Jamal Khashoggi was an influential insider with exclusive access to the Saudi ruling elite. When he went into exile in the US and publicly criticized the policies of the crown prince, the leadership in Riyadh pegged him as a traitor. For that, he had to die. On October 2, 2018, the day that Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, I was visiting Dammam, a city in eastern Saudi Arabia. I had met Jamal for the first time seven years before, and we’d kept in contact since then. Every now and then we’d catch up, meeting in Riyadh or Jeddah. After he went into exile in the US. in 2017 we Skyped occasionally. Jamal was an invaluable contact for me and many other journalists.
Over the ensuing days, I followed the news of his disappearance—and the subsequent revelation of his murder— with utter disbelief. The word “dismembered” kept appearing in Turkish police reports. Sound recordings proved that Khashoggi was tortured, killed, and hacked to pieces.
CNN live in my hotel room in Dammam. There was talk of a bone saw, brought by a team of hitmen from Riyadh. Disguised as tourists, the death squad flew to Istanbul and stayed just long enough to kill and dismember Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate. It turned out that one of the agents belonged to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s personal security team. There was also mention of a forensics officer who knew a thing or two about cutting up bodies. The packages containing the remains were brought to the consul’s residence a few hundred feet away in a van with darkened windows. In Saudi Arabia, it is rumored that the remains are probably still there, possibly buried in the garden. Or did the Saudi men take Jamal’s body parts back home in their suitcases? Later, some speculated that his remains might have been dissolved in acid. As of writing, the remains have not turned up.
Before Khashoggi decided to go into exile in the US, he was one of the kingdom’s leading journalists, or at least one of its best connected. The first time we met was in 2011 and it was a thousand feet off the ground in an office with floor-to-ceiling windows at the Kingdom Center, Riyadh’s tallest building. It was the time of the Arab Spring.
Change was in the air. The political mood was shifting. Back then, Jamal voiced incredibly risky thoughts: “The era of the absolute monarchy is over,” and “Democracy is the only solution.” Any other Saudi journalist uttering these words publicly would have been thrown into prison.
JAMAL AND OSAMA WERE OLD PALS At the time, Khashoggi was working for one of the richest men in the Arab world, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a nephew of King Abdullah. From his office in the Kingdom Center, Khashoggi was launching a TV channel for the prince. It was a classic move for a billionaire who wanted to expand his power and influence. The plan to launch a private TV station in order to shape the political debate was considered a special provocation by the Saudi leadership. The monarchy smelled rebellion and revolution. Khashoggi’s sponsor, Prince Al-Waleed, was considered progressive, non-conformist, a reformer.
Khashoggi’s office at Al-Waleed bin Talal’s Kingdom Holding (2011): “I’m really angry, but I’m staying calm for now.”
Khashoggi felt comfortable moving in these high circles. He knew the royals better than anyone, he was well-informed about internal rivalries over politics and business within the House of Saud, and he worked under the protection of various powerful sponsors.
The country was in a state of upheaval. Those who had expressed independent political ideas under King Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah, quickly got their wings clipped. Kingdom Center: The tallest building in the country.
After four years and millions of dollars invested, the TV station set up by Khashoggi went on air in Bahrain. When I congratulated him, instead of the expected enthusiastic response, I received a short and rather dry reply: “Thanks, but they shut us down after ten hours. I’m really angry, but I’m staying calm for now.”
Before this, Khashoggi had worked as a media consultant for Prince Turki bin Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence, who served as ambassador in London and Washington. Through this connection Khashoggi enjoyed unfettered access to inside information that even leading Saudi politicians could only dream of. He knew the future leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden—son of a Yemeni, the wealthiest construction contractor in Saudi Arabia—before he became radicalized and formed his terror network. Back in the 1970s, Bin Laden and Khashoggi, almost the same age, sympathized with the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The two of them met again in the 1980s, when Khashoggi worked as a reporter in Afghanistan. He interviewed Bin Laden in a Tora Bora cave—a hideout for the mujahideen—and several more times later in his life. He showed me a photo taken there of himself with Bin Laden and his fighters, all of whom were armed with AK-47s. He emailed me the shot, which is printed in the photo section of this book.
In the 1980s, Bin Laden was still considered a hero in the struggle against the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan, even by Western intelligence services. At the time, Bin Laden and the West shared the common goal of driving the Red Army out of the country.
Author (right) interviewing freedom fighters in one of the Tora Bora caves, where Osama bin Laden preached to his followers (2001, November).
In the early 1990s, Bin Laden fled to Sudan and declared war against his own country. Osama bin Laden and Jamal Khashoggi remained in touch. The Saudi leadership hoped to use the connection between the two men and hired Khashoggi as an envoy to negotiate a peace agreement between Bin Laden and the regime. In 1995, Khashoggi traveled to the Sudanese capital Khartoum to convince the terrorist leader to return home, but he failed.
THE KING IS THE LAW
Much of what goes on in the kingdom can only be understood if you have access to information from the innermost circle of power. Why the royal family supports particular religious leaders inside the country and certain militant groups outside the country, while persecuting others, for example.
Prince Turki Bin Faisal, Former head of Saudi secret service and author (2015): Jamal Khashoggi, who worked for Turki Bin Faisal for quite some time, had a deep understanding of the royal family’s secrets. Long considered a trusted insider, he was close to many influential people.
The fact that Khashoggi had access to such insights made him a valuable contact for analysts, diplomats, and journalists. He acted as an intermediary and served the kingdom well in that role. Yet the very moment he left the sphere of loyal insiders, he became a dangerous player for exactly that same reason.
When I returned to Riyadh in the fall of 2017, I reached out to Jamal as usual, suggesting we meet over coffee. “I’ve moved to the US,” he wrote back. “It became suffocating. I was banned from writing and was afraid it would get worse, so I’ve decided to go into exile.”
What he didn’t mention was that his wife had remained in Saudi Arabia. When she tried to join him in the US, she was told at the airport that she was barred from leaving the country. Since Jamal couldn’t return to the kingdom for security reasons, the regime forced the couple to divorce.
I experienced the news of his death very differently in Saudi Arabia than I would have had I been in Europe. The situation felt horrifying. For weeks, the state denied any responsibility for the hideous murder. I became painfully aware of the despotism under which people lived. I asked myself what was next for Saudi dissidents and nonconformists. The CIA was certain that the crown prince had ordered the killing personally. If that was true, what would it mean when this young man assumes the throne?
What happened sent a clear message to anyone who might wish harm to the king and his powerful son. In essence, it read: Nobody is safe from us. All the power is with us. No matter where you are in the world, we’ll get you.
In the days after Jamal’s murder, my Saudi friends remained silent, lowering their gaze when I brought the story up. They changed the subject. “It’s too dangerous. Here, everyone knows someone in prison. The West is getting worked up about Khashoggi’s execution,” a friend of mine commented. “Yet there are so many Khashoggis.”
If you haven’t grown up in an absolute monarchy, it’s hard for you to imagine what crime Khashoggi could have committed to deserve such punishment. For most Saudis, the incident makes perfect sense. Jamal Khashoggi was once at the top, he was one of them, as it was explained to me in Riyadh. “He betrayed them. That’s why he was executed.”
Khashoggi’s case demands we accept that no reliable legal standards apply in this country beyond the facade offered by impressive institutions and government officials. There is no possibility of an impartial investigation, no independent public prosecutor, or judge. In short, the king is the law.
“IMMEDIATE RETALIATION” “I am envious that you can spend time in Saudi Arabia,” said Jamal, when we talked on the phone in the fall of 2017. He was homesick. It was painful for him to leave his old life, his family, and his work behind. Friends had warned him he would be in danger if he stayed. Countless activists and acquaintances had already been imprisoned.
He was banned not only from writing his weekly column in the al-Watan newspaper, but also from publishing in al-Hayat, which is widely read in nearly every Arab country. Khashoggi was even banned from using social media.
Of course he knew he was in danger. Critics are usually warned once or twice. Those who ignore the warnings are banned from traveling and quickly end up in prison. After Khashoggi went into exile, one of his friends, a wealthy Riyadh businessman, confirmed that “Jamal would have gone to prison if he had stayed here.”
According to Khashoggi himself, he ended up on the crown prince’s blacklist because he criticized the way King Salman’s regime had sucked up to the Trump administration. There’s no space for public discussion anymore, Jamal once said. “Since MBS became crown prince, they retaliate immediately.”
After Khashoggi’s disappearance, the Saudi stock exchange, the Tadawul, crashed. There was a massive sell-off by foreign investors wanting to pull out of the country. This was a direct result of the horrifying news about Khashoggi, and it infuriated the Saudis. An acquaintance told me he lost 30,000 riyals (about $8,000) in a single day. Like many middle-class Saudis, the fortythree-year-old family man had invested in big state companies, particularly in Sabic, the huge petrochemical corporation.
A MAFIA-STYLE ORGANIZATION?
In late October 2018, hundreds of international investors had planned to travel to Riyadh for a big conference—after being personally invited by the crown prince. The event was nicknamed “Desert Davos,” yet, in the aftermath of the Khashoggi killing, many business leaders canceled. The CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, called off his attendance, as did Ford chief executive William Clay Ford and Siemens boss Joe Kaeser, who came under tremendous public pressure to withdraw from the event. CNN said that it could no longer be a media partner under such circumstances. New York Times writers fell in line and canceled their flights to Riyadh.
Appearing on 60 Minutes, President Trump vowed “severe punishment” if it was confirmed that Saudi agents were involved in Khashoggi’s murder. He didn’t specify what such a punishment would entail, but one could imagine sanctions or an arms embargo. Trump’s threats didn’t last long. Two hours later, the president explained that he had phoned the Saudi king and crown prince. He claimed that both had vehemently denied having any knowledge of the operation. This is when freestyling Trump hatched a theory that lets everyone off the hook: “rogue killers,” assassins from within the security apparatus, might have acted independently.
Trump didn’t want to endanger trade with Saudi Arabia, especially their flourishing arms deals. The weapons trade secures jobs for Americans. He said out loud what a lot of other people are thinking: his predecessor, Barack Obama, acted no differently, but he used a more diplomatic choice of words. Obama distanced himself politically from Saudi Arabia but sold the kingdom weapons all the same—to the tune of $115 billion, more than any previous US president.
A short while later, the US Senate passed a resolution naming Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the murder. The US imposed sanctions upon seventeen Saudis, with Saud al-Qahtani at the top of the list. The crown prince remained unscathed.
British writer John Bradley worked with Jamal Khashoggi at various Saudi newspapers. Bradley has deep insights into the mechanisms of state power. In his view, the House of Saud operates “like the mafia.” The ruling clan follows its own laws exclusively, and has no scruples. According to Bradley, Khashoggi agreed to join the club. Unfortunately for him, “it’s well known that the mafia only makes lifetime contracts,” Bradley said following the death of his colleague. Jamal tried to leave the organization and paid the ultimate price.
KHASHOGGI OPPOSED THE ABSOLUTE MONARCHY
The crown prince’s lack of self-control is now well documented beyond the Saudi royal court. It’s not hard to imagine how MBS reacted when Khashoggi wrote about his political failures in columns and essays in respected international newspapers: the war in Yemen, the Qatar crisis, the alleged kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Khashoggi and MBS had diverging visions on how Saudi Arabia should be governed. The crown prince defended his absolute power. Khashoggi hoped for democratic transformation. When Jamal spoke with Western colleagues, though, they probably didn’t exactly share his same vision of democracy.
Khashoggi’s coworker Bradley claims that the journalist never dreamt of a pluralistic democracy modeled after the West. For him, “secularism was the enemy,” Bradley writes. Khashoggi’s ideology was close to that of the Muslim Brotherhood, which strives for a republic based on Sharia law. He believed that such a form of government should replace the absolute monarchy in Riyadh.
In exile, Khashoggi founded a political movement called Democracy for the Arab World Now, with the optimistic acronym DAWN. The group was supposed to grow into a formidable political movement by banding together moderate Islamists.
His ideas were popular. He had 1.7 million Twitter followers. Through his various channels of influence, he had grown into a political force in his own right. For many, his ideas provided a viable alternative to those of Crown Prince MBS. The House of Saud fears nothing more than having to share its power with the people. From their point of view, there were plenty of reasons to make Khashoggi disappear.