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US intel intercepts suggest Saudi crown prince ordered Khashoggi operation: Report

Saudi officials discussed plan to lure and capture journalist Jamal Khashoggi, US intelligence intercepts suggest
Turkish investigators say Saudi journalist Khashoggi was killed inside Saudi consulate in Istanbul (AFP)

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country's de facto ruler, ordered an operation targeting journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi, who has been missing for more than a week, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday, citing US intelligence intercepts.

The Post, a newspaper to which Khashoggi contributed, cited unidentified US officials as saying that Saudi officials had been heard discussing a plan to lure Khashoggi from the US state of Virginia, where he resided, and detain him.

The paper cited several of Khashoggi's friends as saying that senior Saudi officials had approached him offering protection, or even a high-level government job if he returned home - but that Khashoggi was sceptical of the offers.

It remains unknown whether Saudi Arabia had planned to kill him. If the Saudis intended to harm Khashoggi, then US intelligence agencies are required to conduct "a duty to warn" him, according to a 2015 directive. The "duty-to-warn" policy applies to both US citizens and non-citizens.

A former US intelligence official told the Post that capturing him does not meet the "duty to warn" threshold.

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“Capturing him, which could have been interpreted as arresting him, would not have triggered a duty-to-warn obligation. If something in the reported intercept indicated that violence was planned, then, yes, he should have been warned,” the official said.

State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino earlier insisted that the United States had no forewarning of any concrete threat to Khashoggi.

"Although I can't go into intelligence matters, I can definitively say that we had no knowledge in advance of Mr Khashoggi's disappearance," Palladino told reporters.

Khashoggi - a US resident and one of the more outspoken critics of King Salman and his son, the crown prince - disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October, and Turkish officials suspect he was murdered.

The case has sparked outrage from human rights and journalism groups and threatens to harm ties between Saudi Arabia and the United States, which has demanded answers from the kingdom over the disappearance.

US senate investigation

US Senators on Wednesday invoked a human rights law to call on President Donald Trump to formally investigate the disappearance of Khashoggi and possibly determine appropriate sanctions against those involved.

The Magnitsky Law requires the president to act on requests for investigations by the leaders of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Wednesday's letter was signed by Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the committee, and ranking Democrat Bob Menendez, as well as 24 other lawmakers from both major parties.

"The recent disappearance of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi suggests that he could be a victim of a gross violation of internationally recognized human rights," the letter said.

The law gives Trump 120 days to make his determination on sanctions.

Corker/Menendez/Graham/Leahy Letter Triggers Global Magnitsky Investigation Into Disappearance Of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi:

The senator said he spoke to the Saudi ambassador to the US about the situation and was told that closed-circuit TV from the consulate did not record what happened.

He called that statement "not credible" and he said it's now up to the Saudi government to clarify the situation.

"The Saudis have a lot of explaining to do because all indications are that they have been involved at minimum with his disappearance," Corker told AP. "Everything points to them."

Earlier on Wednesday, Trump told reporters that he has talked to officials in Saudi Arabia at the highest levels about Khashoggi's disappearance.

"We're demanding everything. We want to see what's going on," Trump said. "It's a very serious situation for us and for this White House."

Trump said that the US is working closely with Turkey to find out what happened to Khashoggi.

"I want to see what happens and we're working very closely with Turkey and I think we'll get to the bottom of it," Trump said, without providing further details.

The US president also said he wanted to bring Khashoggi's fiance, Hatice Cengiz, to the White House.

She alerted authorities to Khashoggi's disappearance after he did not exit the consulate, where she had been waiting outside for him.

National Security Adviser John Bolton and White House aide Jared Kushner spoke to Saudi Arabia's Mohammed Bin Salman about Khashoggi on Tuesday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also spoke to the crown prince to reiterate the US's request for information, Sanders said.

"In both calls they asked for more details and for the Saudi government to be transparent in the investigation process," she said.

On Wednesday, Ernest Moniz, a former US energy secretary, said he had suspended his role on the board of Saudi Arabia's planned mega city NEOM until more is known about Khashoggi's disappearance.

Moniz, who served under President Barack Obama, was one of 18 people advising the $500bn NEOM project.

Bin Salman said last week the NEOM business zone will build two to three towns each year starting in 2020 and be fully complete by 2025.

US criticised for days of silence

The US has been criticised for not speaking out quickly enough on Khashoggi's case.

After a period of silence, a handful of US politicians began to raise concerns about reports that the US's longtime ally, Saudi Arabia, had harmed the journalist.

Earlier this week, Corker had said "there will definitely be consequences" if it turns out the Saudis were involved in Khashoggi disappearance, while Lindsey Graham, another Republican senator, said it would be "devastating" to the US-Saudi relationship.

On Tuesday, Republican Senator Rand Paul, a longtime critic of the Saudi government, said he would try to force a vote in the Senate this week to block US arms sales to Saudi Arabia if there is "any indication" the Saudis are implicated in Khashoggi's death.

Tim Kaine, a Democratic senator from the US state of Virginia, said Khashoggi's disappearance is personal to him since the Saudi journalist had been living in the state. Khashoggi was in self-imposed exile just outside of Washington, DC, in fear of retribution or arrest amid his criticism of the Saudi government.

"We should be extending support from our federal agencies for a real investigation," Kaine tweeted.

Turkish sources with knowledge of the investigation told MEE they believed Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate and that Turkish authorities are considering digging up the garden to see whether his remains are buried there.

Since Saturday, Turkish officials have maintained that he was assassinated inside the building, but have not provided evidence or spoken on the record.

On Wednesday, protesters gathered in front of the Saudi embassy in London to demand answers from the Saudis as to what happened to Khashoggi (Areeb Ullah/MEE)

Meanwhile, Saudi officials said the 59-year-old left the consulate soon after he arrived and they said they are concerned about his whereabouts.

“I would like to confirm that ... Jamal is not at the consulate nor in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the consulate and the embassy are working to search for him,” the Saudi consul-general, Mohammad al-Otaibi, said on Saturday after the consulate was opened up to Reuters journalists.

“We are worried about this case," al-Otaibi said.

Trump has forged a strong relationship with the Saudi royal family, including the crown prince.

Bin Salman's personal bodyguard has been identified in Turkish media as being among 15 Saudis who flew into Istanbul and then quickly left on the day of Khashoggi's disappearance.

On Tuesday, the Saudis rescinded an offer they had made to allow Turkish forensic experts onto the premises. Their offer was withdrawn after Turkish media outlets published a full list of the Saudis who arrived in Turkey on two private jets that day.

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the two Gulfstream jets that flew the Saudi 15 nationals out of Istanbul belong to a company controlled by bin Salman.

The planes are owned by aviation firm Sky Prime Aviation Services, which was seized by the Saudi government in the wake of last year's roundup of Saudi businessmen, royalty and government officials as part of what Prince Mohammed called an anti-corruption drive, the US newspaper said, quoting people familiar with the matter.

Bin Salman now controls the company, the people said. 

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A source who outlined the account of how Khashoggi was killed said that police investigators are confident they have enough forensic evidence from searches of the sewage network connected to the building.

A second Turkish source with knowledge of the investigation told MEE that the Turks have video and audio evidence of the killing. However, they have not revealed how they obtained this evidence.

The Saudi embassies in the UK and US did not immediately respond to MEE's request for comment.

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