After days of whispers that Saudi Arabia would pin the killing of Jamal Khashoggi on its top intelligence chief, confirmation came Friday night in an announcement on state television, which reported that he had been removed from his government postings and 18 others had been arrested.
It’s still unclear what level of involvement General Maj. Ahmed al-Assiri—who The Daily Beast first reported would be the likely fall guy for the botched operation—had over events in Istanbul following Khashoggi’s arrival on September 28. And the details of how the sting unfolded are unknown. But the Saudi Foreign Ministry said it had dispatched an investigative team to the Turkish city on Oct. 6 and concluded that intelligence officers had arrived there to try and lure the Washington Post columnist back to the country.
“The discussions that took place with the citizen/Jamal Khashoggi... did not go as required and escalated negatively which led to a fight between them and the citizen,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement in English, adding that the fight “aggregated (sic) the situation and led to his death.”
The stunning, though uncorroborated, admission by the Saudi government—which also announced it had relieved the crown prince’s adviser Saud al-Qahtani from his post—came after weeks of speculation about Khashoggi’s whereabouts and public denials by officials that the government had been involved. State agencies in Riyadh even took to Twitter to denounce those who speculated about official involvement in his death. Those tweets were later deleted.
Saudi’s announcement will likely strain its relationship with the Trump administration, which had developed a close relationship with the kingdom and with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in particular. The prince, known as MBS, was in regular contact with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son in law, and worked closely with him on the development of his Middle East peace plan. According to two officials inside the State Department, the Trump administration saw MBS as a progressive who would push the country forward into a new era with a focus on human rights.
“The administration really saw this guy as their man in Saudi,” one of the State Department officials said. “He had implemented these progressive reforms but at the same time had this dark underside and imprisoned those businessmen. And who knows what went on there.”
Now, it’s unclear if that relationship will hold. Intelligence officials who worked on negotiations with the Saudis over the last two years told The Daily Beast that al-Assiri often attended meetings here both during the transition and after Donald Trump’s inauguration with senior officials inside the White House on behalf of MBS.
Earlier this week several major K Street lobbying firms dropped their contracts with the Saudi government as Washington think tanks issued statements condemning its role in Khashoggi’s disappearance. On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, following a briefing by Secretary of State Pompeo on Khashoggi, said that he would withdraw from an upcoming high-profile investor conference in Riyadh. However, Trump said last week he would not pull out of a lucrative arms deal with Saudi Arabia, claiming too many American jobs were on the line.
After the Saudi announcement, Trump told reporters Friday night that he would talk to MBS before taking steps to punish the country and deemed it “very important” that the kingdom had made arrests.
In a “60 Minutes” interview last week, Trump had said that there would be “severe consequences” for Saudi if the administration found out the government was involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance. Those consequences could include financial sanctions on the country’s top leaders, two senior officials at Treasury said.
The next day, however, Trump said that “maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?”
As to what happens now that the Saudis have acknowledged the killing after calling reports of it “lies” days earlier, “we don’t really know if Trump has the backbone to follow through with sanctions or with other consequences,” one official said, requesting anonymity so he could speak publicly about the matter. “It might be OK if the Saudis fire this guy and investigate the others. That might be all it takes for us to go back to normal.”
Khashoggi went missing in Istanbul September 28 after he entered the Saudi consulate to pick up papers for himself and his fiancée, who first sounded the alarm on his disappearance. Turkish officials launched an investigation, releasing evidence to state media that claimed to show the Khashoggi had been killed at the hands of Saudi intelligence officers. It was unclear what portions of the evidence, if any, had been doctored.
One report from Turkish media named more than a dozen intelligence officers involved in the killing of Khashoggi, but did not name al-Assiri as the mastermind behind the operation.
Before becoming head of the intelligence service in Riyadh, General al-Assiri served as the country’s secretary of defense. The general had little experience before he rose to power and served in high-ranking positions inside the Saudi government, according to one former senior U.S. intelligence officer that worked in the Gulf.
“No one really knew what to do with him. He was young and full of ego,” the former official said. “He didn’t seem to know how things worked.”
Since then, General al-Assiri has emerged as a force inside the Saudi government, advising the king and the crown prince on thwarting Iran. He also served as a spokesman for the coalition in Yemen.
Although he is publicly being removed from the government in Riyadh, senior U.S. intelligence officials say he will likely continue to advise MBS.
“There’s no way this guy is removed from power and is exiled,” one senior official told The Daily Beast. “His family is interconnected in the country. And he is close friends with MBS. In order for the general to be exiled, MBS would have to be ousted.”