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Saudi Explanation of Jamal Khashoggi’s Killing Fails to Squelch Skepticism

Saudi Explanation of Jamal Khashoggi’s Killing Fails to Squelch Skepticism

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Saudi Arabia now says that Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist, was killed after an argument in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. It’s the latest in a series of shifting explanations from the Kingdom.Published OnCreditCreditImage by Mohammed Al-Shaikh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Saudi Arabia’s explanation on Saturday only added to the international uproar over the killing of dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. President Trump appeared to step back from an earlier expression of confidence in this new description of events that Mr. Khashoggi was strangled after a fistfight — skeptics focused on apparent gaps in the narrative and Turkey threatened to undermine the already shaky Saudi account with its own rival investigation.

Doubters questioned why it took 18 days since Mr. Khashoggi disappeared in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul for the royal court to admit knowledge of his fate — after insisting for two weeks that he had left the consulate freely after a brief visit. Nor did the Saudis explain why Mr. Khashoggi, a 60-year-old writer, sought to resist in a fight against multiple Saudi security agents.

Although the Saudis say that the mission in Turkey was carried out without the specific authorization or awareness of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 33, the emerging account failed to explain the apparent connections of at least four suspects to the prince’s security detail. The Saudis also offered no explanation for why a doctor specializing in autopsies was sent on the mission, rather than one who treats live patients or manages forensic evidence.

But the most decisive blow to the credibility of the Saudi account could come from Turkey. Turkish officials say they have audio recordings and other evidence that could severely discredit the Saudi narrative and the crown prince by showing that the team executed a deliberate plan to assassinate and dismember Mr. Khashoggi inside the consulate.

If the Turks do possess such evidence, disclosing it to the public or sharing it with Western intelligence services could do incalculable damage to the crown prince.

The Saudis have said that the mission initially sought only to persuade Mr. Khashoggi to return to the kingdom. But Turkish officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have called the participation of Dr. Salah al-Tubaigy, the autopsy specialist, evidence that the mission’s intent was always deadly.

Citing audio recordings from inside the consulate, a Turkish official familiar with the investigation has said that Dr. Tubaigy dismembered the body with a bone saw — a standard instrument used in autopsies — that he had brought for that purpose.

The Saudi official familiar with the investigation denied that the doctor had brought a bone saw, and he insisted that he was dispatched only to help erase evidence if necessary, not to help dispose of Mr. Khashoggi.

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The Saudi consul’s residence in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia acknowledged Saturday that the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate.CreditOzan Kose/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The doctor “was added to the team as a forensic expert,” the Saudi official said. “In case the team’s presence was revealed and the operation was compromised,” the official said, Dr. Tubaigy was expected to remove incriminating details like fingerprints.

The Saudi official, however, offered no explanation for why the doctor was a specialist in autopsies rather than, say, in fingerprints or other evidence.

The Saudis appear to be making a risky bet that they can persuade world leaders to accept their new narrative. The silencing of Mr. Khashoggi — a Washington Post columnist who had left the kingdom last year for voluntary exile in Virginia — has spurred an extraordinary international backlash against the kingdom and the crown prince, including from American lawmakers of both political parties.

The credibility of the new account could determine the continued willingness of Western leaders and business executives to work closely with Prince Mohammed, the de facto ruler under his aging father, King Salman. The prince has seized power in the kingdom more tightly than any king in at least half a century, and the Trump administration has embraced him as the central pillar of its Middle East strategy — from containing Iranian influence to reaching a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

King Salman only reinforced his support for the crown prince, his favorite son, on Saturday. Instead of checking his authority in the wake of the scandal, the king put Prince Mohammed in change of an overhaul of Saudi intelligence services, implicitly assigning him to correct whatever errors led to the killing.

President Trump on Saturday said he expected to speak soon with the Crown Prince and appeared to reconsider his previous expression of trust in the Saudi explanation.

“It’s possible” that Prince Mohammed was unaware of the operation, he said, but he added, “I’m not satisfied until we find the answer” to the question of Mr. Khashoggi’s fate.

Meiko Mass, German foreign minister, said in a television interview that his government should no longer sell weapons to Saudi Arabia until the matter was resolved.

“So long as investigations are underway, so long as we don’t know what happened there, there is no reason to take positive decisions on arms exports to Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a personal friend of Mr. Khashoggi’s, has so far declined to publicly accuse the Saudis of killing him or to lay out any evidence to support that assertion. He has only allowed officials speaking anonymously to dole out selected leaks incriminating Saudi Arabia and pointing to responsibility at a senior level of the royal court.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey are both regional powers, publicly allies but privately rivals. Skeptics have speculated that Mr. Erdogan may be seeking to avoid a full diplomatic rupture by reaching some accommodation with Saudi Arabia, or alternatively that he may merely be seeking to prolong the public uproar against the Saudi prince.

On Saturday, spokesmen for Mr. Erdogan signaled that he had rejected the Saudi account and that Turkey would continue to conduct its own investigation.

“We will not allow things to remain covered,” Omer Celik, a spokesman for Mr. Erdogan’s governing Justice and Development Party, said in a report by the semiofficial Anadolu news agency. “We will use all the opportunities that we have to reveal what happened, and this is the intention of our president.”

Numan Kurtulmuş, the party’s acting chairman and a member of Parliament, promised that “once the evidence is finalized, Turkey will not hesitate to share this with the rest of the world” and “we will not stop chasing after this gruesome, scary, horrible incident. We will not allow this to be covered up.”

“I don’t think it will be possible for Saudi Arabia to wriggle out of this incident — if the crime becomes certain — by claiming that a certain person had committed the crime,” he added in remarks broadcast over Turkish media.

The director of the Turkish Arab Media Association, who is close to Mr. Erdogan and had been a friend of Mr. Khashoggi’s, described the Saudi account as “far from reality” and urged the removal of the Saudi crown prince from power.

“This is not over. It’s just starting,” said the director, Turan Kislakci. “We want Jamal’s murderers to be punished,” he added, including “the authority that gave the orders.”

“Give Jamal back to us,” Mr. Kislakci said, referring to the remains of Mr. Khashoggi. “Give him back so we can raise his funeral.”

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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in London last spring. Whether the Saudis’ new account is seen as credible could determine the willingness of Western powers to work with him.CreditTolga Akmen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In Washington, lawmakers of both parties complained that Saudi Arabia’s new narrative of the killing appeared inconsistent with the conclusions of American intelligence agencies, and some stepped up their calls for sanctions against the kingdom.

#SaudiArabia’s changing stories on #KhashoggiMurder is getting old,” Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, wrote on Twitter.

Amid the skepticism, the Saudi government has sought to convey the impression of business as usual.

The Foreign Ministry tweeted a large photo of Prince Mohammed as the head of the high-level committee formed by the king to restructure the Saudi intelligence agency in the aftermath of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. The kingdom’s allies around the region — including Egypt and most of the Persian Gulf monarchs — expressed strong support for Saudi Arabia’s self-investigation.

Saudi officials, meanwhile, sought to distance Prince Mohammed from any responsibility for the killing even as they singled out one of his closest advisers as the culprit, Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy chief of intelligence.

The Saudi official with knowledge of the royal court’s investigation said on Saturday that the kingdom’s intelligence agency had issued only a general order to retrieve dissidents in exile like Mr. Khashoggi, but had not specified the means of doing so. The Saudis’ internal investigation, the official said, had concluded that General Assiri, on his own, had put together a plan to bring back Mr. Khashoggi.

Although the crown prince had not explicitly ordered an abduction or assassination, the official asserted, “as the order went down the chain of command, the vagueness and aggressiveness increased.” General Assiri and the team might have interpreted “return him to the kingdom” as instructions to kidnap Mr. Khashoggi, the official said.

The team arrived in Istanbul on two private charter jets from a company close to the crown prince and the Interior Ministry, and the Saudi official offered no immediate explanation of how the planners of the mission obtained the use of planes.

But the official acknowledged that 15 Saudis arrived in Istanbul on Oct. 2 — the day Mr. Khashoggi disappeared inside the consulate — as the Turks have said. The official said that the team had initially sought to persuade Mr. Khashoggi to return home.

“He didn’t want to have the discussion, so more or less he tried to leave the room,” the official said.

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President Trump said he found the new Saudi account to be credible, even as lawmakers in both parties expressed deep skepticism.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

The agents tried to stop him. An altercation ensued. Mr. Khashoggi started screaming, and one of the agents put him in a chokehold.

“That is how he died,” the official said. “It didn’t last that long.”

The official offered no explanation for why Mr. Khashoggi would try to resist when he was overpowered. The official also said that the Saudi authorities do not yet know what the agents did with the body.

“They say they gave it to one of their local collaborators to dispose of,” the official said, though he declined to disclose whether that “collaborator” was Saudi, Turkish or of another nationality.

Turkish officials have said that Dr. Tubaigy, the autopsy specialist, moved quickly and matter-of-factly to cut up the body. He even put on headphones and suggested to the agents working with him that they listen to music as he did while they carried out the gruesome work, the officials say.

The Saudi official said that the leaks from Turkish authorities had misidentified some of the 15 agents because of the spellings of their names or other details, but he did not disclose how many people were supposedly misidentified.

One member of the team, Gen. Maher Mutreb, was selected for the mission specifically because he knew Mr. Khashoggi. General Mutreb, an intelligence officer, had worked with Mr. Khashoggi when both were stationed in the Saudi Embassy in London years ago, this person said.

The participation of General Mutreb, however, may also undercut Saudi assertions that Prince Mohammed was unaware of the plan. An investigation by The New York Times revealed that General Mutreb has frequently traveled with the crown prince in his entourage. At least three other Saudis named as suspects by the Turks appear to have links to the crown prince as well.

The Saudi official said the 15 agents had been divided into three teams: one for logistical support and transportation; one for counter-surveillance and operational security; and another for the execution of the operation. Another general in addition to General Mutreb was part of the team.

The Saudis have announced 18 arrests in connection with the investigation, and the official said those arrests included the 15-member team, two consular workers and a driver. General Assiri was not among those arrested, raising questions about what consequences he might face.

The official said the team had sought to hide Mr. Khashoggi’s killing from the crown prince. The crown prince began asking questions after details appeared in the Turkish media, the official said. But he offered no explanation for why it took two weeks before answers emerged.

Carlotta Gall contributed reporting.

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