The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) believes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered and was involved in the killing last month of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post reported late Friday, citing people close to the matter.
The US assessment directly contradicts the conclusions of a Saudi prosecutor one day prior, which exonerated the prince of involvement in the brutal murder.
According to the CIA findings, 15 Saudi agents flew on government aircraft to Istanbul and assassinated Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate, the Post said.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, had gone to the consulate to obtain documents necessary to marry his Turkish fiancee.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly changed its official narrative of the October 2 murder, first denying any knowledge of Khashoggi’s whereabouts and later saying he was killed when an argument degenerated into a fistfight.
In the latest version presented by the Saudi prosecutor on Thursday, a 15-member squad was formed to bring Khashoggi back from Istanbul “by means of persuasion” — but instead ended up killing the journalist and dismembering his body in a “rogue” operation.
The CIA scrubbed multiple intelligence sources, the Post said, among them a phone call between the prince’s brother — the Saudi ambassador to the United States — and Khashoggi.
The ambassador reportedly assured the late journalist that he would be safe to go to the consulate in Istanbul and get the papers he needed.
The US intelligence agency also said in determining the Crown Prince’s role that it considered him a “de facto ruler” in Saudi Arabia: “The accepted position is that there is no way this happened without him being aware or involved,” the Post quoted an official as saying.
That official dubbed Prince Mohammed a “good technocrat” — but also someone unpredictable who “goes from zero to 60, doesn’t seem to understand that there are some things you can’t do.”
The CIA conclusions threaten to further fray relations between Washington and key ally Riyadh, which has sought to end discussion of Khashoggi’s murder and rejected calls for an international investigation.
On Thursday the US Treasury slapped sanctions on 17 people, including close aides of Prince Mohammed, suggesting a coordinated effort between Riyadh and Washington to pre-empt the threat of harsher actions from an outraged US Congress.
US President Donald Trump has shied from directly blaming the Crown Prince but on Friday agreed with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that “any cover up of the incident should not be allowed.”
According to the Washington Post, Fatimah Baeshen, a spokeswoman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said the ambassador and Khashoggi never discussed “anything related to going to Turkey.” She added that the claims in the CIA’s “purported assessment are false. We have and continue to hear various theories without seeing the primary basis for these speculations.”
On Thursday, the Saudi government exonerated the crown prince of involvement in the murder of Khashoggi. At the same time, Riyadh prosecutors announced indictments against 11 people and said a total of 21 individuals were in custody in connection with the killing.
The Saudi prosecutor said execution would be recommended for five principals who “are charged with ordering and committing the crime.”
Khashoggi, who lived in the United States and wrote for The Washington Post and other international media, was killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
The murder was carried out by a team of Saudis who traveled to Istanbul for that purpose, according to Turkish and US assessments.
The Saudi prosecutor did not name any of those indicted in the murder. But the US sanctions announced Thursday included two top aides of Prince Mohammed, Saud Al-Qahtani and Maher Mutreb, and Mohammed Alotaibi, who was the consul general in the Istanbul consulate when Khashoggi was murdered.
The US Treasury said Qahtani, Prince Mohammed’s long-time right-hand man, “was part of the planning and execution of the operation” to kill Khashoggi.
The US statement made no mention of the crown prince.
Khashoggi’s killing has plunged the world’s top oil exporter into its worst diplomatic crisis since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, in which most of the hijackers were identified as Saudi nationals.
The country’s allies and critics alike are pushing for an independent investigation into Khashoggi’s murder, with Turkey at their helm pointing a finger directly at Prince Mohammed, widely known as “MBS.”
The criticism has shaken the 33-year-old Prince Mohammed, who has moved with brash confidence since becoming heir to the throne in June 2017 in a shakeup undertaken by King Salman to secure power for his wing of the sprawling Saudi royal family.