Almost every single suspect in the disappearance and alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and journalist, has ties to either the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or people in his inner circle, according to security officials in the West and the region.
The revelations about the identities of the team which arrived from Saudi Arabia to Turkey before Mr Khashoggi went missing will make it extremely difficult to totally exonerate the crown prince from what has unfolded, say officials. One of the men, who was once based in Britain, was a near constant presence by the side of the crown prince during his recent travels to Europe and the US.
The Saudi government has repeatedly, and strongly, denied any involvement in Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance after entering the country’s consulate in Istanbul. But Riyadh, it has been reported, is preparing to issue an account of what purportedly took place which will claim that over-zealous members of a security team accidentally killed Mr Khashoggi while interrogating him.
Donald Trump is viewed as paving the path to this “explanation” by saying after a telephone call with King Salman that “rogue killers” may have been responsible for the journalist’s death.
But four of the Saudi team have been publicly identified as being part of the personal security detail of the crown prince, widely known in the West as MBS.
One of them, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, was attached to the Saudi embassy in London in 2007, and has, according to security sources, since played a role in planning protection for the Saudi royal family.
A former British official, who had served as a diplomat in an intelligence capacity, had met Mr Mutreb in London when he was posted in the city and had come across him subsequently in Saudi Arabia while working as a consultant for a corporate concern.
The former official said: “He was sort of middle-ranking in London, first secretary; that was his official position anyway. But he had risen quite fast in Saudi and, from what we know, had a good reputation as something of a successful fixer.
“He is trusted by the royal family at any rate. He has certainly been to the US and may have been to the UK as well not so long ago.”
The New York Times reported that Mr Mutreb has been photographed coming out of aeroplanes with Prince Mohammed during recent visits to Spain and France and also in Houston, Boston and United Nations during visits by the crown prince.
The newspaper also reported that someone who had worked with the Saudi royal family had identified another suspect as Abdulaziz Mohammed al-Hawsawi, a member of a security team that travels with the crown prince.
Someone with the same name as the third suspect, Thaar Ghaleb al-Harbi, was promoted last year to lieutenant in the Saudi royal guard for “bravery in the defence of Prince Mohammed’s palace in Jeddah”.
And a fourth suspect travelled to Turkey on a passport with the name of another member of the royal guard, Muhammad Saad Alzharani.
A security official from a third country who has worked with Saudi authorities said the list of names emerging of the Saudi team inevitably points to the royal family having knowledge of the mission.
He said: “These people are known. And an operation like this, such a risky thing, could not happen without the family knowing; much more so now than before the changes [the appointment of MBS as crown prince], it would not be possible. No I don’t think so.
“The decision-making is done by a very tight group around him and can it be done without his knowledge? I do not want to say anything about that.”
Meanwhile the UK, along with fellow members of the G7, has issued a statement about Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance, saying that “those bearing responsibility for his disappearance must be held to account”.
It said: “We, the G7 foreign ministers, of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the high representative of the European Union, affirm our commitment to defending freedom of expression and protection of a free press.
“We remain very troubled by the disappearance of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Those bearing responsibility for his disappearance must be held to account,” it added. “We encourage Turkish-Saudi collaboration and look forward to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia conducting a thorough, credible, transparent, and prompt investigation, as announced.”