The Saudis have admitted Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist in self-imposed exile and frequent critic of Saudi Arabia’s heir to the throne Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed after entering their consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. They’ve insisted Khashoggi’s death happened by accident during a struggle with over a dozen Saudi officials positioned to meet him, though no one seems to believe that given they allegedly brought a forensic expert with a bone saw along. Turkish intelligence sources have been regularly leaking claims they have a recording of his torture and subsequent murder.
A report in Reuters now alleges intelligence sources including a “high-ranking Arab source with access to intelligence and links to members of Saudi Arabia’s royal court” told them Saud al-Qahtani, a powerful aide to the crown prince reportedly also behind organized efforts to hound dissenters to Saudi monarchy on social media, oversaw the killing of Khashoggi via a Skype call. Reuters wrote that after Khashoggi traded insults with Qahtani, the latter man ordered the Saudi team inside the embassy to kill him:
... Qahtani was beamed into a room of the Saudi consulate via Skype.
He began to hurl insults at Khashoggi over the phone. According to the Arab and Turkish sources, Khashoggi answered Qahtani’s insults with his own. But he was no match for the squad, which included top security and intelligence operatives, some with direct links to the royal court.
A Turkish intelligence source relayed that at one point Qahtani told his men to dispose of Khashoggi. “Bring me the head of the dog”, the Turkish intelligence source says Qahtani instructed.
Reuters noted the source was not aware whether Qahtani watched the whole thing, or terminated the Skype call before the killing was actually carried out. That source also said an audio recording of the incident has been handed over to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government has been leaking a steady stream of information about the killing to media.
This explanation of how Turkish officials allegedly obtained a recording of the murder makes much more sense than prior reports Khashoggi recorded the incident on his Apple Watch—which was questioned by experts who noted it seemed technically infeasible and it was more likely intelligence services had the consulate under surveillance. However, the report also does not clarify how the recording was obtained by the Turkish government, and a Saudi source who spoke with Reuters (for all that’s worth) said he was not aware of Qahtani calling in via Skype:
The senior Saudi official who laid out the official version of events—that Khashoggi had got into a fight—said he had not heard about Qahtani appearing via Skype, but that the Saudi investigation was ongoing.
So it’s probably best to take this with a grain of salt, as the story seems to be changing every few days as those with firsthand knowledge of the events either release more information or (particularly on the Saudi side) try to spin new narratives.
However, Khashoggi regularly wrote in critical terms about the crown prince, who has sought to legitimize his claim to King Salman’s throne by portraying himself as a Silicon Valley-style disruptor eager to transform the nation’s economy via massive tech and logistics deals with international conglomerates. His PR-friendly narrative stood in stark contrast to his actual actions as the de facto daily overseer of Saudi Arabia’s autocratic government, including crackdowns on dissent, a brutal war in Yemen outside observers have called rife with war crimes, and other ruthless tactics that are at least more blatant than (if just as cruel as) his predecessors.
Reuters reported their sources also said Qahtani was one mastermind of bin Salman’s plot to lock up hundreds of potential political opponents in a sweeping purge in 2017, as well as “oversaw the interrogation and ill-treatment” of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. Last year, Saudi security forces allegedly lured Hariri to Riyadh, where they forced him to resign and denounce Iran and its Lebanese ally, the militant political party Hezbollah. Reuters wrote intelligence sources said Qahtani was the Saudi official who greeted him with a team of security personnel, who proceeded to beat him and forced him to read statements on a Saudi-owned TV channel. (Hariri later rescinded his forced resignation.)
Reuters also said their sources confirmed prior reporting that Khashoggi had received offers in the past few months to return to Saudi Arabia to work for the royal court, which the journalist viewed as a pretext to arrest him.
What is clear is that Khashoggi’s death has sparked a wave of behind-the-scenes purges in Riyadh and shaken bin Salman’s efforts to lure Western companies as partners in his economic plans. Qahtani has since been relieved of his powers as part of a wave of firings and arrests of individuals linked to the killing, though he was apparently allowed to keep tweeting afterwards and Reuters reported he may not be under arrest. King Salman ordered a reorganization of the kingdom’s main intelligence agency, putting the crown prince in sole control.
The upcoming Future Investment Initiative, which is hosted by bin Salman, has seen numerous top foreign officials as well as A-list CEOs from the likes of JPMorgan Chase, HSBC, Blackrock, Uber, and Google cancel their RSVPs. The conference’s website was allegedly hacked on Monday to show an image of the crown prince brandishing a sword above a kneeling Khashoggi, an obvious allusion to beheading videos from terrorist groups like ISIS.