An Arab pro-democracy activist in Europe has told CBS News that he and two other colleagues of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi — including one in the United States — have received threats from Saudi Arabia for continuing Khashoggi’s work. Palestinian-born activist Iyad el-Baghdadi recently said the CIA had tipped off Norwegian authorities about threats to his safety originating from the Islamic kingdom.
El-Baghdadi was granted asylum in Norway four years ago after being expelled from the United Arab Emirates for his online activism. He said Norwegian officials recently brought him to a secure location to tell him about information shared by the CIA which pointed to an unspecified threat from Saudi Arabia.
El-Baghdadi was a friend of Khashoggi, a U.S.-based Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist, who was killed by Saudi operatives in Turkey last year. El-Baghdadi told CBS News that he isn’t the only former Khashoggi associate getting threats since the killing.
At a news conference in Oslo on Monday, el-Baghdadi said Omar Abdulaziz, a permanent resident of Canada, was recently taken by Canadian authorities to a secure location after information was passed on by the CIA, again about a possible threat originating from Saudi Arabia.
Saudis launches 1st “vicious crackdown” since Khashoggi killing
El-Baghdadi also pointed to a recent report by TIME magazine, and said he knows the identity and experience of a dissident in the U.S. whom the magazine said was also recently briefed by U.S. government officials about potential threats. CBS News was unable to confirm the identity of that person, whom el-Baghdadi said was briefed based on information from the CIA. The agency did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Speaking Monday in the Norwegian capital, el-Baghdadi said he had taken on three projects, along with Abdulaziz in Canada and the U.S.-based activist, which were originally spearheaded by Khashoggi. He said those projects were part of why Saudi Arabia was threatening him and his two associates — not simply because of their previous criticism of the royal family.
El-Baghdadi said he began work on one of the projects in February, “to investigate the Saudi state-controlled Twitter campaigns against U.S. businessman and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.”
According to el-Baghdadi, he was cooperating with Bezos’ own team looking into alleged actions by Saudi Arabia to access Bezos’ phone data. The purported breach led to a blackmail scandal involving the National Enquirer, which Bezos made public in a Medium post.
“It was during my work on the Bezos investigation that I felt I had crosshairs on my back,” el-Baghdadi said. “The threats against me and my colleagues are not a new escalation, it is not surprising in the least that (Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) would go after dissidents.”
If the information reported by TIME and el-Baghdadi is accurate, it would mark three separate occasions on which the CIA has intervened or shared intelligence to alert dissidents about apparent threats from Saudi Arabia since the Khashoggi murder.
CIA’s “duty to warn”
“After Jamal’s murder what I felt was, ‘they’re going to come for me,'” el-Baghdadi told CBS News.
“I’m not Jamal and I don’t think of myself as a Jamal, but I thought if they start doing this, and they start picking people off even if they live in the U.S. — because Jamal used to live in Virginia — then somewhere down the list, and I might not be the second person on the list, I might not be the 10th person on the list, but somewhere down the list, there is my name.”
The CIA faced scrutiny in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder as it became clear it had gathered intelligence before the killing which appeared to suggest such a plot was in the works by Saudi officials.
The agency has a legal “duty to warn” any person or person deemed to be at risk of killing or kidnap based on intelligence it gathers.
The agency has since determined that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directed the murder of Khashoggi. The Trump administration, however, has refused to accept that determination and has not assigned any blame to the Saudi heir personally. President Trump said “it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
Rep. Adam Schiff, who heads up the U.S. House on Representatives Intelligence Committee, told CBS News that if Saudi Arabia is still threatening a dissident living in the U.S., it would show that the Khashoggi scandal, and the international reaction to it, have failed to change the kingdom’s behavior.
“If reports are accurate that the U.S. government has had to warn critics of Saudi Arabia that they may be in danger, it would be a vivid demonstration that Saudi Arabia’s behavior has not changed since the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Schiff said in a statement.
He said the House Intelligence Committee, “will investigate whether Saudi Arabia continues to pose a threat to dissidents and critics beyond its borders, and consider what actions the U.S. should take in response.”
“It has served them well”
El-Baghdadi told CBS News he believes Saudi Arabia threatens dissidents abroad to scare them into keeping silent, and he said it was working.
“Unfortunately, whether they got to me or not, that worked,” el-Baghdadi said. “People now are scared. Everybody’s messaging me like ‘ya know, you live in Norway and this almost happened to you? What about me? I live in Jordan’ or ‘I live in Kuwait or Lebanon’ etc. So, in a way, I don’t like to say this, but it has served them well. They benefited from it.”
The decision to crack down on dissents abroad is part of broad plan by the crown prince to modernize Saudi Arabia on his own terms, according to Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Bin Salman “has this very particular view of his role as the sort-of ‘savior of Saudi Arabia.’ He’s going to fix the economy, and my view is that he thinks the only way to do that is to make some radical changes that could be fairly unpopular, therefore he needs to eliminate dissent,” Coogle said. “He needs to prevent anyone from thinking they can criticize him openly.”
El-Baghdadi told CBS News that he, and many of his associates who are also critical of the Saudi regime, have lived in fear since the Khashoggi murder.
“I don’t know if I’m going to make 50. I don’t know if I’m going to make 60. I have a target on my back,” he said. “But ultimately, this is the kind of life I chose.”