Silencing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul was a feat of primeval brutality that sent a shudder through even the most hardened officials. The House of Saud, and in particular certain members of it, had gotten a taste for blood. Soon after Khashoggi’s slicing and dicing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul at the hands of a specially assembled hit squad, another was sent ostensibly to do away with Saad al-Jabri, a former Saudi Arabian intelligence official.
The plot was foiled. The curiosity of Canadian border agents about the squad was piqued as they attempted to enter the country at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. The group denied knowledge of knowing each other. The discovery of a photo showing them in company suggested otherwise.
Such cases have led Jabri to file a 107-page complaint in the federal court in the District of Columbia, accusing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of attempted murder in violation of the US Torture Victim Protection Act and international law. The lawsuit claims that “a team of Saudi nationals travelled across the Atlantic Ocean from Saudi Arabia … with the intention of killing Dr Saad.”
The list of accusations against the crown prince include corruption and deploying a team of mercenaries dubbed the Tiger Squad (Firqat el-Nemr), a unit with a record of conducting assassinations. According to Mustafa Abu Sneineh of the Middle East Eye, the “squad’s mission is to covertly assassinate Saudi dissidents, inside the kingdom and on foreign soil, in a way that goes unnoticed by media, the international community and politicians”.
There was very little in the way of being covert or quiet in the way the Tiger Squad went about its dastardly business in October 2018 in the grounds of the Kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi’s killing was extravagantly cruel, vicious and indulgently brutal. The manner of doing away with Jabri promised to be similar, with a member of the squad drawn from the same department who had supplied personnel responsible for dismembering Khashoggi. Two bags of forensic tools kept them company.
The language of the filed lawsuit is ostentatious, even dramatic. “Few places hold more sensitive, humiliating and damning information about defendant bin Salman than the mind and memory of Dr Saad – except perhaps the recordings Dr Saad made in anticipation of his killing.” For those reasons, “defendant bin Salman wants him dead” and had been working “to achieve that objective over the last three years.” The extrajudicial killing would have also serve to sever access to “a uniquely knowledgeable partner vital to US national security, and, in turn, to eliminate any threat posed to Defendant bin Salman by virtue of that partnership [with the US].”
The lawsuit should not be shrugged off as the ravings of an ex-security official hungering for notoriety. Jabri has good reasons to fear being knocked off. For a time, he was close to Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the go-between for the Kingdom with the “Five Eyes” (US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) intelligence agencies. In 2015, the royal furniture shifted through death and design. King Abdullah’s passing saw the coming to power of his half-brother Salman. Mohammed bin Salman took over the reins as defence minister and immediately got busy. In only two years, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef found himself usurped in his line to the throne in a palace coup engineered by bin Salman, who became crown prince. Jabri took his cue to leave, fleeing to Canada.
The lawsuit argues the bin Salman threatened Jabri at various times in an effort to compel his return to the Kingdom “where you will be placed under house arrest” or become the subject of a global manhunt, beginning with filing “bogus corruption allegations through INTERPOL” to encourage his surrender to the men of the crown prince. This included a menacing WhatsApp message promising the use of “all available means” to silence him. Bin Salman would personally “take legal measures, as well as other measures that would be harmful to you.”
The response from the Kingdom to this unveiling is bound to be more cautious this time around. To Khashoggi’s murder, it was amateurishly bumbling: first, abject, implausible denial, followed by the “accidental killing” thesis – that the journalist perished in a fist fight – followed by an acceptance, some three weeks later, that his killing was always intended. Care was taken to distance the crown prince and the royal family from the bloody episode, a stratagem aided by the sentencing of five squad members to death and three others to prison terms in closed proceedings. Being a member of the Tiger Squad has its drawbacks.
The paw prints of the crown prince were, however, found to be credibly large by Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings. As her 2019 report noted, “The circumstances of Mr Khashoggi’s death have led to numerous theories and allegations, but none alters the responsibility of the Saudi Arabia state.” Fifteen men had “acted under the cover of their official status and used state means to execute Mr Khashoggi.” His murder “was the result of elaborate planning involving extensive coordination and significant human and financial resources. It was overseen, planned and endorsed by high-level officials. It was premeditated.”
Bin Salman has shown himself to be a dedicated dissembler. He has charmed, wooed and warmed the hearts of many leaders. He has even given that lie of being a reformer some stuffing, an anti-corruption warrior keen to give the Kingdom a modernising lick of paint. In the meantime, he has set about eliminating and isolating his enemies. A man of such ilk will know that a certain quantum of hypocrisy in international relations will always tolerate murder and blood soaked hands, especially for a Kingdom possessing – at least for the moment – abundant natural resources.