It was just a matter of time before the details of the audio recording which Turkish intelligence says documents the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi leaked to the media.
Of course the suspense factor has been muted by the steady stream of leaks emanating from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has made a point of deftly wielding Turkey’s press in an ongoing effort to keep the Khashoggi story in the news for as long as absolutely possible.
That is, the world already knows what happened, right down to the bloody details including the moment when Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy put in earphones before going to work with his bone saw. “When I do this job, I listen to music. You should do [that] too”, he reportedly told other members of the 15-man hit squad who were in the room for Khashoggi’s dismemberment.
The world also knows that once chopped up, Khashoggi’s body was stuffed into five suitcases which were then delivered to the residence of Saudi Consul General Mohammed al-Otaibi, who was told to “be quiet if you want to live” when he suggested that Tubaigy was causing too much of a stir at the consulate in the course of dispensing with Khashoggi.
The Saudis have been at pains to explain Khashoggi’s death and thanks to the haphazard fashion in which the operation was conducted, the monarchy has been forced to change their story on a number of occasions as new evidence continues to surface. Initially, Riyadh claimed Khashoggi exited the consulate unharmed shortly after entering. That eventually morphed into a story about a “fist fight” gone wrong and, ultimately, an admission that the murder was in fact premeditated.
Part of the “fist fight” story involved the contention that Khashoggi’s assailants employed a “choke hold” in an effort to subdue their target. Late last month, Turkish prosecutors said Khashoggi was either “strangled” or “suffocated” as soon as he stepped into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. His body was then immediately dismembered, the chief Istanbul prosecutor contended.
Through it all, the Saudis have steadfastly refused to admit that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing, a patently absurd contention for all manner of obvious reasons.
Well, on Monday, details from the audio recording surfaced and appear to provide the “smoking gun” – or the closest thing to a smoking gun we’re going to get.
“Shortly after Khashoggi was assassinated last month, a member of the kill team instructed a superior over the phone to ‘tell your boss,’ believed to be Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that the operatives had carried out their mission,” The New York Times reports, citing three people familiar with the recording. The Times goes on to say that although bin Salman “was not mentioned by name,” U.S. intelligence has come to the conclusion that “‘your boss’ was a reference to Prince Mohammed.”
It’s nice to know that U.S. intelligence is competent enough to draw that conclusion because it doesn’t take a leap of logic to assert that “the boss” in Saudi Arabia is the Crown Prince.
The call was reportedly made by Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, one of the 15 Saudis who arrived in Turkey on October 2 aboard two Gulfstream IV jets. As a reminder, Mutreb was photographed traveling with bin Salman on any number of occasions, including when the Crown Prince visited France, Spain, Houston and Boston, among other destinations. In the call, he was “speaking to one of the prince’s aides”, the Times writes, adding that “while translations of the Arabic may differ, the people briefed on the call said Mr. Mutreb also said to the aide words to the effect of ‘the deed was done.'”
Amusingly, this still isn’t likely to be enough for the international community, given that it isn’t stone, cold proof if you believe that “your boss” could refer to somebody else. Predictably, Riyadh is sticking to the script. Here’s what the Saudis said in a statement responding to the new reports:
Our intelligence services [have] heard the recordings, and at no moment was there any reference to the mentioned phrase in the such recordings.
So either the Saudis haven’t heard the same tape as the sources cited above, or else Riyadh is just lying – again. And it really doesn’t matter, because until the Crown Prince’s name is actually uttered, Riyadh can always claim the reference is to somebody else, although it’s not clear who that somebody would be.
The Times goes on to say that “some Trump advisers have argued they would need indisputable evidence of Prince Mohammed’s involvement in Khashoggi’s killing before they would punish him or the kingdom more harshly”. Again, that’s absurd. The idea that 15 Saudis procured a pair of Gulfstream IVs and set off to Turkey to murder a well-known journalist who has been a persistent critic of the Crown Prince without bin Salman knowing is entirely implausible.
You’re also reminded that CIA Director Gina Haspel has heard the recordings and is expected to brief Congress on her assessment in relatively short order. Over the weekend, Erdogan said he shared the audio and, presumably, transcripts of the recording with multiple allies. “We gave the tapes. We gave them to Saudi Arabia, to the United States, Germans, French and British, all of them. They have listened to all the conversations in them. They know,” Erdogan said, before reiterating that the Saudis have been unhelpful in the investigation.
Last week, reports indicated that Steve Mnuchin’s Treasury is set to impose some manner of sanctions in response to the extrajudicial killing and although the Trump administration claims the two are unrelated, it bears mentioning that the U.S. has put a stop to air refueling flights for the Saudi Arabian military campaign in Yemen.
The Saudis are preparing their own investigative report on the killing, and although nobody would have taken it seriously in the first place, the fact that multiple nations are in possession of audio recordings that, if Riyadh’s Monday statement is to be believed, might not have been shared in full with Saudi investigators, the monarchy may be walking into a trap.
The only question now is whether Erdogan has rock solid proof of bin Salman’s involvement. Judging by how well he (Erdogan) has played his cards thus far, it’s probably not a safe bet for the Saudis to assume Ankara isn’t in possession of something nobody but Turkish intelligence has heard or seen.