Pictures of Jamal Khashoggi during the demonstration in front of Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, 25 October 2018. Picture by Depo Photos/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist, has sent shockwaves around the world and highlighted the mendacity of the Kingdom he once called home.
The liberal press has painted Khashoggi as a pioneering reformer and uncompromising dissident who was killed for cutting too close to the bone in his criticisms of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In response, some US right-wing outlets have described Khashoggi as an Islamist, an al-Qaeda sympathiser and a secret Muslim Brotherhood operative, killed because MBS saw him as an extremist threat. The characterisation fits neatly into the Saudi Kingdom’s own narrative. In a phone call with the White House, Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman described Khashoggi as a dangerous Islamist and Brotherhood member.
Meanwhile, the US and UK governments have engaged in the obligatory moral denunciations while also hang-wringing about what to do. The Saudi war on Yemen continues apace with US and British-backing, and despite some hot rhetoric, no steps have been taken to “punish” the Saudi regime.
Both sides are wrong. The conservative media has cherry-picked Khashoggi’s background to depict him as a militant Islamist, a picture which simply goes too far. But equally, the liberal portrait of him as a reformist democrat is one-sided, misleading and self-serving.
The truth about Khashoggi is more complex.
Me and Khashoggi
Just over a decade ago, I was in discussion with Jamal Khashoggi to explore the prospect of doing my next book on Saudi Arabia. At the time I was represented by the literary agency Curtis Brown and Khashoggi worked for the Saudi government as a media aide based out of the Saudi embassy in London.
He wanted to find a journalist who could travel to the Kingdom and be granted unprecedented access to officials and documents by authorities. The Saudis were keen to launch a PR offensive after widespread criticism of the Kingdom’s relationship to Islamist terrorists. The project would give them an opportunity to set the record straight and prove their innocence.
My agent thought it might be a good way to follow on from my previous work. My first book, The War on Freedom, argued that the Bush administration had sought to cover-up evidence of high-level Saudi support for the 9/11 operation – mine was among 99 books officially selected for use by the 9/11 Commissioners in their inquiry into the attacks.
I had documented not just evidence that the Saudis had overseen decades-long financing of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda as a sort of ‘protection racket’ – keep the money rolling to prevent the terrorists from targeting the Saudi Kingdom at home – but that much of this had gone on under the watchful eyes of the US and British governments. This was a ‘special relationship’ to keep the oil spigot on.
When my agent had first broached the idea to Khashoggi, the Saudis were supposed to see it as an opportunity to ‘tell their side of the story’ of events leading up to 9/11, through a journalist willing to listen. While I was open to the idea, I made clear to Khashoggi that my previous work had been highly critical of the Kingdom’s relationship to terrorism. I understood that their goal was to clear the Kingdom’s name, but I told him I’d have to follow wherever the evidence led, whether it extolled or incriminated the Kingdom, and would need complete editorial freedom.
The idea was discussed enthusiastically at first, but after some back-and-forth exploration of what the Saudis were hoping to achieve, it quickly became clear that Khashoggi wasn’t interested in onboarding a writer who wanted to dig between the lines. Khashoggi lost interest, and the project died.
Khashoggi, Prince Turki and 9/11
In the end, Khashoggi’s bid to rehabilitate the Kingdom’s public image was helped out in other ways. The 9/11 Commission’s final report went out of its way to absolve the Saudis of direct culpability in the attacks. “Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al-Qaeda funding, but we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organisation,” the report said.
But there remain strong grounds to doubt the veracity of these findings, and allegations of high-level Saudi complicity in terrorism have not gone away. Even former 9/11 Commissioners have spoken on record about how they believed their entire investigation had been compromised by the White House, accusing the US government of wanting to “cover up” the full story of 9/11.
Earlier this year, a US lawsuit on behalf of families of the 9/11 victims linking Saudi officials to the 9/11 attacks was cleared to proceed by US District Judge George Daniels in New York.
“The [Saudi] Ministry of Islamic Affairs in the United States and other parts of the world had government officials who conspired with al-Qaeda to support them and to support the 9/11 hijackers," said Andrew Maloney, a lawyer for the 9/11 victims' families.
"The 9/11 Commission back in 2003 and 2004 either didn’t pursue, didn’t want to pursue, covered up for the Saudis or just never got around to finishing the investigation. That’s where we picked it up, and we’ve collected a lot more information and evidence since then.”
Since Khashoggi’s horrifying assassination in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the international press has painted him as an outspoken and brave reformer, a journalist who was targeted by the Kingdom because his criticisms of its failures were just too much for the regime to tolerate.
This is not an entirely false narrative, but it is highly selective. Many journalists who knew Khashoggi have spoken of his aspirations for democracy in the Middle East. Yet for most of his career Khashoggi was not a reformer at all, but an insider embedded at the heart of the Saudi establishment. By framing him purely as a dissident, the press has obscured the real motivations behind his murder.
At the time of my brief discussions with him, Khashoggi happened to work for a man at the heart of some of the issues I had been investigating: he was a media aide to Prince Turki al-Faisal, then Saudi Ambassador to London and later Washington, and previously Saudi intelligence chief for 25 years before he abruptly left the post just prior to the 9/11 attacks.
It was Prince Turki as former head of intelligence who brokered the Saudis’ fateful deal with al-Qaeda, according to documents and testimony from Taliban insiders cited by Vanity Fair journalists Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan. In their book Eleventh Day (2012), they report that under al-Faisal’s deal, as early as 1995 the Saudi royal family paid “protection money” to Osama bin Laden on condition that he avoided targeting the Kingdom.
The NSA was closely monitoring the operation, which saw hundreds of millions of dollars channelled to bin Laden through philanthropic activity. As I previously reported for Middle East Eye, US, British, German and French intelligence were intimately familiar with the Saudi funding streams to al-Qaeda militants, many of which also had direct ties to MBS’ father, the incumbent King Salman. These intelligence agencies had concluded that in the 1990s, Salman controlled with an “iron fist” the key financial operations of a range of charities (such as the Saudi High Commission, the Third World Relief Agency and the International Islamic Relief Organisation) which had been found systematically diverting hundreds of millions of dollars to al-Qaeda militants. Several 9/11 hijackers had trained in camps funded by this cash.
By some accounts, Prince Turki al-Faisal’s relationship with bin Laden continued up to 9/11. According to the French daily Le Figaro, French intelligence sources claimed that two months before 9/11, bin Laden was flown to the American hospital in Dubai for kidney treatment under Prince Turki’s patronage, where the al-Qaeda chief met CIA officials.
Although denied by both Washington and Riyadh, Summers and Swan corroborated the story from credible sources who “described the visit independently, in detail, and at the same time”. They also interviewed Alain Chouet, a French DGSE intelligence chief at the time of the alleged meeting: “Did Chouet credit the account of the contact in Dubai? He replied, ‘Yes.’ Did the DGSE have knowledge at the time that CIA officers met with bin Laden? ‘Yes,’ Chouet said. ‘Before 9/11,’ Chouet observed. ‘It was not a scoop for us – we weren’t surprised.'”
If accurate, why were the Saudis and Americans attempting to court the al-Qaeda terror chief months before he executed the 9/11 attacks?
Today, it has been largely forgotten that through much of the 1990s, the Clinton and Bush administrations had covertly sponsored the Taliban in Afghanistan, despite it harbouring bin Laden’s network, while the group was negotiating multi-million dollar pipeline contracts with US companies Unocal and Enron. At one of these meetings in the summer of 2001, Bush administration negotiators warned the Taliban that they would face US “bombs” by October if they refused to comply with a US-brokered plan to get them to form a federal government with the Northern Alliance, making the Trans-Afghan pipeline possible. Former French intelligence officer Jean-Charles Brisard speculated that the 9/11 attacks may have been a pre-emptive strike prompted by US threats.
So if Saudi Arabia has been complicit in the expansion of Islamist terrorism, questions need to be asked about the West’s role in this complicity.
Khashoggi’s former boss, Prince Turki, had indeed surfaced repeatedly in allegations made in earlier versions of the US 9/11 lawsuit against Saudi Arabia. Legal papers from the case, described by The Observer in 2003, positioned Prince Turki at the heart of al-Qaeda’s financing structure. Prince Turki also admitted that six Britons jailed by the kingdom while he was intelligence chief had been tortured.
Khashoggi himself played a direct role in Prince Turki’s shenanigans, having befriended bin Laden in the 1980s. Though he disavowed bin Laden’s turn to terrorism, as veteran Middle East reporter John R. Bradley points out, it was Khashoggi himself who had been “employed by the Saudi intelligence services to try to persuade bin Laden to make peace with the Saudi royal family.” Khashoggi was “the only non-royal Saudi who had the beef on the royals’ intimate dealing with al Qaeda in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks.”
Apologetics for atrocities
No wonder Khashoggi didn’t want to take the project with me any further. His boss was implicated in issues that I was interested in corroborating. And so was MBS’ father.
Needless to say, at this time, Khashoggi did not challenge the torture, terror-financing and draconian crushing of dissent that went on inside the kingdom. Despite publishing some mild criticisms of Salafism in various editorial roles, he remained a loyal supporter of the Saudi monarchy as an institution.
Even after becoming ‘free’ of the Kingdom in a self-imposed exile, he never discussed the Kingdom’s dubious relationship with terrorism – and while focusing his criticisms on MBS, he studiously avoided the latter’s biggest weak spot: the evidence of his father’s historic complicity in terror financing. Bradley argues that Khashoggi’s intimate knowledge of Saudi dealings with bin Laden up to 9/11 “would have been crucial if he had escalated his campaign to undermine the crown prince.”
And even Khashoggi’s more trenchant criticism of the Kingdom was a major departure from a long record of apologetics. As Rula Jebreal observes in Newsweek, “He has been described as a dissident in the weeks following his disappearance. But until 18 months ago, he had been loyal to the official Saudi line on every major issue, from Yemen to Syria to state-sanctioned sectarianism inside the kingdom.”
In January 2016, the UN warned that the dropping of cluster bombs by the Saudi military across civilian areas in Yemen could be a war crime. At this time, Khashoggi – glorified now as a brave critic of Saudi Arabia’s colossal violence during the Yemen war – whitewashed the war and defended the use of cluster bombs. In an interview with Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan, Khashoggi justified the Saudi war in Yemen as a bid to defend the “freedom” of Yemenis from an Iran-backed Houthi “dictatorship”; lauded Saudi’ regional foreign policies as designed to “stand with the people”, and dismissed reports of massive Saudi bombing of Yemeni civilians saying that “cluster bombs had not been used against civilians”. At this time, the UN had recorded just over 8,100 civilian casualties.
That year, Khashoggi wrote a column in the Saudi-funded London-based newspaper al-Hayat calling on Sunnis to band together and “defend themselves as a sect.” This followed a longer tradition. Depicted now as an avid enthusiast for the Arab Spring, in 2011 he supported the Saudi-led military crackdown on the largely Shi’a demonstrations in Bahrain, inspired by the Arab Spring, and supported MBS’ execution of Shi’a cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in 2016.
Al-Nimr had been executed along with 46 other prisoners on terrorism charges. In reality, al-Nimr had simply played a key role in Shi’a-led protests in the al-Qatif region of eastern Saudi Arabia, calling for political reform and elections. But Khashogghi insisted that this was sedition.
“It is a clear message to anybody who wants to overthrow the government,” he said. “Nimr openly called for overthrow of the system and allegiance to Wilayit al-Faqih, [Iran's Supreme Leader]. That amounts as treason by any democratic country,” he continued. “[His execution] is not about his view as a Shi’a; it’s about his call to overthrow the government and swear allegiance to a foreign leader.”
In short, Khashoggi used Sheikh al-Nimr’s minority orientation as a Shi’a to demonise him as an agent of Iran and criminalise his calls for democratisation as a treasonous threat to the kingdom.
The brutal execution of 46 people in 2016 did not spur Khashoggi to dissent. The clue to the uptick in Khashoggi’s criticisms of the Saudi regime over the last 18 months is in the closing line of one of his Post columns:
“I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.”
Describing the arrest of 30 people by Saudi authorities in September 2017, Khashoggi explained: “Some of the arrested are good friends of mine, and the effort represents the public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to express opinions contrary to those of my country’s leadership… Several others, myself included, are in self-exile and could face arrest upon returning home.”
Khashoggi’s antipathy toward the Kingdom was, then, a result of MBS’ ruthless shake-up of the establishment, rather than a principled desire for democracy. He longed for a return to the ‘old’ Saudi Arabia. The one before Muhammad bin Salman, before his friends in the monarchy had been arrested, when Saudi had not always been “as it is now”.
A political threat to the Saudis – and the West?
The ‘old’ kingdom, though, was not substantially different from the new – it had head-chopping, internal repression, and sectarianism. The distinguishing feature of MBS’ regime was that, in the Crown Prince’s eagerness to consolidate his power, he had moved against his potential rivals in the royal family itself, many of whom were close associates of Khashoggi.
In this context, Khashoggi’s vocal stance against MBS was deeply political. Khashoggi was an insider whose criticisms channelled the perceptions of others inside the monarchy. The assassination of Khashoggi must be understood, then, not as the Kingdom seeking to crush the dissent of a strident independent journalist – but rather to extinguish somebody who was once an integral part of the Saudi royal establishment, but who was now challenging the authority and integrity of the Crown Prince.
In other words, Khashoggi was the casualty of a wider war inside the Saudi Kingdom between different factions of the ruling elite.
We can only speculate about what specific actions might have prompted MBS’ security apparatus to finger Khashoggi as someone who needed to be killed, and in such a brazen and incompetent way.
Among them is that Khashoggi was planning to upscale his political activism in a way that MBS might have perceived as favouring rivals Qatar and Turkey. One of the main partners for his Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) project was the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), which in 2014 was listed by Saudi ally, the UAE, as a “terrorist” group.
CAIR, an American-Muslim advocacy organisation, was eventually quietly removed from the list – US authorities have never had a problem with the group. More relevant for this story is the fact that the listing was part of a wider draconian effort by the UAE to blacklist any organisation remotely connected to political activities that could be construed as undermining the Gulf status quo, by accusing them of fronting for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The listing reveals less about the nature of CAIR than it does the paranoia of the Gulf regimes. By partnering with CAIR, Khashoggi signalled a relationship with political activism equated by the Saudis and its Gulf allies with terrorists.
A close friend of Khashoggi, Azzam Tamimi – a UK Muslim Brotherhood leader who has previously endorsed suicide bombing and has ties to Hamas – confirmed that the DAWN project represented “both Islamists and liberals”.
As well-connected to the Saudi establishment as he was, partnering up with the likes of Tamimi meant that the Saudis likely saw Khashoggi’s political activities as posing an unacceptable move which, if left unchecked could encourage others to do the same. Khashoggi was not a hardcore Islamist, but he was willing to mobilise his Islamist connections to challenge MBS.
As such, his assassination was not about fighting Islamism or terrorism. Whatever Islamist connections Khashoggi had developed had been done precisely under the auspices of the Saudi establishment – if MBS was really concerned with fighting Islamism, he might look to his own father, King Salman. This was about MBS consolidating his drive to neutralise an entire faction within the Saudi establishment itself, and teaching them the ultimate lesson: look at what happens to one of your own when they dare to challenge my agenda.
Graham Fuller, former senior CIA official and Vice-Chair of the US government’s National Intelligence Council, says that the assassination fits into a pattern of Saudi Arabia’s “more aggressive and adventurous” foreign policy due to heightened geopolitical competition over leadership of the Muslim world.
But the real question, as yet unanswered, is how much did the US and Britain actually know about the plot.
The Washington Post has interviewed a US intelligence source who confirms that US intelligence knew of the Saudi plan to capture Khashoggi and extradite him back to Saudi Arabia, picked up via electronic intercepts of communications between Saudi officials. It wasn’t clear whether there was intelligence available that Khashoggi might be harmed, in which case there would have been a duty to warn him. Nevertheless, the intelligence was disseminated throughout the US government and was contained in reports that are routinely available to people working on US policy toward Saudi Arabia.
The revelations prompted over twenty US Congressional representatives to write to the Director of National Intelligence demanding answers on “whether Mr. Khashoggi was in fact contacted about the credible threat to his life and liberty posed by the Saudi plot to capture him” as well as “the precise date on which any arm of the US intelligence community first became aware of the Saudi plan to detain Mr. Khashoggi.”
A report in the Sunday Express goes even further, citing British intelligence sources confirming that GCHQ picked up intercepts showing that a “member of the royal circle” had ordered that Khashoggi be abducted and taken back to Saudi Arabia. The sources said that the orders had “left the door open” for ‘other actions’ should the journalist prove to be troublesome, indicating that the British knew that he might be harmed. The British reportedly urged the Saudis to call off the operation.
Neither the Americans nor the British chose to warn Khashoggi.
The Express report also cited another possible reason for the assassination. A close friend of Khashoggi told the paper that the journalist was about to obtain “documentary evidence” proving Saudi Arabia’s use of chemical weapons in Yemen. “All I can tell you is that the next thing I heard, he was missing,” said the friend, an unnamed Middle East academic.
The Express and Post accounts do corroborate one another, and lend credence to the inference that the US and British governments had advanced warning of the Saudi operation against Khashoggi. Despite their reservations, it seems, they did nothing. The question, then, is why did they do nothing?
The sudden turn in Khashoggi’s career in the year and a half before his death was not that of a liberal reformer, but that of an establishment insider determined to use his considerable high-level contacts inside and outside Saudi Arabia to undermine the agenda of Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman – an agenda strongly supported by the Trump administration and May government. In doing so, Khashoggi had begun working with groups and interests tied to the Kingdom’s historic enemies, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Khashoggi not only had unparalleled connections inside the Kingdom, but with Brotherhood activists across the region opposed to Saudi designs. And he knew perhaps more than any other Saudi non-royal about the Kingdom’s sordid dealings with terrorists, much of which had occurred for decades under the purview of western intelligence agencies.
Could his discovery of evidence for Saudi Arabia’s use of chemical weapons in Yemen be the straw that broke the camel’s back? And did US and British intelligence do nothing because they worried that Khashoggi posed not just an unprecedented threat to the Kingdom, but to their own interests in the Kingdom as well?
We may never know. But one thing is clear. With Khashoggi’s murder, many secrets that both the Kingdom and its western allies wanted buried, will stay that way.