Saudi crown prince exchanged messages with aide alleged to have overseen Khashoggi killing

By Shane Harris and Souad Mekhennet

December 1 at 8:18 PM                          The Washington Post

In the hours before and after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a senior aide who allegedly oversaw the assassination exchanged multiple messages, according to people familiar with the matter.

The communications between the two men are another piece of evidence tying the crown prince to the killing of Khashoggi, a former palace insider turned prominent critic, who also was a contributing columnist to The Washington Post.

The CIA included the existence of the messages in its classified assessment that Mohammed is likely to have ordered Khashoggi’s death, a view that agency officials have shared with members of Congress and the White House.

Mohammed exchanged the messages on Oct. 2 with Saud al-Qahtani, one of his closest aides and a fierce public supporter who has kept a blacklist of those he deems disloyal to the kingdom. The content of the messages, and what form the messages took, was not known, according to people familiar with the matter.

Citing portions of the CIA’s written assessment, the Wall Street Journal first reported on Saturday that Mohammed had sent at least 11 messages to Qahtani before and after the killing.

The CIA has rated its assessment that Mohammed was involved in the killing at “medium-to-high confidence,” and privately, officials have said it is inconceivable that the prince, who exercises total authority over the government, could not have known about such an audacious operation. The Post had previously described officials as saying that the CIA had high confidence in its assessment.

“The accepted position is that there is no way this happened without him being aware or involved,” said a U.S. official familiar with the CIA’s conclusions. The CIA has declined to comment, and people familiar with the intelligence said the agency has not found any single piece of evidence that irrefutably links Mohammed directly to the killing.

Trump administration officials on Sunday continued to stress that point and emphasized the importance of the United States maintaining a close relationship with Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has acknowledged that its operatives killed Khashoggi, but it says the operation was not authorized by the crown prince and was undertaken by rogue actors.

“I have read every piece of intelligence that is in the possession of the United States government,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview with CNN on Saturday, “and when it is done, when you complete that analysis, there’s no direct evidence linking him to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

Pompeo, who declined to comment on the CIA’s classified assessment, said the United States was working closely with Saudi Arabia on major foreign policy issues, including Afghanistan, and that the kingdom was a vital regional counterweight to Iran.

“They are a relationship that has mattered for 70 years across Republican and Democrat administrations alike,” said Pompeo, who previously served as the CIA director. “It remains an important relationship, and we’re aiming to keep that relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said the question of holding the killers responsible and the strategic importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship were separate issues.

“Accountability for the murder of Khashoggi stands alone. It is distinct from any other factor going on,” Mattis said in remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California.

“Right now, we do not have a smoking gun,” he said, noting that he had seen all the latest intelligence in the matter as of Friday. “We do not have a smoking gun [showing] that the crown prince was involved. We certainly need to continue to explore . . . all aspects of the murder and find anyone who was involved, but that should not in any way dissuade us from basically confronting Iran,” which the Trump administration views as its major adversary in the Middle East and one that Saudi Arabia is essential to confronting.

Qahtani has emerged as a key player in the killing and a compelling link to the prince. He shows up in another portion of the CIA’s assessment: An alleged member of the Saudi hit team that U.S. and Turkish officials said Qahtani oversaw, Maher Mutreb, called Qahtanifrom inside the consulate to inform him Khashoggi was dead, The Post has previously reported. Mutreb, a security official who was often at the crown prince’s side, is seen on security camera footage entering and leaving the consulate on the day Khashoggi was killed.

The U.S. intelligence community also has intercepts of communications before Khashoggi was killed that show Mohammed had ordered an operation to lure him back to Saudi Arabia. Friends of Khashoggi’s have said that Qahtani called the journalist and raised the potential of his working for the crown prince if he would end his self-imposed exile in Virginia and return to his native country.

Communications that the United States intercepted in July show that Mohammed had asked senior Saudi intelligence officials about the status of a plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia, according to one intelligence official.

President Trump, who also has been briefed on the CIA’s findings, has been equivocal in assigning blame to the crown prince, who works closely with the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner on Middle East issues.

“Maybe he did or maybe he didn’t!” Trump said in a statement last month, adding that the true culprits might never be known. The president has said that the strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia and the benefit to the U.S. economy from Saudi arms purchases are too important to rupture over the killing of Khashoggi, which he has condemned.

But the latest revelation of intelligence connecting Mohammed and his aide Qahtani to the killing may increase pressure on the administration to take more punitive steps.

The Treasury Department has sanctioned 17 individuals it said were involved in Khashoggi’s death, including Qahtani, Mutreb and the Saudi consul general in Turkey, Mohammad al-Otaibi. But some members of Congress have called for further action, and Republicans have begun defecting from the administration over its support for the Saudis.

Last week, in a rebuke of Saudi Arabia and the administration’s handling of the Khashoggi case, a majority of the Senate voted to advance a measure to end U.S. military support to Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen against Iranian-backed militants.

Mekhennet reported from Frankfurt, Germany. Missy Ryan in Simi Valley, Calif., and John Hudson and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.

Yemen is on the brink of a horrible famine. Here’s how things got so bad


By Amanda Erickson November 19 at 5:00 AM    The Washigton Post

It’s been called the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world:” Nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s population is food insecure; millions are teetering on the edge of famine. The situation — described as critical for nearly two years — has grown even worse since early November, when Saudi Arabia enacted a near-complete blockade on its borders with Yemen, making it nearly impossible for anyone to import food, water and medical supplies from Saudi Arabia.

How did one of the poorest countries in the world get to that point? It’s a complicated story, one that involves warring regional superpowers, terrorism, oil and an impending climate catastrophe.

But in some ways, it’s also a simple one. Lots of people outside of Yemen are fighting for control and influence. And lots of the people within the country are paying the price.

How did the current political crisis start? 

Like many conflicts in the Middle East, Yemen’s struggle started with the Arab Spring. In November 2011, after protests, the country’s longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to hand power to his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi.

At the time, Saleh’s outster was seen as a victory for democracy. But over the next couple of years, Hadi struggled to lead effectively. The country was plagued with unemployment, food insecurity and corruption. Its people also faced attacks from the al-Qaeda affiliate based in Yemen. Hadi also struggled with a skeptical army (many top lieutenants had remained loyal to Saleh) and a separatist movement in the south.

The Houthi rebel group, which supports the country’s Shia minority, took advantage of Hadi’s weaknesses. The group staged a coup, taking control of the country’s north. Many Yemenis supported the Houthi, at least initially. They were frustrated by the government’s weakness. When the Houthi decided to take control of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, thousands of civilians pitched in, setting up street camps and roadblocks.

By January 2016, the Houthi controlled Sanaa, and Hadi escaped to the port city of Aden.

How did Saudi Arabia get involved?

Yemen’s northern neighbor watched warily as the Houthi took over. Saudi Arabia is Sunni, and they were leery of allowing a Shiite group to gain control of a border country, particularly one allied with their enemy Iran. Quickly Saudi Arabia teamed up with eight other Sunni Arab states to try to beat the group back and restore Hadi to power. Over the next two years, the coalition launched an extensive airstrike campaign. Thousands of bombs have been dropped; many have hit and killed civilians. According to research data, out of about 750 of those attacks 231 hit military sites and 331 struck residential ares. Schools were hit in 39 attacks, the data showed.

According to one report from the United Nations, at least 10,000 Yemenis have been killed in the violence; 40,000 more have been injured.

The airstrikes haven’t resulted in much progress. Government forces were able to retake Aden, but only after a fierce, four-month battle that left hundreds dead. That victory gave the government a stronghold from which to take control of much of the south.

The Houthi still maintain control of much of the north. As the BBC explained, “Despite the air campaign and naval blockade continuing unabated, pro-government forces have been unable to dislodge the rebels from their northern strongholds, including Sanaa and its surrounding province.”

Adding to the strife, al Qaeda also controls some parts of Yemen, and the Islamic State is active there, targeting the government-controlled south.

What prompted the blockade?

In early November, Saudi Arabia intercepted a ballistic missile near Riyadh, its capital. Officials allege the weapon was fired by the Houthi and that it was provided to them by Iran. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called the launch a “direct military aggression” that could be “considered an act of war.” In retaliation, Saudi Arabia sealed all entry via land, air and sea in an effort, they say, to prevent Iran from providing any more weapons to its rebels.

Why is it a blockade so dangerous in Yemen?

In addition to this political crisis, Yemen is facing an environmental catastrophe. Nearly 90 percent of the country is classified as arid or desert. Water is scarce — Yemen has one of the lowest rates of per-capita water availability in the world, about two percent of the global average. Rapid depletion of groundwater resources means the water table has dropped quickly. Droughts and desertification have made an already challenging agricultural scene nearly impossible. Much of the little usable agricultural land is used to grow qat, a cash crop and mild stimulant chewed by about 70 percent of Yemeni men.

Before the civil war broke out, Yemen imported nearly 90 percent of its food, mostly by sea. Seven million Yemeni people rely entirely on imported food. Because of the fighting, importing food has become much more difficult. Many shipping companies simply won’t send supplies anymore. Even before the blockade, those who ship supplies could face massive delays and mandatory searches by coalition warships.

After an international outcry, the Saudis loosened the blockade on Yemeni ports — a bit. Saudi Arabia said it would allow aid to enter government-controlled ports in three cities. But aid groups and the United Nations say it’s not nearly enough.

What kind of humanitarian toll could the blockade take?

According to the United Nations, Yemen is in urgent need of medicines, vaccines and food. The supplies “are essential to staving off disease and starvation,” the organization said. “Without them, untold thousands of innocent victims, among them many children, will die.” A joint statement from the heads of the World Food Program, UNICEF and the World Health Organization called the situation in Yemen “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”

They warn that 3.2 million people are at risk of famine, and 150,000 malnourished children could die in the next month. (Right now, according to Save the Children, 130 children are dying every day in Yemen.)

A least 17 million other people, including 11 million children, are in desperate need of humanitarian supplies. The shortage of medicine and clean water has also led to the spread of disease. The country is now in the throes of the fastest-growing cholera epidemic ever recorded. Nearly 900,000 people have been affected, according to U.N. figures.

Is peace possible?

Right now, it’s hard to imagine. The United Nations has organized three rounds of peace talks. All have collapsed, spurring in an escalation in fighting and civilian casualties. Hadi’s government is demanding that the rebels withdraw from all areas they control as a precondition for talks, making success unlikely.