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Crown prince under scrutiny in journalist’s disappearance even as Saudis search for exculpatory explanation

The assassination of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi has put Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the spotlight. Here’s what we know about him. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Trump administration and the Saudi royal family are searching for a mutually agreeable explanation for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — one that will avoid implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is among the president’s closest foreign allies, according to analysts and officials in multiple countries.

But it will be difficult for the young ruler to escape scrutiny, as mounting evidence points not only to the Saudi government’s knowledge of Khashoggi’s fate, but also to a connection by Mohammed to his disappearance.

U.S. intelligence reports, accounts from Khashoggi’s friends, passport records and social media profiles paint a picture of a brutal killing that at least had its roots in Mohammed’s desire to silence Khashoggi, a former palace insider turned critic of the government and the prince in particular.

Statements from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Trump do not offer clarity into how the administration is dealing with the case of Jamal Khashoggi. (Video: Joyce Lee, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

The analysts and officials said it was inconceivable that such a brazen operation as the one alleged by Turkish officials, involving a team of 15 agents sent to Istanbul, who then killed and dismembered Khashoggi, could have been pulled off by a group of “rogue killers,” as President Trump speculated this week, moments after a phone call with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman.

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Even one of the president’s closest advisers, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said many senior members of the administration concluded more than a week ago that the Saudis had killed Khashoggi.

“The only question is, was it directed from the crown prince or the king — or was it a group that was trying to please him?” Giuliani said in an interview.

Before Khashoggi ever set foot in the consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, Mohammed was trying to get his hands on him.

In recent months, the crown prince, known by his initials, MBS, ordered an operation to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his home in Virginia, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts of Saudi officials discussing the plan.

In September, a high-ranking Saudi official close to the prince, Saud al-Qahtani, called Khashoggi and promised him safety and the prospect of an important job working for Mohammed if he returned home, said Khaled Saffuri, an Arab American political activist and friend of Khashoggi’s.

“He said: ‘Are you kidding? I don’t trust them one bit,’ ” Saffuri said of Khashoggi’s response.

Other friends of Khashoggi’s, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns, told similar stories of calls from Riyadh on the crown prince’s behalf.

On Oct. 2, Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to obtain a document he needed to marry his fiancee, a Turkish citizen.

Members of the Saudi security team that Turkish officials say were waiting for him there, and others who flew to Istanbul for the operation, also have links to Mohammed and the Saudi royal court.

For instance, one alleged member of the team, Khalid Aedh Alotaibi, made several visits to the United States that overlapped or coincided with trips by senior Saudi officials.

Earlier this year, he arrived in the United States three days before Mohammed touched down for a nationwide tour, passport records maintained by the U.S. government show. Alotaibi is identified online as a member of the Saudi Royal Guard.

Alotaibi is one of 11 Saudis included in the group of 15 men who have ties to the Saudi security services, according to their posts on social media, emails, local media reports and other material reviewed by The Washington Post.

“It’s inconceivable that an operation using royal guards, other court officials and the consulate was not authorized by the crown prince. That’s not how the kingdom functions, especially with MBS as heir apparent,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on Saudi Arabia and the royal family who served more than 30 years at the CIA.

“As much as the White House is eager to absolve MBS, the rogue coverup is unraveling before it’s even official,” Riedel added.

Mohammed is not considered to be the kind of leader to condone operatives’ acting outside the chain of command.

“He has a reputation as a very hands-on manager,” said Jon B. Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He noted that the crown prince has been directly involved in the implementation of new policies and leads an ambitious effort to diversify the Saudi economy.

“When you talk to people working on [these initiatives], the story one hears is about his attention to detail and accountability,” Alterman said.

Trump was defensive this week about the suggestion that his administration is trying to give the Saudis room to come up with a statement absolving Mohammed.

“I’m not giving cover at all,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday. “They are an ally. We have other good allies in the Middle East.”

The Saudis are long-standing allies of the United States, particularly in combating terrorist networks, but analysts said the credibility of the U.S.-Saudi relationship depends on candor and accountability.

“It’s not clear what the Trump administration will do in the face of continued deflection by the kingdom, but what does seem clear is that the Trump administration must not give the kingdom a pass,” said Lisa Monaco, who was a homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to President Barack Obama.

“It is in our interest to maintain a relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially on issues like counterterrorism cooperation and regional stability initiatives, but prior administrations have been able to do that while still pushing for reforms and holding nations accountable for human rights abuses,” Monaco said.

Privately, U.S. officials have said they have no reason to doubt Turkish officials, who say they have an audio recording that proves Saudi agents killed and dismembered Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. And while there is still no clear evidence that Mohammed personally ordered the killing, there is no reason to believe he was unaware of the Saudi team’s presence and planned operation in Istanbul, they said.

Even if the president doesn’t come round to that view, the White House’s relationship may be indelibly altered by Khashoggi’s death.

“I know the bloom is off the rose with the crown prince,” Giuliani said.

Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.