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Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s mysterious disappearance, explained

The incident could impact Saudi Arabia’s close relationship with the US.

Protestors hold pictures of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian consulate, on October 5, 2018 in Istanbul.
Protesters hold pictures of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian Consulate on October 5, 2018, in Istanbul.
Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Jamal Khashoggi, a well-known Saudi Arabian journalist and Washington Post columnist who has been critical of his country’s government, vanished last week.

His disappearance is straining Turkey-Saudi relations and could complicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent attempts to recast his government as forward-thinking and reform-minded — as well as his country’s close relationship with the US.

The 59-year-old veteran journalist was last seen on October 2 walking into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. He was there to obtain a document verifying his divorce so that he could marry his Turkish fiancée.

But what happened next is a mystery.

Turkish officials have said they have “concrete” evidence that Khashoggi never left the building and was murdered there; some have even put forth gruesome theories of how his body may have been dismembered and smuggled out.

The Saudi government, however, says it had nothing to do with his disappearance and maintains that he left through a back entrance, though it has provided no evidence to support that.

A Saudi official told me in an email on Monday that “Jamal’s disappearance is a matter of grave concern to us, and we categorically reject any allegations of involvement in his disappearance.”

Amid the ongoing investigation, relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey have quickly soured. The mystery is shaking Washington as well: Khashoggi is a US resident and had been living in self-imposed exile in Virginia for about a year — fearful, he said, that the Saudi government would target him for his dissident views.

If he was indeed murdered by his own government, it raises bigger questions about the safety of journalists, freedom of speech, and the future of Saudi relations with Turkey, the US, and others.

Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me he was very concerned about Khashoggi’s fate.

“We think the Saudi authorities need to provide a credible account with evidence and testimonies to explain what happened to him,” Mansour said. “We have far more questions than answers.”

Here’s what you need to know to get caught up on the story.

Khashoggi was a prominent Saudi journalist who fled his country because he feared being arrested

Khashoggi used to enjoy close ties to the Saudi royal family. In the early 2000s, he served as an adviser to Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal, the former director of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, while the prince was the ambassador to Washington. Khashoggi also worked as the editor of a Saudi newspaper, Al Watan. But in recent years, he had taken a more critical tack, criticizing the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS).

The 33-year-old crown prince has tried to paint himself as a reformer by loosening restrictions on women driving and opening up cinemas in the Kingdom, but he’s also led a purge of opposition within his government under the guise of a crackdown on corruption and championed a bloody, brutal war with Yemen that’s left tens of thousands dead.

And despite his reforms, MBS hasn’t shown any willingness to tolerate political dissent or free speech. He’s even arrested some of the activists who championed the reforms he’s pushed through.

In June 2017, Khashoggi, fearing arrest, left the country. He resettled in the US, where he spent the past year living in self-imposed exile.

Khashoggi became a frequent contributor to publications like the Washington Post’s global opinions section and continued to criticize the Saudi government from afar. In a column published last September titled “Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable,” he wrote of how his hope that the crown prince would be a reform-minded voice has now given way to fear of repression.

“I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice,” he wrote. “To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot. I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.”

Khashoggi also expressed concern about being targeted by the Saudi government for his views, telling journalist Robin Wright in August that the country’s new leadership would like to “see me out of the picture.”

And just three days before he disappeared into the Saudi consulate in Turkey, he told BBC Newshour in an off-air interview that he doubted he’d ever be able to return to his home country. “I don’t think I’ll be able to go home,” he told the BBC, saying that in Saudi Arabia, “the people who are arrested are not even dissidents.”

Three days later, his worst fears may have been realized.

Khashoggi disappeared during a visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul

Khashoggi first went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on September 28 to file paperwork needed for his upcoming wedding to a Turkish woman, Hatice Cengiz.

On October 2, he returned to the Saudi Consulate at around 1 pm, according to Cengiz. She told the Washington Post that she waited for him by the gate outside, but that several hours later, even after the consulate had closed, there was still no sign of him.

Cengiz said that she called the consulate and spoke to a guard, who told her there was no one inside. She then called the police, as well as an adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as Khashoggi had instructed her to do if anything should happen to him.

After several days of confusion and no sign of Khashoggi, Turkish officials said on Sunday that they believed the journalist had been murdered, according to the Washington Post.

Yasin Aktay, a friend of Khashoggi’s and adviser to the Turkish president, told Reuters that he believed Khashoggi had been killed inside the Saudi Consulate, and that Turkish authorities think 15 Saudi nationals were involved.

Turan Kışlakçı, the head of the Turkish-Arab Media Association and a friend of Khashoggi’s, told the Associated Press that Turkish officials he’d spoken with said Khashoggi had been murdered “in a barbaric way” and that they had evidence which they had not yet released. Other anonymous Turkish officials told news outlets that his murder had been “preplanned” and that his body had been moved from the consulate.

On Monday, Turkey requested an official search of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to find evidence of the apparent crime. Saudi officials said they would allow the consulate to be inspected.

Erdoğan has weighed in as well, saying that the disappearance was “very, very upsetting.” During a press conference on Monday, the Turkish president said the onus was on Saudi Arabia to prove that Khashoggi had indeed left the consulate. “The consulate officials cannot save themselves by simply saying ‘he has left,’” Erdogan said, according to Reuters.

In a letter to journalists on Tuesday, Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Khalid bin Salman wrote that the Saudi government had sent a security team to work with Turkey to uncover what happened and were cooperating with Turkish authorities.

“Jamal has many friends in the Kingdom, including myself, and despite our differences, and his choice to go into his so called ‘self-exile,’ we still maintained regular contact when he was in Washington,” he wrote. “Jamal is a Saudi citizen whose safety and security is a top priority for the Kingdom, just as is the case with any other citizen.”

But on Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the Saudi Crown Prince had devised a plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and detain him, according to US intelligence intercepts of Saudi communications.

The Post also reported that two planes carrying a team of 15 Saudi men arrived in Istanbul from Riyadh on the day that Khashoggi disappeared, and left later that day. Experts have speculated that these men were part of an effort to capture him and bring him back to the Kingdom — an effort that may have gone badly wrong.

The journalist’s disappearance could have bigger implications for the region and Saudi’s relationship with the US

Turkey and Saudi Arabia already have a strained relationship. The gulf monarchy is engaged in an ongoing blockade of Qatar, one of Turkey’s allies, and Riyadh doesn’t agree with Turkey’s embrace of political Islam or its close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Khashoggi’s disappearance could escalate matters and cause either country to cut off diplomatic or economic ties.

But Saudi Arabia currently enjoys a strong relationship with the US. President Donald Trump visited the country on his first trip abroad as president in May 2017, and hosted MBS at the White House in March. The Pentagon has also continued to back the devastating Saudi-led war in Yemen by providing intelligence assistance, refueling planes, and engaging in gargantuan arms deals.

Khashoggi was a resident of Virginia, however, and if the Saudi government is indeed responsible for his disappearance, it could severely complicate the US’s friendly relationship with the country.

Several US officials have expressed concern about the incident. The State Department said they are calling on the Saudis to conduct a transparent and thorough investigation, and National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior presidential advisor (and Trump’s son-in-law) Jared Kushner have all spoken to the crown prince by phone about the journalist’s disappearance.

During an interview with Fox and Friends that aired on Thursday, President Trump reaffirmed that US-Saudi relations were “excellent,” but also said that it was important to find out the facts about the journalist’s fate. “We’re probably getting closer than you might think, but I have to find out what happened,” he said. The president added that the US was working with Turkish and Saudi investigators in Istanbul.

Other politicians have gone further. On October 6, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) wrote on Twitter: “If this is true — that the Saudis lured a U.S. resident into their consulate and murdered him — it should represent a fundamental break in our relationship with Saudi Arabia.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tweeted on Monday that if there was any truth to the allegations, “it would be devastating to the US-Saudi relationship and there will be a heavy price to be paid — economically and otherwise.”

And on Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators turned up the pressure on the Trump administration by requesting that the US impose sanctions on anyone who was responsible for the journalist’s disappearance.

This triggered something called the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the US to sanction individuals who have committed human rights abuses anywhere in the world. The Trump administration now has 120 days to look into the matter and decide.

But it’s unclear how far the president is willing to take the issue. Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday that he didn’t want to risk losing a lucrative weapons sale to Saudi Arabia in the context of a conversation about the journalist’s disappearance.

“This took place in Turkey and to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen, he’s a permanent resident,” the president said. “We don’t like it, even a little bit. But as to whether or not we should stop $110 billion dollars from being spent in this country, knowing they [Saudi Arabia] have four or five alternatives, two very good alternatives, that would not be acceptable to me.”

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