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'Washington Post' Columnist Looks At Rivalries Within Saudi Royal Family


Columnist David Ignatius of The Washington Post also writes spy thrillers, 10 of them to date. His latest column for the paper reads just like one. Ignatius has just published a remarkable accounting of internal rivalries and battles and backstabbing in the royal family of Saudi Arabia, rivalries which he argues led to the murder of another Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi. David Ignatius joins me now from the Post newsroom. Hey there, David.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I want to get to some of these crazy plot twists that you have uncovered in a second. But let me start with what struck me as the central claim of your piece, which is that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman issued a bring-him-back order, meaning bring Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia. And he issued this back in July. What exactly were you able to learn?

IGNATIUS: So I learned just that, that in July there was a message from the crown prince saying about Jamal and - I believe - several other dissidents, bring them back to the kingdom. Tragically, that message was not understood, was not translated, as it were, by U.S. intelligence until after Jamal disappeared on October 2. It was only then that they learned that he was a target.

KELLY: When you say a bring-him-back order, were you able to learn what form that took?

IGNATIUS: I don't know the form that it took. I believe that this was to the crown prince's closest aides in the royal court, the two that were at the top of the U.S. sanctions list described as being responsible for the operation to kill Khashoggi.

KELLY: In reporting this out, you dug up all kinds of details, including a showdown in a VIP hospital room in Riyadh. This is 2015. The then-king of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, lay dying. What happened, and why is this important for us to know now?

IGNATIUS: So as it was described to me, then-Crown Prince Salman came to the Saudi National Guard hospital in Riyadh, where King Abdullah was in his last hours, it was thought, and said, where's my brother? Where's the king? And he was told by the chief of the royal court, a man named Khalid al-Tuwaijri, he's resting. It's my understanding that when the chief of the court said that, the king was already dead, and Salman was not told that directly.

And I think that was illustrative of the scheming that was going on in the Royal Court, with both families, the Salmans and the Abdullahs, wanting to preserve power leverage positions. So right from that first moment of the new regime of King Salman and his favorite son, Mohammed bin Salman, there was tension, rivalry, the seeds of the kind of murderous, cutthroat politics that we've seen.

KELLY: How do you get these kind of details? Who'd you talk to?

IGNATIUS: So it helps, if you've been covering a subject for a long time, that you know the people to go to. It helps to listen to what people say. So I think it's all those things go together...

KELLY: I notice you artfully not answering my question of who you talked to. But you do describe your sources as having firsthand knowledge of the events that they describe.


KELLY: To apply that to the scene you just described, you were talking to sources who were in that VIP hospital room in Riyadh?

IGNATIUS: So I say in describing that scene that I'm quoting somebody who was in the hospital at the time. When I'm describing dialogue between people, I'm basing that either on somebody who was present or somebody who was briefed directly about the conversations. In the piece, there's a lot of collateral evidence about some of the things that happened. So I just did the things that journalists do to make sure that what somebody's telling you is actually true.

KELLY: You draw a link in the article, David, between what happened to Khashoggi and this rapid-action team that the crown prince had set up months and months beforehand. What is that link?

IGNATIUS: The link is that as the crown prince became increasingly paranoid about his enemies, moving towards his arrest of the 200 leading Saudis at the Ritz Carlton, he created a capability that would go after people he regarded as dissidents. And I believe that he used this team to kidnap, in essence, Saudis both within the kingdom and abroad and bring them to detention centers within the kingdom where they were interrogated using torture and that this was part of his mounting sense that he was surrounded by enemies who threatened his and his family's rule and who he felt were plotting to kill him. So that...

KELLY: In other words, all the signs were there for anybody paying very close attention to what was happening in Saudi Arabia that this was a man taking desperate positions.

IGNATIUS: So one thing that I think Americans should ask is, what did our intelligence agency, the CIA, know about what was going on? Was their reporting adequate about this strange, paranoiac royal court surrounding Mohammed bin Salman? What was our government doing along the pathway to this terrible outcome, and should more have been done? And who in our government should be accountable for not having done an adequate job?

KELLY: Thank you, David.

IGNATIUS: OK. Thank you.

KELLY: David Ignatius of The Washington Post talking about his reporting on a cutthroat family feud inside the house of Saud. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.