Intelligence Chief Who Oversaw Khashoggi Killing Was "The Saudi Steve Bannon"

Saudi Arabia's Future Investment Initiative kicked off on Tuesday despite reports that one of its most high-profile guests, Softbank's Masayoshi Son, has decided not to speak at the event (though he will reportedly still attend and hold meetings on the sidelines).

However, the event was overshadowed by remarks from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who shared details of the timeline of the killing, as Turkish investigators understand it. And as if to tease Erdogan's remarks, Reuters published a blockbuster report Monday night offering new details about the role of a (now former) Saudi intelligence official and MbS confidant, Saud al-Qahtani, in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Al-Qahtani, who, according to several anonymous Saudi officials (a notable departure from the Turkish officials who have been the primary source of Western media leaks so far), presided over the interrogation and murder of Jamal Khashoggi via Skype, where he gave the order to the 15-man team assassination squad to dispose of Khashoggi, saying "bring me the head of the dog."

Despite al-Qahtani's years of loyal service to the Saudi ruling family, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has left him to take the fall for the killing. Following reports of al-Qahtani's demotion, he changed his twitter biography recent days to exclude his former title of royal adviser to chairman of the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones. A Saudi official said Qahtani had been detained after being fired, but he continued to tweet afterwards, suggesting that he was not under arrest, as some believed.

Qahtani

Saud al-Qahtani

Even before the confrontation inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, al-Qahtani had been in regular contact with Khashoggi, whom al-Qahtani had urged in several phone calls to return to Riyadh after Khashoggi had started publishing columns critical of MbS in the Washington Post. Khashoggi took the calls, but told friend that he didn't trust al-Qahtani, believing that the intelligence chief would have him thrown in prison if Khashoggi were to return.

Qahtani had tried to reassure the former newspaper editor that he was still well respected and had offered the journalist a job as a consultant at the royal court, the friends said.

Khashoggi said that while he found Qahtani gentle and polite during those conversations, he did not trust him, one close friend told Reuters. "Jamal told me afterwards, ‘he thinks that I will go back so that he can throw me in jail?"

The second senior Saudi official confirmed that Qahtani had spoken to Khashoggi about returning home. The ambush in Istanbul seems to have been another way to get him home.

Some of Reuters sources protected MbS, claiming that it's possible that MbS wasn't aware of the killing, citing a standing order to "negotiate" with dissidents to return to the Kingdom. However, it is hard to imagine that the crown prince could have not known about such a high-profile operation.

Most of the 15 hit-man team identified by Turkish and Saudi authorities worked for the kingdom’s security and intelligence services, military, government ministries, royal court security and air force. One of them, General Maher Mutreb, a senior intelligence officer, who is part of the security team of Prince Mohammed, appeared in photographs with him on official visits earlier this year to the United States and Europe.

The high-ranking Arab official and the Turkish intelligence source said it was Mutreb’s phone that was used to dial in Qahtani while Khashoggi was being interrogated.

Al-Qahtani, who rose through the ranks of the Saudi intelligence service in what some have described as a spectacular rise, was also reportedly responsible for another high-profile interrogation that occurred last year: The detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. The Saudis were reportedly dissatisfied with Hariri's inability to stand up to Iran and Hezbollah, and decided to try and force him to resign and install a more amendable leader. It was only the intervention of French President Emmanuel Macron that led to al-Hariri's release. 

The Saudis lured Hariri to Riyadh for a meeting with MbS. Upon his arrival on Nov. 3, 2017, there was no line-up of Saudi princes or officials, as would typically greet a prime minister on an official visit. Hariri later received a call that the meeting with the crown prince would take place the next day at a royal compound.

When Hariri arrived, he was ushered into a room where Qahtani was waiting for him with a security team, according to three Arab sources familiar with the incident. The security team beat Hariri; Qahtani cursed at him and then forced him to resign as prime minister in a statement that was broadcast by a Saudi-owned TV channel.

"He (Qahtani) told him you have no choice but to resign and read this statement," said one of the sources. "Qahtani oversaw the interrogation and ill-treatment of Hariri."

Another source said it was the intervention of French President Emmanuel Macron that secured his release following an international outcry.

Macron claimed credit in May for ending the crisis, saying an unscheduled stopover in Riyadh to convince MbS, followed by an invitation to Hariri to come to France, had been the catalyst to resolving it. Lebanese officials confirmed to Reuters that Macron’s quick intervention secured Hariri’s return.

As Reuters pointed out, Qahtani, 40, has earned a reputation in Saudi as a violent enforcer for the royal family, and also as a vocal nationalist who, in blogs and on social media, relentlessly pushes the family's line. Some have even described him as the Saudi Steve Bannon. And looking ahead, the international community will be watching to see whether al-Qahtani remains frozen out, or whether MbS moves to reinstate him when the prince thinks the international media attention has largely died down.