United Kingdom

US publicly accuses Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over brutal Khashoggi murder for first time

The US has publicly accused Mohammed bin Salman of ordering the murder and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but spared the Saudi crown prince in a wave of new sanctions that would have risked relations between the allies.

The report asserts that Prince Mohammed directed the assassination in which Khashoggi, a Washington Post writer and US resident, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, then killed and cut into pieces.

The US Treasury Department announced sanctions against more than a dozen Saudis implicated in the murder after the long-awaited report was released, but the Biden administration did not go so far as to directly punish the de facto ruler of the kingdom.

“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 four-page report, released by the Office for the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), found.

Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had “absolute control of the Kingdom's security and intelligence organizations”, it went on, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince's authorisation. 

The killing also fit a pattern of "the Crown Prince's support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad," it said.

In response, Antony Blinken, Secretary of State, on Friday announced a new "Khashoggi Ban", which would see the US ban entry to foreigners who threaten dissidents, starting with 76 Saudi individuals implicated in the journalist's death.

"We have made absolutely clear that extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents and journalists must end. They will not be tolerated by the United States," Mr Blinken said in a statement.

Khashoggi, who had written pieces critical of the Saudi regime in his weekly column and was living in self-exile, was suffocated and killed by a 15-man team of Saudis who had travelled to Istanbul in the days before the killing.

The 59-year-old's body has never been discovered.

“The Crown Prince viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the Kingdom and broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him,” the report reads.

“Although Saudi officials had pre-planned an unspecified operation against Khashoggi we do not know how far in advance Saudi officials decided to harm him,” the ODNI wrote, claiming it was not aware of the plot ahead of time.

The report also confirmed the involvement of a number of Saudi officials in the prince’s inner circle, including Saud al-Qahtani, the royal court's media adviser, and Ahmad al-Assiri, deputy intelligence chief, who were both exonerated in a closed-door trial.

Just one month after the murder, the US Central Intelligence Agency concluded with high confidence that Prince Mohammed had ordered the assassination.

The 35-year-old prince, or MBS as he is known, has accepted Saudi Arabia's overall responsibility in the killing of his vocal critic, but has always denied a personal link.

But, determined to maintain strong relations with Riyadh, Donald Trump refused to publicly hold the Saudi strongman responsible, even as the US government demanded the perpetrators be punished.

Ron Wyden, Democratic senator for Oregon, on Friday praised the administration for releasing the report but said evidence of their findings should be released: “There’s no question in my mind there is considerably more to declassify here," he said. 

The decision marks a reassessment of relations between Washington and the oil-rich kingdom, which has been its closest Arab ally in the Middle East for decades.

Mr Biden must now navigate a complicated relationship with the US ally that remains a key geostrategic partner and the largest purchaser of US made weapons in the world.

Mr Biden has already ordered a review of US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and is reportedly considering a ban on all non-defensive purchases.

However, sources say the president has decided that the price of directly penalising MBS is just too high.

“Let me first say that we've been clear at every level that our intention is to recalibrate the relationship and this will be a different relationship with the Saudi government,” Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary, told reporters on Friday. “At the same time, we of course we want to end the war in Yemen, we want to ensure that humanitarian crisis is addressed and the president and every member of our team is not going to hold back in voicing concern, and taking action as needed.”

The move is in line with campaign pledges made by the president, who has sought to ensure that American weapons are not used to further the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, where its conflict with the Iranian-aligned Houthis has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and widespread hunger.

It came a day after the Biden administration ordered its first air strikes on Iran-backed militias in Syria, which it said was in response to attacks against US and coalition personnel in Iraq.

The president has been exploring ways of reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, however, the strikes send a clear message to Tehran that it is not willing to ignore aggression by its proxies in the region. 

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