Turkey Adopts ‘Drip-Drip’ Tactic in Saudi Murder Case


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STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT INTERNATIONAL—Turkish authorities embraced a strategy to leak evidence gradually in the days after the killing of a dissident journalist as part of an effort to blunt the international standing of rival Saudi Arabia, Turkish officials said.

Turkish investigators quickly determined Jamal Khashoggi had been killed by Saudi operatives but authorities didn’t publicly announce what they knew because they were worried about provoking a confrontation with the rich and powerful kingdom. But as Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance gained global attention and Saudi Arabia denied any knowledge of it, Turkish officials saw a chance to counter Riyadh’s narrative.

More drips came on Monday: Turkish security-camera footage showing a man with a fake beard and dressed to look like Mr. Khashoggi exiting a back door of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul after the journalist was killed. The footage weakens the narrative Riyadh released on Saturday that he died by accident during a brawl. A Saudi official confirmed the kingdom’s use of a Khashoggi double but declined to elaborate.

STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT-CCTV footage shows Mr. Khashoggi arriving at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, where he was killed. PHOTO: DEMIROREN NEWS AGENCY/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

President Trump said Monday that he was “not satisfied” with Saudi Arabia’s new explanation and that he expected to know more about the circumstances on Tuesday with the help of “top [U.S.] intelligence people” in Turkey. Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel flew on Monday to Turkey to meet with investigators there as the U.S. reviews evidence in the case.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey pledged to reveal what happened “in its naked truth” in a Tuesday address to lawmakers from his ruling Justice & Development Party. Turkish officials said they have an audio recording proving the Saudis killed the journalist “in a barbaric way.”

The Trump administration has forged a tighter military and political alliance with Saudi Arabia, putting its brash Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the center of a Middle East coalition that is hostile to Iran and to Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood that are supported by Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey.

Turkey’s disclosures about Mr. Khashoggi’s death have circumvented Saudi Arabia’s deep-pocketed public-relations machine, roiled the U.S.-Saudi relationship and undermined the kingdom’s image in business circles. In recent days, scores of executives have canceled their participation in a major Saudi business conference due to start on Tuesday.

“We do not have to do anything,” a senior Turkish official said. “The Saudis are doing a great job at ruining themselves.”

Given the trail of evidence they gathered, Turkish authorities expected the Saudis to quickly acknowledge a role, at least privately, in Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance. But Riyadh’s persistent rebuttal of Turkey’s findings led to three weeks of tense, behind-the-scene exchanges between the two countries, according to Turkish and Saudi officials who were briefed on their countries’ investigations.

The journalist, then 59 years old, entered the Saudi consulate on Oct. 2 to collect divorce papers needed for his planned marriage with Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish Ph.D. student. Shortly after 1 p.m., he walked into the pastel-yellow building; his fiancée, who kept the journalist’s two cellphones, waited at the gate.

Hours later, Ms. Cengiz grew panicked. The consulate had closed for the day, and Mr. Khashoggi hadn’t emerged.

At 4:41 p.m., she called one of the journalist’s close friends, Yasin Aktay, who is an adviser to Mr. Erdogan.

STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT-CCTV video shows a private jet alleged to have ferried in a group of Saudi men suspected of being involved in Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. PHOTO: SABAH/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The president, who knew Mr. Khashoggi personally, was meeting at his party headquarters in Ankara. Alerted by Mr. Aktay through a secretary, Mr. Erdogan ordered “all measures be taken” to elucidate the mystery, said a person present.

The order triggered a frantic search throughout Istanbul’s sprawling metropolis. Turkish authorities called their Saudi counterparts, waiting in vain for them to answer, and reviewed thousands of hours of security-camera footage from Turkey’s extensive network of surveillance cameras, known as MoBeSe.

Within hours they reached a sobering conclusion: Mr. Khashoggi never left the consulate.

Investigators traced backward the paths of all the vehicles that had entered the gated diplomatic compound, nestled in Istanbul’s Levent business district, before Mr. Khashoggi’s arrival. That led them to identify 15 men who had landed at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport earlier in the day and checked in at two hotels near the consulate.

That also is how they quickly identified the Khashoggi impersonator. The footage of the double, first broadcast by CNN on Monday and confirmed by Turkish authorities, shows the man boarding a taxi, riding 6 miles through Istanbul, stopping at the Blue Mosque and later emerging from a public bathroom without a beard and wearing jeans.

Combing through airport files, investigators also identified two corporate jets that had flown in from Riyadh on Oct. 2, one before sunrise, the second in the afternoon. By the time they had the information, one of the jets, a Gulfstream operated by Sky Prime Aviation Services Ltd., a firm controlled by Prince Mohammed, had already left.

The second one was still parked in the airport area devoted to business jets. But after Turkish police failed to find any sign of Mr. Khashoggi, officials cleared the plane for takeoff.

STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT-CCTV footage shows a Saudi team suspected of involvement in Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance at the airport in Istanbul on Oct. 2. PHOTO: DEMIROREN NEWS AGENCY/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Turkish investigators have since concluded that they missed chances to detain members of the group, including Maher al Mutrib, a Saudi royal bodyguard and the alleged leader of the group, and Salah al Tubaigy, a forensic expert who allegedly dismembered Mr. Khashoggi’s body.

Within days, however, Turkish investigators said they received sensational evidence: an audio recording that contains chilling evidence of how Mr. Khashoggi was beaten, drugged and killed within minutes of entering the diplomatic compound.

One Turkish official said the recording was available as early as the evening of Oct. 2. Others said it took security agencies time to identify Arabic voices on the recording, but noted its content and a detailed analysis were shared among investigators within two days. Turkish officials declined to say how they had the recording.

On Oct. 6, Turkish officials met with a Saudi delegation in Ankara to discuss the Khashoggi affair. The Turks shared their conclusion that Mr. Khashoggi was killed. The Saudis said they would report back in Riyadh but maintained their denial.

Later in the day, Turkish authorities were stupefied. Instead of responding to their formal request that Turkish investigators be allowed to inspect the consulate, the Saudis allowed a Reuters TV crew to tour the premises.

“The Saudis were making fun of us,” a person close to Mr. Erdogan said. “It was insulting.” At around 11 p.m., Reuters ran a story citing Turkish sources saying police had concluded Mr. Khashoggi was killed in the consulate.

On Oct. 10, Turkish daily Sabah ran a cover story with details on the identities of the 15 members of the alleged hit team.

Riyadh then dispatched a more senior team to Ankara. During a meeting with Prince Khalid al Faisal on Oct. 12, Turkish officials provided the emissary of King Salman with more evidence, including part of the audio recording—supporting their conclusions that the murder had occurred in atrocious conditions and had been premeditated.

The prince flew back to Riyadh and reported to the king. On Oct. 14, King Salman called Mr. Erdogan.

The Turkish president, who had not leveled any accusation against Saudi Arabia publicly, was direct, say people briefed on the call, saying he knew how Mr. Khashoggi had been brutally murdered at the hand of Saudi operatives.

The king thanked his interlocutor for not exploiting the situation, the people said.

After hanging up, King Salman ordered an internal investigation into the circumstances of Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.

On Oct. 16, Turkish officials leaked details about the recording, saying it indicates how Mr. Khashoggi was killed in the office of the Saudi consul general, Mohammad al Otaibi.

“We are in a state of fear and panic,” another Saudi official said.