The US has intercepts of Saudi officials discussing a plan to lure journalist Jamal Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and detain him, according to a US official familiar with the intelligence.
Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist and critic of the regime, has been missing for more than a week after going to the Saudi consulate general in Istanbul to obtain wedding papers. Turkish officials privately believe he was killed at the consulate, an allegation denied by Saudi Arabia.
The official said it is unclear if the original plan was to murder Khashoggi or if something went wrong at the consulate and that he might have been killed during an attempt to kidnap him. The official said that getting Khashoggi to the consulate appears to have been a backup plan, because he couldn’t be persuaded to fly back to Saudi Arabia.
The official said there is no hard evidence as to whether Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post, is dead or alive.
The source did not say when the US became aware of the discussions. As CNN reported earlier this week, intercepted communications were being reviewed in the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance.
The official would not go so far as to say Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the operation but said that, although he may not have known the specifics such a plan couldn’t have taken place without his approval.
US officials think it’s possible the Crown Prince wanted Khashoggi silenced, but miscalculated the global impact his disappearance would have.
The Washington Post first reported the details of the intercepts.
US President Donald Trump is facing increased pressure over the Khashoggi case. Late Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators wrote to the President, calling for the White House to determine what happened to Khashoggi and whether sanctions should be imposed on whoever was responsible for his fate.
The letter, penned by the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, triggers an investigation under legislation that allows the President to impose sanctions on individuals or countries that are deemed to have committed a human rights violation. The White House must respond within 120 days, setting out what actions it proposes to take.Trump told Fox News in an interview on Wednesday night that “so far it’s looking a little bit like” the Saudis are behind Khashoggi’s disappearance but said it was too early to say how the US might respond.
Blocking further arms sales to Saudi Arabia “would be hurting us,” he said.
Trump said that US economic success was due in part to “what we are doing with our defense systems,” and added: “Frankly I think that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters Thursday that Turkey “cannot remain silent” on the disappearance of Khashoggi.
“We are currently investigating the event in all its dimensions. The event took place in our country. We cannot remain silent in the face of an event like this because it is not a normal occurrence,” Erdogan said while returning on a flight from Hungary. He said security and intelligence forces “have been looking at all dimensions of this” and are looking especially closely at the country’s entry and exit points.
Turkish officials have said that a 15-man team flew from Saudi Arabia into Istanbul on the day Khashoggi entered the consulate, and were present in the building at the same time the journalist. The investigation has focused on CCTV footage which showed the men arriving at the consulate.
A Saudi source familiar with four of the 15 men told CNN that one is a former diplomat in London and an intelligence officer, and another is a forensics expert.
In a statement to CNN on Wednesday, a Saudi official said the kingdom “categorically” denies “any involvement in Jamal’s disappearance.”
“At this stage, our priority is to support the investigation, as opposed to responding to evolving comments not directly related to those efforts. Jamal’s well being, as a Saudi citizen, is our utmost concern and we are focusing on the investigation as a means to reveal the truth behind his disappearance. Our sympathies go out to the family during this difficult time,” the official said.