After two days of non-stop news pertaining to the widening backlash to the disappearance of Saudi insider-turned dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who is widely suspected to have been murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul during a trip to obtain a marriage license, the New York Times waited until 6:30 pm ET to drop one of the biggest bombshells yet. Citing sources from within the Turkish government (who have taken the lead in directing the international outrage by first leaking information about Khashoggi's killing, then following that up with claims that they had substantive evidence), the NYT reports that Turkish officials have linked four members of the 15-man Saudi hit squad purportedly sent to ambush Khashoggi to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who earlier today denied having any knowledge of the killing during a conversation with President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
One of the men is a diplomat who has been frequently spotted in the Crown Prince's company, including being photographed with MbS during his visit to the US earlier this year. Three others have been linked to MbS's security detail. A fifth was a doctor and autopsy expert, whose presence suggests that Khashoggi's murder was a premeditated hit - not the actions of "rogue operatives" as the Saudi government and Trump have suggested. The news is bound to produce a fresh round of outrage directed at MbS, whose authoritarian crackdown on political rivals within Saudi Arabia, as well as his escalation of the conflict in Yemen (which Saudi Arabia has blithely supported with arms and financing) and the kidnapping last year of the Prime Minister of Lebanon have undermined his reputation as a reformer (a reputation that, ironically, the NYT first helped to burnish).
A still of the flight that Turkish authorities say carried members of the Saudi hit squad.
Turkish authorities have said that the 15-man team flew into Istanbul on two chartered jets on Oct. 2, the day Khashoggi walked into the embassy only to never be seen or heard from again. Flight records indicate that some or all of the men left later that day, and that their planes stopped in Dubai on the way back to Saudi Arabia. Turkish officials told the Times that all 15 suspects are Saudi security officers, intelligence agents or government employees. At least 9 of them worked for the Saudi security services, military or other government ministries.
The NYT independently corroborated claims about the suspects' links to MbS.
The New York Times has confirmed independently that at least 9 of the 15 worked for the Saudi security services, military or other government ministries.
The New York Times has gathered more information about the suspects using facial recognition software, publicly available records, social media profiles, a database of Saudi cellphone numbers, Saudi news reports, leaked Saudi government documents and in some cases the accounts of witnesses in Saudi Arabia and countries the crown prince has visited.
One of the men was identified as Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a diplomat who is one of the Crown Prince's closest associates.
One suspect, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, was a diplomat assigned to the Saudi embassy in London in 2007, according to a British diplomatic roster. He has also traveled extensively with the crown prince, perhaps as a bodyguard.
Mr. Mutreb has been photographed emerging from airplanes with Crown Prince Mohammed on recent trips to Madrid and Paris. He was also photographed in Houston, Boston and the United Nations during the prince’s visits there, often glowering as he surveyed a crowd.
Another man was identified as Abdulaziz Mohammed al-Hawsawi a French national and member of the Saudi's security team. A third suspect, Thaar Ghaleb al-Harbi, became a lieutenant in the Saudi royal guard last year after demonstrating "bravery" in the defense of Crown Prince Mohammed’s palace in Jeddah (which has been targeted by missiles fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen).
Saudi investigators enter the country's consulate in Istanbul.
A fourth, Muhammed Saad Alzahrani, is a member of the royal guard who has reportedly been photographed standing next to MbS.
A fourth suspect traveled with a passport bearing the name of another member of the royal guard, Muhammed Saad Alzahrani. A search of the name in Menom3ay, an app popular in Saudi Arabia that allows users to see the names other users have associated with certain phone numbers, identified him as a member of the royal guard. A guard wearing a name tag with that name appears in a video from 2017 standing next to Crown Prince Mohammed.
But the presence of Dr. Salah al-Tubaigy could prove to be the most problematic aspect of the reports. Because his presence suggests that the team was sent on a mission to kill Khashoggi, who had first visited the consulate two days earlier, and was told to return on Oct. 2 to obtain his paperwork.
Dr. Tubaigy, who maintained a presence on several social media platforms, identified himself on his Twitter account as the head of the Saudi Scientific Council of Forensics and held lofty positions in the kingdom’s premier medical school as well as in its Interior Ministry. He had studied at the University of Glasgow and in 2015 he spent three months in Australia as a visiting forensic pathologist at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine. His published writings include works on dissection and mobile autopsies.
Although there is no public record of a relationship between him and the royal court, such a senior figure in the Saudi medical establishment was unlikely to join a rogue expedition organized by an underling.
Dr. Tubaigy, whose name first appeared among reports of the suspects several days ago, has not publicly addressed the allegations. None of the suspects could be reached for comment.
Any links to the Saudi royal family will undoubtedly undermine the regime's official story (which has only been leaked to the media as a trial balloon, not formally offered as an official statement on Khashoggi's disappearance).