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Saudi intel chief who saved U.S. lives was detained, allegedly mistreated by Saudi government

"The Trump White House did nothing — absolutely nothing — to help him," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer.
Image: Muhammad bin Nayef
Muhammad bin Nayef is bidden farewell by Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus at Esenboga International Airport in Ankara, Turkey on Sept. 30, 2016.Ahmet Bolat / Anadolu Agency - Getty Images

TEL AVIV — The Biden administration is under increasing pressure to help a former Saudi intelligence chief credited with saving American lives who was initially detained by the Saudi government during the Trump administration. Two sources familiar with the matter allege he was physically abused to the point he is unable to walk unassisted.

Mohammed bin Nayef, 61, was Saudi Arabia's interior minister and a close partner of American intelligence agencies in the fight against al Qaeda after 9/11. Having survived four assassination attempts by terrorists, he was arrested in March 2020 by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman as the de facto Saudi leader, also known as MBS, moved to consolidate power and sideline rivals.

Former U.S. intelligence officials who worked with bin Nayef are furious that the Trump administration did not appear to come to his aid, and they say President Joe Biden should be doing more.

"The Trump White House did nothing — absolutely nothing — to help him," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer now with the Brookings Institution.

President Donald Trump and his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, fostered a close relationship with MBS. Biden, however, made public a U.S. intelligence assessment asserting that MBS ordered the 2018 murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who was killed by Saudis in Turkey.

It's unclear whether the Biden administration has intervened behind the scenes, but the conditions of bin Nayef's detention have improved recently, and family members have been allowed to see him, the sources say.

Bin Nayef was detained without charge. A source familiar with the matter told NBC News there is evidence bin Nayef was held recently at a government compound next to the al-Yamamah Palace in Riyadh, the official seat of the Saudi royal court, just a few hundred yards from where MBS hosts foreign dignitaries.

Two people familiar with his situation, who requested anonymity to avoid repercussions for bin Nayef, say he has lost more than 50 pounds and can no longer walk unaided. He suffered serious injuries to his feet from beatings, the two sources allege, adding that pain medication for previous injuries was withheld.

"[He] is not allowed outside and is confined to his own area," one of the sources said. "During the course of the day, he does not see anyone and has not been allowed access to his personal doctor or legal representatives."

The alleged mistreatment of bin Nayef was first reported by the U.K.'s Sunday Times.

Bin Nayef was decorated by the CIA in 2017 for his support of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Former intelligence officials say he played a crucial role in thwarting attacks on Americans. Many are outraged about his treatment, and frustrated that the U.S. government has not done more to help him.

"It's been horrific, what's happened to him," Riedel said. "This is a man who saved dozens of American lives."

Marc Polymeropoulos, who led major CIA operations in the Middle East, said bin Nayef was particularly helpful as the U.S. sought to stave off credible plots by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to take down an American airliner.

In October 2010, for example, bin Nayef played a key role in the last-minute foiling of a plot by al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen to bomb FedEx and UPS cargo planes flying from Yemen to Chicago. Officials at the time said the Saudi intelligence chief called John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, and gave him tracking numbers for packages that held sophisticated bombs disguised as print cartridges. The explosives were intercepted in the UK and UAE and safely disarmed.

And in 2012, Saudi intelligence under bin Nayef helped insert an agent into Yemen with a goal of retrieving the latest design for a clothing bomb to be smuggled onto an airliner. The agent successfully smuggled out the bomb, which was taken apart and analyzed by FBI experts, intelligence officials said at the time.

"I can attest from personal experience that his efforts … directly saved numerous American lives," said Polymeropoulos, author of a new book, "Clarity in Crisis."

In 2009, bin Nayef was nearly killed by a suicide bomber who detonated an underwear bomb after pretending to be a reformed terrorist who wanted to personally surrender to the intelligence chief.

Despite that record, there is no indication the Trump administration put pressure on the Saudi government after bin Nayef was jailed.

A spokesman for former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who as CIA director awarded bin Nayef a medal in 2017, did not respond to a request for comment. Former CIA director Gina Haspel did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman for Jared Kushner did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman for the Saudi embassy acknowledged receipt of an NBC News inquiry but did not offer any comment.

People close to the situation believe the Biden administration has quietly pressed the Saudis on the issue, but administration officials declined to comment, saying they feared making things worse for bin Nayef.

CIA Director William Burns knows bin Nayef personally, having met with him several times while Burns was a diplomat.

President Biden has not raised the issue of bin Nayef publicly. In its 2020 human rights report, the State Department took note of his situation, saying, "lawyers representing Prince Mohammed bin Nayef said they were increasingly concerned about his well-being, alleging that his whereabouts remained unknown five months after he was detained and stating that he had not been allowed visits by his personal doctor."

King Salman, the 85-year-old ruler of Saudi Arabia, came to power in January 2015 and appointed his nephew bin Nayef as crown prince and heir to the throne. But two years later bin Nayef was deposed as crown prince and replaced by MBS, the king's 35-year-old son.

Bin Nayef was stripped of his offices but MBS initially appeared at pains to soften his cousin's fall from grace. In a widely publicized video, MBS can be seen kissing the older man's hand and saying: "We are always in need of your direction and guidance."

Yet as MBS strengthened his grip on power he began to move aggressively against potential rivals within Saudi Arabia. In November 2017, Saudi security forces arrested dozens of princes and prominent business figures and imprisoned them inside the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. Some were tortured during detention, according to current and former U.S. officials.

The Saudi government said the arrests were part of an anti-corruption drive ordered by MBS.

Bin Nayef was arrested in March 2020 when guards from the royal court wearing masks and dressed in black arrived at his home, people familiar with the matter told the Wall Street Journal.

Saudi officials said the arrest was on suspicion of treason, but he has never been formally charged. Bin Nayef's supporters deny he was part of any treason plot.

Last year, a bipartisan group of British parliamentarians requested the Saudi government allow them to meet with bin Nayef to determine the nature of his detention and the state of his health. Saudi authorities did not respond to their requests, they said.

In a report, the parliamentarians concluded it was "highly likely" that bin Nayef and other senior prisoners were being "arbitrarily detained."

Biden came under criticism in March when his administration exempted MBS from any personal sanctions despite an assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies that he ordered the killing of Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident.

"We held accountable all the people in that organization — but not the crown prince, because we have never that I'm aware of, when we have an alliance with a country, gone to the acting head of state and punished that person and ostracized him," Biden told ABC News.

"He said in the final presidential debate that he would treat MBS as a pariah," Riedel said. "The only manifestation of that so far is he hasn't called him."

But Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has spoken with MBS by phone, and climate envoy John Kerry met and was photographed with him at a conference in Dubai.

During the Obama administration, U.S. diplomats pressed Saudi Arabia on the role of the religious police and successfully persuaded the government to launch training for judges and prosecutors to raise the professional standard of its judicial system, according to Joseph Westphal, who served as U.S. ambassador to Riyadh from 2014 to January 2017.

"We had made significant progress," he said.

But the Trump administration abandoned the legal training initiative, said Westphal, now at the Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

"Once we left office all of that ended and Trump did not resume any of that. He didn't name an ambassador for almost two years," Westphal said.

Westphal said U.S. ambassadors posted to the kingdom wield significant influence due to the long-established ties between the two countries, and that the most effective way of addressing human rights concerns was usually in private conversations with the king and other senior figures. Public rebukes and press releases tended to provoke a negative reaction and be counterproductive, he said.

The Biden administration has yet to nominate an ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Dan De Luce contributed.