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Saudi crown prince's aide directed Khashoggi killing over Skype: Report

Saud al-Qahtani, who was dismissed as senior adviser to Saudi royal court last week, hurled insults at Khashoggi via Skype, Reuters reports
Qahtani was a top aide to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Reuters/File photo)

A top aide to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directed the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Reuters reported on Monday, citing Saudi, Turkish and Arab officials.

A high-ranking Arab source with access to intelligence and links to members of Saudi Arabia’s royal court told the news agency that Saud al-Qahtani, a longtime adviser to bin Salman, was beamed into a room at the Saudi consulate via Skype.

He began to hurl insults at Khashoggi over the phone, Reuters reported.

According to Arab and Turkish sources Khashoggi answered Qahtani’s insults with his own.

A Turkish intelligence source also relayed that at one point Qahtani told his men to dispose of Khashoggi, Reuters reported.

"Bring me the head of the dog," the Turkish source said Qahtani instructed.

On Saturday, Saudi state media said King Salman had sacked Qahtani and four other officials over Khashoggi's killing, which Turkish security officials believe was carried out by a 15-man, Saudi hit team.

As the crisis has grown over the past three weeks, Saudi Arabia has changed its story as to what happened to Khashoggi, a Saudi insider-turned-critic who wrote for the Washington Post. First Saudi officials denied Khashoggi was dead, then they said he died during a brawl at the consulate, and now they have attributed his death to a chokehold.

A senior Saudi official told Reuters that the killers had tried to cover up what happened, contending that the truth was only now emerging. Turkish officials reject that version of the story, however, saying they have audio recordings of what happened.

To stem the fallout of the Khashoggi killing, the crown prince allowed Qahtani to take the fall, a source close to the Saudi royal court told Reuters.

MBS had no knowledge of the operation that led to Khashoggi's death and "certainly did not order a kidnapping or murder of anybody", a Saudi official said on Saturday.

Strong influence in MBS's entourage

But Qahtani's influence in the crown prince's entourage has been vast, sources with links to the royal court told Reuters, and Riyadh's critics say it is improbable that the decision to kill or abduct Khashoggi was made without bin Salman's involvement.

Qahtani himself once said he would never do anything without his boss's approval.

"Do you think I rebuke (others) on my own accord without direction? I am an employee and a loyal executor of the orders of my master, the king, and my master, his highness the crown prince," Qahtani tweeted last summer.

Saudi has changed tune on Khashoggi's fate, first denying death, then saying he died during brawl, and now attributing the death to a chokehold (Reuters)

In February 2012, in an apparent Twitter exchange with Khashoggi about the fate of a Saudi man accused of blasphemy who was extradited from Malaysia, Qahtani wrote: "It was the guardian (king) who decided to arrest and punish him and bring him from the end of the earth. When the ruler rules, the argument is over."

It is not clear what Khashoggi said before receiving this response; the journalist's tweet is not available.

Qahtani did not respond to questions from Reuters.

His biography on Twitter changed in recent days from royal adviser to the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones, a role he had held before, to chairman of that federation.

'Bungled and botched operation'

Khashoggi, a US-based Saudi journalist often critical of Saudi Arabia and its leadership, walked into the Istanbul consulate at around 1 pm on 2 October, to pick up some documents that would allow him to marry.

Turkish security sources say he was immediately seized inside the consulate by 15 Saudi intelligence operatives who had flown in on two jets just hours before.

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It is not clear if Qahtani watched the entirety of the proceedings via Skype. The high-ranking Arab source told Reuters the events were a "bungled and botched operation".

The Arab source and the Turkish intelligence source told the news agency that audio of the Skype call is now in the possession of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The sources say he is refusing to release it to US officials, Reuters reported.

Qahtani spoke to Khashoggi about returning to Saudi Arabia: Reuters

Qahtani, 40, has earned a reputation at home as both a violent enforcer of princely whims and as a strident nationalist. In blogs and on social media, some liberal Saudi journalists and activists dubbed him the Saudi Steve Bannon for his aggressive manipulation of the news media and behind-the-scenes strategising.

At least three friends of Khashoggi told Reuters that in the months after the journalist moved to Washington a year ago, he received multiple phone calls from MBS’s right-hand man urging him to return to Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi had balked, they said, fearing reprisals for his Washington Post columns and outspoken views.

Qahtani had tried to reassure the former newspaper editor that he was still well respected and had offered the journalist a job as a consultant at the royal court, the friends said.

Khashoggi said that while he found Qahtani gentle and polite during those conversations, he did not trust him, one close friend told Reuters. "Jamal told me afterwards, 'he thinks that I will go back so that he can throw me in jail?'"

The second senior Saudi official confirmed that Qahtani had spoken to Khashoggi about returning home.

The Saudi official who spoke on Saturday said an existing standing order provided authorisation to "negotiate" with dissidents to return home without requiring approval, but that the team involved with Khashoggi exceeded that authorisation.

Another Saudi official close to the investigation said that Qahtani decided on his own to organise Khashoggi’s kidnapping and that he asked Deputy Intelligence Chief General Ahmed al-Asiri to get a team together, but that their plans had gone wrong.