Top Saudi leaders deployed a 15-man hit squad to lay in wait for dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi inside Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul, The New York Times said in an explosive story.
Among the assassination team was a forensic expert who brought a bone saw to dismember Khashoggi’s body after killing him, the Times reported on Tuesday, citing an unidentified American official as saying.
Al Jazeera could not immediately verify the news report.
The hit squad finished the murder operation within two hours and departed Turkey for various countries, said the Times’ source, citing information from “top Turkish officials”.
“It is like Pulp Fiction,” the senior US official was quoted as saying, referring to the graphically violent 1994 Hollywood movie by director Quentin Tarantino.
Accusations the Saudi leadership directly ordered the alleged assassination of Khashoggi will put further pressure on the United States and other allies to demand a transparent investigation, with possible serious repercussions to bilateral relations if it does not come to fruition.
Saudi officials have denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance and alleged murder, saying he left the consulate on October 2. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has demanded Riyadh to prove his departure from the building.
Turkey’s government hasn’t provided evidence after a spate of anonymous allegations that the Saudi writer was killed inside the Istanbul consulate.
Daily Sabah, a Turkish newspaper with close ties to the government, named and published photos on Tuesday of the alleged 15-member Saudi assassination team accused of travelling to Istanbul on the day Khashoggi disappeared. The suspects are wanted by Turkish authorities for questioning.
‘Explaining to do’
American Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Tuesday “everything today points to” Khashoggi’s murder last week inside the Saudi consulate.
Corker told The Daily Beast his view was reaffirmed after viewing classified intelligence about the disappearance.
“It points to the idea that whatever has happened to him, the Saudis – I mean, they’ve got some explaining to do,” Corker was quoted as saying.
Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from Washington, DC, said the deluge of news reports will increase pressure on the US government to act.
“This was a prominent American columnist who is beloved among a small group of the intelligence elite in Washington, DC, and they are speaking out. This story is making front-page news. It is being greeted by a sense of outrage, and that is only growing as each story reveals new information,” she said.
‘Lay hands on him’
Meanwhile on Tuesday, the Washington Post – for whom Khashoggi wrote columns after fleeing Saudi Arabia over fears of retribution for his critical commentary – reported US intelligence intercepted communications of Saudi officials planning to abduct the prominent journalist.
“Saudis wanted to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and lay hands on him there,” the Post quoted a person familiar with the information as saying.
It was not clear whether the Saudis intended to arrest and interrogate Khashoggi or to kill him – or if the US warned Khashoggi he was a target, the source told the newspaper.
Khashoggi entered the consulate on October 2 to handle a routine paperwork issue but he never came out, according to family and friends, as well as Turkish authorities.
The US resident has written articles over the past year during his self-imposed exile that were critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Khashoggi, 59, has had a long career as a senior journalist in Saudi Arabia and also as an adviser to top officials.
Powerful crown prince
But since the emergence of Prince bin Salman, 33, as the centre of power in the kingdom last year, Khashoggi has been openly critical of the monarchy.
He assailed the prince’s reforms as hollow, accusing him of introducing a new Saudi era of “fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming”.
Robert Pearson, a former US ambassador to Turkey, said the case could change the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia.
“They must give a transparent explanation very quickly, otherwise the tide will quickly turn against them. It’s now been a week and nothing has been shown to prove about his (Khashoggi’s) safety,” he told Al Jazeera.
He noted 47 US senators recently voted to ban US arms sales to Saudi Arabia – four short of a majority.
“It is beginning to reach a genuine crisis point now, which can be solved very quickly if the Saudis are really on the spot,” said Pearson.
“The arms sales bill, the war in Yemen – those are the kinds of things that can turn very quickly into a political statement that will damage Saudi’s relationship with the United States, and damage Saudi’s reputation worldwide.”