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A Saudi Spy Chief Hid Abroad. With Appeals and Threats, M.B.S. Tried to Bring Him Back

2020-07-24 11:11:41

BEIRUT, Lebanon — As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia sidelined rivals to consolidate power a few years ago, a former Saudi intelligence official feared that he would end up in the prince’s sights and slipped out of the kingdom.

The prince has been trying to get him back since, first asking the former official, Saad Aljabri, to come home for a new job, then trying unsuccessfully to have him extradited on corruption charges through Interpol, according to text messages and legal documents reviewed by The New York Times.

“You are involved in many large cases of corruption that have been proven,” Prince Mohammed wrote to the former official in September 2017. “There is no state in the world that would refuse to turn you over.”

But Interpol questioned the Saudi commitment to due process and human rights in the kingdom’s handling of corruption cases and deemed the Saudi request for Mr. Aljabri politically motivated, a violation of the organization’s rules, according to Interpol documents. So it removed Mr. Aljabri’s name from its system.

The text messages and documents reviewed by The Times, which have not been previously reported, shed new light on how far Prince Mohammed has reached to exert control over Saudis he fears could subvert him.

The struggle has accelerated this year. In March, Saudi Arabia detained two of Mr. Aljabri’s adult children and his brother, prompting accusations by relatives and United States officials that they were being held hostage to secure Mr. Aljabri’s return.

And last week, the kingdom’s state-controlled news media seized upon an article in the The Wall Street Journal that cited unidentified Saudi officials accusing Mr. Aljabri of misspending billions of dollars in state funds to enrich himself and relatives. One Saudi newspaper published a wanted poster with Mr. Aljabri’s face on it, part of an apparent effort to tarnish his reputation in the kingdom.

The revelations come amid concerns about the health of Prince Mohammed’s father, King Salman, whose death could put the prince in charge of Saudi Arabia for decades. The king, 84, was hospitalized over the weekend and underwent successful gall bladder surgery, Saudi state media reported Thursday.

Since his father became king in 2015, Prince Mohammed, 34, has taken charge of military, economic and social policies while targeting critics and foes with travel bans, detentions and lawsuits.

In a letter to President Trump this month, four senators referred to Mr. Aljabri as “a close U.S. ally and friend” and said the United States had “a moral obligation to do what it can to assist in securing his children’s freedom.”

Officials at the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment about the text messages between Prince Mohammed and Mr. Aljabri, the Saudi Interpol request or the kingdom’s corruption allegations.

The Times reviewed scores of text messages between the two men provided by a law firm working for Mr. Aljabri, Norton Rose Fulbright Canada, and Interpol documents informing Mr. Aljabri of its decision about the Saudi request against him.

Mr. Aljabri’s rise and fall were tied to his association with Prince Mohammed’s primary rival for the Saudi throne, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who headed the Interior Ministry and became crown prince in 2015.

A linguist with a doctorate in artificial intelligence, Mr. Aljabri became a top official at the ministry, which handles security and counterterrorism, putting him in regular contact with U.S. diplomats and officials from the Central Intelligence Agency. Many have praised his professionalism.

“Aljabri is really smart, and he has encyclopedic knowledge,” said Douglas London, a former officer in the C.I.A.’s Clandestine Service and nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “He lived up to his word, he did not over-promise and he delivered.”

But Mr. Aljabri’s star fell as Prince Mohammed’s rose. Mr. Aljabri was dismissed by royal decree in 2015.

In 2017, Mr. Aljabri began to fear that Prince Mohammed intended to replace Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince and target his domestic allies, so Mr. Aljabri left the kingdom, settling in Turkey.

On June 18 of that year, Prince Mohammed texted him, asking Mr. Aljabri to return to help solve an unspecified issue with Mohammed bin Nayef, according to translated versions of texts provided by Mr. Aljabri’s law firm.

“I want to explain to you what has happened recently and come to an agreement with you about a strategy to solve all these difficulties,” Prince Mohammed wrote.

Mr. Aljabri replied that he was “prepared to accept whatever you command.”

Prince Mohammed said he wanted the three men to meet so they could “reconcile and everything can return to the way it was.”

On June 20, Mr. Aljabri said he could not return to Saudi Arabia immediately because of medical treatment. Prince Mohammed said he had only summoned him because he was “in dire need of your assistance.”

The next day, however, Prince Mohammed ousted Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince and took his place. Mohammed bin Nayef was placed under house arrest, and two of Mr. Aljabri’s children, Sarah, who was 17 at the time, and Omar, who was 18, were barred from leaving Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Aljabri wrote to pledge allegiance to Prince Mohammed as crown prince, and Prince Mohammed encouraged him to return for an important new job.

“When you return safely, I will explain to you the background to the problem,” Prince Mohammed wrote. “I will still need you to deal with anyone who attempts to create disorder and conflict.”

Mr. Aljabri asked Prince Mohammed to lift the travel ban on his children. Prince Mohammed did not respond.

Three months later, Mr. Aljabri asked Prince Mohammed again to lift the travel ban “to allow them to leave so that they may finish their studies.”

“When I see you, I will explain to you the background,” Prince Mohammed responded.

Mr. Aljabri repeated his request.

“When I see you, I will explain everything to you,” Prince Mohammed wrote.

A few days later, Prince Mohammed asked Mr. Aljabri to return to Saudi Arabia the next day, linking his return to the travel ban on Mr. Aljabri’s children.

“I want to resolve this problem of your son and daughter, but this is a very sensitive file here” related to Mohammed bin Nayef, Prince Mohammed wrote. “I want your opinion about it as well as information from you concerning it. I also want to come to an understanding with you regarding your future situation and what the details should be.”

Soon after, Prince Mohammed texted again, this time threatening to have Mr. Aljabri arrested abroad.

With the danger now clear, Mr. Aljabri moved from Turkey to Canada, according to his son, Khalid Aljabri, a cardiologist also based in Canada.

To try to force him home, the Saudi authorities filed a notice with Interpol, the international police organization, asking other nations to help with Mr. Aljabri’s extradition, according to Interpol documents.

But instead of filing for a Red Notice, which acts like an international arrest warrant, the Saudis filed a diffusion, which Interpol describes as a less formal way for Interpol members to request help from other nations.

Mr. Aljabri confirmed that his name was in the Interpol system in December 2017, when his wife and other relatives were barred from flying from Turkey to Canada because their party contained another Saad Aljabri: Mr. Aljabri’s infant grandson and namesake, Dr. Aljabri said.

The family nonetheless managed to get to Canada via the United States and appealed the inclusion of Mr. Aljabri’s name in the Interpol system.

They won in July 2018, according to an Interpol document about the decision.

It did not detail the charges Saudi Arabia had made against Mr. Aljabri or any evidence the kingdom had provided.

But in rejecting the Saudi request, the commission criticized the kingdom’s previous handling of corruption cases for “the lack of due process and human rights guarantees.”

The commission cited Prince Mohammed’s crackdown in 2017, when hundreds of the kingdom’s richest and most prominent businessmen were locked in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton and accused of corruption. Many were abused and at least one died from mistreatment, medics and associates of the detainees said.

The Interpol commission wrote that the anti-corruption committee that oversaw that crackdown was “part of a political strategy by MBS to target any potential political rival or opposition.”


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