US intelligence officials have told The Washington Post they have been presented with video and audio recordings of the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi inside his own nation’s consulate in Istanbul.
According to intelligence officials cited by The Post, the recordings capture the moments before and during what they described as Mr Khashoggi’s violent death. The 59-year-old, a columnist for The Post, was allegedly killed at the hands of a team of Saudi security personnel flown by private jet into Turkey’s main city just hours before he was scheduled to arrive at the consulate to settle routine personal matters.
“The voice recording from inside the embassy lays out what happened to Jamal after he entered,” The Post quotes a source as saying.
“You can hear his voice and the voices of men speaking Arabic. You can hear how he was interrogated, tortured and then murdered.”
Turkey’s official Anatolia News Agency reported The Post‘s findings, but no official confirmed the existence of the recordings.
On Friday, 10 days after Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance, a team of Saudi officials, reportedly led by Prince Khalid al-Faisal, arrived in Ankara to meet Turkish counterparts seeking his whereabouts.
“A joint working team between Turkey and Saudi Arabia will be formed to investigate the case of Jamal in all its aspects,” Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters late Thursday.
The case has rattled the region and shaken ties between the west and Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest exporter of oil and second largest importer of weapons. Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of its de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has strenuously denied the accusation it was behind Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance, its surrogates denouncing the allegations as “fake news.”
“False reports concerning the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and fabricated by some agencies have not seemed realistic or reasonable,” the pro-regime al-Yaum newspaper said in an unsigned editorial Thursday. “The investigation of his disappearance, which has not been completed so far, could be enough to reveal many facts.”
Many have been unconvinced by the Saudi denials. Over the last few days, several large western firms and prominent figures announced they were pulling out of joint ventures and appearances with the Saudi leadership over the disappearance. Among them were The New York Times, Uber, and The Economist, along with Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington and former US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, former energy secretary under President Barack Obama, is suspending his involvement advising Saudi Arabia on a $500 billion smart city project.
“What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government,” Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin, said in a statement suspending several ongoing projects with Saudi entities.
But other firms – including JPMorgan Chase and the Blackstone Group hedge fund – have yet to rescind their participation in an upcoming Riyadh conference which was to showcase 33-year-old Crown Prince Salman’s leadership. President Donald Trump, whose son-in-law Jared Kushner has formed a close relationship with the Crown Prince, on Thursday ruled out restricting arms deals with Saudi over Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance.
“This took place in Turkey, and to the best of our knowledge Khashoggi is not a United States citizen,” Mr Trump said in an oval office meeting Thursday. “He’s a permanent resident. We don’t like it even a little bit. But as to whether or not we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country, knowing that they have four or five alternatives – two very good alternatives – that would not be acceptable to me.”
But Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance could also spell trouble for Mr Trump just weeks before crucial mid-term elections. Already the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee has ordered a review of Saudi Arabia under the Magnitsky Act, which punishes state figures implicated in human rights abuses. Questions have begun to swirl about whether anyone in Trump’s administration knew anything about Saudi plans to harm Mr Khashoggi.
“If there was information about potential threats to Jamal Khashoggi before he ever went into that consulate, the question then becomes, ‘Who knew about that in the government?’” Shane Harris, a Washington Post reporter, said in a television interview. “‘And was that ever presented to president?’”
The circumstantial evidence implicating Saudi authorities in Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance is mounting. Several prominent Saudi dissidents and royal family members have been kidnapped abroad or tricked into returning to the kingdom in recent years. US spies have told The New York Times and The Washington Post that they picked up chatter suggesting Crown Prince Mohammed had ordered underlings to lure Mr Khashoggi back to the Kingdom.
Turkish authorities have been leaking security camera footage and travel data that suggests 15 Saudi nationals arriving in two private jets arrived at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport and raced to enter the consulate shortly before Mr Khashoggi’s 2 October arrival, and vans and cars zooming off to the consular residence and back to the airport soon after his disappearance.
The Saudi-funded, Dubai-based al-Arabiya channel reported Thursday that the 15 Saudi men were merely tourists on holiday in Turkey.
Turks have yet to leak the audio and video evidence that reportedly records Mr Khashoggi inside the consulate and that they reportedly showed to US counterparts. Istanbul police likely released the security camera footage leaked to friends and allies in local media. But more sensitive recordings from inside the consulate are likely in the custody of Turkey’s national intelligence service, MIT.
Some news outlets reported that Mr Khashoggi was wearing a sophisticated Apple watch that might have recorded audio that immediately uploaded to the internet. But the Turkish intelligence may also simply bug diplomatic outposts, a fairly common practice by intelligence services worldwide, and be shy about disclosing their espionage.
“Spy agencies’ main goal when foreign embassies are built is to slip in as many devices as possible without detection,” said Theodore Karasik, of Gulf State Analytics, a research and security consultancy. “It is a common practice.”