What happened to lead suspect in Khashoggi killing?

Saudi authorities refuse to reveal the whereabouts of Saud al-Qahtani, the primary suspect in the killing of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and former top aide to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Washington Post reported on Monday.

Qahtani was fired in October, shortly after Turkey revealed in a series of leaks how Khashoggi had been murdered on Oct. 2 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a team of 15 Saudi agents.

In November, the Kingdom confirmed he was under investigation and barred from leaving the country. Since then there has been no word on his case, said the U.S. news outlet. In recent weeks, Qahtani was reportedly seen in the coastal city of Jiddah and in the offices of the royal court in Riyadh, the Independent reported.

Saudi prosecutors say Qahtani played a lead role in Khashoggi’s killing, and he was among 17 Saudis the United States sanctioned in connection to the case. Western countries are watching Riyadh’s handling of Qahtani as a sign of its commitment to justice in the case, said the Post.

Qahtani is said to have overseen the killing by Skype, dispatching orders to his team on the ground and interrogating Khashoggi from the Kingdom, while also messaging the Crown Prince.

The CIA has concluded with medium to high confidence that Crown Prince Mohammad likely ordered the Khashoggi operation, while Saudi officials say the crown prince was unaware of the plot.

Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Centre of Washington, told Al Jazeera that Qahtani's disappearance is likely a strategy to protect the Crown Prince from accusations regarding Khashoggi's murder.

“They have sheltered some of the key players accused of being involved, whether by Turkey or by the international community," Jahshan said. "The intention of the Saudi campaign right now is to keep the crown prince clear of any accusations with regards to the murder of Khashoggi."