A U.S. intelligence report made public Friday singles out Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, saying he ordered the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, 59, a Washington Post contributing columnist and former Saudi royal insider who had become a leading critic of the kingdom’s government.
With the report’s release, here’s what you need to know about Khashoggi, his assassination and its impact on U.S.-Saudi relations.
– Who was Jamal Khashoggi?
Khashoggi was a well-known Saudi journalist and political analyst who came from a prominent family and at first cultivated close ties with the Saudi royal family. Over time, however, he grew more critical of the government’s policies, and in particular of Mohammed bin Salman, who was appointed crown prince in 2017, when he was 31. Mohammed (also known by his initials, MBS) had swiftly risen to be the kingdom’s de facto leader and pledged to bring modern reforms to the highly conservative oil-rich country. But as he worked to cultivate this image abroad, Mohammed oversaw a fierce crackdown aimed at suppressing criticism at home.
That soon came to include Khashoggi, who after repeated attempts by the kingdom to silence him in 2017 relocated abroad and settled in a northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. Khashoggi began to write columns in The Washington Post challenging the crown prince’s repression of political freedoms and free expression. But even outside Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi didn’t feel fully safe. Saudi authorities were increasing their surveillance and attempts to silence dissidents outside the country, too.
– How was he killed?
Khashoggi’s outspokenness incurred many costs, one of which was divorce and separation from his children and family back in Saudi Arabia. He eventually decided to remarry and settle down with his Turkish fiancee in Istanbul. To marry her, however, he needed a document verifying his marital status from the Saudi Consulate there. So in late September 2018, he went to the consulate and was instructed to return a few days later to pick up the paperwork.
That set off a chain of actions by Saudi authorities, which culminated in Khashoggi’s assassination and, according to U.S., Turkish and U.N. investigators, probably were directed by the crown prince. Right before Khashoggi’s disappearance, 15 Saudi agents, including a forensic doctor, flew to Istanbul on government aircraft. Members of the team removed security cameras posted outside the consulate before Khashoggi arrived. Once inside, investigators said, agents killed him and cut up his body. It remains unclear exactly what happened to his remains.
A man wearing Khashoggi’s clothes then left the consulate and walked around Istanbul, apparently to try to mislead investigators and bolster an initial claim that he had departed the building alive. Khashoggi’s fiancee, however, was waiting for him outside the consulate throughout the ordeal. When he did not return, she was alarmed and reached out to contacts, as he had precautionarily advised.
– What have Saudi officials said?
Saudi officials initially denied any involvement and claimed that Khashoggi had left the consulate the same day. But amid intense international pressure, Saudi officials said two weeks after his disappearance that Khashoggi died in what they called a fight over an attempt to bring him back to Saudi Arabia.
In September 2020, Saudi Arabia announced that eight people had been sentenced to prison terms of between seven and 20 years for Khashoggi’s killing. However, the trial was closed to the public, and the names of the defendants were never revealed, although they were believed to have been members of the 15-man hit squad. Agnès Callamard, a U.N. human rights expert who investigated the killing, said the verdicts carried “no legal or moral legitimacy.” She added: “They came at the end of a process which was neither fair, nor just, or transparent.”
A Saudi court earlier exonerated two senior Saudi officials – Saud al-Qahtani, a powerful royal media adviser, and Ahmed al-Assiri, a former deputy head of intelligence – who Saudi prosecutors found had played key roles in planning the Khashoggi meeting.
– How has his death affected U.S.-Saudi relations?
U.S. lawmakers across the political spectrum were outraged by Khashoggi’s killing. But the Trump administration had built close and lucrative ties with Saudi Arabia, and it pushed back on calls to sanction and sideline the kingdom. President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reportedly would communicate directly with the crown prince.
President Joe Biden, however, has pledged to “recalibrate” U.S.-Saudi relations. Biden said Wednesday that he has read the report ahead of his first scheduled call as president with Saudi Arabia. The U.S. leader, however, will notably be communicating only with his official counterpart as head of state, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, 85, rather than his son, Mohammed, as the Trump administration frequently did.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest customer for U.S. weapons and is seen as a key U.S. ally in containing Iran’s political ambitions in the region. But the country’s repression of dissidents and its ongoing war in Yemen, which currently faces the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, have also garnered increasing criticism in Washington. The Biden administration’s release of the report is expected to further strain relations.
The Washington Post