Biden will not sanction MBS over Khashoggi’s killing despite US report implicating the Saudi leader in the murder

mohammed bin salman mbs
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a session of the Shura Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on November 20, 2019.

  • The Biden administration announced new sanctions over Khashoggi’s murder.
  • Saudi Crown Prince MBS is not targeted by the new sanctions. 
  • The administration is also instituting a new visa restriction policy called the Khashoggi Ban.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The Biden administration will not sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 murder despite the fact the Saudi leader was explicitly implicated in the killing in a declassified US intelligence assessment.

The Treasury Department on Friday unveiled sanctions against General Ahmed al-Asiri, former deputy head of the Saudi intelligence services, and the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force over connections to the Khashoggi killing.

“Those involved in the abhorrent killing of Jamal Khashoggi must be held accountable. With this action, Treasury is sanctioning Saudi Arabia’s Rapid Intervention Force and a senior Saudi official who was directly involved in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement. “The United States stands united with journalists and political dissidents in opposing threats of violence and intimidation. We will continue to defend the freedom of expression, which is the bedrock of a free society.”

But the administration will not sanction Prince Mohammed, known colloquially as “MBS,” over concerns it would “rupture” the US-Saudi relationship, an administration official said, per Reuters.  

Prince Mohammed is the kingdom’s de facto ruler. But in a diplomatic snub of the crown prince, the White House recently announced that President Joe Biden’s official communications with the Saudis would involve King Salman and not Prince Mohammed. Biden and King Salman spoke for the first time on Thursday.

On Friday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released the declassified report on Khashoggi’s killing.

“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 report stated. “The Crown Prince viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the Kingdom and broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him.”

But other than being downgraded in the eyes of the US under the Biden administration, it’s unclear what other consequences, if any, Prince Mohammed will face over Khashoggi’s killing.

Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who was a Washington Post columnist at the time of his death, was murdered by agents of his own government in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. His body was dismembered, but Khashoggi’s remains have never been found.

The Khashoggi Ban

Khashoggi
People hold posters picturing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and lightened candles during a gathering outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, on October 25, 2018.

After the ODNI assessment on Khashoggi’s death was released, the State Department announced a new policy involving visa restrictions called the “Khashoggi Ban.”

“The Khashoggi Ban allows the State Department to impose visa restrictions on individuals who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities, including those that suppress, harass, surveil, threaten, or harm journalists, activists, or other persons perceived to be dissidents for their work, or who engage in such activities with respect to the families or other close associates of such persons,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

“As a matter of safety for all within our borders, perpetrators targeting perceived dissidents on behalf of any foreign government should not be permitted to reach American soil,” Blinken added. “While the US remains invested in its relationship with Saudi Arabia, President Biden has made clear that partnership must reflect US values.”

Blinken said that “to start,” the State Department is citing the ban to impose visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals “believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.” It’s unclear whether Prince Mohammed would be impacted by the new policy. 

“Under US law, individual visa records are confidential, and we cannot provide details as to who is or will be included in the Khashoggi Ban,” a State Department spokesperson told Insider.

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Biden administration releases report on Khashoggi’s killing directly implicating Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

MBS
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has faced global condemnation over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

  • The Biden administration on Friday released a long-awaited report on Jamal Khashoggi’s killing.
  • The declassified intelligence report directly implicated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
  • The Trump administration prioritized the US-Saudi relationship and refused to release the report.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The Biden administration on Friday released a declassified US intelligence report that explicitly implicated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the brutal killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

“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,” said the report, provided by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

It added: “We base this assessment on the Crown Prince’s control of decisionmaking 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 report noted that Prince Mohammed since 2017 has had “absolute control” over the kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, “making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”

“The Crown Prince viewed Khashoggi as a threat to the Kingdom and broadly supported using violent measures if necessary to silence him,” the report said.

The intelligence assessment also named with “high confidence” 21 people who “participated in, ordered, or were otherwise complicit in or responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi on behalf of Muhammad bin Salman.” The report said, however, that it was unclear “whether these individuals knew in advance that the operation would result in Khashoggi’s death.”

The names included Saud al-Qahtani, formerly a close advisor to Prince Mohammed who’s been accused of directing the operation behind Khashoggi’s murder. Al-Qahtani was dismissed shortly after the killing.

FILE PHOTO: Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London, Britain, September 29, 2018. Middle East Monitor/Handout via REUTERS
Khashoggi at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London.

The Trump administration repeatedly defied congressional demands for an unclassified report identifying any current or former Saudi officials responsible for Khashoggi’s death in a Saudi Consulate.

The release of the declassified report on Friday is one sign of how President Joe Biden is drastically altering the dynamic with Riyadh. After Khashoggi’s killing, President Donald Trump defended Prince Mohammed and suggested that “maybe” the Saudi leader had no knowledge of the killing. “The world is a very dangerous place!” Trump said.

As part of this realignment, Biden in early February announced an end to US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

‘A deliberate, premeditated execution’

In 2019, the UN released a report that also implicated the Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi’s killing, which it described as “a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law.”

Khashoggi, who once had close ties to the Saudi royal family, was killed and dismembered by agents of his own government in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. His remains have still not been found. Khashoggi had been lured to the consulate to pick up documents necessary to marry his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish citizen.

“Assessments of the recordings by intelligence officers in Turkey and other countries suggest that Mr. Khashoggi could have been injected with a sedative and then suffocated using a plastic bag,” the UN report said. Turkish officials have also said that Khashoggi’s body was dismembered with a bone saw.

A Washington Post columnist at the time of his killing, Khashoggi was often critical of the Saudi government.

Khashoggi’s gruesome killing prompted global outrage and sparked bipartisan calls for the US to reevaluate its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Democrats and Republicans alike explicitly accused Prince Mohammed of being behind Khashoggi’s death.

But Trump prioritized preserving the US-Saudi relationship and stood by Prince Mohammed, citing the importance of arms sales. He brushed off the CIA’s conclusion that the Saudi crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s killing.

Trump Saudis
President Donald Trump, holding a chart of military hardware sales, next to Prince Mohammed in the Oval Office on March 20, 2018.

Trump also rejected efforts from congressional lawmakers to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, where a war has fostered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Trump at one point boasted that he’d shielded Prince Mohammed from congressional retribution over Khashoggi’s killing, the veteran journalist Bob Woodward reported.

Biden snubs MBS as he recalibrates the US-Saudi relationship

The US-Saudi relationship has taken a sharp turn under Biden. Beyond releasing the Khashoggi report and moving to end US involvement in Yemen, the White House recently announced that Biden would speak with King Salman and not Prince Mohammed in official communications. This marked a major diplomatic rebuke of the Saudi crown prince, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, and underscored how serious Biden is about recalibration.

Biden spoke with King Salman for the first time as president on Thursday. A White House readout of the call said Biden “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law.”

“Together they discussed regional security, including the renewed diplomatic efforts led by the United Nations and the United States to end the war in Yemen, and the U.S. commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups,” the White House said.

The readout did not mention Khashoggi, and it wasn’t clear whether Biden brought up the Saudi journalist’s killing. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider.

Following the release of the report on Friday, the Treasury Department unveiled sanctions on Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, a former deputy head of the Saudi intelligence services, and the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force over their involvement in Khashoggi’s killing. No sanctions against Prince Mohammed were announced, even though the intelligence assessment said that he approved Khashoggi’s murder and that the RIF answered to him.

A senior administration official said the Biden administration was concerned that sanctioning the crown prince could “rupture” the US-Saudi relationship, Reuters reported.

Read the full ODNI report:

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Biden spoke with Saudi King Salman for the first time, but didn’t say if they discussed Khashoggi’s murder

Khashoggi
People hold posters picturing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and lightened candles during a gathering outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, on October 25, 2018.

  • Biden spoke with Saudi King Salman for the first time, but it’s unclear if he mentioned Khashoggi.
  • The call came ahead of the release of a US intelligence report on Khashoggi’s murder.
  • The report was expected to implicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

President Joe Biden spoke with King Salman of Saudi Arabia for the first time on Thursday, ahead of the public release of a highly anticipated declassified US intelligence report on the murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. 

The report was expected to implicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Khashoggi’s killing. 

Biden in his conversation with King Salman “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law,” a White House readout of the call said.

But the readout made no mention of Khashoggi or his brutal killing, and it’s unclear if Biden discussed the Saudi journalist’s murder with King Salman. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The fact Biden spoke with King Salman, who is 85 and reportedly in poor health, instead of Prince Mohammed is directly linked to the ongoing fallout over Khashoggi’s killing. 

The Saudi crown prince, colloquially known as “MBS,” is the kingdom’s de facto ruler. But as the Biden administration prioritizes recalibrating the US-Saudi relationship, the White House has made a point to state that the president will speak directly to King Salman and not Prince Mohammed.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki earlier this month said that King Salman – not the crown prince – was Biden’s proper “counterpart” in Saudi Arabia. This marked a major diplomatic snub of the crown prince. 

That said, Prince Mohammed, who is also the Saudi defense minister, spoke to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last week. “That’s the appropriate line of communication,” Psaki told reporters on Wednesday of the conversation between Prince Mohammed and Austin.

Prince Mohammed has been widely accused of orchestrating Khashoggi’s death, which occurred at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Khashoggi was lured to the consulate – where he sought documents to marry his Turkish fiance – killed by agents of the Saudi government, and dismembered. His remains have never been located. 

Trump Saudis
President Donald Trump holds a chart of military hardware sales as he welcomes Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, March 20, 2018.

Not long after Khashoggi’s murder, media reports circulated that the CIA concluded Prince Mohammed ordered the killing. A subsequent report from the UN also implicated Prince Mohammed.

Khashoggi’s murder sparked outrage worldwide, and led to bipartisan calls in Washington for the US to reassess its relationship with the Saudis.

Democrats and Republicans alike pushed for the US to end support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, where a devastating war has led to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

But then-President Donald Trump threw cold water on these efforts. Trump prioritized the US-Saudi partnership, touting US arms sales to the kingdom, and controversially stood by the crown prince.

During his presidential campaign, Biden signaled that his approach to the dynamic between Riyadh and Washington would represent a drastic shift from Trump’s. Biden in early February announced an end to US support for the Saudis in the Yemen conflict. But his administration has emphasized that the US is still committed to helping the Saudis with its security. The US has long viewed Saudi Arabia as an important buffer against Iran, which both countries view as a threat. 

Along these lines, the White House on Thursday said Biden and King Salman “discussed regional security, including the renewed diplomatic efforts led by the United Nations and the United States to end the war in Yemen, and the US commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups.” 

“The President told King Salman he would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible,” the White House added. “The two leaders affirmed the historic nature of the relationship and agreed to work together on mutual issues of concern and interest.”

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