By Orhan Coskun, Sarah Dadouch and Stephen Kalin/Istanbul
Jamal Khashoggi believed he was safe in Turkey. Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and newspaper editor, had lived in exile in Washington for more than a year, writing a column for the Washington Post in which he regularly criticised his country’s crackdown on dissent, its war in Yemen and sanctions imposed on Qatar.
He said he could write freely in the United States in a way that was impossible at home, according to friends and colleagues, but he was increasingly worried that Riyadh could hurt him or his family.
In Turkey, though, Khashoggi had friends in high places, including some of President Tayyip Erdogan’s advisers.
So when he walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul at 1pm on Tuesday, October 2, he hoped the appointment would be brief, a simple bureaucratic task that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancee, whom he had met four months earlier.
“He said the safest country in the world for Saudi Arabians was Turkey,” said Yasin Aktay, an Erdogan aide and close friend of Khashoggi.
Friends and family have not seen him since.
Turkish officials have said they believe Khashoggi, 59, was killed inside the consulate.
Saudi Arabia has strongly rejected the accusation.
The kingdom’s ambassador to the United States, Prince Khalid bin Salman, said reports suggesting Khashoggi went missing in the Istanbul consulate or that Saudi Arabia had killed him “are absolutely false and baseless” and a product of “malicious leaks and grim rumours.”
“Jamal is a Saudi citizen who went missing after leaving the consulate,” the ambassador said in a statement.
Saudi Arabia has sent a team of investigators to work with Turkish authorities and “chase every lead to uncover the truth behind his disappearance.”
In interviews, Turkish officials provided new details of their investigation into the missing journalist.
Two senior Turkish officials revealed the existence of an object that may provide important clues to Khashoggi’s fate: the black Apple watch he was wearing when he entered the consulate.
The watch was connected to a mobile phone he left outside, they said.
Investigators are also focusing on 15 Saudi men who entered the consulate around the same time as Khashoggi and left a short time later.
These men had arrived hours earlier from Riyadh, most of them by private plane, the officials said.
By the end of the day, they were on their way back to the kingdom.
Turkish newspaper Sabah said yesterday it had identified the 15 as members of a Saudi intelligence team. They included a forensic expert.
A Turkish official did not dispute the report.
And investigators are trying to trace a vehicle that left the Saudi consulate at the same time as two cars destined for the airport, one of the officials said.
This vehicle didn’t turn towards the airport, but set off in the opposite direction.
This story is based on interviews with Turkish officials, Khashoggi’s fiancee and more than a dozen of his friends, who gave insight into the columnist’s state of mind in the days leading up to his disappearance, and explained why he went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, not the embassy in his adopted home of Washington.
The case threatens to drive wedges between Saudi Arabia and Turkey and between Riyadh and its Western allies.
US President Donald Trump said on October 9 he plans to speak with Saudi Arabian officials about Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Khashoggi met his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who is 23 years his junior, in May at a conference in Istanbul, according to Cengiz and a close friend of the Saudi journalist.
Their relationship quickly evolved, and Khashoggi spoke about wanting to start a new life with her.
By August, the couple had decided to marry in Turkey, where Cengiz lived, and spend much of their time there.
“Jamal bought an apartment in Istanbul and we were furnishing our new home,” Cengiz told Reuters on October 9.
“We were planning to marry this week before Jamal flew back to Washington.”
The decision to marry in Istanbul, whose mosques reminded Khashoggi of his hometown Medina, set off a paper chase that ultimately ended in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Turkish law required that Khashoggi, who was divorced, provide proof that he did not have a wife.
He asked if he could get the document from the Saudi embassy in Washington, according to a friend in Europe, but was told the consulate in Turkey was better placed to help.
Cengiz said Khashoggi wouldn’t have applied for the document in Istanbul if he could have avoided it.
Asked to comment, a Saudi official said it was “not accurate” that Khashoggi was told to go to Istanbul.
The friend recounted how he warned Khashoggi against getting the paper in Istanbul for fear the Saudis might arrest him if he set foot in the consulate.
“He told me there is no solution except to arrange for this paper with the consulate in Turkey,” said the friend, who was in frequent contact with Khashoggi in the days before he disappeared.
Khashoggi reassured him, he said, that his good connections in Turkey meant “no one can do anything to harm me in Istanbul.”
Khashoggi visited the consulate without an appointment on Friday, September 28. Cengiz waited outside. That first meeting went smoothly.
Khashoggi told Cengiz and several friends that officials in the consulate had treated him politely. They explained the paperwork would take time to prepare.
Khashoggi exchanged phone numbers with a consulate official named Sultan so he could call and check on progress, according to three friends.
Sultan said the document would be ready early the following week.
Reuters has not been able to locate Sultan or confirm his role at the consulate.
The consul declined to comment on who Khashoggi spoke to.
“He came out smiling. He told me ‘inshallah I will receive this paper after I come back from London,’” Cengiz said.
Confident he would soon have the paperwork he needed, Khashoggi flew to London later the same day to attend a conference.
He was asked there by colleagues about the threat he faced from the Saudi authorities for his work, according to some of those present.
“One of my colleagues at dinner asked if he saw a possibility that his citizenship would be withdrawn,” said Daud Abdullah, director of Middle East Monitor which organised the conference.
“He discounted that – he didn’t think the authorities would go that far.”
A friend, British-Palestinian activist Azzam Tamimi, who saw Khashoggi during that trip to London, said he “didn’t seem scared at all. The opposite. He was relaxed and calm.”
Tamimi saw Khashoggi off at the airport in London.
Khashoggi flew back to Istanbul from London on Monday evening, October 1.
The following morning, he spoke again with consul worker Sultan, who told him to collect the document at 1pm the same day.
Outside the consulate, a low rise building at the edge of one of Istanbul’s business districts, Khashoggi handed Cengiz his two mobile phones, the fiancee told Reuters.
He left instructions that she should call Aktay, the Erdogan aide, if he didn’t reappear.
Khashoggi was wearing his black Apple watch, connected to one of the phones, when he entered the building.
A senior Turkish government official and a senior security official said the two inter-connected devices are at the heart of the investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance.
“We have determined that it was on him when he walked into the consulate,” the security official said.
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