SAUDI Arabia offered an explanation on Saturday for what had happened to journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, 17 days after he went missing at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
But even though the kingdom finally confirmed that Khashoggi had died inside the consulate, as Turkish officials had alleged, the Saudi account of how that happened conflicts with information from other sources, and key details appear to be missing.
Below are nine questions that the Saudi kingdom still needs to answer.
1) Was Khashoggi really considering a return to Saudi Arabia?
The Saudi statement said that the “suspects” in Khashoggi’s killing had travelled to Turkey to meet with the journalist as he had suggested he was interested in returning home. However, Khashoggi had travelled to the consulate with his fiancée, Turkish national Hatice Cengiz, who has said that her partner was seeking a document from the Saudi government that would allow them to wed.
Khashoggi himself had told friends that he was suspicious of attempts to lure him back to the kingdom. “He said: ‘Are you kidding? I don’t trust them one bit’,” after one such attempt Khaled Saffuri, an Arab-American political activist, recounting to The Washington Post.
2) If this was just a discussion, why did at least 15 men travel to Istanbul for the meeting?
The Saudi government account suggests that at the start, the discussion with Khashoggi inside the event began as a discussion, but soon turned negative and turned into a “a fight and a quarrel between some of [the suspects] and the citizen”.
However, Saudi Arabia says it has detained a total of 18 people for their involvement in Khashoggi’s death, and the Turkish government has linked 15 people to Khashoggi, Saudi citizens who had arrived at the consulate shortly before the journalist disappeared and who left hours later.
It is not clear why such a big group of people would be needed for a discussion about a willing return to Saudi Arabia.
3) Why did this Saudi group include a forensic expert and members of security forces?
Again, if this was a simple discussion, it would seem unnecessary to send members of the Saudi security services. However, The Post has found that at least 12 of the alleged hit team identified by Turkish authorities had some kind of link to the kingdom’s security services.
One of the suspects, Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy, was a forensic expert known for pioneering rapid and mobile autopsies. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and Brookings fellow who has written a book about Saudi-US relations, said this stuck out to him.
“I can’t think of an alternative of why you would need a forensics expert unless you were covering up evidence of a crime,” Reidel told The Post.
4) What actually happened inside the consulate?
The Saudi account describes “a fight or a quarrel” in the consulate — a wording that implies a physical dispute between two sides. However, Khashoggi had entered the facility on his own and was apparently meeting a team of 15 men, suggesting at least that the two sides were not equal.
Turkish officials are believed to have played to CIA counterparts an audio recording that was made inside the consulate that could shed some light on what happened. The recording could provide key clues into what happened to Khashoggi — including whether his death was intentional or whether he was tortured.
5) What happened to Khashoggi’s body?
Even though Saudi Arabia now admits that the journalist died inside the consulate, their statement on Saturday did not reveal what happened to the body. Early speculation suggested that Khashoggi’s body parts may have been taken out of the country, although Turkish authorities recently searched rural areas near Istanbul. A Saudi source told Reuters on Friday that the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s body were unclear after it was handed over to a “local cooperator”.
6) Why did Saudi Arabia say he had left the consulate when he had not?
When Khashoggi didn’t return from the consulate, his partner, Cengiz, who was waiting outside, raised the alarm. However, Saudi officials repeatedly told reporters that the journalist had left the consulate by a back entrance shortly after he arrived and that they too were concerned about his fate.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman repeated this line in an interview with Bloomberg News on Oct 5. “My understanding is he entered and he got out after a few minutes or one hour,” the Saudi royal said. “I’m not sure. We are investigating this through the foreign ministry to see exactly what happened at that time.”
7) How could Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman not have known?
The Saudi account makes no suggestion that the crown prince knew about what had happened to Khashoggi. Indeed, he has been tapped by his father, King Salman, to lead a commission that is designed to review and “modernise” the kingdom’s intelligence operations after the death of the journalist.
The 33-year-old Mohammed bin Salman is widely considered the real power in Saudi Arabia, however, and he has led the drive to modernise the country. Some experts also say that he is behind a clampdown on free speech. “This never would have happened without MBS’s approval. Never, never, never,” a former senior US diplomat told The Post shortly after Khashoggi disappeared.
Saud al-Qahtani, an adviser to the crown prince, was among those fired on Saturday. He had previously been behind attempts to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia, according to US officials. After the kingdom’s announcement on Saturday, a message he had written on Twitter last year was shared widely on social media.
“Do you think I can act by myself without taking orders/guidance?” Qahtani’s message had read. “I am an employee and a trustworthy executive to the orders of the king and the crown prince.”
8) Are the men detained by Saudi Arabia actually the same men that were identified by Turkish authorities?
The Saudi government said that 18 people had been arrested. It was unclear, however, whether these people included the same 15 suspects who had been identified by Turkish authorities. A report on the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya news channel had previously said that the 15 were “tourists” who had been falsely accused.
9) Why did it take 17 days to come up with this account?
More than two weeks have passed since Khashoggi disappeared. Whatever the answers to the rest of the questions on this list, it is remarkable that it took so long for the kingdom to reveal that Khashoggi had died — and that when Riyadh finally admitted culpability in his death, it did so with a story that will convince few of its critics.
Thomas Juneau, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the University of Ottawa, wrote on Twitter that the situation had exposed the “weakness of Saudi administrative capacity” and that there was “a general impression things were botched”.
By arrangement with The Washington Post
Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2018