Turkish investigators were studying DNA samples on Wednesday as they probed the case of Jamal Khashoggi, amid growing indications that the men allegedly responsible for the Saudi journalist’s disappearance have close ties to the highest levels of the Saudi government.
Sources told CNN that a group of Saudi men whom Turkish officials believe are connected to Jamal Khashoggi’s possible death were led by a high-ranking intelligence officer, with one source saying he was close to the inner circle of the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to obtain papers that would have allowed him to marry his Turkish fiancée.
The insider-turned-critic of the Saudi government has not been seen since.
Turkish officials have told CNN that Khashoggi’s body was dismembered after he was killed in the consulate.
Investigators were examining “a large number of DNA cell samples” collected during searches Monday of the Saudi consulate building and its sewers, Turkish state news agency Anadolu reported Wednesday.
Turkish officials have not yet searched the Saudi consul general’s residence in Istanbul. Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the search would happen “once a joint consensus is reached.”
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, speaking after he and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a brief stop in Ankara, said the residence had not yet been searched because the Saudi Consul general’s family “claimed to be living there.”
Pompeo visited Saudi Arabia on Tuesday where he held talks with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who he said “strongly denied” any knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi.
Asked if the Saudi officials told him whether Khashoggi was dead or alive, Pompeo said: “I don’t want to talk about any of the facts. They didn’t want to either and that they want to have to opportunity to complete this investigation in a thorough way… I think that’s a reasonable thing to do, to give them that opportunity and then we’ll all get to judge.”
Several US officials have told CNN that any such operation could not have happened without the Crown Prince’s direct knowledge.
Turkish authorities believe that 15 Saudi men who arrived in Istanbul on October 2 were connected to Khashoggi’s possible death. At least some of them appear to have high-level connections in the Saudi government.
Saudi officials had previously maintained Khashoggi left the consulate the same afternoon of his visit, but they provided no evidence to support the claim.
Sources have told CNN that the kingdom was preparing a report to acknowledge that Khashoggi died at the consulate in Istanbul in an interrogation that went awry. The sources said the interrogation was intended to lead to his enforced return to Saudi Arabia.
One source said the report will likely conclude that the operation was carried out without clearance and transparency and that those involved will be held responsible.
But a Saudi admission that Khashoggi died in the consulate would not deter difficult questions over the whereabouts of his remains, or the movements of the 15 men and their links to bin Salman.
Three sources familiar with the case told CNN that the high-ranking officer who was close to the Crown Prince’s inner circle and led the group of men to Istanbul came from the General Intelligence Presidency, the main Saudi intelligence service. One source said the officer assembled and sent his own team to interrogate Khashoggi.
One of the men under investigation by Turkish authorities is Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a Saudi diplomat and intelligence officer.
Mutreb is closely connected to bin Salman, a Saudi source told CNN. “He was seconded to an elite protection brigade within the Royal Guard to serve as the personal security force of [the Crown Prince],” the source told CNN.
Photographs have emerged of Mutreb with bin Salman during the Crown Prince’s tour of the United States earlier this year.
Mutreb was the first secretary at the Saudi embassy in London, according to a 2007 UK government list of foreign diplomats and a Saudi source in London who knew him and described him as a colonel in Saudi intelligence.
Turkish officials also provided CNN with passport scans of seven other men they suspect to have been part of the Saudi team. The passport scans were taken on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance.
One of the scans appears to belong to Salah Muhammad al-Tubaiqi, listed as the head of forensic medicine at the Saudi Ministry of Interior. Another member of the group identified by Turkish official media is Muhammad Saad al-Zahrani, who has appeared on Saudi state TV alongside the Crown Prince.
If that group is to be characterized by Saudi Arabia as part of a rogue operation intended to bring Khashoggi back to the kingdom alive, questions could arise about al-Tubaiqi.
If the autopsy specialist left Saudi Arabia for Istanbul before Khashoggi entered the consulate, as Turkish sources have asserted, it might be hard to square with the explanation that any killing was the result of a botched interrogation, and not premeditated.