WASHINGTON – Seven Saudis involved in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi belonged to an elite unit charged with protecting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to a released report about the murder released on Friday. The New York Times has linked the group to a relentless campaign to quell dissent in the kingdom and abroad, citing interviews with US officials who read classified intelligence reports about the campaign.
The role of agents of the so-called Rapid Intervention Force, or R.I.F., in the murder of Khashoggi helped bolster the U.S. intelligence case that Prince Mohammed approved the operation. Members of the R.I.F. would not have participated & # 39; & # 39; murder without the Crown Prince's consent, the report said.
The group "exists to defend the Crown Prince" and "answers only to him," the report said, and on Friday the Treasury Department designated the Rapid Intervention Force for economic sanctions for its role in the Khashoggi murder.
Here's what is known about the device:
Mr. Khashoggi's murder was just one particularly blatant operation involving members of the group. The Rapid Intervention Force appears to have started its violent campaign in 2017, the year when Prince Mohammed pushed aside his elder rival to become heir to the Saudi throne.
According to US officials, the group has carried out dozens of operations both within the kingdom and beyond, including the forced repatriation of Saudis from other Arab countries. The group also appears to have been involved in the detention and abuse of prominent women's rights activists who had campaigned for the lifting of the ban on driving for women in the kingdom. One of them, Loujain al-Hathloul, was imprisoned in 2018 and only released this month.
Another of the women detained by the group, a university lecturer, attempted suicide in 2018 after being subjected to psychological torture, US officials said. Some prisoners were temporarily held in a lavish palace by Prince Mohammed and his father, King Salman.
The group was so busy that in June 2018, the field commander asked an adviser to Prince Mohammed whether the Rapid Intervention Force could receive bonuses for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, according to US officials. who have read an intelligence report stating the request.
Leadership and employees
The group was overseen by Saud al-Qahtani, one of the Crown Prince's best aides who served as the media tsar for the Royal Court. One of Mr. Al-Qahtani had been managing the kingdom's "troll farms" – organizations that used legions of online bots and avatars to stifle the voices of prominent critics such as Mr. Khashoggi. The intelligence report released on Friday referred to a 2018 quote by Mr al-Qahtani that he "did not make any decisions without the Crown Prince's approval."
US officials said the Rapid Intervention Force's field commander was Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, an intelligence officer who often traveled abroad with Prince Mohammed. Another member of the team, Thaar Ghaleb al-Harbi, was a member of the Saudi Royal Guard who was promoted in 2017 for bravery during an attack on one of Prince Mohammed's palaces.
The report released on Friday named all three men as part of a group of 21 people who "participated in, instructed, or were otherwise complicit in or responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi" on behalf of the crown prince.
The Saudi government has long denied that Prince Mohammed played a role in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi and eight men brought to trial. The government has never released the names of the defendants.
In September, a Saudi court announced that five of the men had been sentenced to 20 years in prison and three others less. Some of the defendants had originally been sentenced to death, but those sentences were lifted after one of Mr. Khashoggi's sons said publicly that he and his siblings had pardoned the men who murdered their father.
It was unclear whether members of the Rapid Intervention Force were being tried or convicted, but Mr Al-Qahtani was publicly acquitted by the Saudi government because prosecutors said there was insufficient evidence to bring him to justice in the murder of Mr Khashoggi.