U.S., allied agencies still clarifying prince’s role in Khashoggi affair

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Three weeks after Jamal Khashoggi went missing, U.S. and key European security agencies still have an incomplete picture of what role Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have played in the Saudi journalist’s disappearance and death.

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud is seen during a meeting with U.N Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the United Nations headquarters in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S. March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Levy/File Photo

Six U.S. and Western officials said on Monday they believe the prince, who is Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, is ultimately responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance due to his role overseeing the Saudi security apparatus but they lack hard proof.

Turkish officials suspect Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 by a team of Saudi agents and his body cut up.

Saudi Arabia said on Saturday the 59-year-old was killed in a fight in the consulate. A Saudi official later told Reuters 15 Saudi nationals sent to Turkey to confront Khashoggi had threatened him with being drugged and kidnapped and then killed him in a chokehold when he resisted.

The Western security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they are far from having a complete picture of what happened to the Saudi columnist. They do not know how he died and where his body was taken.

Despite extensive news leaks alleging that Turkey has audio recordings documenting Khashoggi’s torture and murder, as of Monday neither U.S. nor allied government agencies had been granted access to such evidence, the officials said.

For Western allies of Saudi Arabia, a main question in the Khashoggi death is whether they believe that Prince Mohammed, who has painted himself as a reformer, has any culpability.

U.S. President Donald Trump last week said the prince “totally” denied any knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance.

The Western government experts’ confidence that Prince Mohammed had some responsibility for the operation relies heavily on their assessment of the dominant role he plays in running the Saudi government, said two sources familiar with intelligence reports.

“Difficult to say MBS did not know about this,” a Western security source said.

But U.S. and allied intelligence reporting that details any specific instructions the crown prince might have issued about the Khashoggi incident is not conclusive, the sources said.

This leaves open questions such as whether the Saudi operation in Istanbul was always intended to result in Khashoggi’s death or whether the original plan was to kidnap and transport him to Saudi Arabia.

Trump said on Monday he was still not satisfied with what he has heard from Saudi Arabia about the killing.

“I spoke to the Crown Prince. We have people over in Saudi Arabia now. We have top intelligence people in Turkey. We’re going to see what we have. I’ll know a lot tomorrow.” Trump said.

Turkish officials provided U.S. and Western officials with verbal accounts of evidence they say they collected documenting Khashoggi’s fate, the officials said.

One European security source said the information Turkey has shared verbally is “very detailed and they sound confident.”

The United States and its allies also have some independent intelligence reporting supporting media reports that Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate by a military squad sent from Saudi Arabia to Istanbul, two sources said.

Reporting By Mark Hosenball and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell

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