The late Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks to Al-Jazeera. Picture via screengrab.
He ran social media for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. He masterminded the arrest of a whole lot of his nation’s elite. He detained a Lebanese prime minister. And, in response to two intelligence sources, he ran journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by giving orders over Skype.
Saud al-Qahtani, a prime aide for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is considered one of the fall guys as Riyadh tries to stem worldwide outrage at Khashoggi’s dying. On Saturday, Saudi state media stated King Salman had sacked Qahtani and 4 different officers over the killing carried out by a 15-man hit workforce.
However Qahtani’s affect in the crown prince’s entourage has been so huge over the previous three years – his personal rise monitoring that of his boss – that it is going to be arduous for Saudi officers to color Qahtani as the mastermind of the murder with out additionally elevating questions on the involvement of Prince Mohammed, in response to a number of sources with hyperlinks to the royal courtroom.
“This episode won’t topple MbS, but it has hit his image which will take a long time to be repaired if it ever does. The king is protecting him,” certainly one of the sources with ties to the royal courtroom stated.
Qahtani himself as soon as stated he would by no means do something with out his boss’ approval.
“Do you think I make decisions without guidance? I am an employee and a faithful executor of the orders of my lord the king and my lord the faithful crown prince,” Qahtani tweeted final summer time.
Qahtani didn’t reply to questions from Reuters. His biography on Twitter modified in current days from royal adviser to chairman of the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones, a task he had held earlier than.
Prince Mohammed had no information of the operation that led to Khashoggi’s dying and “certainly did not order a kidnapping or murder of anybody”, a Saudi official stated on Saturday. Officers in Riyadh couldn’t be reached for additional remark.
As the disaster has grown over the previous three weeks, Saudi Arabia has modified its tune on Khashoggi’s destiny, first denying his demise, then saying he died throughout a brawl at the consulate, and now attributing the demise to a chokehold.
A senior Saudi official informed Reuters that the killers had tried to cowl up what occurred, contending that the fact was solely now rising. The Turks reject that model of the story, saying they’ve audio recordings of what occurred.
The dominion has survived different crises in the previous yr, together with the fallout of the crown prince’s short-lived kidnapping of Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri in 2017. Hariri, too, was verbally humiliated and crushed, in line with eight Saudi, Arab and Western diplomatic sources. The man main that interrogation: Saud al-Qahtani.
France intervened to free Hariri, however Western capitals didn’t take Riyadh to process for detaining a head of presidency – and Prince Mohammed emerged emboldened, in response to these Saudi sources.
This time is totally different, with some Western capitals more and more essential of the murder and the Saudi rationalization.
Germany has introduced it should cease arms gross sales, whereas Britain, France and Germany issued a joint assertion asking for an “urgent … clarification of exactly what happened Oct 2.”
President Donald Trump has swung between saying he’s sad with the Saudi investigation but in addition that he doesn’t need to jeopardize U.S. arms gross sales to the nation.
To stem the fallout of the Khashoggi killing, the crown prince, generally recognized by his initials MbS, allowed Qahtani to take the fall, based on one supply near the Saudi royal courtroom.
A second senior Saudi official stated Qahtani had been detained following his sacking by royal decree, however he continued to tweet afterwards. The sources with hyperlinks to the royal courtroom stated he was not believed to be underneath arrest.
In the Khashoggi killing, Qahtani was current as he has been in different key moments of MbS’s administration. This time, although, his presence was digital.
Khashoggi, a U.S.-based Saudi journalist typically essential of Saudi Arabia and its management, walked into the Istanbul consulate at round 1 pm on Oct 2, to select up some paperwork that might permit him to marry.
Turkish safety sources say he was instantly seized inside the consulate by 15 Saudi intelligence operatives who had flown in on two jets simply hours earlier than.
In response to one high-ranking Arab supply with entry to intelligence and hyperlinks to members of Saudi Arabia’s royal courtroom, Qahtani was beamed right into a room of the Saudi consulate via Skype.
He started to hurl insults at Khashoggi over the telephone. In response to the Arab and Turkish sources, Khashoggi answered Qahtani’s insults together with his personal. However he was no match for the squad, which included prime safety and intelligence operatives, some with direct hyperlinks to the royal courtroom.
A Turkish intelligence supply relayed that at one level Qahtani advised his males to eliminate Khashoggi. “Bring me the head of the dog”, the Turkish intelligence supply says Qahtani instructed.
It isn’t clear if Qahtani watched the complete proceedings, which the high-ranking Arab supply described as a “bungled and botched operation”.
The Arab supply and the Turkish intelligence supply stated the audio of the Skype name is now in the possession of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. The sources say he’s refusing to launch it to the People.
Erdogan stated on Sunday he would launch details about the Turkish investigation throughout a weekly speech on Tuesday. Three Turkish officers reached by Reuters declined to remark forward of that speech.
The senior Saudi official who laid out the official model of occasions – that Khashoggi had received right into a battle – stated he had not heard about Qahtani showing via Skype, however that the Saudi investigation was ongoing.
Qahtani, 40, has earned a fame at house as each 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 information media and behind-the-scenes strategizing.
Qahtani wrote odes on Twitter to the royal household underneath the pen identify Dari, which suggests predator in Arabic. A few of his opponents on social media name him Dalim, a determine in Arabic folklore who rose from being a lowly servant to a lot larger heights.
Based on his biography on his Twitter account, Qahtani studied regulation and made the rank of captain in the Saudi air pressure. After launching a weblog, he caught the eye of Khaled al-Tuwaijri, the former head of the royal courtroom, who employed him in the early 2000s to run an digital media military tasked with defending Saudi Arabia’s picture , in response to a supply with ties to the royal courtroom.
Tuwaijri is beneath home arrest and couldn’t be reached for remark.
Qahtani rose to additional prominence after latching onto Prince Mohammed, who was a part of his father Salman’s courtroom as Riyadh governor, then crown prince and eventually king in 2015
Tasked with countering alleged Qatari affect on social media, Qahtani used Twitter to assault criticism of the kingdom usually and Prince Mohammed particularly. He additionally ran a WhatsApp group with native newspaper editors and outstanding journalists, dictating the royal courtroom’s line.
When Riyadh led an financial boycott towards Qatar in June 2017, Qahtani ramped up his assaults on the small Gulf state. On-line, he urged Saudis to tweet the names of anybody displaying sympathy with Qatar beneath the Arabic hashtag “The Black List”.
The high-ranking Arab official and Saudi sources with ties to the royal courtroom stated Qahtani was MbS’s “bad cop” late final yr when 200 individuals, together with Saudi princes, ministers and enterprise tycoons, have been detained and put beneath home arrest at the Ritz Carlton in an anti-corruption sweep. Qahtani oversaw a few of the interrogations, the Arab official stated.
The extent of Qahtani’s energy is probably greatest illustrated by the kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri final yr, a number of of the Saudi and Arab diplomatic sources stated.
The Saudis have been incensed at the lack of ability of Hariri, a Sunni Muslim and a Saudi shopper, to face as much as their regional rival Iran and Hezbollah, the Shi’ite paramilitary motion that acts as Tehran’s spearhead in the area. Hariri belonged to the similar multi-party coalition authorities as Hezbollah.
The Saudis have been notably dismayed that Hariri had did not ship a message to a prime adviser to Iranian Supreme Chief Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to cease interfering in Lebanon and Yemen. Hariri claimed he had delivered the Saudi message, however an informer, planted by Qahtani in Hariri’s circle, gave the Saudis the minutes of the assembly which confirmed that he had not executed so.
The Saudis lured Hariri to Riyadh for a gathering with MbS. Upon his arrival on Nov. three, 2017, there was no line-up of Saudi princes or officers, as would sometimes greet a major minister on an official go to. Hariri later acquired a name that the assembly with the crown prince would happen the subsequent day at a royal compound.
When Hariri arrived, he was ushered right into a room the place Qahtani was ready for him with a safety workforce, based on three Arab sources acquainted with the incident. The safety group beat Hariri; Qahtani cursed at him after which pressured him to resign as prime minister in a press release that was broadcast by a Saudi-owned TV channel.
“He (Qahtani) told him you have no choice but to resign and read this statement,” stated one among the sources. “Qahtani oversaw the interrogation and ill-treatment of Hariri.”
One other supply stated it was the intervention of French President Emmanuel Macron that secured his launch following a world outcry.
Macron claimed credit score in Might for ending the disaster, saying an unscheduled stopover in Riyadh to persuade MbS, adopted by an invite to Hariri to return to France, had been the catalyst to resolving it. Lebanese officers confirmed to Reuters that Macron’s fast intervention secured Hariri’s return.
Saudi officers couldn’t be reached for remark about the sequence of occasions or Qahtani’s involvement. French officers declined to remark when requested about Qahtani’s position.
AN OFFER TO RETURN HOME
A minimum of three buddies of Khashoggi informed Reuters that in the months after the journalist moved to Washington a yr in the past he acquired a number of telephone calls from MbS’s right-hand man urging him to return to Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi had balked, they stated, fearing reprisals for his Washington Publish columns and outspoken views.
Qahtani had tried to reassure the former newspaper editor that he was nonetheless nicely revered and had provided the journalist a job as a marketing consultant at the royal courtroom, the pals stated.
Khashoggi stated that whereas he discovered Qahtani mild and well mannered throughout these conversations, he didn’t belief him, one shut pal informed 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 residence. The ambush in Istanbul appears to have been one other strategy to get him residence.
How a lot did the crown prince find out about his trusted aide’s plan to abduct Khashoggi?
Most of the 15 hit-man staff recognized by Turkish and Saudi authorities labored for the kingdom’s safety and intelligence providers, army, authorities ministries, royal courtroom safety and air drive. One in every of them, Common Maher Mutreb, a senior intelligence officer, who’s a part of the safety workforce of Prince Mohammed, appeared in pictures with him on official visits earlier this yr to the United States and Europe.
The high-ranking Arab official and the Turkish intelligence supply stated it was Mutreb’s telephone that was used to dial in Qahtani whereas Khashoggi was being interrogated.
Reuters tried to contact members of 15-man workforce however their telephones have been both switched off, on voicemail or not in service.
The Saudi official stated Deputy Intelligence Chief Common Ahmed al-Asiri put collectively the 15-man squad from the intelligence and safety forces. Asiri was one among the 5 officers dismissed on Saturday.
One other key determine was Dr. Salah al-Tubaigy, a forensic skilled specialised in autopsies hooked up to the Saudi Ministry of Inside. His presence – outfitted with a bone-saw Turkish sources say was used to dismember the journalist – is tough to elucidate in an operation Saudi officers now say was aimed toward persuading Khashoggi to return residence.
It’s onerous to think about that the crown prince might haven’t recognized about such a fragile operation, the Saudi sources with ties to the royal courtroom say.
The Saudi official who spoke on Saturday stated an present standing order offered authorization to “negotiate” with dissidents to return residence with out requiring approval, however that the staff concerned with Khashoggi exceeded that authorization.
One other Saudi official near the investigation stated that Qahtani selected his personal to arrange Khashoggi’s kidnapping and that he requested Asiri to get a staff collectively, however that their plans had gone flawed.
Qahtani’s last act could also be to serve his boss by assuming the duty for the disaster that has hit Saudi Arabia since Khashoggi’s murder. The Saudi king has sacked Qahtani and ordered a restructuring of the basic intelligence company.
To go it, he named MbS.