Tracking a story such as the absolutely gruesome murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi can be tough enough, because the details are nothing short of horrific.
And the latest chapter — though it certainly won’t be the last — has Saudi Arabia reversing its earlier position (circa Oct. 25) that the journalist’s murder was “premeditated” by a rogue team that was certainly not operating with the knowledge of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (aka MBS).
On Thursday, the Saudi prosecutor (Saud al-Mojeb, the same man making the Oct. 25 claim) said the agents sent to Turkey — the ones who ended up strangling the journalist before dismembering him and dissolving his body in acid — were actually told to bring him home alive. Also, no, he claims, MBS knew nothing about this.
If you are wondering how a team of elite Saudi agents could so grossly misunderstand the point of a mission, you are not alone.
And we might never know, as the 11 indicted suspects are all unnamed. Five of them are facing the death penalty, which is very likely to be carried out, given the high rate of executions in Saudi Arabia. In total, 21 people have been arrested in the case so far, and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on Thursday rejected Turkey’s demand for an international inquiry into Khashoggi’s murder.
The story that started with Khashoggi going to the Saudi consulate on October 2 to get the paperwork he needs in order to marry his Turkish fiancee has taken several twists and turns, mostly driven by the Saudi government’s attempts to deny having anything to do with Khashoggi’s murder.
Here’s what we know for sure: Khashoggi never walked out of that consulate alive.
He was met there with a team of about 15 men, including Saudi Arabia’s leading mobile autopsy specialist (packing a bone, scissors, syringes, and a stun gun). The team had flown on two private jets from Saudi Arabia, and left soon after doing what they’d been sent there to do: Kill Khashoggi.
The journalist, who was certainly a patriotic Saudi citizen, was also a vocal critic of MBS.
Despite all the lobbying money the kingdom spent in the United States and how successful MBS has been in convincing President Donald Trump and his advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner that he is some kind of reformist prince, Khashoggi wrote, in the pages of The Washington Post, no less, that MBS, was, in fact, an oppressor who was cracking down on the wrong people.
Granted, Saudi’s charade has always been a poor one, held together, literally, with the paper-thin currency of cold-hard cash. Still, while Washington, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood were dazzled with the young Crown Prince, Khashoggi repeatedly — and inconveniently — shattered that illusion.
And for this, he was killed, with his country wrapping his demise in more lies than a person ought to have to keep track of.
Some of the highlights:
- Flip: Saudi officials claim that Khashoggi had simply disappeared after leaving the consulate. The promised to coordinate with the Turkish authorities to “uncover the circumstances” of his disappearance.
- Flop: Saudi officials balk at Turkish investigators stating that Khashoggi was definitely killed inside the consulate, with one source calling the claim “baseless.” Leaks start to appear in Turkish media, pointing to a recording of Khashoggi’s murder.
- Flip: Turkey points to the team of 15 men who flew in to Turkey shortly before Khashoggi disappeared. Saudi shrugs, claiming the men were merely “tourists.”
- Flop: Saudi officials now admit that the 15-man team was not a strange group of tourists. They skip right over any explanation of who these men are and go straight for how Khashoggi came to be killed: By accident, they claim, only saying that the journalist was choked to death in a fist fight. They offer no response to why a journalist would pick a fight with a group of men that included members of MBS’s security detail — in the consulate no less — and why the group came with an autopsy specialist.
- Flip: The kingdom tests out the Rogue Theory, offering that the men who killed Khashoggi “accidentally” were operating “outside the scope of their authority.” No one buys this, least of all the Turks, who insist that such a well-planned operation had to be authorized at the highest levels.
- Flop: Saudi admits that the team planned to kill Khashoggi all along.
- Flip: As of today, they are saying that the team meant to keep Khashoggi alive, essentially forcing him (we think that’s called kidnapping) back to Saudi Arabia. The Turkish government says the latest explanation isn’t “satisfactory.” As Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu put it, “People and tools were brought to dismember the body.”
U.S. continues to hold Saudi’s hand
So far, the only measurable fallout for the murder of Khashoggi, a Virginia resident whose children (at least two of them) have U.S. citizenship, has been the U.S. sanctioning 17 people believed to be involved with the killing.
While lawmakers and some Trump administration officials are re-evaluating U.S.-Saudi relations, Saudi Arabia still enjoys the right to invest in the U.S., which will also continue to sell it weapons, back its airstrikes in Yemen, and continue to pursue signing a nuclear deal with the Gulf Arab kingdom.
National Security Advisor John Bolton said that even the recording of Khashoggi’s murder in no way implicated MBS.
Not only is the Trump administration not holding Saudi accountable for the grisly, extrajudicial murder, according to NBC, it might be trying to get Turkey to ease off on its calls for further investigation.
The networks reported on Thursday that the White House is considering extraditing Fethullah Gulen, a U.S. resident and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bête noire. Erdogan has been demanding Gulen’s extradition for a long time, blaming the Turkish cleric for the failed coup to topple him in July 2016.
Two months later, in September 2016, his envoys even contacted Trump’s first National Security Advisor, Micheal Flynn, hoping to hire him and his son to possibly kidnap the cleric and take him back to Turkey.
According to NBC, the Justice Department, FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security have “pushed back” against requests to “look into” Gulen’s status in the U.S. where he has a Green Card.
When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to Turkey in October, he admitted that the Turks had brought up Gulen. Which is to be expected. But to actually make a serious query into extraditing him is another matter, and the effort was met with incredulity and anger at all the agencies involved.
“At first there were eye rolls,” an unnamed official told NBC, “but once they realized it was a serious request, the career guys were furious.”