The Saudi government is considering admitting that prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in a botched operation after being interrogated. According to people who are said to be close to Riyadh, the kingdom is about to make a complete U-turn from denying any knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance for two weeks to admitting that he may have been killed by one of their own agents.
Riyadh has been under pressure since Khashoggi’s disappearance on 2 October to explain what had happened after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish security officials published evidence of what they believed was a plot authorised from the top of the Saudi government to kill the journalist.
Turkey claimed it had evidence of the interrogation of Khashoggi by Saudi agents close to the Crown Prince and further proof that his body had been cut into pieces using a bone cutter. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had one eye on the diplomatic fallout from the incident, put pressure on Riyadh to provide evidence that Khashoggi had left the embassy after photos of him entering the Saudi embassy building was circulated worldwide.
Yesterday Trump revealed that he had been in contact with King Salman by telephone and revealed that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Salman had “firmly denied” culpability for Khashoggi’s disappearance. Later Trump said that “rogue killers” may have been responsible; a theory that has been ridiculed universally by commentators and security experts.
Trump also revealed that Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, had been sent to Riyadh on a fact finding mission. Pompeo landed in Riyadh this morning.
Meanwhile, Khashoggi’s family issued a statement in the early hours of this demanding the formation of an “independent and impartial international commission” to investigate the circumstances of his disappearance and asking that his reputation should not be damaged by the case becoming politicised.
The change in the Saudi story is intended to ease the political crisis and defuse some criticism of the Trump administration, which has refused to back down from billions of dollars in weapons sales to the kingdom and as of yesterday was still, according to the New York Times, planning to attend a glittering Saudi investment forum next week.
Having vehemently rejected any involvement in the disappearance of Khashoggi for two weeks, any Saudi claim is likely to be met with deep scepticism. The “rogue killers” theory has been described as “ridiculous” by American senators and the US President’s willingness to believe the Saudis has come under scrutiny. Describing Trump’s “rogue killers” remark one commentator said: “Absolutely extraordinary they were able to enlist the President of the United States as their PR agent to float it.”
Prominent members of the US security system have denounced Bin Salman’s denial of any involvement in the killing of Khashoggi as meaningless. Former Director of the CIA, John O. Brennan told American NBC network that “their denials very much ring hollow”.