Family of ex-Saudi intelligence chief lobby US for release of children

The family of a former top Saudi intelligence official is lobbying the US government and congressmen in an effort to pressure Riyadh to release two of his children allegedly detained and held incommunicado for three months.

Relatives of Saad Aljabri, who is credited with playing a pivotal role in the kingdom’s fight against al-Qaeda and built strong ties to western intelligence agencies, alleged security authorities detained his daughter, Sarah, 20, and son, Omar, 21, in a dawn raid on their house in Riyadh on March 16. 

Khalid Aljabri, another son, said the family did not know if they were alive or dead, but believed they were being held “hostage” to coerce Mr Aljabri, who lives in self-imposed exile in Canada, to return to the kingdom. 

He dismissed any suggestion his father could be wanted in connection with corruption or other issues as “politically motivated” and said his family was being targeted because of his father’s former close relationship with a rival to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The case is garnering mounting interest because of Mr Aljabri’s historical links to western governments and security agencies such as the US’s CIA and the UK’s MI6. It has also put renewed scrutiny on the crown prince’s autocratic rule. His reputation was severely damaged after Saudi agents murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran journalist, at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

A woman holds of photo of Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi was murdered in the consulate in October 2018 A woman holds of photo of Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi was murdered in the consulate in October 2018 © Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty

Dozens of princes, businessmen, academics, bloggers and activists have also been detained in the kingdom under the crown prince’s watch

In the hope of securing Sarah and Omar’s release, the Aljabri family has been engaging with the Canadian and US governments and “doing the rounds in Congress”, said Khalid Aljabri, who also lives in Canada. 

“It’s been three months and totally zero response from Saudi Arabia,” he said. “We don’t know whether they are dead or alive.”

US president Donald Trump has been one of the crown prince’s staunchest backers. But there has been increasing criticism among US lawmakers of the young Saudi’s leadership, including his pursuit of a war in Yemen and this year’s oil price war with Russia.

Tim Rieser, senior foreign policy aide to Patrick Leahy, a Democratic senator, said members of Congress were “concerned that these two young people have disappeared after being seized by Saudi security forces”. 

“It appears that they are being used as hostages to try to coerce their father to return to Saudi Arabia, where his fate would be anybody’s guess,” he said.

The office of Republican senator Marco Rubio said it was aware of the case and in contact with the family.

Saudi authorities did not respond to a request for comment. 

Some activists accused Mr Aljabri of overseeing previous crackdowns during his time at the interior ministry, but western officials said he played a pivotal role in modernising and revamping Saudi Arabia’s intelligence apparatus in the 2000s. 

He has been in self-exile since June 2017 after Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, his former boss at the interior ministry and close confidant, was replaced by Prince Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince and reportedly confined to his palace. Mr Aljabri, 61, and other family members were in Turkey when they heard the news. Sarah and Omar tried to leave Saudi Arabia but were stopped at the airport and banned from travel, Khalid Aljabri said.

Their arrest in March came days after Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz — both seen as potential rivals to the crown prince — were detained. Mr Aljabri’s brother was arrested in another dawn raid six weeks later, Khalid Aljabri said. 

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a potential rival to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was also detained in March Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a potential rival to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was also detained in March © Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty

Analysts and people familiar with the royal court have previously said the detentions of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Prince Ahmed were intended to send a message that nobody was beyond the crown prince’s reach and that perceived disloyalty would not be tolerated.

“The reason [for targeting the family] is Mohammed bin Salman’s perception of my father as a threat,” Khalid Aljabri said. “It took us three years [since Sarah and Omar were stopped from leaving] to break our silence and the reason we were silent was because of my dad’s service. It’s tough to be pitted against someone running the country you committed your life [to] serving.”

Mr Aljabri, who had disagreed with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to intervene in the war in Yemen, was sacked from his cabinet post in 2015. He last communicated with the crown prince in September when he offered his advice on Riyadh’s response after a missile and drone attack, blamed on Iran, struck Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure.

According to Khalid Aljabri, the crown prince responded by thanking Mr Aljabri for his advice, saying: “I’m not surprised to get this from somebody who gave his youth and life to serve his country.”

The reply provided a “glimmer of hope” to the family. But months later Sarah and Omar were arrested. “Everything related to us relates to what Mohammed bin Salman perceives Mohammed bin Nayef to be, despite him being stripped of everything,” Khalid Aljabri said.