How Jamal Khashoggi got caught in the crossfire between two rival nations
News of Jamal Khashoggi’s death has reverberated around the world. But, as Borzou Daragahi explains, at the heart of his murder is the intertwined story of a prince and a populist
Jamal Khashoggi felt safe in Turkey, comfortable enough to buy an apartment in the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul and make plans to partially settle down there. Turkey was not only his Saudi clan’s ancestral home, but also the nation of his future wife, Hatice Cengiz.
The 59-year-old Saudi journalist also felt an affinity for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, despite what critics describe as Turkey’s authoritarian drift, and appreciated his Justice and Development Party’s brand of populist, Islamist-rooted politics far more than that of Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“He felt real simpatico with Erdogan,” says Maggie Mitchellhe Salem, a friend of Khashoggi. “There was some kind of bond there. In how he viewed Erdogan, it was with an eye towards what he had been during his earlier political career. Jamal saw there was some of that still there, in a way many of us don’t. That’s how he was, though. Jamal was always full of hope.”
There was just one crimp in Khashoggi’s plans. To marry Cengiz, Turkish law required Khashoggi obtain what is called a Certificate of Celibacy, a document confirming that a person is either single, divorced, or widowed. That meant flying back home and getting a document from his own country’s civil registry, a trip to Saudi that would likely land the dissident in jail.
The other option was to obtain it from a Saudi diplomatic mission in Turkey – the embassy in Ankara, or the consulate in Istanbul, which in normal traffic, is only about a 30 minute taxi ride away from Zeytinburnu. He decided to go for it. He walked in unannounced on 28 September to request the certificate, and was told to return the following week.
The moment he walked inside that Friday, Khashoggi set in motion a series of events that would lead to his death on 2 October by a Saudi kill team dispatched from Riyadh. Sources told The Independent he was murdered in a gruelling torture session and interrogation about his personal connections, overseen via streaming internet video from Riyadh.
On Thursday, Saudi prosecutors announced that based on evidence presented by Turks, they had concluded Khashoggi’s killing was “premeditated”, suggesting that the team had flown to Istanbul with the express purpose of snuffing him out. Saudis did not disclose who gave the order to kill him.
The crisis over the killing continues to reverberate around the region, potentially changing the political dynamics of the Middle East. And it is one which threatens to weaken a political dynasty in the Arabian peninsula that is the cornerstone for the US strategy while strengthening the hand of Erdogan, who in some ways represents the opposite political brand as the Saudi royals.
“Jamal was a target of opportunity in Istanbul because they couldn’t get him elsewhere,” says W Robert Pearson, a former US ambassador to Turkey, now a fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “His attacks on the way the crown prince was operating made him an enemy in Riyadh and his political approach made him a friend in Turkey.”
Khashoggi’s murder, the subsequent uproar and investigation, and the ongoing geopolitical convulsions, are at the heart of an intertwined story of two world leaders, a prince and a populist, as well as an idealistic man caught in the machinery of political rivalries across the Middle East in battlefields that include Egypt, Libya, Syria, Morocco, as well as the Arabian peninsula.
Few know yet what was said or done in Riyadh when Khashoggi walked into the consulate in the Levent district of Istanbul that initial Friday. But alarm bells must have gone off in a capital seething with mistrust and intrigues amid the rise of a young crown prince with big ambitions and many opponents. A Saudi attache immediately boarded a plane from Istanbul to Riyadh, returning that Monday with two other Saudis. Together they began scouting out rural and wooded areas around the city. The following day 15 more Saudis arrived on private jets, with some heading to the consulate just before Khashoggi’s scheduled arrival.
Saudi officials have admitted there exists a standing order to try to lure dissidents such as Khashoggi back to the kingdom.
Saudi critics and human rights activists say those charged with the task were given permission to use any means necessary, including the use of deception, blackmail, drugs, and violence. The crown prince’s entourage had already tried to draw back numerous dissidents, including Ottawa-based student Omar Abdelaziz, whose family members have been jailed in Saudi Arabia in attempts to silence him or get him to return.
The 33-year-old crown prince, the favoured son of his father King Salman, has blown apart the consensus-based system of rule that spread power across the royal family branches, and put himself at the helm of almost all the country’s security apparatuses, moves that gave him more power but also more enemies, feeding into his paranoia.
Khashoggi, well-connected to journalists, scholars, and even policymakers in the Beltway, New York and London, was writing increasingly critical columns in The Washington Post in articles published in both Arabic and English, which proved to be more than a nuisance, but an actual threat to the crown prince’s plans to revamp the image of Saudi Arabia and strengthen relations with US institutions and government.
“The Post was blown away by the response in Arabic,” says a friend. “They had no idea there was going to be so much traffic.”
Karen Attiah, opinions editor at the paper, confirmed that “responses and traffic to our pieces published in Arabic over the last year outdid our expectation”, attributing it to Khashoggi’s popularity on social media.
The attention his columns generated must have rankled the ambitious crown prince, who sought to strengthen his hand in the region and the world. He also saw Turkey as more than just a rival, but an increasingly hostile force. As recently as March, the crown prince described Turkey as part of a “triangle of evil” that includes Saudi arch-rival Iran and hardline Islamist groups.
The crown prince or his adjutants might have calculated that even if Khashoggi disappeared and everyone suspected Saudi Arabia was behind it, relations were so bad with Turkey that he could afford alienating Ankara. What he certainly did not count on was a sophisticated surveillance system that detected the crime and a communications operation that helped turn Khashoggi into a global phenomenon and turn much of the world against the kingdom.
Turkey itself has suffered regional problems galore, chief among them the smouldering war in Syria, where Ankara seeks to remove separatist-minded Syrian Kurds backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, first to fight Isis but now as a potential hedge against Iran.
But more generally, Turkey is fighting off a rolling back of its influence across the Middle East. Since the 2013 coup in Egypt, Turkey had seen Muslim Brotherhood allies across the region crushed and disenfranchised by a coalition that included Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Bahrain.
They had not only supported and helped crush Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which had led to the country’s first and only freely elected government, they sought to sideline like-minded groups and figures in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, Qatar, and Palestine.
All are lands formerly under Ottoman influence or control, but also strongly swayed by the oil-rich Arabian peninsula, which espouses a puritanical Wahhabi or Salafist version of Sunni Islam considered anathema in Turkey.
“Erdogan is a religious nationalist, and the Ottoman heritage no doubt inspires him greatly,” says HA Hellyer, a London-based scholar at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute. “Erdogan seeks to project Turkish influence in the region, and sees Riyadh under Mohammed bin Salman to be a problem in this regard.”
Turkey and Saudi Arabia are locked in a game of pure geopolitics masked by cultural and religious differences, another neglected overlay of tension and hostility atop the Iran-Saudi and Israeli-Arab conflicts that have also riven the region.
Turkey’s worries about the crown prince are manifold. He has pushed Saudi closer into the neo-conservative US camp than ever before, signing on to Donald Trump’s crusade against Iran, which Turkey opposes as potentially leading to yet another war on its border.
“Turkey has a flexible relationship with Iran and does not see it as destructive and destabilising as the Saudis see it,” says Nader Habibi, a specialist in Middle East economics and politics at Brandeis University.
Erdogan and his supporters also strongly oppose the Saudi-led war in Yemen. It is considered the worst ongoing humanitarian disaster in the world, and has rankled the conscience of pious Muslims who make up Erdogan’s base.
Turkey and Saudi both actively proselytise across the Muslim world and in Muslim communities in the west, lavishing funds on mosques and cultural centres. Saudi mosques are austere and sometimes featureless houses of worship. Turks build ornate Ottoman-era edifices with bulbous domes and colourful tiled surfaces.
The Saudi-Turkey rivalry dates back to the 18th century uprising by Wahhabi warlords who challenged Ottoman rule and marauded across the peninsula, smashing religious artefacts and shrines as idolatrous.
“Everyone seems to be so fixated on the Saudi-Iran business they’re missing the much bigger struggle between Turkey and Saudi for the soul and future of Sunni Islam,” says Graham Fuller, a former CIA officer specialised in Turkey.
But in the division between modern Saudi Arabia and Turkey, there is also a clash of political visions. The Saudi leadership sees the future of the region in stolid hereditary autocracies that keep the lid on homegrown extremists while fending off influence from Iran and its allies.
Erdogan and his Muslim Brotherhood-rooted allies across the region have a noisier, populist vision of governance, rooted in retail-level mass politics with an Islamic identity.
Turkey’s AK Party, Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, Tunisia’s Nahda, Yemen’s Eslah Party, Morocco’s Party of Justice and Development, and even Palestinian Hamas are all rooted in a similar brand of Islamist politics characterised by a stated commitment to public service, recruitment of party cadres from all walks of life, and the building up of grassroots political networks.
All have also frequently shown strong authoritarian tendencies. Months before the 2013 coup, Erdogan himself even warned Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, that he was courting disaster with his rigid ways. But the populist Islamists also pay lip service to democracy, and enthusiastically embrace electoral politics.
“The focus is on using elections and saying that Muslim societies must have political processes and that even non-Islamist parties must have a role,” says Habibi, of Brandeis. “Erdogan sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a moderate political force rather than a radical force that destabilises the region.”
Often the populist Islamists understand the dynamics and mechanics of grassroots politics too well for the military men and monarchs who have been in charge of the Middle East and North Africa, a tension that has resulted in violence over the decades, in Syria and Algeria as well as Egypt.
“Those who rely on the guns in their hands, those who rely on the power of the media cannot build democracy,” Erdogan had said, shortly after the coup in Egypt. “Democracy can only be built at the ballot box.”
Khashoggi had a strong affinity for the brand of Islamist-rooted populist politics practised by Erdogan and his allies, at least much more so than for the absolute monarchical rule of his own and other Arabian peninsula autocracies.
He was deeply inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, triggered by the self-immolation of a frustrated Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi, and saw them as a sign of hope. Khashoggi was crushed following the coup in Egypt. “Bouazizi was every young man in the Middle East and Jamal recognised that,” says Salem.
Once he moved to Washington in 2017 after fleeing the kingdom and the restrictions imposed on him, he appeared at forums sponsored by organisations and wrote for publications considered close to the Muslim Brotherhood, in addition to writing columns for The Washington Post. “The eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes,” he wrote in August in The Post.
By the summer of 2018, Khashoggi had grown increasingly despondent about his nation, and his articles had taken an even more critical turn. In dark conversations, he described Saudi Arabia becoming like North Korea.
Salem said he had received messages from a member of the Saudi advisory council about another figure who had been arrested. The council member, cowering inside Saudi, was afraid he was next.
“This really upset Jamal,” says Salem. “Someone might have said something at a dinner party and then it got back to the leadership and this guy was arrested.”
Even as he gave up on Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi also longed to be closer to the action. Istanbul, a commercial and cultural hub filled with residents and visitors from across the Arab world, seemed a good compromise. Though Turkey under Erdogan has jailed hundreds of journalists and dissidents, Khashoggi had cordial ties with figures close to the leadership and argued there was still some political space, especially for those working in Arabic or English instead of Turkish.
On 2 October, when he approached the Saudi consulate, and was patted down by security guards, Khashoggi knew that he had reason to be concerned. He knew that a sizeable number of Saudi dissidents and renegade royals had been lured, coaxed, or in some cases coerced back to the kingdom and had little doubt, based on the words and actions of the army of Twitter trolls the crown prince’s adjutant had deployed, that he was a prominent target. Since Mohammed bin Salman’s ascent to power, there have been numerous reports of renditions of regime critics back to the kingdom, but no reports of assassinations. He likely expected little more than a stern telling off or interrogation.
But Khashoggi, the optimist, couldn’t have in his wildest nightmares imagined what lay in store, that three Saudis had already scouted out what Turks describe as potential burial sites for his remains, and that members of a 15-man kill team that had already arrived in Istanbul were waiting to ambush him inside the building. Instead, he told his fiancee that he thought everything would be alright. The consulate had rung him shortly before noon to confirm his 1pm arrival.
Saudi intelligence officials revealed to Reuters several days ago that Khashoggi’s interrogation and torture before his death inside the consulate was live-streamed to Riyadh, with Saud al-Qahtani, the crown prince’s closest aide, possibly overseeing some of the confrontation.
A source briefed on the matter by an Arab intelligence official with knowledge of the investigation and a source briefed by a senior Turkish official confirmed that the interrogation was overseen by Riyadh.
Turkish officials speaking to local and international journalists say they managed to obtain audio or visual recordings of the session, which they have described as brutal, with Khashoggi being drugged and dismembered even while he was still breathing.
The Independent’s Arab source, who is not being identified for security reasons, said the session stretched on for two hours. It alternated between beating and questioning. The source briefed by a Turk said it was closer to an hour.
As Khashoggi was physically and verbally assaulted by men half his age, he was grilled about his associations abroad. He was asked about other dissident Saudi and Arab activists he had met with. He was questioned about his ongoing projects. His tormentors also pressed him on whether he had started on a memoir or kept any written account of a life that had included stints as an adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief.
The Independent was unable to corroborate the allegations made by the two sources or the Reuters report. The sources have both in the past provided accurate information about the Khashoggi case. A figure close to the Saudi leadership dismissed the interrogation narrative as “total BS”.
Erdogan probably learned of Khashoggi’s brutal murder shortly after it happened. Turkey’s intelligence likely had the building bugged, and even if the Saudi murderers swept the place for listening devices, Turks likely have access to sophisticated technology used by law enforcement and spy outfits to listen in on buildings from a few hundred metres away.
Erdogan and his advisers likely saw in the killing an attack on Turkey’s sovereignty but also on a fellow political traveller, someone who shared similar ideas and even mutual friends. An emotional politician who frequently speaks off-script and wades into crowds of working-class supporters, Erdogan undoubtedly felt a personal attachment to Khashoggi, who was after all of Turkish ethnic stock and was about to marry a Turk and make Istanbul his home. “Covering up such an atrocity will injure the conscience of all humanity,” he declared in a speech to parliament on Tuesday.
But Erdogan also sees in the killing and cover-up a potentially fatal mistake by the crown prince, whose vision of a “modern Islam” he sees as code for supplanting Turkish-backed political parties and figures across the region.
“The Turks don’t want the Saudis to blunt the impact of the Muslim Brotherhood by coming up with a modified form of Wahhabism,” says Pearson, the former US ambassador to Turkey.
From the start it was clear that Turkey had a lot of dirt on the crown prince. Possibly aided by a new communications team retrofitted into the presidency after decades under a prime minister, Turks masterfully launched a war of leaks that steadily eroded Saudi credibility.
There was the day of the revelation, when anonymous Turkish officials began whispering to Reuters and other news organisations that they believed Khashoggi was dead. There was the day of the bone saw, when The New York Times cited an unnamed official likening the gruesome scene inside the consulate to Pulp Fiction.
There was the day of the 15, when Turkish newspaper Sabah published the photos and names of the kill squad that flew into Istanbul to murder Khashoggi. There was the day of the black vans. The day of the Mercedes. The day of the imposter, with photos and videos released showing a 57-year-old operative, wearing Khashoggi’s clothes and a fake beard, Saudis included in the kill team to throw off investigators.
There was the day of the scouting operation, with leaked footage showing Saudi operatives a day before the murder visiting remote wooded sites on Istanbul’s outskirts. Each leak undermined an element of the Saudi narrative, forcing it to constantly change its story and confess to ever deeper and more sordid levels of criminal behaviour.
The crown prince had spent tens of millions of dollars to deploy scores of high-brow public relations strategists to revamp the image of Saudi Arabia abroad. But all the crown prince’s crisis-management teams and his flacks couldn’t counter the power of the Khashoggi narrative, as trickled out by the Turkish populist with a keen ear to the ground and an instinctive understanding of media.
“Turning the screws on the crown prince in this fashion using US media must be delicious for Erdogan,” says Aaron Stein, a Turkey and Middle East specialist at the Atlantic Council. “And of course, the Saudis know that it’s the Turks doing this.”
Turkey had already begun reaping the benefits of the crown prince’s erratic behaviour, drawing Qatar into its ranks after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain imposed a blockade on the small gas-rich country. Kuwait and Oman, too, have begun looking to Turkey as a counterweight to the crown prince’s unpredictability and adventurism.
But now the crown prince was having his wings clipped inside the kingdom and out, with western countries already talking about imposing sanctions on Saudi Arabia and murmurs of discontent among royals already alienated by his abuse, imprisonment and sidelining of rival royals. It remains unclear whether the crown prince will be replaced or whether the blows to his reputation will undermine his alliance with the Trump administration or even imperil his status as heir to the Saudi throne.
But already there are signs that Turkey is winning geopolitical concessions from Saudi Arabia.
In his speech at a major Riyadh economic forum on Wednesday, the crown prince went out of his way to praise Turkey and Erdogan, and even made a conciliatory remark towards Qatar. And before the speech, the crown prince rang Erdogan and vowed to get to the bottom of the Khashoggi affair.
Despite their differences, Turkey and Saudi have strong commercial ties and mutual interests. At the very least Erdogan can use the matter to push the young prince to be more deferential towards him.
“It may be a new start of good relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” says Vehbi Baysun, a specialist in Turkey-Gulf relations at Ibn Haldun University in Istanbul. “Relations went down and suffered a lot, over Syria, over the Muslim Brotherhood, over the US, over Yemen.”
Many originally thought Erdogan wanted to use the Khashoggi murder to knock the crown prince off the chessboard. But a chastened crown prince beholden to Erdogan may put the president in a stronger position to exact other concessions.
Taking money from Saudi Arabia to smooth over the matter would damage Erdogan’s reputation in Turkey and abroad. But Erdogan might calculate that he could have his cake and eat it too. Getting Saudi Arabia to relieve pressure on Qatar might result in a windfall from the gas-rich country. Convincing Riyadh and Washington to pull the plug on the Kurdish experiment in northern Syria would please Turkish nationalists. And convincing the crown prince to get Egypt and the UAE to ease pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups would help Turkey retain influence across the region, as well as honour Khashoggi’s ideals, and his hopes for democracy in the Arab world.
“Jamal was a Saudi champion of the Arab Spring,” says Salem. “And that’s where he ran afoul of the regime.”