There’s still a lot of confusion and unanswered questions about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi on 2 October, a Washington Post journalist and critic of the Saudi government who was murdered when he walked into the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
Officially the claim is that he was killed by orders of an intelligence officer, but Turkish officials provided recorded evidence to Britain, the US, Germany and France that the journalist was killed on orders of someone from one of the highest levels of government.
Khashoggi was a well-known journalist for numerous publications in Saudi Arabia before moving on to become a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, with claims he also served for the Saudi Arabia Intelligence Agency and for the US in Afghanistan. During an unknown time, he had a falling out with the Saudi administration and went into a voluntary exile to the US.
From there he wrote a monthly column for The Washington Post in which he regularly criticised Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and The New York Times reported that he was a victim of a Saudi Arabian cyberbullying attack campaign before he was killed, with an army of Twitter trolls being used to harass opponents of the Saudi government.
In his first column for The Washington Post, he explained:
“There are at least seven of us — are we going to be the core of a Saudi diaspora? We spend endless hours on the phone trying to understand this wave of arrests that have included my friend, businessman and thoughtful Twitter personality Essam Al-Zamil. It was just last Tuesday that he returned home from the United States, having been part of an official Saudi delegation. That is how breathtakingly fast you can fall out of favor with Saudi Arabia. It is all quite shocking. But this has not been business as usual in my country.”
Then, only three days before disappearing, he appeared on the BBC’s Newshour program:
“The people being arrested are not even being dissidents, they just have an independent mind.”
Khashoggi had been, at one point, relatively close to the Saudi royal family before a crackdown within the country on opinions that don’t side with the government. In his final piece for the publication, he wrote an article titled “What the Arab world needs most is free expression,” in which he called for more freedom of the press in the Middle East.
Here’s where things get weird — and conflicting, with more than one story often provided for the same time.
Deflecting and denying
During the first two weeks after the murder, Saudi Arabia denied knowledge of the journalist’s death, telling Bloomberg News that there was nothing to hide:
“My understanding is he entered and he got out after a few minutes or one hour. I’m not sure. We are investigating this through the foreign ministry to see exactly what happened at that time.”
Then when state TV reported Khashoggi had been murdered in the consulate, officials changed their story and admitted that he had been murdered in a “rogue operation". An official told Reuters that the death was a result of a chokehold when he resisted attempts to bring him back to Saudi Arabia:
“After denying any involvement in the disappearance of Khashoggi, 59, for two weeks, Saudi Arabia on Saturday morning said he had died in a fistfight at the consulate. An hour later, another Saudi official attributed the death to a chokehold, which the senior official reiterated.”
Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince’s involvement
In November, the public prosecutor for Saudi Arabia released the results of the investigation into the death of Khashoggi, explaining a team of agents were sent to Istanbul to bring him back alive, but had instead killed and butchered his body. The Crown Prince had no ruling of the event, a spokesperson explained.
What’s unclear, however, is how the dismemberment of his body was unplanned and that he was meant to be brought back alive — as the process requires tools, pointed out Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish Foreign Minister.
Then another thing that is unclear is who ordered the murder in the first place. Saudi officials state that it was authorized by a low-level official who disobeyed orders when negotiations for Khashoggi’s return went south, contradicting Turkey’s investigation which found this wasn’t just something that happened on the go.
There have been 11 people charged in connection with the murder and Saudi wants to punish five of them with the death penalty. In total, 21 people have been arrested, causing the whole situation to turn relations with the world sour.
Hacked messages shared with Saudi officials
Israeli company NSO Group apparently shared private conversations between Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi national who resides in Canada, and Khashoggi, which might have helped lead to the death of the journalist.
Abdulaziz is filing a lawsuit against the company, alleging that software the company developed allows it to secretly listen to calls and see messages on a phone. It is reported that the company could have broken international laws by selling to the Saudi government.
In the text messages Khashoggi labelled the Crown Prince as a “beast” and called him a “Pac-Man” who destroys everything in his path, including allies. There were more than 400 texts between the two across several platforms, including WhatsApp.
Abdulaziz in August discovered that the Saudi government had knowledge of the duo’s plans to form an electronic army, aimed at overthrowing the country’s propaganda.
Researchers at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab found that Abdulaziz’ phone had been hacked by military-grade software, which had been reportedly used in Mexico previously.
The CIA’s report and US response
The US Central Intelligence Agency then released a report that the Saudi Crown Prince was directly responsible for ordering the murder, despite numerous denials from Saudi of this. The conclusion was based on evidence available, as opposed to speculation, and found that the murder wouldn’t have happened without the knowledge of Salman.
Trump then told the public that the CIA report was not a conclusion, before — as usual and in the most Trump-like move possible — accusing the press of publishing false news:
“No no, they didn’t conclude. I’m sorry. No they didn’t conclude. They did not come to a conclusion. They have feelings certain ways. I have the report … they have not concluded, I don’t know if anyone’s going to be able to conclude the crown prince did it.”
The US government has been criticized for not acting on the death and Khashoggi’s editor posted several ways the country could respond on Twitter.