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What to know about Jamal Khashoggi as the U.S. releases intelligence report on his killing

On Oct. 2, 2018, Saudi agents killed Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. What has been done in the aftermath? (Video: Joyce Lee, Thomas LeGro, Dalton Bennett, John Parks/The Washington Post)

A U.S. intelligence report made public Friday singles out Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, saying he approved the operation that killed Jamal Khashoggi, 59, a Washington Post contributing columnist and former Saudi royal insider who had become a leading critic of the kingdom’s government.

CIA concludes Saudi crown prince ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination

Khashoggi was last seen alive in October 2018 entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. His gruesome killing and dismemberment — of which Turkish officials obtained an audio recording — roiled U.S.-Saudi relations and have been under investigation since then.

With the report’s release, here’s what you need to know about Khashoggi, his assassination and its impact on U.S.-Saudi relations.

Release of intelligence report on Khashoggi killing could push already strained U.S.-Saudi relations to new lows

Who was Jamal Khashoggi?

Khashoggi was a well-known Saudi journalist and political analyst who came from a prominent family and at first cultivated close ties with the Saudi royal family. Over time, however, he grew more critical of the government’s policies, and in particular of Mohammed bin Salman, who was appointed crown prince in 2017, when he was 31. Mohammed (also known by his initials, MBS) had swiftly risen to become the kingdom’s de facto leader and pledged to bring modern reforms to the highly conservative, oil-rich country. But as he worked to cultivate this image abroad, Mohammed oversaw a fierce crackdown aimed at suppressing criticism at home.

That soon came to include Khashoggi, who after repeated attempts by the kingdom to silence him relocated abroad in 2017 and settled in a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. Khashoggi began to write columns in The Washington Post challenging the crown prince’s repression of political freedoms and free expression. But even outside Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi didn’t feel fully safe. Saudi authorities were increasing their surveillance and attempts to silence dissidents outside the country, too.

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How was he killed?

Khashoggi’s outspokenness incurred many costs, one of which was divorce and separation from his children and family back in Saudi Arabia. He eventually decided to remarry and settle down with his Turkish fiancee in Istanbul. To marry her, however, he needed a document verifying his marital status from the Saudi Consulate there. So in late September 2018, he went to the consulate and was instructed to return a few days later to pick up the paperwork.

That set off a chain of actions by Saudi authorities, which culminated in Khashoggi’s assassination and, according to U.S., Turkish and U.N. investigators, probably were directed by the crown prince. Right before Khashoggi’s disappearance, 15 Saudi agents, including a forensic doctor, flew to Istanbul on government aircraft. Members of the team removed security cameras posted outside the consulate before Khashoggi arrived. Once inside, investigators said, agents killed him and cut up his body. It remains unclear exactly what happened to his remains.

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A man wearing Khashoggi’s clothes then left the consulate and walked around Istanbul, apparently to try to mislead investigators and bolster an initial claim that he had departed the building alive. Khashoggi’s fiancee, however, was waiting for him outside the consulate throughout the ordeal. When he did not return, she was alarmed and reached out to contacts, as he had advised as a precaution.

What have Saudi officials said?

Saudi officials initially denied any involvement or knowledge of wrongdoing. But amid intense international pressure, Saudi officials said two weeks after his disappearance that Khashoggi died in what they called a fight over an attempt to bring him back to Saudi Arabia. However, they continued to deny that the crown prince had any complicity.

In September 2020, Saudi Arabia announced that eight people had been sentenced to prison terms of between seven and 20 years for Khashoggi’s killing. However, the trial was closed to the public, and the names of the defendants were never revealed, although they were believed to have been members of the 15-man hit squad. Agnès Callamard, a U.N. human rights expert who investigated the killing, said the verdicts carried “no legal or moral legitimacy.” She added: “They came at the end of a process which was neither fair, nor just, or transparent.”

A Saudi court earlier exonerated two senior Saudi officials — Saud al-Qahtani, a powerful royal media adviser, and Ahmed al-Assiri, a former deputy head of intelligence — who Saudi prosecutors found had played key roles in planning the Khashoggi meeting.

What does the newly public intelligence report find?

The unclassified two-page summary released Friday was produced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and draws on findings from across the U.S. intelligence community. It builds on a CIA assessment released one month after Khashoggi’s killing, which found that Mohammed bin Salman probably ordered the assassination.

The latest report concludes that the crown prince did approve the plan that led to the killing of Khashoggi. This assessment is based on several factors, including Mohammed bin Salman’s absolute decision-making control in the kingdom, his “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi,” and the involvement of his senior aides and security officials, as The Washington Post reported.

How has his death affected U.S.-Saudi relations?

U.S. lawmakers across the political spectrum were outraged by Khashoggi’s killing. But the Trump administration had built close and lucrative ties with Saudi Arabia, and it pushed back on calls to sanction and sideline the kingdom. Jared Kushner, then-President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, reportedly would communicate directly with the crown prince.

President Biden, however, has pledged to “recalibrate” U.S.-Saudi relations. Biden said Wednesday that he had read the report ahead of his first scheduled call as president with Saudi Arabia that day. The U.S. leader, however, will notably be communicating only with his official counterpart as head of state, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, 85, rather than his son, as the Trump administration frequently did.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest customer for U.S. weapons and is seen as a key U.S. ally in containing Iran’s political ambitions in the region. But the country’s repression of dissidents and its ongoing war in Yemen, which faces the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, have also garnered increasing criticism in Washington.

The Biden administration’s release of the report is expected to further strain relations. But the president has not yet indicated what specific steps the administration might take to hold the crown prince accountable, if any at all.

Instead, on Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the State Department’s “Khashoggi Ban,” a directive to deny U.S. visas to “individuals who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities.” Blinken said 76 Saudi citizens will be banned as a result.

This report has been updated.