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Saudi crown prince said he'd use 'bullet' on Khashoggi a year before murder

New York Times reports that US intercepted communications of MBS suggesting he wanted Khashoggi dead
CIA previously concluded that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi's murder (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de-facto ruler, said in 2017 that he would use “a bullet” on journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a New York Times (NYT) report said, citing US intelligence officials with knowledge of intercepted communications between the crown prince and a senior Saudi aide.

The US National Security Agency and other government intelligence outfits discovered the conversation while investigating years of the Saudi prince's text and voice communications, the NYT said.

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According to the report on Thursday, the crown prince spoke with a top aide named Turki Aldakhil about Khashoggi in September 2017. The two Saudis apparently expressed concern that Khashoggi’s writings were tarnishing the government’s image.

Bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, reportedly told Aldakhil that if Khashoggi refused to return to Saudi Arabia willingly, then he should somehow be forced back. MBS then allegedly added if neither of those things panned out, he would take out Khashoggi with “a bullet,” officials familiar with the conversation told the US newspaper.

While US intelligence officials stressed that MBS may not have meant those words in a literal sense, they said it indicates that the crown prince had expressed a desire to see the Washington Post journalist dead.

Days after MBS spoke with Aldakhil, the crown prince talked with Saud al-Qahtani, the intelligence officials told the newspaper. Qahtani has been identified by US intelligence agencies as the ringleader of the Khashoggi murder plot and Saudi Arabia has removed him from his post as an adviser to the royal court.

According to officials with knowledge of this particular conversation, MBS chastised Qahtani after the aide warned against making any move that might cause an international outcry.

“Saudi Arabia should not care about international reaction to how it handles its own citizens, the crown prince told Mr al-Qahtani,” the NYT report said, citing the intelligence officials.

MBS allegedly told Qahtani that he “did not like half-measures - he never liked them and did not believe in them,” an intelligence official told the newspaper.

CIA assessment disputed

The CIA had previously concluded with high confidence that MBS ordered the assassination, but the details of the intelligence agency's probe have not been made public.

On Thursday, the Saudi government disputed a key element of the CIA assessment regarding WhatsApp exchanges between MBS and Qahtani, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has reported.

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According to the US newspaper, a confidential report prepared for the Saudi public prosecutor by Kroll, a private US security firm, found that none of the WhatsApp messages exchanged between the crown prince and his top aide on the day Khashoggi was killed concerned the journalist or his murder.

The WhatsApp messages between MBS and Qahtani, who is believed to have overseen the team that killed Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, was one piece of evidence cited in the CIA assessment.

But intelligence officials acknowledged at the time that while they were aware of the communications, "we do not know their content".

According to the WSJ, the CIA's assessment was not hinged on a "smoking gun" but rather on a deep "understanding of how Saudi Arabia works", said officials familiar with the intelligence agency's conclusion.

UN report blames Saudi officials

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was critical of bin Salman, was murdered by Saudi government agents as he visited his country's consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018 to retrieve personal paperwork.

Saudi officials initially insisted that Khashoggi left the building unharmed, but acknowledged weeks later that the journalist was killed.

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Riyadh has consistently maintained that bin Salman was not involved in the murder - an assertion that has been met with scepticism from political analysts, intelligence officials, journalists and US politicians, who say such an operation could not have been authorised without his approval.

US President Donald Trump has reiterated the Saudi denials and countered the CIA's assessment, refusing to denounce MBS.

Earlier on Thursday, a United Nations-led investigation into Khashoggi's killing placed blame on Saudi officials for the "brutal and premeditated" murder.

The UN's expert on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, said Khashoggi "was the victim of a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated by officials of the State of Saudi Arabia".

Callamard did not name any specific Saudi state officials in her statement.