Politics & Government

Reports: Former University of Louisville student was on Saudi kill team that hit journalist

ANKARA, Turkey — One is the chief of forensic evidence at Saudi Arabia’s internal security agency. Another is an officer in the Saudi special operations forces who posted pictures of himself on social media posing in a living room with a shiny stainless steel handgun.

Two others appear to be members of the Saudi royal guard, pictured in a Saudi newspaper photograph next to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

All four were among 15 men that Turkish officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have identified as Saudi operatives who flew last week to Istanbul in pursuit of Jamal Khashoggi, a political dissident, who has not been seen since he entered the Saudi consulate there on Oct. 2. Turkish officials say that Khashoggi was killed at the consulate and that his body was dismembered and taken away — an allegation that the Saudi government has vehemently denied.

Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi commentator, U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist, had become a prominent critic of the kingdom’s current rulers. Saudi leaders, including the crown prince himself, have said that Khashoggi left the consulate freely, shortly after he entered, and that they have no knowledge of his fate.

Turkish officials have cited confidential intelligence establishing that he is dead, but declined to publicize the evidence.

Now, disclosure of the names of the Saudi operatives who flew into Turkey, only to leave again hours later, appears to be part of a steady stream of leaks from the Turkish government intended to put pressure on the Saudis to admit that Khashoggi had been killed, and to spur wider international outrage. Turkish officials identified the 15 men this week to both a Turkish newspaper and to The New York Times.

After days of noncommunication, Saudi officials on Tuesday began for the first time to contact Turkish counterparts for secret talks about resolving the matter, and the Saudis have told Washington that they believe they can smooth over the issue, according to both Turkish and U.S. officials briefed on the discussions.

Turkish officials have said that they, too, hope to avoid a faceoff with Saudi Arabia, another major regional power.

But the leaks of the names and other information also threaten to make it harder for both sides to save face — for example, by a compromise in which the Saudis would acknowledge the killing of Khashoggi but blame it on rogue actors or an unauthorized operation.

Several Saudis on the list provided by the Turks appear to have public ties to the Saudi leadership and even the crown prince himself, who doubles as the defense minister and has been described as the power behind the throne of his father, King Salman. With the help of amateur researchers on Twitter, The Times was able to match many of the Saudis with publicly available photographs and biographical details.

If these 15 men killed Khashoggi on the orders of the Saudi royal court, as Turkish officials have charged, the easy identification of the assassins indicates that they did little to cover their tracks — that they were either careless or wanted their actions to be discovered, perhaps to intimidate others.

The Turkish newspaper Sabah published photographs of all 15 Saudis. One appears to be Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy, who was born in 1971 and is the chief of forensic evidence in the public security directorate of the Interior Ministry; Turkish officials have said that the Saudi team arrived prepared to dismember Khashoggi’s body for removal from the consulate, and al-Tubaigy was presumably sent to help manage disposal and cleanup.

Naif Hassan al-Arifi, born in 1986, matches an officer in the Saudi special operations forces who likes to post pictures on social media posing with his guns. Muhammed Saad al-Zahrani and Thaar Ghaleb al-Harbi were both pictured standing with the crown prince in a video posted online by a pro-government Saudi news organization. Al-Harbi was reportedly promoted to lieutenant last October for his role in defending the crown prince’s palace in Jiddah from an attack of some kind.

Meshal Saad al-Bostani appears to be a Saudi air force lieutenant who was born in 1987 and studied at the University of Louisville. He went to Louisville’s Trinity High School, according to his Facebook page. Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb appears to be an officer in the Saudi intelligence service who was previously stationed as a diplomat in the Saudi Embassy in Britain.

Mansour Othman Aba Husein was promoted in February to the rank of colonel in a civil defense force, according to a tweet by a friend. Waleed Abdullah al-Shehri, born in 1980, was promoted last year to major in the air force. Al-Shehri may also have aspired to write poetry; he appears in footage from 2012 of an Emirati reality television competition for amateur poets.

It was unclear what immediate effect the disclosures might have on the unfolding discussions between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and possibly Washington over resolutions to the dispute.

Saudi officials have said that they are willing to open the Istanbul consulate to police inspection. The Turkish authorities were reportedly prepared to bring in well-equipped forensic teams to scour for clues.

More than a week after Khashoggi’s disappearance, however, Turkish officials say they have little hope of obtaining significant new evidence. There were also conflicting reports on Wednesday about when the promised inspection might actually take place.