Saudi Arabia said evidence suggests Jamal Khashoggi’s killing was premeditated, shifting away from its assertion that the journalist died in a brawl in its latest attempt to defuse a crisis rattling the monarchy.
The kingdom’s attorney general on Thursday said information shared by Turkey as part of a continuing investigation of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing “indicates that the suspects in that incident had done their act with a prior intention.” He previously said 18 people have been detained in connection to the dissident journalist’s death, pending the conclusion of the investigation.
Saudi Arabia also lifted travel restrictions on Mr. Khashoggi’s eldest son, Salah, who was en route to the U.S. on Thursday, according to a State Department spokesman. The ban had been imposed to put pressure on the elder Mr. Khashoggi, a government critic, after he relocated to the U.S. last year. Days earlier, Salah had been summoned to a meeting with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman where they publicly offered their condolences in front of TV cameras.
Mr. Khashoggi was killed inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Since then, the kingdom has faced mounting international pressure to offer a credible narrative of what happened amid suspicions by Turkish and Western officials that the operation could only have been carried out with approval from the highest level of government.
Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel briefed President Trump on Thursday morning after having traveled to Turkey to review evidence compiled by investigators in Istanbul, which Turkish officials have said includes audio recordings of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. Ms. Haspel spoke to Mr. Trump about her findings and the discussions she had during her trip, a White House official said.
The latest developments show the monarchy’s desire to move quickly to change tack once again on its response to Mr. Khashoggi’s death, which has escalated into the kingdom’s most serious foreign-policy crisis in years, straining ties with the U.S. and Turkey, a regional rival.
“He knows he cannot remain as aggressive while the whole world wants credible answers,” a senior adviser to the Saudi government said of Prince Mohammed, the country’s day-to-day ruler. “It’s his chance to turn things around, but of course it may not work.”
The shift is also a message to the kingdom’s own citizens, the official added. “While your average Saudi does not like the attack on the kingdom, they have lost some faith in their leadership and the regime knows they need to come across as more credible,” he said.
Prince Mohammed publicly addressed the issue for the first time on Wednesday, saying the perpetrators of the “hideous incident” would be brought to justice and pledging full cooperation with Turkish authorities.
Since Mr. Khashoggi first disappeared, the official Saudi version of events has changed several times. The Saudi government initially claimed the dissident journalist had left the consulate, dismissing accusations of wrongdoing as baseless. Last week, it said Mr. Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate by “rogue operatives” but claimed his death was unintentional, the result of a heated argument that turned into a brawl. That explanation, like the earlier denials, drew widespread skepticism.
President Trump said he is passing responsibility to Congress for responding to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey. The WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains. Photo: Getty
The Saudis’ new determination that Mr. Khashoggi’s death was most likely premeditated aligns the kingdom’s narrative more closely with that of Turkish authorities, who say Mr. Khashoggi was drugged, killed and dismembered shortly after he entered the consulate. Turkish officials have identified 15 members of the alleged Saudi hit team and confirmed footage of a Khashoggi impersonator leaving the consulate.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this week publicly challenged the Saudi explanation offered Saturday that Mr. Khashoggi died in a brawl, and called for “all the responsible people, from the lowest rank to the highest” to be held accountable.
Prince Mohammed on Wednesday sought to strike a conciliatory tone, saying the Khashoggi affair wouldn’t “drive a wedge” between the two countries, which compete for influence in the Middle East.
“There is no deal between Turkey and Saudi Arabia to hide what had happened in the consulate,” said another Saudi government adviser. “This is Saudi Arabia realizing their previous stories did not stick.”
Turkish investigators on Thursday were denied access to the Saudi consulate to conduct another search of the premises, this time focused on a well, in which they suspect body parts of Mr. Khashoggi may have been disposed, Turkish state media reported. Investigators have collected a water sample from the sewage system connected to the consulate.
Adding to the pressure on the kingdom, U.S. President Trump in an interview with The Wall Street Journal said he didn’t rule out Prince Mohammed’s possible involvement in the operation. “He’s running things and so if anybody were going to be in, it would be him,” he said Tuesday.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended Ms. Haspel’s briefing at the White House, a State Department spokesman said. U.S. lawmakers serving on congressional intelligence committees said they were also expecting a briefing on Ms. Haspel’s trip.
Salah Khashoggi planned to arrive in the Washington area to be with his three siblings, a family friend said. “Good news for a change,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the head of the Middle East for Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter Thursday about the lifting of the ban. “Too bad Salah had to endure that cruel and bizarre greeting with [Prince Mohammed] first.”
Mr. Khashoggi’s killing and the global backlash that followed has confronted Washington with the dilemma of what action to take against the kingdom without jeopardizing an alliance that is at the heart of its Middle East strategy.
The State Department has already imposed travel restrictions on 21 unnamed Saudi government officials implicated in the journalist’s death. More penalties could follow, including financial sanctions aimed at human-rights violators, a possibility raised by U.S. lawmakers.
Aside from the 18 people detained in connection to Mr. Khashoggi’s death, two senior officials close to Prince Mohammed have lost their jobs. But the Saudi government has strongly denied the crown prince was aware of the operation targeting the journalist, and there is no indication he will suffer direct repercussions because of it.
The Saudi monarch, King Salman, tasked his 33-year old son to overhaul the country’s intelligence agency—one of the steps the Saudi government has taken in response to the Khashoggi crisis. The new intelligence committee headed by Prince Mohammed met for the first time Thursday.
—Sune Engel Rasmussen in Istanbul and Peter Nicholas and Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed to this article.