A year before Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told an aide he would use “a bullet” on the journalist if he did not return home and end his criticism of the government, according to a New York Times report.
The crown prince’s comments to a top aide in 2017 were made well before Khashoggi was killed last October in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the NYT reported on Thursday, citing current and former US and foreign officials knowledgeable about intelligence reports.
The comments were made in a conversation between Prince Mohammed and his aide Turki Aldakhil in September 2017, and were intercepted by American intelligence agencies, the newspaper reported.
They were the “most detailed evidence to date” that the crown prince considered killing Khashoggi, the news report said.
US intelligence analysts have interpreted the “bullet” comment metaphorically, meaning the crown prince did not necessarily mean to have Khashoggi shot, but they do think it showed his intent to have the journalist killed if he did not return to the kingdom, the daily said.
Riyadh, which initially denied knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance before offering contradictory explanations, has steadfastly insisted the prince was not involved in the killing.
US intelligence agencies believe the crown prince ordered the 2018 operation to kill Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and one-time royal insider, whose body was dismembered.
The NYT report came hours after a UN-led inquiry said evidence showed the Saudi journalist was a victim of “a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated by officials of the state of Saudi Arabia”.
There was no immediate comment from the CIA and the National Security Agency on the NYT report.
In a statement to the daily, Aldakhil denied the allegations as “categorically false”.
Days before the conversation with Aldakhil, Prince Mohammed complained to another aide – Saud al-Qahtani – that Khashoggi had grown too influential, the NYT said, citing the same intelligence report.
Prince Mohammed told Qahtani that Khashoggi’s articles and Twitter posts were tarnishing his image as a forward-thinking reformer.
When the aide said any move against Khashoggi risked an international uproar, Prince Mohammad said Saudi Arabia should not care about the reaction to how it handles its own citizens.
An official who read the intelligence report told the NYT that Prince Mohammed also told Qahtani that he “did not like half-measures – he never liked them and did not believe in them”.
Qahtani, Prince Mohammed’s closest adviser, was fired in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder.
He is accused of supervising the 15-man team that killed Khashoggi inside the Istanbul consulate via Skype, according to Turkish officials.
In December, the Wall Street Journal, citing US intelligence reports, said Prince Mohammad exchanged numerous messages with Qahtani in the hours before and after the killing.
The NYT report was published a day before a congressional deadline for the White House to submit a report on whether Prince Mohammed ordered Khashoggi’s killing and if it intends to impose sanctions on the de facto ruler.