It has been nearly two months to the day since Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul hoping to retrieve papers needed to marry his Turkish fiance – only to be killed and butchered by a 15-man Saudi murder squad.
In the intervening weeks, the Saudis have suffered remarkably little blowback (considering that the uproar elicited by Khashoggi’s murder nearly triggered a global diplomatic crisis): To date, the US and Canada have levied sanctions against a 17 Saudis suspected of participating or orchestrating Khashoggi’s murder, and a handful of countries who don’t sell arms to Saudi Arabia have said they will stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, both Canada and the US have balked at similar measures because they would inevitably kill jobs.
Clearly concerned about the flagging interest in holding Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable for his suspected role in ordering the killing, the CIA has decided to pick up where Turkey left off.
Last week, somebody inside the agency leaked a preliminary report to the Washington Post detailing the agency’s determination that MbS had ordered the killing. And on Saturday morning, the Wall Street Journal published the latest (illegal) intelligence agency leak when it reported on the contents of intercepts revealing that during the hours after and immediately before the killing, MbS had exchanged 11 messages with Saud al-Qahtani, a close aide to the prince who is believed to have supervised the murder squad.
Notably, the WSJ report followed a vote in the Senate earlier this week to open debate on a measure to withdraw US support for Saudi Arabia’s proxy war in Yemen (the kingdom’s brutal bombing campaigns have reportedly resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents and created one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world). The Trump Administration has opposed the bill, arguing that it would damage its relationship with a crucial geopolitical ally while also killing jobs in the Military-Industrial Complex. While we wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that the CIA is deliberately trying to undermine the administration, the timing of this leak is certainly curious.
Al-Qahtani has shouldered most of the consequences of Khashoggi’s kingdom (he has been fired from the kingdom’s intelligence service and targeted by US and Canadian sanctions) largely due to his reputation as MbS’s enforcer. Al-Qahtani has attacked dissidents whom MbS views as a threat, as well as orchestrated their detention and torture (and not just inside the Riyadh Ritz Carlton).
According to the CIA intercepts, MbS also discussed taking steps to silence Khashoggi if he continued to speak out (with talk of “making arrangements” to lure him somewhere outside Saudi Arabia).
The Saudi leader also in August 2017 had told associates that if his efforts to persuade Mr. Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia weren’t successful, “we could possibly lure him outside Saudi Arabia and make arrangements,” according to the assessment, a communication that it states “seems to foreshadow the Saudi operation launched against Khashoggi.”
The previously unreported excerpts reviewed by the Journal state that the CIA has “medium-to-high confidence” that Prince Mohammed “personally targeted” Khashoggi and “probably ordered his death.” It added: “To be clear, we lack direct reporting of the Crown Prince issuing a kill order.”
The electronic messages sent by Prince Mohammed were to Saud al-Qahtani, according to the CIA. Mr. Qahtani supervised the 15-man team that killed Mr. Khashoggi and, during the same period, was also in direct communication with the team’s leader in Istanbul, the assessment says. The content of the messages between Prince Mohammed and Mr. Qahtani isn’t known, the document says. It doesn’t say in what form the messages were sent.
Other details seemingly culled from the CIA’s internal reports also found their way into the WSJ story, including a detailed accounting of the agency’s reasons for suspecting MbS’s involvement.
The judgment on Prince Mohammed’s likely culpability, the CIA assessment says, is based on the crown prince’s personal focus on Mr. Khashoggi, his tight control over the Saudi operatives sent to Istanbul to kill him, “and his authorizing some of the same operators to violently target other opponents.”
Mr. Qahtani has led Prince Mohammed’s efforts to crack down on dissent internally and abroad. He is one of the 17 sanctioned by the Treasury.
The highly classified CIA assessment says that the Saudi team sent to kill Mr. Khashoggi was assembled from Prince Mohammed’s top security units in the Royal Guard and in an organization run by Mr. Qahtani, the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Royal Court, the Saudi royal court’s media department.
“We assess it is highly unlikely this team of operators…carried out the operation without Muhammed bin Salman’s authorization,” it says.
The document says that Mr. Qahtani “explicitly requested the Crown Prince’s permission when he pursued other sensitive operations in 2015, which reflects the Crown Prince’s command and control expectations.”
Some can argue that these findings don’t necessarily contradict the administration’s position. Trump, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and even Defense Secretary James Mattis have said that the intelligence agency’s findings aren’t definitive – which, by the CIA’s own admission, is true.
As Trump recently said about MbS’s involvement, “Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.” While this chilling exercise in realpolitik might make many Americans uncomfortable, it’s worth remembering that Canada has also resisted cancelling arms deals with the kingdom, despite its government’s scathing rhetoric. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan only stands to benefit from a rift between Saudi Arabia and the US (it would weaken one of his biggest regional rivals, while potentially leading to warmer relations with the US).