Analysis & Opinions - The Washington Post

How the Mysteries of Khashoggi’s Murder Have Rocked the U.S.-Saudi Partnership

| Mar. 29, 2019

It has been nearly six months since Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, but the aftershocks continue. The U.S.-Saudi defense and intelligence partnership has been rocked. The future of the relationship is on hold, pending answers from Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia still hasn’t explained officially how and why the Post Global Opinions columnist was killed. But Saudi and American sources have begun disclosing new information about the people and events surrounding Khashoggi’s fatal visit to Istanbul. They’ve described secret intelligence deals that are now frozen. And they’ve explained, in the clearest detail yet, how an operation that began as a kidnapping ended with a gasping, dying Khashoggi pleading: “I can’t breathe.”

The basic questions remain much the same as they did in October, when Khashoggi died: How was the Istanbul strike team that carried out the operation trained and controlled? What exact roles did Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his close aides play in the killing? What new controls can be implemented, in Riyadh and Washington, to make sure that such a grisly murder of a journalist never happens again?

And most important, will anyone be held accountable?

Saudi Arabia’s initial lies about the killing collapsed soon after Khashoggi disappeared on Oct. 2. But MBS, as the crown prince is known, still hasn’t taken responsibility for the killers’ actions, which were done on his behalf and perhaps his orders. Until he provides real answers, the U.S.-Saudi military and intelligence partnership, important for both countries’ security, is likely to remain in limbo.

This case is personal for us at The Post. Khashoggi was our colleague, and my friend for 15 years. To understand how his gruesome murder happened and whether it’s possible to rebuild the U.S.-Saudi relationship, I’ve interviewed more than a dozen knowledgeable American and Saudi sources, who revealed some previously secret details because they hope to establish new rules and accountability that might preserve the relationship. The sources requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

The bottom line is that unless the crown prince takes ownership of this issue and accepts blame for murderous deeds done in his name, his relationship with the United States will remain broken. Saudi officials claim that MBS has made changes, firing Saud al-Qahtani, his former covert-operations coordinator. But the Saudi machine of repression remains intact, run by many of the same people who worked for Qahtani. U.S. officials worry that the young crown prince has become a Saudi version of Saddam Hussein, an authoritarian “modernizer.”

MBS took a small step toward placating critics Thursday when the kingdom announced it had freed three female human rights activists from prison while they await trial. Ten other women who campaigned for women to drive and on other issues remain in detention.

Prince Khalid bin Salman, a younger brother of the crown prince, former ambassador to Washington and now vice defense minister, discussed Saudi-American relations in an interview in Washington on Thursday. He said he hoped that despite intense criticism in Congress of Saudi Arabia in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder, the partnership can be repaired: “The relationship did not start in one day, and it will not end in one day.”

The Saudi official met Thursday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The Trump administration wants to maintain good relations with the Saudis but faces some strong congressional resistance.

“The Saudis have internalized the idea that this will not blow over,” says Bernard Haykel, a Princeton professor who knows MBS well. “They want to make good with Congress, but they don’t know how.”

Dangerous tools

The Khashoggi story is a lesson in how U.S.-supported intelligence and special-operations capabilities can be misused by other countries. That’s the starkest conclusion that emerged from this reporting. Among these previously undisclosed findings:

●Some members of the Saudi Rapid Intervention Group that was sent to Istanbul received training in the United States, according to U.S. and Saudi sources. The CIA has cautioned other government agencies that some of this special-operations training might have been conducted by Tier 1 Group, an Arkansas-based company, under a State Department license. The training occurred before the Khashoggi incident, as part of ongoing liaison with the Saudis, and it hasn’t been resumed.

●A U.S. plan to train and modernize the Saudi intelligence service is also on hold, pending State Department approval of a license. This project was developed by Culpeper National Security Solutions, a unit of DynCorp, with help from some prominent former CIA officials. No work on the project has been done.

●One of the Saudi contacts involved in planning the Culpeper training project was Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the Saudi deputy chief of intelligence, who Saudi officials say is under investigation because of his alleged involvement in the Istanbul operation.

●Michael Morell, former acting director of the CIA, was publicly identified as Culpeper’s chairman of the board in 2017, but he no longer holds that position, according to a source familiar with the company. A second source said Morell withdrew from the project within days of Khashoggi’s murder because of his concern about the direction Saudi Arabia was heading. Morell declined to comment.

Tier 1 Group and DynCorp are both owned by affiliates of Cerberus Capital Management, a privately owned investment group based in New York. The company wouldn’t confirm or deny whether any of the 17 perpetrators of the Khashoggi killing who were sanctioned by the Treasury Department had been trained under the Tier 1 contract. But a source close to Cerberus said, “We know that this horrendous incident occurred” and that “companies must emphasize rigorous ethical evaluation policies” in light of such an event.

●Stephen Feinberg, the co-chief executive of Cerberus, is also chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, which provides independent counsel on intelligence matters. When he was appointed, critics argued there might be conflicts of interest. The source familiar with Cerberus’s business activities said that when Feinberg assumed the PIAB post, he divested his interest in all companies in the Cerberus portfolio that were involved in defense and intelligence matters, including Tier 1 Group and DynCorp. The divestment occurred before Khashoggi’s death and was unrelated, the source close to the company said. A Cerberus spokesman declined a request for comment by Feinberg.

●NSO Group, an Israeli-founded company that provides sophisticated tools for hacking mobile phones, has reviewed and modified its relationship with Saudi Arabia, according to a Saudi source. The company, which was recently acquired by a London-based private equity firm called Novalpina Capital LLP, concluded after an internal review that its surveillance technology didn’t directly contribute to tracking Khashoggi on his way to his death. But the company has frozen new requests from the kingdom, according to the Saudi source, because of concerns that its technology might have been misused. The company declined to discuss any specific clients and wouldn’t confirm or deny this account.

As these corporate examples illustrate, the murder of a Post columnist has affected the contour of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. This partnership has been beneficial for both countries’ security, and it’s especially important now, at a time when the Trump administration is challenging Iranian meddling in the region. But many current and former U.S. officials believe that without clearer rules and accountability, the partnership might be unsustainable, given vocal opposition from many members of Congress.

Birth of a strike team

Understanding how the murder in Istanbul happened begins with MBS and Qahtani, his Iago-like adviser. Starting in 2015, when King Salman took the throne and a few months later installed his son Mohammed in the royal succession, Qahtani began using the royal court to suppress dissent. His base of operations was the Center for Studies and Media Affairs, but behind this bland-sounding front, Qahtani began assembling a team drawn from the Saudi intelligence services and military. And he began purchasing surveillance tools from NSO and other vendors.
MBS’s surveillance dragnet allowed him to spy on other key officials in the kingdom. Starting in late 2015 or early 2016, he obtained permission from Mohammed bin Nayef, then crown prince and interior minister, to conduct “lawful intercepts” of communications through the royal court, according to U.S. and Saudi sources. The subsequent wiretaps, through various hidden channels, included Mohammed bin Nayef himself, his key intelligence counselor Saad al-Jabri, and the heads of the foreign intelligence and domestic security agencies, according to U.S. and Saudi sources.

Because Qahtani specialized in social media campaigns against critics of MBS, his targets became increasingly tilted toward political dissidents and journalists such as Khashoggi. By 2017, Qahtani had drawn up a list of more than two dozen names, including Khashoggi, of people who might be subject to arrest or detention, according to a Saudi who has seen the list. Only four of the names could be described as serious “enemy combatants,” the source said.

Qahtani developed special-operations capabilities at the center. Several key operatives later became members of the Rapid Intervention Group sent to Istanbul to kidnap or kill Khashoggi. The biographies of three alleged team members sanctioned by the Treasury Department illustrate how the group came together.

The Istanbul team’s alleged leader was Maher Mutreb, a colonel in the Saudi intelligence service and member of a wealthy and respected Saudi family. A Saudi source said he had served in London from 2002 to 2007 as deputy chief of station. He was an early expert in cyberintelligence, and he would sometimes give advice to Saudi friends who worked at the embassy about computer security and how to avoid hackers, a Saudi source said. When Mutreb returned to the kingdom around 2007, the intelligence service regularly sent him abroad, to the United States and elsewhere, for further training.

Mutreb mentioned to Saudi friends that he had gone to several training programs in the United States over the past decade, the Saudi source said.

Mutreb may have been chosen to lead the team because he had been friendly with Khashoggi when they were both living in London and working for then-ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal. According to a Saudi source who knew Mutreb in London, the intelligence officer would sometimes join Khashoggi and other Saudis working at the London embassy for Friday prayers and then tea afterward in Mayfair.
Mutreb was drawn into Qahtani’s circle when he was invited to join the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, said the Saudi source, citing contacts inside the royal court. A fluent English speaker, Mutreb traveled with MBS on his trips to the United States in 2017 and 2018. With his intelligence and cyber skills, he was tapped in 2017 as assistant secretary general for security at Qahtani’s center, according to U.S. and Saudi sources.

The arc of Mutreb’s career, from respected foreign intelligence officer to alleged member of a kidnapping and murder team, illustrates how Saudi intelligence was bent by MBS and Qahtani to their purposes.

Another senior member of the team, also reportedly a colonel in Saudi intelligence, helped direct special activities for Qahtani’s center, possibly including the arrest and interrogation of detainees, a U.S. source said. Saudi detainee cases at this time included the female activists and other dissidents. This colonel helped make secret preparations for the November 2017 arrest of about 200 prominent Saudis and their detention at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, the U.S. source added.

A third operative sent to Istanbul was Thaar Ghaleb Alharbi, a lieutenant in the royal guards according to the New York Times and other news reports. He became a favorite of MBS after he fatally shot a Saudi named Mansour al-Amri who tried to storm the gate at Al-Salam Palace in Jiddah in October 2017, according to U.S. and Saudi sources. Alharbi helped in managing detainees and other operations, said a U.S. source familiar with the royal court’s activities.

One macabre detail of the interrogations, according to U.S. and Saudi sources, was that detainees were forced to sign nondisclosure agreements pledging that if they talked about their imprisonment and interrogation, they would bear “full responsibility” for the consequences. A European source described Alharbi as a “very close ally” of MBS because of his work on sensitive security matters; that might have made him a natural selection for the Istanbul team.

Grisly new details

What happened inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul remains murky, even six months later, because the Saudis haven’t yet made a full disclosure of the events.

A Saudi source says that the royal court had been tipped off by a security officer stationed at the consulate that Khashoggi would be there on Oct. 2 to complete some paperwork required before his planned marriage to his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. The Rapid Intervention Group was assembled. The royal court advised the consulate, via a foreign ministry cable, to cooperate with the team when it arrived.

The best account of Khashoggi’s murder seems to come via a bug planted in the consulate by Turkish intelligence. A Saudi who has carefully read a transcript of an audio recording of that illegal surveillance described its contents. He said it indicates the team planned to kidnap Khashoggi and bring him back home for detention and interrogation — but that the plan was botched and Khashoggi was killed. His body was then dismembered and disposed of.

The tape transcript, as described by the Saudi source, is chilling. Mutreb tells Khashoggi: “You’re coming back with us.” Khashoggi protests, “No! I have people outside waiting for me,” meaning Cengiz. Mutreb insists: “You’re coming!” Khashoggi screams as he is grabbed, the Saudi source said.

What happened next remains conjecture. The Saudi source says there is a note in the transcript that says Khashoggi was given an injection, which apparently was deduced from the audio. The Saudi source said the shot was probably a powerful sedative, administered by Salah Tubaigy, a medical specialist from the Saudi Interior Ministry who was allegedly part of the team. The Saudis have used sedatives on other captives in previous attempted renditions, the source said.

A bag was then placed over Khashoggi’s head, and he screamed: “I can’t breathe. I have asthma. Don’t do this.” He died soon after — possibly from a sedative overdose, choking or asphyxiation. After his death, the transcript describes a buzzing noise, perhaps from an electric saw as his body is cut into pieces. This grisly task was apparently overseen by Tubaigy, according to the Saudi who read the transcript.

The clearest evidence that the kidnapping, at least, was a premeditated crime is that the Saudi team included a man named Mustafa Almadani. He was a general in Saudi intelligence and older than other members of the Istanbul team, according to passport records. His build was similar to Khashoggi’s, and he could wear his clothes and impersonate him after the operation was concluded.

After Khashoggi’s death, a look-alike, probably Almadani, left the consulate by the back door, avoiding Cengiz. His presence strongly suggests that the operation, whatever its purpose, was carefully planned, U.S. and Saudi sources agree.
MBS under pressure

After the initial coverup failed, the Saudi public prosecutor charged 11 people in Khashoggi’s murder and requested the death penalty for five of them. Qahtani was not one of the 11, according to Saudi and American sources. The Saudis haven’t disclosed the names of those charged.
Pompeo told MBS last year to take responsibility for the events by closing Qahtani’s center and putting him under house arrest, a U.S. official said. But neither happened, initially. I reported in January that Qahtani was continuing to give orders to his former staff members and that he remained in contact with the crown prince.

Qahtani’s Center for Studies and Media Affairs has been supplemented by a new Center for Communication and Knowledge Foresight and put under the control of Nasir al-Biqami, who also runs a counterterrorism center at the royal court known as Etidal, according to U.S. and Saudi sources.

But the dissident-monitoring activities of the old center continue, minus the kidnapping and special operations, these sources noted. They said that many of Qahtani’s former deputies still target MBS’s critics on social media. Holdovers from his old team include the chief of staff, who was Qahtani’s former secretary; the head of planning and development, who was formerly chief of special cyber operations; the operations chief, who was former head of cybersecurity; and the chief of analysis and training, who previously was chief of target acquisition in the special-operations wing.

Despite reports that Qahtani is under house arrest, two Saudis told me he is probably still communicating with his former aides. “If you’re in his position, you would want to make sure you don’t lose everything,” said one Saudi official who knows Qahtani well. He cited a Saudi proverb: “ ‘When a camel falls, it draws more knives than when it was standing.’ Everyone wants to show that the camel is still standing.”

A slippery slope

The dilemma for U.S. defense and intelligence contractors is that it will be difficult for them to do new business with Saudi Arabia until MBS takes responsibility for the Khashoggi killing and demonstrates, through specific reforms, that such a crime won’t be repeated. Until that occurs, Saudi Arabia will face limits from the State Department and Congress.

U.S. companies that want to sell technology or services to Saudi Arabia or other foreign nations face a complicated, little-known vetting process. This applies both to direct government-to-government deals, known as “foreign military sales,” and private contracts referred to as “direct commercial sales.” Both categories are licensed by the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, which is part of the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. The State Department’s decisions are then reviewed by the House and Senate foreign affairs committees.

This licensing pathway was effectively blocked for Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi’s murder, because of the concerns about the kingdom’s respect for human rights. The licensing request by DynCorp’s Culpeper unit has been halted, for example, according to a source close to the company, even though the kingdom’s notoriously disorganized intelligence service badly needs training.

“Stagnation of this effort to modernize Saudi intelligence is not good for all of us,” one Saudi official told me. That may be true, but Congress isn’t likely to approve the training without real signs of reform.

Congress mandates human rights review of weapons sales and training through a legal process known as “Leahy vetting,” named after its principal sponsor, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Under the law, the State Department must make sure that foreign military units don’t commit “gross violations of human rights,” or GVHRs in bureaucratese, before they receive aid. The State Department’s website explains what can trigger a veto: “The U.S. government considers torture, extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance, and rape under color of law as GVHRs when implementing the Leahy law.”

The Khashoggi case obviously raises some of these issues. And presumably, before the State Department and Congress approve future sales, they will need new assurances that the Saudi military, foreign intelligence service and domestic security agency have taken real steps to halt their reported human rights abuses. “Sen. Leahy’s staff has made inquiries of the State Department regarding any U.S. training provided to Saudi security personnel who murdered Khashoggi,” a Leahy Senate aide told me.

NSO Group, the Israeli-founded surveillance technology company, faces a special problem. It sells foreign governments a system known as Pegasus that can penetrate mobile phones, hack their calls and text messages, manipulate their cameras and microphones, and defeat supposedly secure encryption. The company pledges in letters to human rights groups that it will license this snooping technology only to governments with acceptable human rights records, for legitimate intelligence and law enforcement purposes, such as catching terrorists or drug lords.

But the Citizen Lab, an Internet research organization based in Toronto, has alleged in a series of reports that NSO’s phone-hacking tools have been used improperly against political dissidents in Saudi Arabia, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates. An NSO spokesman disputes the Citizen Lab findings and methodology but didn’t provide any details. An attorney who represents NSO conceded in an interview in December that “obviously, there are sometimes abuses.”

Shalev Hulio, an Israeli who is one of NSO’s founders, said in an interview with CBS News’s “60 Minutes” that was broadcast March 24: “I can tell you that in the last eight years that the company exist, we only had real three cases of misuse, three cases . . . and those people or those organization that misuse the system, they are no longer a customer and they will never be a customer again.” He didn’t specify which customers or countries.

How should a company such as NSO manage its business with Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Khashoggi killing? Company officials won’t talk about specific clients. But they describe a vetting process in which a Business Ethics Committee reviews proposed sales, investigates reports of abuses and, where appropriate, recommends changes in policy.

NSO was sold this year by a U.S.-based private-equity fund, Francisco Partners, to the London-based Novalpina Capital.

A source who has talked extensively with Israeli former government officials who have represented NSO told me that after the Khashoggi murder, the company had “decided to freeze all future requests from Saudi Arabia.” The former Israeli officials had met with Qahtani to sell the technology to the kingdom for what NSO believed were lawful purposes, the source told me. Assiri, the deputy intelligence chief who allegedly helped oversee the Istanbul operation, also had dealings with Israeli surveillance-technology companies, the source said. These connections are now troubling, to say the least.

Novalpina’s founder, Stephen Peel, declined to comment about NSO’s clients during an interview in New York. He wrote in a March 1 letter to the Citizen Lab and other human rights groups that had criticized NSO that its business-ethics vetting includes “assessing the extent of risk that a particular government or agency could misuse NSO technology to target journalists, political opponents or other critics.”

The sale of Israeli surveillance technology to a leading Sunni Muslim country illustrates how the growing global market for spy services has become interwoven with foreign policy. Israel has extensive, if unacknowledged, intelligence relationships with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and other countries. The Israeli government approves every foreign sale of NSO technology, but the company can suspend licenses if it decides countries or agencies within them are human rights violators.

Israel sees its secret intelligence links with the Gulf states as a breakthrough and potential path to peace. But it can be a slippery slope, when governments license private companies to work with regimes that don’t share Western values. These questionable relationships can encourage a dangerous proliferation of intrusive surveillance technologies to nations that spy on their own people.
Backed into a corner

The U.S.-Saudi alliance has endured for about 75 years, surviving severe tests, from the 1973 Arab oil embargo to the role of Saudi al-Qaeda members in the 9/11 attacks. It’s surprising, in some ways, that the murder of Khashoggi, a lone journalist, has proved to be an inflection point. Probably its impact resulted from a combination of the brutality of the killing and dismemberment, the ineptness of the initial Saudi coverup, and the fact that the victim was a columnist for one of the world’s most prominent newspapers.

Whatever the reasons, Khashoggi may have accomplished in death what he never achieved in his writing: He has backed MBS into a corner — forcing him either to take responsibility for his actions and address Saudi human rights violations, or risk losing the U.S. military and intelligence support that has been essential for the kingdom’s security.

Khashoggi wrote often about his fervent desire for modernization and rule of law in the kingdom. In his last moments, he pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, but his murder may yet give oxygen to his demand for reform.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ignatius, David.“How the Mysteries of Khashoggi’s Murder Have Rocked the U.S.-Saudi Partnership.” The Washington Post, March 29, 2019.