BY SHASHI MALLA
In the latest development in the ongoing international affair of the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has definitively concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (also known as “MBS”) ordered the assassination in the Saudi Consulate-General in Istanbul. This contradicts the Saudi government’s claims that he was in no way involved in the killing.
The Saudi government has conceded that a team of 15 Saudi agents flew to Istanbul on two government aircraft in October and killed Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate-general where he had come to collect documents that he needed for his planned marriage to his Turkish fiancée. Since he was a permanent US resident in Virginia and an employee of “The Washington Post” ( a contributing writer), it is very strange that he was not asked to collect the said documents at the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C.
It is now clear that the diabolical plan was hatched in Riyadh, and the unsuspecting journalist was lured into a trap. The CIA reached its unconditional conclusion after close examination of multiple sources of intelligence. First, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Khalid bin Salman, (MBS’s own brother) received telephonic instructions from the crown prince to instruct Khashoggi to proceed to the Istanbul consulate- general to receive the said documents. Prince Khalid did make the call and also assured him that it would be perfectly safe to do so. These calls were conclusively intercepted by US intelligence. Thus, the culpability of the Saudi Royal house is beyond any doubt.
Second, the CIA’s conclusion about the role of MBS was also based on the agency’s assessment of the crown prince as the country’s supreme de facto ruler who had overseen even minor matters in the kingdom since his accession. According to a knowledgeable US official: “The accepted position is that there is no way this happened without him being aware or involved.” He is perceived as a capable technocrat, but a volatile and arrogant person, brooking no opposition. It is on record how he shunted the previous, legitimate crown prince unceremoniously to the side, and arrested royal princes and rich businessmen until they bowed to his wishes. In the autocratic Saudi society, there was nothing that he could not do.
Third, among the intelligence assembled by the CIA is an audio recording from a listening device that the Turks had placed inside the Saudi consulate-general. The Turkish government gave the CIA a copy of that video, and also to the governments of the UK, France and Germany. The audio verifies that Khashoggi was killed within moments of entering the consulate-general, proving that the heinous act was fully premeditated. In addition, the Saudi consul-general can be heard expressing his displeasure at the mess that had been made, the need to dispose of the body and to clean the premises of any evidence.
Fourth, the CIA also examined a call placed from inside the consulate-general after the liquidation by one Maher Mutreb, an alleged member of the hit sqad and a prominent security official who has often been seen at the crown prince’s side and who was photographed entering and leaving the consulate-general on the day of the murder. The recorded call was traced to Saud al-Qahtani, who was then one of the top aides to MBS. He was tersely informed that the operation had been completed. Several European governments have concluded that the operation was too brazen to have taken place without the crown prince’s express direction.
Fifth, passport records in the US and other CIA analysis categorically link some members of the hit team directly with MBS himself. Some of the 15 members who have served on his security team and travelled to the US during visits by senior Saudi officials, including the crown prince himself, have been unambiguously identified.
Sixth, even before the assassination, US intelligence was aware that Khashoggi might be in some sort of danger. After the brutal act, US intelligence agencies made a thorough research and discovered that the Saudi royal family had been seeking ways and means to coax Khashoggi back to Riyadh. It is also telling that within days after the journalist’s disappearance, the crown prince informed President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and the National Security Adviser John Bolton that Khashoggi was a dangerous Islamist [to what purpose?].
The murder of Khashoggi, a prominent critic of MBS’s policies, has precipitated international furor, a crisis in Saudi-Turkish relations and a foreign policy dilemma for the US. It has raised serious questions about the Trump administration’s dependence on Saudi Arabia as a key ally in the Middle East and a reliable partner against Iran.
However, Trump as the ‘Great Disrupter’ started early, furiously and fast. David Frum, a staff writer for “The Atlantic” summed up his traits succinctly: “President Donald Trump commits outrage after outrage that no previous U.S. president has done before. But at the same time, he also omits to do things that every previous president has done or would do.” He encouraged Britain to leave the European Union (EU), “but now that things are falling apart, he’s abdicating his responsibility to help.” The EU is on the verge of facing disruption of losing its most economically dynamic and militarily capable member state. Trump’s ill-founded “America First” and “Make America Great Again” (“MAGA’) policies are harming the US itself and the world at large: “Brexit, along with Trump’s trade war, is jolting the world economy, frightening financial markets, and edging us all closer to the next global recession.”
An opening has been created in the Middle East by Saudi Arabia’s new pariah status after the killing of the dissident journalist. US officials say the time is ripe to push ahead on longstanding goals, including forcing an end to the Saudi-led and Emirati-supported bombing and ground military campaign in neighboring Yemen that has led to a humanitarian crisis of enormous proportion. Intense US domestic and international outrage over the precarious situation in Yemen has resulted in increasing diplomatic pressure on the US to withdraw its support for the Saudi-Emirati coalition. US help is in the form of military sales, training and air-refueling of coalition jets.
According to the US “Council on Foreign Relations”, the best option for Saudi Arabia in Yemen is to ‘declare victory and go home’. This is “far better than continuing with a war that has had incalculable humanitarian, financial, strategic and reputational costs for the Saudis but has not remotely advanced their own declared objectives.” But who is to convince the head-strong crown prince MBS? He still has Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE under his thumb, and a US administration unwilling to move decisively against him.
But Trump may face head winds from Congress in a spirit of bipartisanship. Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the crown prince is “irrational” and “unhinged”. Democrat Representative Adam Schiff who is in line to become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said on ABC’s “This Week”: “Any regime that would be involved in murdering a journalist in this way, we should not be walking hand-in-hand with.”
Saudi Arabia also leads a coalition of Arab states, including Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in an unnecessary blockade of the Emirate of Qatar. This Saudi stand-off has put unwarranted pressure on the US-Qatar security alliance of great importance to the US. Its military base there has incalculable significance for all its Middle East military operations. Turkey also has a military base in the country, so that Qatar’s security is assured.
The Trump administration is under intense pressure from the American public to end the Yemen catastrophe, including through powerful write-ups and images of starving and suffering children in the print and electronic media (The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN). It has also been sharply criticized by activists and members of Congress for its support of the Saudi-led coalition. The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has threatened to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which countries like Germany have already done.
Trump and his senior adviser Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law had placed a heavy reliance and trust on the all-powerful crown prince for a comprehensive strategy in the region, with almost-unconditional support. It seems that this confidence was misplaced. In spite of overwhelming evidence and the world’s acceptance of it, Trump is still not willing to accept the crown prince’s culpability. This will definitely affect his overall Middle East strategy.
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]