The New York Times is reporting that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman authorised operations to silence dissent by what US authorities are calling the 'Rapid Intervention Group,' well before the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 29, 2011.
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 29, 2011. (AP Archive)

More than a year before the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved a secret campaign to silence dissenters, The New York Times reported on Sunday.

The campaign included surveillance, kidnapping, detention and torture of Saudis, said the report which cited US officials who have read classified intelligence reports about the effort.

US officials referred to it as the Saudi Rapid Intervention Group, the NYT said.

At least some of the clandestine missions were carried out by members of the team that killed and dismembered Khashoggi in October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, suggesting his murder was part of a wider campaign against dissidents, the report said, citing the US officials and associates of some Saudi victims.

White House ignores intelligence on Khashoggi

The murder of Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, generated global outrage including an order from US senators for President Donald Trump to designate and punish those responsible.

Trump ignored them. The White House has a close relationship with the crown prince, or MBS as he is known, in particular through his relationship with Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.

The senators, briefed by the heads of US intelligence agencies, said they were convinced that MBS was responsible for the Khashoggi killing.

Saudi Arabia has stressed the prince was not involved.

The kingdom initially said it had no knowledge of Khashoggi's fate but later blamed rogue agents for his death.

Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor has since charged 11 people over his murder. Five of them are facing the death penalty.

Rapid Intervention Group sought bonuses

Among its activities, the Rapid Intervention Group appears to have been involved in the detention and abuse of prominent women's rights activists arrested last year, the NYT reported.

The intervention team was so busy that in June its leader asked a top adviser to bin Salman whether he would give them bonuses for Eid al Fitr, a major holiday at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Saudi officials declined to confirm or deny that such a team existed, or answer questions from the NYT about its work.

The Rapid Intervention Group was authorised by Prince Mohammed and overseen by Saud al Qahtani, a royal court insider, US officials told the NYT.

US intelligence reports did not specify how involved MBS was with the group's work, but said that the operatives saw Qahtani as a "conduit" to the crown prince, the report said.

Qahtani has been sacked over Khashoggi's murder but Saudi authorities have not said if he was among those charged.

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to media requests for comment on the NYT report.

Source: AFP