Episode 3.3: Jamal Khashoggi Part 3

Welcome back to Assassinations Podcast! 

In the first two parts of this episode on the death of Jamal Khashoggi, we heard how this journalist and commentator went from being a trusted member of the Saudi Arabian elite, to a mild critic who advocated for limited change, to an exile who increasingly called for major reforms to the governance of the oil-rich kingdom.

This season of Assassinations Podcast is focused on the threats faced by journalists. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Mr Khashoggi was no ordinary journalist.

He had operated within the high echelons of Saudi society for decades - the scion of one of the kingdom’s most prominent families, he was, almost from birth, destined for a life of privilege and influence.

He had been a senior figure within the tightly controlled Saudi media, and he served as an advisor to the royal family, including the former head of Saudi intelligence.

Khashoggi was, in short, the kind of person who probably knew where some of the bodies were buried.

With two million Twitter followers, he was one of the most high-profile political commentators in the Arab world.

He became increasingly critical of the Saudi government, and so became someone who needed to be silenced.

Faced with censorship in his homeland, Khashoggi exiled himself to United States, where he found work as a columnist for the Washington Post.

And, in exile, he started to move within a milieu of Saudi opposition figures, even establishing a political organization with the aim of drawing together activists from across the Middle East.

In September of last year, he went into the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, DC.

Khashoggi was due to be married to a Turkish woman, and he needed to request legal paperwork from the Saudi authorities, showing that he was divorced from his Saudi wife.

The embassy told Khashoggi that they could not help him. He would need to go to the embassy in Turkey in order to get these documents.

Khashoggi thought this was odd. But he did what he had to do. He made an unannounced visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in late September. Surprised to see him, staff said that he’d have to come back later. An appointment was made for October 2nd.

He came back that day and entered the Saudi consulate, leaving his fiancée outside. He gave her his mobile phone and told her to call a friend of his if he didn’t come out within a couple of hours.

He never left the building. A subsequent investigation by the Turkish government stated that he had been murdered - and pointed the finger of blame firmly at the Saudi state.

Before we continue with the conclusion of this investigation of the Khashoggi case, I want to remind everyone that tomorrow, Tuesday, April 9th is our first livestream! 

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Now, on with the show!

Two weeks after Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, the Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel, arrived in Turkey.

Her stated mission was to find out exactly what the Turkish authorities knew.

The disappearance of Khashoggi in early October, 2018, had become a major news story. Here was a writer for a major American news organization, vanished after entering what should have been a safe and secure Saudi consulate.

Though at this stage little was publicly known about the fate of Khashoggi, it was clear that something very bad had happened.

Moreover, he was a permanent resident of the United States, and therefore his status was unavoidably a matter of concern to the US government. 

Khashoggi’s disappearance quickly became a major political and diplomatic incident, which was placing strain on the longstanding strategic relationship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

During a meeting with top Turkish security personnel on October 25th, Haspel reportedly heard an audio recording of the killing of Khashoggi.

This confirmed the rumors already being widely circulated in the international media, that the Washington Post columnist had been murdered.

On the 26th of October, the CIA chief spoke with US President Donald Trump. No details of the briefing have been made public.

However, several media outlets, including Turkish newspapers, the Reuters news agency, and the Washington Post reported that they too were familiar with the recording of the alleged assassination.

Khashoggi can seemingly be heard pleading to his attackers, begging to be released. He had been set upon, beaten, bound to a chair, and injected with some substance.

One of the voices on the recording is heard to say: “I know how to cut”.

Khashoggi’s finals words are reported to have been: “I’m suffocating... take this bag off my head, I'm claustrophobic.” 

Adding further credence to the claims that Khashoggi had been the victim of a predetermined assassination, Turkish authorities released CCTV footage from outside the consulate on October 2nd.

The footage appeared to show a known Saudi intelligence officer, named Mustafa al-Madani, leaving the consulate by the back door.

Approximately the same height and build as Khashoggi, he appeared to be dressed in Khashoggi’s clothes, except for his shoes, and wearing his glasses.

Al-Madani also appeared to have put on a fake beard that resembled Khashoggi’s facial hair.

According to other CCTV footage, al-Madani was later seen going into a public bathroom in a different part of Istanbul - only to come out a few minutes dressed differently.

If this CCTV footage is indeed accurate, then this is damning evidence of an orchestrated plot. Not only that, it indicates that the initial Saudi insistence that Khashoggi had walked out of the rear door of the consulate might have been based on their belief that this rouse had worked.

Then Turkish authorities revealed that they had a recording of the assault, murder, and dismemberment of Khashoggi - and that they had shared this recording with many other countries around the world, including the United States, Britain, Canada, and the Saudis themselves.

Faced with the evidence, and under growing international pressure, the Saudi government admitted that, yes, Khashoggi had been killed by its security personnel. They stated that there would be a thorough investigation into the crime and that all those responsible would face justice. 

Despite these assurances, Turkish officials claimed that the Saudis had hampered their investigation, including disabling or destroying CCTV footage from inside the consulate, burning paperwork, and burning or otherwise disposing of key forensic evidence - not least the remains of Khashoggi’s body, which was allegedly disposed of by putting his body parts in a large outdoor oven.

Many countries around the world, as well as international human rights organizations, condemned the apparent murder of Khashoggi and the obfuscation of the Saudi government.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Saudi Arabia to reveal the location of Khashoggi’s body and criticized their “delay and prevarication”.

The Turkish government eventually requested the extradition of eighteen Saudi suspects. This request was rejected by the Saudi foreign minister, who stated that whoever was responsible would be investigated and tried on Saudi soil.

On 15 November, 2018, the Saudi Prosecutor’s Office stated that eleven people had been charged with the murder of Khashoggi and that five of them would face the death penalty for “ordering and executing the crime”. 

Saudi officials admitted that shortly after entering the consulate, Khashoggi had been seized by several security personnel who had been sent to the consulate supposedly to “speak” with him.

However, this heavy-handed “interview” went horribly wrong.

The Saudi government has acknowledged that its security officers set up Khashoggi soon after he entered the consulate, bound him, and then injected him with an overdose of a sedative that resulted in his death. 

Saudi prosecutors stated that Khashoggi’s body was dismembered and the parts were removed from the consulate in bags. These body parts were then given to a local agent in Istanbul who disposed of them. 

The Saudis are adamant that no member of the ruling royal family was involved in, ordered, or gave the okay to the killing.

Despite this assurance, there have been widespread media reports that the assassination was ordered by the top man in the Saudi government, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Also known simply by his initials, MBS, the crown prince is the de facto head of government in the kingdom, since his father, King Salman, has been incapacitated by a combination of a stroke and dementia.

Many have wondered how MBS - and other senior members of the royal family - could not know about a large team of Saudi security operatives being sent to a foreign country to confront Jamal Khashoggi, who was one of the best known people in the Arab world.

Even if the intention was not to kill Khashoggi, but merely to interview him, as the Saudis have suggested, then why was it necessary to dispatch such a large team? And how on earth did a “interview” result in someone being killed and dismembered?

To answer that, we must look at the team sent to Istanbul. According to the British journalism website, Middle East Eye, the men who killed Khashoggi were part of an elite group of Saudi security officers known as the “Tiger Squad”.

This is an outfit that has allegedly been involved in various operations - including so-called “wet work”, or assassinations - targeting enemies of MBS.

Middle East Eye published claims that the “Tiger Squad” - composed of the most trusted and skilled military and intelligence operatives - had been established on the orders of MBS.

According to the source quoted by Middle East Eye, the squad has carried out assassinations by the means of planned car “accidents”, house fires, and poisonings. 

The source alleged that the team had even assassinated a Saudi prince who was seen as a rival by MBS. Allegedly the private jet of this prince had been shot down in 2017 and the incident covered up to look like an accident.

The “Tiger Squad” also allegedly killed a Saudi judge who’d fallen afoul of MBS. He was reportedly murdered by an injection of a deadly virus into his body when he had visited a hospital for a regular health checkup. 

One of Khashoggi’s acquaintances might also have been a target, too. Middle East Eye reported that there was a plan to lure Saudi dissident named Omar Abdulaziz, living in Canada, to a consulate to be killed.

This plan, according to the source, was thwarted when Abdulaziz refused to go. 

Abdulaziz has spoken separately to the Washington Post to say that, while he and his family had been threatened, and that he was being routinely spied on by Saudi intelligence, he was unaware of any plot to kill him.

In March, the New York Times reported that the assassination of Khashoggi was part of a far larger campaign by the government of MBS to silence dissenters.

The newspaper claimed that members of the team that killed Khashoggi have also been involved in at least a dozen clandestine missions, which have included the surveillance, kidnapping, detention and torture of Saudi citizens.

These missions have allegedly taken place inside the kingdom but also in other countries. The paper reports that some people have been kidnapped and brought back to Saudi Arabia.

Some of those targeted have been taken to royal palaces, including homes belonging to MBS and his father, King Salman, in order to be held and abused there.

The Times based its exposé on information supplied to their reporters by unnamed sources within an American intelligence agency.

These sources claim to have read top secret US intelligence assessments, as well as human intelligence reports from sources within Saudi Arabia. 

According these sources, one of the detainees, a female human rights campaigner detained at one of the royal residences, tried to commit suicide last year after being subjected to prolonged psychological torture.

The team allegedly responsible for this campaign of terror received generous bonuses for their work from MBS personally.

And the Saudi crown prince can certainly afford to give out bonuses to those who do his bidding. He’s not short of a riyal or two. He’s made some extravagant purchases since his accession to the position of de facto ruler of the kingdom.

For example, MBS spent recently $500 million on a 440-foot mega yacht and purchased a French Chateau for $300 million.

The New York Times and the Washington Post reported that sources within the CIA now believe that the Saudi crown prince did order Khashoggi’s assassination. 

The CIA has allegedly examined multiple sources of intelligence, including intercepted telephone calls, that strongly indicate that MBS had - at the very least - prior knowledge of a plan to lure Khashoggi to the consulate in Istanbul.

Meanwhile, a major Turkish newspaper claimed to have information that the CIA had a so-called “smoking gun” - a phone call in which the Saudi crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s murder.

The paper claimed that Gina Haspel was in possession of a copy of the intercepted phone call, in which MBS gives the order to, quote: “silence Jamal Khashoggi as soon as possible”.

The Wall Street Journal has also reported that the CIA intercepted eleven text messages sent by MBS on the 2nd of October - the day Khashoggi was killed. These messages were seemingly sent by MBS to his closest adviser, who, in turn, was in direct communication with one of the Saudi operatives in Istanbul. 

Let’s take a quick break before we conclude our episode.

We’ll be right back.

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Now back to the show.

According to the Washington Post, the so-called “Tiger Squad” that was sent to kill Jamal Khashoggi received training from an Arkansas-based private security firm with ties to the US armed forces and intelligence agencies.

The company, called Tier-1 Group, which was established by a former Marine, specializes in providing training to state and non-state security services. According to its website, it provides training at its purpose-built facilities that enables clients to, and I quote, “anticipate the next evolution of conflict” in an “ever changing operational landscape.”

According to the Post, this training for the “Tiger Squad” was carried out under a license provided by the US State Department.

Tier-1 Grouip is owned by a business called Cerberus Capital Management. This is a private equity firm with deep connections to the highest levels of the US government. 

It’s chairman of global investments is former Vice-President Dan Quayle; its founder and CEO is Stephen Feinberg, who serves as head of the Presidential Intelligence Advisory Board; and its chairman is John Snow, the former Treasury Secretary under George W Bush.

Cerberus also owns three large arms companies, and has ongoing contracts with the Saudi government.

It would seem that time might be up for at least some members of the “Tiger Squad”.

A trial of eleven men accused of being involved in the death of Khashoggi began in January, with Saudi prosecutors seeking the death penalty for five of them.

Saudi authorities have complained that Turkey has not responded to requests to turn over key evidence in the case. In response, the Turkish government has called for the suspects to be extradited to Turkey the face justice there.

The trial is ongoing. There’s some speculation as to whether anyone will actually be punished, or if the accused will simply be pensioned off, perhaps with new identities.

Others have speculated that someone must be thrown to the wolves - though, again, there is skepticism as to whether or not this person will even be one of the so-called “Tiger Squad”, or simply an unfortunate fall guy.

One of the people allegedly involved in the death of Khashoggi - but who is not on trial - is a man named Saud al-Qahtani. 

He is a top royal adviser to MBS - even though Saudi prosecutors initially claimed that he played a major role in the events that led to Khashoggi’s death.

After the Saudi government opened an official investigation into the case, al-Qahtini was fired from his position in the government, before disappearing from public view, only to re-emerge in February, 2019.

According to the British Independent newspaper, some in Saudi Arabia have claimed that al-Qahtani was behind the assassination, as part of an effort to demonstrate his loyalty to the crown prince.

Al-Qahtani was - and remains - a “media advisor” to MBS, which, according to Saudi human rights activists, essentially means he has responsible for online attacks on dissidents, including using spyware and orchestrating troll factories targeting critical social media accounts.

He was also one of the people who advised that MBS take a “carrot and stick” approach to women’s rights issues in the kingdom - on the one hand making it legal for women to drive cars, while on the other hand cracking down on female critics of the government who demand an end to other harsh restrictions on Saudi women.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned the Saudi government for refusing to co-operate with international investigations into the death of Khashoggi and raised serious concerns about the Saudi justice system.

Faced with criticism that the eleven accused men might face little more than a show trial intended to divert attention away from the responsibility of the Saudi government for the death of Khashoggi, MBS has invited representatives of the member countries of the United Nations Security Council to attend some of the court proceedings. 

Last week, seven human rights and press freedom groups urged the United States, Britain, and France to speak out publicly against the judicial process in Saudi Arabia.

The groups, including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, warned that other countries should avoid being participants in what they called “a potential miscarriage of justice” in Saudi Arabia, involving violations of human rights laws.

So, as of right now, we just don’t know what is going to happen to those who were involved in the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.

Will some or all of the accused face justice in Saudi Arabia - and, we might very well ask, is justice even possible in a legal system so opaque as that of the authoritarian kingdom?

And, if any of the eleven men on trial are found guilty - and possibly executed by beheading - will they be scapegoats for people higher up - perhaps even including the crown prince - who bear ultimate responsibility for the killing?

There is another important question that we should ask, following brutal events in the consulate in Istanbul last year.

Will anything change in the relationship between the Saudi kingdom and the West as a result of this tragic case? 

Only time will tell. But, there are signs that after a period of intense international criticism, things seem to be getting back to normal - business as usual - between the Saudis and what is sometimes euphemistically called the “international community”. 

In the immediate aftermath of the murder, some of Saudi Arabia’s phalanx of lobbyists and public relations gurus distanced themselves from the kingdom.

For example, the US-based Endeavor marketing and media company, returned a whopping $400 million investment by Saudi Arabia earlier in 2019.

However, the Saudi government has already renewed its PR drive with gusto.

MBS remains determined to present his kingdom as “open for business” - a good place invest, a strong and stable country, being led to a brighter future by a youthful reformer.

According to Yahoo News, an influential Saudi business leader and Washington-based lobbyist named Ali Shihabi, said that, after a rocky few months, the crown prince has reasserted his grip on power - with the backing of most of the Saudi royal family - and is determined to carry on exactly as before the death of Khashoggi. 

“I think his position is quite permanent,” said Shihabi. “We have to deal with reality, not idealism.”

Yahoo News reported on renewed efforts to improve the image of Saudi Arabia in the US, including the promotion of the idea that things are getting better for women in the country.

MBS appointed its first female ambassador to the US. And this, we are told, is progress.

Meanwhile lobbyists working on behalf of Saudi Arabia are continuing to burnish the kingdom’s image. 

For example, a Denver-based lobbying firm that rejoices in the moniker Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, has been meeting with US lawmakers, policy wonks, and journalists in order to promote Saudi interests. 

In addition, various US politicians, lobbyists, and think tank members are, once again, traveling to Saudi Arabia for junkets organized by the government there.

The Saudi royal family and the Trump administration also appear to be cooperating as normal, with little, if any, negative repercussions as a result of the murder of Khashoggi. 

In late February, top White House adviser Jared Kushner flew to Saudi Arabia to meet with MBS, while various economic, defense, and security gatherings are due to take place. 

More or less, nothing of substance has changed between Saudi Arabia and the United States, beyond one or two cosmetic differences.

For example, a Republican congressional aide, who spoke to Yahoo News, commented that, “It does seem like they are making a new effort to try and rebrand themselves, with the new ambassador.”

But, it might be said, a leopard doesn’t change its spots. The Saudis appear to have been given carte blanche - and they’re acting accordingly.

The Saudi government may have struck a blow against one of the most prominent people in the United States. 

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and currently the richest person in the world, was allegedly targeted by Saudi intelligence, which hacked his cell phone in order to gain private - and embarrassing - information from it.

It’s been claimed that this was because Bezos is the owner of the Washington Post, the newspaper for which Khashoggi worked. The Post has lead the way in investigating the murder of its former employee and campaigning for justice in the case.

A man named Gavin de Becker, a security consultant who’s worked with Bezos for many years, has claimed that the Saudi government leaked text messages between Bezos and his mistress, seemingly confirming a tabloid story that the tech billionaire was cheating on his wife.

If true, then this would be quite the “payback”. It looks like Mr Bezos and his wife will soon divorce, a break-up that might cost there Amazon founder untold billions of dollars.

It might be said that this is a case of chickens coming home to roost. After all, Bezos was one of the rich and powerful people who glad-handed Crown Prince MBS during his tour of the US back in April 2018. 

Even as Saudi women’s right protesters were being disappeared, Bezos - with a host of other politicians, corporate moguls, and celebrities - was lining up to do business with the Saudi leader, who at that time was praised across the American media as a reformer.

An aphorism about the devil, dinner, and a long spoon springs to mind.

Under successive Democratic and Republican administrations, the United States - like several other countries around the world - has maintained a very close strategic and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The country is a key Arab ally of the US in the Persian Gulf region, it controls one of the largest oil reserves in the world, and tens of billions of dollars of military and civilian contracts are up for grabs.

In short, keeping the Saudi rulers sweet is a matter of high-level geopolitics and the biggest of big business.

Because of the personalist character of the Saudi government, this relationship essentially requires the US president not to rock the boat too much with the Saudi king - or, these days, the crown prince, MBS.

Regardless of what goes on in the kingdom, or the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, for that mater.

President Trump has faced much criticism from his political opponents for not criticizing the Saudi’s for the death of Khashoggi … but is the approach of the Trump administrations really an aberration? I think, not so much.

In truth, the very poor human rights situation in the kingdom is generally all but ignored, not only in the United States but across much of the world.

So, where does that leave the status of journalists, and of free speech more broadly?

Well, in Saudi Arabia, there is no free speech. Criticism is not tolerated.

And the death of Khashoggi shows that there are powerful people within the kingdom who will stop at nothing to keep it that way.

But the case has definitely raises the issue of free speech, a free press, and the right to voice an oppositional point of view. 

It is to be hoped that, in some way, Khashoggi’s fate might keep in the public mind the very real risks faced by journalists and political activists. 

And, perhaps even more importantly, demonstrate just how easily cut is the threat by which human rights - and human life - hangs.

On the 11th of December 2018, Jamal Khashoggi was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for his work, along with other journalists around the world who face political persecution. Time referred to him as a “Guardian of the Truth”.

Which sounds very grand … but, this title might be a stretch for Mr Khashoggi.

He wasn’t just a newspaper columnist. He was also a political operative, a man with deep ties to the murky world of the Saudi royal elite. 

Khashoggi was no angel - but we don’t need to think of him as such in order to recognize that his killing represents a very real threat.

The International Federation of Journalists stated that:

This sickening murder of a critical journalist will set a dangerous precedence - if the full truth about this murder is not uncovered and all those who ordered and carried out this heinous crime are not held to account, oppressive governments the world over will see it as a green light to commit such unforgivable crimes against a journalist.

For Khashoggi himself, the most important issue for his homeland was this: 

In his last, posthumously published, column in the Washington Post he wrote:

“What the Arab world needs most is free expression”.

And not just the Arab world - as we will find out in the course of this season on journalists, the right of free speech is something that can come under attack anywhere.

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

Next week, we’re hitting pause on our current season about journalists to bring you something a little bit different. 

If you follow Assassinations Podcast on Twitter, you may have noticed that we’ve been following a developing story out of Costa Rica. We’re going to deviate from the theme of journalists to look into the alleged assassination of an indigenous rights activist named Sergio Rojas, who was gunned down in his home in March of this year. 

His death was brought to our attention by someone working with the native peoples in Costa Rica, and we’ve been in communication with various people on the ground who have given us a lot of very useful information regarding this case.

The story has barely been covered in the English-language press, and it’s the most recent development in an ongoing dispute over the land rights of indigenous people in Costa Rica. 

We’re always willing to take a break for breaking stories. 

It’s an evolving story, and one with some very serious implications, so we thought it’d be really important to take a week to address the case.

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

Lindsey Morse produces and edits the show. 

Our theme music was created by Graeme Ronald. To check out 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. And remember you can support our sponsors by going to our website and clicking the link at the top of the page that says, “support.” 

Thank you so much for tuning in, and we look forward to seeing you next week.

Until then, goodbye.