A Turkish newspaper has published the names, faces, and travel movements of what it describes as the 15 Saudis allegedly involved in the disappearance of a prominent journalist who vanished in Istanbul last week.
Then, online sleuths reportedly managed to use open-source material to identify at least eight of those allegedly involved in the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a 59-year-old Saudi journalist, as members of Saudi security forces.
One photo purported to show a member of the 15-member team hobnobbing with Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful 33-year-old Saudi Crown Prince who has become the primary target of Mr Khashoggi’s criticisms. Another identified an alleged team member as Salah Mohammed al-Tubaigy, a name and face matching the head of forensic evidence at Saudi’s General Security department.
The details were published by Sabah, a mass-circulation daily newspaper close to the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Friends, family, and officials say Mr Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October before disappearing. Turkish media reported that security camera footage from inside the consulate was removed and that staff were ordered to go home the afternoon Mr Khashoggi arrived.
On the same day, two private jets, owned by Riyadh based Sky Prime Aviation, reportedly arrived from Saudi Arabia to Istanbul's Ataturk airport, carrying the 15 personnel, landing just hours before Mr Khashoggi’s scheduled appointment at the consulate.
Some of the 15 checked in to the five-star Movenpick hotel near the Saudi consulate in Istanbul's Levent district. Both private jets and the 15 men departed hours later, according to Turkish officials and local press.
Turkish authorities investigating the disappearance of Mr Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi with Turkish ethnic roots, have been leaking information about the probe to local and international media with what appears to be the tacit approval of government officials.
Police in Istanbul have formed a special team to investigate Mr Khashoggi's disappearance, the newspaper Milliyet reported, tasked specifically to use chemicals, dogs, and infrared light to look for DNA, blood and other traces of the journalist at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The latest revelations add to mounting allegations that Saudi’s brash Crown Prince ordered Mr Khashoggi’s abduction or murder. On Wednesday, The Washington Post, where Mr Khashoggi wrote a regular column, reported that US intelligence officials had picked up chatter suggesting Saudi officials were planning to kidnap the journalist.
The Post and other media also circulated a photo, likely taken from security camera footage, showing a black Mercedes Vito van that was parked outside the consulate and left shortly after Mr Khashoggi’s arrival, parked in front of the residence of Saudi Consul General Mohammad al-Otaibi.
The 15-member team identified by Sabah are all Saudi men aged between 30 and 57 years old. Those purportedly tracked down via open source internet tools by Oslo-based researcher Iyad al-Baghdadi and others include: a Saudi Special Forces member; a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi civil defence force; a major and lieutenant in the Saudi air force; a lieutenant in the service guarding the Crown Prince’s palace; and an intelligence service colonel who had once been attached to the Saudi embassy in the UK.
Mr Khashoggi served for years as the right-hand man of Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal, a former intelligence chief as well as Riyadh’s envoy to the US and UK. Increasingly frustrated with Saudi Arabia's course, he began to bristle at the restrictions placed on media and civil society, eventually moving to the US last year amid fears for his own safety. In recent months he had grown increasingly critical of the Crown Prince, who has been criticised as authoritarian despite attempts to cast himself as a reformer.
Saudi officials have denied that they had anything to do with Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance, insisting he left the consulate, but without providing proof, as demanded by Mr Erdogan.
The disappearance of Mr Khashoggi, a permanent US resident., has put Washington in a tough spot. The Crown Prince has forged a strong alliance with the administration of Donald Trump and a personal bond with the US president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. US lawmakers have made tough statements about the Khashoggi affair, but the White House and State Department have been tepid. Saudi Arabia has vowed to buy $110 billion in American weapons.
“We’re not going to make any judgments about what had happened to him,” Heather Nauert, State Department spokeswoman, told reporters Tuesday. “The United States is certainly concerned about his whereabouts. Senior officials at the State Department have spoken with Saudi officials through diplomatic channels about the matter. We call on the government of Saudi Arabia to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation.”