Britain’s foreign secretary said on Tuesday he had no previous knowledge of a Saudi plot against journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
Declining to respond to weekend claims by a British tabloid that British intelligence services knew there was a plot to abduct Khashoggi, saying he “would not talk about intelligence matters,” Jeremy Hunt nevertheless said he was not made aware of any knowledge about such a plot.
The Sunday Express claimed that a British intelligence source told them the U.K.’s intelligence services “were initially made aware that something was going in the first week of September, around three weeks before Mr Khashoggi walked into the consulate on October 2, though it took more time for other details to emerge.”
Hunt’s remarks came at a question session at the House of Commons where British Foreign Office ministers took lawmakers’ queries.
The tabloid reported that the details British intelligence knew “included primary orders to capture Mr Khashoggi and bring him back to Saudi Arabia for questioning.”
“However, the door seemed to be left open for alternative remedies to what was seen as a big problem,” the source told the tabloid, based on information from the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the source told the paper.
It further quoted the source as saying that the intelligence services “know the orders came from a member of the royal circle but have no direct information to link them to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.”
The Sunday Express article also claimed that the unnamed source confirmed that MI6 — British Secret Intelligence Service — had warned its Saudi counterparts to cancel the mission but this request was ignored.
“On October 1 we became aware of the movement of a group, which included members of Ri’asat Al-Istikhbarat Al-Amah (GID) [Saudi intelligence] to Istanbul, and it was pretty clear what their aim was,” the intelligence source told the tabloid.
“Through channels we warned that this was not a good idea. Subsequent events show that our warning was ignored.”
After weeks of denying any knowledge of his whereabouts, Saudi officials admitted that Khashoggi had been killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
The Washington Post reported earlier, based on U.S. intelligence intercepts, that Crown Prince Salman had ordered an operation to lure the journalist back to Saudi Arabia.
“If the allegations in this weekend’s report are true, they are extremely serious,” Labour’s shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said, following up the question about Khashoggi.
“It was reported in early September that our intelligence services became aware of the Saudi plan to abduct Jamal Khashoggi and on October 1 they knew that a Saudi team had been dispatched to Istanbul for that purpose,” she said.
“Now, here, the foreign secretary says that he did not know. But did the intelligence services know and has he asked them?” she queried Hunt.
Hunt said: “It is not possible for a foreign secretary or indeed any minister to comment on intelligence matters, for very obvious reasons.”
“But, I did not know about this attack,” he repeated.
“We are as shocked as anyone else is about what happened,” he added.
Thornberry said the allegations are “very serious,” adding that “it won’t do to hide behind a blanket refusal to discuss intelligence matters.”
She questioned whether the foreign secretary would accept an invitation to a closed-door emergency session to discuss the matter with the Intelligence Security Commission.
Hunt said he would accept such an invitation but added that the desire for him to reveal very important intelligence is “inappropriate.”
Saudi human rights
“Saudi Arabia is a human rights country of concern for the Foreign Office. We have our regular discussions with them about our concerns,” Hunt also said during the session at parliament.
Asked by Conservative MO Sir Desmond Swayne whether there are regrets over seeking the election of Saudi Arabia to the UN Human Rights Council, Hunt said: “There are all sorts of issues with respect to Saudi Arabia’s human rights record that are in sharp relief at the moment.”
He added: “But … I have spoken more clearly than any Western foreign minister that if the Khashoggi stories turn out to be true, that would be inconsistent with our values.”