A former senior Saudi intelligence officer in exile filed a lawsuit in a US court last week accusing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of plotting to kill him. The allegations, including using children as bargaining chips, have sparked calls for President Donald Trump, in the thick of a difficult campaign season, to intervene on moral grounds.
In September 2017, a former top Saudi intelligence officer living in exile was desperately trying to get his two children safely out of the Gulf kingdom. Picking up his iPhone, Saad Aljabri got on WhatsApp and contacted the most powerful man in his homeland, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The WhatsApp communication between Aljabri and MBS – as the Saudi crown prince is widely known – is detailed in a lawsuit filed last week in a US court.
While the allegations have not yet been verified in court, the lawsuit makes for a jaw-dropping and yet disconcertingly familiar read.
“Tell me what you want in person,” texted MBS, according to the lawsuit, which includes a screen shot of the exchange in Arabic with an English translation.
“I hope that you will consider what I have already sent you, because this issue regarding the children is very important to me,” replied Aljabri.
Two minutes later, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler once again urged the former intelligence official in exile to return home. “I definitely need you here,” said bin Salman.
Before Aljabri could reply, the crown prince added a terse, “24 hours!”
A crown prince falls, a crackdown begins
Four months earlier, Aljabri, a close advisor to bin Salman’s arch rival, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, had fled Saudi Arabia for Turkey. He was still in Turkey in June 2017, when his ex-boss, bin Nayef – a longtime former Saudi interior minister – was stripped of his latest post as the kingdom’s crown prince and replaced by MBS.
In his new position as crown prince, the brash, young MBS had begun a crackdown against his rivals and opponents in the kingdom. As a right-hand man of Saudi Arabia’s former interior minister, Aljabri was a key link between Saudi and Western intelligence services and privy to highly sensitive information on the kingdom’s rulers.
Bin Salman wanted him back in Saudi Arabia “where he could be killed”, the lawsuit alleges.
Days after the Whatsapp exchange with MBS granting him "24 hours", Aljabri left Turkey for Canada. But two of his eight children, Omar and Sarah, were trapped in Saudi Arabia and are still being used as “human bait” to lure their father home, according to the lawsuit.
The Saudi strategy failed to entice Aljabri back. Instead it caught the attention of US lawmakers who called on President Donald Trump to act.
US senators remind Trump of a ‘moral obligation’
Last month, four US senators on both sides of the aisle urged Trump to help secure the release of Omar, 21, and Sarah, 20, calling it a “moral obligation” to help the former Saudi intelligence official in exile.
In a letter to the White House, Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic senators, Patrick Leahy, Tim Kaine and Chris Van Hollen, described Aljabri as a “highly valued partner” of US intelligence and State Department agencies “who has been credited by former CIA officials for saving thousands of American lives by discovering and preventing terrorist plots”.
The children’s fate also pushed their father, a 62-year-old former government official with nearly four decades of experience in the secretive world of national security and counterterrorism, to take the unusually public step of filing a civil lawsuit in a US court.
‘Tiger Squad’ on a campaign to kill
The lawsuit filed last week at US District Court for the District of Columbia alleges that bin Salman launched a state campaign to kill Aljabri that “has worked to achieve that objective over the past three years”.
Aljabri bases his claim on two US laws: the Torture Victim Protection Act, which bans extrajudicial killing; and the Alien Tort Statute, which allows victims – including non-US citizens or residents – of such illegal operations to sue in US courts.
The 170-page document details chilling but as yet unverified plots to target Aljabri. They include the arrival at a Canadian airport of a Saudi “Tiger Squad” hit team – similar to the one used to kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey – to target Aljabri.
The complaint also sheds light on the moves by global intelligence and law enforcement agencies to contain some of bin Salman’s human rights excesses on foreign soil. In October 2018, for instance, just weeks after Khashoggi’s brutal killing, vigilant Canadian authorities stopped and questioned Tiger Squad members who arrived separately at Ontario airport, the lawsuit claims. Most of the team were sent back home to Saudi Arabia.
Interpol snags ‘politically motivated’ warrant request
MBS, the lawsuit alleges, had warned Aljabri that he would use “legal measures as well as other measures that would be harmful to you”.
But the Saudi crown prince’s attempts to use "legal measures" were stymied at Interpol, the global law enforcement agency based in the French city of Lyon, the US court document reveals.
In a July 4, 2018 decision taken months before Khashoggi’s killing sparked an international furor, the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files (CCF) found Saudi Arabia’s arrest and extradition request for Aljabri was “politically motivated rather then strictly juridical”. While any person has the right to request Interpol data about them, the CCF decision on the Aljabri case was not publicly known before the lawsuit was filed last week.
‘In the business of assassinating people’
The Aljabri case once again casts a spotlight on Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations at home and against its citizens abroad.
“It’s a lawsuit containing accusations that are not yet proved, but these are serious accusations against the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, which is a very powerful country. If the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is in the business of assassinating people, it’s very important,” said Rami Khoury, a journalism professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
The crown prince's role in Khashoggi’s assassination has been a public relations nightmare for the oil-rich Gulf kingdom. While MBS has acknowledged that men working for him killed the Washington Post columnist inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he denies involvement in the murder.
His denials are widely disbelieved. In June 2019, an investigation into Khashoggi’s killing by UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur Agnès Callamard found “credible evidence, warranting further criminal investigation”, of the involvement of top Saudi officials, including bin Salman.
The latest Aljabri allegations – which names bin Salman and several Saudi officials implicated in Khashoggi’s murder, such as Saud “Mr. Hashtag” al-Qahtani, as defendants – are strikingly similar to the slain journalist’s case.
But the Khashoggi investigations so far have been impeded by political and diplomatic challenges.
As a UN special rapporteur, Callamard works as a volunteer, not UN staffer, and her office is independent of UN institutions. The fiery French human rights lawyer has publicly criticised UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for failing to act on her investigation findings to set up a panel of criminal experts.
Meanwhile the Trump administration has been stonewalling Congressional attempts to enforce accountability for Khashoggi’s murder while a Turkish trial on the case lacks international credibility, given the weaknesses of the Turkish justice system.
‘Lost in the world of the rule of law’
Aljabri’s extraordinary recourse in a US court of law opens the gates to a level of transparency that could, depending on the court proceedings, be damning for the crown prince, some experts believe.
“The accusations against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be adjudicated in a US court using the instruments of the rule of law,” said Khoury. “This is being put into the public light. If a crown prince or ruler of a country is convicted as a criminal, that’s very important.”
Khoury, like every Saudi expert, does not expect the crown prince to appear before a US court. Unlike criminal cases, civil suits pursue compensations, not prison sentences. On Friday, August 7, the US district court issued summons, or an official notice of a lawsuit given to defendants being sued. Saudi authorities have not responded so far to media organisations about the case.
It’s an unfamiliar terrain for Saudi authorities accustomed to petrodollar diplomacy, including the use of top lobby groups during crises. “The Saudis aren’t used to it, they’re totally lost in the world of the rule of law. They operate on personal relations and don’t know how to deal with this shift into the chambers of Congress and into the chambers of courts,” explained Khoury.
Kushner-Saudi way of doing business
The Saudi way of doing diplomatic business found a perfect partner in Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who developed a personal relationship with MBS.
“Trump and Kushner, both used to shady real estate deals, adapted quickly to Saudi Arabia’s system of patronage and clientelism: unwavering support from the Trump administration for the promise of weapons sales and other business deals,” noted Mohamad Bazzi, a New York University journalism professor, in a Guardian column.
But the Saudis are keenly aware that in the US – unlike in their conservative country of glacial or paternalistic reforms – the winds of change can swerve abruptly.
The Aljabri case filing comes barely three months before the November US presidential election, with the Saudis bracing for a potential change in the White House. Historically, a confluence of oil and business interests makes a Republican US president a better fit for Saudi interests.
Joe Biden, the centrist, septuagenarian Democratic presidential candidate, is not expected to bring radical change if he wins the November 3 election. But unlike Trump, who protected MBS in the fallout of Khashoggi’s killing, Biden is unlikely to give the crown prince’s human rights violations a pass. “Joe Biden is more inclined to obey international law and follow public opinion and pressure from senators,” noted Khoury.
The pressure is expected to mount as Aljabri's unusual lawsuit winds its way through US court proceedings before and after the 2020 presidential election.