U.S. President Donald Trump said that “rogue killers” could be to blame for the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, while multiple U.S. media outlets reported Monday that the Saudi monarchy was ready to admit that Mr. Khashoggi had been killed in an interrogation gone wrong inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
If Riyadh goes ahead with such an admission, it would serve to protect the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It would, however, contradict accounts by Turkish officials, who have alleged that Mr. Khashoggi was killed by a 15-man team that arrived in Istanbul on diplomatic passports – a group that included a forensics expert and came equipped with a bone saw used to dismember Mr. Khashoggi’s body.
Turkish authorities have said they believe Mr. Khashoggi – a Saudi citizen who has not been seen since he was captured on CCTV entering Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 – was killed and dismembered inside the consulate. Turkish media have reported that there are audio and video recordings that substantiate the allegation, although no such evidence has been made public.
Thus far, the Saudi regime has insisted that Mr. Khashoggi left its consulate alive and well.
Mr. Trump floated his “rogue killers” theory after a 20-minute phone conversation on Monday with Saudi King Salman. The President said the monarch denied any knowledge of what happened to Mr. Khashoggi, who was a prominent critic of the king’s son and appointed heir, Crown Prince Mohammed.
It’s difficult to see how “rogue killers” could have gotten to Mr. Khashoggi while he was inside the heavily guarded consulate. But the Trump administration and the House of Saud were clearly searching for a diplomatic explanation that would avert a crisis between Washington and its closest ally in the Arab world.
On Sunday, Mr. Trump had warned of “severe punishment” should Saudi Arabia be found to have murdered Mr. Khashoggi, who had been living in self-imposed exile in Virginia until travelling to Istanbul for documents that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancée. Saudi Arabia retorted via its official news service that it would respond to any punitive action, such as sanctions, “with greater action.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Saudi King Salman to discuss Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance, and then went on to meet Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir before dining with the crown prince.
“We are going to leave nothing uncovered. With that being said, the king firmly denies any knowledge of it. He didn’t really know, maybe. I don’t want to get into his mind, but it sounded to me like maybe it could have been rogue killers, who knows? We’re going to try to get to the bottom of it very soon, but his was a flat denial,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “It sounds like [King Salman] and also the crown prince had no knowledge.”
With the health of the 82-year-old king a closely guarded secret, 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed is widely seen as the country’s most powerful person. While he was initially hailed as a reformer after introducing symbolic changes such as allowing Saudi women to drive, he has also unnerved many with his confrontational style on the international stage.
In the past few years, he has led the boycott and isolation of Qatar, started a diplomatic tiff with Canada and prompted a bizarre episode that saw Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri confined to a Riyadh hotel room for more than two weeks, during which time Mr. Hariri was forced to read out a resignation speech that had been prepared for him.
Monday’s high-level diplomacy between Washington and Riyadh was accompanied by a small but significant breakthrough on the ground in Istanbul, where Turkish investigators were finally allowed to enter the Saudi consulate after being prevented from doing so for the first 12 days after Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance. That came after a Sunday phone call between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Salman, during which the two leaders agreed to establish a joint investigative committee.
There was a flurry of activity at the consulate on Monday. First, a trio of cleaners pushing a trolley of supplies arrived at the building in the afternoon. They were followed a few hours later by about a dozen men in business suits, who entered via the consulate’s steel door just before dusk. White-uniformed Turkish forensic investigators were only allowed in after nightfall.
The Turkish team of around 10 people left the consulate early on Tuesday after more than nine hours in the building, a Reuters witness said. Four forensic vehicles arrived outside the consulate and took away soil samples as well as a metal door from the garden, the witness said. A police dog was part of the search team.
Mr. Trump’s ability to find a diplomatic off-ramp may be restricted at home by Congress, where prominent Republicans and Democrats are in agreement over the need to ensure Saudi Arabia faces significant consequences if Mr. Khashoggi was indeed murdered inside the consulate.
“President Trump’s suggestion that Khashoggi’s elaborately planned murder in the Saudis' own consulate was orchestrated by ‘rogue killers’ defies reality. Orders must have come from the top,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, in a statement issued by his office. “The U.S. must not be complicit in an effort to cover up this heinous crime.”
On Monday, after phoning her counterpart in Saudi Arabia to raise concerns about the case, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said: “Canada remains very troubled by the disappearance of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Canada calls for a thorough, credible and transparent investigation into the serious allegations about Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.
“We look forward to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia providing complete and detailed information. Those bearing responsibility for the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi must be held to account.”
But she said she had no plans to suspend a multibillion-dollar arms sale to the kingdom.
Several major companies, including the Virgin Group Ltd. and Uber Technologies Inc., as well as media firms such as CNN, The New York Times, Bloomberg, CNBC and the Financial Times have said they will boycott an investment conference scheduled for this month in Riyadh that was closely associated with Crown Prince Mohammed’s reform efforts. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, who had been listed as a speaker, will no longer attend because of what one member of his staff called a “scheduling conflict.”
U.S. senators on both sides of the aisle have said that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who is scheduled to attend, should join the boycott.
There have also been calls for the Trump administration to freeze the planned sale of US$110-billion worth of tanks and other advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia. Mr. Trump has dismissed the notion as “very foolish,” as it would allow Russian or Chinese companies to pick up the contracts at the expense of the U.S. defence industry.
With a file from Steven Chase and a report from Reuters