The Jamal Khashoggi Murder Saga Is Just Getting Started
If Saudi Arabia thought it might silence (execute) a critic without much fuss, it was wrong.
Left Image: Jamal Khashoggi earlier this year. Photo by April Brady/POMED/Wikimedia Commons. Right Image: Crown Prince MBS. Photo via White House/Wikimedia Commons
It’s been almost a month since Saudi Arabia conceded that journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul. On October 19, the kingdom put out a statement claiming the regime critic perished during a brawl with 15 rogue Saudi operators trying to question him about his possible return to the kingdom. Meanwhile, Turkish media and government officials methodically punctured that euphemistic version of events by releasing a steady stream of allegations pointing to targeted, state-sanctioned execution and dismemberment.
Perhaps most notoriously, the cadre of Saudis who arrived in Turkey just before Khashoggi’s killing reportedly included men who had served on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s security detail, as well as a regime-tied autopsy expert armed with a bone saw. In the immediate wake of the Saudi statement, news leaked that the team dispatched to accost Khashoggi inside the consulate included a middle-aged operative who bore some resemblance to the Washington Post columnist and may have been intended to act as a body double by wearing his clothes. Coupled with reports of audio capturing the killing and a deluge of leaks from Turkish officials, it quickly became clear that if the Saudis had intended to quietly silence a pesky critic, they failed.
Somehow, the regime looks even more complicit now than it did then.
Last week, Turkish newspaper Sabah reported that Saudi Arabia sent a second team consisting of 11 officials, including a chemist and toxicologist, nine days after Khashoggi’s October 2 slaying, to dispose of his body and any evidence. The report included a surveillance photo that purported to identify Saudi operatives with circles around their heads. (Also last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post explicitly accusing high-ranking Saudi officials of sending “a death squad” to kill Khashoggi in cold blood.) On Sunday, the New York Times reported that an intelligence official and general who has since been fired in what looked like a meager attempt at damage control was among a group of Saudi officials who broached international assassinations in private-sector meetings last year.
And on Monday, the Times revealed that Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a member of what the paper described as the Khashoggi "kill team," made a call just after the journalist's death where he instructed someone—believed to be a subject of the Crown Prince—to "tell your boss" it was done.
As the investigation and attendant scandal over the flagrant killing of a renowned journalist unfolded, the world saw one Middle Eastern country with authoritarian tendencies dominate a rival neighbor in a cloak and dagger game of spy-craft. Erdogan, putting aside the irony of his own government’s abysmal treatment of dissident journalists, has drawn comparisons to the wily TV detective Colombo while the Saudis have bumbled their way through a horrific scandal that even President Donald Trump, loathe to critique the regime head-on, described as the “the worst in the history of cover-ups.”
It remained to be seen if the bloody fiasco and attendant humanitarian uproar might actually bring meaningful changes to US-Saudi relations or dent the Kingdom’s influence in the world. If nothing else, the sloppy assassination and drip-drip of revelations have already dented the Saudis' reputation in the world of spooks and spies.
The contrasts between Turkey’s intelligence apparatus and its counterpart in Saudi Arabia could not be more striking, according to Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project who put in 30 years as a CIA officer. “One intelligence service comes off as highly professional and competent,” he told me. “The other comes off as inept, almost like Keystone cops.”
The Turkish government has deployed a strategy of carefully releasing information through friendly media outlets and then confirming the details afterward. “Of course, they are working in their home territory, but it has been impressive,” Riedel added. “On the other hand, the Saudis left behind so many clues of what they were up to. It is almost a case study on how not to carry out a covert operation.”
Jeffrey Ringel, a director with private intelligence firm Soufan Group, offered a similar assessment. “The Turks are being very strategic in what they are releasing,” he told me. “They are undermining whatever the Saudis put out. They are allowing the Saudis to build a story and then produce information that indicates the Saudis are not being truthful with their statements.”
Ringel, who was a supervisory special agent for the FBI joint terrorism task force in New York, said Turkey had done a masterful job of sullying Saudi Arabia’s credibility on the world stage. “It’s a pretty smart way of doing business if you want to hurt the reputation of another party,” he told me.
The Turkish government early on claimed the 15-man squad killed Khashoggi shortly after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. The journalist, who was a legal US resident, was seeking a document he needed for his wedding the following day; his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, contacted police when Khashoggi didn’t come out of the embassy after a couple of hours. Turkish authorities alleged it was a premeditated crime that also involved dismembering Khashoogi’s body and disposing of it. According to press reports, CIA director Gina Haspel heard an audio tape of an alleged recording of Khashoggi’s interrogation and murder during a fact-finding mission to Turkey last month.
Saudi Arabia initially denied any knowledge of Khashoggi going missing and claimed he left the consulate shortly after entering the building—this was the line from the Crown Prince himself on down. But as details about the investigation trickled out of Turkey, including the alleged involvement of some of the Crown Prince’s closest associates, Saudi Arabia came up with its brawl story. The kingdom has maintained denials that bin Salman, Saudi Aarbia’s de facto ruler, had any involvement in the brutal murder. Meanwhile, 18 Saudis allegedly involved in the homicide were arrested and five high-ranking government officials were fired, including bin Salman’s deputy intelligence chief, Major General Ahmed al-Asiri.
John LeBeau, a former senior operations officer of the CIA’s clandestine service, said Turkish authorities quickly backed Saudi Arabia into a corner. “The Turks appear to have a lot of surveillance footage that they are reviewing to their heart’s content,” Le Beau told me. “The Saudis seem like a deer in the headlights. They don’t know what to do.”
An international relations professor at Duquesne University, LeBeau said he did tours in several Middle Eastern countries, including Algeria, Jordan and Israel, and hadn't seen anything quite like this. “It’s a bit peculiar to fly in 15 people on two planes and have all of them take part in the interrogation,” Le Beau said. “It speaks to a measure of confusion or amateurism that doesn’t make one sanguine about the Saudi intelligence service.”
It also didn’t make any sense to carry out the operation in the Saudi consulate, LeBeau added. “It is breathtaking to me that an intelligence service would do that or be given the permission to do that,” he said. “It’s Murphy’s law. What can go wrong will go wrong.”
Ringel, the ex-FBI terrorist chaser, said a covert team of a dozen or more agents would not have been unusual if the Saudi plan was in fact to grab Khashoggi and bring him back to Saudi Arabia. What didn’t make sense was why the team included Salah Muhammed al-Tubaiqi, the head of the forensic medicine department at the interior ministry, he noted. “I don’t know why he would be there if investigators are there to grab the subject and bring him back for further questioning,” Ringel said. “Some of the operatives didn’t fit the bill for a rendition operation.”
He agreed with LeBeau that the Saudi consulate was a poor choice to carry out the mission no matter its original intent. “Most embassies operate under the assumption that they are under some sort of surveillance,” Ringel said.
Part of what made the saga so remarkable was that the Saudi government had carried out successful covert missions in the past. For instance, agents for the kingdom successfully captured Saudi Hezbollah terrorist Ahmed al-Mughassil in Beirut two years ago. The Shiite muslim orchestrated the June 25, 1996 bombing of an American military base in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 US Air Force personnel and wounded another 372. “That was a pretty impressive performance,” Riedel said. “But for the most part, Saudi Arabia’s major asset is the kingdom’s checkbook. They put out significant cash resources to deal with problems.”
Indeed, the Saudis' extensive financial relationship with the US government—and their ties to Trump's son-in-law and wannabe foreign policy advisor Jared Kushner in particular—were supposed to protect them from too much global scrutiny. Nevertheless, Turkey did not appear to be anywhere near done implicating the regime in an orchestrated hit on Khashoggi. “I think President Erdogan sees a unique opportunity here to humiliate the crown prince,” Riedel told me. “The Turks may even have more direct evidence linking MBS to the crime. Erdogan has certainly hinted at that.”
Given the puzzlingly brash way the killing was carried out and the difficulty the Saudis have had in preventing the diffusion of intelligence about the extent of their alleged involvement, it looked more likely by the day that the US relationship with the regime was in at least some jeopardy. If nothing else, Trump's rivals in Congress—whether outgoing Senate Republicans like Bob Corker or income Democratic committee chairs in the House—weren't going to let him have the last word. Even Lindsey Graham, Trump's enemy-turned-pal in the Senate, made noise about new sanctions this week.
And Republicans aren't the only game in town anymore.
“With a Democratic majority in the House, I am sure various committees are going to look into this,” Riedel said. “It is wrapped up in the broader picture of future US-Saudi relations. The Trump administration desperately wants this to go away, but I don’t think it is going to be successful.”
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- Saudi Arabia
- Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
- Jamal Khashoggi