In September 2017, a former senior Saudi intelligence official, who lives in exile in Canada, tries to get his two children to leave the Gulf monarchy to put them to safety. On WhatsApp, Saad Aljabri then contacted the most powerful man in his home country, Crown Prince Mohammed ben Salman (MBS).

Details of the conversation between the two were revealed on August 6 in a lawsuit brought by Saad Aljabri against MBS in a U.S. district court in the capital, Washington. The former spy accuses the crown prince of plotting to have him killed. While these allegations remain to be verified by the court, they carry a surprisingly familiar resonance with the case of the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashogg at the monarchy's consulate in Istanbul in January 2019.

“Come in person and tell me what you want,” MBS wrote on WhatsApp, according to the document, which includes a screenshot of the exchange in Arabic and its translation into English. "I hope you will take into consideration what I have already sent you, because the issue of children is very important to me," replied Saad Aljabri.

Two minutes later, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia again orders the former officer to return to his country. “I really need you here,” he wrote, before ordering: “24 hours”.

Whatsapp conversation between Mohammed ben Salman and Saad Aljabri appearing in the indictment filed by the latter in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. © US District Cout for the District of Columbia, Case 1: 20-cv-02146-TJK

Sensitive information

Four months earlier, Saad Aljabri, then a close advisor to Prince Mohammad ben Nayef, Minister of the Interior and great rival of MBS, fled the kingdom for Turkey. He was still there when, in June 2017, Mohammad ben Nayef lost his status as crown prince of the kingdom to MBS. In his new role, the young and impetuous leader then begins a purge of his rivals in the country.

As Mohammad bin Nayef's right-hand man, Saad Aljabri was the liaison between Saudi and Western intelligence services, and he holds very sensitive information on the kingdom's rulers.

HO / Saudi Press Agency, AFP

According to the indictment filed by Saad Aljabri in Washington, MBS wanted him back to Saudi Arabia "where he could be killed". A few days after the WhatsApp exchange between the two men, the former officer left Turkey for Canada. But two of his eight children, Omar and Sarah, remain trapped in Saudi Arabia and are believed to be used as "human bait" to lure their father. The failed strategy attracts the attention of some US senators.

"Moral obligation"

On July 9, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrats Patrick Leahy, Tim Kaine and Chris Van Hollen called for help from President Donald Trump to shelter Omar, 21, and Sarah, 20. "We believe the United States has a moral obligation to do what it can to help secure the freedom of its children," they write in a letter to the White House. They describe Saad Aljabri as "a close ally and friend of the United States", a "valuable partner" of the intelligence services and the Foreign Office, who "was hailed by CIA officials for saving thousands of American lives by uncovering and preventing terrorist plots. Saad Aljabri, 62, has nearly 40 years of experience in national security and the fight against terrorism.

The Saudi royal family is holding Sarah and Omar Aljabri as hostages. Hostage taking is never justified. For a government to use such tactics is abhorrent. They should be released immediately.

- Sen. Patrick Leahy (@SenatorLeahy) July 9, 2020

It is also the fate of the children that prompts their father to take this unusual decision to take legal action in an American court. Saad Aljabri says there that MBS has launched a campaign to assassinate him and "has been working on this goal for three years". The former officer bases his action on two US laws: the Torture Victims Protection Act, which prohibits extrajudicial killings, and the "Alien Tort Statute", which allows victims of such operations - including non-citizens. Americans - to take legal action in United States courts.

Team of killers arrested in Canada

The 107-page document details the plot, yet to be verified, targeting Saad Aljabri. It includes information on the arrival in Canada in October 2018 of a team of killers similar to the one that murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, carrying forensic equipment capable of cleaning up a crime scene. The men were reportedly arrested by Canadian authorities, questioned and returned to Saudi Arabia, the document claims.

>> To read: "When Saudi Arabia takes advantage of the Covid-19 to do good business"

According to the indictment, MBS had warned Saad Aljabri that he would use "legal measures and measures which could be prejudicial to [him]". Attempts by the Saudi crown prince to use "legal measures" have been blocked by Interpol. In a July 4, 2018 decision taken months before Jamal Khashoggi's assassination sparked an international outcry, Interpol's file control commission ruled that Saad Aljabri's request for the arrest and extradition of Saudi Arabia was "politically motivated rather than strictly legal".

"Very serious accusations"

The Aljabri case once again points to Saudi Arabia's human rights violations, on its soil and against its citizens abroad. "The charges in this lawsuit have yet to be proven, but they are very serious charges against the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, a very powerful country. If Mohammed bin Salman is busy murdering people, it is very serious ", explains to France 24 Rami Khoury, professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut and professor emeritus at Harvard Kennedy School.

The alleged role of the crown prince in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been a nightmare for the public image of the petromonarchy. While MBS has admitted that men working for him killed the Washington Post columnist inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he denies any involvement in the murder. But his denials are struggling to convince. In June 2019, an investigation into the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi conducted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Agnès Callamard, found "credible evidence, justifying a more in-depth criminal investigation" of the implication senior Saudi officials, including Mohammed bin Salman.

>> To read: "The Saudi crown prince takes responsibility for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi"

Saad Aljabri's allegations are surprisingly similar to the case of the murdered journalist. But investigations into Jamal Khashoggi have so far been hampered for political and diplomatic reasons. The Trump administration has blocked attempts by the US Congress to shed light on those responsible for the murder, while the trial in Turkey over the case lacks international credibility, given the weaknesses of the Turkish justice system .

"The Saudis are lost"

Saad Aljabri's extraordinary appeal before an American court could prove, depending on the procedure the court will initiate, overwhelming for MBS, some experts believe. "The charges will be tried using the instruments of the rule of law," said Rami Khoury. "The case is in the spotlight. If a crown prince or a ruler of a country is convicted of a crime, it is very serious."

But like other Saudi experts, Rami Khoury does not expect MBS to appear in US court. Unlike criminal cases, civil lawsuits result in financial compensation, not jail time.

On August 7, the Washington District Court issued an official notice advising the defendants of the trial. Saudi authorities have yet to respond to media inquiries about the case.

Riyadh, quite used to petrodollar diplomacy, is not on familiar ground. "The Saudis are completely lost in the area of ​​the rule of law. They operate using personal connections and do not know how to handle these events in Congress and in court," says Rami Khoury.

Trump and Kushner, perfect partners of MBS

Given the way they conduct diplomatic affairs, the Saudi authorities have found perfect partners with Donald Trump and his stepson Jared Kushner, adviser to the president, who has developed personal relations with MBS.

"Trump and Kushner, accustomed to shady real estate deals, quickly adapted to the Saudi nepotism and patronage system: unwavering support of the Trump administration [in Riyadh] in return for the promise of arms sales and other deals commercial, ”notes Mohammad Bazzi, professor of journalism at New York University, in a column for the British daily The Guardian.

>> To read: "Khashoggi affair: between Trump and the Saudis, good accounts make good allies"

But the Saudis are well aware that nothing is permanent in the orientations of American diplomacy. The Aljabri affair comes just three months before the November presidential election, and Riyadh is bracing for a potential change of tenant in the White House.

If he wins the November ballot, Democratic candidate Joe Biden is unlikely to make a drastic change in relations between the two countries. But unlike Donald Trump, who protected MBS from the fallout from Jamal Khashoggi's murder, he is unlikely to pass up the crown prince's human rights abuses. "Joe Biden is more inclined to obey international law, to follow public opinion and the pressure exerted by the senators", indicates Rami Khoury.

The pressure is expected to increase as Saad Aljabri's unusual lawsuit enters lengthy court proceedings, which will continue after the 2020 elections.

Adapted from the English by Rémi Carlier. The original article can be read here.

The summary of the week France 24 invites you to come back to the news that marked the week

I subscribe

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 application