The Wall Street Journal has reported that leaked CIA intercepts reveal Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent 11 text messages to his closest advisor, Saud al-Qahtani, in the hours surrounding journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death. The CIA believes that al-Qahtani supervised the team which carried out the murder.
On October 2, Khashoggi went to the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to pick up documents required for his marriage to a Turkish woman, where he was killed by Saudi operatives.
Khashoggi, a frequent critic of the Saudi government who had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, had been banned from writing in the kingdom. He arrived in Virginia in 2017 and became a contributor to the Washington Post.
The intercept stated that in August 2017, MbS apparently wanted Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia and “had told associates that if his efforts to persuade Mr. Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia weren’t successful, “we could possibly lure him outside Saudi Arabia and make arrangements,” a communication that it states “seems to foreshadow the Saudi operation launched against Khashoggi.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, the CIA has “medium-to-high confidence” that Prince Mohammed “personally targeted” Khashoggi and “probably ordered his death.” It added: “To be clear, we lack direct reporting of the Crown Prince issuing a kill order.”
The CIA assessment also reveals that, in addition to keeping in touch with MbS in the hours before and after Khashoggi’s death, al Qahtani was in “direct communication with the team’s leader in Istanbul,” who was supervising the 15 man hit team.
Many Americans, including many politicians, believe that the order to kill Khashoggi came from MbS and that the US should hold him accountable.
The Journal reports:
Earlier this week, the Senate voted to begin consideration of a resolution to withdraw U.S. support for a Saudi-led military coalition fighting against Houthi rebels in Yemen, with senators venting their frustration over Mr. Trump’s reluctance to hold Prince Mohammed responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s death.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met with senators Wednesday to try to forestall the resolution, has said that he had read every piece of U.S. intelligence regarding Mr. Khashoggi’s killing and that the agency didn’t find a so-called smoking gun. “There is no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters.
The judgment on Prince Mohammed’s likely culpability, the CIA assessment says, is based on the crown prince’s personal focus on Mr. Khashoggi, his tight control over the Saudi operatives sent to Istanbul to kill him, “and his authorizing some of the same operators to violently target other opponents.”
Mr. Qahtani has led Prince Mohammed’s efforts to crack down on dissent internally and abroad. He is one of the 17 sanctioned by the Treasury.
After this article was published, a spokesman from the Saudi embassy in Washington called the Wall Street Journal and said:
“HRH the Crown Prince communicates regularly with various senior officials within the Royal Court on different matters. At no time did HRH correspond with any Saudi officials in any government entity on harming Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen. We continue to categorically reject any accusations based on speculations.”
Other items of interest contained in the leaked CIA documents:
The Saudi team sent to kill Mr. Khashoggi was assembled from Prince Mohammed’s top security units in the Royal Guard and in an organization run by Mr. Qahtani, the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Royal Court, the Saudi royal court’s media department.
“We assess it is highly unlikely this team of operators…carried out the operation without Muhammed bin Salman’s authorization.”
The document says that Mr. Qahtani “explicitly requested the Crown Prince’s permission when he pursued other sensitive operations in 2015, which reflects the Crown Prince’s command and control expectations.”
Mr. Qahtani was fired by King Salman, the crown prince’s father, in the aftermath of the murder. But Mr. Qahtani informally continued some of his former functions as royal-court adviser, such as issuing directives to local journalists and brokering meetings for the crown prince, according to people familiar with the matter.
A U.S. official said that the U.S. government has recently developed information that under Mr. Qahtani, personnel from the Center for Studies and Media Affairs have for two years engaged in the kidnapping—sometimes overseas—and detention and harsh interrogation of Saudis whom the monarchy perceives as a threat. The interrogations have led to repeated physical harm to the detainees, the official said.
Since 2015, Prince Salman “has ordered Qahtani and CSMARC to target his opponents domestically and abroad, sometimes violently.”
Five employees of the center were involved in the Khashoggi operation. All five were also involved in abusive treatment of prominent Saudis detained at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel in the fall of 2017 as part of what the Saudi government described as an anticorruption drive, it says.
The CIA sounds very convinced that MbS gave the order to kill Khashoggi. “Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.”