Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation that led to journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal assassination in 2018, according to a declassified US intelligence report the Biden administration released on Friday.
While the four-page report supports a conclusion already reached in 2018 by the CIA — that the man known as MBS was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder — it sends a new signal: that President Joe Biden is willing to publicly challenge what he once called a “pariah” state.
The US State Department also announced on Friday a new “Khashoggi Ban” that restricts the visas of 76 Saudis as part of a wider effort to retaliate against anyone who is involved in state-sponsored efforts to crack down on dissidents around the world.
This, however, falls far short of taking direct action against MBS.
The administration’s decision reflects the reality of the longtime marriage of convenience between the world’s longest-standing democracy and the world’s most absolute monarchy established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Saudi King Adul Aziz in 1945. This relationship has always been based on mutual interests around oil and, in recent years, counterterrorism against al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Biden is now trying to walk a tightrope. By releasing the damning intelligence report late on Friday and announcing the new “Khashoggi ban,” the new administration is hoping a mere rebuke and a slap on the wrist will be enough to signal the changing tides of US foreign policy after the Trump administration. At the same time, the Biden administration wants to maintain an alliance that has served both countries’ interests reasonably well for the better half of the last century.
Indeed, the story of Khashoggi’s murder says a great deal about bin Salman, and the Trump administration’s desire to ally with him, seemingly at any cost, including brushing Khashoggi’s assassination under the carpet.
MBS and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, both the scions of enormously wealthy, powerful families and only a few years apart in age, bonded early on during the Trump administration over a belief that together they could transform the Middle East.
The Saudis understood the power of family relationships and an alliance between the House of Saud and the House of Trump made sense to them, particularly after their tense relationship with President Barack Obama, who seemed intent on upending the traditional power dynamics of the Middle East with his nuclear agreement with their archrivals, the Iranians.
For his part, Kushner believed that MBS could help deliver a US-brokered solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that their personal relationship could achieve what decades of professional diplomacy hadn’t.
This was part of the geopolitical backdrop against which the murder of Khashoggi — a 59-year-old contributor to the Washington Post who was critical of the Saudi regime — played out.
In September 2018, Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey to obtain paperwork verifying his divorce so he could marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz.
Officials told him to come back to pick up the paperwork, and a 15-man team of Saudi intelligence agents, military officers and members of the Saudi Royal Guard traveled from Riyadh to Istanbul on October 2 — the day Khashoggi returned to the consulate.
The US intelligence report released Friday states some of the members were associated with the Saudi Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Royal Court — led by a close adviser of MBS who once publicly claimed he did not make decisions without the crown prince’s approval.
Others were identified by the report as members of the Rapid Intervention Force, a subset of the Royal Guard that answers only to MBS. It had taken part in other “earlier dissident suppression operations” and it was unlikely to have participated in the operation against Khashoggi without MBS’s approval, according to the report.
Audio recordings from the Saudi consulate revealed Khashoggi struggling and saying, “I can’t breathe,” before his body was dismembered with a saw as the perpetrators were advised to listen to music to block out the sound. Khashoggi’s remains were never found, which is particularly grave in Islam, a religion that puts a great premium on the swift burial of the body.
The then-Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Khalid bin Salman, who is MBS’s brother, quickly said claims that Saudi Arabia killed or detained Khashoggi were “absolutely false, and baseless.”
This was the beginning of a series of lies, cover stories and rationalizations that the Saudi government told about Khashoggi’s murder. The Saudis floated a story that the murder was the result of rogue killers during an interrogation gone wrong.
This story was undercut by the fact that the hit team included a forensic pathologist and that Khashoggi’s body was dismembered with a saw, which suggested a high degree of premeditation.
Despite the fact that Khashoggi was both a legal resident of the United States and a journalist who was contributing regularly to a major American media institution, President Trump stood with the Saudis and issued a statement that conflicted with the CIA’s own assessment that MBS authorized the killing. “It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” the statement read. “We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
According to journalist Bob Woodward’s book “Rage,” Trump doubled down on protecting MBS and said, “I saved his ass. I was able to get Congress to leave him alone.”
Trump rationalized his inaction when he told CBS 60 Minutes that “we’d be punishing ourselves” by canceling American arms sales to Saudi Arabia, deals that he frequently trumpeted as amounting to more than $110 billion, even though that figure was wildly inflated.
Trump’s defense of MBS was of a piece with his repeated defenses of other tyrants, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin in his efforts to swing the 2016 American presidential election against Hillary Clinton and the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, who Trump has praised lavishly.
Having enjoyed a very close relationship with the Trump administration, the Saudis are now getting just a taste of what could be a recalibrated relationship with the Biden administration. Biden will almost certainly not be looking to cause permanent damage to the US-Saudi relationship, but MBS will no longer have a free pass to murder his opponents outside of the kingdom, which is saying something.
The release of Friday’s report should leave no doubt that the US government, from President Biden to the intelligence community, holds him personally responsible for Khashoggi’s death.