One of the 15 Saudis named by Turkish officials as being involved in the disappearance of a journalist last seen entering a diplomatic consulate in Istanbul is a forensic expert known for pioneering rapid and mobile autopsies, according to Arab media reports and his own academic writings. Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy flew into Istanbul shortly after Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate and flew out nine hours later, Turkish officials say.
The alleged presence of Tubaigy, who has taught and published papers on gathering DNA evidence and dissecting human bodies, amplifies a macabre narrative put forth by Turkish investigators that a team of Saudis killed Khashoggi and then dismembered his body to conceal the murder.
A Post review of academic writings, social media accounts, telephone logs and other documents related to Tubaigy suggests he may have been something of an outsider among two groups of Saudis that Turkish officials say arrived and departed, mostly on private jets, around the time of Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Seven of the 15 self-identify in social media profiles or published accounts as members of Saudi military. Four of those, plus two others, also identify themselves in a subscription phone app as members of the Royal Guard, according to screen shots from the app, MenoM3ay, reviewed by The Post. Their claims on social media could not be independently confirmed.
Tubaigy did not respond to an email or phone messages left at three numbers associated with the profile he had set up on Arabic subscription phone app.
A person who identified himself on Twitter as Tubaigy’s uncle, however, tweeted on Wednesday that his nephew would not conduct such a gruesome act. “He grew up in a house of faith and knowledge,” wrote @tobagi1. “It’s not my country that would do such criminal acts. Search for who would benefit from this dirty plot.”
Tubaigy’s prominent role in Saudi’s scientific community and state security apparatus dates back over two decades, to the rule of King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Tubaigy’s alleged visit to Istanbul on Oct. 2 has emerged as a point of interest amid public speculation about whether, if Khashoggi was murdered, as Turkish officials say, his killing was premeditated or was the result of an interrogation or kidnapping gone wrong.
Tubaigy’s name, along with those of 14 others, and a picture purporting to show him arriving in Istanbul the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance was first published late Tuesday by Sabah, a newspaper closely aligned with the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Three Turkish officials confirmed to The Post on Wednesday that the list was an accurate dossier of Saudi suspects, and several publications have since pointed to Tubaigy’s LinkedIn page and other social media posts to identify him as a forensics official, though with few details of his biography.
The Sabah report suggested that Tubaigy departed for Istanbul from Riyadh on a Gulfstream jet that, according to flight records reviewed by The Post, left just nine minutes after Khashoggi entered the country’s diplomatic compound in Turkey.
The forensic chief then stayed later than several others in the group, leaving Istanbul near 11 p.m. on a different Saudi jet, according to the Sabah report.
“It sticks out,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and Brookings fellow who has written a book about Saudi-U.S. relations. “I can’t think of an alternative of why you would need a forensics expert unless you were covering up evidence of a crime.”
The Saudi Arabian government has maintained that Khashoggi left the consulate alone. It has not responded to numerous questions from The Post this week, including a request Thursday to specifically explain the travel of Tubaigy, who holds the title of chief of forensic evidence in the security division of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of the Interior.
The Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news channel claimed on its website and in social media posts Thursday that Tubaigy and the 14 others were “tourists falsely accused of killing” Khashoggi.
In a video posted on Twitter, Al Arabiya flashed a picture of a man the Sabah report identified as Tubaigy standing in Istanbul’s airport. The Saudi station questioned the photo’s authenticity, saying the picture was undated, and that it couldn’t be that of a Saudi entering the country from a private jet because the man was standing in line, apparently at passport control.
“One of the misused pictures is of a man and his wife at the airport, with regular travelers behind them,” a narrator says over the picture.
One of the first people to identify Tubaigy as a Saudi forensics expert this week was Qutaiba Idlbi, a Syrian entrepreneur who says he has consulted with the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command on counterterrorism projects in recent years.
Idlbi, who was born in Saudi Arabia and who now lives in Washington, D.C., said he was an acquaintance of Khashoggi’s and started posting to Twitter pictures he found of the 15 — some in Saudi military garb and brandishing weapons — in hopes of helping to pressure Saudi Arabia to release Khashoggi.
Idlbi said that what he began to find, however, quickly made him lose hope that Khashoggi might still be alive. “It really hit me with Tubaigy, he’s literally the guy who is sent in to deal with the bodies,” said Idlbi.
Tubaigy, 47, wears two hats in Saudi Arabia. He is a top professor in the criminal evidence department at Naif Arab University for Security Sciences. He presides over master thesis classes on identifying bones through DNA analysis and how the use of formaldehyde limits genetic tissue analysis.
But Tubaigy is also close to Saudi security operations, teaching and providing expert opinions on evidence collection and investigation. In 2014, he convinced Saudi officials to let him help design and purchase a $2.5 million, tractor-trailer size autopsy lab to accompany Muslims on the hajj to Mecca.
In an interview with the London-based Arabic news organization, al-Sharq al-Awsat, he touted the truck as a first-of-its-kind in the world. The mobile autopsy operation, he said, could provide preliminary analysis on some diseases in seven minutes, and “provide the dissection service to the security authorities in a record time.”
Cunningham reported from Istanbul, Davis reported from Washington. Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul and Julie Tate in Washington contributed.