The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, approved the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to a declassified assessment of the killing released to the Congress by US intelligence agencies.
The report confirmed the long-suspected view that the 35-year-old future king had a personal hand in the violent and premeditated murder of one of his most prominent critics, a columnist and former Saudi insider who was living in exile in the US and used his platform to decry the prince’s crackdown on dissent.
Friday’s release of the assessment was expected to be accompanied by further actions from the Biden administration, which are expected to be unveiled by the State Department.
The assessment, which was released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and relied heavily on information gathered by the CIA, said the agencies assessed that “Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”
It based the assessment on the prince’s “control of decisionmaking in the kingdom, the direct involvment of a key adviser and members of [the prince’s] protective detail in the operation, and [his] support for the using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi”.
While Prince Mohammed has previously denied ordering the killing or having any knowledge of it, the damning picture portrayed by the new report raises serious new questions about his future as the Saudi heir.
The revelation comes more than two years after Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on a mission to retrieve papers that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancee, Hadice Cengiz, who has since emerged as a fierce advocate for justice for her late partner.
While Khashoggi had been assured by Saudi officials that he would be safe inside the consulate’s walls, grisly details later emerged – pieced together through recording and other evidence gathered by Turkish authorities – that described how a team of Saudi agents, who had arrived in Istanbul on state-owned planes for the intended purpose of killing the journalist – subdued, killed and then dismembered Khashoggi using a bone saw. In one recording, a close ally of Prince Mohammed referred to the journalist as a “sacrificial lamb”.
The decision to release the report and expected move to issue further actions represents the first major foreign policy decision of Joe Biden’s presidency, months after he vowed on the presidential campaign trail to make a “pariah” out of the kingdom. The White House has said it is seeking to “recalibrate” its relationship with the oil-rich nation, in a major departure from the close relationship the crown prince, who is known as MBS, had with Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, and Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The former president defended and brushed aside the findings of his own intelligence agencies even after it became widely known through media reports that the CIA had concluded with a medium- to high-degree of confidence that Prince Mohammed had approved the murder. Trump was reported to have bragged to the Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that he had protected the crown prince from congressional scrutiny, telling Woodward: “I saved his ass.”
The declassified US intelligence assessment was released after it was mandated by Congress. The Trump administration had ignored the law but the Biden administration signalled early on that it would be willing to release the document.
Its publication follows years of lobbying by Cengiz and other human rights advocates who have said that Saudi Arabia was never held accountable for the murder.
Saudi officials initially denied that Khashoggi had been harmed in the consulate, and had tried to create the impression using a body double wearing Khashoggi’s clothes that the 59-year-old had left the building. Eventually, officials in the kingdom acknowledged Khashoggi had been killed but blamed the murder on a “rogue operation”.
The release of the US report could have significant repercussions for the crown prince, though most analysts agreed that it was not immediately clear who might replace him following a years-long campaign by the future king to target and imprison his most likely political rivals, including the former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
While the killing initially tarnished the crown prince’s reputation, Trump’s staunch support of the Saudi heir, even in the wake of the wake of the murder and media reports that said US intelligence officials believed “MBS” had a hand in the killing, ultimately helped to rehabilitate his image, including with business leaders and politicians and heads of state across Europe.
Saudi prosecutors put 11 unnamed officials on trial in what was largely seen as a sham proceeding, and later reduced the death sentences of five of the men who were convicted of killing the dissident to 20-year prison terms.
Among the officials who were said to have been “exonerated” in the trial was Saud Al-Qatani, a senior adviser to the crown prince who, along with 16 other Saudi officials, was later sanctioned by the US Treasury for his role in the murder.