On February 26, the United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released the findings of its investigation into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.
Khashoggi, 59, was lured to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in hope of getting paperwork needed to marry his fiance. He entered the consulate but never came out, and evidence soon emerged that a special Saudi team sent to Turkey killed and dismembered Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MBS), while he was inside. Khashoggi's remains have never been found.
The ODNI assessed named 18 participants it said were "complicit in or responsible for" the killing "on behalf of" MBS.
“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 ODNI stated in the report’s executive summary.
“We base this assessment on the Crown Prince's control of decision making in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman's protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince's support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.”
The Saudi government and its supporters reacted to the ODNI report with hostility, with the Saudi Foreign Ministry tweeting: “The Government of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Completely Rejects the Assessment in the Report Submitted to U.S.’ Congress Regarding Murder of Saudi Citizen Jamal Khashoggi."
The tweet was accompanied by a longer statement, part of which read:
“This crime was committed by a group of individuals that have transgressed all pertinent regulations and authorities of the agencies where they were employed. The relevant authorities in the Kingdom took all possible measures within our legal system to ensure that these individuals were properly investigated, and to ensure that justice was served.”
The claim that the Kingdom “took all possible measures” to bring those responsible to justice is false.
The ODNI report noted that since 2017, MBS has had “absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations,” making it unlikely that operatives of those organizations would have acted contrary to his orders. The report said the squad sent to the consulate included a close MBS adviser and members of his personal security detail.
Others involved included members of two Saudi government organizations – the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Royal Court (CSMARC), and the Rapid Intervention Force, sometimes called the Rapid Intervention Group, an elite unit of the Royal Guard which answers only to MBS and which has been accused of harassing, kidnapping, and torturing his critics at home and abroad. Both of these organizations were headed by Saud al Qahtani, a close MBS adviser, who publicly stated in 2018 that he did not make decisions without the crown prince’s approval. (Al Qahtani is among responsible parties identified in the ODNI report.)
Turkish authorities reported that following the murder, there were attempts to tamper with evidence inside the Saudi consulate. They said footage from security cameras had been removed, and that the day of the murder, Turkish staff working at the consulate were told to take the day off. Footage from security cameras at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport footage showed members of the Saudi hit squad arriving on a private jet and entering through airport security.
A member of that squad was videoed leaving the Saudi consulate grounds in the clothes Khashoggi had been wearing the day he was murdered, in an apparent attempt to create the impression that he’d left the consulate. And the Turkish government later released chilling audio recordings from inside the consulate of Khashoggi and the moments before he was killed and just after.
The Saudi government at first denied that Khashoggi had been killed, claiming instead that he left the consulate safely. MBS repeated that claim in an interview with Bloomberg news. Saudi state-owned media backed the denials and pointed fingers at Qatar and Khashoggi’s fiance, suggesting they concocted the story of the murder to smear the crown prince.
Although the Saudis eventually held a trial, it was neither swift nor transparent. The proceedings were secret, and a United Nations expert referred to it as a “parody of justice.”
The trial consisted of 10 hearings and followed the Saudi government’s line that Khashoggi's death was not premeditated. Members of Khashoggi’s family and some foreign diplomats were present to observe the hearings but were sworn to secrecy and not permitted to speak.
In December 2019, five Saudi officials were sentenced to death for their involvement in the killing, while three other defendants received sentences totaling 24 years in prison. In May 2020, Khashoggi’s children requested that the five men sentenced to death be pardoned, as is their right under Saudi law.
Khashoggi’s fiance, Hatice Cengiz, wrote on social media that the trial had been a “mockery of justice,” noting that it did not address the questions of who planned the killing, who ordered it, or what happened to Khashoggi’s body.
Saud al Qahtani, who is believed to have overseen the operation, was arrested for the murder but cleared of any involvement due to lack of evidence, according to Saudi authorities. Prior to the assassination, al Qahtani had exchanged messages with Khashoggi, threatening him over his writing. He had also sent messages attempting to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia.
Since 2019, al Qahtani has been banned entry to the U.S. for his suspected involvement in the murder.
After the ODNI report was released, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration imposed visa restrictions on 76 Saudi officials but was criticized for refusing to sanction MBS, even though the report implicated him in the murder. Critics noted that the response effectively broke Biden’s campaign promise that he would hold MBS accountable.
For his part, bin Salman has flatly denied ordering Khashoggi's murder but said he took "full responsibility" as a leader in the Saudi government for a "heinous crime."