U.S. Intelligence: Saudi Crown Prince Approved Operation To Kill Jamal Khashoggi

Feb 25, 2021
Originally published on February 26, 2021 6:32 pm

Updated at 7:32 p.m. ET

Saudi Arabia's crown prince approved the operation that led to the brutal 2018 death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the U.S. intelligence community said in a report released Friday.

President Biden has been critical of Saudi Arabia and the report is expected to further harm the increasingly fraught relations between the two longtime allies. He said Friday that he will hold Saudi Arabia accountable for human rights abuses.

"We assess that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill" Khashoggi, said the report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

"Since 2017, the crown prince has had absolute control of the kingdom's security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the crown prince's authorization," it added.

Shortly after the report was released, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines gave an exclusive interview to NPR.

"The fact that the crown prince approved that operation ... is likely not to be a surprise," she told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. "I am sure it is not going to make things easier, but I think it's also fair to say that it is not unexpected."

People hold posters of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, near Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul in the fall, marking the two-year anniversary of his death.
Emrah Gurel / AP

Asked how this might affect the U.S.-Saudi relationship, she said: "I think there will be ways to weather the various storms that we have in front of us."

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia said it rejected completely "the negative, false and unacceptable" finding of the U.S. intelligence community, adding "that the report contained inaccurate information and conclusions."

The basic facts of the killing have long been clear. Khashoggi, 59, was a Saudi citizen living in Northern Virginia and writing columns for The Washington Post that were often critical of the Saudi monarchy. He was killed during a visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. His body was dismembered, and his remains have never been found.

Saudi Arabia initially denied knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi. But in the face of intense international pressure, the kingdom blamed his death on "rogue" security officials.

However, the crown prince's involvement in the killing has long been suspected.

Two months after Khashoggi's death, in December 2018, then-CIA Director Gina Haspel returned from a trip to Turkey and briefed Senate leaders on her findings. The senators emerged from that meeting convinced that the crown prince was responsible.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman "is a wrecking ball. I think he is complicit in the murder of Khashoggi in the highest possible level," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

In a 2019 report, U.N. human rights investigator Agnes Callamard said Khashoggi "has been the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law."

The U.N. report said a 15-member team of Saudi agents flew to Istanbul specifically to meet Khashoggi. The team included a forensic doctor and people who worked in the crown prince's office.

The U.S. intelligence report released Friday says seven of the team members were part of the crown prince's "elite personal protective detail." It says that group, called the Rapid Intervention Force, "exists to defend the crown prince" and "answers only to him."

"We judge that members of the RIF would not have participated in the operation against Khashoggi without Mohammed bin Salman's approval."

Saudi courts have sentenced five men to death for Khashoggi's murder, but the sentences were later reduced to 20 years. Three other men received lesser sentences.

Biden to "recalibrate" relations

Biden has already made it clear that he plans to take a more critical position toward Saudi Arabia, which has had close ties with many U.S. presidents, including President Donald Trump.

Trump's first foreign trip as president was to Saudi Arabia in 2017, where he described the kingdom as a regional leader and praised it for the billions of dollars the Saudis spend on U.S. weapons.

During last year's presidential campaign, Biden called Saudi Arabia a "pariah" and was critical of its human rights record and its intervention in Yemen's civil war, which has contributed to one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

"The president's intention, as is the intention of this government, is to recalibrate our engagement with Saudi Arabia," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday. Psaki said earlier this month that Biden would conduct relations with Saudi Arabia "counterpart to counterpart."

"The president's counterpart is King Salman," Psaki said.

Biden said he has read the intelligence report produced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all 18 of the U.S. intelligence agencies.

According to the White House, Biden spoke by phone Thursday with King Salman. They discussed a range of issues, and Biden "affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law."

The White House statement made no mention of the Khashoggi case.

In an interview with Univision on Friday, Biden said he "made it clear to him that the rules are changing, and we're going to be announcing significant changes today and on Monday. We're going to hold them accountable for human rights abuses, and we're going to make sure that they in fact, you know if they want to deal with us, they have to deal with it in a way that human rights abuses are dealt with."

Shortly after the report was released, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. is imposing "visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing."

The U.S. Treasury also announced sanctions against the Rapid Intervention Force and Ahmad Hassan Mohammed al Asiri, the former deputy head of Saudi Arabia's General Intelligence Presidency, who it says was "assigned to murder" the journalist. The designation blocks all property and interests in property they own in the U.S. It also freezes their relevant property "in the possession or control of U.S. persons."

Analysts who follow Saudi Arabia say that the king, 85, has been in poor health for years and that the crown prince, 35, is the driving force in the kingdom. Friday's announcement of U.S. sanctions conspicuously did not include the crown prince.

The U.S.-Saudi partnership has often been described as transactional. The U.S. has long imported Saudi oil and relied on the kingdom's output to help stabilize world oil prices. The Saudis, in turn, buy U.S. weapons in bulk and view the U.S. as its main protector. The two countries have also cooperated in counterterrorism efforts against radical Islamist groups such as al-Qaida.

But critics say the U.S. and the Saudis share little in terms of values. Many U.S. administrations have been all but silent on Saudi Arabia's lack of democracy, the restrictions it places on women and its human rights violations.

The Obama and Trump administrations assisted the Saudi military campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, a group backed by Iran. But with no military solution on the horizon, and the impoverished country shattered by years of war, the Biden administration says it will press the Saudis to find a diplomatic solution in Yemen.

Deborah Amos contributed to this report.

This story was originally published on Feb. 25.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Just because the impeachment trial is done, it doesn't mean the story of what happened on January 6 in the nation's capital is over. This week in both House and Senate hearings, police officials who were at the Capitol that day were questioned about it.

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YOGANANDA PITTMAN: We know that the insurrectionists that attacked the Capitol weren't only interested in attacking members of Congress and officers.

CORNISH: Here's Yogananda Pittman, acting chief of the U.S. Capitol Police.

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PITTMAN: They wanted to send a symbolic message to the nation as who was in charge of that legislative process.

CORNISH: And Pittman said there are credible threats of an upcoming attack.

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PITTMAN: With a direct nexus to the State of the Union.

CORNISH: Now, the goal of these congressional hearings is in part to stop the next outbreak of homegrown extremist violence. But this is not a federal prosecution. That's the attorney general's job, otherwise known as the nation's top cop. And President Biden wants Merrick Garland for that position.

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DICK DURBIN: Judge Garland, will you please stand to be sworn?

CORNISH: Now, you've heard a lot about Garland because of the way Senate Republicans refused to take up his nomination to the Supreme Court. You might not have heard as much about why he's qualified for this job.

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MERRICK GARLAND: The cause of the explosion at the Murrah Building was a bomb that was placed inside a Ryder truck, which was parked inside of the building.

CORNISH: Now, this is the voice of Garland back in 1995, back when he was leading the investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing, a bombing that killed 168 people, the deadliest act of domestic terrorism to this day. Garland's department pursued and got the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh, the far-right anti-government militant behind it. This week Merrick Garland drew a direct line from that history to the present day.

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GARLAND: I supervised the prosecution of the perpetrators of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building who sought to spark a revolution that would topple the federal government. If confirmed, I will supervise the prosecution of white supremacists and others who stormed the Capitol on January 6.

CORNISH: Garland told the senators that battling extremist attacks are, quote, "central to the department's mission." Now, in 1995, Hannah Allam was a teenager living in Oklahoma City, not too far from the federal building.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: I was in high school. We felt it that morning in English class. That was my first experience with far-right domestic extremism, domestic terrorism - was the Murrah Building and, you know, our high school on lockdown.

CORNISH: Allam is now NPR's national security correspondent, and for the past two years, she's been focused on homegrown far-right extremism not unlike what she witnessed as a teenager in Oklahoma City.

ALLAM: With each month, it sort of became more relevant, more newsy, more topical and, you know, sort of culminating in what we saw January 6.

CORNISH: Allam was there at the Capitol on January 6, reporting from the crowd outside.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Let us in.

CORNISH: She was also in Richmond two weeks later for Lobby Day. That's a yearly gun rights rally at the state Capitol Building where, Hannah says, in the past, extremist groups have gathered.

ALLAM: And they yell about armed revolution and fighting government tyranny. And the cops kind of look on and, you know, let them blow off some steam, and then everybody goes home. And they don't make arrests. And I was wondering, you know, just given the tensions and kind of public demands for accountability and the outrage after the Capitol attack, I was like, surely that's not going to happen this time.

CORNISH: Did you think that people would show up - like, an armed mob would show up similar to January 6?

ALLAM: I wasn't sure. I knew the big, more organized groups had pledged to stay home. So that's even a little scarier because it meant that only the seriously militant - the provocateurs might be the only ones showing up.

CORNISH: Who did show up?

ALLAM: Boogaloo Boys and the press.

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MIKE DUNN: We're here openly carrying in pure defiance of this unconstitutional city ordinance.

ALLAM: One of them, a well-known Boogaloo figure named Mike Dunn, got on the bullhorn and said things like this.

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DUNN: The only answer to our problems, the only answer to this governmental infringement, is armed revolt. And I'm proudly guilty of sedition.

CORNISH: And the police - what's the response?

ALLAM: Well, if there is a different playbook for dealing with extremists threatening violence after January 6, Richmond didn't get the memo. They pretty much just did what I've seen them do before, which is, you know, watch closely, sort of just let them march around. They preen for cameras.

CORNISH: Were there any consequences for holding up their weapons, taunting the police? What happened after that?

ALLAM: No, not that day. We saw them a little later enjoying burgers and beers at a restaurant downtown.

CORNISH: There was a time when the focus of media organizations, of national security entities, when it came to the idea of terrorism - that focus was on the Muslim world - right? - after 9/11. That became kind of the dominant narrative. And in recent years, this conversation has started to shift. When did you see that shift?

ALLAM: Some would argue that it hasn't really shifted enough yet. I mean, I would say it's still the primary focus of much of the national security apparatus - is the Islamist threat, the far threat, the overseas threat, the potential for groups like ISIS and al-Qaida to come to the United States and launch attacks, even though the FBI for many years now has said that the far-right threat, the violent right, is the deadliest and the most active threat. That idea of Muslims as terrorists, that they sort of had a lock on that term, on that label - that persisted and, in some circles, still persists.

CORNISH: You know, when the topic of extremism comes up in the political debate right now, you have politicians on the right who will say, look; what about antifa? What have you learned about whether or not the threat from left-wing groups - essentially, how it compares to what is starting to develop in right-wing extremism?

ALLAM: By any metric, there's just no comparison. I mean, it's a totally lopsided picture. That being said, domestic terrorism analysts are worrying that they are going to see a hardening of the left - more groups like these, you know, kind of armed antifascist groups springing up. But as of now, there's just - there's no comparison of the threat.

CORNISH: As you go forward doing this work, can you give me two questions you're going to be asking, two things that you think are worth keeping an eye on as - for people who want to follow this issue?

ALLAM: I think the mainstreaming of extremism is the - is kind of the story. And to me, I'll be looking at how the government, law enforcement and the public sorts people, sorts - you know, how do we think about this threat? Who is an extremist at a time when, you know, a sitting president was deplatformed for promoting hate, violent ideologies, conspiracy theories? That kind of says it. You know, the line between mainstream and fringe has vanished. And so how do you even determine who's an extremist, who's a violent extremist, who should be policed, who shouldn't? I mean, these are all kinds of debates that I think are going to be unfolding as law enforcement does take a harder look at some of these groups and as the public outrage by January 6 starts demanding that law enforcement take a closer look.

CORNISH: That's NPR national security correspondent Hannah Allam. Thank you for speaking with me.

ALLAM: Thank you, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAMBERT AND GRAND OX'S "TO THE BONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.