Saudi Arabia weighs blaming intelligence official for Jamal Khashoggi killing

Turkish forensic police officers arrive at the Saudi Consulate during a second round of investigation in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct 17, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ISTANBUL (NYTIMES) - The rulers of Saudi Arabia are considering blaming a top intelligence official close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, three people with knowledge of the Saudi plans said on Thursday (Oct 19).

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 death of Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi dissident. A resident of Virginia and contributor to The Washington Post, Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2.

Blaming Assiri could also provide a plausible explanation for the killing and help deflect blame from the crown prince, who US intelligence agencies are increasingly convinced was behind Khashoggi's disappearance.

Turkish officials have said they possess evidence showing that 15 Saudi agents dismembered and assassinated 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 underway, the Saudis are already pointing to 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 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.

President Donald Trump, who has made the crown prince a pillar of his Middle East policy, has been equivocal, at times raising questions about Saudi Arabia's culpability and resisting calls from Congress for sanctions. On Thursday, Trump said he believed that Khashoggi was dead and that "the consequences should be severe".

Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and Middle East adviser, has been urging the president to stand by Prince Mohammed, according to a person close to the White House and a former official with knowledge of the discussions.

Kushner has argued that the crown prince can survive the outrage just as he has weathered past criticism.

US lawmakers of both parties, however, are expressing far greater horror at what appears to be the brutal killing of Khashoggi, a veteran of the Saudi establishment who was well known among journalists and diplomats.

His story has captured the attention of the American public far more than the mass killings and other atrocities in the region, and a growing number of lawmakers are demanding some sanction.

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.

The Saudi rulers are expected to say that Assiri received verbal authorization from Prince Mohammed to capture Khashoggi for an interrogation in Saudi Arabia, but either misunderstood his instructions or overstepped that authorization and took the dissident's life, according to the two of the people familiar with the Saudi plans. They spoke on the 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 Assiri's lofty rank, declaring his culpability would also reflect on the crown prince. Prince Mohammed elevated Assiri to his current post, and Assiri is close enough to him that he has often sat in when the crown prince meets with visiting American 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 Madawi al-Rasheed, a professor at the London School of Economics and a frequent critic of Prince Mohammed.

Four of the suspects Turkey has blamed for Khashoggi's disappearance belong to the security team that travels with Prince Mohammed.

One of them, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, has been photographed or spotted near him during recent visits to at least five cities - Paris, Madrid, Houston, Boston and the New York headquarters of the United Nations.

On Thursday, a pro-government Turkish newspaper published a leaked, time-stamped photograph of Mutreb entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul just hours before Khashoggi entered. The photograph is one of the most striking pieces of evidence linking Khashoggi's disappearance to the crown prince.

Other photos published in the newspaper Sabah showed Mutreb outside the Saudi consul general's home, leaving a Turkish hotel with a large suitcase, and leaving the country from Istanbul's international airport - all later the same day.

But Assiri's seniority makes the notion that he carried out the operation without the further participation of Prince Mohammed at least technically plausible. Lower-ranking Saudi officers might have trusted that the general was giving them orders on behalf of the prince.

If Khashoggi was murdered, it could be treated as a capital crime. How the kingdom might punish Assiri, however, is another question.

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.

Assiri was promoted last year to his current job in intelligence, and the Saudis are expected to contend that in Khashoggi case he was seeking to prove himself, according to the people familiar with their plans.

Assiri did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

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