When Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post, was killed in Turkey in 2018, U.S. media outlets and politicians from both parties were quick to point the finger at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
While President Joe Biden released an intelligence report officially blaming the crown prince for initiating the murder, his administration refrained from issuing any penalties or sanctions against the powerful Saudi leader.
“Approved an operation in Istanbul”
The rationale behind that decision appears to lie in the continued importance of a U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia on issues like counterterrorism, China, and Iran. Harsh action against bin Salman could strain that relationship, leading to increasing hostilities between the allied nations.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a report confirming that its officials “assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”
That assessment was purportedly based on the crown prince’s “control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom” as well as involvement in the deadly operation by “a key adviser” to bin Salman.
Furthermore, the DNI asserted that the crown prince had previously offered support for “using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.”
According to the report, bin Salman maintains “absolute control” over intelligence and security organizations in the kingdom and it is “highly unlikely” that members of those organizations would take any actions without his authorization.
“Negative, false and unacceptable”
While the crown prince might have dodged personal sanctions or penalties for his purported role in Khashoggi’s death, reports reveal that it does not there were no measures of accountability being pursued against other alleged participants in the assassination at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
In fact, dozens of Saudi operatives — including members of bin Salman’s own protective detail — were personally sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. A new State Department measure named in honor of Khashoggi will be used to ban travel to the U.S. for foreigners suspected of engaging in targeted harassment of dissidents and journalists living abroad.
Of course, the measured response is less than satisfactory to the multitude of media figures and lawmakers in the U.S. who have called for the crown prince himself to face harsh retribution.
For its part, the Saudi government issued a statement reiterating its claim that bin Salman had nothing to do with the operation that ended in Khashoggi’s brutal death, calling the recent U.S. findings “negative, false and unacceptable” and declaring it “truly unfortunate that this report, with its unjustified and inaccurate conclusions, is issued while the kingdom has clearly denounced this heinous crime, and the kingdom’s leadership took the necessary steps to ensure that such a tragedy never takes place again.”
With Biden effectively caught between demands at home and the assertions of a key ally, it remains to be seen how this continuing narrative plays out in the weeks and months to come.