This seems … curious. Contrary to reports yesterday, the US has not listened to the alleged recording of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi nor read transcripts of it. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denied the reports yesterday, CBS News reports this morning, and he’s getting strong corroboration from Turkish officials on the record. In fact, the Turks won’t even confirm that such a recording exists now:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is denying a report that Turkish officials shared with him an audio recording and transcript of the alleged murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who went missing over two weeks ago after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
“I’ve heard no tape, I’ve seen no transcript,” Pompeo told reporters overnight.
On Friday morning, Turkey backed up the U.S. diplomat’s assertion, with Foreign Minister Mehmet Cavusoglu telling reporters in Ankara that his country had yet to share any audio evidence on the case with any other nation. He still would not confirm whether his country does in fact possess an audio or video recording of the purported murder, but reiterated Turkey’s vague assertion that investigators had obtained “evidence.”
Pro-government media in Turkey have released surveillance photos identifying an intelligence officer in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s entourage as the mastermind of the alleged killing.
This seems like a strange point from which to pull back. At least in media reports, the Turks have claimed to have irrefutable evidence of the murder, supposedly even to the length of time it took to kill Khashoggi and dismember him. Lots of media reports have described the audio recording, down to the gruesome detail of the victim allegedly still being alive at the time of dismemberment. Have all of these been hearsay or just sheer speculation? Either that’s the case, or the Turks have decided to ixnay on the ecording-ray to maintain some deniability on bugging the Saudi consulate.
Enough evidence exists to force the Saudis into some kind of admission, however. The New York Times reports this morning that the royal family might have settled on a fall guy for the hit:
The rulers of Saudi Arabia are considering blaming a top intelligence official close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, three people with knowledge of the Saudi plans said Thursday.
The plan to assign blame to Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, a high-ranking adviser to the crown prince, would be an extraordinary recognition of the magnitude of international backlash to hit the kingdom since the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi dissident. A resident of Virginia and contributor to The Washington Post, Mr. Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
Blaming General Assiri could also provide a plausible explanation for the apparent killing and help deflect blame from the crown prince, who American intelligence agencies are increasingly convinced was behind Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance. …
But even with the investigation still ostensibly underway, the Saudis are already pointing to General Assiri as the culprit, according to the three people familiar with the Saudi plans. People close to the White House have already been briefed and given General Assiri’s name.
That might raise more questions than it answers. The kind of operation that appears to have conducted this operation would have needed a high-ranking official as its commander. However, someone this close to the crown prince would be unlikely to go rogue. Assiri’s star depends on bin Salman’s power and protection. If it’s this close to the crown prince, then bin Salman is involved.
Could this be a prelude to moving bin Salman out of the succession? It may well be. Don’t forget that bin Salman just got placed in succession last year in a power shift, acing out older sons who undoubtedly still resent the demotions. Reuters reports this morning that King Salman has decided to clip MBS’ wings, at least:
So grave is the fallout from the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi that King Salman has felt compelled to intervene, five sources with links to the Saudi royal family said. …
Initially the king, who has handed the day-to-day running of Saudi Arabia to his son, commonly known as MbS, was unaware of the extent of the crisis, according to two of the sources with knowledge of the Saudi royal court. That was partly because MbS aides had been directing the king to glowing news about the country on Saudi TV channels, the sources said.
That changed as the crisis grew.
“Even if MbS wanted to keep this away from the king he couldn’t because the story about Khashoggi’s disappearance was on all the Arab and Saudi TV channels watched by the king,” one of the five sources said.
“The king started asking aides and MbS about it. MbS had to tell him and asked him to intervene when Khashoggi’s case became a global crisis,” this source said.
Since he acceded to the throne in January 2015, the king has given MbS, his favorite son, increasing authority to run Saudi Arabia. But the king’s latest intervention reflects growing disquiet among some members of the royal court about MbS’s fitness to govern, the five sources said.
If Assiri becomes the fall guy, MBS’ brothers might want to start brushing up their resumés. Abdulaziz, who runs the energy ministry, might be one possibility; another could be Faisal, who has spent the last five years governing the Madinah province and an executive in Saudi media.