US hardens line on Saudi Arabia as evidence mounts over Khashoggi’s disappearance
Washington has hardened its stance over Saudi Arabia’s role in journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s apparent death as new details emerged linking his disappearance to people close to the kingdom’s crown prince.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump said for the first time that he believes Khashoggi is no longer alive, more than two weeks after the Washington Post columnist entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, never to be seen again.
“It certainly looks that way to me, it’s very sad,” the president said when asked if Khashoggi is dead.
Questioned about consequences for Saudi Arabia if it is found to be involved in his killing, Trump said: “Well it’ll have to be severe, I mean it’s bad, bad stuff. We’ll see what happens. OK?”
The Trump administration has staked much of its policy agenda in the Middle East on a strong US-Saudi relationship, with the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner forging a close personal relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed.
However, on Thursday, Saudi Arabia felt the first repercussions from the US over Khashoggi’s apparent death, with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin pulling out of a planned appearance at a Saudi investment conference next week. An administration official said no US officials would attend the conference in his stead.
Although Trump said he is still waiting for the results of Saudi and Turkish investigations before offering his definitive assessment of the situation, Mnuchin’s withdrawal suggests Washington may have enough information to incriminate Saudi Arabia.
Liam Fox, the UK trade secretary, and the French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, and his Dutch counterpart, Wopke Hoekstra, also pulled out of the conference.
The CEOs of three top banks had already announced their withdrawal. International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde has also canceled her attendance. The G7 foreign ministers on Tuesday called for those responsible to be held accountable.
Bipartisan groups of US lawmakers have begun to back international demands for an independent investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance and are calling on Trump, who has touted the crown prince’s “total denial” of any involvement, to reveal his personal financial ties to Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s loyalty to Riyadh has become increasingly difficult to justify as evidence has mounted linking Khashoggi’s death to people with ties to the highest levels of the Saudi government.
Turkish authorities ‘knew within hours’
On Thursday, CNN learned that Turkish officials suspected within hours of Khashoggi’s disappearance that he had likely been killed.
Turkish intelligence officials raced to the Istanbul airport where a private Saudi plane was waiting to take off — to try to find out whether he had been abducted or whether his body was being taken out of the country. They found nothing suspicious, and the flight in question left at about 11 p.m. local time.
Turkish authorities now say they believe that 15 Saudi men who arrived in Istanbul on October 2 were connected to Khashoggi’s death. At least some of them appear to have high-level connections in the Saudi government.
Grisly details from an audio recording suggest that Khashoggi was tortured then killed soon after entering the consulate, according to Turkish media. Turkish officials have told CNN that his body was dismembered.
Saudi intelligence officer and former diplomat Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb played a “pivotal role” in the apparent killing, a source familiar with the Turkish investigation has told CNN.
The source said that Mutreb was fully aware of “the plot” of the operation.
Several US officials have told CNN that any operation involving members of the crown prince’s inner circle could not have happened without his direct knowledge.
Saudi position could change
Saudi officials had previously maintained Khashoggi left the consulate the same afternoon of his visit, but they provided no evidence to support the claim.
Sources have told CNN that the kingdom was preparing a report to acknowledge that Khashoggi died at the consulate in an interrogation that went awry. The sources said the interrogation was intended to lead to his enforced return to Saudi Arabia.
One source said the report will likely conclude that the operation was carried out without clearance and transparency and that those involved will be held responsible.
However, any Saudi assertion that Khashoggi died in a botched interrogation and abduction mission conducted by rogue agents would be contradicted by increasing evidence leaked by Turkish officials.
Security camera images that purport to show the movements of Mutreb, one of the 15 Saudi men believed by Turkish authorities to be connected to apparent death of Khashoggi, were published Thursday by a Turkish newspaper.
The four images, which pro-government paper Sabah said it obtained from Turkish security sources, purportedly show Mutreb in Istanbul on October 2.
Mutreb, who was the first secretary at the Saudi embassy in London and has been described as a colonel in Saudi intelligence, is closely connected to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “He was seconded to an elite protection brigade within the Royal Guard to serve as the personal security force of [the crown prince],” a Saudi source told CNN.
Mutreb appeared in photographs alongside bin Salman during the crown prince’s tour of the United States earlier this year.
Turkish officials also provided CNN with passport scans of seven other men they suspect to have been part of the Saudi team. The passport scans were taken on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance.
One of the passport scans appears to belong to Salah Muhammad al-Tubaiqi (spelled Salah Mohammed A Tubaigy in the document), listed as the head of forensic medicine at the Saudi Ministry of Interior.
Another member of the group identified by Turkish official media and appearing in the passport scans is Muhammad Saad al-Zahrani, who has appeared on Saudi state TV alongside bin Salman. His name is spelled Mohammed Saad Alzahrani in the scanned document.