The CIA has warned Norway that a prominent Arab activist who is living in the country under asylum protection is facing a potential threat from Saudi Arabia, the Guardian has learned.
The pro-democracy activist, Iyad el-Baghdadi, is a vocal critic of Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince.
El-Baghdadi was alerted to the threat on 25 April, when Norwegian authorities arrived at his doorstep, took him to a secure location, and warned him that he was in possible danger from an unspecified threat emanating from the kingdom.
The activist was told that the threat had been passed on to Norwegian authorities by a foreign intelligence agency, which the Guardian has confirmed was the CIA.
“The way I understood it was, the Saudis have a crosshairs on me, but there is no idea of what they are going to do,” El-Baghdadi said in a phone interview with the Guardian.
“They assured me that they are taking it very seriously. They came prepared,” he said, noting that authorities had arrived with two squads: one to whisk him away, and another to ensure they were not being followed.
The Guardian contacted the Saudi embassy in Washington for comment on Monday but did not receive a reply before publication.
His English translations of Arabic tweets, and sarcastic takedowns of autocratic leaders, gained him tens of thousands of followers on Twitter. He was granted political asylum in Norway in 2015, following his arrest and expulsion from the UAE, which forced him to leave without any formal charges or trial.
Since then, the Saudi crown prince has been a frequent subject of criticism for the writer. Last year, El-Baghdadi warned on Twitter that the Saudi heir would become more dangerous if he was not held to account by western allies. “If they get away with kidnapping the next step will be assassinations in your capitals, and I’m not joking even a little bit,” he wrote on Twitter.
He told the Guardian that the apparent threat meant he was effective. “If they don’t want to kill me than I am not doing my job,” he said.
The move by the CIA to alert Norwegian counterparts does not necessarily mean that El-Baghdadi is in imminent and definite danger.
Under US policy known as the intelligence community directive 191, the agency has a legal “duty to warn”, which means that the CIA must alert a possible victim if the agency collects “credible and specific information indicating an impending threat of intentional killing, serious bodily injury, or kidnapping directed at a person or group of people”.
While there are limited legal exceptions to the policy, it calls on the agency to inform the possible victim of the threat even in close cases.
El-Baghdadi said the possibility that the Saudi government was still seeking to silence or curtail activism outside of its border underscored a growing issue facing Mohammed bin Salman, who is known as MBS: the explosion in the number of educated Saudis who are living outside the kingdom and becoming politically active.
“This is shaping up to be a long-term problem for MBS,” he said.
The CIA declined to comment.
Norwegian Police Security Service, the country’s equivalent of the UK’s MI5, said it was not in a position to comment “on contact we have with individuals, or assessments we do pertaining to individuals security.”
The revelation comes less than a year after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist for the Washington Post and a US resident, who was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
The murder caused international outrage and provoked condemnation of the 33-year-old crown prince.
In the US, the CIA has reportedly confirmed with a high to medium degree of certainty that the crown prince was behind the murder, and a top adviser to the crown prince, Saud al-Qahtani, has been accused publicly by the Trump administration of playing a role in planning the assassination.
Qahtani has been the subject of sanctions by the US. Last November, the US Treasury said he was “part of the planning and execution of the operation that led to the killing of Mr Khashoggi”.
It said Qahtani was one of the Saudi officials involved in “the abhorrent killing” of the journalist in a targeted and brutal operation.
Last month, the state department included Qahtani on a list of 16 individuals who have been barred from entering the US because of their alleged role in the killing.
Critics and activists agree that the Trump administration’s continued support of the crown prince, especially by Trump, and his senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has sent a message that Prince Salman is untouchable and will not be held accountable for the murder.
While banks such as JP Morgan steered clear of the kingdom in the immediate aftermath of the killing, major US and international companies are flooding back into Saudi with multibillion dollar deals.
The Saudi government has previously dismissed reports of CIA assessments in relation to the Khashoggi murder, describing them as having “no basis in truth and we categorically reject them”.