Saudis Acknowledge Jamal Khashoggi Is Dead, Offer Utterly Ridiculous Explanation
The Saudi Arabian Government is finally acknowledging that Jamal Khashoggi is dead. Their explanation for his death, though, is too absurd to be believed.
After weeks of denials that included maintaining, contrary to all the available evidence, that nothing untoward had happened to him while he was at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has finally acknowledged that Jamal Khashoggi is dead, but the explanation they offer for his death is ridiculously implausible:
BEIRUT, Lebanon — After two weeks of shifting stories, Saudi Arabia said Saturday that its agents strangled Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist, during a fistfight inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and that 18 men had been arrested in the case.
Those arrested included 15 men who were sent to confront Mr. Khashoggi, plus one driver and two consular staff members, a Saudi official said.
Saudi state media reported that Saud al-Qahtani, a close aide to the crown prince, had been dismissed, along with Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, and other high-ranking intelligence officials. The Saudi official said General Assiri had organized the operation and that Mr. Qahtani had known about it and contributed to an aggressive environment that allowed it to escalate.
President Trump on Friday night said that Saudi Arabia’s statements were credible and that, along with its announcement of arrests, amounted to “good first steps.”
Mr. Trump, who has built strong ties with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, said that he would consider “some form of sanction” in response, but that he “would prefer we don’t use as retribution” the cancellation of $110 billion worth of arms sales to the Saudis.
But Representative Adam Schiff of California was not buying the Saudi explanation. Mr. Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview Friday night that “if Khashoggi was fighting inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he was fighting for his life with people sent to capture or kill him.”
Mr. Schiff, who said he had received a detailed, classified briefing earlier in the day on what American spy services believe were the circumstances, said that the Saudi version “was not credible.” He said he could not disclose what the intelligence agency briefers told him.
Since Mr. Khashoggi disappeared after entering the consulate on Oct. 2, Saudi Arabia has offered various, changing explanations for his disappearance, all of which seemed to distance top leadership from responsibility.
The Saudis initially claimed that Mr. Khashoggi had left the consulate alive and professed to be worried about his fate, later hinting that the killing might have been the act of rogue agents.
But international outrage mounted as Turkish officials leaked lurid details from their own investigation suggesting that he was murdered inside the consulate and dismembered by a team of Saudi agents who flew in specifically to kill him.
The case has battered the international reputation of the kingdom and the 33-year-old Prince Mohammed, who has sought to sell himself to the world as a young reformer shaking off his country’s conservative past. But suspicions that such a complicated foreign operation could not have been launched without at least his tacit approval have driven away many of his staunchest foreign supporters.
For the first time on Saturday, a Saudi official familiar with the government’s handling of the situation put forward the kingdom’s narrative of the events that led to Mr. Khashoggi’s death.
The kingdom had a general order to return dissidents living abroad, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing. When the consulate in Istanbul reported that Mr. Khashoggi would be coming on Oct. 2 to pick up a document needed for his coming marriage, General Assiri dispatched a 15-man team to confront him.
The team included Maher Abdulaziz Mutrib, a security officer identified by The New York Times this week as a frequent member of the crown prince’s security detail during foreign trips, the official said. Mr. Mutrib had been chosen because he had worked with Mr. Khashoggi a decade ago in the Saudi Embassy in London and knew him personally.
But the order to return Mr. Khashoggi to the kingdom was misinterpreted as it made its way down the chain of command, the Saudi official said, and a confrontation ensued when Mr. Khashoggi saw the men. He tried to flee, the men stopped him, punches were thrown, Mr. Khashoggi screamed and one of the men put him in a chokehold, strangling him to death, the official said.
“The interaction in the room didn’t last very long at all,” the official said.
The team then gave the body to a local collaborator to dispose of, meaning that the Saudis do not know where it ended up, the official said.
All 15 members of the team had been identified by name by the Turks, and Turkish newspapers had published their photographs. The New York Times established that most of them were employed by the Saudi military or security services and that at least four had traveled with the crown prince as part of his security detail.
The Turks had said the body had been disassembled with a bone saw by an autopsy specialist flown in specifically for that purpose and probably carried out of the consulate in large suitcases.
Turkish investigators were searching a park and a forest this week for traces of Mr. Khashoggi’s remains but did not announce their findings.
The reports of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing have shaken members of the Saudi royal family, many of whom were angry about Crown Prince Mohammed’s swift rise over the past three years. Some wondered if the scandal could lead his father, King Salman, to replace him with another prince not tarnished by the case.
But instead, the king named Crown Prince Mohammed as head of a committee to restructure the kingdom’s intelligence agency.
People with knowledge of the Saudi plans had told The Times on Thursday that the kingdom was planning to blame the operation on General Assiri, the deputy intelligence director. The people said the kingdom would portray the operation as carried out by rogue actors who did not have orders from the top and who had set out to interrogate and kidnap Mr. Khashoggi but ended up killing him, perhaps accidentally.
The dismissal of Mr. Qahtani, considered a close aide to Crown Prince Mohammed, stood out because he is plays no public role in security or intelligence. He is in charge of media and communications for the crown prince, and often leads aggressive online attacks against critics of the kingdom.
The Saudi official said Mr. Qahtani had been fired because he had known about the operation and had contributed to an aggressive environment that allowed it to turn violent. While dismissed as an adviser to the royal court, Mr. Qahtani kept his job as head of a cybersecurity organization.
Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Saudis will have to provide more information — which may or may not comport with the intelligence that Turkey and the United States have gathered over the past two weeks.
“This has to be the beginning of a multiday effort that is long overdue,” Mr. Alterman said.
The Saudi statement, for example, offered no explanation for why Mr. Khashoggi would enter into an altercation with multiple foes in territory he knew to be dangerous. Mr. Khashoggi was regarded as low key and even-tempered by those who knew him. He felt nervous enough about his safety entering the consulate that he told his fiancée to wait outside with instructions to call the Turkish authorities if he did not come out.
Whether the United States or Turkey is willing to dispute or contradict the Saudi explanation is far from clear. The Saudi narrative seemed to dodge the question of whether the men had been acting at the direction of top officials, as well as the question of where Mr. Khashoggi’s body was.
More from The Washington Post:
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The Saudi government acknowledged early Saturday that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, saying he died during a fistfight, but the new account may do little to ease international demands for the kingdom to be held accountable.
The announcement, which came in a tweet from the Saudi Foreign Ministry, said that an initial investigation by the government’s general prosecutor found that the Saudi journalist had been in discussions with people inside the consulate when a quarrel broke out and escalated to a fatal fistfight.
The Saudi government said it fired five top officials and arrested 18 other Saudis as a result of the initial investigation. Those fired included Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s adviser Saud al-Qahtani and deputy intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri.
he announcement marks the first time that Saudi officials have acknowledged that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate. Ever since he disappeared on Oct. 2 while visiting the mission, Saudi officials have repeatedly said that he left the consulate alive and that they had no information on his whereabouts or fate. He had gone to the consulate to obtain a document he needed for his upcoming marriage.
The Saudi statement comes as the kingdom is facing unprecedented political and economic pressure to disclose what happened to Khashoggi, a critic of the government and a contributing columnist to The Washington Post. But it is unclear whether the Saudi explanation — which clashes with details provided by Turkish investigators and makes no mention of the crown prince — will be enough to satisfy foreign leaders, global business executives and U.S. lawmakers pressing for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.
Turkish investigators had concluded days ago that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by a Saudi team dispatched to Istanbul. U.S. officials have said that Turkey has audio and video recordings providing evidence that the journalist was interrogated and killed inside the consulate and his body cut into several pieces.
CIA officials have listened to an audio recording that Turkish officials say proves the journalist was killed and dismembered by the Saudi team, according to people familiar with the matter. If verified, the recording would make it difficult for the White House to accept the Saudi version that Khashoggi’s death was effectively an accident.
Nor has Khashoggi’s body been recovered, and the Saudi statement did not address what happened to it.
President Trump said the arrests were a “great first step” but that he wanted to talk further to the Saudis about the investigation. He added that if Congress wanted to press for sanctions against the Saudis because of the killing, he would prefer they didn’t affect arms sales.
According to a list confirmed by Turkish officials, 15 Saudis flew to Istanbul on the morning of Oct. 2, participated in an operation that left Khashoggi dead and then quickly left the country. At least 12 members of that team are connected to Saudi security services, and several have links to Mohammed himself, according to a review of passport records, social media, local media reports and other material.
Those personal connections and U.S. intelligence intercepts of Saudi officials discussing a plan to lure Khashoggi home have contributed to a growing suspicion that the crown prince was personally linked to the incident. But the Saudi statement did not implicate him in the killing.
The preliminary investigation conducted by the prosecutor found that the “suspects” traveled to Istanbul to meet with Khashoggi as he had expressed an interest in returning to Saudi Arabia, the official news agency said. Discussions that took place “developed in a negative way” and “led to a fight and a quarrel between some of them and the citizen,” it said. “The brawl aggravated to lead to his death and their attempt to conceal and cover what happened,” it said.
Investigations are continuing with the 18 detainees, it said, without naming them.
“The Kingdom expresses its deep regret at the painful developments that have taken place and stresses the commitment of the authorities in the Kingdom to bring the facts to the public,” the statement said.
The official Saudi statement said King Salman had ordered the creation of a commission to review and “modernize” the kingdom’s intelligence operations and report back within a month. The king tapped the crown prince to chair the ministerial commission, which will also include the interior minister, foreign minister, heads of general intelligence and state security, and others.
Robert Lacey, a British historian and author who has written extensively about the Saudi royal family, said the decision to place Mohammed in charge of the official review of the Saudi intelligence apparatus would create problems.
“The West will just not accept the idea that the dossier for investigating this has been given to the man who, in the eyes of the world, is the chief suspect,” Lacey said. He added that the government’s response would deepen the crown prince’s credibility problems and possibly affect his chances of succeeding his father as king
“The crown prince has got a big credibility problem now, and for decades to come,” Lacey said. “Fairly or not, I cannot see how any democratic leader in the West will want to be photographed shaking hands with this man.”
This acknowledgment comes eighteen days after Khashoggi entered the consulate shortly after 1:00 p.m. local time to obtain a document he needed in order to be able to marry his Turkish-born fiance. Khashoggi had been to the consulate the week before but was told to return on October 2nd in order to obtain the document he needed. On the same day that Khashoggi was to return to the consulate, Turkish authorities have established two planes that had traveled different routes arrived from Saudi Arabia in Istanbul. These planes were transporting a team of fifteen Saudis and included people with links to the Saudi military and intelligence services, as well as several people who can be directly linked to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto day-to-day rules of the Kingdom headed by his father King Salman. Members of this team included a medical doctor who specialized in autopsies, intelligence officials specializing in interrogation, and members or veterans of the Saudi military. Among the items they brought with them was a bone saw capable of quickly carving up a human body for disposal. Documentation provided by the Turks has confirmed that the planes carrying this team of men arrived in the country in the morning of October 2nd, and left by the early evening with all persons on board. It is believed, but not confirmed, that Khashoggi’s body parts were contained in the luggage that the team took with them when they left.
Initially, of course, the Saudis denied that anything untoward had happened to Khashoggi while he was in the consulate. While acknowledging his arrival, the Saudi official story maintained for the past two weeks that he had arrived, conducted his business, and left the building despite the fact that there was no evidence to support this and despite the fact that his fiance was waiting for him outside the consulate building and obviously would have seen him if he left. When the Turks provide screenshots from police surveillance cameras showing Khashoggi entering the consulate and made clear there was no corresponding footage showing him leaving, many people demanded that the Saudis provide similar evidence from their own security cameras. In response, the Saudis offered the utterly ridiculous explanation that their security cameras only live-stream and do not record.
While the Saudi’s maintained this impossible to believe idea that nothing untoward had happened to Khashoggi inside the consulate, the evidence to the contrary continued to mount. Reports out of Turkey, for example, stated that the Turks had somehow obtained recorded evidence of the confrontation that led to Khashoggi’s death as well as conversations among the Saudi team members after he had died regarding disposal of his body. Additionally, as the identity of the members of the team that had arrived in Istanbul became clear, it was also apparent that many of these people had close ties to the Crown Prince, including several members of the Royal Guard, who are under the direct command of the bin Salman himself. Given this, the Turkish investigation, as well as intelligence being gathered by the United States and others put responsibility for the operation closer and closer to the Crown Prince. As a result, governments and businesses around the world began to cut ties to the Kingdom and pressure built for them to come clean on what had happened to the man who was once part of the Saudi elite but was later forced to flee to the United States when he became more and more critical of the government under the Crown Prince.
This report, of course, is not dissimilar to the reports that circulated earlier this week stating that the Saudis were in the process of putting together an explanation for Khashoggi’s disappearance and death that involved what President Trump referred to as “rogue killers” when speaking to reporters after having talked to Saudi King Salman. As I noted at the time, though, that explanation strains credulity, and the addition of the identity of an official close to the Crown Prince who allegedly acted outside the scope of his apparent authority is equally absurd based on everything we know about how things operate in Saudi Arabia and about the circumstances of Khashoggi’s death in particular. I stated the reasons why this is the case earlier this week:
First of all, the idea that any operation, whether it was originally intended to be an interrogation or a rendition (a/k/a kidnapping) back to Saudi Arabia, could have been pulled off inside of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul without the knowledge or approval of either King or the Crown Prince is quite simply too absurd to be believed. By all accounts, there is nothing that goes on with respect to the Saudi government that one or both of these men doesn’t know about or which they have not approved. This would seem to be especially true when it comes to an operation that would involve a trip to another country by fifteen members of a team that included representatives from both Saudi intelligence services and the Saudi military.
Second, the idea that the initial intention of the operation was to interrogate Khashoggi or to kidnap him and bring him back to Saudi Arabia for interrogation seems implausible given the fact that members of this team that traveled to Istanbul included a doctor who specialized in autopsies and that the team was reported to have brought a bone saw with it. Based on that, it seems clear that the idea that Khashoggi would not make it out of the consulate alive was at the front of the minds of those who planned and participated in the plot.
Finally, even if the Saudi claim that the original intention was to interrogate or kidnap Khashoggi is true, this is hardly a defense or excuse for murder whether it happened accidentally or not. Essentially, this explanation is asking the world to accept the fact that the Saudis “only” intended to kidnap and interrogate via torture a man who had done nothing wrong other than dissent from the policies of the government in Riyadh, that his death was an “accident,” and that they apparently responded to this accidental death by carrying his body back to Saudi Arabia in pieces in luggage that had been brought by the team that had arrived in Istanbul earlier in the day. Under most definitions, this would still qualify as murder, and the Saudis should not be permitted to get away with trying to brush it aside with such an utterly ridiculous claim.
Now that we have an official story from the Saudi’s, this applies even more, and the Saudi explanation is quite simply too absurd to be believed. As more than one person on social media has asked since the Saudis released this nonsense late in the afternoon U.S. time yesterday, the idea of a 59-year-old intellectual who wears glasses and simply wanted to pick up a document he needed to get married would get into a fight with fifteen members of a team sent to confront him is too ridiculous to be believed. It is admittedly possible, of course, that Khashoggi resisted when they attempted to detain him and he realized that he was not going to be permitted to leave the consulate under his own power, but that’s hardly the same as saying that what happened to him was some kind of unfortunate accident, which is essentially what the Saudis would have the world believe. The fact that a team flew from the KSA to Turkey to deal with Khashoggi, and the make up of that team, makes it clear that, from this start, this was a planned operation that would end either with Khashoggi being illegally abducted and taken back to Saudi Arabia or with his death. Neither outcome is acceptable and the Saudi explanation for what happened is, quite simply, laughably absurd.
In addition to the circumstances of Khashoggi’s death, the circumstances that led to it make it impossible to credibly believe that all of this happened without the knowledge or permission of the Crown Prince. As noted, several members of the team sent to Istanbul, as well as other officials who have been arrested by the Saudis in connection with this matter, are men who have been among the bin Salman’s closest and most loyal advisers. The idea that these men would act without the authorization of their patron is utterly ridiculous. It’s possible, I suppose, that all of this unfolded with bin Salman uttering the Arabic version of “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” as King Henry II is said to have muttered about Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, that hardly makes the Crown Prince less responsible for what happened. Whether he uttered the words “kill Jamal Khashoggi” or not, though, it seems clear that this operation would not and could not have been carried out without his knowledge and blessing. Any explanation that asks us to believe otherwise cannot be taken seriously without becoming an apologist for the Saudi regime.