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A profile of Mohammed bin Salman's 'scapegoated' aides Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmad al-Assiri

Saudi Arabia on Saturday sacked two top aides to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. [Getty]

Date of publication: 20 October, 2018

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Deputy intelligence chief Ahmad al-Assiri and royal court media advisor Saud al-Qahtani were both part of Mohammed bin Salman's feared inner circle.

Saudi Arabia on Saturday sacked two top aides to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after conceding that critic Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside its Istanbul consulate, a move widely seen as an attempt to shield MbS by scapegoating figures from outside the royal family.

Riyadh's admission came after persistent denials of his killing and claims by the Saudi authorities that the journalist had left the consulate alive.

King Salman reportedly ordered his son, the young crown prince, to revamp the intelligence agency, state media reported.

Deputy intelligence chief Ahmad al-Assiri and royal court media advisor Saud al-Qahtani were both part of Prince Mohammed's inner circle. Their ouster came alongside the arrests of 18 Saudi suspects and the dismissal of other intelligence officials.

Ahmad al-Assiri

Assiri, said to be in his 60s, was a high-ranking advisor close to the royal court and often sat in during Prince Mohammed's closed-door meetings with visiting foreign dignitaries. 

Prior to his promotion as the deputy head of general intelligence in 2017, Assiri served as the spokesman for the Saudi-led military alliance in Yemen which has been battling Houthi rebels since March 2015. 

Fluent in French, English and Arabic, the hard-charging official had developed a reputation for hassling journalists whose reports were not to his liking.

Last year an anti-war activist attempted to make a citizen's arrest of Assiri, over Saudi Arabia's role in the Yemen conflict, and threw an egg at him during a London visit

In 2016, Assiri denied that the Saudi army had been using British-made cluster bombs in Yemen. This claim about the deadly munitions, which are banned from use by an international convention, was later revealed to be untrue.

Before his sacking on Saturday, the New York Times reported earlier this week that Saudi Arabia would assign blame for Khashoggi's disappearance on Assiri to help deflect blame from the powerful crown prince.

Saud al-Qahtani

A key counsellor to Prince Mohammed, Qahtani was a media advisor in the royal court.

With direct access to MBS, his name has reportedly become synonymous with fear among Saudi journalists as MBS's personal enforcer.

He organised interviews with the prince for foreign journalists and also served as the head of the "Centre for Studies and Media Affairs", a unit operating inside the royal court.

Saudi sources say Qahtani, said to be 40-years-old, steered online propaganda campaigns against the kingdom's adversaries such as Qatar and Iran on social media.

With 1.3 million Twitter followers, the firebrand official was known for aggressively targeting dissenters and rivals on the platform.

Writing for the Washington Post earlier this year, Khashoggi alleged Qahtani maintained a "blacklist" for writers critical of the kingdom and was known to intimidate them.

In an off-record interview to Newsweek magazine prior to his death - which was published on Saturday - Khashoggi described Qahtani and another Saudi top official Turki al-Sheikh as "thuggish".

"People fear them. You challenge them, you might end up in prison, and that has happened," he was quoted as saying.

He called Qahtani the "most important man in (Saudi) media", saying he controlled the government's PR activities.

A known loyalist to Saudi rulers, he tweeted last year: "I don't do anything from my own head without an order. I am an employee and executer to my king and my crown prince."

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