Turkish authorities believe 15 Saudi men who arrived in Istanbul on October 2 were connected to the disappearance – and possible murder – of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. At least some of them appear to have high-level connections in the Saudi government.
Sabah, a pro-government private newspaper in Turkey, on Tuesday listed 15 names alongside photographs of men who authorities believe were flown into Istanbul from Riyadh. The state-run Anadolu news agency later published similar details on eight of the individuals.
Turkish officials contend that their mission was the premeditated killing of Khashoggi and that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate. One source told the New York Times that he was dismembered with a bone saw.
Two sources familiar with the investigation confirmed to CNN that the 15 men listed by the two publications were of interest in the ongoing criminal investigation launched by Turkish prosecutors.
At least some of the men flew in on two private jets from Riyadh on the same day that Khashoggi, a former Saudi royal court insider turned critic, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He has not been seen in public since.
Saudi Arabia firmly denies any involvement in the disappearance of Khashoggi and say he left the consulate that afternoon.
One of the Saudi team was identified by Turkey’s official Anadolu Agency and Sabah as Salah Muhammed al-Tubaiqi. He is listed on an official Saudi health website as the head of the forensic medicine department at the interior ministry. He received his Master’s degree at the University of Glasgow, according to the website. An October 2014 article in the state-aligned Sharq al-Awsat included a picture of Tubaiqi in uniform. The author of the article identified him as a lieutenant colonel.
Another member of the group identified by Turkish official media is Muhammad Saad al-Zahrani.
A third, Maher Abdulaziz 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.
All 15 persons of interest arrived and left the country on October 2, the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance, according to Turkish officials. Zahrani and Tubaiqi left Istanbul 45 minutes apart, according to Anadolu.
Khashoggi arrived at the consulate soon after 1pm local time for a previously-scheduled appointment; CCTV shows several of the visiting Saudis leaving their hotels three hours before he had his appointment. Turkish officials have said they were at the consulate that day.
None of those identified by the Turkish outlets have come forward since their identities were published.
The Saudi-owned Al Arabiya network said the Sabah newspaper photo that claimed to show Tubaiqi on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance was an “old photo” of a “Saudi citizen Salah al-Tubaiqi” on vacation with his wife.
If the Turkish officials are correct in their identifications, it offers further indication of high-level Saudi links to Khashoggi’s fate. On Thursday, a US official familiar with the intelligence told CNN that the US had intercepts of Saudi officials discussing a plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and detain him.
It was unclear if there was ever a plan to kill him, or if something went awry at the consulate the official said. He added the plan to get Khashoggi to the Istanbul consulate was a backup, given the failure to lure him back to Saudi Arabia.
In a statement to CNN on Wednesday, a Saudi official said the kingdom “categorically” denies “any involvement in Jamal’s disappearance.”
“At this stage, our priority is to support the investigation, as opposed to responding to evolving comments not directly related to those efforts,” the official said.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect further reporting about Muhammad Saad al-Zahrani.