Report: Saudi Crown Prince Approved Khashoggi Operation

A long-awaited intelligence report comes as Biden reassesses the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives for a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May (not pictured) in number 10 Downing Street on March 7, 2018 in London, England.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives for a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May (not pictured) at No. 10 Downing Street in London, on March 7, 2018. Leon Neal/Getty Images

The Biden administration released a U.S. intelligence assessment Friday concluding that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation that killed Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, marking another flash point in Washington’s relationship with Riyadh that has already dramatically changed in the first month of the Biden administration.

The report, which the Trump administration repeatedly refused to provide to Congress after Khashoggi’s killing, is based on the crown prince’s control of decision-making in Saudi Arabia, the involvement of close advisor Saud al-Qahtani, and Mohammed bin Salman’s “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad,” such as Khashoggi. But the four-page declassified report provides no specific evidence of the crown prince’s involvement. 

Democrats on Capitol Hill were quick to use the report to challenge Trump’s legacy. “That President Trump refused to disclose this information for years and even went so far as to defend the heinous actions of a foreign leader over the integrity of his own intelligence agencies will be one of the many stains on his tenure,” said Senate Foreign Relations chairperson Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat. 

“If the Saudis can get away with killing a U.S. resident in a foreign consulate and not suffer any consequences, it will be open season on journalists everywhere,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who pressed the Trump administration to release an unclassified assessment of the killing. 

Although the crown prince was widely believed to have been behind the operation, the release of the report could signal a dramatic reshaping of the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia, which got cozier under the Trump administration.

Reuters reported on Friday that the Biden administration was considering limiting future arms sales to the kingdom to “defensive” weapons. The new administration is also pressuring Riyadh to help facilitate an end to the war in Yemen, where it has been fighting for nearly six years. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Friday new visa restrictions on 76 Saudi nationals who have sought to threaten or stifle the work of dissidents overseas, including Khashoggi. “As a matter of safety for all within our borders, perpetrators targeting perceived dissidents on behalf of any foreign government should not be permitted to reach American soil,” Blinken said. 

The administration is not expected to sanction the crown prince, in an apparent bid to preserve the United States’ relationship with the Saudi royal family. On Friday, the U.S. Treasury announced it would be imposing sanctions on a number of people believed to have been involved in Khashoggi’s murder, including members of the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force, the crown prince’s personal protective detail.

Human rights advocates condemned the Biden administration’s decision not to target the crown prince personally. “To avoid imposing these sanctions on Mohammed bin Salman would undermine the credibility of the sanctions that have been imposed on the other culprits,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, the organization founded by Khashoggi shortly before his murder. Amrit Singh, lawyer for the Open Society Justice Initiative, which attempted to sue the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to release the report, called the decision “unconscionable.”

Biden had his first call with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a sign that the administration would resume the U.S. relationship with the kingdom’s head of state, a departure from the Trump administration. It’s unclear whether Biden raised the Khashoggi murder on the call. 

I can tell you broadly that the president raises … as does every official at every level, concerns we have about human rights abuses and steps that we expect the government and officials in the country to take moving forward, and certainly that was a part of the conversation,” said White House spokesperson Jen Psaki during a press briefing on Friday. 

But Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen during the Obama administration and now the senior vice president at the Middle East Institute, said the Biden team will likely have to balance punishing Saudi Arabia for its actions with its desire to achieve regional peace between the Arab countries and Israel and enter into a new nuclear deal with Iran. 

“They can’t get to any of those places unless they can work with the Saudis,” Feierstein said. “My guess is that they’re going to come up with something that makes it clear that this murder was egregious, and we can’t pretend that it didn’t happen, and we’re going to see how we can go forward.” 

Khashoggi, a former ally of the royal family, was murdered in a gruesome fashion at the consulate in Istanbul and was later dismembered with a bone saw. Khashoggi’s remains have never been found. 

The four-page report issued on Friday based its conclusion on the Saudi crown prince’s tight control of the kingdom’s security and intelligence services, and it deemed it unlikely that operatives would undertake an operation of such magnitude without the sign-off of Mohammed bin Salman. 

The Saudi government said Khashoggi was killed in the consulate as the result of a “rogue operation” by a team dispatched to return him to the oil-rich kingdom.

Update, Feb. 26, 2021: This article was updated to include remarks from human rights advocates.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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