Hunt for Khashoggi's body continues in Istanbul

As a search continued for a dissident Saudi journalist's body in Istanbul, Turkey's president said more will be revealed Tuesday; a Saudi official tells Reuters the body was rolled up in a carpet and given to a collaborator for disposal.

al-monitor A vehicle drives into the Belgrad Forest in Istanbul, Turkey, Oct. 20, 2018. The forest was one of the places where Turkish officials were searching for the remains of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Photo by REUTERS/Osman Orsal.

Oct 21, 2018

The hunt for a slain Saudi journalist’s body was continuing today in Istanbul and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he will make important statements about the case during his ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party’s parliamentary group meeting Tuesday. 

“We seek justice; this is not an ordinary case. The incident will be revealed entirely,” Erdogan said in Istanbul today. He gave no further details. 

Erdogan’s comments came after Saudi Arabia finally acknowledged Oct. 19 that dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi had died during what it claimed was a brawl that had escalated out of control in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. 

Turkish investigators have already searched the consulate building and the Saudi consul general’s residence, and the search has extended to the sprawling Belgrad Forest, a rare green space in the teeming city. But the remains of the 59-year-old Washington Post contributor had yet to be found. 

AKP spokesman Omer Celik sought to quash speculation that Turkey would simply accept the Saudi version of events as part of an unspecified deal. Celik said Turkey owed “a debt of honor” to reveal what had happened. “We are not blaming anyone in advance but we won’t accept anything being covered up,” Celik said Saturday. But he made no mention of an 11-minute audio recording Turkish officials claim to have in their possession. The recording proves Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, officials speaking on condition of anonymity to the media have said. 

Pressure is mounting on Turkey to formally disclose all of its findings, amid ever-louder calls for an independent investigation.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed claims he heard the tape when he flew to Turkey on Wednesday to discuss the case with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu and Erdogan. But US intelligence sources have suggested otherwise. 

The tape purportedly reveals that the Saudi dissident’s body was dismembered after Khashoggi was tortured and then beheaded by a 15-member Saudi hit squad alleged to be acting under orders from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

With Saudi Arabia formally acknowledging that Khashoggi died, the tape’s significance now hinges on whether it directly implicates Mohammed or not and at a minimum deconstructs the Saudi narrative. While many credit Turkey for forcing at least one truth out of the Saudis, the bigger prize would be the prince’s removal from power. Ankara apparently hopes the United States can tip the balance. If President Donald Trump were to pull the plug on Mohammed, the reasoning goes, this would allow the crown prince’s army of detractors within the royal family to coalesce against him and force the king’s hand. 

But Trump is visibly reluctant to sacrifice the powerful prince, having invested so much capital in Mohammed as a key pillar in the administration's anti-Iran campaign.

Trump’s initial reaction to Saudi claims that Khashoggi had died in a scuffle was to label them as “credible” even as Western leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and the EU’s foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, among others, kept up calls for full accountability and transparency regarding the killing. Today the UK, French and German foreign ministers released a joint statement on Khashoggi, noting Saudi Arabia's preliminary findings but calling for an "urgent need for clarification" on what exactly happened after he entered the consulate Oct. 2.

"Nothing can justify this killing," the statement said.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told CNN’s State of the Union today, “I am not rushing to judgment. Do I think he [Prince Mohammed] did it. Yes, I think he did it. … There has to be a punishment and a price to pay for that.” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said today that he does not believe the Saudis' narrative. “Absolutely not, it's insulting,” he said.

The Washington Post has also made clear that it will not let the story be buried anytime soon, however hard the Saudis try.

In an interview with the Post, Trump walked back his initial credulity, saying, "Obviously there's been deception and there's been lies." But he then went on to say that he would "love" for the crown prince not to be responsible. 

A Saudi official speaking anonymously to Reuters relayed a new account of what had happened that he said was based on preliminary results of an ongoing internal investigation. 

According to this story, Khashoggi, who entered the consulate Oct. 2 never to reappear, was killed in a chokehold when he resisted the Saudi team that had “threatened him with being drugged and kidnapped” unless he agreed to be flown back home. As part of the cover-up, a team member donned Khashoggi’s clothes and left the consulate to simulate his exit. 

This account says Khashoggi’s body was not cut up, as had been claimed by Turkish officials who leaked details to the media, but rather was rolled up in a carpet and handed over to a “local collaborator” for disposal. The Saudis say they don't know what the person did with it and it remains unclear whether his identity was shared with Turkish police.

The “rendition gone wrong scenario” appears to be aimed at absolving the crown prince of all culpability by pinning blame on the security team. All 15 have been detained and are under investigation, the Saudi official told Reuters. He did not refer to Ahmed al-Asiri, who was Saudi deputy intelligence chief on Oct. 2, or to top crown prince adviser Saud al-Qahtani. The men were reportedly both fired on the orders of Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud.

However it all occurred, what the tragedy has done is to cruelly vindicate Khashoggi’s criticism of the way his country is run.