The United States publicly accused the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia on Friday of having “validated” the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and sanctioned some of his relatives, without going so far as to punish the powerful leader, in the hope of avoiding a “break” with this key ally.
Riyadh “totally rejected the false and damaging conclusions” of the American intelligence services report, while calling for the continuation of a “solid and strong” partnership with Washington.
“The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman has validated an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” writes US intelligence in this four-page document, declassified at the request of President Joe Biden, while his predecessor Donald Trump kept it a secret.
The report emphasizes that the young leader, nicknamed MBS, had “absolute control” of the intelligence and security services, “making it very unlikely” such an operation without his “green light”.
It contains a list of around 20 people involved in the operation, including former Saudi intelligence number two Ahmed al-Assiri, close to MBS, and former adviser to Prince Saoud al-Qahtani, both cleared by the justice of their country.
Calls to sanction MBS
The US government in the process announced financial sanctions against General Assiri and against the Rapid Intervention Force, an elite unit tasked with protecting the prince, overseen by Saud al-Qahtani and presented by Washington as being largely involved in the murder.
The head of American diplomacy Antony Blinken, for his part, has banned 76 Saudis from entering the United States, under a new rule, dubbed “Khashoggi ban”, or “Khashoggi ban”, targeting anyone accused of s ‘attack, on behalf of the authorities of his country, dissidents or journalists abroad.
Although directly implicated, Mohammed ben Salman is not among those sanctioned.
“The United States does not generally impose sanctions on the highest leaders of countries with which they have diplomatic relations,” said the State Department.
President Biden wants to “recalibrate” relations with Riyadh: he has indicated that he will only speak personally with King Salman and not with his son, Donald Trump’s privileged interlocutor, he emphasized the rights of the person, and he halted US support for the Saudi-led military coalition intervening in the war in Yemen.
But he doesn’t want an open crisis.
“The relationship with Saudi Arabia is important,” said Antony Blinken. The measures announced, “it is really not to have a rupture in the relations, but to recalibrate them”, he pleaded.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines agreed and said the decision to release the report “was not going to make things easier”, but it was not “unexpected”.
“Obviously, it will be delicate on a number of things”, she affirmed on the radio. NPR Friday evening, adding: “We hope to continue working where it makes sense to work and continue to communicate.”
Several personalities, especially on the left, deplored this caution.
“I hope this is only a first step, and that the government intends to take concrete steps to ensure that the Crown Prince […] be personally accountable for this heinous crime, ”said the Democratic chairman of the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Bob Menendez.
The UN special rapporteur on summary executions, Agnès Callamard, also felt that Washington should sanction MBS.
Especially since Joe Biden had ruled, before his election in November, that the Gulf kingdom should be treated as a “pariah” state for this affair and that those responsible for the murder should “pay the consequences”.
But having become president, he tried to clear the land by calling King Salman on Thursday.
While he emphasized “universal human rights”, he also addressed the monarch with satisfaction for the recent release of several political prisoners. And he promised to help Riyadh “defend” itself against attacks from pro-Iran groups.
Critic of Saudi power after being close to it, Jamal Khashoggi, resident in the United States and columnist for the daily Washington Post, was assassinated on October 2, 2018 in his country’s consulate in Istanbul by a commando of agents from Saudi Arabia.
His dismembered body has never been found.
After denying the assassination, Ryad ended up saying that it had been committed by Saudi agents who acted alone. After an opaque trial in Saudi Arabia, five Saudis were sentenced to death and three others to prison terms – death sentences have since been commuted.
This affair tarnished the image of the young crown prince, a real strongman of the kingdom quickly named by Turkish officials as the sponsor of the murder, despite Saudi denials.
The United States Senate, which had already had access to the findings of American intelligence, had also ruled in 2018 that the prince was “responsible” for the murder.
But Mike Pompeo, then Secretary of State to Donald Trump, had told him that the CIA report did not contain “any direct element linking the crown prince to the order to kill Jamal Khashoggi”.
And the former Republican president had never wanted to publish this report or publicly blame Mohammed ben Salman, to preserve the alliance with Riyadh, pillar of his anti-Iran strategy, the world’s largest exporter of crude oil, and big buyer of American weapons.
“I saved his skin,” admitted, after the fact, the Republican billionaire to the American journalist Bob Woodward.