How the grisly truth about Khashoggi 'killing' leaked
Details of the journalist's fate emerge as both Turkey and Saudi Arabia struggle to control the narrative
The lurid details of Jamal Khashoggi’s alleged killing, released on Wednesday, were perhaps the most shocking of a slow drip of revelations.
The saga surrounding the fate of Saudi Arabia’s best-known journalist has played out in claims and counterclaims published in the world’s media over the past two weeks, as both Turkey and Saudi Arabia struggle to control the narrative.
Since news of Khashoggi’s disappearance broke, journalists have had to rely on carefully controlled releases of information from Turkey – which in recent years muzzled its free press – and Saudi Arabia, which never enjoyed a free press to begin with.
The one fact that both countries can agree on is that Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul at 1.14pm on October 2, leaving Hatice Cengiz, his Turkish fiancée, waiting outside.
Turkey gave Saudi Arabia a day to come up with an explanation, but Riyadh was not forthcoming.
The kingdom claimed the journalist met officials at the consulate and left shortly afterwards, saying they noted nothing out of the ordinary.
Cengiz, who stood by the exit for more than four hours before raising the alarm, said that was impossible.
Riyadh’s response appeared not to be satisfactory for Turkey either, which was under mounting pressure to investigate an alleged state-ordered assassination on its soil.
Then, just before midnight on Friday, three days after Khashoggi was last seen, Reuters – quoting two unnamed Turkish police sources – claimed the journalist had been killed inside the consulate. It was an explosive allegation, particularly for his family, which had not yet been given any indication he might be dead.
In releasing the information, Turkey indicated it would not be dismissed so easily.
The next day, Saudi’s consul general invited Reuters for a tour of the consulate – the alleged murder scene – in an attempt to appear transparent.
“We are worried about him,” Mohammad al-Otaibi told the camera as he opened various cabinets, telling the journalists: “But look, he is not here.”
It was only after this that the leaks to the press started coming thick and fast.
CCTV footage of Khashoggi, 60, entering the consulate was passed to The Washington Post, which had been publishing comment pieces by the dissident journalist.
Anonymous Turkish sources introduced the theory that the murder was premeditated and the kingdom had assembled a “hit squad” of 15 assassins, who travelled from Riyadh to Istanbul on the day of Khashoggi’s consular visit.
The manifests of their flights between Riyadh and Istanbul were released, along with photographs of them arriving at Ataturk airport.
Online sleuths managed to identify the men: at least nine worked for the Saudi security services, military or other government ministries.
Among those was Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy, president of the Saudi Fellowship of Forensic Pathology, who specialises in gathering DNA from crime scenes and dissecting bodies. He arrived in Istanbul early on October 2 and flew out at 11pm the same day.
He was joined by Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a diplomat assigned to the Saudi Embassy in London in 2007. Records show he travelled extensively with the crown prince on foreign trips.
Images were also released of a convoy of black vans with diplomatic licence plates arriving shortly before 1pm and leaving at 3.08pm.
Turkish sources implied members of the squad carried out parts of the journalist’s body to the waiting cars and drove them to the consul general’s house a short distance away. All this pointed to a premeditated murder, not simply the case of an interrogation gone wrong.
It was around this time that Turkey made it known that they had audio of the killing, which they claimed was from an Apple smartwatch Khashoggi was wearing at the time.
However, experts later said it was more likely to have come from a bugging device that Ankara did not want to admit to having placed in the consulate. Perhaps the leak was intended to scare the kingdom into making a full statement.
But Riyadh, which is not accustomed to being held to account, did not address the claims other than to call them “baseless”.
Instead, it tried to undermine reports by focusing on the source of information and the idea that Turkey does not have a neutral viewpoint, in part owing to to its ties with Saudi foe Qatar.
A pastor in the mix
US President Donald Trump, who has closely aligned himself with the bin Salman family, proposed the idea that the men were “rogue killers”, a semi-plausible alternative that could allow the kingdom’s rulers to distance themselves from the unfolding saga.
While the theory may seem improbable to those who have been following the story, it could still prove to be the only one to get the US and Saudi Arabia out of a tight spot.
Neither country is looking for a high-level diplomatic confrontation, and both have strong incentives to agree to a version of events that absolves the crown prince, Mohammed.
Adding a new element to the mix was the US pastor detained by Turkey on charges of espionage. The issue had threatened ties between the two countries, with Ankara refusing to release Andrew Brunson despite the threat of US sanctions.
When he was somewhat unexpectedly released last Friday it prompted speculation it had been done in return for US silence over the Khashoggi case.
Recent developments, however, have made it increasingly difficult for the crown prince to deny involvement.
Turkish police investigators, which were for two weeks denied permission from Saudi Arabia to search the consulate, were allowed in on Tuesday.
While their findings are not yet known, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed investigators were looking at “toxic materials” and fresh paint on the walls.
Yesterday, the recording of the killing was leaked to pro-government daily newspaper Yeni Safak, which decided not to publish the audio but instead detailed its graphic contents.
Khashoggi is reportedly heard screaming as he has his fingers cut off one by one. Apparently, there had been no attempt made to first interrogate him.
At some point, Saudi’s consul general enters the room and tells the men to leave or he will “get in trouble”.
The latest reports are the most damning yet. It is unclear what either side’s next move will be.
Both have had to think about how the episode plays domestically and internationally. Turkey cannot afford to sever diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia over the killing, but turning a blind eye to foreign countries carrying out assassinations on its soil would set a dangerous precedent.
While at first the Turkish leaks appeared chaotic and at times contradictory, they have become much more consistent and on-message.
“One can only imagine that the Turks’ expectations of what Riyadh is going to do have changed,” H A Hellyer, a senior nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council in London, told The New York Times.
Last night, Turkish investigators were searching consul-general Otaibi’s residence. Local media reports have suggested they were likely to find Khashoggi’s severed head and dismembered body in its garden.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2018)