Opinion: Khashoggi’s horrifying final seconds
Washington — At 1:14 on the afternoon of Oct. 2, 2018, a special-operations team waiting for Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul was told he had arrived. Just 25 minutes later, the Washington Post contributing columnist was dead, and a noise that Turkish authorities later described as a bone saw could be heard.
A year after Khashoggi’s killing, Saudi Arabia still hasn’t provided a clear explanation of what happened. But Saudi, U.S. and European sources, amplifying a June report by U.N. investigator Agnes Callamard, helped reconstruct the events leading to the shocking murder of Khashoggi, my colleague and friend.
The Saudi prosecution of this crime remains “episodic, haphazard and ad hoc,” a State Department official told me, but most of the facts are hiding in plain sight. This is a murder story that hasn’t died for a simple reason: It describes a macabre plot by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saud al-Qahtani, his media and covert-operations adviser in the royal court, to silence a brave critic.
MBS, as the crown prince is known, has offered a general statement of responsibility. “It happened under my watch. I get all the responsibility, because it happened under my watch,” he told Martin Smith of PBS in a December interview that was released last week. He gave a similar interview to CBS’s “60 Minutes” that was broadcast Sunday.
What happened on the way to Khashoggi’s horrifying final seconds? The journalist’s criticisms had angered MBS and Qahtani for more than a year, and U.S. and Saudi sources say the two began talking in 2017 about ways to muzzle him. But the operation that led to his murder in Istanbul began Sept. 28, 2018, when Khashoggi first visited the consulate there to inquire about legal arrangements for marrying his Turkish fiancée.
MBS’ team moved quickly. The afternoon of Sept. 28, according to Callamard’s report, a Saudi security officer in Istanbul called Maher Mutreb, an intelligence officer who worked for the crown prince and Qahtani. The security officer explained that Khashoggi would return to Istanbul on Oct. 2 to complete his paperwork, providing a fortuitous opportunity to confront “one of the people sought” in Qahtani’s campaign against dissenters.
Later that evening, the consul general in Istanbul talked with a colleague in Riyadh who told him that a “top secret mission” was underway, Callamard reported, based on a recording of the call.
The formal order for the Istanbul operation came from Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, deputy chief of Saudi intelligence. Assiri told the Saudi court on Jan. 31 that “he had ordered the team to convince Mr. Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia, but had never ordered the use of force,” Callamard wrote.
The authorization to kill Khashoggi, if that became necessary, came in a second order, from Qahtani, a Saudi source with contacts in MBS’ palace told me. The Saudi prosecutor himself has alleged that Qahtani “met with the ‘negotiation’ team in advance of the mission and sought Mr. Khashoggi’s return, saying that he was a ‘threat to national security,'” according to the U.N. report. But Qahtani has ignored the Saudi prosecutor’s request to testify, the Saudi source said.
Mutreb and his team arrived in Istanbul on a private jet from Riyadh at 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 2. Drafted at the last minute was Dr. Salah Tubaigy, a forensic expert who had experience dissecting bodies. After checking into their hotel, the team went to the consulate to wait.
In the hour before Khashoggi’s arrival, Mutreb and Tubaigy talked about what they would do. A book by Turkish journalists who have reviewed consulate surveillance tapes says Mutreb advised: “We will first tell him that we are taking him to Riyadh. If he fails to comply, we will kill him here and get rid of the body,” according to an English translation.
A grisly discussion followed in which Tubaigy explained the dissection and disposal: “Joints will be separated. … If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished,” Callamard wrote, quoting the tape.
“We will have to take you back,” Mutreb told Khashoggi when he arrived, according to the tape. He ordered Khashoggi to text his son Salah in the kingdom to say that he would be away for a while. Khashoggi refused, and Mutreb warned him: “If you don’t help us you know what will happen in the end.”
Khashoggi refused to go quietly. “Are you going to give me drugs?” he protested. Then the tape records a conversation turning to struggle, perhaps as he’s being sedated. Someone asks, “Did he sleep?” and a voice urges, “Keep pushing.” There’s a gasping sound, probably after a bag is placed over Khashoggi’s head, then silence. And then the sound of bones being cut.
What does Qahtani say about whether the crown prince authorized these actions? We don’t know, because he has never been compelled to testify in the Saudi trial; Qahtani was fired from his job in the royal court, but a U.S. official says he lives comfortably and continues to advise some of his former colleagues. MBS, embraced by President Donald Trump, travels the world as if the murder never happened.
But perhaps we can be guided by a Twitter message that Qahtani sent back in August 2017 when questioned about his activities: “I am a trustworthy employee who carries out the orders of my boss.”
— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.