Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler approved an operation to capture or kill murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment released on Friday as the United States sanctioned some of those involved but not the crown prince himself.
Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies, was killed and dismembered by a team of operatives linked to the prince in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
Riyadh has denied any involvement by the crown prince.
The Biden administration appeared to be trying to make clear that killings of political opponents were not acceptable to the United States while preserving relations with the crown prince, who may rule one of the world’s top oil exporters for decades and be an ally against common foe Iran.
“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 U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in the report.
The intelligence agency based its assessment on the crown price’s control of decision-making, the direct involvement of one of his key advisers and his own protective detail, and his “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi,” it added.
“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,” the report said.
In declassifying the report, President Joe Biden reversed his predecessor Donald Trump’s refusal to release it in defiance of a 2019 law, reflecting a new U.S. willingness to challenge the kingdom on issues from human rights to the war in Yemen.
However, Biden is treading a fine line to preserve ties with the kingdom as he seeks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with its regional rival Iran and to address other challenges including fighting Islamist extremism and advancing Arab-Israeli ties.
The United States banned entry by 76 people from Saudi Arabia, saying it will not tolerate those who threaten or assault activists, dissidents and journalists on behalf of foreign governments, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
Blinken announced the State Department’s “Khashoggi Ban,” a visa restriction policy “on individuals who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities.”
Previewing the announcement, U.S. officials had said the sanctions and visa bans would not target the crown prince.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior U.S. official said the approach aims to create a new launching-off point for ties with the kingdom without breaking a core relationship in the Middle East.
“The aim is a recalibration (in ties) – not a rupture. That’s because of the important interests that we do share,” the senior Biden administration official said.