Saudi crown prince told top aide ‘he will be untouched’ despite Khashoggi murder

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Saud al-Qahtani continues to advise Mohammed bin Salman in aftermath of Saudi journalist’s killing

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman still goes to Qahtani for advice, newspaper said (AFP/File photo)

A top aide to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has continued to advise the country’s de facto leader, despite being accused of playing a leading role in the plot to murder Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Saud al-Qahtani is currently acting as an informal adviser to the crown prince, known as MBS, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on Tuesday.

“For MBS, Qahtani was the backbone of his court, and [the crown prince] assured him that he will be untouched and will return when the Khashoggi case blows over,” a Saudi royal familiar with the matter told the US newspaper.

‘For MBS, Qahtani was the backbone of his court, and [the crown prince] assured him that he will be untouched and will return when the Khashoggi case blows over’

– Saudi royal familiar with the matter

That flies in the face of earlier claims by Saudi officials that Qahtani had been fired from his post in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder – and amid heightened calls from lawmakers, human rights groups and other advocates to hold him accountable for his role in the crime.

Citing Saudi and American officials, the WSJ reported that the Saudi government has so far resisted attempts by Washington to pressure it to hold Qahtani accountable.

“We don’t see that Saud al-Qahtani is very constrained in his activities,” a senior US state department official told the newspaper.

Qahtani also carries out some duties as an adviser to the Saudi royal court, Saudi officials told the WSJ, including “issuing directives to local journalists and brokering meetings for the crown prince”.

“MBS still goes to him for advice and he still calls him his adviser with his close associates,” said one Saudi official.

Qahtani under US sanctions

A prominent journalist and Saudi government critic, Khashoggi was brutally killed and dismembered by Saudi state agents at the country’s consulate in Istanbul in October.

A leading adviser to the crown prince, Qahtani has been accused of leading the team that carried out the assassination. In November, he was one of 17 Saudi citizens targeted by US sanctions for their role in the journalist’s killing.

Turkey also filed a warrant for Qahtani’s arrest in December, stating it had “strong suspicion” that he and Saudi General Ahmed al-Asiri, the deputy head of foreign intelligence, were among the planners of the murder.

While Saudi officials have repeatedly denied that MBS was involved in Khashoggi’s murder, describing it as a rogue operation that went wrong, critics say it’s impossible the crown prince didn’t know about the plot to murder Khashoggi.

The CIA also previously concluded that the crown prince himself ordered the journalist’s killing, a finding that has been echoed by US lawmakers, including many leaders within Donald Trump’s own Republican party.

However, the US president has vowed to remain a steadfast supporter of the Saudi leader despite the killing.

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Under pressure, Mike Pompeo said the US is not covering up Khashoggi’s murder (Reuters/File photo)

The Trump administration has faced anger and condemnation both at home and abroad over its unwillingness to apply pressure on Saudi leaders to properly investigate what happened to Khashoggi and hold those responsible for his murder accountable.

Earlier this week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected accusations that the White House has helped Riyadh cover up the killing. A Saudi source previously told MEE that Pompeo travelled to Saudi Arabia in November to hand Saudi rulers a plan to help them overcome international pressure after the assassination.

“America is not covering up for a murder,” the secretary of state said on Monday.

“America has taken more action in response to the tragic murder of Jamal Khashoggi and will continue to take more action [and] continue our investigation. We are working diligently on that.”

WSJ names Saudis facing death penalty

Still, in the face of ongoing pressure over the murder, US officials are pressing Riyadh to hold people responsible, the WSJ reported on Tuesday.

Saudi officials say 11 people have been charged so far in relation to the case – including five people who are facing the death penalty – and that an investigation remains ongoing.

Citing two Saudi officials, the WSJ said those individuals are: Assiri, the former deputy chief of intelligence; Maher Mutreb, a former member of the Saudi royal guard; Salah al-Tubaigy; Moustafa Madani; and Thaar Ghaleb al-Harbi.

Saudi officials have not publicly released the names of any of the people they say have been charged, or are being investigated in relation to Khashoggi’s murder.

Rights groups say, however, that the Saudi probe into the killing has been wholly insufficient. Many have called for an independent investigation under the full authority of the United Nations.

Mutreb was an MBS aide who had been spotted in the crown prince’s entourage during diplomatic trips abroad

He was among the 17 Saudi citizens put under US sanctions in December. At the time, the US Treasury Department described Mutreb as a “subordinate” of Qahtani.

He was also a member of a 15-person hit team sent to Turkey to kill Khashoggi. In an audio recording of Khashoggi’s murder, Mutreb could be heard telling an aide of the crown prince to “tell your boss” after the killing, the New York Times reported in December.

‘The Saudi regime knows that the US wants to see Qahtani on trial, but they are hoping these five names will be enough’

– Saudi official

Tubaigy, who is also under US sanctions, was the head of forensic evidence in the Saudi general security department.

Turkish officials told MEE in November that Tubaigy was tasked with cutting up Khashoggi’s body. He carried out the dismemberment while listening to music, an audio recording of the crime that is in the possession of Turkish intelligence officials indicated.

“When I do this job, I listen to music. You should do [that] too,” Tubaigy was recorded as saying, a Turkish source told MEE at the time.

Madani and Harbi were part of the hit squad that kill Khashoggi, according to a MEE report, and the US imposed sanctions on them in November.

Saudi officials are hoping that the five death penalty cases will alleviate US pressure to prosecute Qahtani, sources told the WSJ.

“The Saudi regime knows that the US wants to see Qahtani on trial, but they are hoping these five names will be enough,” one Saudi official said.