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It Was Not Just Khashoggi: A Saudi Prince's Brutal Drive to Crush Dissent



WASHINGTON – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia authorized a secret campaign to silence dissenters – which included the surveillance, kidnapping, detention and torture of Saudi citizens – more than a year before the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, according to American officials

At least some of the clandestine missions were carried out by members of the same team that killed and dismembered Mr. Khashoggi in Istanbul in October, suggesting that his killing was a particularly gross part of a wider campaign to silence Saudi dissidents, according to officials and associates of some of the Saudi victims

Members of the team that killed Mr. Khashoggi, which has been involved in at least a dozen operations since 2017, has been involved in the operation of the Saudi Rapid Intervention Group.

Some of the operations involved forcibly repatriating Saudis from other Arab countries and detaining and abusing prisoners in palaces (19659005) One of the Saudis detained by the group, a university lecturer in linguistics who wrote a blog about women in Saudi Arabia, tried to kill herself last

The rapid intervention team was so busy that last June its leader asked top adviser to Prince Mohammed whether the crown prince would give the team bonuses for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, according to American officials familiar with the intelligence reports [19659002] Details about the operations come from American officials who have read classified intelligence assessments about the Saudi campaign, as well as from Saudis with direct knowledge of some of the operations.

A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington said the kingdom "takes any allegations of illness"

Saudi laws prohibit torture and hold accountable to those involved in such abuses of power, the spokesman said, and judges can not accept confessions obtained under pressure. The kingdom's public prosecutor and the Saudi Human Rights Commission are investigating "recent allegations," he said.

The Saudi government insists that the killing of Mr. Khashoggi – and a dissident journalist living in the United States who wrote for The Washington Post – was not an assassination ordered from Riyadh. The decision to kill him was made by the team on the spot, government officials say, and those responsible are being prosecuted.

The kingdom says that 11 Saudis are facing criminal charges for killing and that prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five of them, but officials have not publicly identified the accused. 19659006] After the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, Saudi officials acknowledged that the Saudi intelligence service had a standing order to bring dissidents home.

Saudi officials have declined to confirm or deny that such a team existed, or to answer questions about its work

Saudi Arabia has a history of going after the dissidents and other Saudi citizens abroad, but the crackdown escalated sharply after Prince Mohammed was elected to crown prince in 2017, when he was moving rapidly to consolidate power. He has pushed aside Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who oversaw the security services, giving the young prince sway over the intelligence agencies

Many of those detained at Ritz were subject to physical abuse, and one died in custody, according to witnesses. It is not known whether members of the rapid intervention team were involved in the abuse. The Saudi government has denied that any physical abuse took place there

But it was only after Mr. Khashoggi's killing that the extent of the team's work began to emerge. Mr. Mutreb and Mr. al-Harbi were both in the consulate when Mr. Khashoggi was killed, according to Turkish officials. American intelligence about the team's previous operations informed the assessment by C.I.A. in November that Prince Mohammed had ordered Mr. Khashoggi's killing, United States officials said.

The C.I.A. declined to comment

United States intelligence agencies do not appear to have conclusive, smoking-gun proof that Prince Mohammed ordering killing, but they have combined the pattern of similar operations conducted by Saudi operatives under the prince's authority. 19659005] The agencies continue to gather evidence of Prince Mohammed's role in the operations, and in December the National Security Agency produced a report saying that in 2017 the Prince told a top aide that he would use "a bullet" on Mr. Khashoggi if he did not return to the kingdom and end his criticism of the government.

Intelligence analysts concluded that Prince Mohammed may not have spoken literally – that he was not ordering Mr. Khashoggi to be shot – but that he intended to silence the journalist by killing him if circumstances required it.

The C.I.A. the president of Trump, who has made warm relations with the Saudis and the cornerstone of his foreign policy. The Crown Prince has been a close ally of the Trump White House, especially Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior advisor. Despite the C.I.A.'s assessment that Prince Mohammed ordered the operation, Mr. Trump has said repeatedly that the evidence was not conclusive.

The grisly killing of Mr. Khashoggi led to a storm of outrage in foreign capitals and a new scrutiny of the powerful crown prince who had billed himself as a forward-thinking reformer with a grand vision of modernizing the kingdom. But the journalist's killing was just the latest in a string of clandestine operations against less high-profile Saudis, including members of the royal family

American intelligence officials said that some of those detained in these operations were held at secret locations, including opulent palaces used by King Salman and his son, until November 2017, when many were moved to the compound surrounding the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton.

That crackdown has become a cover for clandestine operations against Saudi dissidents who were detained in Ritz at that time, according to American officials

The Rapid Intervention Group also appears to have been involved in the detention and abuse of about a dozen women's rights activists who were detained last spring and summer. The activists, who had campaigned for lifting the kingdom's ban on driving by women, included several well-known figures: Loujain al-Hathloul, who had been jailed for trying to drive her car into the kingdom of United Arab Emirates; Aziza al-Yousef, a retired computer science professor; and Eman al-Nafjan, the linguistics lecturer.

At first, the women were not held in a prison, but were detained informally in what seemed to be an unused palace in the port city of Jidda, according to Ms. al-Hathloul's sister, Alia. Every woman was locked in a small room, and the windows were covered. Some of the women were often taken downstairs for interrogation, which included beatings, electric shocks, waterboarding and threats of rape and murder.

In An Op-Ed article for The New York Times, Alia al-Hathloul wrote that Mr. al-Qahtani was "present several times," when her sister was tortured, and that he threatened to kill her and throw her body in the sewer

Loujain al-Hathloul, who was jailed for trying to drive her car into the kingdom from United Arab Emirates Credit Reuters

The treatment was so harsh that Ms. al-Nafjan tried to commit suicide, according to a United States intelligence assessment.

The women were later moved to the Dhahban Prison in Jidda, where the physical abuse was stopped and their relatives were allowed to visit, Ms. al-Hathloul said.

Their trial opened in Riyadh on Wednesday, but journalists and diplomats were not allowed to attend, and the government did not announce the charges against them


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