Saudi Arabia Finally Admits Jamal Khashoggi’s Death Was Premeditated

Saudi Arabia's story about the disappearance and death of Jamal Khashoggi continues to "evolve."

In what amounts to at least the third version of events that they’ve put forward since he disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October, Saudi Arabia is now admitting that Jamal Khashoggi’s death was premeditated:

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said on Thursday that new evidence indicated that the killing of the dissident Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi had been “premeditated,” signaling yet another shift in the kingdom’s official story of his disappearance.

Mr. Khashoggi, a Virginia resident who wrote for The Washington Post, vanished at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

Since then, Saudi officials have said at various points that he left the facility alive and well after a short visit; that he was the target of a “rogue” operation by its intelligence service; and, as of last Saturday, that he had been strangled accidentally in a fistfight that broke out as a team of Saudi agents sought to convince him to return to the kingdom.

The new account was published Thursday in the Saudi-owned media, and it acknowledged Turkish evidence of a planned assassination, which Turkish officials have been describing for weeks.

It adds to the mounting political pressure on the Trump administration to punish the kingdom, whose de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been the White House’s closest Arab ally and the driver of its strategies for the region.

The Saudi shift came following a visit to Ankara by Gina Haspel, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. She had been expected to receive access to an audio recording of the killing and other evidence that the Turks have said point to orders to kill Mr. Khashoggi’s killing from the upper levels of the Saudi royal family.

Sabah, a newspaper close to Turkey’s intelligence agency, reported on Wednesday that Turkish officials had shared the recording and other evidence with Ms. Haspel.

The Saudi announcement on Thursday was an attempt to revise its previous public explanations before Washington received and digested evidence that would further discredit the kingdom, a person familiar with the Saudi strategy said.

The statement said that the kingdom’s public prosecutor had received new information from Turkey through a joint Saudi-Turkish investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s death and that the kingdom’s own investigation was still continuing.

It was unclear from the statement whether Saudi Arabia itself had concluded that the killing was premeditated. Nor was it clear what information the kingdom may have gleaned from the 18 Saudis it has arrested in connection with Mr. Khashoggi’s death and the handful of senior officials who have lost jobs as a result of it.

All of the kingdom’s statements so far have sought to distance Crown Prince Mohammed from responsibility for authorizing the killing, and the revision on Thursday did nothing to implicate him. The Crown Prince himself has sought to project am image of business as usual, speaking to investors at a conference in Riyadh on Wednesday and on Thursday presiding over the first meeting of a new committee tasked with restructuring the kingdom’s intelligence services in the wake of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.

But many current and former Western officials with experience in Saudi Arabia have said they find it hard to believe that such an operation was launched without his consent.

(…)

Saudi Arabia’s previous explanations for Mr. Khashoggi’s death were met with widespread skepticism from American lawmakers of both parties and several Western governments. President Trump has called it “one of the worst in the history of cover-ups.”

But other American allies in the region, including Israel and the United Arab Emirates, are pressing the White House to stand by Prince Mohammed, a person familiar with White House deliberations said Thursday. Both countries argue that the crown prince can still contribute to the broad White House goals for the region, including isolating Iran and selling a peace agreement with Israel to the Palestinians.

While the outrage in the United States and elsewhere over Mr. Khashoggi’s killing may require some sanctions or other measures against Saudi Arabia, this person said, the White House still does not foresee any meaningful threat to the crown prince’s grip on the levers of power. As a result, the United States and other Western governments must still deal with him despite any stigma from the Khashoggi killing or the kingdom’s changing explanations for it.

This is, of course, at least the third and possibly the fourth version of the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and death that the Saudi government has offered over the past twenty-four days.

In the first week or so after Khashoggi disappeared, the Saudi’s claimed that Khashoggi had come to their consulate in Istanbul as scheduled, conducted the business he had come there for, and left. This was quickly contradicted by both Khashoggi’s fiance, who had accompanied him to the consulate and was waiting for him outside the day he went there, and by police surveillance camera footage released by the Turks that showed Khashoggi walking into the consulate around 1:13 p.m. local time and never walking out. When asked to provide evidence to support their claim, such as surveillance camera footage of their own, to support their claim, the Saudis absurdly claimed that their security cameras were only designed to live-stream video and did not record video. This story quickly fell apart based on the overwhelming evidence that showed that Khashoggi had never left the consulate on October 2nd, and led to increasing international pressure on Riyadh to come clean.

By the time the Khashoggi matter was in its second week, it was being reported that the Saudis were preparing to put forward the theory that Khashoggi’s disappearance was due to an operation by what President Trump described as ‘rogue killers’ acting without the knowledge or consent of any higher-ranking authorities in the Saudi government. This ridiculous plot was being cooked up at the same time that Turkish authorities had already put forward the seemingly obvious conclusion that Khashoggi had died inside the consulate and revealed certain facts surrounding his death, including the details surrounding the arrival and departure of a team of fifteen Saudis linked to the Crown Prince, military, and intelligence services who allegedly were involved in whatever happened to the Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident. Among these revelations was the fact that nearly all of the members of the aforementioned fifteen person team, including the alleged leaders, were linked in some way to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is in many ways the de facto leader of the country in place of a father who, according to some reports, may be suffering from the early symptoms of dementia. As I noted at the time, this was an entirely implausible explanation that required one to forget everything we know about how things actually operate in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Finally, after it was reported last week that they were looking to pin responsibility for Khashoggi’s fate on a fall guy, the Saudi’s put forward an explanation claiming that Khashoggi’s death was the result of an operation that was carried out by people close to the Crown Prince but done entirely without his knowledge or authorization. The explanation also claimed that the original intent of the operation had been to question Khashoggi and/or return him surreptitiously to the KSA. This story was no more credible than previous explanations, of course, but that is precisely the position that the Saudi’s took when they finally released an official “explanation” for Khashoggi’s disappearance and death that acknowledged that he was, in fact, dead and that his death had occurred when he was inside the consulate. This explanation, though, maintained the hard to believe claim that the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death, which Riyadh maintained at the time was due to a rendition (a/k/a kidnapping) operation gone awry. Now, finally, the Saudis have acknowledged that it was the intention of the fifteen man team that arrived in Istanbul the morning of the day Khashoggi was scheduled to visit the consulate and left before sundown the same day to kill Khashoggi, although they continue to maintain the increasingly implausible claim that the Crown Prince knew nothing about what was being carried out in the name of the country he leads.

The fact that the Saudis have changed their story so many times is an indication that they never anticipated how much Khashoggi’s death would resonate around the world, and in the United States specifically. While the Trump Administration itself has not come out openly against the Crown Prince or the government, it has been somewhat more criticial that might be expected. Additionally, the Kingdom has experienced significant blowback from private businesses and from several European nations, including cancelations of plans for what was intended to have been a major financial conference last weekend. It’s no doubt because of this that the Kingdom has changed its story so many times in an effort to appease critics, but the fact that they want us to continue to believe that this was not an operation that was blessed by the authorities at the very top of the Saudi power structure makes everything they say hard to believe.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Middle East, National Security, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    I believe the claim that MbS isn’t involved in the Khashoggi murder as much as I believe Stalin wasn’t involved in the purges of the 1930s.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Lying liars telling lies that other lying liars will repeat.

  3. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Kathy:

    They’re clearly trying to find a way to preserve his status now, IMO. Whomever they have to throw under the bus going forward, they will

  4. Gustopher says:

    If we combine this story, and the previous story, we have what the Onion landed on a week or so ago: Khashoggi accidentally died during a botched assassination attempt

    Sigh.

    MBS will likely “convince” Trump long enough to avoid consequences from the US, while Trump holds rallies and says that the Saudis are tough on fake news or something.

  5. Kathy says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    There have to be consequences. There probably won’t be, or perhaps a very symbolic slap on the wrist (maybe the Crown prince gets to sit at the kiddie table in the next WH state dinner he attends).

    This week MbS and his father met at one of their palaces with one of Khashoggi’s sons to express their condolences. This is terrible optics, offering condolences to the son of the man you had murdered. But worse than that, it was done publicly with media recording the event. That’s the kind of thing you do to people who fear you when you want to intimidate them further. That’s the action of a crime boss, not a statesman.

    But then, Trump isn’t a statesman, either, and he will care more about Saudi money than Saudi atrocities, be they in Turkey or Yemen.

    Oh, some European countries will take some measures, but not all, and not much, absent American leadership.

  6. dazedandconfused says:
  7. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Kathy:

    The very real concern is that, as despicable as MbS is, he’s done a great deal to rein in and corral the harder right / religious nuts in SA. There is a great deal of worry on the ground there that jettisoning him could not only undermine the future stability of the house of Saud, but also signal a resurgence in the power of the hardliners. It’s never simple.

  8. Kathy says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    Yes, indeed. And that’s quite besides the effects Saudi Arabia can have on oil prices.

    But King Salman chose this particular heir, I assume knowing what his governing proclivities were. He may choose someone similar with less of a need to violently silence dissent.

    Or, MbS could try to atone for his sons by easing waaaay off on cracking down, including the luxury prison and torture chambers in a five-star hotel, and opening up a space for dissent, maybe making a beginning at some form of democratic institution, like an elected advisory council. And ending the war in Yemen.

    The last is something America should demand forcefully.

    You know, I’m baffled that absolutist strongmen and dictators don’t seem to realize that a division of power as well as checks and balances serve to spread the political blame around. Bush the younger is guilty of starting the war in Iraq, sure. but Congress could have prevented him from starting it. The blame and responsibility are shared.

  9. dazedandconfused says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    What has he done to reel in the Wahabbist clergy? He’s pressured them to let women drive, I know, but if he has sicced his goons on any of them it would be news to me.

    I doubt any of the next generation of the al-as Saud are going to be as pious as the previous one, so I don’t see this is dependent on this particular member of the litter. Why I kick back on the narrative that he is is that the ill-advised adventure in Yemen, his behavior towards Canada, and this assassination are part of a pattern, a pattern of the wielding of great power with very, very poor judgement.