Saudi Arabia's campaign to clampdown on dissidents captured global attention following the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Since his death ten months ago in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, disturbing details have emerged over the way in which Riyadh hunts down critics using teams of hitman with no consideration for national sovereignty and international law. The latest investigation into the Saudi campaign was published this week in the Vanity Fair magazine by MSNBC journalist Ayman Mohyeldin. In a piece titled "No one is safe: How Saudi Arabia makes dissident disappear", the former Al Jazeera reporter uncovered unsettling details about the way in which Riyadh's dragnet to capture and silence critics has entrapped dozens of dissidents including citizens of Western states.
Mohyeldin's lengthy piece in the American magazine assembled information through interviews on three continents with more than 30 individuals that include activists, national security experts, relatives of the forcibly disappeared and American, European and Middle Eastern government officials. The picture that emerges should come as a cause of concern for western governments like the US and UK who appear to have turned a blind eye to Riyadh's gross human rights abuse to protect their economic interests.
Insisting that "the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi was no aberration" Mohyeldin paints a picture of a kingdom out of control. Under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, known colloquially as MBS, Saudi Arabia has become more reactionary, more authoritarian than it has ever been. The de-facto ruler who has embarked on an ambitious modernisation project allows no space for dissent and has authorised security teams to "hunt" down the kingdom's critics. Mohyeldin provides details of the extent to which Saudi authorities have gone to imprison, repatriate and even murder countrymen who dare to protest the kingdom's policies or somehow malign the image of the nation.
Victims of entrapment by Saudi authorities cited by Mohyeldin include Prince Khalid Bin Farhan. Bin Farhan described the constant fear he feels of being abducted and revealed that two weeks prior to the murder of Khashoggi, Saudi officials attempted to lure him onto the Saudi Embassy in Cairo through a $5.5 million deal to guarantee his silence. He claimed he never considered the deal and that he had narrowly avoided a similar fate to that of Khashoggi by refusing to go to a Saudi consulate.
Other examples cited in the report include residents in Canada, American citizens and Saudi families that have been caught up in the kingdom's operations to silence critics. Amongst them are members of the royal family, students, activists and businessmen. Some of these missions to curtail Saudi dissidents have occurred in western countries closely allied with Riyadh.
Sources cited in the report confirm conclusions made by the UN that the order to capture dissidents come from the top. One Reuters source who was briefed in Riyadh by an unnamed government official said he saw internal documents authorising the kind of operation that led to Khashoggi's death. These attempts to kidnap and return alleged offenders are said to be part of the nation's desperate attempt to ensure Saudi dissidents are not recruited by the country's enemies.
Details of these operations appear to be known to the FBI and other intelligence services in the West. Two Saudi dissidents approached by Mohyeldin said that they were warned by FBI agents to heighten their personal security over fears that they could be abducted by Saudi security officials. Saudi plots to abduct and disappear US residents are to become the subject of an inquiry.
Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is reported saying that he plans on examining "what threat is posed to [Saudi] individuals residing in the United States, but as well, what are the practices of [the Saudi government]." A similar warning was issued to Iyad El-Baghdadi, a pro-democracy activist and critic of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
Mohyeldin wrote about Saudi missions to silence or harm Saudi critics that have occurred in countries closely allied to Riyadh including Canada, the UK, France, Switzerland, Germany, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Morocco and China.
A recurring figure in nearly all the operations is Saud Al-Qahtani, the kingdom's cybersecurity chief and overseer of clandestine digital operations. The former member of the Saudi Air Force was tasked with assembling a team that would monitor all forms of media, with a special focus on cybersecurity. He was identified on several occasions by victims of Saudi plots. Despite being implicated in the Khashoggi murder; the torture of female activists and detainees; the disappearance of Saudi royals; and the planning of cyber-assaults on dissidents he is still believed to be a free man with considerable influence behind the scenes.