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CIA warned three Khashoggi associates of new Saudi threats: Report

US agency is source of security warnings given to three individuals with ties to slain Saudi journalist, TIME reports
Khashoggi's murder has raised concerns about retaliation against other rights advocates (Reuters/File photo)

Three individuals with ties to slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi have recently been given security briefings, after security agencies determined they could be "the targets of potential retaliation from Saudi Arabia", TIME reported.

The US magazine said on Thursday that the CIA was the source of the threat warnings that have been given to "friends and colleagues" of Khashoggi.

The three individuals given security briefings in recent weeks are Iyad el-Baghdadi of Norway; Omar Abdulaziz of Canada, and a third, US-based person who was not identified, TIME said.

"The CIA was the source of the threat warning, according to an overseas intelligence official, Baghdadi and others involved with the briefings," TIME said.

The CIA did not comment when contacted by the magazine.

The US intelligence agency is legally bound to pass on threats it picks up to provide "warning regarding threats to specific individuals or groups of intentional killing, serious bodily injury, and kidnapping", according to its own directive.

The three individuals in question "were working closely with Khashoggi on politically sensitive media and human rights projects at the time of his killing", TIME said.

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Khashoggi, a Saudi insider-turned-critic and prominent Washington Post columnist, was murdered inside the country's Istanbul consulate on 2 October by Saudi government agents.

The CIA previously concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi's killing.

Saudi officials have repeatedly rejected that accusation.

TIME also reported that the three individuals facing threats from Saudi Arabia believe they have been targeted because of their criticism of bin Salman.

"Based on the security briefings, the advocates say they have been targeted because they have become especially vocal and influential critics of [bin Salman], accusing him of ordering Khashoggi's murder as part of a broader crackdown on Saudi dissidents worldwide," it said.

Rights advocacy

In an interview with Middle East Eye earlier this week, Baghdadi said plainclothes Norwegian Police Security Service officers arrived at his apartment in late April.

They then took him to a secure location where he said he was briefed on the threats against his life.

"My first reaction was 'What took you so long?'" said Baghdadi, a Palestinian human rights advocate who grew up in the United Arab Emirates.

Baghdadi sought refuge in Norway after he began translating Arabic chants that were sung during the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions. He has since amassed a large following on social media and become a vocal critic of the Saudi crown prince.

"It is clearly related to the work that I have been doing," said Baghdadi, referring to the threats against him.

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Abdulaziz is also a prominent critic of Saudi government policies and the country's crown prince.

Since coming to power, bin Salman has carried out a sweeping crackdown on dissent inside Saudi Arabia, arresting pro-democracy activists and many others.

Abdulaziz sought asylum in Canada in 2014 after he personally drew the ire of the Saudi authorities for his pro-democracy activism and large social media following.

Abdulaziz told MEE in December that two Saudi government agents came to Montreal, the Canadian city Abdulaziz has called home for almost a decade, last year to try to convince him to return to Saudi Arabia.

"They said, 'We have a message from MBS,'" Abdulaziz said. He said the agents told him MBS liked him and wanted him back in Saudi Arabia. "I said, 'OK thank you', but I didn’t buy it," said Abdulaziz.

He said the agents then asked him to get his passport renewed at the Saudi embassy in Canada's capital, Ottawa.

But he refused to go - a decision he said may have saved his life. "I said, thank God… Maybe I would be the first [to be killed], who knows," Abdulaziz said in December.

The Saudi authorities have insisted there is no link between bin Salman and the Khashoggi murder, insisting rogue government agents carried out the assassination.

They have also rejected claims that the Gulf kingdom and its supporters are engaged in a campaign of intimidation against dissidents and human rights activists, including those who live outside the country.

But Khashoggi's brazen murder has raised concerns among human rights advocates in Saudi Arabia and across the Arab World about possible acts of retaliation.