By LUCIEN BRUGGEMAN, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — A lawsuit accusing the Saudi crown prince of overseeing an assassination attempt on a former Saudi spymaster similar to the one that sealed the gruesome fate of Jamal Khashoggi may hamper efforts to mend the already fraught U.S.-Saudi relationship, experts say.
The lawsuit, which was filed last summer against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by former Saudi intelligence official Saad Aljabri, claims that Aljabri was the target of a failed assassination attempt akin to the 2018 assassination of Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist whose death sparked global backlash and complicated ties between Riyadh and Washington.
On Friday, the Biden administration released an intelligence report determining that MBS, as the crown prince is colloquially known, “approved” the plot to murder Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul — a notable step toward holding the kingdom to account for the extrajudicial killing on foreign soil. The release of the report was immediately followed by a set of travel visa restrictions for Saudi government officials and sanctions against a key aide to MBS.
In a statement released Friday, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said it “completely rejects the negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report pertaining to the Kingdom’s leadership,” claiming that the report contained inaccurate information and conclusions.
Aljabri, 62, has been locked in a heated and complex legal dispute with Saudi leadership since last August. His accusations contained in the lawsuit against MBS are lurid and specific — and bear an eerie resemblance to the circumstances that led to Khashoggi’s death, including the allegation that MBS authorized it. Most notably, Aljabri claims MBS sent a “hit squad” to murder him in Canada, where he has been in exile since fleeing the Saudi kingdom in 2017.
The alleged threats against Aljabri demonstrate “that Jamal Khashoggi was not a one-off,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told ABC News.
“It’s part of a pattern of really horrific human rights abuses, up to and including murder, conducted by the crown prince against people he, for one reason or another, sees as political enemies or political threats,” Riedel said.
Douglas London, a 34-year CIA veteran with expertise in the Middle East, said the threats facing Aljabri present President Joe Biden’s administration an opportunity “to demonstrate its credibility as being an advocate for democratic institutions and human rights.”
“We can’t sit idly by and watch a country that we’re pretending to be allies with go ahead and execute people abroad like this,” said London, who is also the author of a forthcoming book, The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.
A veteran Saudi intelligence official, Aljabri once served as a key deputy to Mohammed bin Nayef, known as MBN, a member of the Saudi royal family and former head of the government’s powerful interior ministry. MBN was detained last year as part of bin Salman’s efforts to consolidate power in Riyadh.
London, who said he worked closely with Aljabri during the Obama administration on a range of strategic initiatives in the region, described Aljabri as “an excellent partner … very thoughtful, very patient, very considerate.” Aljabri was MBN’s “right-hand man,” London said, with a portfolio of high-profile counterterrorism responsibilities, including acting as a liaison to U.S. intelligence.
Generations of U.S. spymasters considered MBN and Aljabri “crucial partners” in the fight against al Qaeda, Riedel said. In 2010, for example, on the eve of the U.S. midterm elections, bin Nayef and Aljabri helped American officials thwart a terrorist plot to bomb two airplanes over American cities.
“Mohammed bin Nayef and Aljabri provided us with the flight details of those aircrafts. You don’t get better intelligence than that,” Riedel told ABC News. “So, the two of them are not only heroes in their own country, they are people that we owe because they helped to save American lives.”
In 2017, however, MBS ascended to the role of crown prince and took control of the kingdom’s vast security and intelligence apparatus. Aljabri fell out of favor and, sensing a change in the government power structure, left Riyadh for Canada, where he remains in exile.
In Aljabri’s lawsuit against MBS, which was filed in the U.S. last August, his lawyers wrote that MBS has “personally orchestrated an attempted extrajudicial killing of [Aljabri], an attempt that remains ongoing to this day.”
The lawsuit includes several details about the alleged attempt on his life — including the rationale, strategy and timing — which appear to bear a striking resemblance to the circumstances surrounding Khashoggi’s death.
Like Khashoggi, Aljabri claims to have “sensitive information” that could potentially expose “bin Salman’s covert political scheming within the Royal Court, [and] corrupt business dealings,” the lawsuit reads.
“That is why defendant bin Salman wants him dead — and why defendant bin Salman has worked to achieve that objective over the last three years,” claims the suit.
In the complaint, Aljabri alleges that MBS “dispatched a private hit squad to North America to kill [him]” less than two weeks after the assassination of Khashoggi in Istanbul, but that the team was turned away at a Canadian airport.
“Like the team that murdered Khashoggi, those sent to kill [Aljabri] … were also members of defendant bin Salman’s personal mercenary group, the Tiger Squad,” his lawsuit claims.
In February, Aljabri claimed in court documents that Saudi officials “repeatedly pressured” one of his daughters “to travel to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey” in September 2018, and that “only days later, the Tiger Squad successfully executed Jamal Khashoggi inside the same facility.”
Two of Aljabri’s other children have been detained in Saudi Arabia, Aljabri claimed.
The Saudis have denied the accusations leveled in Aljabri’s U.S. lawsuit and recently filed a motion to dismiss the case. Meanwhile, in Canadian civil court, a coalition of Saudi government-controlled entities accused Aljabri in January of siphoning billions of dollars for himself and his family before fleeing to Toronto — a claim Aljabri denies.
An Ontario-based judge has agreed to temporarily freeze Aljabri’s assets. But as Riedel notes, the Canadian litigation may be more significant for what it reveals about the Saudis than its effect on Aljabri’s pocketbook.
“What it shows to me is that [MBS] is nowhere near as firmly in control as he likes to portray,” Riedel said.
Furthermore, the disclosures in court documents may serve to divulge sensitive information about the machinations of the Saudi elite — and could further incriminate MBS and his circle of advisers.
According to records filed by Saudi companies as part of the Canadian case, for example, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund took control of a private aviation firm called Sky Prime Aviation Services in 2017, a year before Khashoggi’s death.
In 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported that the two jets used to transport operatives who allegedly carried out the killing of Khashoggi in Istanbul belonged to Sky Prime, citing Turkish officials. The Canadian court documents were first reported by CNN.
Without a strong response from the U.S., bin Salman and his allies are unlikely to halt extrajudicial retaliation against dissidents like Khashoggi and Aljabri, Riedel said. But the stakes may be even higher than that.
“Saudi Arabia has been an incredibly stable country for more than 100 years, but it’s not so stable anymore — and the Biden administration ought to be thinking about that,” Riedel said. “MBS is not just a threat to Khashoggi and Aljabri; he is a threat to the very survival and viability of the Saudi state. If he’s now left in the line of succession and becomes king, we may find a Saudi Arabia that is very unstable and could become prey to very abrupt and unpredictable political change.”
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