WASHINGTON: A US intelligence report made public Friday (Feb 26) said that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - a key figure in the US-Saudi relationship - "approved" the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The prince, who is de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia and due to take over from the ailing King Salman, "approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi," the report said.
The intelligence report said that given Prince Mohammed's influence, it was "highly unlikely" that the 2018 murder could have taken place without his green light. The killing also fit a pattern of "the Crown Prince's support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad."
Khashoggi, a critic of Prince Mohammed who wrote for The Washington Post and was a US resident, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, then killed and cut into pieces.
Washington is widely expected to impose new sanctions on Saudis seen as connected to the prince - although not directly against Prince Mohammed himself. He has broadly accepted Saudi Arabia's responsibility but denies any personal involvement.
US President Joe Biden ordered a declassified version of the report - first completed under his predecessor Donald Trump - to be released as part of a reset in which Washington is distancing itself from Prince Mohammed.
This comes on the heels of a first phone call between Biden and King Salman late Thursday, when the White House made clear that Biden had no intention of speaking to the 35-year-old crown prince.
The White House said that Biden and the 85-year-old king emphasized the countries' security ties and "the US commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups."
However, in a shift from the Trump era, Biden also "affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law."
FATAL CONSULATE APPOINTMENT
A veteran Saudi journalist and editor, Khashoggi was in self-exile and residing in the United States, writing articles critical of the crown prince when he was assassinated on Oct 2, 2018.
The writer had been told by Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States to go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul if he wanted to obtain documents for his forthcoming marriage to a Turkish woman, Hatice Cengiz.
There, the 59-year-old was killed and his body dismembered by a team sent from Riyadh under the direction of a top aide to Prince Mohammed, Saud al-Qahtani.
Just one month after the murder, the US Central Intelligence Agency concluded with high confidence that Prince Mohammed had ordered the assassination, according to The Washington Post.
But, determined to maintain strong relations with Riyadh, Trump refused to publicly hold the Saudi strongman responsible, even as the US government demanded the perpetrators be punished.
The published intelligence report asserts that the 15 people sent to target Khashoggi in Turkey included members of Prince Mohammed's "elite personal protective detail," the Rapid Intervention Force.
According to The Washington Post, US intelligence also discovered a phone call from Prince Mohammed to his brother Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, in which Prince Mohammed gave instructions for luring Khashoggi to Istanbul.
Another piece of evidence was a recording of the murder obtained by Turkish intelligence from inside the Istanbul consulate. This helped identify the participants and showed communications between them and Riyadh.
QUESTION OF JUSTICE
Few observers of Saudi Arabia believe the murder could have taken place without the knowledge of Prince Mohammed, a calculating strongman who has jailed a number of critics and locked up competing factions in the royal family.
Under heavy pressure from the United States and the international community, the Saudi government put some of the perpetrators on trial.
The closed-door trial exonerated the two officials widely seen as the masterminds: Qahtani, the royal court's media adviser, and deputy intelligence chief Ahmad al-Assiri. Both are part of Prince Mohammed's inner circle.
Five unnamed defendants were sentenced to death and three others given stiff prison terms. Nine months later, the death sentences were withdrawn by the court and replaced with sentences of up to 20 years.
Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders both branded the case a "parody of justice."
But it assuaged the Trump administration, whose main action was to place 17 suspects in the case, including Qahtani but not Assiri, on its sanctions blacklist.