Skip to main content

Riyadh's latest account of Khashoggi murder raises new contradictions, queries

As Saudi prosecutor releases new statement on journalist Jamal Khashoggi's killing, MEE examines Riyadh's changing story
Saudi officials have changed their story several times since Khashoggi disappeared on 2 October (AFP)

Saudi Arabia has presented a new version of events related to Jamal Khashoggi's murder.

More than a month after the Saudi journalist was killed inside his country’s consulate in Istanbul, Riyadh’s top prosecutor released the results of the Saudi investigation on Thursday.

The country's deputy public prosecutor, Shalaan al-Shalaan, told reporters that Saud al-Qahtani, a former top aide to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, met the leaders of the team that killed Khashoggi.

Qahtani told them that Khashoggi was a threat to Saudi national security, al-Shalaan said, among other revelations, including that members of the 15-man Saudi kill team sent to Turkey planned to bring the journalist back to Saudi Arabia, and were prepared to use force to do it.

Mohammed bin Salman's aide 'briefed Khashoggi murder team': Saudi prosecutor
Read More »

However, not only is this latest version of events inconsistent with what Turkish intelligence officials say happened to Khashoggi, but it also contradicts earlier statements made by Saudi officials.

In fact, the Saudi version of events has changed multiple times since Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government and prominent Washington Post columnist, disappeared on 2 October.

Here's a look at how some of the Saudi claims made public on Thursday contradict what Saudi officials said previously.

Claim #1: Khashoggi was supposed to be brought home

On Thursday, Saudi public prosecutor Saud al-Mujeb said the country's deputy intelligence chief, Ahmed al-Assiri, issued an order for Khashoggi to be brought back to Saudi Arabia “by means of persuasion, and if persuasion fails … by force”.

This differs from Mujeb’s own statement on 25 October, however, in which he said the Washington Post columnist was a victim of premeditated murder.

"Information from the Turkish authorities indicates that the act of the suspects in the Khashoggi case was premeditated," Saudi Arabia's state-run news agency, SPA, reported Mujeb as saying at the time.

Claim #2: A negotiation team was sent to Istanbul

The 15-man Saudi team sent to ambush Khashoggi in Istanbul consisted of three groups - negotiations, intelligence and logistics - according to Mujeb’s statement on Thursday.

Of those 15 people, seven were members of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s security detail, while another member of the hit team was a forensic pathologist, Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy, who's an expert at conducting lightning-quick autopsies.

No interrogations expert appears to have been sent as part of the team, however, MEE and other media have previously reported, and neither were any representatives from the Saudi police or interior ministry.

Claim #3: Forensic pathologist came to remove evidence

Tubaigy’s involvement in Khashoggi’s murder has become notorious.

MEE has previously reported that the journalist’s dismemberment began quickly after he was killed, and Tubaigy worked so fast the rest of the team could not bag up the body parts quickly enough. "When I do this job, I listen to music. You should do [that] too," Tubaigy said as he worked, a source told MEE.

In his statement on Thursday, Mujeb said Tubaigy was a late addition to the 15-member Saudi team sent to Istanbul. He said Tubaigy was only there to cover up any evidence in case force was used to bring Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia.

The New York Times, citing an unnamed Saudi official, previously reported that Tubaigy was brought to Istanbul in case the operation needed to be aborted and fingerprints needed to be removed from the consulate.

However, why the kingdom’s leading autopsy expert would be needed to remove fingerprints is unclear.

It also has been widely reported that Tubaigy brought a bone saw to Istanbul, which many say demonstrates the hit team's real aim when it was dispatched to Turkey.

Mujeb’s statement also said Tubaigy was assigned to the team without the knowledge of his superiors.

It remains unclear, however, how the involvement of such a prominent Saudi official - Tubaigy is the president of the Saudi Fellowship of Forensic Pathology and a member of the Saudi Association for Forensic Pathology - would have escaped their attention.

Claim #4: Khashoggi's body was given to a local collaborator

Saudi Arabia says a “local collaborator” was involved in the plot to kill Khashoggi, a claim that was repeated in the prosecutor's statement on Thursday.

Previously, a source told MEE that, after following several false leads in pursuit of this alleged collaborator, Turkish investigators concluded that no such person exists.

In fact, the source described Saudi officials' story that a local collaborator was tasked with disposing of Khashoggi's body as “Saudi misdirection”.

While in Istanbul late last month, Mujeb himself attempted to distance Riyadh from the story. On Thursday, the Saudi prosecutor said such a person does indeed exist, but that the collaborator’s identity remains a secret.

“A composite sketch of the collaborator has been produced,” Mujeb said in his statement.

Claim #5: Negotiations led to altercation

In a news conference on Thursday, Mujeb’s deputy, Shalaan al-Shalaan, said Khashoggi was killed only after negotiations for his return to Saudi Arabia failed.

However, MEE previously reported that the Saudi team set upon Khashoggi almost immediately after entering the consul-general’s office inside the Istanbul consulate.

Turkish sources who are familiar with an audio recording of Khashoggi’s murder told MEE the journalist exchanged pleasantries with the consul-general only briefly before men burst into the room and attacked him.

Turkey, relying on the audio and witness testimony, has said it believes the journalist was assaulted soon after entering the building.

Only seven minutes went by between the moment Khashoggi entered the consulate and when he died, MEE previously reported.

Claim #6: Mohammed Bin Salman knew nothing of operation

From the moment the scandal broke in early October, Saudi Arabia has attempted to insulate its 33-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Bin Salman, also known as MBS, has insisted he had no advance knowledge of the plan to murder Khashoggi, nor was he involved in the botched cover-up.

Shalaan on Wednesday said bin Salman “did not have any knowledge" of what happened.

However, Turkish and Western intelligence officials believe MBS is the only one with the authority to sign off on such an operation.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the order to kill Khashoggi came from "the highest levels" of the Saudi government, but that Saudi King Salman was not involved.

The New York Times also reported last week that a member of the Saudi hit team called and told his superior to "tell your boss" after the journalist was killed, according to the audio recording of the murder.

US intelligence officials told the US newspaper they believe the "boss" in question is MBS, but that has not been independently confirmed.

Claim #7: Khashoggi killed by drug overdose

In his statement, Mujeb said Khashoggi was killed by an overdose of a drug with which he was forcibly injected during a struggle.

MEE has reported this version of events previously, but this is the first time Saudi Arabia has mentioned a lethal drug overdose as the journalist's cause of death.

In fact, Saudi officials originally said Khashoggi died in a chokehold.

Meanwhile, Turkey has said Khashoggi was suffocated to death. The head of investigations at Turkish newspaper Sabah, which is close to the government, has said Khashoggi’s last words were, "I'm suffocating ... Take this bag off my head, I'm claustrophobic".

Claim #8: Khashoggi's body transferred out of the consulate

Saudi investigators have concluded, according to Mujeb's statement, that five people removed Khashoggi’s dismembered body from the consulate and handed it to the local collaborator.

Turkish officials, however, have said they believe the journalist’s body parts were dissolved in acid and poured down a drain at the consulate.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.