Four Saudis who participated in the 2018 killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi received paramilitary training in the United States the previous year under a contract approved by the US State Department, the New York Times reported yesterday in a sensational article exposing the extent to which Washington has become intertwined with an autocratic nation even as its agents committed horrific human rights abuses.
The training was provided by Tier 1 Group, which is owned by a private equity firm. Though the firm claims that it's training was defensive in nature and devised to protect Saudi leaders, the Times pointed to the perils of military partnerships with repressive governments and warned that there is title oversight over those forces after they return home.
Tier 1 Group was founded to train US military personnel. But as US military training budgets began to shrink, the company, like other private security firms, searched for new clients. By 2014, it was beginning to train foreign military units, including Saudis. Its trainers are said to include former employees of the notorious Blackwater mercenary group.
The State Department initially granted a license for the paramilitary training of the Saudi Royal Guard to Tier 1 Group starting in 2014, during the Obama administration. The training continued during at least the first year of former President Donald Trump's term.
Documents obtained by the Times from a senior executive of Cerberus, Tier 1 Group's parent company shows that four members of the Khashoggi hit squad had received Tier 1 Group training in 2017, and two of them had participated in a previous iteration of the training, which went from October 2014 until January 2015.
"The training provided was unrelated to their subsequent heinous acts," the executive is reported saying, referring to the killing of Khashoggi. The executive also insists that the training was "protective in nature" and that the company conducted no further training of Saudis after December 2017.
While the Times released new details concerning the training delivered by the Tier 1 Group, there was speculation as early as 2019 over the firm's links to the Saudi assassins. An article in the Washington Post claimed that some members of the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force (RIF) that was sent to Istanbul to kill Khashoggi received training in the US and that the CIA had cautioned other government agencies that some of the special-operations training might have been conducted by Tier 1 Group.
Khashoggi, a US resident who wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post was critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. He was killed and dismembered by a team of operatives linked to the prince in the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. A US intelligence report in February said the crown prince had approved an operation to capture or kill the journalist.
The role of operatives from the so-called Rapid Intervention Force in the Khashoggi killing helped bolster the American intelligence case that Prince Mohammed approved the operation. "Members of the R.I.F. would not have participated" in the killing without his consent, according to the report. The group "exists to defend the crown prince" and "answers only to him," the document added.