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A human rights group is calling on members of Congress to interrogate the chief of Egyptian intelligence on Tuesday about a Yahoo News report that a Saudi plane carrying a team of assassins stopped in Cairo in October 2018 to pick up illicit drugs that were used to kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“The reports that have emerged that Egyptian authorities provided the killer drugs that were used to execute Jamal Khashoggi are shocking,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a group that Khashoggi founded in the last year of his life. “There needs to be a congressional investigation.”
Whitson’s comments were sparked by a just-released Yahoo News “Conspiracyland” podcast series about Khashoggi’s murder that revealed that the Gulfstream jet carrying a so-called Tiger Team of Saudi assassins to Istanbul made a middle-of-the-night stopover in Cairo for the purpose of picking up a lethal dose of undetermined “illegal” narcotics.
The drugs were injected hours later by a Saudi Ministry of Interior doctor into Khashoggi’s left arm inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul — an operation that the CIA has concluded was authorized by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often known as MBS.
Abbas Kamel, the chief of Egyptian intelligence, is visiting Washington this week to meet with U.S. intelligence officials as well as members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Staffers told Yahoo News that a number of senators are preparing to ask Kamel about the Cairo stopover — the subject of a Washington Post editorial on Sunday — and whether Egyptian intelligence officials delivered or helped facilitate the delivery of the drugs.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee is trying to arrange its own meeting with Kamel, and one of its members, Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a former assistant secretary of state for human rights, said that if the meeting happens, he too intends to question Kamel about the Khashoggi assassination. “I’d like them to know we know they helped the Saudis murder a U.S.-based journalist,” he told Yahoo News. (Asked Monday during an interview with Yahoo News Editor in Chief Daniel Klaidman about what she knew about the possible role of Egyptian intelligence in Khashoggi's murder or whether she had looked into them, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines referred to the limited report she released last February about the matter: "What we were able to obviously declassify, we've declassified.")
Whitson noted that the questions are especially pertinent given the close working relationship between the Saudis and the authoritarian regime of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, whose 2013 coup was heavily backed by Riyadh. Kamel was el-Sissi’s chief of staff before being tapped to run the country’s General Intelligence Directorate in January 2018. He is believed to have served as chief liaison to the Saudis, communicating directly on intelligence matters with Saud al-Qahtani, MBS’s right-hand man, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department over his role in the Khashoggi murder.
“It’s impossible that a Saudi government plane would have landed in Egypt without the knowledge and permission of the Egyptian authorities,” said Whitson. “And it is impossible that anybody other than Egyptian government officials would have coordinated with Saudi government officials on the delivery of drugs that we now know were used in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi."
There is also evidence that Egyptian intelligence may have provided training for the Tiger Team as well as previous support for Saudi abductions ordered by MBS. A Saudi source familiar with the matter told Yahoo News that the Egyptians assisted the Tiger Team with the 2015 abduction from Italy of Saudi Prince Saud bin Saif al-Nasr. An outspoken foe of MBS, the prince was tricked into boarding a plane he thought was flying to Rome but ended up in Riyadh. He has not been heard from since.
Spokesmen for the Egyptian government in Cairo and Washington have declined to respond to questions from Yahoo News about the Khashoggi murder. But with Kamel’s visit to Washington, the issue has emerged along with related questions about alleged Egyptian support for the Saudi hit squad as well as broader matters related to Egypt’s own much-criticized human rights record.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken met last month with el-Sissi in Cairo and pressed him on U.S. government allegations of human rights abuses by his government, including the detention of at least five U.S. persons in Egyptian prisons. “I certainly raised this [the release of wrongfully detained Americans] in my meeting today, and we’ll continue to do so until Americans are reunited with their families,” Blinken said.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Joe Biden pledged to get much tougher on el-Sissi’s government over its human rights abuses. Among other actions, the Egyptians conducted a mass trial of hundreds of dissidents who protested el-Sissi’s coup in Cairo's Rabaa Square in 2013, with 12 of them now facing a death sentence. “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator,’” Biden tweeted last July.
But Whitson and other human rights advocates say Biden has failed to live up to that promise — just as he failed last February to impose sanctions on MBS over the Khashoggi murder despite having promised to make the Saudis global “pariahs.”
The very fact that Kamel has been invited to Washington for talks and meetings with members of Congress is a clear sign of that, Whitson said.
“This visit by Kamel is really basically a victory lap for the Egyptians in the wake of what they feared was Biden about to get serious about changing the relationship with Egypt,” she said. “And what they’ve learned is, he’s not.”
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