Khashoggi case suspects have ties to Saudi crown prince
Links to Mohammed bin Salman would undercut claims that journalist died in rogue operation
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo meets Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on Tuesday. Photograph: Leah Millis/New York Times
One of the suspects identified by Turkey in the disappearance of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi was a frequent companion of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – seen disembarking from aircraft with him in Paris and Madrid and photographed standing guard during his visits this year to Houston, Boston and the United Nations.
Three others are linked by witnesses and other records to the Saudi crown prince’s security detail. A fifth is a forensic doctor who holds senior positions in the Saudi interior ministry and medical establishment, a figure of such stature that he could be directed only by a high-ranking Saudi authority.
If, as the Turkish authorities say, these men were present at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where Khashoggi disappeared on October 2nd, they might provide a direct link between what happened and Mohammed bin Salman. That would undercut any suggestion that Khashoggi died in a rogue operation unsanctioned by the crown prince. Their connection to him could also make it more difficult for the White House and Congress to accept such an explanation.
The New York Times has confirmed independently that at least nine of 15 suspects identified by Turkish authorities worked for the Saudi security services, military or other government ministries. One of them, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, was a diplomat assigned to the Saudi Embassy in London in 2007, according to a British diplomatic roster. He travelled extensively with the crown prince, perhaps as a bodyguard.
How much blame for Khashoggi’s disappearance or death settles on the 33-year-old crown prince has become a decisive factor in his standing in the eyes of the West and within the royal family. The prince has presented himself as a reformer intent on opening up the kingdom’s economy and culture, and has used that image to try to influence White House policy in the region and to woo Western investors to help diversify the Saudi economy.
But the international revulsion at the reported assassination and mutilation of a single newspaper columnist – Khashoggi, who wrote for the Washington Post – has already sullied that image far more than previous missteps by Bin Salman, from miring his country in a catastrophic war in Yemen to kidnapping the prime minister of Lebanon.
Face-saving way out
The crown prince and his father, King Salman, have denied any knowledge of Khashoggi’s whereabouts, repeatedly asserting that he left the consulate freely. Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
But in the last few days, as major US businesses and media companies have withdrawn from a marquee investment conference in Riyadh, and members of Congress have stepped up calls for sanctions, the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia appear to have been searching for a face-saving way out.
The royal court was expected to acknowledge that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, and to blame an intelligence agent for botching an operation to interrogate Khashoggi that ended up killing him. On Monday, after speaking with King Salman, US president Donald Trump floated the possibility that Khashoggi was the victim of “rogue killers”. But such explanations would run up against a host of hard-to-explain obstacles.
The suspects’ positions in the Saudi government and their links to the crown prince could make it more difficult to absolve him of responsibility. The presence of a forensic doctor who specialises in autopsies suggests the operation may have had a lethal intent from the start.
Turkish officials have said they possess evidence that the 15 Saudi agents flew into Istanbul on October 2nd, assassinated Khashoggi, dismembered his body with a bone saw they had brought for the purpose, and flew out the same day. Records show that two private jets chartered by a Saudi company with close ties to the prince and interior ministry arrived and left Istanbul on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Turkish officials said Khashoggi was killed within two hours of his arrival at the consulate. That timeline would not have allowed much time for an interrogation to go awry.
The New York Times gathered more information about the suspects using facial recognition software, publicly available records, social media profiles, a database of Saudi mobile phone numbers, Saudi news reports, leaked Saudi government documents and in some cases the accounts of witnesses in Saudi Arabia and countries the prince has visited.
Mutreb, the former diplomat in London, was photographed emerging from aeroplanes with the prince on recent trips to Madrid and Paris. He was also photographed in Houston, Boston and the United Nations during the prince’s visits there, often glowering as he surveyed a crowd.
A French professional who has worked with the Saudi royal family identified a second suspect, Abdulaziz Mohammed al-Hawsawi, as a member of the security team that travels with the prince. A Saudi news outlet reported that someone with the same name as a third suspect, Thaar Ghaleb al-Harbi, was promoted last year to the rank of lieutenant in the Saudi royal guard for bravery in the defence of Mohammed bin Salman’s palace in Jeddah.
A fourth suspect travelled with a passport bearing the name of another member of the royal guard, Muhammed Saad Alzahrani. A search of the name in Menom3ay, an app popular in Saudi Arabia that allows users to see the names other users have associated with certain phone numbers, identified him as a member of the royal guard. A guard wearing a name tag with that name appears in a video from 2017 standing next to Bin Salman.
Members of the royal guard or aides who travelled with the prince may not report directly to him and may sometimes take on other duties. It is possible that some could have been recruited for an expedition to capture or interrogate Khashoggi, perhaps led by a senior intelligence official.
But the presence among the suspects of an autopsy expert, Dr Salah al-Tubaigy, suggests that killing might have been part of the original plan. Tubaigy, who maintained a presence on several social media platforms, identified himself on his Twitter account as the head of the Saudi Scientific Council of Forensics and held lofty positions in the kingdom’s premier medical school as well as in its Interior Ministry.
He had studied at the University of Glasgow and in 2015 he spent three months in Australia as a visiting forensic pathologist at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine. His published writings include works on dissection and mobile autopsies.
Although there is no public record of a relationship between him and the royal court, such a senior figure in the Saudi medical establishment was unlikely to join a rogue expedition organised by an underling. Tubaigy, whose name first appeared among reports of the suspects several days ago, has not publicly addressed the allegations. None of the suspects could be reached for comment. – New York Times