WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing global outrage over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi officials are now acknowledging that the journalist was targeted inside the kingdom's consulate in Turkey and a body double was on hand to aid in a cover-up — the latest twist in the kingdom's evolving efforts to explain Khashoggi's death.
This new version of events — which was described to The Associated Press by two Saudi officials — comes three weeks after the kingdom said Khashoggi left the consulate on his own and insisted Turkish claims he was killed by an assassination squad were unfounded.
Now Saudi officials tell the AP they did in fact send a team to Turkey that included a forensics expert and a member whose job was to dress in the 59-year-old writer's clothes and pretend to be him — though they still insist that his death was an accident.
This account attempts to distance Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from the killing, even though officials linked to the 33-year-old ruler have been implicated. But the fact that the Saudis are acknowledging some aspects of the account provided by Turkish authorities suggests that the kingdom is feeling intense global pressure, including from President Donald Trump and members of Congress, some of whom have called for cutting off arms shipments and imposing sanctions.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the matter and the ongoing investigation into Khashoggi's death.
There was no way to corroborate the Saudi account, which paints the suspects as rogue operators. It also contradicts many observers who believe the complex scheme that led to Khashoggi's death could not have occurred without the knowledge of the crown prince, who controls all major levers of power in the kingdom with the blessing of his father, King Salman.
"It would have likely had the approval of the Saudi government," said Robert Jordan, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during President George W. Bush's administration.
Pro-government media in Turkey have reported that a Saudi hit squad of 15 people traveled to Turkey to kill Khashoggi, who wrote columns critical of the crown prince's rule while living in self-imposed exile in the U.S. The team left the country hours later in private jets, Turkish media reports said.
Khashoggi was in Turkey for a scheduled visit to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage to a Turkish woman.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Tuesday for the 18 suspects detained in Saudi Arabia by authorities there to be tried in Turkish courts and rejected the idea that the men acted on their own. "To blame such an incident on a handful of security and intelligence members would not satisfy us or the international community," Erdogan said in a speech to ruling party lawmakers in parliament.
The Saudi officials who spoke to the AP acknowledged that the kingdom sent a team to Turkey, but said the men were acting on a directive issued by King Salman's predecessor, King Abdullah, to bring Saudi dissidents abroad back to the kingdom — ostensibly to take part in a "national dialogue" over the country's future.
They acknowledged the plan allowed for removing Khashoggi from the consulate and questioning him at a "safe house."
Asked why such a team would include a forensics expert and a body double, the Saudi officials said had the safe house option been used, the plan was for the forensic expert to wipe clean evidence that Khashoggi had been at the consulate and for the body double to leave the facility to give the false impression that Khashoggi had left on his own.
Instead, the two officials said, the operation with Khashoggi turned violent. They said that the team included a former Khashoggi colleague who advised him to return to the kingdom. When that failed, the writer, by their account, asked if he was going to be kidnapped. Told he was going to be taken to a safe house, they say he started to yell for help. That's when an unidentified person on the team applied a chokehold, which the officials said was intended only to keep Khashoggi quiet but ended up killing him instead.
The officials said the nine members of the 15-strong team who were inside the consulate at the time then panicked and made plans with a local Turkish "collaborator" to remove the body. One official said the body was rolled up in some sort of material and taken from the consulate by the collaborator.
Neither official could account for Turkish claims that Khashoggi's body was dismembered with a bone saw inside the building.
Khashoggi vanished on Oct. 2 after entering the Saudi consulate. His fiancee, who was waiting outside the building for him, alerted authorities when he failed to come out.
At first, Saudi officials said he had left the building and they did not know his whereabouts.
Authorities in Turkey then began releasing details through the media there, showing surveillance photos of members of the team entering the country, including one member of the crown prince's entourage, and sources presenting increasingly grisly accounts of the killing. On Monday, media outlets broadcast images of a body double strolling outside the consulate in Khashoggi's clothes, a detail confirmed by Erdogan.
The Saudi officials said their initial response to Khashoggi's disappearance was based on a false report filed by the team sent to Istanbul, which maintained he had left the consulate after refusing to agree to return home.
After the Turks challenged that account and it became clear Khashoggi had not left the consulate, Saudi officials remained almost entirely silent on the matter.
It wasn't until Oct. 20 that Saudi Arabia acknowledged that Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, claiming he died as the result of a "fistfight," a claim that drew immediate skepticism from the kingdom's Western allies.
On Sunday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Fox News that Khashoggi's killing was "a rogue operation," echoing Trump, who suggested on Oct. 15 that "rogue killers" could be responsible.
"The individuals who did this did this outside the scope of their authority," al-Jubeir said in the interview. "There obviously was a tremendous mistake made and what compounded the mistake was the attempt to try to cover up. That is unacceptable to the government."