Crushing Dissent: The Saudi Kill Team Behind Khashoggi’s Death


According to American officials, the group has carried out dozens of operations both inside the kingdom and beyond — including forcibly repatriating 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 lifting the kingdom’s ban on women driving. One of them, Loujain al-Hathloul, was imprisoned in 2018 and released only this month.

Another of the women detained by the group, a university lecturer, tried to kill herself in 2018 after being subjected to psychological torture, according to American officials. Some of the detainees were held temporarily inside an opulent palace belonging to Prince Mohammed and his father, King Salman.

The group was so busy that, in June 2018, its field commander asked an adviser to Prince Mohammed whether the Rapid Intervention Force might get bonuses for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, according to American officials who have read an intelligence report that mentions the request.

The group was overseen by Saud al-Qahtani, one of the crown prince’s top aides who served as a media czar for the Royal Court. One of Mr. al-Qahtani’s roles was to manage the kingdom’s “troll farms” — organizations that used legions of online bots and avatars to smother the voices of prominent critics like Mr. Khashoggi. The intelligence report released on Friday made reference to a 2018 quote from Mr. al-Qahtani that he “did not make decisions without the crown prince’s approval.”

American officials said the field commander for the Rapid Intervention Force was Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, an intelligence officer who often traveled overseas with Prince Mohammed. Another operative on the team, Thaar Ghaleb al-Harbi, was a member of the Saudi Royal Guard who in 2017 was promoted for acts of valor during an attack on one of Prince Mohammed’s palaces.


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