Middle East

CIA concludes Saudi crown prince bin Salman ordered Khashoggi murder

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October (AFP)

The CIA has concluded in an assessment that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The CIA said it had collected multiple sources of intelligence indicating that the crown prince, known as MBS, issued the hit, the Washington Post reported on Friday. The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other outlets later reported similar statements citing people familiar with the CIA's assessment.

The Post said US officials have expressed high confidence in the CIA assessment, which is the most definitive to date linking Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler to the killing.

A source told Reuters that the CIA had briefed other parts of the US government on its assessment, which contradicts Saudi government assertions that Prince Mohammed was not involved.

The CIA, State Department and White House have not yet commented on the reports of the CIA's assessment.

The agency's conclusion complicates President Donald Trump's efforts to preserve US ties with one of the closest American allies in the region.

Among the CIA's sources of intelligence was a phone call between Khashoggi and Khalid bin Salman – the Saudi ambassador to the United States and MBS's younger brother. Khalid bin Salman told Khashoggi that he should go to the Istanbul consulate to retrieve the paperwork he needed for remarriage, the Post report said.

Another major source of intelligence is the audio recording of Khashoggi's death, which Turkish officials have drip-fed to the media in the weeks following the journalist's murder.

CIA concludes Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered murder of journalist Khashoggi (Reuters)

The US intelligence sources told the Post that while they don't know if Khalid had knowledge of the murder operation, they were confident that he made the call at MBS's request.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the CIA's assessment is not hinged on a "smoking gun", but rather on a deep "understanding of how Saudi Arabia works", said officials familiar with intelligence agency's conclusion.

“This would not and could not have happened” without MBS approval, one such official told the Wall Street Journal.

Saudi Arabia on Friday denied the contents of the Khashoggi-Khalid bin Salman phone call. The ambassador did not discuss “anything related to going to Turkey,” said Fatimah Baeshen, a spokeswoman for the Saudi embassy in Washington.

Khalid bin Salman said on Twitter that he had not spoken with Khashoggi in more than a year.

As we told the Washington Post the last contact I had with Mr. Khashoggi was via text on Oct 26 2017. I never talked to him by phone and certainly never suggested he go to Turkey for any reason. I ask the US government to release any information regarding this claim.

— Khalid bin Salman خالد بن سلمان (@kbsalsaud) November 16, 2018

Earlier this week, US National Security Adviser John Bolton said there was no evidence to tie the Saudi crown prince to the crime, conflicting with the CIA's assessment.

Saudi Arabia has so far presented various contradictory versions of the events that led to Khashoggis death.

Officials from the kingdom first rejected a later-validated claim that Khashoggi never left the consulate alive. It wasnt until 17 days after the crime that Riyadh admitted the journalist was killed inside the building.

Saudi officials then said Khashoggi was slain during an unauthorised interrogation that went wrong, and only later acknowledged that the murder was premeditated.

CIA at odds with Trump

Saudi-US relations have been rocked by the crisis over Khashoggi's killing, as politicians from both major US parties have denounced Saudi Arabia and called for Washington to rethink its relationship with Riyadh.

"This Washington Post article reinforces the assessment that the White House and the CIA do not see eye to eye on dealing with the fallout of the Khashoggi murder," Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, DC, told MEE in an email.

This Washington Post article reinforces the assessment that the White House and the CIA do not see eye to eye

– Joe Macaron, fellow at Arab Center

He added that while the US intelligence community has concerns about Mohammed bin Salman's leadership, Trump has built his Middle East policy around the Saudi crown prince.

"The US-Saudi relationship will survive in the long-term, but the rules of engagement between both sides will require adjustment," Macaron said.

Still, a major challenge for Washington is that there is no emerging alternative to bin Salman, according to Macaron.

"They have to decide if they can live with that or not, and at what price," he said.

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