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Saudi official gives new version of Khashoggi killing

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A senior Saudi Arabian government official has laid out a new version of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, that contradicts previous explanations on key points, reported Al Jazeera (Qatar).

The latest account, provided by a Saudi official who requested anonymity to the Reuters news agency, includes details on how the team of 15 Saudi nationals sent to confront Khashoggi on October 2 threatened to drug and kidnap the journalist and then killed him in a chokehold when he resisted.

A member of the team then dressed in Khashoggi's clothes to make it appear as if he had left the consulate, the official said.

After denying any involvement in the disappearance of Khashoggi, 59, for more than two weeks, Saudi Arabia on Saturday morning said he had died in a fistfight at the consulate.

An hour after the first official statement, another Saudi official attributed the death to a chokehold, which the senior official reiterated to Reuters.

Turkish officials suspect the body of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was cut up but the Saudi official said it was rolled up in a rug and given to a "local cooperator" for disposal.

Asked about allegations that Khashoggi had been tortured and beheaded, the official said preliminary results of the Saudi investigation did not suggest that to be the case.

The Saudi official presented what he said were Saudi internal intelligence documents which appeared to show the initiative to bring back dissidents, as well as the specific one involving Khashoggi

He also showed testimony from those involved in what he described as the 15-man team's cover-up, and the initial results of an internal probe.

He did not provide proof to substantiate the findings of the investigation and the other evidence.

This narrative is the latest Saudi account that has changed multiple times. The authorities initially dismissed reports that Khashoggi had gone missing inside the consulate as false and said he had left the building soon after entering.

When the media reported a few days later that he had been killed there, the Saudis called the accusations "baseless."

Asked by Reuters why the government's version of Khashoggi's death kept changing, the official said the government's initial account was based on "false information reported internally at the time".

"Once it became clear these initial mission reports were false, it launched an internal investigation and refrained from further public comment," the official said, adding that the investigation is continuing.

Turkish sources say the authorities have an audio recording purportedly documenting Khashoggi's murder inside the consulate but have not released it.

Riyadh dispatched a high-level delegation to Istanbul on Tuesday and ordered an internal investigation, but US President Donald Trump said on Saturday he is not satisfied with Saudi Arabia's handling of Khashoggi's death and said questions remain unanswered.

Germany and France on Saturday called Saudi Arabia's explanation of how Khashoggi died incomplete.

According to the latest version of the death, the government wanted to convince Khashoggi, who moved to Washington a year ago fearing reprisals for his views, to return to the kingdom as part of a campaign to prevent Saudi dissidents from being recruited by the country's enemies, the official said.

To that end, the official said, the deputy head of the General Intelligence Presidency, Ahmed al-Asiri, put together a 15-member team from the intelligence and security forces to go to Istanbul, meet Khashoggi at the consulate and try to convince him to return to Saudi Arabia.

"There is a standing order to negotiate the return of dissidents peacefully; which gives them the authority to act without going back to the leadership," the official said.

"Al-Asiri is the one who formed the team and asked for an employee who worked with (Saud) al-Qahtani and who knew Jamal from the time they both worked at the embassy in London," he said.

The official said al-Qahtani had signed off on one of his employees conducting the negotiations.

Chokehold
According to the plan, the team could hold Khashoggi in a safe house outside Istanbul for "a period of time" but then, release him if he ultimately refused to return to Saudi Arabia, the official said.

Things went wrong from the start as the team overstepped their orders and quickly employed violence, the official said.

Khashoggi was ushered into the consul general's office where an operative named Maher Mutreb spoke to him about returning to Saudi Arabia, according to the government's latest account.

Khashoggi refused and told Mutreb that someone was waiting outside for him and would contact the Turkish authorities if he did not reappear within an hour, the official said.

Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, has told Reuters he had handed her his two mobile phones and left instructions that she should wait for him and call an aide to Turkey's president if he did not reappear.

Back inside the consul's office, according to the official's account, Khashoggi told Mutreb he was violating diplomatic norms and said, "What are you going to do with me? Do you intend to kidnap me?"

Mutreb replied, "Yes, we will drug you and kidnap you," in what the official said was an attempt at intimidation that violated the mission's objective.

When Khashoggi raised his voice, the team panicked. They moved to restrain him, placing him in a chokehold and covering his mouth, according to the government's account. "They tried to prevent him from shouting but he died," the official said. "The intention was not to kill him."

Asked if the team had smothered Khashoggi, the official said: "If you put someone of Jamal's age in this position, he would probably die."

Missing body
To cover up their misdeed, the team rolled up Khashoggi's body in a rug, took it out in a consular vehicle and handed it over to a "local cooperator" for disposal, the official said. Forensic expert Salah Tubaigy tried to remove any trace of the incident, the official said.

Turkish officials believe that Khashoggi's killers may have dumped his remains in Belgrad Forest adjacent to Istanbul, and at a rural location near the city of Yalova, 90 kilometres south of Istanbul.

Turkish investigators are likely to find out what happened to the body "before long," a senior official said.

The Saudi official said the local cooperator is an Istanbul resident but would not reveal his nationality. The official said investigators were trying to determine where the body ended up.

Meanwhile, operative Mustafa Madani donned Khashoggi's clothes, eyeglasses and Apple watch and left through the back door of the consulate in an attempt to make it look like Khashoggi had walked out of the building. Madani went to the Sultanahmet district where he disposed of the belongings.

The official said the team then wrote a false report for superiors saying they had allowed Khashoggi to leave once he warned that Turkish authorities could get involved and that they had promptly left the country before they could be discovered.

Sceptics have asked why so many people, including military officers and a forensics expert specialising in autopsies, were part of the operation if the objective was to convince Khashoggi to return home of his own volition.

The official said all 15 team members had been detained and placed under investigation, along with three other local suspects.

***

Saudi Arabia deployed an online army to harass dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other critics of the kingdom on Twitter, the New York Times and Middle East Monitor (UK) reported.

The efforts to attack Khashoggi and other influential Saudis, and sway public opinion against them on the social media service, included a so-called troll farm based in Riyadh and a suspected spy within Twitter that the kingdom utilised to monitor user accounts, the New York Times reported.

Twitter declined to comment. A representative from the Saudi embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Saudi officials said on Saturday that Khashoggi died in a fight in its Istanbul consulate. But Turkish officials say Khashoggi was assassinated and dismembered by Saudi security forces.

The Times reported Saudi operatives began a social media campaign to harass critics in 2010. Saud al-Qahtani, an adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, created the strategy behind the effort, the newspaper said, citing US and Saudi officials.

Qahtani was one of five officials Saudi King Salman has fired, according to Saudi state media, following the global controversy over Khashoggi’s disappearance.

***

You cannot judge this man’s entire decades-long career of journalism by reading the English-language, edited articles he posted for the last year only. For much of his life, for the whole of his life mind this last year, this man was a passionate, enthusiastic, unabashed advocate of Saudi despotism. He started his career by joining bin Laden and being a comrade of bin Laden, reported Truthdig (US).

There are pictures of him with weapons. He fought alongside the fanatic mujahideen, who were supported by the United States in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan among others, against the communist, progressive side in that war. And he was unrelenting in his advocacy on their behalf, as well as for his praise for bin Laden.

He got to be pretty close to bin Laden. That’s not being mentioned in the media as well. He only broke with bin Laden in the mid 1990s, what a coincidence. It was around the same time that the Saudi government broke with bin Laden. That tells you that he has been very consistently an advocate and loyal servant of the Saudi propaganda apparatus. Because when people say that he always cared about journalism, what journalism? There is no journalism under the Saudi regime. There’s only propaganda, crude and vulgar propaganda. And he excelled in the art of Saudi propaganda. He moved from one job to the other, and he was very ambitious early on. And he attached himself to various princes, because that’s how it works in Saudi Arabia.

He was close to Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was chief of foreign intelligence and the sponsor patron of bin Laden and the fanatical Islamists around the world. And he also was loyal to his brother, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, who owned Al Watan newspaper where he held his first editing job in that paper. In a recent interview he did only last year with a Turkey-based television station, in Arabic of course, he spoke about how his role was not only as an editor, but he was a censor. He was enforcer of the rigid dogmas of the Saudi government in the paper. And when people wrote he got trouble doing his job, it wasn’t for anything he wrote. He never wrote a word, never spoke a word against the wishes of the Saudi government. He got in trouble because some people in the paper were courageous, unlike him, and dared to challenge the orthodoxy of the government. That was the career of Jamal Khashoggi.

I also should say that for many years he continued, and he became a spokesperson for Prince Turki when he became ambassador in Washington, DC. And he got to be close to Western journalists because he was the man to go to. When they wanted to travel to Saudi Arabia, they wanted to interview this prince, that king, the crown prince, he was the fixer for them in that regard and that’s how they got to know him. And then, he attached himself to another prince, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who got in trouble with the new crown prince. That’s where his troubles started. He did not bet on democracy in Saudi Arabia, he bet on the wrong princes.

There princes he bet on fell out of favor, Prince Turki, as well as Prince Al-Waleed, later who wound up in Ritz in Riyadh last year. And for that reason, he had no prince. According to his own testimony, in an article that was written by David Ignatius who was close to him, he tried to be an advisor to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but he wouldn’t take him as an advisor because he always was suspicious about his Islamist past, the fact that he was a member and later close to the Muslim Brotherhood. So, he became – spoke the language of democracy upon leaving the country.

The reason why they wanted to go after him, it had nothing do with his courage or anything like that. It’s because he was so central in the ruling media and political establishment, that his departure from the kingdom was not seen as dissent. He was not a dissenter, he was not a dissident. He never saw himself as one, or even an opposition figure. He spoke of himself as somebody who believed that the crown prince was doing the right thing but going about it the wrong way. I basically believe that he was seen by the government as a defector, that one of their own left the country and joined the enemies rank. And he was also having an audience with Western audiences from Washington DC, from one of the major mainstream newspapers. That was highly embarrassing to the ruling family.

In Arabic, I should mention, even in the last year on Twitter, he spoke a very different tone than what he wrote in The Washington Post. In Arabic, he spoke passionately about Palestine. Notice, he never spoke about Palestine in English, never spoke about that. In Arabic, he said, “We all are Trump” when Trump ordered the bombing of Syria. He never spoke like that in the Washington Post. So, he was an agreeable token writing for The Washington Post who never challenged the Western media and their coverage of the Middle East. And for that, he was quite agreeable to them. He never spoke about the Palestinians. I bet you, if he was advocating for the Palestinians or for the Islamist line that he called for in Arabic, he wouldn’t have lasted in his gig in The Washington Post.

Why did he find himself on the wrong side of this prince, and some detail as to what the divide is?
That’s a very good question.

And the thing is that the government of Saudi Arabia has changed in the last two years in a major way. For much of the history, since 1953 and the death of the founder, Saudi Arabia, even though it’s a despotic monarchy, is ruled by a collective leadership like the Politburo of the former Soviet Union. You have the royal family, and then you have the senior princes. Those are the ones with whom the king would consult on every matter. For that reason, as sinister and reactionary as Saudi policy was all these decades, but it was a result of a consensus within the royal family. For that, it exhibited signs of caution, reservation and deception always, because they were doing something in secrecy, and in public they were saying something entirely opposite.

Under the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, government has changed. There is no collective leadership. For the first time in the history of the monarchy, we have a sole, undisputed despot who does not allow not only dissent, but advisers. Everybody has to be yes-men, and of course all of them are men, around him. He subordinated all the princes, he ended all the factions representing different princes. So previously, no matter who was king, Jamal Khashoggi was able to move between the princes, to have one patron one day, another patron of another day. That always worked because they were part of the senior princes’ set-up.

Now, there is no set-up like that. All the other princes, even his own half-brother, is under house arrest. This guy doesn’t want to allow anybody to share government, he makes all the decisions. And in fact, we can say that was his death knell. Maybe this is why this is going to change the course of his history. I mean, he will most likely stay in power, but I would argue that his best days are behind him. He will never be as powerful as he has been for the last two years, because now he knows he cannot trust his own instincts. When he ruled entirely based on his instincts, he presumably made the decision to get rid of this guy. He did not think the repercussions were going to be big enough.

And I still argue he’s going to get away with it, and there’s not going to be a price to pay by Western countries, by Turkey or by the United States. I feel they are working on a cover-up story as we speak. But because he had no advisers, he made these decisions. And he is not somebody who is knowledgeable about the world. He does not know about foreign policy as much, and he calculated wrongly. And he is now in very awkward, embarrassing positions, and for that, he will be weaker than ever. And most likely, he will be compelled to bring in other princes, not to share power but at least to be around him when he contemplates making decisions.

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