Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said on Thursday that Jamal Khashoggi was killed in a planned operation, based on information it received from Turkish investigators in Istanbul, according to a statement from the kingdom’s Foreign Ministry.
It is the latest reversal from Saudi authorities, who last week said Khashoggi was killed accidentally in a fistfight at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by “rogue” agents. President Donald Trump had initially said that explanation was credible, but in recent days expressed doubts, calling it “the worst coverup ever.”
According to the statement, a joint Saudi-Turkish investigative team in Istanbul “indicates that the suspects in the incident had committed their act with a premeditated intention.”
The announcement underscored the rapidly mounting pressures on Saudi Arabia to fully illuminate Khashoggi’s killing, after its previous explanations were contradicted by Turkey and met with skepticism by the United States, a close Saudi ally.
Still, neither Trump nor Saudi Arabia have been willing to implicate Saudi leadership in the journalist’s killing. American intelligence officials and lawmakers have said that an operation targeting a critic of the royal court in a foreign country is unlikely to have been ordered without the knowledge of senior Saudi officials.
Thursday’s announcement comes days after CIA Director Gina Haspel traveled to Turkey and listened to audio purportedly capturing the journalist’s murder, giving a key member of Trump’s cabinet access to the central piece of evidence Turkey has used to assert that the killing was planned
It also came two days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech calling Khashoggi’s killing “brutal” and “planned” while demanding that the perpetrators be extradited to Turkey.
The Foreign Ministry did not say what led the prosecutor to draw that conclusion, only that it was based on information shared by Turkish investigators working with Saudi officials in Turkey. According to the statement, the Saudi prosecutor will continue its investigation based on the new information.
Shortly after Khashoggi disappeared on Oct. 2 while retrieving a document at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkish authorities said he was killed in a premeditated attack by 15 Saudi agents sent to Turkey with the purpose of killing the journalist, who had been critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Saudi Arabia initially denied any knowledge of Khashoggi’s fate, but last week said it had arrested 18 people and dismissed five officials after a preliminary investigation revealed he was killed in a fistfight at the consulate during a botched intelligence operation.
The arrests were accompanied by an announcement that King Salman was placing his son, Mohammed, in charge of restructuring the Saudi intelligence apparatus – a move that all but ended speculation that the crown prince would be sanctioned.
Mohammed has denied any prior knowledge of the of the mission and on Wednesday called the journalist’s killing “a hideous crime.”
Turkey dismissed the Saudi assertion of an accidental death and has pressed the kingdom to concede Khashoggi was deliberately targeted for death.
Turkish officials have balked at the ability of Saudi Arabia to conduct a credible investigation given the suspicion surrounding the royal court’s involvement in the operation, noting that two of Mohammed’s closest advisers were dismissed last week when the kingdom said Khashoggi died in a fistfight.
“We have maintained since the beginning that the Khashoggi murder was premeditated,” a senior Turkish official told The Washington Post shortly after the Saudi announcement on Thursday. “We owe it to Jamal and his loved ones to uncover all of the truth. The criminal investigation continues in Turkey.”
Khashoggi, 59, was a contributing opinion writer for The Post who was living in Virginia after leaving Saudi Arabia in fear of his safety. He had been planning to settle in Istanbul and marry his Turkish fiancee when he was detained and killed in the Saudi consulate. His body has not yet been found.
Through a steady stream of leaks to Turkish and foreign media, Turkish officials have mounted a compelling case that shows the Saudi agents had planned to kill Khashoggi, dismember him and dispose of his remains. That has included identifying a Saudi forensics specialist who is an expert in mobile autopsies that had traveled to Istanbul the day Khashoggi was planning to visit the consulate and pictures of Saudi diplomatic vehicles scouting wooded areas in the days before Khashoggi disappeared.
The leaks have also featured surveillance pictures of a Saudi agent wearing Khashoggi’s clothes and a fake beard and leaving the consulate in an orchestrated bid to fool investigators into thinking the journalist had safely left the diplomatic mission.
The United States has already taken some steps toward punishing the suspects detained or fired by Saudi Arabia, revoking their visas.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he is working with the Treasury Department on whether to impose sanctions on those found responsible for the journalist’s death.
It was not immediately clear how Thursday’s announcement from Riyadh would impact Washington’s thinking amid bipartisan demands from Congress for severe punishment of Saudi Arabia – the nation at the center of Trump’s Middle East policy.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Tamer El-Ghobashy