Saudi prosecutors found no link to aide prominent in CIA, MI6 and Turkish inquiries
Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent- The Guardian
A commemoration event for Jamal Khashoggi on 11 November 2018. Five people were sentenced to death for his murder, but two top aides to the powerful crown prince were exonerated. Photograph: Ozan Köse/AFP via Getty Images
In 14 months of global investigations into the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, all paths seemed to lead to Saud al-Qahtani – the most influential aide of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Saudi prosecutors, however, reached a starkly different conclusion on Monday, finding no evidence to link Qahtani to the gruesome killing inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, and instead sentencing five lower-ranking members of a hit squad to death.
The ruling, made after an opaque series of hearings in Riyadh, on one hand distances the country’s heir to the throne from an event that shattered his international image and almost derailed his rise. But it will also renew criticism that the alleged masterminds of Khashoggi’s death remain protected by an unrepentant royal court, which has offered up as sacrifices a team of underlings who were following their orders.
While not named in the Saudi investigation, Qahtani had featured prominently in inquiries led by the CIA, MI6 and Turkish officials, who had all concluded that he had been in regular contact in the days before Khashoggi’s death with another senior official who was also freed by a court in Riyadh on Monday, Saudi Arabia’s deputy intelligence chief, Ahmed al-Asiri.
American officials also concluded that it was highly likely that Prince Mohammed himself had ordered the assassination, with Qahtani assembling, at his instruction, the 15-man team of hitmen who flew to Istanbul.
Qahtani had been with Prince Mohammed as he seized and consolidated his power from the time he was appointed deputy crown prince. He had been known across the country’s ruling elite as the powerful heir’s domestic fixer, and was given a particular brief to crack down on opponents, perceived or real.
When Prince Mohammed ordered the detention of many of the kingdom’s business elite in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in late 2017, Qahtani was present when some of those detained were interrogated and is alleged to have pressured some to sign over their assets. He was there again when at least two women who had campaigned for the right to drive were investigated after being imprisoned on charges of subverting the state.
Silencing dissent, and empowering the crown prince, became Qahtani’s core responsibility. By the time of Khashoggi’s abduction and murder, he had become the most feared official in Saudi Arabia, a man who operated with little restraint and with the full protection of its quasi-ruler.
American officials told the New York Times that he played a prominent role in a “rapid intervention group” that forcibly repatriated Saudi dissidents from other countries. Those who were returned to the kingdom were sometimes drugged, human rights groups say. Many complained of psychological torture, while some others alleged physical abuse.
He also led a nascent team of cyberhackers who became central to the kingdom’s efforts to track its perceived enemies and their activities. Saudi Arabia’s capacity to operate in the digital space had been limited until it acquired software from the Israeli technology company NSO, which allowed it to penetrate encrypted phones and computers and harvest their data. Regional officials have claimed that Asiri, who had risen to prominence in his role as spokesman for the kingdom’s war in Yemen, had been an interlocutor between Riyadh and Tel Aviv when the software, known as Pegasus, was acquired.
As pressure on Prince Mohammed mounted in the weeks following Khashoggi’s murder and dissection inside the Istanbul consulate, Qahtani was removed from his official positions and told to remain in a compound on the outskirts of Riyadh.
In November of 2018 the US Treasury Department sanctioned Qahtani, describing him as “part of the planning and execution of the operation that led to the killing of Mr Khashoggi”.
But despite this intelligence officials Washington and London believe that he remained influential in the crown prince’s inner circle, and continued to enjoy his full confidence. “The crown prince got the message quite recently that Qahtani was a liability to him,” said one senior western official earlier this month. “It was not something he wanted to hear.”
And nor was it something that Prince Mohammed appeared ready to act on. The court case of the 15-member hit squad allegedly responsible for Khashoggi’s death had been prominent news in Saudi Arabia, where Qahtani’s ties to the royal court have been broadly discussed since the former journalist and Washington Post columnist’s murder. And at the time, there had been wide consensus that no Saudi court could afford to make a finding that brings the crime to the doorstep of the kingdom’s seat of power.
“It is not a secret among his inner circle, or his friends, that he has been told to sit things out for a while and wait for it to blow over,” said a senior Saudi official in Riyadh. “Nothing has changed there, except no one sees him anymore. MbS [the crown prince] does not worry about Trump bothering him about human rights. Even if [Trump] says it, he doesn’t mean it. Things have changed.”
Over the past year, western officials have been trying to determine whether Qahtani in fact retains official titles, even while under house arrest. There have been persistent, though uncorroborated, suggestions that he remains active in the kingdom’s continuing cyber-operations activities, which are still an essential component of Prince Mohammed’s efforts to rein in dissent.
“If he doesn’t have a formal role, he’s at least being consulted,” said one official. “What we are quite sure of is he’s living a good life. He’s been told to wait things out.”