THE FURY OF A PRINCE SPURNED?
THE FATE OF SAUDI DISSIDENT JAMAL KHASHOGGI, WHO VANISHED AFTER ENTERING THE KINGDOM’S CONSULATE IN TURKEY, IS CLEARER BY THE DAY – BUT WHY DIDN’T THE US WARN HIM?
THE CROWN PRINCE of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered an operation to lure Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his home in Virginia and then detain him, according to US intelligence intercepts of Saudi officials discussing the plan.
The intelligence, described by US officials familiar with it, is another piece of evidence implicating the Saudi regime in Khashoggi’s disappearance last week after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials say that a Saudi security team lay in wait for the journalist and killed him.
Khashoggi was a prominent critic of the Saudi government and Mohammed in particular. Several of Khashoggi’s friends said that over the past four months, senior Saudi officials close to the crown prince had called Khashoggi to offer him protection, and even a high-level job working for the government, if he returned to his home country.
Khashoggi, however, was sceptical of the offers. He told one friend that the Saudi government would never make good on its promises not to harm him.
“He said: ‘Are you kidding? I don’t trust them one bit,’” said Khaled Saffuri, an Arab-American political activist, recounting a conversation he had with Khashoggi in May, moments after Khashoggi had received a call from Saud al-Qahtani, an adviser to the royal court.
The intelligence pointing to a plan to detain Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia has fuelled speculation by officials and analysts in multiple countries that what transpired at the consulate was a backup plan to capture Khashoggi that may have gone wrong.
A former US intelligence official – who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter – noted that the details of the operation, which involved sending two teams totalling 15 men, in two private aircraft arriving and departing Turkey at different times, bore the hallmarks of a “rendition”, in which someone is extra-legally removed from one country and deposited for interrogation in another.
But Turkish officials have concluded that whatever the intent of the operation, Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate. Investigators have not found his body, but Turkish officials have released video surveillance footage of Khashoggi entering the consulate on the afternoon of October 2. There is no footage that shows him leaving, they said.
The intelligence about Saudi Arabia’s earlier plans to detain Khashoggi have raised questions about whether the Trump administration should have warned the journalist that he might be in danger.
Intelligence agencies have a “duty to warn” people who might be kidnapped, seriously injured or killed, according to a directive signed in 2015. The obligation applies regardless of whether the person is a US citizen. Khashoggi was a US resident.
“Duty to warn applies if harm is intended toward an individual,” said a former senior intelligence official. But that duty also depends on whether the intelligence clearly indicated Khashoggi was in danger, the former official said.
“Capturing him, which could have been interpreted as arresting him, would not have triggered a duty-towarn obligation,” the former official said. “If something in the reported intercept indicated that violence was planned, then, yes, he should have been warned.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the warning process, declined to comment on whether Khashoggi had been contacted.
Administration officials have not commented on the intelligence reports that showed a Saudi plan to lure Khashoggi.
“Though I cannot comment on intelligence matters, I can say definitively the United States had no advance knowledge of [Khashoggi’s] disappearance,” deputy State Department spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters on Wednesday. Asked whether the US government would have had a duty to warn Khashoggi if it possessed information that he was in jeopardy, Palladino declined to answer what he called a “hypothetical question”.
It was not clear to officials with knowledge of the intelligence whether the Saudis discussed harming Khashoggi as part of the plan to detain him in Saudi Arabia.
But the intelligence had been disseminated throughout the US government and contained in reports that are routinely available to people working on US policy toward Saudi Arabia or related issues, one US official said.
The intelligence poses a political problem for the Trump administration because it implicates the crown prince, who is particularly close to Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
On Wednesday, Kushner and national security adviser John Bolton spoke by phone with the crown prince, but White House officials said the Saudis provided little information.
Trump has grown frustrated, two officials said, after initially reacting slowly to Khashoggi’s disappearance. Earlier this week, he said he had no information about what had happened to the journalist.
White House officials have begun discussing how to force Saudi Arabia to provide answers and what punishment could be meted out if the government there is found responsible.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have reacted harshly to the disappearance. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators asked Trump to impose sanctions on anyone found responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance, including Saudi leaders.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, perhaps the president’s closest ally in the Senate, predicated a “bipartisan tsunami” of action if the Saudis were involved and said that Khashoggi’s death could alter the nature of relations between the two countries.
Kushner’s relationship with Prince Mohammed, known within national security agencies by the initials MBS, has long been the subject of suspicion by some American intelligence officials.
Kushner and Mohammed have had private, one-on-one phone calls that were not always set up through normal channels so the conversations could be memorialised and Kushner could be properly briefed.
Flight data collected by AirNavRadarBox, a firm that tracks private and commercial planes all over the world, showed that the first of the two planes left Riyadh late on October 1 and touched down in Istanbul the following day at 3.15am.
They checked into the Movenpick, one of the people with knowledge of the investigation said. Management at the five-star hotel said they were not allowed to confirm or deny that the group had checked in or that their hotel was part of the investigation. A hotel worker confirmed that the group checked in on Tuesday. “The police came two or three days ago,” he said.
The first plane was carrying the part of the Saudi team that was awaiting Khashoggi at the consulate, investigators believe, when he arrived at 1.14pm to collect a document he needed for his upcoming marriage.
Turkey’s government says it has seen no evidence supporting the Saudi claim that Khashoggi ever left the consulate alive.
Turkish police operate at least one camera at the front of the building. Investigators have also examined footage that covers the rear of the mission. Closed-circuit TV camera feeds from the preschool opposite the rear entrance have been retrieved by Turkish intelligence, and images from outside the hotels are also being reviewed, according to people familiar with the probe.
A camera recorded Khashoggi entering the consulate at 1.14pm, but he was never seen leaving.
“It’s clear he did not exit,” said one Turkish official with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.
Behind a gate next to the front entrance is a covered car port, out of the view of cameras. From that garage, two vehicles exited about two hours after Khashoggi entered the consulate, according to one of the people briefed on the investigation. One of the cars was the Mercedes that pulled up in front of the residence of Otaibi, the Saudi consul general, at 3.09pm, according to the time stamp on the video still of the Mercedes obtained by the Post.
The drive to the consulate takes only a few minutes. The building is topped with the Saudi emblem of golden crossed swords and a palm tree. A Saudi flag flies outside. Two private security guards in a booth outside confirmed that the video still appeared to be shot from a camera that belonged to the police.
The cars stayed at Otaibi’s residence for four hours, according to an account published on Tuesday in Sabah, a pro- government Turkish newspaper connected to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The report added that Turkish employees at the residence were “hastily” told to leave that day. The veracity of the report could not be confirmed.
Flight data shows that a second private jet, believed by investigators to be transporting the rest of the team, touched down in Istanbul at 5.15pm. It is unclear whether those on board travelled to either the consulate or the residence. It departed an hour and 15 minutes after it arrived, heading for Cairo. Twentyfive hours after its arrival in Cairo, the plane left for Riyadh.
The initial plane left Istanbul at 10.45pm and made a stop about 450 kilometres to the east in Nallihan, Turkey. Then it skirted the border between Iraq and Iran, favouring the Iraqi side, and crossed over the Persian Gulf. It landed in Dubai at 2.30am. The following morning, October 3, it took off for Riyadh.
For all his criticism of the Saudi regime, Khashoggi was not always opposed to Mohammed’s policies. Khashoggi credited the young leader for what he saw as positive changes, including loosening Saudi cultural restrictions.
Khashoggi often expressed affection for his homeland, even while saying he did not believe it was safe for him. One person in contact with the crown prince, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preserve the relationship, said Khashoggi last year asked him to give a message to Mohammed saying he needed someone like Khashoggi as an adviser.
When he transmitted the message, this person said, the crown prince said that Khashoggi was tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Qatar, both Saudi adversaries, and that the arrangement would never happen.
Two other friends of Khashoggi said that at least twice he received cordial phone calls from Qahtani, the adviser to the prince, conveying friendly messages on his behalf.
In one of the calls, in September 2017, Qahtani said that Mohammed had been “very happy” to see Khashoggi post a message praising the kingdom after the government announced it was lifting a driving ban on women, according to one of the friends, who was with Khashoggi at the time. The tone of the call was pleasant, but Khashoggi also told Qahtani he would praise the government when there were “positive developments. When there are bad things, I will speak up.”
He spent the rest of the call advocating on behalf of several recently imprisoned critics of the regime.
A friend also said that Khashoggi told him he had been approached several times by a businessman close to the Saudi ruling family. The businessman, whom Khashoggi did not name, seemed “keen” to see him every time he visited Washington and told Khashoggi that he would work with the Saudi authorities to arrange his return, the friend said.
A frame grab from a police CCTV video made available through Turkish newspaper Sabah shows a private jet alleged to have ferried in a Saudi hit squad suspected of killing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on October 2.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman