Things are about to get really interesting on the geopolitical scene.
On Monday, The New York Times revealed that just after the 15 men dispatched to Turkey to murder dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi completed their mission, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb made a phone call to Saud al-Qahtani.
“Tell your boss the deed is done”, he said.
Clearly, “the boss” is Mohammed bin Salman with whom Mutreb has been photographed traveling on any number of occasions, including when the Crown Prince visited France, Spain, Houston and Boston, among other destinations.
That was the most concrete evidence yet to support the contention that the order to kill Khashoggi came from the highest levels of the Saudi government.
Of course the international community didn’t need any more “evidence.” The idea that 15 Saudis (some of whom held high ranking positions in the government) somehow managed to procure not one, but two Gulfstream IV jets, fly to Turkey, assassinate a famous dissident in the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate and then beat a hasty retreat back to Riyadh without bin Salman knowing is laughable in the extreme.
Since the murder, the Saudis have changed their story on at least three occasions. First, the Saudis claimed Khashoggi exited the consulate unharmed (they even put a fake beard and glasses on Mustafa al-Madani and dressed him Khashoggi’s clothes as part of a truly ridiculous ruse). Then, Riyadh claimed Khashoggi was killed after a fist fight. Finally, on October 25, the Saudis admitted his murder was “premeditated.”
All the while, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went to great lengths to ensure the story stayed in the news and to generally keep the pressure up as part of an effort to secure leverage over Washington (which may ultimately lead to the extradition of Fetuallah Gulen) and, perhaps, compel a royal shakeup in Riyadh.
On Thursday, the Saudi prosecutor released the findings of the Kingdom’s farcical internal investigation and (surprise, surprise), concluded that the Crown Prince had “no knowledge” of the mission.
Hours later, in what was clearly a coordinated move, Steve Mnuchin’s Treasury Department sanctioned 17 individuals, including Qahtani, Mutreb and Salah Tubaigy, the chief of forensic evidence and autopsy expert who reportedly put in headphones and advised everyone else in the room to do the same as he went to work on Khashoggi’s body with his infamous bone saw.
Well, unfortunately for the Saudis (and also for Donald Trump, who has tried his best to avoid a scenario where the White House would have no choice but to place blame where it belongs), the CIA has concluded that Crown Prince bin Salman did indeed order the murder. Here’s the Washington Post:
In reaching its conclusions, the CIA examined multiple sources of intelligence, including a phone call that the prince’s brother Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, had with Khashoggi, according to the people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the intelligence. Khalid told Khashoggi, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post, that he should go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to retrieve the documents and gave him assurances that it would be safe to do so.
It is not clear if Khalid knew that Khashoggi would be killed, but he made the call at his brother’s direction, according to the people familiar with the call, which was intercepted by U.S. intelligence.
A spokeswoman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington claims Khalid and Khashoggi didn’t discuss Turkey, a bold claim if the CIA has an actual recording of the call.
Additionally, a U.S. official familiar with the investigation said the CIA also relied on something most people call common sense. “The accepted position is that there is no way this happened without [bin Salman] being aware or involved,” the person said. That would be correct.
The CIA assessment also casts bin Salman as “a good technocrat” who occasionally “goes from zero to 60 [and] doesn’t seem to understand that there are some things you can’t do.”
The irony is that in the very next paragraph, the Post quotes the same source as saying that “the general agreement is that he is likely to survive [and his] future as king is taken for granted.”
Given that, it’s not entirely clear who actually “doesn’t seem to understand” in this scenario. Because if the Crown Prince survives this and retains his claim on the throne, well then apparently there isn’t anything he can’t do, or if there is, killing Jamal Khashoggi isn’t it (and neither, it would seem, is perpetuating a humanitarian crisis in Yemen).
The bottom line is the following, again from the Post:
Trump has told senior White House officials that he wants Mohammed to remain in power because Saudi Arabia helps to check Iran, which the administration considers its top security challenge in the Middle East. He has said that he does not want the controversy over Khashoggi’s death to impede oil production by the kingdom.
If the President wants to stick to that, he’ll need to explain it to the public which now knows that the CIA is fully aware of what’s been obvious to the entire world for six weeks.