US officials are putting sustained pressure on Mohammed bin Salman to blame one of his favoured generals – the deputy head of Saudi intelligence – for the presumed death of Jamal Khashoggi, a move the Trump administration believes could allow both Washington and Riyadh a way out of the escalating crisis.
General Ahmed al-Assiri is one of the embattled crown prince’s most trusted security officials, a senior air force officer who was the Saudi face of the Yemen war for more than a year before being thrust into the intelligence role. He is entrusted with the most sensitive state secrets and if, as is widely alleged, the kingdom was responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance, would have have almost certainly been a party to plans.
Officials in Washington have suggested for the past three days that a senior figure in Riyadh was central to the apparent plot to lure Khashoggi into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he is believed to have been tortured and killed by state security officials. Their insistence, however, has been met with blanket denials by Prince Mohammed, who continues to eschew any Saudi link to a disappearance that has become the most significant foreign policy crisis of Trump’s presidency, and battered the kingdom’s global reputation.
As Prince Mohammed has strengthened his denials, Washington has ramped up pressure on the young heir to the throne. Enmeshed with the impetuous crown prince on many levels, it has been in nearly as much need of a face-saving solution to the crisis as Riyadh. While the US administration has said it will not cut loose a leader in whom much of Trump’s foreign policy is invested, mounting pressure at home and relentless international outrage surrounding Khashoggi’s apparent murder, are forcing Washington to take an unusually robust stance.
Officials have been increasingly irritated at Prince Mohammed’s intransigence – a view that has led them to name General Assiri as a man who could take the blame. Assiri has no family connections to the Saudi royal establishment, but had been an enthusiastic and polished advocate of the kingdom’s involvement in Yemen, a role that caught the 33-year-old crown prince’s eye.
Sandhurst educated, US trained and fluent in English, he had a steady rise through the Saudi air force. The trajectory was at odds with his humble origins from a village in the country’s south-west, but was seen by other senior officers was meritorious. His switch to deputy intelligence chief was less popular, but cemented his power with the royal court, where only a small network of advisers are entrusted with calling the shots.
That Washington, rather than Riyadh, is constructing what many claim is a fall guy, speaks to the wide divergence in positions in both capitals. Trump officials have said privately that the kingdom’s stance is indefensible. The US president himself again warned on Thursday of “severe consequences” if the brutal crime is traced to Prince Mohammed. However, he appears reluctant to make that link.
The crown prince, meanwhile, has shown no sign of bowing to demands, even though neither he nor his officials have provided any plausible explanation for how Khashoggi vanished after entering the kingdom’s diplomatic mission on 2 October.
The besieged Saudi leader views himself as a strongman who cannot show weakness, especially while under pressure. His denials, amplified by Saudi state media’s claims of a conspiracy against the kingdom by regional foe Qatar, and its ally Turkey, have been widely supported domestically.
In conversations with the Guardian over the past week, two senior Saudi establishment figures have said that Prince Mohammed could make concessions only if they were on his terms, and not the result of force.
Under Trump, Saudi Arabia has been central to the US’s aggressive projection towards Iran and the key benefactor of his administration’s move to overturn Barack Obama’s pivot towards Tehran. The crown prince had also been central to other plans, such as Jared Kushner’s so-called peace initiative between Israel and the Palestinians.
He has courted connections in elite US business circles, and investors had clamoured to join an investment conference in Riyadh, which is due to begin on Monday. However, the Khashoggi disappearance has led to widespread cancellations, including US treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, who is understood to have pulled out partly because Prince Mohammed continues to refuse Washington’s “solution”.