ISTANBUL – The rulers of Saudi Arabia are considering blaming a top intelligence official close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, three people with knowledge of the Saudi plans said Thursday.
The plan to assign blame to Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, a high-ranking adviser to the crown prince, would be an extraordinary recognition of the magnitude of international backlash to hit the kingdom since the death of Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi dissident. A resident of Virginia and contributor to the Washington Post, Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul 16 days ago.
Blaming Assiri could also provide a plausible explanation for the killing and help deflect blame from the crown prince, who U.S. intelligence agencies are increasingly convinced was behind Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Turkish officials have said they possess evidence showing that 15 Saudi agents dismembered and assassinated Khashoggi in the consulate. After two weeks of blanket denials and mounting pressure from Turkey and Washington, Saudi Arabia said it would conduct its own investigation.
But even with the investigation still ostensibly underway, the Saudis are already pointing to Assiri as the culprit, according to the three people familiar with the Saudi plans.
The Saudi rulers are expected to say that Assiri received verbal authorization from Prince Mohammed to capture Khashoggi for an interrogation in Saudi Arabia, but he either misunderstood his instructions or overstepped that authorization and took the dissident’s life, according to the two of the people familiar with the Saudi plans. They spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Even in this scenario, however, Prince Mohammed would still have ordered an operation to abduct a resident of the U.S., apparently only on the basis of his public criticism of Saudi leaders.
Four of the suspects Turkey has blamed for Khashoggi’s disappearance belong to the security team that travels with Prince Mohammed. One of them, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, has been photographed or spotted near him during recent visits to at least five cities.
On Thursday, a pro-government Turkish newspaper published leaked, time-stamped photographs of Mutreb entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul just hours before Khashoggi entered.
Other photos published in the newspaper Sabah showed Mutreb outside the Saudi consul general’s home, leaving a Turkish hotel with a large suitcase, and leaving the country from Istanbul’s international airport — all later the same day.