US Says Saudi Crown Prince Ordered Khashoggi Murder, Refuses to Sanction Him

Image courtesy of April Brady/Project on Middle East Democracy

A declassified U.S. intelligence report released Feb. 25 said that Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, approved the order to assassinate Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Washington Post journalist. 

But in the days since the report was released, the Biden administration has decided against singling out Prince Mohammed as it sanctions other Saudi officials. White House officials have said that Saudi Arabia’s cooperation in counterrorism efforts and in dealing with Iran is too valuable, and sanctioning the prince is not worth jeopardizing the diplomatic relationship between the two countries, according to the New York Times.

“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 report stated, citing the prince’s “control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom since 2017.” It said the prince “viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the Kingdom and broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him.”

The report found that a team of 15 Saudi nationals arrived in Istanbul the day of Khashoggi’s death and were led by a “close adviser” of the prince. Among them were seven members of the prince’s personal detail, who only answered to him. “Aides were unlikely to question Muhammad bin Salman’s orders or undertake sensitive actions without his consent,” the report said.

An adamant critic of the Saudi regime, Khashoggi was murdered in 2018 while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. His death exemplified the harsh reality of the prince’s stance on dissidents, and as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence report confirmed, the prince took direct action in ordering Khashoggi’s murder. 

The report was released through a congressional mandate after a phone call between President Joe Biden and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud on Feb. 25.

Khashoggi was staunchly critical of the Saudi regime; in 2017 he was forced to flee Saudi Arabia after multiple attempts by the government to silence him. After relocating to Northern Virginia, he began writing columns about the Saudi government for the Washington Post. He remained in the U.S. for a year until his assasination in 2018.

In 2019, a Turkish newspaper published a gruesome transcript from recorded audio days before and during Khashoggi’s assassination. One particularly revealing conversation between the Saudi consul general in Istanbul and Saud al-Qahtani, an aide close to Prince Mohammed, showed that Khashoggi’s murder had been ordered.

“The head of state security called me,” the aide said in the recording. “They have a mission. They want one of your officials from your delegation to deal with a private matter. They want someone from your protocol for a private, top-secret mission. He can even get permission if necessary.” 

Since rising to power in 2017, Prince Mohammed has sought to crush dissent. The prince has reportedly ordered the arrests and torture of women’s rights activists and critics of his father’s administration. Saudi Arabia has also been accused of using surveillance technology to spy on dissidents. 

Khashoggi’s death was a stark reminder of the violence journalists have faced in recent years. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 115 journalists have been killed since 2018, and 18 journalists were murdered by government officials in that time. 

In response to the DNI report, the Saudi foreign ministry stated that Saudi Arabia “completely rejects the negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report.”

In reaction to the White House’s refusal to punish the prince, prominent journalists expressed outrage. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote that by letting Prince Mohammed walk, Biden was doing a disservice to democracy in Saudi Arabia and betraying Khashoggi’s legacy. 

The weak message to other thuggish dictators considering such a murder is: Please don’t do it, but we’ll still work with you if we have to,” Kristof wrote. “The message to Saudi Arabia is: Go ahead and elevate M.B.S. to be the country’s next king if you must.”

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