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Mohammed bin Salman remains in contact with alleged hit squad leader

Saudi Arabia's crown prince has continued to seek advice from Saud al-Qahtani, Washington Post says
US Senate passed resolution saying Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman played role in Jamal Khashoggi's death, which he denies (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has had regular contact with Saud al-Qahtani, the alleged ringleader of the plot to murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post said on Thursday in an opinion piece.

Bin Salman sent at least 11 messages to Qahtani - his closest adviser and the person 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 the Wall Street Journal in December.

The opinion article, which cites unidentified US and Saudi officials, said MBS has continued to seek advice from Qahtani and that Qahtani has met with senior members of his cybercommand agency.

The kingdom has charged five unidentified Saudi individuals with the murder of Khashoggi. Turkey issued an arrest warrant for Qahtani last December and he was also placed on a US sanctions list.

“Qahtani holds a lot of files and dossiers. The idea that you can have a radical rupture with him is unrealistic,” an American who recently met MBS told the Post.

“Domestically, [MBS] feels very confident and in control. As long as his base is secure, he feels that nothing can harm him,” the American said.

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The Post went on to say that a new social media campaign has cropped up recently to discredit Khashoggi by tying him to Qatar.

It remains unknown whether Qahtani’s cybercommand agency played a role in the latest social media campaign, but MBS supporters told the Post that it made them uncomfortable.

“I have no idea who is behind this new campaign, but it certainly does not seem wise,” said Ali Shihabi, the head of the Saudi-backed Arabia Foundation.

Khashoggi, a contributor to Middle East Eye and the Washington Post, was murdered by a team of Saudi hitmen on 2 October, shortly after entering the kingdom's consulate.

Riyadh has described the assassination as a "rogue operation", though the CIA has concluded that the Saudi crown prince, known as MBS, almost certainly signed off on the mission. The 33-year-old heir to the Saudi throne has denied any knowledge of the murder or its botched cover-up.

The case has shaken US-Saudi relations, with all 100 US senators condemning MBS in late 2018, when they passed a resolution saying he ordered the assassination.

Despite this, President Donald Trump has stood by his Saudi allies throughout the crisis, repeatedly citing Riyadh's denial of MBS's involvement and vowing to maintain Washington's strong ties to Riyadh.