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Human Rights Activist Iyad El-Baghdadi Says U.S. Warned Of Saudi Arabia Threat

May 15, 2019
Originally published on May 16, 2019 10:47 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Last October, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Recently, another vocal critic of Saudi Arabia was warned that he was in danger. Iyad el-Baghdadi has been living in Norway, where he was granted asylum years ago. In late April, Norwegian officials alerted him of the threat and whisked him away to a secure location. He joins us now on the line from Oslo. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

IYAD EL-BAGHDADI: Thank you for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What more can you tell us about the threat against you? What do you know about it?

EL-BAGHDADI: To be honest, it's a sensitive question. And I've been actually instructed not to share a lot of information about this because it's still an evolving question.

SHAPIRO: We've been told that the threat comes from Saudi Arabia. And The Guardian newspaper, which first reported your story, says the CIA tipped off Norwegian authorities. The CIA did not comment to NPR on this case. You are not Saudi. You're Palestinian. And you're living in Norway. So what does that say to you that Saudi Arabia apparently feels bold enough to pursue you despite that?

EL-BAGHDADI: Well, there's a bit of history to that because the first time I came to know that they basically had me in their crosshairs was in October. And that's when I realized that there are lists being created of dissidents and, you know, Arab journalists and writers, et cetera - and apparently that I was on one of those lists. This was less than a couple of weeks after Jamal's murder. But there is a logic to targeting someone who lives in Norway.

There's kind of a dark logic here, which is that if someone who lives in Norway - which is supposed to be one of the safest countries in the world - has to be taken into hiding, then what do you think the situation is like for someone who lives in a far less safe country, someone, you know, a human rights activist or a dissident who lives, let's say, in Istanbul or in Lebanon? I mean, in a way, Mohammad bin Salman has already benefited because he's sent these ripples of fear among dissident communities across the world.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like you're suggesting the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's goal here might not be to go after you specifically but to chill people in countries who are less safe than you are.

EL-BAGHDADI: This has been kind of the ruling assumption in my conversations with Norwegian authorities that this is a long-term problem. This is not just to scare off a few days. But it looks like a new wave of repression, to be honest. It seems that Mohammad bin Salman, who presented himself as a reformer and a modernizer when he first arrived on the stage, I think he realizes now that that kind of brand is gone.

SHAPIRO: Have you heard from activists and critics of Saudi Arabia in Middle Eastern countries who may be less safe than you are in Norway? Do they feel the sense of a chilling threat to them that you're describing?

EL-BAGHDADI: Oh, they absolutely do. I mean, I don't want to name names here. But a lot of the messages I received in the aftermath were really painful. I mean, it was people who are really cared. That's how I felt after Jamal's murder. And I think it was on Twitter that I commented and said, if they get away with this, then none of us are safe.

SHAPIRO: We reached out to the Saudi Embassy here in Washington about your story. We've had no response from them. Have you spoken with the Saudis since this all started to unfold late last month?

EL-BAGHDADI: The Saudi regime is well-known for being a very opaque regime. And, of course, a lot of journalists have reached out to them. There has been no comment. Interestingly there hasn't been an official denial either. But it's important here to note that the primary propaganda channel of the Saudi regime is actually social media. They have this sophisticated Twitter troll network. So the fact is I kind of heard from them through their online channels. And, of course, they're not happy.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that you are still, as you put it, in the crosshairs of Mohammad bin Salman? Or do you think that, in some way, speaking out so publicly has insulated you from that threat?

EL-BAGHDADI: Well, the advice that I received from various independent security experts said that I'm safer in the middle of town square than in the shadows. The more publicity, the safer I am. And I think it's kind of bearing out.

SHAPIRO: That's democracy activist and Saudi critic Iyad el-Baghdadi speaking with us from Oslo on Skype. Thanks for joining us.

EL-BAGHDADI: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.