The CIA has reportedly concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul – a finding that contradicts Saudi government assertions that he was not involved.
American officials have expressed high confidence in the agency’s assessment, which is the most definitive to date, allegedly linking Saudi Arabia’s crown prince to the killing, according to The Washington Post, which originally reported the story.
The CIA found that 15 Saudi agents flew on government planes to Istanbul and carried out the killing at the Saudi consulate, the report said.
The White House declined to comment on the matter, although such a conclusion would likely complicate efforts by Donald Trump‘s administration to preserve US ties with one of the closest American allies in the region.
The CIA’s conclusion about Crown Prince Mohammed’s role was also based on the agency’s assessment of the prince as the country’s de facto ruler who oversees even minor affairs in the kingdom. “The accepted position is that there is no way this happened without him being aware or involved,”the Post said an unnamed US official as saying.
The crown prince has repeatedly denied any involvement or knowledge of the murder of The Washington Post columnist, who regularly criticised both the royal and his regime in the newspaper.
Saudi Arabia has offered a series of sometimes contradictory explanations for Khashoggi’s death on 2 October. After initially denying it played any role in his death, the kingdom then went on to claim he was killed by rogue operatives in its consulate in the Turkish capital of Istanbul.
Earlier this week, Riyadh said it would pursue the death penalty for five suspects charged with ordering and carrying out the killing. The Saudi public prosecutor said that Crown Prince Mohammad had nothing to do with the killing.
The prosecutor said that the murder was carried out by a rogue “negotiation team” – including members of Crown Prince Mohammad’s security detail – who had sought to abduct Khashoggi but decided to kill him when he resisted. Khashoggi’s body was then dismembered and removed from the consulate.
“After surveying the consulate, the head of the negotiation team concluded that it would not be possible to transfer the victim by force to the safe location in case the negotiations with him to return failed,” said the Saudi prosecutor, according to a report by the country’s official news agency. “The head of the negotiation team decided to murder the victim if the negotiations failed.”
Citing sources familiar with the matter, The Post claims that the CIA came to its conclusion after examining multiple sources of information. Another senior US official reportedly told US news channel CNN, that the conclusion is based on a recording provided by the Turkish government and other evidence.
Among these was a phone call between the crown prince’s brother Khalid bin Salman – the Saudi ambassador to the US – and Khashoggi, during which he reportedly told the journalist that he would be safe to retrieve the marriage documents.
The Washington Post, citing people familiar with the call, said it was not clear if Prince Khalid knew Khashoggi would be killed, but he made the call at his brother’s direction.
The prince swiftly tweeted a denial, shortly after the report was published.
“I never talked to him by phone and certainly never suggested he go to Turkey for any reason. I ask the US government to release any information regarding this claim,” he wrote.
He later published what he claimed was his full response to The Post, in which he said that he had met Khashoggi once in person, in September 2017 and they had communicated via text message after that.
“At no time did Prince Khalid discuss anything related to going to Turkey with Jamal,” he said. “Amb Prince Khalid bin Salman has never had any phone conversations with him.”
He added that people were welcome to check his phone records and mobile phone content to corroborate it.
A spokeswoman for the Saudi embassy in Washington also said in a statement that “the claims in this purported assessment are false.”
She added: “We have and continue to hear various theories without seeing the primary basis for these speculations.”
On Thursday, the US Treasury Department having announced on Thursday that 17 Saudi nationals would face sanctions over Khashoggi’s killing.
The sanctions come under the Global Magnitsky Act, which relates to actions by foreigners outside of the US that threaten international stability.
“The Saudi officials we are sanctioning were involved in the abhorrent killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“The United States continues to diligently work to ascertain all of the facts and will hold accountable each of those we find responsible in order to achieve justice for Khashoggi’s fiancée, children, and the family he leaves behind,” Mr Mnuchin added.
The sanctions did not target the Riyadh government, an important US security and economic ally and allowed Mr Trump’s administration to stop short of any action that could affect US arms deals with Saudi Arabia worth billions of dollars.
The report also came less than 24 hours after hundreds gathered beneath a grey, rainy sky for a funeral service to mark Mr Khashoggi’s passing at a historical mosque in Istanbul, praying before an empty slab of marble where his missing body should have .
His friends, colleagues, political fellow travellers as well as local and international media, crowded into the courtyard of the 15th-century Fatih Mosque on Istanbul’s European side, to hold a jenaziya; the traditional Muslim prayer held before burial.