BEIRUT, Lebanon — After two weeks of shifting stories, Saudi Arabia said Saturday that its agents strangled Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist, after 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, a Saudi official said.
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 Asiri had organized the operation and that Mr. Qahtani had known about it and contributed to the aggressive environment that allowed it to escalate into violence.
President Trump on Friday night said that Saudi Arabia’s acknowledgment of the death and its announcement of arrests were “good first steps” but said he would consider “some form of sanction” in retaliation.
Since Mr. Khashoggi disappeared after entering the consulate on Oct. 2, Saudi Arabia has offered various, changing explanations for his disappearance — initially claiming that he had left the consulate alive.
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 15 Saudi agents who flew in specifically to kill him.
The case has battered the international reputation of the kingdom and its 33-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, 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.
Big name chief executives, investors and foreign officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, have dropped out of a Saudi investment conference that the crown prince is hosting in Riyadh next week.
The Trump administration had built strong ties with Crown Prince Mohammed, seeing him as a strong partner in its ambitions to counter Iran, forge a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, and reconfigure the Middle East. Although Mr. Trump said he would consider sanctions, he said he “would prefer we don’t use as retribution” the cancellation of $ 110 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
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.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing, the official said that the kingdom had a general order to get dissidents living abroad to return to the kingdom. When the consulate in Istanbul reported that Mr. Khashoggi would be coming in on Oct. 2 to pick up a document needed for his upcoming marriage, General Asiri 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 official said, and a confrontation ensued as soon as 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 they do not know where it ended up, and returned to the kingdom, 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 for traces of Mr. Khashoggi’s remains this week but did not announce their findings.
The reports of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing had 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 the 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 one of the two closest aides 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 he is widely believed to direct large-scale social media campaigns in support of him.
The Saudi official said Mr. Qahtani had been fired because he had known about the operation and had contributed to the aggressive environment that allowed it to turn violent. Many social media accounts supportive of Prince Mohammed have systematically disparaged Mr. Khashoggi since his disappearance.
Mr. Khashoggi, 60, was one of Saudi Arabia’s best known personalities, a journalist who had interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan years before he founded Al Qaeda. He later served an adviser to and unofficial spokesman for the Saudi royal family.
But his relationship with the kingdom changed during the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed, who has announced broad social and economic reforms but has also gone after critics and cut down many of his fellow royals.
After many of his friends and colleagues were jailed last year, Mr. Khashoggi settled into self-exile in the Washington area and became a columnist for The Washington Post, a position he used to criticize the crown prince’s increasing authoritarianism.
Mr. Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to pick up an official document he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. When he didn’t come out after a number of hours, Ms. Cengiz began calling Turkish officials to tell them that Mr. Khashoggi was missing.
Saudi Arabia chose to make its announcement in the middle of the night over a weekend in Riyadh and Istanbul. A Turkish official said it was too soon for Ankara to comment, but reaction on social media and elsewhere was dismissive.
Representative Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Friday night that he had received a detailed, classified briefing earlier in the day on what American spy services believe were the circumstances surrounding Mr. Khashoggi’s killing and who was responsible.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Schiff would not disclose what intelligence agency briefers told him, citing its classified nature. But when asked whether his briefing was consistent with the explanation the Saudi government issued Saturday, Mr. Schiff said the Saudi version “was not credible.”
“The kingdom and all involved in this brutal murder must be held accountable, and if the Trump administration will not take the lead, Congress must,” he said.
Samantha Power, a former ambassador to the United Nations under President Barack Obama, said on Twitter that the Saudis were “shifting from bald-face lies (‘#Khashoggi left consulate’) to faux condemnation (of a ‘rogue operation’) to claiming the fox will credibly investigate what he did to the hen.”
But Ali Shihabi, the founder of the Arabia Foundation in Washington and a prominent advocate for the kingdom’s policies, defended the belated statement, arguing that an initial cover-up that hid the truth from the royal court explained the delay.
“Part of the reason for firing so many top intelligence officials was due to the cover-up and slowness in conveying the full details of what happened to the leadership,” he wrote on Twitter. “This tragic fiasco was a huge shock to the Saudi leadership and a combination of confusion, lack of experience in such crisis management and a cover-up by the intelligence bureaucracy contributed to the initial Saudi response.”
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 might enter 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 emerge.
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.
The Trump administration has spent weeks trying to salvage Saudi Arabia’s role in its strategy to isolate Iran, which will be punctuated by the Nov. 5 re-imposition of onerous sanctions lifted under the 2015 Iran nuclear accord.
The Turkish government has said it has audio and video recordings that suggest the Saudis ambushed Mr. Khoshoggi in the consulate and dismembered him. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey may never reveal these recordings.
Elliott Abrams, a former top diplomat in Republican administrations, said the Saudi acknowledgment was an important first step but that many questions remain unanswered.
“Where is Jamal Khashoggi’s body, for one?” Mr. Abrams asked. “And it’s just hard to believe these people acted without instructions.”
Mr. Abrams also dismissed the core of the Saudi explanation that Mr. Khashoggi had decided to put up a fight.
“He’s in the consulate surrounded by a crowd of men and he starts a fight?” Mr. Abrams asked. “It’s just not credible.”
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