Exclusive: Saudi assassins picked up illicit drugs in Cairo to kill Khashoggi

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Early on the morning of Oct. 2, 2018, a Gulfstream jet carrying a team of Saudi assassins on its way to Istanbul made a quick stopover in Cairo. The purpose: to pick up a lethal dose of “illegal” narcotics that was injected a few hours later into the left arm of Jamal Khashoggi, killing the Washington Post columnist within a matter of minutes, according to notes that summarize secret Saudi interrogations of the murderers.

What the drugs were — and who provided them in the middle of the night at Cairo’s airport — remains a mystery. But the previously undisclosed Cairo connection points for the first time to the possible existence of Egyptian accomplices in Khashoggi’s death. It also provides compelling new evidence of what the Saudi government had long denied: that the hit team, dispatched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, intended to kill the journalist before the plane ever took off from Riyadh and well before Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul later that day.

The delivery of lethal drugs in Cairo to effectively poison Khashoggi is among a number of damning new details about the journalist’s grisly murder that are revealed in a new eight-episode season of Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland” podcast being released this week, titled “The Secret Lives and Brutal Death of Jamal Khashoggi.”  

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“Conspiracyland” traces the arc of Khashoggi’s career — from his days as a close friend of Osama bin Laden during the U.S. and Saudi government-backed war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan to his time as a media spokesman and spin doctor for the Saudi government that involved, according to one of his colleagues, being dispatched on “secret missions” by the Saudi ambassador to London, a former chief of Saudi intelligence.

By the end of his life, however, Khashoggi had become a fierce and unrelenting critic of the crown prince’s harsh crackdowns on internal dissent. “Conspiracyland” presents new details of how MBS, even while being hailed as a reformer by U.S. officials, played a direct role in supervising that crackdown: He allegedly oversaw an espionage scheme targeting the San Francisco headquarters of Twitter in which two Saudi spies stole cellphone numbers, private email accounts, direct messages and other personal information of Saudi government critics, including a close associate of Khashoggi’s.

“It was us. We did that. We have our guy at Twitter,” MBS told a former top Saudi counterterrorism official, Saad Aljabri, according to an account provided by Aljabri’s son Khalid on the “Conspiracyland” podcast.

Former Saudi intelligence official Saad al-Jabri (R) poses with his son Omar al-Jabri whilst visiting schools around Boston, MA. in 2016.  (Khalid al-Jabri/Handout via Reuters)
Former Saudi intelligence official Saad Aljabri with his son Omar in 2016. (Khalid al-Jabri/Handout via Reuters)

MBS even went on to brag that “we paid” 1 million Saudi riyals to one of the spies, according to Khalid Aljabri’s account of the conversation. That amount roughly corresponds to the nearly $300,000 that federal prosecutors have alleged in an indictment that one of the spies received in payment from the Saudi government.

The pending Justice Department indictment of the two spies charges them with wire fraud, money laundering and acting as unregistered agents of the Saudi government. It refers to MBS as “Saudi Royal Family 1” and his personal secretary, Bader al-Asaker, who allegedly recruited the Twitter moles, as “Foreign Official 1.”

“There’s a direct trail of blood drops from this hack to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” said Mark Kleiman, a lawyer representing Omar Abdulaziz, a Canadian-based Saudi dissident and collaborator of Khashoggi’s whose personal information was allegedly stolen by the Saudi spies and whose phone was later infected by Saudi-directed spyware. (A Twitter spokesman said the company has fully cooperated with the investigations into the spy plot and, since being informed of the plot, has taken steps to shut down hundreds of Saudi government troll accounts on its platform.) 

Khashoggi was assassinated — and his body dismembered with what U.S. intelligence officials believe was a bone saw — shortly after he entered the consulate hoping to pick up records showing he was divorced from his wife in Saudi Arabia, thereby allowing him to marry his Turkish fiancée. A report released by President Biden’s director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, in February concluded that the crown prince approved an operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi that was carried out by a 15-member Saudi hit team, seven of whom were assigned to the Saudi royal’s personal security detail.

In this Oct. 2, 2018 file image taken from CCTV video obtained by the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, shows Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. (CCTV/Hurriyet via AP)
An image from CCTV video shows Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. (CCTV/Hurriyet via AP)

After entering the consulate at 1:13 on the afternoon of Oct. 2, Khashoggi quickly realized he was to be forcibly drugged and “tried to run away,” according to the notes of comments made by Saudi prosecutors during a closed-door trial of Khashoggi’s killers. The notes indicate that the prosecutors’ statements were based on secret Saudi interrogations of the suspects.

Three members of a Saudi hit squad then pinned Khashoggi to a chair inside the office of the Saudi consular general, the notes show. As they did so, Dr. Salah Tubaigy, a forensic doctor from the Saudi Ministry of Interior, “injected Khashoggi in his left arm [with] a drug whose sale is illegal and which he brought from Cairo in high dosage that would be enough to kill him,” the notes read.

Plane Finder, an app that tracks the course of flights by their tail numbers, shows that the Gulfstream jet that took off from Riyadh carrying the Saudi hit team on the evening of Oct. 1 made a stopover in Cairo before landing in Istanbul at 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 2. U.S. intelligence officials declined to comment on what the CIA may have known about the Cairo connection or who in the Egyptian capital would have furnished the Saudis with the illegal narcotics.

A frame grab on October 10,2018 taken from a police CCTV video made available through Turkish Newspaper Sabah allegedly shows a private jet alleged to have ferried in a group of Saudi men suspected of being involved in Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance, at Istanbul's Ataturk airport on October 2, 2018; and, the flight route showing the stopover in Cairo. (Sabah Newspaper/AFP via Getty Images, no credit)
A CCTV frame grab allegedly shows a private jet, at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport on Oct. 2, 2018, that was believed to have carried a group of Saudi men suspected of involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance. At right: the flight route, showing a stopover in Cairo. (Sabah Newspaper/AFP via Getty Images, Plane Finder)

But Richard Clarke, a White House counterterrorism adviser under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush who now serves as chair of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, said the “most likely” explanation for the Cairo stopover is that Egyptian intelligence, with whom the Saudis have a close working relationship, provided the drugs that were used to kill Khashoggi.

“There’s a hell of a lot of Saudi government money that goes into propping up” the Egyptian government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Clarke said in an interview. “And you can get a lot in return for that money. I don’t think they had to reveal the target. Just like, ‘Hey, you’ve got this stuff in your inventory. We ran out. Can we stop by and get a few sticks of butter?’ I think that the answer for the Egyptians, that’s a no-brainer.”

The Egyptian Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. Emails to the Saudi information minister and other Saudi officials went unanswered.

The notes were taken by Turkish Embassy officials who were permitted to sit in on seven sessions of a closed-door 2019 trial of the Saudi assassins, dubbed the Tiger Team, from which the news media and human rights groups were barred. No public record of the trial exists, and the proceedings have been widely dismissed as a whitewash given that no senior officials, much less the crown prince, were charged or even questioned.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with Khashoggi family in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 23, 2018.  (Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via Reuters)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, meets with the Khashoggi family in Riyadh on Oct. 23, 2018. (Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via Reuters)

The Turkish notes offer a small but at times revealing window into the secret proceedings. They were entered into the court record in Istanbul, almost entirely unnoticed, as part of more than 100 pages of evidence collected for a separate Turkish indictment in absentia of Khashoggi’s killers and translated into English by Yahoo News.

At the Saudi trial, the prosecutors made pointed references to confessions by some of the suspects during their interrogations, yielding statements that in some cases contradict the public accounts of Saudi government officials. For their part, defense lawyers for the suspects objected to the confessions, asserting that their clients were subjected to “psychological pressure” when they were questioned about their role in the murder.

A key question all along has been at what point the hit team decided that a mission that might have been originally intended to kidnap Khashoggi and bring him back to Saudi Arabia turned into a cold-blooded assassination. The Turkish notes suggest that a crucial player was Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb.

A veteran Saudi intelligence officer, Mutreb once worked alongside Khashoggi at the Saudi Embassy in London, even going for tea with him at a Mayfair hotel after Friday prayers, and years later accompanying the crown prince on trips to the United States. The notes show that Mutreb was placed in charge of the hit team due to his past relationship with Khashoggi, apparently to lull the journalist into complacency.

A footage captured from security camera shows Intelligent officer Maher Abdulaziz M. Mutreb (wearing suit and white shirt), member of 15-man execution team is seen leaving at the residence of Saudi Arabia's Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on October 2, 2018 after carrying out the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Istanbul Police Department / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Security camera footage shows intelligence officer Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb (in foreground) leaving the Saudi consular residence in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. (Istanbul Police Department/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

After reviewing the layout of the consulate, Mutreb concluded that it would be impractical to kidnap Khashoggi and remove him from the building if, as expected, he resisted. At that point, the notes say, “the decision was made to kill Khashoggi.”

The notes then add that the hit team considered burying Khashoggi’s body in the consulate garden but “gave up on the idea” because of concerns that the remains would be found. Instead, “at the instruction of Maher Mutreb,” the body was dismembered with what Turkish and U.S. officials believe was a bone saw that was brought on the plane carrying the team of assassins from Riyadh. Khashoggi’s body parts were then deposited in black plastic bags that were loaded into the trunk of a Mercedes sedan and taken to the residence of the Saudi consul general, where they are believed to have been burned in an outdoor tandoor oven.

U.S. intelligence reports about the use of a bone saw to carve up the journalist’s body got the attention of then-President Donald Trump, who pressed Saudi King Salman and MBS himself for answers during multiple phone calls, according to Kirsten Fontenrose, the National Security Council’s director of Gulf affairs at the time, who monitored the calls.

“But I mean, he would go back to it and back to it and back to it, trying to press them and telling them, you know, ‘This will change everything, you guys. We’re with you … but we’ve got to get to the bottom of this. Was there a bone saw? Was there a bone saw?’'” said Fontenrose about Trump’s phone calls with the Saudi leaders.

“’I’ve been in difficult negotiations. I’ve never had to take a bone saw,'” Trump told them, she added. “‘Mike’ — to Secretary Pompeo — ‘have you ever had to take a bone saw into negotiations?’ ‘No, Mr. President, ha ha.’ And pressing, pressing, pressing, and every time.”

President Donald Trump talks to reporters about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey during a bill signing ceremony  at the White House in Washington on October 23, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
President Donald Trump talks to reporters on Oct. 23, 2018, about Khashoggi’s killing. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

And the response from the Saudi leaders: “‘No, no, no, Donald, we didn’t know anything about it. We’re still trying to get to the bottom of this.'”

But despite the conclusions by the CIA that MBS had ordered the operation, Trump accepted the Saudi denials and ultimately decided against sanctions or any other actions against the Saudi leaders. He cited as a principal reason the billions of dollars in weapons purchases that the Saudis were making from U.S. defense contractors.

“They’re buying hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of things from this country,” Trump said publicly at the time. “If I say, ‘We don’t want to take your business,’ if I say, ‘We’re going to cut it off,’ they will get the equipment, military equipment and other things, from Russia and China. And I’m not going to tell a country that’s spending hundreds of billions of dollars — and has helped me do one thing very importantly, keep oil prices down. … And I’m not going to destroy the economy for our country by being foolish with Saudi Arabia. … It’s about America first.”

There are clear gaps in the evidence presented during the Saudi trial, according to the Turkish notes. For example, there is no indication if Mutreb was questioned about whether he shared his decision to kill Khashoggi with higher-level Saudi officials or was following orders from superiors. U.S. intelligence officials have said it is inconceivable that Mutreb would have made such a momentous decision on his own without getting orders or approval from higher up in the chain of command.

“That guy doesn’t make decisions to kill somebody like Khashoggi,” said Clarke. “The decision to kill Khashoggi has to go all the way to the top. Because Khashoggi’s a protected person, he’s a person who used to hang out with the royalty at the very top.”

The Turkish notes also confirm the central role in the operation of MBS’s personal enforcer, Saud al-Qahtani, a powerful figure who Fontenrose says she viewed as the Rasputin of the Saudi royal court. (The first episode in the “Conspiracyland” series, titled “The Henchman,” focuses on Qahtani’s role.)

Saud Al-Qahtani. (Alsubaie544 via WikiCommons)
Saud al-Qahtani, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s personal enforcer. (Alsubaie544 via WikiCommons)

Qahtani met with the hit team before it took off, according to the Saudi notes, stressing that Khashoggi had been co-opted by “enemy countries” — an apparent reference to Qatar and Turkey — and that his return to Saudi Arabia would be a “significant achievement” of the mission.

Although that might suggest, if it can be believed, that the original idea may have been to kidnap Khashoggi, U.S. officials quickly concluded that once the plan changed, Qahtani would have either ordered it or been part of the decision. 

“We had a hard smoking gun that Qahtani directed his team to get on that plane and come over, and once we learned that the bone saw was on the plane and some things like that, that let us put [it] together,” said Fontenrose. “And we had hard smoking-gun evidence about him speaking with his team.”

Fontenrose said she was outraged by the Saudi trial’s failure to pursue any charges against Qahtani.

“And he was completely exonerated, which was infuriating, and I think a farce, and frankly, I think, an insult to the U.S.-Saudi relationship,” she added. “The rest of the folks were operatives, but they were not calling any shots. So I was watching very closely the results of the Saud al-Qahtani discussion. And when he was let off the hook, I thought, this is a sign that MBS feels like he has impunity.”

Qahtani, said Fontenrose, “was being protected because MBS considers him invaluable. Because he is the one person he completely trusts. And because he will do all of the unsavory tasks. How unsavory? I assume, up to murder.”

Fontenrose acknowledged that U.S. intelligence officials did not have “smoking gun” evidence — an intercept of a phone call, for example — that MBS himself gave the “kill order” to the hit team. But CIA officials discounted the idea that Qahtani, as the crown prince’s right-hand man, would not have been informed of the decision to assassinate the journalist and have discussed that with his boss. A U.S. intelligence source confirms that officials tracked nearly a dozen phone calls between Qahtani and MBS during the days surrounding the Khashoggi operation. U.S. intelligence officials also point to other evidence that Qahtani has played a direct role in the intimidation and torture of Saudi dissidents on MBS’s behalf, including threatening a leading women right’s advocate, Loujain al-Hathloul, that he would “cut you into pieces,” according to an account by her family. 

Saudi activist Loujain Al-Hathloul makes her way to appear at a special criminal court for an appeals hearing, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 10, 2021. (Ahmed Yosri/Reuters)
Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul in Riyadh on March 10. (Ahmed Yosri/Reuters)

The notes from the Saudi trial do not include some of the gruesome details of Khashoggi’s murder that were captured on Turkish audiotapes and later confirmed in an exhaustive report by United Nations special rapporteur Agnès Callamard: how before Khashoggi ever walked into the consulate, Tubaigy and Mutreb had a conversation about carving up his body (“Joints will be separated. It is not a problem,” Tubaigy allegedly said) and depositing the pieces in black plastic bags. Mutreb, according to Callamard’s report, referred to Khashoggi as a “sacrificial animal.”

And the Turkish notes provide new details about how the Saudis sought to cover up the crime. One of the Tiger Team assassins was assigned the job of destroying the video cameras inside the consulate, removing the hard drives that recorded Khashoggi’s murder and then smashing them up, depositing the remains “in different [garbage] bins in Istanbul.”

But the Turkish notes also raise questions about how seriously the defendants themselves took the proceedings. “The nonchalant behavior of the defendants who were brought to the courtroom without handcuffs and shackles has drawn attention,” one of the Turkish observers noted.

The assassins, as it turned out, had good reasons to be nonchalant. Five of them — their identities never made public — were convicted and sentenced to death. But that sentence was later commuted and reduced to 20 years. Nothing has been heard about them since. Two Saudis — both of them with close government ties and longtime sources for U.S. intelligence officials — told Yahoo News that the convicted murderers are not actually behind bars or anywhere that resembles a real prison. Instead, according to these reports, the convicts are currently residing in a luxury compound outside Riyadh, and some, including Tubaigy, the forensic doctor who administered the lethal dose of drugs to Khashoggi, have been recently spotted working out in the gym.

Next on “Conspiracyland”: Episode 2, “The Arms Dealer’s Harem”

The U.S.-Saudi alliance has been sustained for decades by an “arms for oil” bargain that was nurtured by Jamal Khashoggi’s cousin Adnan Khashoggi, a billionaire arms dealer. Notorious for his flamboyant lifestyle — marked by spectacular parties with generous offerings of cocaine and stunningly gorgeous women — he became the most conspicuous public face of Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, causing much embarrassment to Jamal and the rest of his family. And then, as his empire unraveled, it resulted in Donald Trump’s first introduction to the redeeming power of Saudi largesse.

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