ISTANBUL — The rulers of Saudi Arabia are considering blaming a top intelligence official close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, three people with knowledge of the Saudi plans said Thursday.
The plan to assign blame to Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, a high-ranking adviser to the crown prince, would be an extraordinary recognition of the magnitude of international backlash to hit the kingdom since the death of Mr. Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi dissident. A resident of Virginia and contributor to The Washington Post, Mr. Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul 16 days ago.
Blaming General Assiri could also provide a plausible explanation for the killing and help deflect blame from the crown prince, who American intelligence agencies are increasingly convinced was behind Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Turkish officials have said they possess evidence showing that 15 Saudi agents dismembered and assassinated Mr. Khashoggi in the consulate. After two weeks of blanket denials and mounting pressure from Turkey and Washington, Saudi Arabia said it would conduct its own investigation to determine who was responsible.
[Four of the suspects in Jamal Khashoggi’s killing belong to the security team of the Saudi crown prince.]
But even with the investigation still ostensibly underway, the Saudis are already pointing to General Assiri as the culprit, according to the three people familiar with the Saudi plans. People close to the White House have already been briefed and given Mr. Assiri’s name.
Whether that move will be enough to calm the international crisis and what it may mean for Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler, remain to be seen.
President Trump, who has made the crown prince a pillar of his Middle East policy, has been equivocal, at times raising questions about Saudi Arabia’s culpability and resisting calls from Congress for sanctions.
Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, has been urging the president to stand by Prince Mohammed, according to a person close to the White House and a former official with knowledge of the discussions.
Mr. Kushner has argued that the outrage over Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and possible killing will pass, just as it did after other Saudi errors like the kidnapping of the prime minister of Lebanon and the killing of a busload of children in Yemen by a Saudi airstrike.
American lawmakers of both parties, however, are expressing far greater horror at what appears to be the brutal killing of Mr. Khashoggi, a veteran of the Saudi establishment who was well known among journalists and diplomats. His story has captured the attention of American public far more than the mass killings and other atrocities in the region, and a growing number of lawmakers are demanding some sanction.
General Assiri, who previously served as the spokesman for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, is close enough to the crown prince to have easy access to his ear and has considerable authority to enlist lower ranking personnel in a mission.
The Saudi rulers are expected to say that Mr. Assiri received verbal authorization from Prince Mohammed to capture Mr. Khashoggi for an interrogation in Saudi Arabia, but either misunderstood his instructions or overstepped that authorization and took the dissident’s life, according to the two of the people familiar with the Saudi plans. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief journalists.
Even in this scenario, however, Prince Mohammed would still have ordered an operation to abduct a resident of the United States, apparently only on the basis of his public criticism of Saudi leaders.
Given General Assiri’s lofty rank, declaring his culpability would also reflect on the crown prince. Prince Mohammed elevated General Assiri to his current post, and General Assiri is close enough to him that he has often sat in when the crown prince meets with visiting American officials.
Some critics of the kingdom are already arguing that scapegoating an underling would be little more than a diversion.
“The responsibility is with the de facto ruler, who is the crown prince,” argued Madawi al-Rasheed, a professor at the London School of Economics and a frequent critic of Prince Mohammed.
Four of the suspects Turkey has blamed for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance belong to the security team that travels with Prince Mohammed, and one of them has been photographed or spotted near him during recent visits to at least five cities — Paris, Madrid, Houston, Boston and the New York headquarters of the United Nations.
But General Assiri’s seniority makes the notion that he carried out the operation without the further participation of Prince Mohammed at least technically plausible. Lower-ranking Saudi officers might have trusted that the general was giving them orders on behalf of the prince.
If Mr. Khashoggi was murdered, it could be treated as a capital crime. How the kingdom might punish General Assiri, however, is another question.
The general has been a well-known face to the international news media since he was named as spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015. He gave interviews in fluent French, English and Arabic, but often privately harassed reporters when their reports turned out not to his liking.
General Assiri was promoted last year to his current job in intelligence, and the Saudis are expected to contend that in Khashoggi case he was seeking to prove himself, according to the people familiar with their plans.
General Assiri did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.