Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent at least 11 text messages to his closest adviser, said to have overseen the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, in the hours preceding and following the journalist’s murder, the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday, citing excerpts from a highly classified CIA assessment.
The Saudi royal sent the messages to Saud al-Qahtani, who is thought to have supervised the 15-man team that killed Khashoggi. The content of the electronic messages is unknown, the newspaper reported.
The assessment also notes that the prince told associates in August 2017 that “we could possibly lure [Khashoggi] outside Saudi Arabia and make arrangements,” if the dissident journalist living in the United States could not be persuaded to return to the kingdom, The Hill website reported.
The Journal report noted that from the excerpts it is unclear whether the comment came directly from Prince Mohammed, or was instead a description of his communications.
Although the excerpts do not directly state that the order to kill Khashoggi came from the crown prince, the US intelligence agency apparently had “medium-to-high” confidence that the crown prince had targeted the dissident writer and to the point of “probably ordering his death,” the Journal reported.
US President Donald Trump has said it may never be known who was responsible for the killing, and in public comments — and a long and unusual statement last week — he reinforced the United States’ long-standing alliance with the Saudis. Trump has praised a pending arms deal with the kingdom that he says will provide the US with jobs and lucrative payments, though some outside assessments say the economic benefits are exaggerated.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended Washington’s continued strong ties with Riyadh despite Khashoggi’s murder, and denied reports linking the Saudi crown prince to the killing.
“I do believe I’ve read every piece of intelligence unless it’s come in in the last few hours … There is no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi,” Pompeo told reporters.
Khashoggi, a US resident who wrote for The Washington Post and had been critical of Prince Mohammed, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get marriage documents on October 2, where he was killed and reportedly dismembered. His body has not yet been found.
Saudi Arabia initially said Khashoggi had walked out of the consulate before shifting its account of what happened amid Turkish intelligence leaks. Riyadh is now seeking the death penalty for five members of the hit squad in a move that appeared to be aimed at appeasing international outrage over the killing and distancing the killers and their operation from the crown prince.
Saudi prosecutors maintain that the 15-man team sent to Istanbul exceeded its authority when the lead negotiator in the team decided to kill Khashoggi for refusing orders to return.
World leaders on Friday welcomed Prince Mohammed at the G20 summit, showing he was no pariah less than two months after the killing.