The return of American anti-anti-Islamism

Biden's recalibration of Saudi Arabian ties betokens disaster for the US and the west

President Putin and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Kremlin, 2017

America’s former Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has denounced as a “reckless” move and “political stunt” the Biden administration's release at the weekend of a declassified report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence implicating the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, in the killing of the Saudi writer, Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

The release was also, on the face of it, a perplexing move. After all, the report is not only three years old but is a mere four pages long, with a lot of white space and a proportion devoted merely to a list of names of those it says were involved in the Khashoggi killing. To call it a report is to dignify what is in reality no more than a cursory note.   

Moreover, its claim isn’t backed up by any evidence of what actually happened to Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul but rests entirely on a series of assumptions. It says it bases its assessment on 

the Crown Prince’s control of decision-making in the Kingdom since 2017, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Mohamed bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi. Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s  security and intelligence organisations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince's authorisation. 

The western media and the Democratic party has run with this to accuse the Crown Prince, who is known as MBS, of premeditated murder. In fact, the DNI note merely states that MBS approved an operation “to capture or kill” Khashoggi.  Well, that's surely quite a difference. Either course was reprehensible and abhorrent. But to accuse someone of premeditated murder on such a flimsy basis wouldn’t qualify for rules of evidence 101.

Soon after Khashoggi was killed in 2018, I was told by an informant with Saudi connections that the account already put out by US sources, that MBS had ordered the murder of Khashoggi who was thus a martyr to human rights, was way off course. 

As I wrote here, Khashoggi was actually a former Saudi intelligence asset of more than twenty years’ standing who turned against Saudi Arabia and supported the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. Far from promoting human rights, he was a former friend of Osama bin Laden and opposed MBS on the grounds that he was not Islamic  enough; and he had become too close to both Turkey’s Islamist president and Saudi's Gulf foe and Brotherhood backer, Qatar.  He was, in short, a Saudi insider who had gone rogue. As my informant told me: 

“Jamal worked very closely with the former directors of the Saudi Intelligence Agency Prince Turki al Faisal and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and most importantly, with the architect of Saudi intelligence, Brigadier-General Yousuf al Idrissi. These people had no problem with Jamal being out of the country. But he knew a lot of intelligence secrets, and so when he got too close to the Qataris and the Turks, who are now the arch-enemies of the Saudis, this is when Jamal really crossed the line.”

His fiancé, a Turkish diplomat, is the daughter of a former adviser to Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Khashoggi started tweeting pictures of himself with Erdoğan advisers. He was also planning to start a Turkish centre, funded by the Turks and the Qataris, agitating for change in Saudi Arabia to champion dissent. But many of the dissenters he was championing were Islamists opposed to the attempts by MBS to modernise Saudi economy and society. 

Increasingly alarmed, the MBS regime tried to bribe him. “Khashoggi was offered US $9 million to return to Saudi Arabia, with a public guarantee that he would never be harmed. He refused.”

So the Saudis set out to bring Khashoggi back against his will. That’s why they sent the 15-strong squad, who had been alerted to the timing of his consular appointment. The intention was to extract him back to Riyadh, interrogate him and lock him up, probably for many years.

“If they’d wanted to kill him,” my informant said, “they could easily have paid $200,000 to the Chechen mafia in Istanbul who could have taken him out so easily and made it look like a robbery gone wrong.

“So they set out to bring him back alive. The pathologist, a member of the inner circle, was there to ensure he remained sedated on the way back to Riyadh.”

But this, according to my source, was where some kind of disaster occurred. “The sedative gun malfunctioned and he suffocated from a massive overdose. He was 60 years old, he was overweight, his body couldn’t cope with it.” 

I don’t know whether all or some of this was true. But the point about the likely reason for sending a 15-man squad does sound plausible.

Of course, such a Saudi extraction plan and its lethal outcome, even if unintended, is still appalling. But the point of making this flimsy DNI note public now is to humiliate and damage MBS and to signal the Biden administration's pivot away from Saudi Arabia and Israel towards Iran. 

Yet as I wrote here, the “human rights” hypocrisy of this is stunning since the Iranian regime is responsible for the persecution, jailing, torture and killing of thousands of Iranians who oppose the regime; and Iran is in a state of self-declared war against the west.

Biden has said he wants to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which means lifting sanctions. Iran views this as weakness betokening surrender, and in recent days has been upping the ante by small-scale attacks and belligerent rhetoric about developing nuclear weapons, in order to demonstrate its contempt for Biden's weakness. Granted Saudi abuses, as I wrote here, isn't it better to side with a nasty state that is the west's ally rather than a nasty state that aims to wage war on it?

As Pompeo observed about the DNI note:

The release of this report was reckless. It was political. It was aimed at harming a relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia through the use of intelligence in a way that, as a former CIA director, I would have never stood for. I regret that because this administration wants to develop a relationship with Iran and destroy one with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, they chose to use intelligence to do that.

According to US officials, by implicating MBS in Khashoggi’s killing but opting not to punish him personally the Biden administration wants to recalibrate the relationship with Saudi Arabia without destroying it. The Wall Street Journal reports that, according to President Biden’s press secretary:

as part of the recalibration of ties Mr. Biden sees the King as his counterpart, not the Crown Prince.

This is all astonishingly stupid. The King is old and barely functioning. MBS is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. Moreover, MBS is a reformer trying to drag his country out of the dark ages. Saudi women now work, drive and travel abroad without permission of a male guardian. Previously banned cinemas have sprung up along with public entertainments such as rock concerts.

Sure, this is all small change by western standards; and the Saudi regime is still guilty of barbaric abuses of human rights. But at least MBS is pushing his country a little in the right direction. By damaging him in this way, the Biden administration has empowered his Muslim Brotherhood enemies who want to bring him down and return Saudi Arabia to an even more repressive ethos — as well as enmity against the west. What perversity is this?

The risks are that, with such cold winds once again blowing from the White House,  Saudi Arabia will cosy up to Russia and China, thus destabilising the region and damaging western defences. And America will again shockingly become what it became under President Obama — anti-anti-Islamist. Which, whether the Biden administration wants this to happen or not, will put it on the side of the Islamic fanatics, whether the Sunni Muslim Brothers or the Shia “Twelvers” who are all at war with the west — and also intent upon repressing freedom-seeking Muslims everywhere.

Internationally, America is now a wasting asset. Its enemies can scarcely believe their luck — or conceal their contempt. Its allies are looking on aghast. And the Biden administration is still only six weeks old.

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