Less than a day after the New York Times published a report claiming that US intelligence agencies believe Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman gave the order to murder and dismember a former Saudi insider turned critic inside the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul, the Grey Lady has published yet another scoop claiming that the Saudis have selected a scapegoat who will most likely take the fall for the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Anonymous officials with knowledge of the Saudis' plans said the kingdom is close to blaming to Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, a high-ranking intelligence official and adviser to the crown prince, as the man responsible for masterminding the plot.
The report followed another anonymously sourced report from earlier in the week claiming the Saudis were preparing to admit that Khashoggi had been killed during a botched interrogation. Though the kingdom still has "a few more days" to complete its investigation, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, scrutiny of General Assiri has intensified as the kingdom believes he would blaming him could provide "a plausible explanation for the killing" while "helping to deflect blame from the crown prince" as calls for MbS's ouster intensify.
Perhaps to add an element of plausibility to the story, the Saudis are also expected to say that MbS "signed off" on the murder plot.
General Assiri, who previously served as the spokesman for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, is close enough to the crown prince to have easy access to his ear and has considerable authority to enlist lower ranking personnel in a mission.
The Saudi rulers are expected to say that Mr. Assiri received verbal authorization from Prince Mohammed to capture Mr. Khashoggi for an interrogation in Saudi Arabia, but either misunderstood his instructions or overstepped that authorization and took the dissident’s life, according to the two of the people familiar with the Saudi plans. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief journalists.
Even in this scenario, however, Prince Mohammed would still have ordered an operation to abduct a resident of the United States, apparently only on the basis of his public criticism of Saudi leaders.
Given that the UN has called for the suspension of diplomatic immunity in the prosecution of anyone involved in the murder plot, taking the fall for MbS could come with a heavy price, despite the general's lofty rank. Then again, the Saudis still need to see how things pan out, and whether this admission helps to quiet the public's outrage - which is probably one reason for the trial balloon. Right now, only one thing is for certain: We wouldn't want to be in Assiri's shoes.