Four Saudi operatives involved in the brutal killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 are revealed to have received paramilitary training on US soil the previous year as part of a contract approved by the State Department.
The training came as the secret Saudi unit responsible for Khashoggi’s torture killing was engaged in an “extensive campaign of kidnapping, detention and torture of Saudi citizens ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, to crush dissent inside the kingdom,” the New York Times reported Saturday.
The instruction, according to the report, was provided by the Arkansas-based security company Tier 1 Group — owned by the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management — and included “safe marksmanship” and “countering an attack.”
The training was devised to better protect Saudi leaders.
However, “one person familiar with the training said it also included work in surveillance and close-quarters battle,” the report added. “The fact that the government approved high-level military training for operatives who went on to carry out the grisly killing of a journalist shows how intensely intertwined the United States has become with an autocratic nation even as its agents committed horrific human rights abuses.”
“It also underscores the perils of military partnerships with repressive governments and demonstrates how little oversight exists for those forces after they return home,” said the report, adding that more such cases are expected since American private military contractors increasingly depend on foreign client to shore up their business.
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 administration of ex-president Barack Obama. The training continued during at least the first year of former president Donald Trump’s term.
A State Department spokesman, however, declined to confirm whether it awarded licenses to Tier 1 Group for the Saudi training.
“This administration insists on responsible use of US origin defense equipment and training by our allies and partners, and considers appropriate responses if violations occur,” said its spokesman Ned Price as quoted in the report. “Saudi Arabia faces significant threats to its territory, and we are committed to working together to help Riyadh strengthen its defenses.”
A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington also refused to comment on the development.
The US daily pointed to a 2019 article by David Ignatius of The Washington Post — for which Khashoggi worked and which first revealed that members of “the Khashoggi kill team” had received training in the US and that the CIA had “cautioned other government agencies” — that some special-operations training may have been conducted by Tier 1 Group under a State Department license.
It remains unclear, however, which members of the Khashoggi kill team participated in the Tier 1 Group training. Seven members of the team belonged to an elite unit charged with protecting despotic Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to an American “intelligence report about the assassination” that was declassified in February.
The role of operatives from the so-called Rapid Intervention Force (RIF) in the Khashoggi killing helped bolster the American intelligence case that bin Salman approved the operation.
“Members of the RIF 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 said as quoted by the daily.
Members of the team that killed Khashoggi, it added, “were involved in at least a dozen operations starting in 2017,” citing officials who have read classified intelligence reports about the campaign.
According to the report, the US spy agency concluded that the Bin Salman directed the operation, but Trump claimed the evidence was inconclusive and that America’s diplomatic and economic ties with the oppressive dictatorship took priority.
The Trump administration considered the Saudi prince as a valuable partner in the Middle East — especially for the administration’s anti-Iran strategy aimed at isolating the country — and bin Salman developed a close relationship with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law who served as a senior adviser to the US president at the time.
Tier 1 Group, “was founded to train US military personnel, taking advantage of an expanded Pentagon budget for military personnel training in basic counterinsurgency skills,” the report added citing former American officials familiar with its operations.
Decisions about granting licenses to American firms to train foreign nationals are usually made after getting input from numerous government agencies, said Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs during the Trump administration, noting that the Pentagon and intelligence agencies often play a role as well.
“These things don’t just come out of the ether,” he emphasized, noting that although he could not recall any discussion about the Tier 1 Group training of Saudis, there were intense deliberations inside the Trump administration about how to respond to the killing after officials concluded that bin Salman most likely approved it.
He said, “Administration officials did not want to squander America’s relationship with the kingdom — and the strategy of isolating Iran — by taking a heavy-handed approach after Mr. Khashoggi’s death.”
“No government is going to flush a significant bilateral relationship over this murder, no matter how horrific it was,” he added.
The daily also points out that Louis Bremer, a senior executive of Cerberus, Tier 1 Group’s parent company, confirmed his company’s role in the training last year in written answers to questions from US lawmakers as part of his nomination for a top Pentagon job during the Trump administration.
“The issue was central to Mr. Bremer’s contentious confirmation hearing and the written questions from senators, asking him what role, if any, Tier 1 Group had in training Saudis who had participated in the Khashoggi operation,” it added, noting that the administration does not appear to have sent the document to Congress before withdrawing Bremer’s nomination and lawmakers never received answers to their questions.
Bremer also made clear that the State Department, “in collaboration with other US departments and agencies,” is responsible for vetting the foreign forces trained on US soil. “All foreign personnel trained by T1G are cleared by the US government for entry into the United States before commencement of training.”
After new US President Joe Biden took office and debated the issue with his advisers before the release of the declassified intelligence report, his administration announced sanctions on Saudis involved in the killing, including members of the elite unit who protect bin Salman, but chose not to directly punish the brutal dictator.
Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, his body dismembered using a bone saw. The assassination brought widespread condemnation on Bin Salman, who has publicly denied any knowledge of the operation.