By CONOR FINNEGAN and LUCIEN BRUGGEMAN, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — The Office of Director of National Intelligence on Friday released its highly anticipated report on the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi Friday, making public the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince approved an operation to capture or kill him.
The brutal killing has roiled the United States’ longstanding ties with Saudi Arabia, and President Joe Biden has vowed to recalibrate the relationship after his predecessor Donald Trump shielded the kingdom from U.S. pressure.
“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 report said.
Prince Mohammed is heir to the Saudi throne and the country’s de facto ruler, meaning the now public U.S. assessment of his involvement will strain relations between the U.S. and its key Middle East partner and a major global oil provider.
The Saudi government has denied that the crown prince, sometimes known by his initials MBS, was involved, instead blaming a rogue team of government agents.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and U.S. permanent resident, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in Oct. 2018, murdered, and dismembered.
U.S. lawmakers were briefed on a classified version of this report in 2018, leading Republicans and Democrats to urge former President Donald Trump to punish MBS for the murder. But Trump and his top advisers cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence finding, saying there was no “smoking gun” and the U.S.-Saudi relationship was too important.
The now declassified report says the intelligence community’s assessment was based on the crown prince’s “control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of [his] protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.”
Iyad El-Baghdadi is keenly aware of those measures. The activist and writer, who was friends with Khashoggi, lives in exile in Norway, where local authorities have warned him he is under threat from Saudi agents.
“Simply naming and shaming MBS — that itself goes a long way. Telling the truth about who MBS is and what he did and what his role was in the murder is going to make it very difficult for him to be integrated as a normal member of the international community,” El-Baghdadi told ABC News Friday.
The Biden administration is expected to announce other steps to hold the Saudi government accountable for Khashoggi’s murder, although it’s unclear what form that will take.
The report details the 15-member team that arrived in Istanbul from Saudi Arabia, including members of MBS’s inner circle and personal protective detail. It names 21 officials it says U.S. intelligence has “high confidence” were involved.
All 21 officials were banned from receiving U.S. visas by the Trump administration, and 17 of them faced financial sanctions. But Trump stopped short of implicating the crown prince, even though the report said it is “highly unlikely” they “would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”
The group includes Saud al Qahtani, a top adviser to MBS who was removed from his role after Khashoggi’s murder was confirmed by the Saudi government.
Eleven Saudi officials were tried for the murder, three were sentenced to prison, and five were sentenced to death — although their sentences were later commuted to jail time after Khashoggi’s faily made a formal statement of forgiveness.
Their trial was largely criticized for its lack of transparency, with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard calling it the “antithesis of justice” and a “mockery” — charges the Saudi government rejected.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.
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