Episode 3.2: Jamal Khashoggi Part 2

Welcome back to Assassinations Podcast! 

Last week, we began our three-part investigation into the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and today we pick up the case where we left off. 

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Now, let’s dive back into our investigation into the Assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.

Last week we heard about Khashoggi, a high-profile Saudi journalist, author, and commentator who was killed last year.

He became regular columnist for the Washington Post, after he left Saudi Arabia as a result of disputes with the government in 2017. 

For three decades, Khashoggi had been one of the most recognizable journalistic and political commentators in the Middle East, having led or reported for several major Arab newspapers and TV news stations.

And, with almost two million Twitter followers, he was perhaps the most prominent and influential Saudi voice of dissent.

He had been politically connected to some of the most powerful people in Saudi Arabia - but he became increasingly critical of the royal regime there. 

So, the government tried to silence Khashoggi by banning him from social media. It was this act of censorship that led him to move to the United States, where he was a legal resident at the time of his death.

Not only was Khashoggi a writer at the Washington Post - he was also a political activist, who was trying to build an international movement of people who were critical of the Saudi government, in order to bring about reforms in the Arab kingdom.

Khashoggi, aged 59, was often critical of the leader of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - who is often referred to simply by his English initials, MBS. 

There is not a free press or any kind of free speech in the kingdom, and critical voices have, in effect, two choices: stay silent to flee to another country. 

But, under MBS, even being in exile in the United States is not enough to protect you from the long arm of Saudi retribution. 

On the 2nd of October, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi was tortured and killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

He had, it seems, been deliberately lured there by the Saudi government, under the pretext of collecting some routine paperwork prior to his marriage to a Turkish woman.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry initially claimed that Khashoggi had walked out of the consulate, before changing their story to claim that he had died in the building while engaged in a fight.

But it soon became clear that Khashoggi had been ambushed by a team of 15 Saudi “security” personnel during the visit to the consulate. 

His death, it has been claimed, was ordered by either by MBS directly, or by one of his closest aides.

Was Mr Khashoggi assassinated by a death squad, in a carefully planned hit, as part of a broader effort by MBS to crack down on all opposition?

Or, was this simply a case of an interrogation gone horribly wrong?

In some respects, Khashoggi seems like an unlikely person for the Saudis to target for assassination.

He was not a hardcore opponent of the Saudi government. In fact, he seemed to hold out some hope that the young crown prince, MBS, who had become the head of government in 2017, might usher in a new era of limited reforms in the oil-rich kingdom.

MBS was only 32-years-old when he took charge of the government. His father, the aged King Salman, is more of a figurehead leader at this stage, as he suffers from dementia and the effects of a stroke.

MBS was seen by many people, in Saudi Arabia and in the West, as a reformer who could relax some of the repressive elements of life in the kingdom.

For example, in 2018, the crown prince gave women permission to drive cars - yes, it’s hard to believe, by up until that point women were banned from driving.

This was viewed as a good step forward; and the move was hailed by Khashoggi himself. He hoped, despite his criticisms of MBS, that Saudi Arabia might become a less repressive country under its new, young leader.

Khashoggi said that reforms, such as lifting the driving ban, were long overdue.

But it was obvious that they really didn’t go far enough. Limited progress was to be welcomed - but it fell far short of genuine reform. 

Instead, Khashoggi said that Saudi women should, quite simply, have the same rights as men. 

Not, of course, that men in the kingdom have many rights either. 

Khashoggi believed that it was necessary for all people to, and I quote: “have the right to speak their minds without fear of imprisonment.”

He condemned the arrest of several Saudi women’s rights advocates in May 2018. These activists were protesting the law that prohibits women from making key decisions without either the presence or permission of a so-called “male guardian”.

Saudi women are not allowed to seek employment, travel internationally or get married without the permission of a designated man - usually a husband or father, though sometimes a brother, or even a son.

It’s unclear - because the Saudi police aren’t exactly forthcoming about what they get up to - but according to international media and human rights groups, seventeen women’s rights activists were seized, nine of whom are still being held incognito.

There are reports of these activists being beaten, tortured, and sexually assaulted.

In response to this crackdown, Khashoggi wrote: 

MBS, is signaling that any open opposition to Saudi domestic policies, even ones as egregious as the punitive arrests of reform-seeking Saudi women, is intolerable.

He also criticized Saudi involvement in the war in Yemen. An ongoing conflict between rival factions in the country, the poorest in the Arab World, serves as a proxy war for Saudi Arabia and its allies, on one side, and Iran and its allies on the other.

Saudi Air strikes have claimed the lives of many civilians, while the Saudis, backed by their allies, including the United States, have maintained a blockade of the country, which has contributed to a humanitarian disaster there.

Khashoggi said that, 

The longer this cruel war lasts in Yemen, the more permanent the damage will be. The people of Yemen must fight poverty, cholera and water scarcity, and rebuild their country. The crown prince must bring an end to the violence.

Khashoggi also wrote that the “rash” actions of the Saudi crown prince were deepening tensions across the Middle East, increasing the likelihood of further, wider bloodshed.

In response to this, in September 2017, MBS allegedly said in private that he would go after Khashoggi “with a bullet”.

Perhaps the greatest sin that Khashoggi committed, in the eyes of the Saudi government, was that in early 2018 he established an organization aimed at bringing about political change across the Middle East.

The group, called Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, was incorporated as a tax-empt organization in the United States. 

According to its statement of principles, the group aimed to provide “a counter narrative in the Arab world and the West” and to advocate for “Free and fair elections.”

Khashoggi envisaged that DAWN would draw together “Arab Spring exiles who are scattered in various world capitals and cities, to strengthen their morale and utilize them” to effect democratic change in the Middle East.

He argued that what the Arab world needed most was free expression, and that Saudi Arabia, “must find a way where we can accommodate secularism and Islam, something like what they have in Turkey.”

Though not uncritically, Khashoggi admired Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, which is a political organization that adheres to an Islamic-based ideology.

However, in Saudi Arabia, all political parties are strictly prohibited. 

The official religious ideology of the Saudi royal family - and therefore of the country - is Wahhabism, a very conservative branch of Sunni Islam.

No movements or organizations with even a whiff of opposition to the ruling family or Wahhabism are are tolerated.

Therefore, Khashoggi - the most recognizable Saudi political commentator - setting up an oppositional political movement in the United States … well, this would have been seen as a significant threat by MBS and the royal family.

In exile, Khashoggi’s powerful social media presence was constantly trolled - he claimed this was by by Saudi government-financed bots.

This was part of an alleged “zero-tolerance” policy towards negative media representations of the Saudi government, ordered by MBS.

The flip side of this coin was that the Saudi government paid huge sums to American and European public relations companies to promote the image of the kingdom in the West.

In particular, the change of policy that allowed women to drive cars was touted as a major achievement by MBS and a sign that the country was “modernizing”.

And this charm offensive was largely successful. MBS followed up the change in the law regarding female drivers with a personal tour of the United States. He met with many politicians and business leaders, as well as speaking to the American media.

Among the many luminaries who shmoozed with the crown prince during his tour - which included visits to Silicon Valley, LA, Texas, and New York - were George W Bush, Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bezos, and Michael Bloomberg. 

MBS received a warm welcome, not only from the prominent political business leaders that he met, but also from most of the American media.

In general, he was hailed as a reformer … despite the crackdown on women’s rights activists taking place in the kingdom.

Unfortunately, Khashoggi was spoiling the party by pointing out the fact that, so to speak, the emperor had no clothes.

While MBS was glad-handing with politicians, captains of industry, and celebrities across the United States, Khashoggi was one of the few people speaking truth to power.

Khashoggi might not have been what you’d call a “dissident”, but he was honest enough to at least be critical of what was going on in his country at a time when so many in the US were bending over backwards to cozy up to the de facto dictator of Saudi Arabia.

Khashoggi and another Saudi exile based in Canada began work on a short film focused on what they saw as the Saudi government’s destabilizing foreign policies and abuses of human rights.

In late September of 2018, Khashoggi travelled to London, England, to discuss his plans with various co-thinkers. In particular, at this time he was trying to work out ways to fight back against the trolling and disinformation that he claimed the Saudi government was carrying out against him and other opposition figures.

Around this time, Khashoggi was making plans to marry his fiancée, a Turkish woman named Hatice Cengiz.

He had recently gotten divorced. His ex-wife lived in Saudi Arabia, and he needed to a get a document certifying that he was no longer married.

To this end, Khashoggi visited the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC in September, 2018.

The embassy gave him some paperwork, but informed him that he would have to go in person to the Saudi embassy in Turkey, as that was where his fiancée was a resident.

Khashoggi thought this was odd, but he had little choice.

So, he travelled to Istanbul, where Ms Cengiz lived, on the 28th of September to go to the Saudi consulate there. He showed up unannounced, and was told by officials that nobody was available to help him and that he would have to make an appointment to come back later. 

Though he’d expressed concerns for his safety to people he knew, he was pleased that he actually received a pleasant welcome from officials at the consulate.

His fiancée later said that Khashoggi was surprised that everyone had been very nice and hospitable, which allayed his concerns.

He made an appointment to come back to the consulate on October 2nd.

It was a fateful decision - an act of trust in his government that would cost Khashoggi his life.

We’ll be right back.

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Now, back to the show.

On October 1st, 2018, three Saudi men arrived in Istanbul on a scheduled flight, checked in to their hotels, and then visited the consulate. 

The following morning, a 15-member group of Saudi officials arrived on two private Gulfstream jets.

On 2 October 2018 CCTV showed these men - all suspected Saudi secret agents - entering the consulate around noon. 

Khashoggi arrived about an hour later, accompanied by his fiancée. She waited outside for him.

Khashoggi is seen entering the consulate through main entrance around 1pm. 

When he hadn’t come out by 4pm, his fiancée phoned the police, as well as one of Khashoggi’s friends in Turkey.

This friend was an adviser to President Erdogan.

Turkish police soon began an investigation.

When asked about his whereabouts, Saudi officials stated that he had left the consulate via a back entrance.

Further investigation of CCTV footage, including a camera in the grounds of a pre-school located at the back of the consulate, with a view of the rear exit, indicated that this was not so. 

The Turkish government requested permission to search the consulate. The Saudis agreed, so long as Turkish police officers were accompanied by consulate staff. There was no sign of Khashoggi, nor any sign at this stage that anything had happened to him inside the building.

But something must have happened, right?

Turkish officials were sure that the 15 Saudis who had arrived in Istanbul by private jets on the morning of October 2nd had to have something to do with his disappearance. 

Police claimed to have received intelligence that Khashoggi had been tortured, killed, and “cut into pieces” before his body parts were removed from the consulate in bags. 

They also claimed that the murder and mutilation had been videotaped to prove the mission had been accomplished and the tape was taken out of the country. 

This claim was followed by a report in the online journal, Middle East Eye, which cited an anonymous Saudi official who said that Khashoggi had been assassinated by an elite group of Saudi security officers known as the “Tiger Squad”

This anonymous source claimed that Khashoggi’s severed fingers were brought to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as a gruesome souvenir of the slaying.

The Wall Street Journal published a report, again from anonymous sources, that Khashoggi was tortured in front of the Saudi consul general, who left Istanbul on the 16th of October. 

His departure came hours before his home was to be searched by Turkish police looking for evidence related to Khashoggi’s disappearance.

By mid-October, the Turkish government claimed to be in possession of audio and video evidence that Khashoggi had been murdered inside the consulate. 

This evidence was shared with the US Central Intelligence Agency.

At this stage, various media outlets in Turkey and the United States reported that the Saudi Arabian government - which had possibly been forewarned about the audio and video evidence by the Turks and/or the CIA - was prepared to admit that Khashoggi had been killed.

However, the Saudis would claim that this had been an “interrogation gone bad” and not a targeted killing.

There followed a series of claims, counterclaims, and leaks, all purporting to account for what happened to Khashoggi on October 2nd.

As international pressure mounted, the Saudi prosecutor’s office announced that eleven Saudi nationals had been indicted and charged with murdering Khashoggi - and that five of them would face the death penalty. 

In March of this year, the British-based website Middle East Eye reported that, according to an anonymous Turkish source, Khashoggi had been tortured to death.

Their Turkish source claimed that they had a recording of the incident, which proved that Khashoggi had been killed over the course of seven minutes of brutal treatment by the Saudi assassins - held down, pleading for his life, and murdered.

This source added that there was no attempt to “interrogate” him - this was nothing more than a premeditated, orchestrated killing.

Reports by numerous international media outlets over the last few months - all seemingly based on sources who have heard the recording of the killing - indicate that the most likely scenario is that Khashoggi was assaulted by the team of assassins, tied to a chair, injected with some substance, and then killed by strangulation. 

It is likely that his body was then cut up with a bone saw before being burned in an outdoor oven in the grounds of the consulate.

Turkish media reported that people living in a house next to the Saudi consulate reported that there had been a barbecue, with lots of smoke, on that evening. They said this had struck them as odd at the time, because there had never been a barbecue there before.

It would later transpire that a large tandoori oven - which is sort of like a traditional pizza oven - had recently been built in the grounds of the embassy.

A Saudi official leaked information to the Reuters news agency, claiming that one of the senior aides of MBS had made a phone call to the consulate at the same time Khashoggi would have been there. 

According to the Turkish source, the order to kill Khashoggi was given during this call. 

According to both the Turkish and Saudi sources, an audio recording of this phone call was in the possession of President Erdogan.

A Turkish newspaper reported that the top Saudi aide had ordered the death squad to bring the severed head of Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia.

The paper also stated that Khashoggi’s last words on the recording were: “I’m suffocating... take this bag off my head, I'm claustrophobic.” 

Soon, apparently based on this recording, Turkish investigators were publicly stating that it was most likely that Khashoggi had died as a result of suffocation, and that his body was dismembered after he was dead.

On 10 December, 2018, a transcript of the audio was given to the US cable news network CNN, which reported the story and claimed that it considered the source of the transcript to be reliable.

There was widespread global interest in the case, almost from the moment that Khashoggi went missing. Perhaps because he was a columnist for the Washington Post, there was a lot of media coverage of the story in the United States, and the West in general.

It’s not exactly an unknown phenomenon for political dissidents, and journalists, to go missing in the Middle East - and very, very few of these cases ever make into the newspapers or onto the TV screens of the US or Europe.

Because of Khashoggi’s relatively high profile outside the Middle East, his disappearance, and the subsequent gruesome details of his alleged murder, became a huge international story - and one that brought unprecedented scrutiny upon the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Face with this, the normally highly secretive Saudi government issued a series of public pronouncements about its investigation into the case.

After the initial denials that anything had happened in the consulate and that Khashoggi had walked out, as we’ve heard, the Saudis gradually changed the story to claim that he was killed accidentally.

The government pinned the blame on the security team that had been sent to Istanbul. But it was clear that more was at play.

As Khashoggi was a permanent resident in the United States, the US government was under some obligation to take action.

So, as well as heaping global opprobrium upon Saudi Arabia, and its crown prince, MBS, the slaying of Khashoggi had - and continues to have - serious implications for the political situation inside the United States.

For the assassination was not only a personal tragedy - it was an abomination against the right of free speech - and a diplomatic scandal with, potentially, the most far-reaching consequences.

As we will hear next week, the case has raised profound questions about the relationship between the United States - and the Trump administration in particular - and the House of Saud.

And more scandal has followed.

The terrible events in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul have led other journalists on a trail that has uncovered evidence that the murder of Khashoggi was no aberration - but rather only the most high profile case in a sustained campaign to silence all critics of the Saudi government.

By any means necessary.

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

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

In Part 3, we will look at the team of assassins who have been accused of the murder … and we’ll hear about some of the powerful people in Saudi Arabia who have not been charged - but who are believed to have had a hand in the assassination. 

We will consider the ways in which the death of Khashoggi continues to shape international relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And we’ll ask: what, if anything, might change as a result of this appalling murder.

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

Lindsey Morse produces and edits the show. 

Our theme music was created by Graeme Ronald.

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, and don’t forget to pledge your support of $2 or more by April 8th, if you’d like to take part in our first ever livestream!

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 conclude our look at the case of Jamal Khashoggi. 

Until then, goodbye.