ISTANBUL • The rulers of Saudi Arabia are considering blaming a top intelligence official close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the alleged killing of Mr Jamal Khashoggi, three people with knowledge of the Saudi plans said on Thursday.
The plan to assign blame to General Ahmed al-Assiri, a high-ranking adviser to the Crown Prince, would be an extraordinary recognition of the magnitude of international backlash to hit the kingdom since the disappearance of Mr Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi dissident. A resident of Virginia and contributor to The Washington Post, Mr Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2.
Blaming Gen Assiri could also provide a plausible explanation for the apparent killing and help deflect blame from the Crown Prince, whom US intelligence agencies are increasingly convinced was behind Mr Khashoggi's disappearance.
Turkish officials have said they possess evidence showing that 15 Saudi agents assassinated and dismembered Mr Khashoggi in the consulate. After two weeks of blanket denials and mounting pressure from Turkey and Washington, Saudi Arabia said it would conduct its own investigation to determine who was responsible.
But even with the investigation still ostensibly under way, the Saudis are already pointing to Gen Assiri as the culprit, according to the three people familiar with the Saudi plans. People close to the White House have already been briefed and given Gen Assiri's name.
Whether that move will be enough to calm the international crisis and what it may mean for Prince Mohammed, the kingdom's day-to-day ruler, remain to be seen.
Gen Assiri, who previously served as the spokesman for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, is close enough to the Crown Prince to have easy access to his ear and has considerable authority to enlist lower-ranking personnel in a mission.
Even with the investigation still ostensibly under way, the Saudis are already pointing to Gen (Ahmed) al-Assiri as the culprit, according to the three people familiar with the Saudi plans. People close to the White House have already been briefed and given Gen Assiri's name.
The Saudi rulers are expected to say that Gen Assiri received oral authorisation from Prince Mohammed to capture Mr Khashoggi for an interrogation in Saudi Arabia, but either misunderstood his instructions or overstepped that authorisation and took the dissident's life, according to two of the people familiar with the Saudi plans. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to brief journalists.
Even in this scenario, however, Prince Mohammed would still have ordered an operation to abduct a resident of the United States, apparently only on the basis of his public criticism of Saudi leaders.
Given Gen Assiri's lofty rank, declaring his culpability would also reflect on the Crown Prince. Prince Mohammed elevated Gen Assiri to his current post, and the general is close enough to him that he often sits in when the Crown Prince meets visiting US officials.
Some critics of the kingdom are already arguing that scapegoating an underling would be little more than a diversion. "The responsibility is with the de facto ruler, who is the Crown Prince," argued Dr Madawi al-Rasheed, a professor at the London School of Economics.
The general has been a well-known face to the international news media since he was named as spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015. He gave interviews in fluent French, English and Arabic, but often privately harassed reporters when their reports turned out not to his liking. He was promoted last year to his current job in intelligence, and the Saudis are expected to contend that in the Khashoggi case, he was seeking to prove himself, according to the people familiar with their plans.