A declassified United States intelligence report has said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to capture or kill dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered in Istanbul in 2018.
“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in the report posted on its website.
“We base this assessment on the crown prince’s control of decision-making in the kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Mohammed bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the crown prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi,” it added.
Saudi Arabia said it rejected completely “the negative, false and unacceptable” assessment of the US intelligence report implicating the crown prince in Khashoggi’s death, Riyadh said on Friday.
The report was completed under the administration of Donald Trump in the wake of the gruesome killing. But President Joe Biden ordered a declassified version to be released as part of a reset where Washington is distancing itself from Prince Mohammed.
The report asserts that the prince directed the assassination in which Khashoggi, a Washington Post writer and US resident, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, then killed and cut into pieces.
Prince Mohammed has said he accepts Saudi Arabia’s overall responsibility in the killing of his vocal critic, but denies a personal link.
Jamal Khashoggi was a prominent journalist and critic of the ultra-conservative kingdom’s government.
The 59-year-old went into self-imposed exile in the US in 2017 after falling out with Prince Mohammed, who had become de facto ruler months earlier.
Turkish officials say he was killed in his country’s Istanbul consulate on October 2, 2018, by a 15-man Saudi squad who strangled him and cut his body into pieces.
His remains were never found.
In a partially redacted two-year-old report released Friday by President Joe Biden’s administration, US intelligence concluded that the prince “approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”
“The crown prince views Khashoggi as a threat to the kingdom and broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him,” it said.
In September last year, a Saudi court overturned five death sentences in its final ruling and handed jail terms of up to 20 years to eight unnamed defendants after secretive legal proceedings.
The verdict came after Khashoggi’s sons “pardoned” the killers in May last year, paving the way for a less severe punishment.
Two top figures, who are part of Prince Mohammed’s inner circle, were investigated over the killing and exonerated.
Both deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri and the royal court’s media adviser Saud al-Qahtani were sacked shortly after the murder but eventually cleared “due to insufficient evidence”.
Khashoggi once served as an adviser to the Saudi government but later became a vociferous critic of Prince Mohammed’s policies, speaking out in both the Arab and Western press.
Never one to mince his words, Khashoggi described a new Saudi era of “fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming” in an article published in the Post in 2017.
In a March 2018 editorial in The Guardian, co-authored with historian Robert Lacey, Khashoggi wrote: “For his domestic reform programme, the crown prince deserves praise. But at the same time, the brash and abrasive young innovator has not encouraged or permitted any popular debate.”
“He appears to be moving the country from old-time religious extremism to his own ‘You-must-accept-my-reform’ extremism, without any consultation — accompanied by arrests and the disappearance of his critics.”
Khashoggi fled the country in September 2017, months after Prince Mohammed was appointed heir to the throne and amid a campaign that saw dozens of dissidents arrested, including intellectuals and Islamic preachers.
His criticisms of Saudi Arabia’s policies included its role in Yemen, where Riyadh leads a military coalition fighting alongside the government in its war against the Iran-backed Huthi rebels.
He also opposed a 2017 Saudi-led boycott of Qatar, a tiny Gulf emirate that found itself isolated for more than three years over its allegedly close ties to extremist groups and Iran.
Khashoggi said he had been banned from writing in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, owned by Saudi Prince Khaled bin Sultan al-Saud, over his defence of the Muslim Brotherhood which Riyadh has blacklisted as a terrorist organisation.
The writer said Saudi authorities banned him from using his verified Twitter account after he said the country should be “rightfully nervous about a Trump presidency”.
Former US president Donald Trump had repeatedly expressed support for Prince Mohammed, describing him as a friend who was doing a “spectacular job”.
Trump said he was “extremely angry” about Khashoggi’s murder but that nobody had “pointed a finger” at the kingdom’s leader.
Khashoggi came from a prominent Saudi family with Turkish origins.
He was born in the western Saudi city of Medina, revered in Islam as the burial place of the Prophet Mohammed.
After a youth spent studying Islamic ideology, he later embraced more liberal ideas.
He began his career as a journalist with Saudi dailies in the 1980s, covering the Afghanistan conflict.
But the authorities came to see Khashoggi as too progressive and he was forced to resign as editor-in-chief of Al-Watan in 2003.
However, Khashoggi retained ambiguous ties to Saudi authorities, having held advisory positions in Riyadh and Washington — including to Prince Turki al-Faisal, who ran Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency for more than 20 years.