International intrigue deepened Wednesday over the disappearance of a prominent U.S.-based Saudi journalist after a visit last week to the Saudi Consulate in Turkey, as suspicions that he had been killed or kidnapped by a team of Saudi operatives threatened to spiral into a major diplomatic crisis.
President Trump and his top security aides, who have cultivated a close relationship with hard-charging Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, pressed Riyadh for answers Wednesday to what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, a frequent critic of the regime who has not been seen or heard from since visiting the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
“The Saudis have a lot of explaining to do because all indications are that they have been involved at minimum with his disappearance,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, told The Associated Press. “Everything points to them.”
The Saudis deny any role in Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance. Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Riyadh’s ambassador to Washington, denounced what he called “malicious leaks and grim rumors” of Saudi culpability.
One thing, however, is certain: If Mr. Khashoggi, who has written critically of the crown prince, was silenced — perhaps permanently — by a Saudi intelligence operation, the fallout will be severe for the Trump administration, which has spent more than a year cozying up to Riyadh as its go-to ally against the Middle East’s other major power, Iran.
“We accuse the Iranians of exporting terrorism,” said longtime regional analyst Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “Well, this looks an awful lot like the Saudis are exporting terrorism, and that puts a bone in the craw of the Trump administration’s whole narrative that it’s better to be friends with Saudi Arabia than Iran.”
The incident is likely to cool even further the frosty relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, battered by Ankara’s decision to side with Qatar in a diplomatic feud with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has described Mr. Khashoggi as a “personal friend” and has issued increasingly harsh public statements demanding that the Saudis clarify what happened to him.
A New York Times report said top Turkish security officials now believe the journalist was assassinated in the Saudi Consulate on orders from Riyadh.
Citing an unidentified official, the paper said Turkish investigators had uncovered a complex operation in which Mr. Khashoggi, 59, was killed within two hours of his arrival at the consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 by a team of 15 Saudi agents, who then dismembered his body with a bone saw they brought for the purpose — an account the Saudis strenuously deny.
The leaked videos do not offer definitive proof about Mr. Khashoggi’s fate but claim to show a team of 15 Saudis arriving and leaving Istanbul via private jets, and visiting the Saudi Consulate just as Mr. Khashoggi disappeared there. Turkish media identified some of the men as either members of Saudi intelligence or the kingdom’s military special forces.
The Washington Post, where Mr. Khashoggi has written columns since last year, reported that intercepted communications showed Saudi officials wanted to lure Mr. Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia. The paper said it was not clear whether the agents intended to kill Mr. Khashoggi or whether U.S. officials had warned him he was a target.
President Trump has been under increasing pressure to respond to the incident. Vice President Mike Pence told a radio appearance that “violence against journalists should be condemned.”
“It’s a very serious situation for us,” Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “We do not like seeing what’s going on. Now, as you know, they’re saying, ‘We had nothing to do with it.’ But so far, everyone’s saying they had nothing to do with it.”
The White House later said National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner had all spoken with Salman to ask “for more details and for the Saudi government to be transparent.” It was not disclosed what they were told by the prince.
Mr. Trump made his first overseas trip as U.S. president to Saudi Arabia, whose friendship and willingness to take direct military action against Iran-backed militants in Yemen has factored heavily into the administration’s overall Middle East strategy.
A critic of the prince
Mr. Khashoggi was at the Istanbul consulate seeking to fill out forms ahead of his wedding to his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. Surveillance images capture him entering the consulate but never emerging, while his fiancee is seen waiting listlessly for him outside.
“Images in the media point to the possibility of an abduction or an assassination. I hope that it does not turn out to be murder, as alleged by these images,” Ms. Cengiz said in a statement to CNN on Wednesday. “Until official statements are made, it makes more sense to wait a bit longer and to see the final result as opposed to making a bold comment.”
Mr. Trump has said he intends to meet with Ms. Cengiz, who appealed to the president for help, at the White House in the near future.
Ms. Cengiz has written that Mr. Khashoggi sought to become a U.S. citizen after living in self-imposed exile since last year, fearing repercussions for his criticism of the Saudi leadership.
She also wrote that Mr. Khashoggi felt concern that he “could be in danger” during the days leading up to Oct. 2, but that he needed to visit the consulate in Istanbul to obtain the necessary paperwork so the couple could be married.
Mr. Khashoggi has written columns over the past year arguing that despite the crown prince’s image as a reformer and modernizer of Saudi Arabia’s deeply conservative society, oppression of intellectuals and religious leaders has spiraled in recent years.
The prince has won favor with the Trump administration while leading a widely publicized drive to reform Saudi Arabia’s Sunni monarchy. But he has also presided over the arrests of large numbers of rights activists and businessmen in the kingdom.
But sources close to the government in Riyadh say it is hard to believe that the young prince would risk an international incident and embarrass Mr. Trump and Mr. Erdogan by ordering the assassination of a journalist critic on foreign soil.
“Saudi policy toward a critic like this is always to buy people off, try to bring them back into the fold,” one source told The Washington Times. “An act like this is totally out of character for the royal family. If it happened, it would be because it was a total [mess]-up by some people and there will be consequences.”
But the prince has proved an audacious, risk-taking leader at home and abroad. He drew global attention as he consolidated power last year by engineering a nearly three-month-long house arrest of dozens of the kingdom’s most powerful people, including several older princes within the ruling royal family.
He has also spearheaded a bloody intervention into the civil war in neighboring Yemen and has vowed to fight Iran and its regional proxies in the struggle for dominance in the region.
A revenge hit?
“The Saudis may have used money, not force, for decades to get their way with bribes, but that all changed with Mohammad bin Salman,” Mr. Landis said. “Frankly, I don’t put it past him to have put out an order for [Mr. Khashoggi] to be whacked in the same way [Russian President Vladimir Putin] is whacking opponents overseas because it sends a message and intimidates critics.
“Every Saudi who might be thinking about speaking up is going to be quiet,” he added, asserting that the risks are high for the Trump administration to continue with what has been over the past year a policy of increased weapons sales and diplomatic chumminess toward the crown prince.
The Trump White House’s efforts to cultivate Saudi Arabia are complicated by a far less friendly attitude among many lawmakers on Capitol Hill — of both parties. Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, has called for a halt in arms sales to Riyadh until the Khashoggi mystery in cleared up, and some Capitol Hill Democrats were pouncing Wednesday on the White House’s slow response to the incident.
“If the allegations are true, I hope this is a serious wake-up call to the Trump administration and D.C. more broadly that we need a complete re-evaluation of our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, California Democrat. “This is what happens when you embolden authoritarian dictators around the world.”