Four Saudis who participated in the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 received paramilitary training in the United States. The training took place in 2017 under a contract approved by the State Department, as documents and people familiar with the agreement reveal.
The briefing came as the secret unit responsible for Khashoggi’s assassination launched a massive campaign of kidnappings, detention and torture of Saudi citizens ordered by the “de facto” ruler of Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince. Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), to quell dissent within Kingdom.
The training was delivered by the Arkansas-based security firm Tier 1 Group, which is owned by Cerberus Capital Management. The company said the training – which includes “safe target shooting” and “counterattack” – was defensive in nature and aimed at providing better protection for the Saudi leadership. A person familiar with the training said the classes included surveillance and combat in small spaces.
There is no evidence that the US officials who approved the training or the leaders of the Level 1 group knew the Saudis were involved in the ongoing crackdown in Saudi Arabia. But the fact that the government approved high-level military training for the operatives who subsequently committed the brutal and cruel murder of a journalist reveals just how much the United States has become involved in an autocratic country as its agents have committed heinous human rights violations. . It also draws attention to the dangers of military partnerships with repressive governments and demonstrates the lack of control or oversight over these forces once they return home.
Problems like this are likely to remain present as private U.S. companies providing military services increasingly look to overseas clients to expand their businesses in the face of a reduction in U.S. military operations overseas after two decades of war.
The State Department authorized the Level 1 group to provide paramilitary training to the Saudi Royal Guard initially in 2014 under the Obama administration. The training continued for at least the first year of former President Donald Trump’s tenure.
Louis Bremer, a senior executive at Cerberus, the parent company of the Tier 1 group, last year confirmed his company’s role in training Saudis in written answers to parliamentary questions – as part of his process for appointment to a post leadership of the Pentagon under the Trump administration.
Apparently, the administration did not send the document to Congress before withdrawing Bremer’s appointment, so much so that lawmakers never received answers to their questions.
Bremer gave the document to the New York Times. It is stated that four members of the team leading Khashoggi received level 1 group training in 2017 and two of them participated in an earlier version of the training held between October 2014 and January 2015.
“The training given had nothing to do with his subsequent heinous acts,” Bremer said in his responses.
He said a review carried out by the Tier 1 group in March 2019 “did not shed light on any wrongdoing by the company and confirmed that the regular training program was not linked to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi” .
The news that members of the team that assassinated Khashoggi received training in the United States was first reported in the Washington Post column by David Ignatius in 2019. Ignatius wrote that the CIA warned of other government agencies that special operations training may have been provided. Level 1 group licensed from the State Department.
This question was a key point in the Bremer confirmation hearing and questions sent by senators about what role, if any, the Level 1 group played in training the Saudis who participated in the operation against Khashoggi.
State Department spokesman Ned Price declined to confirm whether he had licensed the Level 1 group to train the Saudis: “This administration insists our allies and partners responsibly use the equipment and indigenous defense training, the spokesperson said. “Saudi Arabia faces significant threats on its territory, and we commit to cooperate with Riyadh to help it strengthen its defenses.
A representative of the Saudi Embassy in Washington has not made any statement on the matter.
Last year, Trump considered the possibility of installing Cerberus President Stephen A. Feinberg in a high-level intelligence post, but the appointment never came. Although the Trump administration appointed Feinberg as the head of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board in 2018, doubts have arisen about potential conflicts of interest. Cerberus was previously owned by military contractor DynCorp, which, among other services, provides intelligence advice to the United States and other clients.
It is not known which of the team members who led Khashoggi participated in the training of the Level 1 group. Seven team members were part of an elite unit tasked with protecting MbS, according to a report by U.S. intelligence on the murder, which was removed from confidentiality in February.
Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 and quartered with a surgical instrument used to cut bones. The murder met with widespread disapproval from MbS, who denied any knowledge of the operation.
Eight defendants were sentenced to up to two decades in prison last year, but human rights activists criticized the sanctions, saying they targeted lower-level agents, sparing leaders.
The CIA concluded that the crown prince led the operation, but Trump said the evidence was inconclusive and diplomatic and economic relations with Saudi Arabia took priority. After Joe Biden took the presidency and discussed the matter with his aides, ahead of the release of the confidential intelligence report, his administration announced the imposition of sanctions on Saudis implicated in the murder, including members of the elite unit that protects MbS, but has chosen not to directly punish the crown prince.
The previous version of the training, which took place under the Obama administration, took place before MbS consolidated his power in the kingdom. His predecessor as crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, was a close ally of the United States, particularly of John Brennan, who was director of the CIA under President Barack Obama.
Prince bin Nayef was Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism leader and worked closely with members of the Obama administration in efforts to dismantle Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni branch of the terrorist organization.
In 2017, MbS ousted Mohammed bin Nayef from power and waged a broad campaign to wrest power from his rivals, including a notorious episode in which businessmen and members of the Saudi royal family were imprisoned in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh.
The Trump administration viewed MbS as a valuable partner in the Middle East – especially for the administration’s strategy of isolating Iran – and the crown prince developed a close relationship with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. , who has been Trump’s senior advisor.
Son of King Salman, MbS is the first to the Saudi throne. Mohammed ben Nayef remains under house arrest in the country.
The Tier 1 group’s website lists a number of US special operations and intelligence units as customers, as well as “specialized units that do not require reconnaissance.” He also says he trains “OGA special operator teams” – the code name for CIA paramilitary units – as well as “allied international forces”.
The Level 1 group was founded to train U.S. military personnel, leveraging the Pentagon’s increased budget for basic counterinsurgency skills training, according to former U.S. officials familiar with its operations.
Decisions about licensing U.S. companies to train foreign agents are usually made after receiving advice from various government agencies, said R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs under the Trump administration. According to him, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies are often involved in decisions: “These things don’t come out of nowhere.”
Cooper said that even after Khashoggi’s murder, he remembers no mention of any training given by the Level 1 group to the Saudis. He said there had been intense discussions within the Trump administration about how to respond to the assassination, after the government concluded that the crown prince would most likely have approved it.
Ultimately, Cooper said, the administration did not want to waste U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia – and Iran’s isolation strategy – by taking an approach that berated the Saudis after Khashoggi’s death.
“No government would harm an important bilateral relationship because of this heinous crime,” he said.