Eye on Khashoggi: Why Was He Killed and Will Justice Ever Be Done?

What was the threat Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi posed that ultimately got him killed? The top guy at Middle East Eye reveals an inside take on MbS's motivation for killing his countryman.
Eye on Khashoggi Why Was He Killed and Will Justice Ever Be Done

David Hearst, editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye, gave some personal insights this week at the National Interest Foundation in Washington, D.C., into the October 2 murder of Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.  

These insights came just two days before the Trump administration’s second 120-day Global Magnitsky Act* report was due to Congress. The same week, The New York Times, quoting anonymous U.S. intelligence sources, revealed that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) had threatened one year before the murder to take Khashoggi out with “a bullet” if he refused to return to Saudi Arabia or continued to criticize Saudi policies publicly.

Hearst revealed that he had been one of the people who had received leaked information after the murder directly from individuals or officials in Turkey. He laid out why he thinks Khashoggi was murdered. It was less for his advocacy of free expression in the Arab world than for his direct criticism of decisions by the Saudi crown prince, and Khashoggi’s own vision of the future of Saudi Arabia with MbS at the helm.

Hearst said that Khashoggi had come to the conclusion that his country, Saudi Arabia, was “unstable with the House of Saud there,” and especially with the changes being brought about by MbS himself.

There was also a shift in the power dynamics. Before, there was “a very organized share out” of the spoils, as Hearst described it, with a portion going to all members of the royal family.  But now, “it’s winner take all—one prince getting it all.”

This was evident in the royal “anti-corruption shakeup” in 2017, where royals were rounded up and taken to the Ritz-Carlton, and only months (and a severe fleecing) later did they get out, many billions of dollars poorer. Clearly, there is anger within the royal family, but whether they can do anything about it remains to be seen

What does appear clear, according to Hearst, is that any notion that MbS will become more moderate is “wishful thinking.” There are also contradictory reports about the present king’s health. In some public appearances, he has seemed vigorous, but in others, he CVhas barely been able to speak.

So the next question is “what are the prospects for a King Mohammed bin Salman?”

According to Hearst, Khashoggi predicted the return to Saudi Arabia of “Wahhabism with a vengeance.” He believed that the current economic situation in Saudi Arabia, marked by “declining jobs, mismanagement, and locking up reformers,” would lead to a resurgence of the movement. His views rendered him a threat to the Crown Prince.

While “Khashoggi was a rational actor,” according to Hearst, “He was killed by an abnormal, irrational regime . . . not too different from the way ISIS thinks.”

“He was a brave person who could have ‘taken the king’s shilling,’ but he didn’t.” While he endured “being shut down for a year,” he finally said “enough.’” He started speaking out.

Middle East Eye published his pieces, under a pseudonym, long before he started writing openly for the Washington Post.

The Saudi regime had made definite attempts to lure Khashoggi back to the kingdom, according to Hearst. Khashoggi’s mistake, he said, was to think that he wouldn’t be killed. But he walked straight into a trap, set up in a matter of days by the Saudi regime to take advantage of Khashoggi’s need for some consular papers to marry his Turkish fiancée.

Khashoggi’s main concern when he went to the consulate that day was just to “get the furniture in,” said Hearst. “He didn’t think that between being promised the papers on Friday and told to come back on Tuesday, that they would go to the lengths they did to get him—that they would form a hit squad ready to spring into action.  It was just out of his range of thinking that he would walk straight into the hands of butchers.”

When the news broke, the Saudis initially tried to buy off the Turks very quickly—among other things, the Saudis offered to end the blockade of Qatar. Saudi Arabia soon learned that that was not going to happen.

In Turkey’s longstanding feud for hegemony with Saudi Arabia, President Erdogan wanted any evidence that would tie MbS to the killing. The consulate was bugged with several microphones in various parts of the room where Khashoggi was first tortured and then murdered and cut up, so the Turks had audio of the entire incident..

When CIA Director Gina Haspel visited Turkey and listened to the tapes, Hearst said she apparently “broke down and cried when she heard his fingers being cut off.”

She then had two choices. She and the CIA could have “swept the truth under the carpet.” But she didn’t. In fact, she did quite the opposite. Haspel was so affected that she came back to the States and “told it as it was.” The CIA investigated and obtained the phone records, learning of the exchange between a member of the hit squad and someone at an unknown number in Riyadh and discovering the communication: “Tell your boss the deed is done.”  

This was not part of the Turkish evidence. In fact, according to Hearst, this conversation was not picked up by the microphones in the Consulate. It was part of the CIA evidence and not the Turkish tapes. The CIA also had a direct call with MbS’s chief of staff to get information directly. It concluded with “high confidence” —intelligence community-speak for complete certainty—that Crown Prince MbS had indeed ordered the assassination.

This was no longer a question of “a dodgy president attacking” Trump or the crown prince over the murder of a journalist, but of CIA research “firming up” the case against MbS through telephone intercepts.

In fact, “It was the CIA attacking Trump,” said Hearst.

Yesterday was the deadline for Trump to report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as to whether Saudi government officials should be held responsible and face sanctions for Khashoggi’s death. Yet, a senior administration official told CNN that the administration would not be complying with the Global Magnitsky Act.  

Meanwhile, Saudi officials continue to deflect blame from the Crown Prince, tweeting that those responsible “will be held accountable.”

And yet there is still no body to be laid to rest and provide closure for Khashoggi’s fiancée or family.

So where does the story go from here? The world continues to demand justice. Is “justice for Jamal” now in the hands of the U.S. Congress?

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* When triggered by a Congressional request, the Global Magnitsky Act requires the administration “to determine whether a foreign person is responsible for an extrajudicial killing, torture, or other gross violation of internationally recognized human rights against an individual exercising freedom of expression.”