Saudi Arabia’s reversal on Jamal Khashoggi raises even more questions

Khashoggi enters the Saudi consulate in October.
Khashoggi enters the Saudi consulate in October.
Image: Reuters TV/via REUTERS
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Late last night, Saudi state media announced that Jamal Khashoggi was indeed killed by his countrymen in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate—a reversal of previous statements about the missing writer.

The 59-year-old journalist died in a “brawl,” a government statement said. Eighteen Saudi citizens are currently under investigation. The country’s deputy chief of intelligence has been fired, and King Salman has ordered the intelligence agency to be restructured.

The details of the admission seem to align with Turkish officials’ allegation that Khashoggi was murdered by 15 Saudi men who flew into Istanbul and left the same day. However, it contradicts Saudi Arabia’s past claims about his disappearance, and raises even more questions.

How much of a fight could it have been?

Khashoggi vanished into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Saudi state media describe an ensuing encounter between Khashoggi and several other men as a “fight and quarrel” that escalated into a deadly “brawl,” without specifying how many of the 18 men under investigation took part.

In contrast, Turkish authorities allege that the killing was premeditated, and that the killers traveled with a bone saw. They furthermore claim to have audio recordings proving that Khashoggi was tortured (paywall) and dismembered.

Today the Washington Post, Khashoggi’s employer, described the Saudi account as a “cover-up” for an apparent hit job. It called on Donald Trump, the US Congress, and other world leaders to demand evidence.

Where is Jamal Khashoggi’s body?

Saudi Arabia says Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate, but has not given any clue to where his body was taken. According to yesterday’s statement, the men involved attempted to “conceal and cover” his death. An examination of the body would presumably offer evidence of how and when Khashoggi really died.

Turkish authorities have turned their attention to a nearby forest to search for his remains. On the same day that Khashoggi is believed to have died, Turkish undercover officials searched a Saudi plane to little avail. They also searched the consulate, but Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the inspection was complicated by the fact that some areas were freshly painted.

Why did Saudi Arabia contradict itself about Khashoggi’s disappearance?

For weeks after Khashoggi’s disappearance, the Saudi government denied that he could have died in the consulate. In a statement to Axios, Saudi ambassador to the US prince Khalid bin Salman said, “I assure you that the reports that suggest that Jamal Khashoggi went missing in the Consulate in Istanbul or that the Kingdom’s authorities have detained him or killed him are absolutely false, and baseless.”

Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) told Bloomberg that Khashoggi was not inside the consulate. “My understanding is he entered and he got out after a few minutes or one hour. I’m not sure,” he said on Oct. 5. “We are investigating this through the foreign ministry to see exactly what happened at that time.”

Is Mohammed bin Salman responsible?

The 33-year-old crown prince is the country’s de facto leader. Once hailed as a progressive, MBS is widely suspected of signing off on Khashoggi’s death, though neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia has explicitly described his role in the death.

Saudi prince and dissident Khalid bin Farhan al-Saud, who lives in exile in Germany, accused MBS directly. “When such an act is carried out, naturally it requires the consent of the head of government,” he told Deutsche Welle. “I could not say that King Salman is directly involved but I believe the decision and the implementation of the killing leads to his son, Mohammed.”

“Nothing happens in Saudi Arabia without MBS knowing about it,” US senator Lindsey Graham said on Fox New this week (paywall).

Amid the furor, King Salman appears to have taken the reins from his son, ordering that Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency be restructured. The king gave the oversight committee—headed by MBS—one month to report on progress.

What’s in the Turkish tapes?

Turkish authorities claim to have recordings proving that Khashoggi was attacked soon after he entered the consulate, that his fingers were severed, and that his body was dismembered by a forensics expert. Citing the tapes, a Turkish official also said Saudi consul Mohammad al-Otaibi was present and had objected that the killing would cause trouble for him (paywall).

The CIA has listened to those tapes (paywall), reports the Washington Post.

Why won’t US intelligence share what they know?

US intelligence agencies are preparing a report on MBS (paywall) for Donald Trump. However, Politico reports that Republican senator Bob Corker complained this week that US officials had blocked legislators from accessing US intelligence on Khashoggi’s disappearance.

“There has been a clampdown on any further intelligence updates to senators… it can’t go on that long, they need to come out and share their views of what happened and share with us,” he said.

What does the US owe Khashoggi, a US resident and “O” visa holder?

Khashoggi lived in Virginia. Several of his children are US citizens. While constitutional protections do not extend to US temporary residents in the same way that they do to citizens, the US government has in the past intervened in cases of foreign extrajudicial killings.

A bipartisan group of senators is currently pushing to punish Saudi Arabia. However, Donald Trump has said he would be unwilling to risk the oil-rich nation’s business, referring to US-Saudi arms sales (paywall).

On Friday, Trump said he found the Saudi explanation to be credible (paywall)—a break with the suspicions of his own intelligence agencies and members of his own party.