The alleged leader of a hit squad behind the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi has mysteriously disappeared from public view – as rumours swirl that he may have been fatally poisoned.
Saud al-Qahtani has not been seen for months and is not among 11 people put on trial in Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s murder.
Up until now it was thought he had been given protection by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who the CIA believes most likely ordered the killing of the Washington Post journalist at the country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
Speculation now surrounds the fate of the monarch’s former enforcer – with one Saudi dissident making an unverified claim that al-Qahtani has been posioned.
Oslo-based critic, Iyad al-Baghdadi, tweeted that he “received news that Saud Al Qahtani has been poisoned to death by Mohammed bin Salman.”
“The source is well placed and has been consistently reliable for nearly a year. I cannot publicly reveal anything else about this source”.
However, Bloomberg News reported that this view is not widely-shared by others familiar with the situation.
It came two months after Norwegian intelligence services put Baghdadi under close protection after CIA warnings that he was at risk from Saudi agents.
Experts believe al-Qahtani, 41, may have been killed because the close adviser to Mohammed bin Salman knew too much about who was behind Khashoggi’s killing.
Madawi al-Rasheed, visiting professor at the Middle East Institute of the London School of Economics, said: “While dictators are notorious for killing their critics and dissidents, they are equally fond of killing those closest to them, especially when they might have helped get rid of a persistent critic.
“It is only natural for unaccountable regimes to murder their aides, which might reveal their intrigues and thuggery, They become scapegoats to save bigger heads from greater scrutiny and responsibility’.
Al-Qahtani, one of Mohammed bin Salman’s closest advisors, has been officially sanctioned by the US for his alleged role in the Khashoggi murder.
In 2017 he was in charge of monitoring social media and created a blacklist urging citizens to name and shame ‘mercenaries’ who had taken the side of Qatar following a Saudi-led blockade of Doha.
Last year he was accused of being responsible for sexual and physical violence inflicted on the jailed women’s rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, who has been detained since May 2018.
Earlier this week it emerged that Khashoggi’s last words were him begging his killers not to cover his mouth in case he suffocated.
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Minutes earlier he had entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up a document enabling him to marry his fiancé, who was waiting for him outside.
After the killing the body of the Saudi dissident was cut up and removed from the building in suitcase. It has never been found.
Last week the US senator Todd Young had an hour-long meeting with MbS during which the crown prince took ‘personal ownership as the leader of the country’ for Khashoggi’s killing.
“He assured me and Senator King that justice would come to those 11 individuals who have been identified as being potentially responsible for killing Jamal Khashoggi,” he said.
Meanwhile al-Baghdadi has said the fact that his claims have not been denied means that al-Qahtani has most likely been killed.
Ex-CIA officer Paul Pillar said: “If al-Qahtani has met his downfall as the result of his part in the Khashoggi affair, this also exemplifies how the more a regime moves towards one-man rule, the more vulnerable even influential advisers are to being sacrificed for the sake of one man at the top.’