Saudi Arabia is facing unprecedented pressure from the Trump administration to provide a credible account of how Jamal Khashoggi vanished at its consulate in Istanbul, with reports in the US implicating the powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in plans to abduct the dissident journalist.
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner have pointedly asked the kingdom’s de facto ruler to explain what happened inside its diplomatic mission nine days ago, as evidence continues to mount that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered.
A relentless drip feed of information from Turkish officials and intercepted communications appear to have captured the planning phaseof an alleged crime that has shattered diplomatic norms and rocked both Ankara and Riyadh. A report in the Washington Post, citing US intelligence sources, said Bin Salman had earlier authorised an operation to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and detain him.
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has challenged Saudi Arabia to provide CCTV images to back up its claims Khashoggi had left the consulate safely, indicating he did not find the current Saudi explanations sufficient.
The fallout from Khashoggi’s disappearance shows little sign of abating. Instead there are signs that the events of 2 October could have an impact on global perceptions of the new Saudi leadership and redefine a relationship between Washington and Riyadh, whose historical ties had been strengthened since Trump was sworn in as president.
Turkey remains adamant that Khashoggi was killed soon after he entered the consulate last Tuesday by a hit squad of 15 assassins who had flown in from Riyadh earlier that day. Accounts of his apparent death have been widely circulated by officials who have released the names of the Saudi citizens who arrived on two private jets; all were connected to state security agencies.
Turkish officials told the website Middle East Eye that Khashoggi was ushered to the consul general’s office when he entered the consulate, then quickly seized by two men. “We know when Jamal was killed, in which room he was killed and where the body was taken to be dismembered,” the official said. “If the forensic team are allowed in, they know exactly where to go.”
Riyadh had earlier pledged to allow Turkish officials into the consulate, which is considered sovereign Saudi territory under international convention. However, access was rescinded after the names of the alleged assassins were revealed. Among the group, according to a passenger manifest supplied by Turkish authorities, was the head of forensics for the Saudi General Intelligence Presidency.
While investigators believe that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, suspicion about where his body may have been disposed of continues to focus on the Saudi consul general’s home, about 500 metres away. The building has an underground garage, and cars that were seen leaving the nearby building are believed to have spent several hours in the garage, before leaving for Istanbul’s Ataturk airport.
Officials also told Reuters that they are examining data from an Apple watch that Khashoggi was wearing when he entered the building. Central to the investigation is whether data from the watch could have been transmitted to a cloud, or his personal phone, which was with his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting outside.
A preliminary assessment is that Khashoggi’s watch has cast little light on what happened. Officials insist they have other sources of information that corroborate their beliefs. Whether they are eventually disclosed has increasingly become a political issue, with Turkey continuing to weigh the potential impact of disclosing all its evidence against diplomatic and trade concerns.
Saudi officials had refused to engage with their Turkish counterparts until Tuesday, a source told the Guardian. Riyadh had used Washington as a conduit.
“They have been behaving very strangely,” said an official. “It’s like they don’t care about the consequences. Is this incompetence, or arrogance? We really don’t know.”
Meanwhile, 22 US senators signed a letter to Donald Trump on Wednesday triggering an investigation to determine whether human rights sanctions should be imposed over Khashoggi’s disappearance.
In the letter, the senators said they had triggered a provision of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act requiring the president to determine whether a foreign person was responsible for a gross human rights violation.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Republican senator Bob Corker, who as chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee has reviewed US intelligence on the case, said it was likely that Khashoggi was killed the day he walked into the consulate. Whatever took place, Corker said, “there was Saudi involvement” and “everything points to them”.
Senator Rand Paul, a longtime Republican critic of the Saudi government, said he would try to force a vote on blocking US arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
In an interview on Wednesday Trump said he wanted to find out what happened to Khashoggi but appeared reluctant to consider blocking arms sales, citing economic reasons.
“I think that would be hurting us,” Trump said. “We have jobs, we have a lot of things happening in this country. We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it’s ever done before.
“Part of that is what we’re doing with our defence systems and everybody’s wanting them.”
On his first international trip as president, Trump visited Saudi Arabia and announced $110bn in proposed arms sales.
Trump said that the US was “demanding” answers from the Saudi government and working closely with Turkey to find out what happened to the missing dissident. “I think we’ll get to the bottom of it,” he told reporters.
The US president also said that he had invited Khashoggi’s fiancee to the White House.
The US currently has no ambassadors in either Turkey or Saudi Arabia.