A Turkish newspaper aligned with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday claimed it has identified the 15 members of the team allegedly sent from Saudi Arabia to kidnap or kill missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared last week after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Sabah printed photos of the 15 Saudis along with their names, birth years, and the Istanbul hotels they checked into. Photos of their passports were employed to establish the times of their arrival. The alleged Saudi agents departed in four different groups just a few hours after they arrived, according to the report. The two hotels they stayed in were both convenient to the Saudi consulate. The group spent several hours at the residence of Saudi consul general Mohammed al-Otaibi before proceeding to the consulate, which is only about 500 yards away.
One of the men Sabah identified is a board member of the Saudi Society of Forensic Medicine, according to Reuters, which also reported Turkey’s NTV broadcast video of the men arriving at one of their hotels. A senior Turkish official told the New York Times the forensic expert came equipped with a bone saw and used his medical knowledge to swiftly dismember Khashoggi in an operation he compared to the corpse cleanup scene from the movie Pulp Fiction.
NTV also displayed images of a black Mercedes van that has become an object of interest to Turkish investigators, who postulate it may have been used to transport Khashoggi or his remains out of the consulate. Turkish security camera footage of the embassy captured what investigators describe as an unusually large number of vehicles arriving and departing from the consulate around the time of Khashoggi’s ill-fated visit. The black van can be seen parked next to the front door of the consulate in the last known images captured of Khashoggi as he entered the building.
Turkish officials, including President Erdogan himself, have challenged the Saudi consulate to produce its own security video to back up its contention that Khashoggi departed the premises safely before his disappearance.
The UK Guardian on Wednesday quoted Turkish officials who claimed “security camera footage was removed from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and Turkish staff were abruptly told to take a holiday” on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance.
The Guardian also cited flight records for the chartered corporate jets said to have conveyed the 15-member Saudi team to and from Istanbul:
Two corporate jets rented from a company frequently used by the Saudi government arrived in Istanbul on 2 October and left separately the same evening. One jet, with the tail registration HZ-SK1, left for Cairo, and the second, HZ-SK2, flew to Dubai. Flight tracking records show they both later continued to Riyadh. Turkish investigators believe the CCTV footage from inside the consulate was onboard.
Despite these revelations, the Guardian believes Turkey is backing down from charging the Saudis with Khashoggi’s abduction or murder – either because Erdogan is growing nervous a the prospect of losing Saudi trade at a time of economic vulnerability for his country or because Turkish officials were bluffing with some of their more sensational claims, such as a rumored security video that would show ominous “heavy bags” being loaded into the convoy of vehicles that took the departing Saudi team to the airport.
At the very least, parts of the Erdogan administration seem to be transitioning to a theory that the Saudis spirited Khashoggi out of Istanbul alive, rather than killing him and dismembering the corpse on direct orders from the Saudi royal family. The New York Times mentioned some Turkish officials floating the possibility that “another country’s intelligence officers” were involved in the mission somehow.
One Erdogan adviser quoted by the Guardian went so far as blaming a Turkish “deep state” for framing the Saudis. The very same adviser is one of the Turkish officials who previously claimed the 15 Saudis were a hit squad sent from Riyadh to assassinate Khashoggi.
At the other extreme, the New York Times quoted a “person briefed on the matter” who claimed Turkish intelligence has obtained a video of Khashoggi’s murder made by the Saudis, and at least one pro-Erdogan pundit has publicly claimed such a video exists.
The Washington Post, which employs Khashoggi as a contributor, reported on Wednesday that U.S. intelligence agents “intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture” Khashoggi. According to the Post’s source, this plan envisioned luring Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia somehow before arresting or assassinating him. The source said it was unclear whether U.S. intelligence warned Khashoggi about the threat.
Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post on Tuesday imploring President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump to help investigate the journalist’s disappearance.
“We were in the middle of making wedding plans, life plans. After the consulate, we were going to buy appliances for our new home and set a date. All we needed was a piece of paper,” she wrote, referring to the reason for his visit to the consulate in Istanbul.
Cengiz said Khashoggi was nervous about the Saudi monarchy’s actions against critics but believed an attack on consular grounds would be an unprecedented violation of international law, and was also reassured by a positive initial meeting with consular officials about obtaining the paperwork he required.
“I don’t know how I can keep living if he was abducted or killed in Turkey,” she concluded. “Although my hope slowly fades away each passing day, I remain confident that Jamal is still alive.”
Vice President Mike Pence told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Wednesday the United States “stands ready to assist in any way” with the Khashoggi investigation.
Turkish police are scheduled to examine the Saudi consulate on Wednesday following a brief delay to give the Saudi ambassador time to arrive at the building.