"Saudi Arabia now says that Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist, was killed after an argument in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. It’s the latest in a series of shifting explanations from the Kingdom.BEIRUT, Lebanon — Saudi Arabia said Saturday that Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist who disappeared more than two weeks ago, died after an argument and fistfight with unidentified men inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Eighteen Saudi men have been arrested and are being investigated in the case, Saudi state-run media reported without identifying any of them.
State media also reported that Saud al-Qahtani, a close aide to the crown prince, had been dismissed, along with Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, and other high-ranking intelligence officials. They did not say whether the men’s firing had a connection to the Khashoggi case or whether they were being investigated for playing a role in it.
Saudi rulers are weighing whether to blame Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, a high-ranking adviser to the crown prince, for the death of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to three people with knowledge of the plans.Oct. 18, 2018Image by Fayez Nudeldine/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesSaudi Arabia has offered various, changing explanations for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance — initially claiming that he had left the consulate alive.
But international outrage mounted as Turkish officials leaked lurid details from their own investigation suggesting that he was murdered inside the consulate and dismembered by a team of 15 Saudi agents who flew in specifically to kill him.
The case has battered the international reputation of the kingdom and its 33-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who has sought to sell himself to the world as a young reformer shaking off his country’s conservative past. But suspicions that such a complicated foreign operation could not have been launched without at least his tacit approval have driven away many of his staunchest foreign supporters.
The Trump administration had built strong ties with Crown Prince Mohammed, seeing him as a strong partner in its ambitions to counter Iran, forge a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, and reconfigure the Middle East.
The White House responded with carefully neutral language. Its spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a statement that the United States “acknowledges” the announcement from Saudi Arabia “and that it has taken action against the suspects it has identified so far.”
“We will continue to closely follow the international investigations into the tragic incident and advocate for justice that is timely, transparent and in accordance with all due process,” the statement said.
Mr. Trump had said on Thursday that he believed Mr. Khashoggi was dead and that the consequences would be great for Saudi Arabia if it was determined to be behind the killing.
“Well, it’ll have to be very severe,” he said. “I mean, it’s bad, bad stuff.”
Big name chief executives, investors and foreign officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, have dropped out of a Saudi investment conference that the crown prince is hosting in Riyadh next week. It was unclear how the Saudi announcement would be received by Mr. Trump and others who had begun to distance themselves from the young prince.
The Saudi statement did not address many of the questions raised by the Turkish investigation, such as the identities of the 15 suspects in Mr. Khashoggi’s killing and whether they were among the 18 people the Saudis said they had arrested.
All 15 had been identified by name by the Turks, and Turkish newspapers had published their photographs. The New York Times established that most of them were employed by the Saudi military or security services and that at least four had traveled with the crown prince as part of his security detail.
Nor did the Saudi announcement say what had become of Mr. Khashoggi’s body. The Turks had said it had been disassembled with a bone saw by an autopsy specialist flown in specifically for the purpose and probably carried out of the consulate in large suitcases.
Turkish investigators were searching a park and a forest for traces of Mr. Khashoggi’s remains this week but did not announce their findings.
The reports of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing had shaken members of the Saudi royal family, many of whom were angry about Crown Prince Mohammed’s swift rise over the past three years. Some wondered if the scandal could lead his father, King Salman, to replace him with another prince not tarnished by the case.
But instead, the king named Crown Prince Mohammed the head of a committee to restructure the kingdom’s intelligence agency.
People with knowledge of the Saudi plans had told The Times on Thursday that the kingdom was planning to blame the operation on General Assiri, the deputy intelligence director. The people said the kingdom would portray the operation as carried out by rogue actors who did not have orders from the top and who had set out to interrogate and kidnap Mr. Khashoggi but ended up killing him, perhaps accidentally.
The dismissal of Mr. Qahtani, considered one of the two closest aides to Crown Prince Mohammed, stood out because he is plays no public role in security or intelligence. He is in charge of media and communications for the crown prince, and he is widely believed to direct large-scale social media campaigns in support of him.
Why the royal court dismissed Mr. Qahtani was not immediately clear. Many social media accounts supportive of Prince Mohammed have systematically disparaged Mr. Khashoggi since his disappearance.
Mr. Khashoggi, 60, was one of Saudi Arabia’s best known personalities, a journalist who had interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan years before he founded Al Qaeda. He later served an adviser to and unofficial spokesman for the Saudi royal family.
But his relationship with the kingdom changed during the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed, who has announced broad social and economic reforms but has also gone after critics and cut down many of his fellow royals.
After many of his friends and colleagues were jailed last year, Mr. Khashoggi settled into self-exile in the Washington area and became a columnist for The Washington Post, a position he used to criticize the crown prince’s increasing authoritarianism.
Mr. Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to pick up an official document he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. When he didn’t come out after a number of hours, Ms. Cengiz began calling Turkish officials to tell them that Mr. Khashoggi was missing.
Saudi Arabia chose to make its announcement in the middle of the night over a weekend in Riyadh and Istanbul. A Turkish official said it was too soon for Ankara to comment, but reaction on social media and elsewhere was almost unanimously dismissive.
“If Khashoggi was fighting inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he was fighting for his life with people sent to capture or kill him,” Representative Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “The kingdom and all involved in this brutal murder must be held accountable, and if the Trump administration will not take the lead, Congress must.”
Samantha Power, a former ambassador to the United Nations under President Barack Obama, said on Twitter that the Saudis were “shifting from bald-face lies (‘#Khashoggi left consulate’) to faux condemnation (of a ‘rogue operation’) to claiming the fox will credibly investigate what he did to the hen.”
But Ali Shihabi, the founder of the Arabia Foundation in Washington and a prominent advocate for the kingdom’s policies, defended the belated statement, arguing that an initial cover-up that hid the truth from the royal court explained the delay.
“Part of the reason for firing so many top intelligence officials was due to the cover-up and slowness in conveying the full details of what happened to the leadership,” he wrote on Twitter. “This tragic fiasco was a huge shock to the Saudi leadership and a combination of confusion, lack of experience in such crisis management and a cover-up by the intelligence bureaucracy contributed to the initial Saudi response.”
Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Saudis will have to provide more information — which may or may not comport with the intelligence that Turkey and the United States have gathered over the past two weeks.
“This has to be the beginning of a multiday effort that is long overdue,” Mr. Alterman said.
The Saudi statement offered no explanation for why Mr. Khashoggi might enter an altercation with multiple foes in territory he knew to be dangerous. Mr. Khashoggi was regarded as low key and even-tempered by those who knew him. He felt nervous enough about his safety entering the consulate that he told his fiancée to wait outside with instructions to call the Turkish authorities if he did not emerge.
Mr. Shihabi said senior Saudi officials had told him that Mr. Khashoggi died from a “chokehold during an altercation,” not a “fistfight” as some in the West translated it. He disputed the statements of Turkish officials that the Saudi agents had brought a bone saw and used it to dismember Mr. Khashoggi to dispose of the body.
Whether the United States or Turkey is willing to dispute or contradict the Saudi explanation is far from clear. The Saudi narrative seemed to dodge the question of whether the men had been acting at the direction of top officials.
The Trump administration has spent weeks trying to salvage Saudi Arabia’s role in its strategy to isolate Iran, which will be punctuated by the Nov. 5 re-imposition of onerous sanctions lifted under the 2015 Iran nuclear accord.
The Turkish government has said it has audio and video recordings that suggest the Saudis ambushed Mr. Khoshoggi in the consulate and dismembered him. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey may never reveal these recordings.
Elliott Abrams, a former top diplomat in Republican administrations, said the Saudi acknowledgment was an important first step but that many questions remain unanswered.
“Where is Jamal Khashoggi’s body, for one?” Mr. Abrams asked. “And it’s just hard to believe these people acted without instructions.”
Mr. Abrams also dismissed the core of the Saudi explanation that Mr. Khashoggi had decided to put up a fight.
“He’s in the consulate surrounded by a crowd of men and he starts a fight?” Mr. Abrams asked. “It’s just not credible.”
David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from London, and Eric Schmitt and Gardiner Harris from Washington.