the secretary just told us he has.”
Mr. Blinken, Mr. Malinowski said, had the power to waive the visa ban, but only with a report to Congress laying out a justification.
In the waning days of Mr. Trump’s presidency, the outgoing administration approved two major sales of precision-guided bombs to the Saudis totaling more than $750 million. Soon after Mr. Biden took office, his administration suspended those sales but did not cancel them, State Department officials said. The sales could still go through, and other military deals, including for maintenance of Saudi Arabia’s fleet of F-15 attack jets and other support for the kingdom’s military, were unaffected by the suspension.
The intelligence report was written a year ago after Congress, which had been briefed on the underlying findings, passed a law mandating intelligence agencies’ conclusions be declassified and released.
Ms. Haines, in an interview with NPR, acknowledged that the conclusions would not be surprising but insisted that the intelligence agencies had a responsibility “to provide what we see and make sure that it is as clear as possible.”
Mark Mazzetti and Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington, and Michael LaForgia from New York.
An elite unit assigned to protect Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is said to have carried out dozens of operations, including forcibly repatriating Saudis.
WASHINGTON — Seven Saudis involved in the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi belonged to an elite unit charged with protecting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to a declassified report on the assassination released on Friday. The New York Times has linked the group to a brutal campaign to crush dissent inside the kingdom and abroad, citing interviews with American officials who have read classified intelligence reports about the campaign.
The role of operatives from the so-called Rapid Intervention Force, or R.I.F., in the Khashoggi killing helped bolster the American intelligence case that Prince Mohammed approved the operation. “Members of the R.I.F. would not have participated” in the killing without the crown prince’s consent, according to the report.
The group “exists to defend the crown prince” and “answers only to him” the report said, and on Friday, the Treasury Department designated the Rapid Intervention Force for economic sanctions for its role in the Khashoggi killing.
Here is some of what is known about the unit:
The killing of Mr. Khashoggi was but one particularly egregious operation involving members of the group. The Rapid Intervention Force appears to have begun its violent campaign in 2017, the year when Prince Mohammed pushed aside his older rival to become heir to the Saudi throne.
The group was so busy that, in June 2018, its field commander asked an adviser to Prince Mohammed whether the Rapid Intervention Force might get bonuses for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, according to American officials who have read an intelligence report that mentions the request.
Leadership and Operatives
The group was overseen by Saud al-Qahtani, one of the crown prince’s top aides who served as a media czar for the Royal Court. One of Mr. al-Qahtani’s roles was to manage the kingdom’s “troll farms” — organizations that used legions of online bots and avatars to smother the voices of prominent critics like Mr. Khashoggi. The intelligence report released on Friday made reference to a 2018 quote from Mr. al-Qahtani that he “did not make decisions without the crown prince’s approval.”
American officials said the field commander for the Rapid Intervention Force was Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, an intelligence officer who often traveled overseas with Prince Mohammed. Another operative on the team, Thaar Ghaleb al-Harbi, was a member of the Saudi Royal Guard who in 2017 was promoted for acts of valor during an attack on one of Prince Mohammed’s palaces.
The declassified report on Friday named all three men as part of a group of 21 people who “participated in, ordered or were otherwise complicit in or responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi” on behalf of the crown prince.
The Saudi government has long denied that Prince Mohammed had any role in Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, and it put eight men on trial for it. The government never released the names of the accused.
In September, a Saudi court announced that five of the men had been sentenced to 20 years in prison, and three others received lesser sentences. Some of the defendants had originally received death sentences, but those sentences were lifted after one of Mr. Khashoggi’s sons said publicly that he and his siblings had pardoned the men who killed their father.
It was unclear whether any members of the Rapid Intervention Force were put on trial or sentenced, but Mr. al-Qahtani was publicly exonerated by the Saudi government because prosecutors said there was insufficient evidence to try him in Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.
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