One of the Saudi crown prince’s top aides directed the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi via a Skype call to the consulate in Istanbul, telling the team of operatives to “bring me the head of the dog,” sources told the Reuters news agency on Monday.
The now-sacked media adviser Saud al-Qahtani was part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s inner circle and was tasked with defending the royal family, and Prince Mohammed in particular, from attacks on social media.
Many in the kingdom fear an online army of trolls loyal to the regime, known to harass critics such as Khashoggi, in a program the New York Times said was crafted by Qahtani.
Eight Saudi, Arab and Western diplomatic sources told Reuters that Qahtani led the interrogation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in 2017 when he was detained in Saudi Arabia, an ordeal which apparently involved verbal humiliation as well as physical abuse.
Last year, Qahtani tweeted that he was absolutely loyal to the royal family and would not do anything without their permission.
“Do you think I make decisions without guidance? I am an employee and a faithful executor of the orders of my lord the king and my lord the faithful crown prince,” he wrote.
A tough critic of the crown prince, Khashoggi, 59, disappeared after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to collect a document for his upcoming marriage.
According to the report, Turkish sources say Khashoggi was seized inside the consulate by a 15-man team that had arrived in the country just two hours earlier.
An individual described by the news agency as a “high-ranking Arab source with access to intelligence and links to members of Saudi Arabia’s royal court” says that Qahtani was then connected to the room in the consulate via video call and began to hurl insults at Khashoggi. The Saudi writer apparently responded to Qahtani with insults, at which point the royal aide told his team to kill the journalist.
“Bring me the head of the dog,” Qahtani instructed, a Turkish source told Reuters.
And, according to two intelligence sources, he ran journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by giving orders over Skype.
Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. pic.twitter.com/tOite8xmKm
— EHA News (@eha_news) October 22, 2018
A high-ranking Arab source described the killing as a “bungled and botched operation,” and it is unclear whether Qahtani watched the slaying of the writer.
Both Arab and Turkish intelligence sources told Reuters that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in possession of an audio recording of the Skype call and is refusing to hand it over to the US.
Erdogan is expected Tuesday to reveal what he has said is the “naked truth” about the murder of Khashoggi — a killing Ankara has said was “savagely planned.”
A few days after Khashoggi entered the consulate, a Turkish government source said police believed he was murdered by a team sent to Istanbul, and on October 17, a Turkish newspaper said he was tortured and decapitated inside the consulate.
After more than two weeks of near silence, Saudi Arabia admitted on Saturday that Khashoggi was killed in an altercation at the consular office — an explanation rejected by friends and foes alike.
Erdogan’s speech comes as US President Donald Trump said he thought the killing was a “plot gone awry,” but that he is “not satisfied” with Riyadh’s explanation of the Washington Post contributor’s death in a case has tarnished the image of the powerful crown prince.
Trump, who had said he found Riyadh’s initial explanations credible, told reporters at the White House Monday: “I am not satisfied with what I have heard” since then, and expected to know more “very soon.”
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin meanwhile met the crown prince behind closed doors in Riyadh for talks.
White House adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner said he had urged Prince Mohammed to be “fully transparent” stressing that “the world is watching.”
The case has shone a spotlight on the crown prince, who was credited with spearheading a reform drive but is now accused of having ordered Khashoggi’s murder — a claim Riyadh denies.
And as further details of the killing continued to seep out, CNN broadcast images showing a Saudi official playing a body double for Khashoggi, wearing the journalist’s clothes, exiting the consulate.
An Erdogan adviser, Yasin Aktay, wrote in the Yeni Safak daily that Riyadh’s version of events “feels like our intelligence is being mocked.”
The security official heading a team of 15 Saudis allegedly sent to Istanbul called the head of Prince Mohammed’s office, Bader al-Asaker, “four times after the murder,” the adviser added.
Abdulkadir Selvi, whose Hurriyet newspaper columns are closely watched for indications of Erdogan’s thinking, wrote that Khashoggi was slowly strangled to death before a Saudi forensic specialist cut his body into 15 pieces while listening to music.
“We cannot close this file until the crown prince is brought to account and removed from his post,” said Selvi.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, a smooth former envoy to Washington, appeared on Fox News Sunday to blame a “rogue operation” by individuals who “exceeded their responsibilities” and then “tried to cover up for it.”
With Khashoggi’s remains still missing, Turkish police have found an abandoned car belonging to the Saudi consulate in an underground car park in the Sultangazi district of Istanbul, state media said.
Erdogan has stopped short of directly pointing the finger at Riyadh. Analysts say he preferred to authorize the leak of incriminating information to pro-government media to put pressure on the kingdom.
He has twice held telephone talks with King Salman on the crisis, interpreted by some as sidelining the aging monarch’s son Prince Mohammed.