Episode 3.1: Jamal Khashoggi Part 1

Hello, and welcome to Assassinations Podcast! It’s good to be back.

These past few weeks, we’ve been hard at work researching and preparing for Season 3, and I’m so excited to get started. 

We’ve got some incredibly interesting cases lined up to investigate, and we’re going to kick off our season about journalists by looking into the case of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in October 2018… and never walked out. 

The assassination has featured prominently in media around the world, yet the story of Khashoggi’s life and death is a complicated one with fascinating detail and nuance that we haven’t really seen covered in the mainstream press. 

But before we explore his story, we have a few exciting announcements to share. 

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Now, without further ado, let’s launch our investigation into the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. 

[Intro music]

Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian journalist, author, and commentator.

His huge social media presence, including almost two million Twitter followers, made him one of the most influential people in the Middle East.

He also wrote for the Washington Post and appeared as a guest on American television news programs.

Khashoggi had permanent residency status in the United States, having fled Saudi Arabia in September 2017 due to differences with the government there.

In exile, he was often critical of the Saudi government, especially with regard to humans rights - or, rather, the lack of them - in the kingdom. 

He also opposed the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, where a civil war, stoked by outside powers, has caused a humanitarian catastrophe.

In particular, Khashoggi was critical of Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, the most powerful person in the country - even more powerful, in effect, than the infirm King Salman. 

It would appear that Mr Khashoggi paid for these criticisms with his life.

He entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018.

He never left the building. 

Faced with allegations that they had killed Khashoggi, the Saudis gave permission for Turkish investigators to search the consulate.

No trace of him was found. 

The Saudi Arabian government initially denied having involvement in his disappearance or knowledge of his death. Staff at the consulate and the authorities back in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, claimed that, so far as they were aware, he had left the consulate alive.

On 20 October, the Saudis changed their tune. Admitting that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, the government now claimed that he had been killed in the course of a fight that had broken out with some security personnel who had been sent to question him.

By November 2018, international media, including his former employers at the Washington Post, were reporting that the US Central Intelligence Agency had concluded that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had ordered Khashoggi's assassination. 

This assignation of responsibility was disputed not only by the Saudi monarchy - but by President Donald Trump, who stated that more data was needed before a firm conclusion could be drawn.

In the months that have followed, the death of Jamal Khashoggi has caused a political outcry in the United States, while badly damaging the international standing of Saudi Arabia.

There are even rumors that the assassination caused divisions within the Saudi royal regime - with some voices quietly condemning the crown prince for his alleged role in an operation that has caused so many problems for the kingdom.

So, who was Jamal Khashoggi? Why did he rankle the Saudi government so much? And what is it about this particular murder that has caused such a significant international reaction?

Khashoggi was born in the holy city of Medina, on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia, on the 13th of October, 1958. 

His grandfather had been the personal physician to King Abdulaziz al Saud, the founder of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia back in the 1930s, and the Khashoggi family profited enormously from its close relationship with the royal household.

Khashoggi’s uncle was Adnan Khashoggi, a vastly wealthy Saudi arms dealer. Much of his multibillion dollar fortune was made by taking “commissions” - really kickbacks - for brokering arms deals between the Saudi government and the West.

In the 1970s and 80s, Adnan developed very close business and political ties within the United States.

He came to public prominence due to his involvement in the Iran–Contra scandal, having acted as middleman in the illegal dealings between the US and Iranian governments.

There’s actually a connection between the Khashoggi family and two separate cases that we’ve looked at in previous seasons of Assassinations Podcast.

Adnan Khashoggi worked with the Egyptian arms dealer, Ashraf Marwan, who was found dead - under suspicious circumstances - in London in 2007.

And the Khashoggis are related to the Egyptian billionaire Mohammed Fayed, the father of Dodi Fayed, who was the boyfriend of Princess Diana when both were killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997.

It really does seem like a small world - I don’t go looking for these links, but they keep cropping up.

Anyway - as a young man, Jamal Khashoggi moved to the United States in 1982 to attend university in Indiana.

After graduation, he returned home to work for various Arab media outlets, quickly rising to become an editor of the Al Madina newspaper, one of the most important news sources in Saudi Arabia at the time.

He was a leading figure at the paper throughout the 1990s, serving as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan and across the Middle East.

On several occasions, he interviewed Osama bin Laden. 

The two men were personally acquainted, which is not surprising as they were both around the same age and both scions of very prominent Saudi families.

The bin Laden family was - and remains - very big in the construction sector.

Throughout the 1980s, the Saudi government had supported Islamist militant groups in Afghanistan.

These militants were known as the Mujahideen. 

They would go on to spawn the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Osama bin Laden travelled to Afghanistan to join the Mujahideen and wage holy war against the Soviet Union, whose armed forces propped up a secular government in Kabul at the time.

As such, the Mujahideen were covertly backed by the United States as part of its Cold War struggle with the USSR.

Osama bin Laden became a greatly respected leader within the Mujahideen. He had forsworn his life of luxury in Saudi Arabia, to go to Afghanistan to fight a brutal guerrilla war against the Communist infidels.

He became, at this time, a hero to a lot of people in the Muslim world.

Jamal Khashoggi, in common with most of his contemporaries, supported the Islamist militants who fought against the Soviets.

And he had greatly admired bin Laden as a man of faith, principle, and personal courage. 

However, bin Laden fell afoul of the Saudi government in the early 1990s.

In 1994, the Saudis revoked his passport and ordered his family to cut off the massive financial support they gave to him and to his Islamist militant network, al-Qaeda.

Bin-laden was based in Sudan at this time, and Khashoggi went to interview him - in a top secret location - in 1995.

Under international pressure, the Sudanese government soon kicked bin Laden out of the country. In 1996, he travelled to Afghanistan, where he was given sanctuary and a base of operations by the Taliban, a faction of the Mujahideen that had taken over the entire country.

Khashoggi travelled to Afghanistan many times as a reporter, and interviewed bin Laden on several occasions.

At this stage, bin Laden had officially become persona non grata in Saudi Arabia. However, for many people, he still had enormous cachet as a result of his time as a charismatic leader of the Mujahideen.

Khashoggi still admired bin Laden at this stage.

However, Khashoggi would later recall that, by 1997, he was increasingly disturbed by bin Laden’s growing anti-Western fanaticism.

Despite hiding out in Afghanistan, bin Laden continued to have considerable influence across the Arab world.

He was, therefore, still of interest to the Saudis. There are widespread reports that bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization continued to received financial support from within Saudi Arabia.

The fact Khashoggi and bin Laden had this relationship led to suspicion that during his visits to Afghanistan Khashoggi had acted as an intermediary between the Saudi government and bin Laden.

It must be noted that Saudi Arabia did not - and does not - have a free press. Therefore, an influential newspaper such as Al Madina could not be said to be fully independent of state control.

Which is not to say that everything the paper did was directed by the Saudi government, but there may have been some blurred lines.

The allegations that Khashoggi was an agent of the Saudi government in the 1990s, or that he met with bin Laden as an emissary rather than a journalist, are - so far as I’m aware - just that - allegations.

As to his relationship with bin Laden, Khashoggi ultimately came to view him as a tragic rather than a demonic figure.

Following death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, Khashoggi wrote a message on Twitter expressing his feelings: 

I collapsed crying, heartbroken. You were beautiful and brave in those beautiful days in Afghanistan, before you surrendered to hatred and passion.

Khashoggi definitely did have a connection to Saudi intelligence from 2003 until 2007. During these years he worked as an advisor to Prince Turki al Faisal, who served as the Saudi ambassador to the United States and then the UK during this time.

Al Faisal had been the longtime head of the Saudi foreign intelligence agency before his ambassadorial postings, and he remained a key figure within the kingdom’s security apparatus.

Being al Faisal’s advisor does not, of course, mean that Khashoggi was himself a spy - but it shows that he was very close to the heart of the Saudi regime, including its most secretive corridors.

Khashoggi served as deputy editor-in-chief of the English language Saudi newspaper, Arab News, from 1999 to 2003, when he became the editor of a major Saudi newspaper called Al Watan.

As well as being a journalist and media commentator, he was also very political person. And this got him into trouble.

He was fired from his position at Al Watan after only three months when he permitted a columnist to write something critical of the strict religious philosophy that underpins the entire Saudi sociopolitical system.

Not that Khashoggi was any kind of radical.

Rather, was a strong supporter of what is sometimes called “political Islam” - that is, a form of government that is rooted in Islamic beliefs.

So, even though the relationship was sometimes rocky, I think it’d be a stretch to say that there was any kind of deep political divide between Khashoggi and the Saudi government back in the early 2000s. 

However, as we shall see, these tensions would only grow, as Khashoggi increasingly came to believe that major reforms were needed in the kingdom.

And these tensions would reach murderous proportions when a new leader suddenly rose to power in Riyadh - Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

We’re going to take a quick break. When we come back, we’ll look at the increasingly critical statements made by Khashoggi - and we will examine the details of his assassination.

We’ll be right back.

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Now, back to the show.

After a short fall from grace, Khashoggi was brought back into the fold in 2007.

He was invited to one again lead Al Watan; but his tenure didn’t last for long.

He published articles critical of the harsh punishments meted out by Saudi courts (such as amputation of the hands and execution by beheading). 

When in 2010 he allowed someone to write a column that was mildly critical of the religious-political foundations of the Saudi state, Khashoggi was pushed out once again. 

I think it’s fair to say that he remained a loyal subject of the kingdom; however, a serious rift was now opening up between Khashoggi and the Saudi leadership.

In 2012, following the Arab Spring, in which massive protests in Tunisia and Egypt brought down the governments there, the Saudi royals had, if you’ll pardon my use of the phrase, a kanipshin.

The House of Saud opposed the popular tide of the Arab Spring - for obvious reasons - they didn’t want to see a democratic movement spread into their authoritarian kingdom.

So, far from liberalizing in the face of the Arab Spring, the Saudi government clamped down on any signs of dissent at home, while taking measures against perceived threats elsewhere in the Arab world.

The Saudi government declared that a movement called the Muslim Brotherhood was a terrorist organization.

The Muslim Brotherhood had formed in Egypt in the 1920s, and its influence had spread across the Muslim World.

The Saudis had actually supported this movement for a long time. Political parties - or anything that even looks like a political organization - are strictly banned inside the kingdom. But the Saudi royals have never shied away from sponsoring political outfits in other people’s countries.

Khashoggi was a longtime political sympathizer of the goals of the Muslim Brotherhood, which aimed to build societies on the basis of Islamic beliefs. 

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had played a very important role in the Arab Spring. And he thought it was necessary to reform many countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia itself - but to do so along fairly conservative Islamic lines.

He felt this meant that Arab countries had to accept some form of pluralism. They had to accommodate different points of view, including those of other faiths and even tolerate secular ideas. 

Dissent had to be permitted, he thought, and independent parties allowed. Governments in the Arab world had to recognize and protect human rights, especially those of women and minorities.

But, all of this is absolutely anathema to the Saudi royal elite.

And so, Khashoggi started on what would become a collision course with the Saudi government. 

Despite the growing tensions, Khashoggi still had friends with the Saudi elite.

In 2015, he tried to set up his own satellite news station, based in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain.

This project was financed by a member of the Saudi royal family, a man named Waleed bin Talal. 

He was one of the richest people in the world, with an investment company worth many billions of dollars. 

And, as a little aside, I noticed that Prince Al Waleed bin Talal once owned a mega yacht, called The Nabila. He’d purchased this yacht from a certain Donald J Trump in 1991. And the yacht had previously been owned by Adnan Khashoggi.

It’s a small world - well, it is when you’re a billionaire.

Anyhow, there are many princes in the Saudi royal family - hundreds of them - and there are factions within this elite caste.

Prince Waleed bin Talal was a particularly powerful figure, and his backing for Khashoggi’s television station was undoubtedly part of some internecine feud within the ruling family.

However, the Saudi government intervened to have the Bahraini authorities shut down the TV station, putting paid to Prince Talal’s little rebellion and Khashoggi’s foray into satellite television.

After this setback, Khashoggi was offered a job as journalist and commentator at the Al Arabiya news network, which is majority-owned by the Saudi government.

But in 2016, the Saudi government once again decided that Khashoggi was coloring outside the lines, and banned him from appearing in the mainstream media.

Things came to a head in 2017, when the government also clamped down on Khashoggi’s social media activity.

The attempt to silence Khashoggi was part of broader political changes taking place in the country. In June 2017, Mohammad bin Salman was named Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. This made him heir apparent to his father, the aged King Salman.

Aged 36, the crown prince - who is often referred to by his initials, MBS - was already regarded as the power behind his father’s throne. The king, who is in his 80s, suffers from dementia and is physically debilitated by a stroke.

The promotion of MBS to the position of crown prince and, practically speaking, head-of-government, came at the expense of a prince named Muhammad bin Nayef.

The nephew of King Salman, he had been crown prince and heir presumptive between 2015 and 2017. 

Since the palace coup that replaced him with the much younger MBS, Muhammad bin Nayef has been forced into exile in Algeria. 

There are claims that his ouster might have been due to an addiction to painkillers, upon which he became dependent following a failed assassination attempt that badly injured him in 2010. 

However, it’s really difficult to know exactly what’s true when it comes to the inner workings of the House of Saud, which is one of the most nontransparent ruling cliques in the world.

Utilizing his new authority, MBS launched a purge of his rivals within the royal family. Under the guise of an “anti-corruption” campaign, some two hundred princes, princesses, government officials and businessmen were arrested.

Detained in the luxury Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, they were essentially held for ransom.

Only when they handed over the bulk of their fortunes to a so-called “anti-corruption committee” were they released, though stripped of their positions of authority.

One of those targeted was Prince Al Waleed bin Talal. 

In November 2017, he was arrested on charges of money laundering, bribery, and extorting officials. 

And all of those charges might be true - but we must understand this as a palace intrigue, aimed at consolidating the position of MBS, a relatively young prince with many powerful rivals within the House of Saud.

Prince Al Waleed bin Talal was released from detention in early 2018, apparently following a financial settlement. The scale of this settlement might be indicated by the fact that in 2018 he dropped out of the Forbes list of the World’s Billionaires.

MBS quickly put his stamp on Saudi foreign policy. 

In November 2017, the Saudi government kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri.

Hariri was on a visit to the kingdom, where he was born and maintains extensive business interests. 

He was seized by Saudi officials and forced to make a televised statement in which he tendered his resignation from office.

In this statement, Hariri stated that he was resigning in protest at the influence of Iran in Lebanese politics, in particular through the Hezbollah political movement, which is one of the largest parties in the country.

Hariri also accused Iran of plotting to assassinate him.

The move by the Saudis was met with consternation in Lebanon - even among those opposed to Hezbollah. 

The President of Lebanon refused to accept Hariri’s resignation, and Lebanese security forces stated there was no evidence of a plot to kill Hariri.

After a few days, Hariri was released and travelled to the United Arab Emirates. He was supposed to travel onto Lebanon, but before he could depart, he was sent back to Saudi Arabia.

The Lebanese President then released a statement that “Lebanon does not accept its prime minister being in a situation at odds with international treaties and the standard rules in relations between states.”

The government of France, which has close ties to Lebanon, which used to be French colony, intervened to secure Hariri’s release.

In addition, Hariri has joint French citizenship.

When Hariri arrived in Paris, he was met by French President Emmanuel Macron, before traveling back to Lebanon. 

Arriving in Beirut, Hariri rescinded his resignation; but he refused to talk about what happened in Saudi Arabia.

Effectively silenced by MBS, Khashoggi felt he had no other option but to leave the kingdom. So, he went to live in the United States, where he found work at the Washington Post.

In America, Khashoggi continued to make critiques of Saudi policies - and aspects of US policy, for that matter.

His first article for the Washington Post criticized MBS and called for reforms to improve human rights in the kingdom.

From his new home in the United States, Khashoggi wrote that Hariri had been forced to resign because MBS wanted to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy towards Iran. 

MBS believed that the United States would support the move, as the incoming Trump administration was asserting a strongly anti-Iranian foreign policy.  

Khashoggi claimed that MBS had been emboldened to act against Rafik Hariri because he knew that Trump would offer no censure.

This was what he called claimed the “Trump effect”.

By this Khashoggi meant that the newly inaugurated US president had forged a particularly strong bond with MBS, and therefore the Saudi leader would suffer no real repercussions from what was a flagrantly illegal action - kidnapping a foreign leader. 

In fact, Khashoggi believed that it was this “Trump Effect” that had pushed him out of Saudi Arabia.

He claimed he’d been banned from Twitter in 2017 not only because of his critical comments on Saudi domestic affairs - but because he had criticized Trump at a time when MBS hoped to build a good relationship with the new US president. 

In the United States, Khashoggi seemed to find his voice as never before. In one of the last columns he wrote for the Washington Post, he said:

It was painful for me several years ago when several friends were arrested. Still, I said nothing. I didn’t want to lose my job or my freedom. I was worried about my family. 

I have made a different choice now. I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot. I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.

Thank you so much for tuning in to this episode of Assassinations Podcast.

We’ll be back next week to continue our investigation into the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.

Next week, in the second installment of our episode, we’ll look deeper into the strained relationship between Khashoggi and the royal government of his country, as well as the complex relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

And we will hear about the terrible events of October 2nd, 2018, and the subsequent alleged cover-up of the crime by Saudi authorities. 

This episode was researched and written by me, Niall Cooper.

Lindsey Morse produces and edits the show. 

Our theme music was created by Graeme Ronald. To hear more of Graeme’s music, check out his band, Remember Remember. We’ve included a link to his iTunes band page in our show notes.

You’ll find us on Twitter, @AssasinsPod, where we tweet about current events and show-related updates. 

If you’d like to support the show, check us out on Patreon at patreon.com/assassinationspodcast or consider supporting our sponsors. 

To learn more about the people featured in today’s episode, visit our website, assassinationspodcast.com.

Thank you so much for tuning in, and we look forward to seeing you next week, when we’ll continue our look at the case of Jamal Khashoggi. 

Until then, goodbye.