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MBS messages intercepted by CIA bolster view prince targeted Khashoggi: Report

Saudi crown prince sent at least 11 messages to aide who oversaw team that killed journalist, in the hours before and after his death, WSJ reports
The WSJ said it had seen excerpts of the CIA's assessment, which cite electronic intercepts and other clandestine information (AFP)

The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) sent at least 11 messages to Saoud al-Qahtani, his closest adviser who oversaw the team that killed Jamal Khashoggi, in the hours before and after the journalist's death in October, according to a highly classified CIA assessment seen by a US newspaper.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) also reported on Friday that in August 2017, MBS had told associates that if his efforts to persuade Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia were unsuccessful, "we could possibly lure him outside Saudi Arabia and make arrangements," according to the assessment.

The document said the communication "seems to foreshadow the Saudi operation launched against Khashoggi".

The messages appear to reveal the first evidence of MBS's involvement in the operation on the actual day of the killing and of the crown prince sending messages as opposed to being told of events by an aide.

The WSJ said it had seen excerpts of the CIA's assessment, which cite electronic intercepts and other clandestine information.

We assess it is highly unlikely this team of operators ... carried out the operation without Mohammed bin Salman's authorisation

CIA assessment

Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the kingdom's leadership through his columns for the Washington Post, was killed by Saudi operatives on 2 October, shortly after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Middle East Eye previously reported that Khashoggi was dragged from the consul general's office in the consulate onto the table of his study next door where it took seven minutes for him to be killed.

The WSJ said the previously unreported excerpts seen by the newspaper state the CIA has "medium-to-high confidence" that MBS "personally targeted" Khashoggi and "probably ordered his death".

It added: "To be clear, we lack direct reporting of the Crown Prince issuing a kill order."

Following the publication of the WSJ article, a Saudi official, responding to an earlier request for comment by the newspaper to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said: "HRH the crown prince communicates regularly with various senior officials within the Royal Court on different matters.

"At no time did HRH correspond with any Saudi officials in any government entity on harming Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen. We continue to categorically reject any accusations based on speculations."

The killing of Khashoggi has strained Saudi Arabia's ties with the West and battered the crown prince's image abroad.

The timing of the WSJ article is particularly difficult for MBS, who is currently attending a G20 summit in Argentina with other world leaders.

'Violently target other opponents'

While Saudi officials have insisted the crown prince had no knowledge of the plan to kill Khashoggi, the CIA concluded last month that the crown prince ordered the murder.

Despite the CIA assessment, US President Donald Trump has said the US intends to stand by Saudi Arabia, including MBS.

"Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn't!" Trump said in a written statement on 20 November.

The CIA assessment says its conclusion is based on the crown prince's personal interest in Khashoggi, his tight control over the Saudi operatives sent to Istanbul to kill him "and his authorising some of the same operators to violently target other opponents," the WSJ said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met with senators on Wednesday to try to prevent a resolution to withdraw US backing for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, has said that he had read all intelligence regarding Khashoggi's murder.

"There is no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi," Pompeo previously told reporters.

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The CIA assessment backs up a previous MEE report that the Saudi team sent to kill Khashoggi was assembled from MBS's top security units in the Royal Guard.

The document says Qahtani used the Centre for Studies and Media Affairs at the Royal Court (CSMARC), the court's media department, to organise the murder.

"We assess it is highly unlikely this team of operators ... carried out the operation without Mohammed bin Salman's authorisation," the document says.

The assessment says Qahtani "explicitly requested the crown prince's permission when he pursued other sensitive operations in 2015, which reflects the crown prince's command and control expectations".

Qahtani was fired by King Salman following the murder, but the aide informally has continued some of his former functions, such as issuing directives to local journalists and brokering meetings for the crown prince, according to people familiar with the matter, the WSJ said.

The CIA assessment said that since 2015 MBS "has ordered Qahtani and CSMARC to target his opponents domestically and abroad, sometimes violently".

Five staff from the centre were involved in the Khashoggi operation, the assessment says.

All of the five employees were also involved in the abusive treatment of prominent Saudis detained at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh in the autumn of 2017 as part of what the Saudi government described as an anti-corruption drive, the document says.