Biden administration releases report on Khashoggi's killing directly implicating Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

  • The Biden administration released a long-awaited report on Jamal Khashoggi’s killing.
  • The declassified intelligence report directly implicated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 
  • The Trump administration prioritized the US-Saudi relationship and refused to release the report.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The Biden administration on Friday released a declassified US intelligence report on Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal 2018 killing that explicitly implicated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

“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, provided by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), said. 

It added: “We base this assessment on the Crown Prince’s control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.”

The report went on to note that Prince Mohammed since 2017 has had “absolute control” over the kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, which makes it “highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”

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

The intelligence assessment also names with “high confidence” 21 people that “participated in, ordered, or were otherwise complicit in or responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi on behalf of Muhammad bin Salman.” The report went on to say, however, that it’s unknown “whether these individuals knew in advance that the operation would result in Khashoggi’s death.”

The listed names include Saud al-Qahtani, formerly a close advisor to Prince Mohammed who’s been accused of directing the operation behind Khashoggi’s murder. Al-Qahtani was dismissed from his role shortly after the killing. 

The Trump administration repeatedly defied congressional demands for an unclassified report explicitly identifying any current or former Saudi officials responsible for Khashoggi’s death in a Saudi embassy. 

The long-awaited release of the declassified report on Friday is one sign of how President Joe Biden is drastically altering the close dynamic that developed between Riyadh and the Trump administration. In the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi’s killing, then-President Donald Trump defended Prince Mohammed and suggested that “maybe” the Saudi leader had no knowledge of the killing. “The world is a very dangerous place!” Trump said in response to the killing.

As part of this realignment, Biden in early February announced an end to US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

‘A deliberate, premeditated execution’

In 2019, the UN released a report that also implicated the Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi’s killing, which it described as “a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law.”

Khashoggi, who once had close ties to the Saudi royal family, was killed and dismembered by agents of his own government in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. His remains have still not been found, more than two years after his killing. Khashoggi had been lured to the consulate to pick up documents necessary to marry his fiance, Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish citizen. 

“Assessments of the recordings by intelligence officers in Turkey and other countries suggest that Mr Khashoggi could have been injected with a sedative and then suffocated using a plastic bag,” the UN report said. Turkish officials have also said that Khashoggi’s body was dismembered with a bone saw. 

A Washington Post columnist at the time of his killing, Khashoggi’s writing was often critical of the Saudi government. 

Khashoggi’s gruesome killing prompted global outrage, and sparked bipartisan calls for the US to reevaluate its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Democrats and Republicans alike explicitly accused Prince Mohammed of being behind Khashoggi’s death.

But Trump prioritized preserving the US-Saudi relationship and stood by Prince Mohammed, citing the importance of arms sales. He brushed off the CIA’s conclusion that the Saudi crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s killing.

Trump also rejected efforts from congressional lawmakers to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, where a war has fostered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The former president at one point boasted that he’d shielded Prince Mohammed from congressional retribution over Khashoggi’s killing, according to reporting from veteran journalist Bob Woodward. 

Biden snubs MBS as he recalibrates the US-Saudi relationship

The US-Saudi relationship has taken a sharp turn under Biden. Beyond releasing the Khashoggi report and moving to end US involvement in Yemen, the White House also recently announced that Biden would speak with Saudi King Salman and not Prince Mohammed in official communications between the two countries. This marked a major diplomatic rebuke of the Saudi crown prince, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, and underscored how serious Biden is about recalibrating. 

Biden spoke with King Salman for the first time as president on Thursday. A White House readout of the call said Biden “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law.”

“Together they discussed regional security, including the renewed diplomatic efforts led by the United Nations and the United States to end the war in Yemen, and the U.S. commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups,” the White House said of the conversation between the two leaders. 

The readout made no mention of Khashoggi, however, and it’s not clear if Biden brought up the Saudi journalist’s killing during the call. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider. 

Following the release of the report on Friday, Politico White House correspondent Natasha Bertrand reported that the Treasury Department planned to announce sanctions on General Ahmed al-Asiri, former deputy head of the Saudi intelligence services, and the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force (RIF) for their involvement in the Khashoggi killing. But officials said Prince Mohammed will not face sanctions, per Bertrand, despite the fact the intelligence assessment says he approved Khashoggi’s killing.  

The report also identifies the RIF as existing to defend Prince Mohammed and answering only to him, but the Biden administration is reportedly concerned that sanctioning the crown prince could “rupture” the US-Saudi relationship.

Read the full ODNI report:

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