Fired aide to Saudi crown prince still working unofficially after Khashoggi murder: Wall Street Journal
Story Code : 777557
Citing unnamed Saudi officials, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that, Qahtani continues to carry out some of his duties as a royal-court adviser on media affairs, such as “issuing directives to local journalists and brokering meetings” for the crown prince, also known as MBS.
Qahtani – believed to be bin Salman’s right-hand man – is one of the highest-profile figures implicated in the brutal assassination of Khashoggi – an outspoken critic of the heir to the Saudi throne -- at Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul in early October 2018.
He was removed from his post after a Turkish investigation concluded that there was “strong suspicion” that Qahtani – along with another aide to MBS Ahmed Asiri – was among the planners of the murder.
Qahtani is believed to have supervised a 15-man hit squad that flew from Riyadh to Istanbul to carry out Khashoggi’s murder, although he did not travel to Turkey.
“MBS still goes to him for advice, and he still calls him his adviser with his close associates,” one Saudi official said, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The report cited Saudi officials as saying that Qahtani had extensive sway over domestic and foreign affairs. He tightened controls on the press and assembled a 3,000-strong team to monitor and intimidate critics on social media, they said.
Turkish officials have tied the murder case to the highest levels of Saudi leadership. The CIA is also reported to have concluded that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s murder, a conclusion Riyadh has denied.
Earlier in January, a Saudi court held its first hearing on Khashoggi’s case in which Saudi Arabian prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five of the 11 suspects in the case.
According to the Saudi government, Qahtani hasn’t been charged in the case and is one of an additional 10 people who are under investigation.
A Saudi royal familiar with the matter said the Saudi crown prince sought to protect Qahtani.
“For MBS, Qahtani was the backbone of his court, and [Prince Mohammed] assured him that he will be untouched and will return when the Khashoggi case blows over,” he said.
Saudi officials also told the Journal that Qahtani is still at liberty and continues to operate discreetly.
A Saudi official told the Journal that Qahtani has been spotted in Abu Dhabi, even though the kingdom imposed a travel ban in the aftermath of the murder. He was seen in the royal court at least twice until people complained and he was banned, Saudi officials said.
Some US officials said they are skeptical that anyone will be executed for Khashoggi’s killing. And they have told Saudi officials that the legal process isn’t moving quickly enough.
“We see it going very slowly,” said the senior State Department official. “It’s a way for them to turn the tap on and turn the tap off in terms of accountability. It could string out for a long time.”
A US official said that Riyadh ambassador to Washington, Khalid bin Salman, who is MBS’s brother, told the US that that Saudi authorities wouldn’t take Qahtani’s cellphone away from him because he would find a way around it.
Saudi authorities are said to have resisted pressure from US officials to hold Qahtani responsible, though he is still reportedly under investigation by the Saudi public prosecutor.
US officials said they have pressed Riyadh to rein in Qahtani and they have made it clear that he should be prosecuted if the facts support it.
They said Washington also wants to see the crown prince accept some responsibility for the murder of Khashoggi, who had become a prominent critic of the crackdown on dissidents.
“If MBS wants to demonstrate leadership,” said the State Department official, the crown prince should issue a statement “that this is inexcusable and this will never happen again and the bucks stops with me.”
“That sort of helps people move on, but that hasn’t happened,” he said.
Riyadh has also resisted US pressure to close the royal media center that Qahtani once used to intimidate Saudi dissidents, American officials said.
US President Trump has avoided criticizing MBS, prompting criticisms that he was seeking to whitewash the murder to protect ties with Saudi Arabia.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, claimed that “America is not covering up for a murder,” and that the United States would take more action to hold accountable all those responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
‘Riyadh not helping Ankara with probe’
Turkey wants the suspects in Khashoggi’s case, including Qahtani, to stand trial in Turkey, but Saudi Arabia has refused to extradite them.
A spokesperson for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) said Monday that Saudi Arabia was not cooperating with Ankara in its investigation into the murder.
Saudi authorities have not yet responded to requests for cooperation, and we have not yet seen the necessary cooperation on this subject, AKP spokesman Omer Celik said.
He said Turkey is seriously seeking to identify those who ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
Ankara will continue with “full transparency” its investigations on the murder of the journalist, he said.