The controversy around the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi continues to develop.
In summer 2018, Saudi Arabia promised the Trump administration $100 million for the stabilization of areas in Syria liberated from ISIS. Coincidentally, that money was wired to the US State Department on October 16th, just as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Riyadh for discussions regarding the missing journalist with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“The timing of this is no coincidence,” said an unnamed American official involved in Syria policy, cited by NYT.
On the same day, US President Donald Trump in an interview said: “Here we go again with you’re guilty until proven innocent.”
Furthermore, ABC reported that according to an unnamed Turkish official, Mike Pompeo heard an alleged audio recording of Khashoggi’s murder inside the Saudi consulate. He was also reportedly given a transcript of the recordings.
The State Department denied Pompeo had heard the recording, although it did not address whether he had been given a transcript. “The secretary addressed this yesterday. He has not heard a tape,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. He himself denied having heard any tape on his flight back from Istanbul.
Mike Pompeo also met with Turkish President Recep Taiyyp Erdogan in an attempt to resolve the issue surrounding the disappearance and alleged killing of the journalist. It is unclear exactly what the two discussed. However, the NYT reported that after meeting with the Turkish officials Pompeo said repeatedly that the Trump administration was withholding judgment until seeing the results of the Turkish and Saudi investigations. “It’s reasonable to give them a handful of days to get it right,” he said.
He also lowered expectations that the US might punish Saudi Arabia.
“I do think it’s important that everyone keep in their mind that we have lots of important relations, financial relationships between U.S. and Saudi companies, government relationships, things that we work on all across the world,” he told reporters on his plane after leaving Ankara. “We just need to make sure that we are mindful of that as we approach decisions that the United States government will take when we learn all of the facts.”
It would be a disaster if the truth of Khashoggi’s murder is officially revealed, since the US would have to take action against the Kingdom. If, following the meeting, Turkey changes its rhetoric it could possibly be due to a US promise for removal of tariffs or other economic stimulus or assistance with the Kurdish issue in Syria.
Brett McGurk, the United States envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, dismissed the idea that Mr. Pompeo’s visit and the disbursement of funds were connected. “The specific transfer of funds has been long in process and has nothing to do with other events or the secretary’s visit,” he said.
However, the unnamed official cited by NYT said that the payment process had been unpredictable.
Following the return of Pompeo from Saudi Arabia on October 18th, Donald Trump conceded that “it certainly looks like” Khashoggi is dead. He further claimed that consequences would have to be “very severe.” “Well, it’ll have to be very severe,” Trump told reporters. “I mean, it’s bad, bad stuff, but we’ll see what happens.”
His admittance that Khashoggi is probably dead is based on intelligence sources. “That’s based on everything — intelligence coming from every side,” he said.
Steven Mnuchin, the US Treasury secretary, also joined a growing list of business leaders and officials to pull out of the Future Investment Initiative conference next week in Riyadh. He withdrew with Trump’s support.
This marks a recognition within the White House of the global pressure against Saudi Arabia.
US vice-president Mike Pence was also concerned regarding the possibility that Saudi Arabia had, in fact, killed Jamal. “If what has been alleged occurred… that is to be condemned. If a journalist lost their life at the hand of violence, that is a threat to a free and independent press around the world and there will be consequences,” he was cited by the Financial Times.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said that there is no reason to downgrade relations with the Kingdom if there is no clear evidence that Saudi Arabia killed Khashoggi. “As far as I know the journalist who went missing used to live in the USA. He did not live in Russia. In this regard the US has a certain responsibility… what else can I say here?” Putin said. “If someone knows what happens and there was a murder, I hope some evidence is provided. And dependent on that, we will make some decisions.”
On October 17th the final search for forensic evidence finished in the Saudi Arabia consulate. CNN Turk news channel reported that investigators found DNA material at one or both of the sites and now want to obtain samples from Khashoggi’s family to see if there is a match. Turkish officials maintain that Khashoggi was tortured and killed by a team of Saudi citizens.
ABC further cited Turan Kislakci, who is a close friend of Jamal. According to him, Turkish officials told him that Khashoggi was dead. “They said, ‘We have audio on this. We know all the details about what transpired,’” said Kislakci. “They said, ‘We were able to access this the first day, and we have various other evidence on this.’”
Regarding the suspects in the investigation, a Turkish newspaper revealed pictures of Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb entering the Saudi consulate hours before Khashoggi entered it himself. Mutred is a known associate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with numerous pictures showing them together initially published by the NYT. The Crown Prince still maintains that he had no knowledge of any plan to capture, torture or kill the journalist.
Another suspect, Mashal Saad al-Bostani, a 31-year-old lieutenant of the Saudi Royal Air Forces died in a car accident on October 18th, according to Turkish Outlet Yeni Safak. Unnamed sources did not release any additional information. The details around the traffic incident in Riyadh and his role in Khashoggi’s disappearance are yet unclear.
The Daily Hurriyet also reported that the next person who dies in a suspicious incident could be Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consul Mohammad al-Otaibi. According to the outlet the Crown Prince “would do anything to get rid of evidence.”
Yeni Safak also reported that the tape which Turkish authorities have in their possession has a clear sample of al-Otaibi’s voice, supposedly telling investigators to “do it somewhere else outside or I will be in trouble.” He was told to not speak if he wants to live when he returns to the Kingdom.