The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is starting to float a trial-balloon explanation for its apparent slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, The Daily Beast has learned, in hopes of escaping the consequences of an episode that has shaken whatever geopolitical confidence existed in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
According to two sources familiar with the version of events circulating throughout diplomatic circles in Washington, the Saudis will place blame for Khashoggi’s murder on a Saudi two-star general new to intelligence work. That line is in keeping with President Donald Trump’s Twitter-borne speculation that “rogue killers” may be responsible for whatever happened to Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2. Three other former U.S. officials did not have direct knowledge of the inchoate Saudi line but told The Daily Beast they expect Riyadh to blame a fall guy.
The Saudis are considering admitting that the general received approval from the Crown Prince to interrogate Khashoggi on the suspicion that he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political faction whose rise during the Arab Spring prompted the Saudis and their allies in the United Arab Emirates to sponsor a wave of reaction. They also are considering intimating that Khashoggi received money from Gulf rival Qatar.
But, the Saudi story continues, this overeager general exceeded bin Salman’s intentions. He improvised a rendition to send Khashoggi from Turkey back to Saudi Arabia—and botched it, killing him. Then he lied to his Saudi superiors about what happened.
A representative for the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It is a far cry from the initial Saudi line that its culpability for Khashoggi’s death amounted to “lies and baseless allegations.” But retired U.S. ambassadors, intelligence officials and regional experts are already signalling that the line is a nonstarter.
“If this is a rogue operation, the rogue is MBS,” said Barbara Bodine, a retired U.S. ambassador to Yemen, using the ubiquitous acronym for the Saudi Crown Prince.
“It’s not going to wash,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official at the Brookings Institution deeply attuned to Gulf politics. “It’s ludicrous in the extreme. Saudi Arabia doesn’t work that way. They don’t freelance operations.”
Kristine Coratti Kelly, a representative for the Washington Post, where Khashoggi was a columnist, said, “We’re not going to dignify the efforts by various officials to distract from the question of accountability by smearing a good man.”
In an Oct. 12 encomium, Post columnist David Ignatius wrote that Khashoggi in his youth supported the Muslim Brotherhood, “a secret underground fraternity that wanted to purge the Arab world of the corruption and autocratic rule it saw as a legacy of Western colonialism.” By the mid-1990s, Ignatius writes, Khashoggi “was moving toward his mature belief that democracy and freedom were the Arabs’ best hope of purging the corruption and misrule he despised.” At the time of his death, The Daily Beast has reported, Khashoggi was preparing to launch a pro-democracy nongovernmental organization.
Severely complicating any blame-shifting narrative the Saudis may put forward is the presence of royal guards in a 15-man team that arrived at the Istanbul consulate hours after Khashoggi entered. “Who dispatched the royal guards, which report to MBS?” Riedel said, who added that the difference between an intentional slaying and a torture session brutal enough to kill Khashoggi was merely “the difference between first and second-degree murder.”
But the Saudis have aggressively courted the Trump administration from the top down. Trump’s favorite publisher, American Media Inc., issued an obsequious glossy magazine pushing MBS’s allegedly transformative, enlightened vision onto American supermarket shelves. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, among other journalists, portrayed MBS as an Arab reformer Americans had longed for.
That rapturous reception, along with MBS’s consequence-free decimation of Yemen—one of the most extreme humanitarian crises on earth—and the crown-prince-to-prince relationship with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner that MBS cultivated may help explain why Riyadh believed it could get away with murdering Khashoggi.
Trump dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to visit Riyadh on Tuesday, where the top U.S. diplomat met with the octogenarian King Salman, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair and MBS himself. Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry made sure to tweet out a photo of MBS and Pompeo, all smiles. State Department readouts of Pompeo’s meetings emphasized U.S.-Saudi agreement on a “thorough, transparent and timely investigation that provides answers” on Khashoggi—an indication that if the Saudis have offered one privately to Pompeo, it’s not their final story. Pompeo will arrive in Ankara on Wednesday to discuss the case with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Bin Salman “pledged that the work of the Saudi public prosecutor will produce a full and complete conclusion with full transparency for the world to see,” Pompeo said in a statement late Tuesday, adding: “My assessment from these meetings is that there is serious commitment to determine all the facts and ensure accountability, including accountability for Saudi Arabia’s senior leaders or senior officials.”
Earlier Tuesday, Trump tweeted that MBS, with Pompeo present, “totally denied any knowledge” of the grim events in the Saudi consulate on Oct. 2. And that followed on Trump’s stated reluctance to cut off substantial and long-standing Saudi arms deals with the U.S., though The Daily Beast reported Tuesday that the administration is considering some measure of punishment over the Khashoggi disappearance, potentially including sanctions.
Riedel said much depended on the willingness of the Trump administration to accept whatever explanation the Saudis end up offering for the killing of a dissident.
“The key to this cover-up is it puts a delta between MBS and the crime,” he said. “The argument MBS didn’t know doesn’t pass the laugh test.”