Saudi ex-spy chief's lawsuit spotlights secret power plays

Saudi ex-spy chief's lawsuit spotlights secret power plays
A lawsuit filed in the US by a former Saudi spy chief makes a number of disturbing accusations against the secretive kingdom.
4 min read
The ex-official's lawsuit was filed after Riyadh detained two of his children without charge [Getty]

A former Saudi intelligence czar's lawsuit in the US courts makes a host of incendiary claims, including that the powerful crown prince tried to have him killed, and threatens to spill more royal secrets. 

A source close to the Saudi royal court has shrugged off Saad Aljabri's 107-page lawsuit filed last week, insisting that the former spy chief himself faced serious allegations of corruption.

But the case, lodged after Riyadh detained two of Aljabri's adult children without charge, threatens to become a public slanging match that could pull aside the curtain on the kingdom's Shakespearean power plays.

The lawsuit marks the first time a former top official has legally challenged Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and, if true, exposes what observers call a violent government campaign to snare overseas rivals and critics.

"There is virtually no one (Prince Mohammed) wants dead more than Dr. Saad," the suit said, claiming a hit team was sent after him just two weeks after members of the same squad murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Aljabri, exiled in Canada, is a former intelligence chief and top aide to Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was deposed as heir to the throne by Prince Mohammed in a 2017 palace coup.

Releasing what it says are WhatsApp exchanges with Prince Mohammed, the suit accuses him of strong arm tactics to induce Aljabri to return to the kingdom after Nayef's downfall prompted him to flee.

They range from trying to entice Aljabri with a job offer to an unsuccessful attempt to have him extradited through Interpol, and the detention in March of his two children as a bargaining chip.

Then in October 2018, the suit alleges, the prince sent "Tiger Squad" assassins armed with forensic tools to kill him in Canada - chillingly similar to the way Khashoggi was targeted in Istanbul.

'Sensitive information'

A senior Saudi official told AFP the government was preparing its response to the lawsuit, while Canada has not denied the claim that it intercepted a Saudi hit squad.

Former CIA officials have come out in support of Aljabri, praising him as a longtime partner in counter-terrorism efforts who helped thwart multiple attacks on US interests.

It is unclear how the lawsuit will play out in the United States, where neither Aljabri nor the crown prince is based.

But it could still worry Riyadh as it emphasises Aljabri possesses "sensitive, humiliating and damning information" on the crown prince, including recordings that will be made public if he is killed.

Offering a foretaste of the secrets Aljabri harbours was an explosive claim buried in the lawsuit - that in 2015, Prince Mohammed secretly encouraged Russia to intervene in the Syrian conflict, a move that infuriated the CIA.

Two months later, Russian forces launched their intervention, effectively eliminating any chance of a military victory for the Syrian opposition, which the kingdom claimed to support.

Neither Moscow nor Riyadh have addressed the claim.

But the royal court source dismissed the lawsuit as a "PR step", calling it a "flimsy case" that offered "zero evidence".

"Any sensitive state secrets Aljabri has he would have been involved in and would not want to admit to... It will dig up things that (human rights groups) will hardly approve of," the source told AFP.

The source accused Aljabri of corruption involving billions of dollars during his time at the interior ministry and said he could be "poisoning the Saudi-US relationship given his contacts".

'Politically risky'

The dispatching of a kill squad to Canada at the height of the global outrage over Khashoggi's murder, if confirmed, shows Aljabri is seen by Riyadh as "politically risky", said Middle East expert Bessma Momani.

"To go after rivals in this fashion also shows MbS feels he is untouchable," added Momani, a professor at Canada's University of Waterloo, using the prince's acronym.

Graft allegations against Aljabri have met with scepticism in the American intelligence community, with one former CIA official telling AFP: "Everyone in the US who knows Dr Saad and Saudi Arabia and knows what MBS is capable of, would not believe that."

President Donald Trump, a key Saudi ally, backed Prince Mohammed through the Khashoggi scandal.

But the US State Department last week issued a rare rebuke over the detention of Aljabri's children - Sarah and Omar, both in their 20s - calling it "unacceptable" and demanding their "immediate release".

"In my years at the CIA, I have never known a foreign official who is a better subject matter expert on counterterrorism than Dr. Saad," Daniel Hoffman, a former director of the CIA's Middle East division, told AFP.

"This looks like a dispute between Dr. Saad and the Saudi government. The children should be allowed to leave the kingdom if they wish."

Agencies contributed to this report.

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