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Saudi attempts to distance crown prince from Khashoggi killing haven’t quieted uproar

Members of Congress on Oct. 21 called for Saudi Arabia to face repercussions in the aftermath of journalist Jamal Khashoggi's death. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

ISTANBUL — Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister denied on Sunday that the nation’s powerful young crown prince ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, but the attempt to distance Mohammed bin Salman from the journalist’s demise did little to blunt an international uproar that could test Saudi Arabia’s status as a regional ­power.

At the same time, Saudi officials have failed to answer questions about where Khashoggi’s remains are and have offered inconsistent narratives for how he was killed, undermining the government’s assertion that Khashoggi died after a fistfight broke out when he was confronted by agents seeking to bring him back to Riyadh while he was visiting the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

That explanation will face a fresh challenge on Tuesday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to reveal details of his government’s investigation into the killing of Khashoggi, a move that could directly contradict Saudi Arabia’s official account of what happened inside its consulate.

Erdogan said he would explain the episode “in a very different way” when his ruling party meets, adding to the already intense global pressure Saudi leadership has faced to provide a full picture of how Khashoggi was killed.

“We seek justice and this will be revealed in all its naked truth, not through some ordinary steps but in all its naked truth,” Erdogan said on Sunday, according to the semiofficial Anadolu news agency. “The incident will be revealed entirely.”

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister sought to contain the fallout on Sunday while telegraphing the kingdom’s priority: shielding Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto ruler, from growing speculation that Khashoggi’s killing could not have happened without his knowledge or consent.

“This was an operation that was a rogue operation,” Adel al-Jubeir told Fox News. “This was an operation where individuals ended up exceeding the authorities and responsibilities they had. They made a mistake when they killed Jamal Khashoggi.”

Senior Republicans and Democrats proposed a range of severe punishments, including sanctions on the longtime U.S. ally, the expulsion of the Saudi ambassador and the cutting of arms sales. Nearly all of the calls for repercussions have centered on whether Mohammed knew of or ordered the operation to kill Khashoggi, a U.S.-based Washington Post contributing columnist and former royal insider turned critic.

“It’s my thinking that MBS was involved in this, that he directed this and that this person was purposefully murdered,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” referring to the crown prince.

Corker — who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — called for a “collective response” by the United States, Britain, France and Germany if an investigation reveals that the crown prince was behind Khashoggi’s killing.

During an appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said the Saudi ambassador should be formally expelled from the United States if an investigation shows the crown prince’s involvement. 

Jubeir denied on Sunday that Mohammed had any prior knowledge of the operation and said that the agents involved “weren’t people closely tied” to him.

“Even the senior leadership of our intelligence service was not aware of this,” Jubeir said.

The foreign minister said that Saudi Arabia does not know where Khashoggi’s body is and that officials have not listened to an audio recording that Turkey claims proves Khashoggi was tortured, killed and dismembered.

When asked by Fox News about the fistfight scenario put forth Saturday by prosecutors, Jubeir deflected, saying the circumstances of Khashoggi’s death were still being investigated.

“We’re trying to ascertain the facts as to what happened in the consulate,” he said. “And what happened subsequent to that.”

Jubeir’s contention that the Saudi government did not know precisely what happened to Khashoggi in the consulate — after the kingdom had previously announced that he was killed in a fistfight — was the latest in a series of shifting explanations by Saudi officials since Khashoggi disappeared.

Reuters on Sunday quoted an unnamed Saudi official who portrayed Khashoggi’s death as the result of a botched kidnapping. In a detailed account, the official said members of the 15-man Saudi team threatened to drug and kidnap Khashoggi and had “killed him in a chokehold” when he resisted.

Khashoggi’s body, the official added, was rolled up in a carpet and given to a “local cooperator” for disposal.

A Saudi official, who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation, refused to confirm the details of the Reuters report but said that there had been a standing order from Saudi intelligence to “negotiate with people outside to come back home.” The team that approached Khashoggi had been sent to negotiate, but “it went south,” the official said, adding that “there was no order for a kidnapping. There was no order for a killing.”

Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been at odds over what happened inside the consulate ever since Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi monarchy, disappeared there on Oct. 2.

Turkish authorities almost immediately concluded that Khashoggi was targeted by a 15-man squad of Saudi agents who killed and dismembered him in the diplomatic mission. The authorities said they have audio recordings from inside the consulate that provide a clear account of how Khashoggi was killed.

American intelligence officials have said they intercepted communications showing that Saudi officials were plotting to lure Khashoggi back to the kingdom — an operation that was ordered by the crown prince, the officials said. CIA officials have listened to the audio recording that Turkey says proves Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents in the consulate, according to people briefed on the matter.

Saudi Arabia denied any knowledge of his fate for two weeks. On Saturday, the kingdom changed course dramatically, announcing that a preliminary investigation found that Khashoggi was killed after a fistfight inside the consulate.

Saudi prosecutors said 18 people had been arrested and five top officials fired for their connection to the case. Two of the dismissed officials were among Mohammed’s closest advisers, Saud al-Qahtani and the deputy intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri.

Qahtani, described by analysts as the crown prince’s media czar and enforcer with a penchant for leveraging social media to promote Saudi interests, on Sunday changed his Twitter biography — reflecting his demotion from adviser to the Royal Court to the head of the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity.

The change indicated Qahtani would still retain significant influence in the Saudi effort to track dissidents online and disseminate official messages via a highly coordinated social-media strategy. 

A Saudi official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said the other fired intelligence officers were nearing retirement. 

They included Maj. Gen. ­Mohammed bin Saleh al-Rumaih, assistant head of the General Intelligence Directorate; Maj. Gen. Abdullah bin Khalifa al-Shaya, head of General Intelligence for Human Resources; and Gen. Rashad bin Hamed al-Mohammad, director of the General Directorate of Security and Protection.

President Trump initially said the Saudi explanation of Khashoggi’s death was credible. But in an interview with The Post late Saturday, Trump conceded that there had been “deception.” Still, he defended Saudi Arabia as an “incredible ally” and expressed hope that Mohammed was not involved.

On Sunday, Britain, Germany and France issued a joint statement indicating that the Saudi explanation of Khashoggi’s killing did not go far enough.

“There remains an urgent need for clarification of exactly what happened on October 2nd — beyond the hypotheses that have been raised so far in the Saudi investigation, which need to be backed by facts to be considered credible,” the statement said. “We will ultimately make our judgement based on the credibility of the further explanation we receive about what happened and our confidence that such a shameful event cannot and will not ever be repeated.”

Asked about Saudi Arabia’s belated acknowledgment of Khashoggi’s killing, Jubeir said the shifting Saudi account of what happened was a result of a coverup by the arrested agents.

“They told us that he left the consulate,” Jubeir said. “They came back to Saudi Arabia; they filed a report to that effect.”

A public prosecutor launched his investigation after “discrepancies” between the agents’ report and the reports coming out of Turkey, which Jubeir said revealed that the team had falsified its report.

“This is an aberration, this is a mistake, this is a criminal act, and those responsible for it will be punished,” Jubeir added. Later on Sunday, the Saudi monarch, King Salman, and the crown prince called Khashoggi’s son, Salah Khashoggi, to express their condolences, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

Morello reported from Washington. Souad Mekhennet in New York and Peter Holley, Felicia Sonmez and Karoun Demirjian in Washington contributed to this report.

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