Saudi Arabia on Jamal Khashoggi's murder: Denials, contradictory explanations and deception using a lookalike

Saudi Arabia initially denied knowledge of journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder, before claiming he was killed in a fistfight at its consulate in Istanbul. The explanation that drew scepticism from several Western governments.

FP Staff October 23, 2018 14:51:14 IST
Saudi Arabia on Jamal Khashoggi's murder: Denials, contradictory explanations and deception using a lookalike

Amid growing controversy surrounding the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, there have been several reports on how the murder was orchestrated and what preceded it. The New York Times reported that Saudi agents behind Khashoggi's death had used a body double. Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, led the operation via Skype, according to Reuters.

A columnist for The Washington Post and critic of the Saudi government, Khashoggi disappeared soon after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October to obtain documents for his marriage. Saudi Arabia initially denied knowledge of his fate, but after nearly three weeks of denial, claimed he had died in a fistfight at the consulate.

Saudi Arabia on Jamal Khashoggis murder Denials contradictory explanations and deception using a lookalike

An Indonesian journalist holds a placard during a protest over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in front of the Saudi Arabia embassy in Jakarta. Reuters

Turkish officials have said they believe that 15 Saudi men who arrived in Istanbul on two flights on 2 October were connected to Khashoggi's death. Several of the 15 men sent to Istanbul were from the personal security staff of the Saudi crown price. The Turks also said they have audio recordings of what happened.

The Saudi consulate then said it has fired five top officials and arrested 18 others as part of its investigation into Khashoggi's killing. Saudi officials also asserted that Crown Prince Salman had no knowledge of the mission, and that he had learned of the killing only two weeks later.

 Saudi Arabia's contradictory explanations

Saudi authorities first insisted that the journalist left its consulate in Istanbul alive, before admitting later that Khashoggi was murdered inside the building by individuals "outside the scope of their authority".

After maintaining silence initially, Riyadh, on 4 October, said the journalist had disappeared "after he left the consulate building". The following day, the crown prince was quoted as saying by Bloomberg that Khashoggi was not in the consulate in the first place.

On 13 October, Saudi Arabia's interior minister rejected accusations that Khashoggi was ordered murdered by a hit squad inside the consulate, dismissing them as "lies and baseless allegations".

Finally, on the intervening night of 19 and 20 October, Saudi Arabia admitted that the journalist was killed inside its consulate in Istanbul, but claimed that he died in a fistfight. "Discussions that took place between him and the persons who met him... led to a brawl and a fistfight with the citizen, Khashoggi, which led to his death," Saudi Attorney General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said in a statement.

However, Ali Shihabi, the head of pro-Saudi think tank Arabia Foundation, which is believed to be close to the government, contradicted the Saudi narrative. Citing a senior Saudi source, he said "Khashoggi had died from a chokehold during a physical altercation, not a fistfight".

Khashoggi lookalike brought in to cover up murder

According to a New York Times report, Khashoggi was attacked at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul within two minutes of entering the premises, was dead in seven minutes and dismembered in 22 minutes.

A source close to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed "new specificity to the Turkish claims about the speed with which Khashoggi was killed" and that these details "also showed premeditation".

The report also said that the Saudi agents who killed Khashoggi brought in a body double, who wore the dissident's clothes as part of a cover-up. On Monday, Turkey leaked security camera footage showing the lookalike strolling the streets of Istanbul shortly after Khashoggi had been killed inside the Saudi consulate.

"The inclusion of a body double in the squad is the latest indication that the death of Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and a Washington Post columnist last seen on 2 October, occurred during a premeditated plot by the Saudis to abduct or kill him and hide what they did," the report said.

How the man behind Khashoggi murder ran the killing via Skype

Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide of the crown prince who ran his social media accounts, allegedly led journalist Khashoggi’s brutal killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by giving orders over Skype.

On Saturday, Saudi state media said King Salman had sacked al-Qahtani and four other officials over the murder, believed to have been carried out by a 15-man hit team.

“This episode won’t topple the crown prince, but it has hit his image, which will take a long time to be repaired if it ever does. The king is protecting him,” a source with ties to the royal court was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Al-Qahtani himself once said he would never do anything without his boss’ approval. According to a high-ranking Arab source with access to intelligence and links to members of Saudi Arabia’s royal court, al-Qahtani was beamed into a room of the Saudi consulate via Skype.

A Turkish intelligence source relayed that at one point, al-Qahtani told his men to dispose of Khashoggi's body. “Bring me the head of the dog,” the Turkish intelligence source says al-Qahtani instructed the other men.

The Arab source and the Turkish intelligence source said the audio of the Skype call is now in Erdogan's possession. The sources said he is refusing to release the clip to Americans.

Saudi Arabia reportedly deployed Twitter army against Khashoggi, other critics

According to a New York Times report, the crown prince is believed to have ordered an online campaign to monitor and attack the dissident Saudi voices on Twitter. As part of the campaign, trolls would harass and silence critical voices, including Khashoggi's.

The report details the grooming of a Twitter employee, Ali Alzabarah, who after being convinced by the Saudis, accessed a number of target Twitter accounts.

Al-Qahtani allegedly led the group of Twitter trolls. According to the report, they used group chats to distribute lists of people to harass, topics to monitor and to issue pro-government messages across multiple accounts.

On Sunday, the Turkish president had vowed to reveal within days the "naked truth" about Khashoggi's death, even as Riyadh said it did not know the whereabouts of his body, and that the crown prince had been unaware of any operation to murder the journalist. Erdogan is expected to reveal what he meant by "naked truth" on Tuesday. Omer Celik, a spokesperson for Erdogan's ruling party, said the killing "was planned in an extremely savage manner", and that "there has been a lot of effort to whitewash this".

Meanwhile, US president Donald Trump, who had earlier said he found Riyadh's initial explanations credible, told reporters at the White House on Monday that he was "not satisfied" with what he had heard, and that he expected to know more "very soon".

With inputs from agencies

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