UN expert pins Saudi operation on bin Salman: «More will be targeted»

UN expert Agnes Callamard is following Dagbladet’s revelations regarding previously unknown Saudi Arabian activities against Norway with interest. She views the story in the context of other operations targeting Saudi Arabian activists.

WEIGHING IN: Agnes Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, finds Dagbladet's revelations interesting. Photo: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/NTB
WEIGHING IN: Agnes Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, finds Dagbladet's revelations interesting. Photo: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/NTB Vis mer
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«The story is very interesting.»

These are the words of French human rights expert Agnes Callamard to Dagbladet. She is responsible for the UN’s investigation into Saudi Arabia's killing of regime critic and journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reacts with considerable interest when presented with Dagbladet's revelations of previously unknown Saudi Arabian activities targeting Norway.

Dagbladet has revealed that the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (UD) intervened when Saudi Arabia requested the granting of diplomatic immunity for a security team comprised of ten individuals who were deployed to work at the Oslo embassy of the oil rich kingdom.

The security team arrived in Norway in July 2018. Both UD and the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) were involved in the case, which ended in Norway refusing to issue diplomatic visas to nine of the ten members of the security team.

PST has linked the incident to Iyad el-Baghdadi, a known critic of Saudi Arabia and friend of the slain Jamal Khashoggi, who is residing at an undisclosed address in Norway. Baghdadi and Khashoggi met in Oslo in May 2018.

PST declined to comment on the story but found no errors in Dagbladet's information.

SAUDI CRITIC: Iyad el-Baghdadi, journalist and activist, lives in Norway. Photo: Bjørn Langsem

SAUDI CRITIC: Iyad el-Baghdadi, journalist and activist, lives in Norway. Photo: Bjørn Langsem

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When confronted with the Norwegian visa story, Agnes Callamard states as follows:

«I was unaware of this story but have noted it now. It indicates that Saudi Arabia had later changed tactics in seeking to pressure or contact activists – they did not require diplomatic immunity when they arrived in Turkey to kill Khashoggi but used a plane with diplomatic papers. They may have changed tactics when they realised that people may also be able to enter without diplomatic immunity. However, I cannot say for certain whether the diplomatic immunity was standard procedure or if it was a deliberate measure for other reasons.»

The Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Oslo has declined to comment on Callamard's quotes, other than a press release from 2019 in which they strongly object to 'fabricated and false accusations’, which they claim are intended to offend Saudi Arabia.

«JEG FÅR IKKE PUSTE»: CNN har fått tak i en transkripsjon av opptaket som ble tatt i minuttene før og etter henrettelsen av journalist Jamal Khashoggis. Dette var hans siste ord. Video: CNN Vis mer

Raising the alarm

Dagbladet has also documented how Alya al-Huweiti – a profiled former jockey from Saudi Arabia, who worked at the country's embassy in London – is believed to have been subjected to considerable pressure from Saudi Arabian authorities and elites, as well as serious threats from Internet trolls.

She says the reason for this was that she did not want to use her celebrity status to conduct PR for Saudi Arabia’s warfare in Yemen. Instead, she chose to oppose it and criticise the regime.

The Embassy of Saudi Arabia in London has declined to comment on the story, despite repeated requests from Dagbladet.

These events also occurred in the summer of 2018. Agnes Callamard notes that the timing – July 2018 – appears to be of interest. This was the same period as Mohammed bin Salman's regime launched a witch-hunt against critical voices round the world.

«The fact that a selection of Saudi dissidents residing in various countries were targeted – whether they were killed, kidnapped, monitored, intimidated or threatened – is beyond question», Callamard tells Dagbladet.

«What we know, based on both Jamal’s case and other cases, is that Saudi embassies or consulates are often at the centre of such cases.»

In Callamard's UN report on the Khashoggi killing, it is stated that the security guards at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul had several important roles in the assassination.

Bin Salman’s campaign is also described in the biography «MBS», written by New York Times journalist Ben Hubbard, and has been strongly criticised by human rights organisations.

«Fabricated and false»

In her UN investigation, Agnes Callamard concluded that Saudi Arabian authorities were behind the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Callamard is regarded as one of the world’s leading human rights experts and is also the Director of Columbia University's Global Freedom of Expression project.

In the investigation of the Khashoggi case, she has been assisted by Helena Kennedy QC – principle at one of the colleges at Oxford University, and the leading Portuguese forensic scientist, Professor Duarte Nuno Vieira.

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Saudi Arabia confirmed, following multiple differing accounts, that Khashoggi was killed by its officers on an official assignment.

On the day before Christmas eve in 2019, five men were sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for their roles in the killing. These death sentences were subsequently commuted in September of this year and their sentences were reduced considerably.

U.S. intelligence has concluded that he was killed on orders from Crown Prince bin Salman. The crown prince has in interviews expressed regret over the killing but denies having ordered it and has referred to it as an unfortunate mistake.

Dagbladet has asked the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Oslo questions about Agnes Callamard's linking of the Baghdadi case with the other activist attacks in 2018.

DECLINES A MEETING WITH DAGBLADET: The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Oslo. Photo: Bjørn Langsem

DECLINES A MEETING WITH DAGBLADET: The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Oslo. Photo: Bjørn Langsem

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The embassy was also asked why they wanted the security guards to be granted diplomatic immunity, about the aspects to which Norway reacted regarding the visa case, about their relationship with the activist Iyad el-Baghdadi, and about why they increased their security presence to such an extent.

No one from the embassy has wanted to meet with Dagbladet. Nor do they want to comment directly on Callamard's quotes. Instead, the embassy responded by email with a press release they originally issued in 2019:

«The Embassy is informed about what has been circulated in some media in regard to Mr. Iyad el-Baghdadi and the allegations against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Embassy would like to clarify that this person is not a Saudi citizen and is unknown to the Kingdom. What he said is fabricated and false and aims to offend the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We have been in contact with the Norwegian Government to provide the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with further information in this regard. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reserves the right to take the necessary legal measures against the mentioned-above in order to safeguard its rights.»

However, two weeks after the Embassy sent this statement, it issued another one in respons to the security team deployed to the Embassy.

In this statement, they cite the need for around the clock protection of both the Embassy and the ambassador's house following an increase in threats to Saudi Arabian embassies all over the world.

The Embassy still doesn't answer Dagbladet's questions on Callamard, or why they applied for diplomatic status for the security team.

REGNSKAPENE AVSLØRER: Dagbladet har funnet flere ukjente overføringer fra aktører i land uten trosfrihet i Midtøsten. Video: Marte Nyløkken Helseth / Dagbladet TV. Foto: Langsem/Vedlog/Helseth. Vis mer

Bin Salman’s role

«What has happened to the activists, Callamard?»

«They were flagged by the Saudi courts and the people around Mohammed bin Salman. Domestically, they are threatened or imprisoned in order to silence them, and internationally, surveillance and various forms of pressure are used.»

Agnes Callamard confirms that she was already familiar with Iyad el-Baghdadi. She states that he was an important source for her, both in her investigation of the Khashoggi killing and in the case in which Mohammed bin Salman is believed to have personally been behind the hacking of the phone of Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, the world's richest man. Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, has denied the accusations as «nonsense and lies».

«How involved was Mohammed bin Salman, personally?»

«It is very difficult – or impossible – to imagine these operations occurring without his knowledge, or his orders. Because of the way the regime is structured, and the manner in which he governs, it is difficult, or, in fact, impossible, not to place him at the centre of this criminal activity. At the same time, these teams have done everything in their power to protect him and it is difficult to find concrete evidence that links him to the offenses. However, the CIA has indicated that they have evidence that he ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. There is no reason to believe that private individuals would conduct such operations. It is totally out of the questions that the regime can deny knowledge or control of these operations. The link to bin Salman is more complicated. However, none of the people I have interviewed, who are familiar with the workings of Saudi Arabia, have indicated anything other than that MBS must have been involved in the operations.»


Dagbladet's mapping shows how the Saudi Arabian operation in Norway occurred – and was planned – during the same time frame as the incidents targeting activists in multiple countries.

Sources: The UN, The Guardian, Iyad el-Baghdadi, UD, information to Dagbladet, The Daily Beast, court documents.

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