Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched a covert campaign to silence dissenters more than a year before the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the New York Times reported Sunday.
American officials with knowledge of classified reports told the Times that the group of operatives which killed and dismembered Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October carried out several other missions against dissidents.
According to the officials, who called the group the Saudi Rapid Intervention Group, members of the team were involved in at least a dozen operations starting in 2017.
Missions included forcibly repatriating Saudis from other Arab countries and detaining and abusing prisoners, the Times reported.
A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington told the Times that the kingdom “takes any allegations of ill treatment of defendants awaiting trial or prisoners serving their sentences very seriously.”
The Saudi government has maintained that the killing of Khashoggi was carried out by rogue agents as part of an interrogation that went off track. They have said that those responsibly are being prosecuted for the incident.
Saudi Arabia cracking down on dissidents is not new, but efforts to do so escalated sharply after Prince Mohammed became crown prince in 2017.
“We’ve never seen it on a scale like this,” Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst now with the Brookings Institution, told the Times. “A dissident like Jamal Khashoggi in the past wouldn’t have been considered worth the effort.”