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The murder of Jamal Khashoggi and how the world looked the other way.
One year ago, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and never walked out. In the months that followed, the facts of his disappearance and murder would emerge in fragments: an international high-tech spy game, a diabolical plot, a gruesome killing, and a preposterous cover-up reaching the highest levels of the Saudi government, aided by the indifference and obstinacy of the White House. Eventually those fragments came to comprise a macabre mosaic.
This June, the United Nations special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions issued a 100-page report detailing the Khashoggi affair. The report, the product of five months of independent investigation spanning six countries, added to the thrum of international indignation about Khashoggi’s murder. But so far it has largely failed to galvanize it into action.
Here is the story, as we know it, illustrated by Chris Koehler and told as a nonfiction narrative by the author Evan Ratliff. This account draws on our own reporting, the UN report, hundreds of news accounts and video interviews — The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Daily Sabah, a Turkish outlet, in particular — and public testimony.
We’re retelling it because Jamal Khashoggi’s story should be heard in full. And because even if you think you know what happened, you may not know how or why.
It was easy to forget, later, that he was a man in love.
That was the Jamal Khashoggi who arrived on a flight into Istanbul, early on the morning of October 2, 2018. He was a few days short of 60 and divorced, a voluntary exile from his native Saudi Arabia living a lonely existence in Virginia. His tall frame carried an unsubtle paunch, and his hair had thinned out to the sides. The graying of his beard was nearly complete, covering an owlish face with eyes that could simultaneously betray easy mirth and deep sadness.
An internationally acclaimed journalist writing for The Washington Post, he was considered brilliant by his peers. But he spent most of his days struggling under the burden of what he’d left behind, writing in hopes of breaking the world’s indifference to the creeping repression in his home country. He’d grown dismayed to see its architect, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman — known in the West as MBS — fêted by Washington and Silicon Valley as a dynamic reformer, while his friends and colleagues back home languished in prison for speaking out. His mission, he had come to believe, was to speak for them.
But on that fall morning in Istanbul, Khashoggi stepped off the plane with an entirely different purpose. Five months earlier, at the opening of a conference on Middle Eastern politics, he’d been approached by a 35-year-old researcher named Hatice Cengiz. She knew his work and wanted to interview him for an article she was writing. At the next coffee break, he sought her out. They spoke for nearly half an hour. She asked him about the prospects for reform in Saudi Arabia; he peppered her with questions about Turkish politics. By the end, their exchange had already begun to feel like something deeper. Before his next trip to Istanbul, he emailed to ask if she’d see him again.
The rest happened quickly, at the speed of two people who already knew themselves. By September he had met her parents. Wedding plans were in motion. The pair bought an apartment in Istanbul, the eastern anchor of what would become a dual life there and in the US.
On September 28 they visited Istanbul’s civil-marriage bureau to begin the secular portion of the nuptials. Just one small problem, they were told: Because Khashoggi remained a Saudi citizen, they’d need a certificate from the Saudi government stating that he was unmarried. That would require a trip to the Saudi Consulate.
On an impulse, the couple went straight there that day. Outside the gate, Khashoggi left his two phones with Cengiz, knowing consular officials would ask for them at the door and fearing they would take the opportunity to hack them. He was wary. But once inside, the staff greeted him warmly. The document he needed couldn’t be produced instantly, but if he came back on October 2 they would have it ready for him, they said. That afternoon, he left for the airport and caught a 2:40 p.m. flight to London to attend a conference.
The night before his return, Cengiz couldn’t sleep, her head a scramble of nerves and excitement. Finally she drifted off, and was awoken by a call from her fiancé: His flight had arrived early. Khashoggi caught a cab to the as-yet-uninhabited apartment they’d purchased, in a gated community in Istanbul’s Topkapi neighborhood. A security camera in the entryway caught them lightly embracing as they walked inside, just before 5 a.m.
Khashoggi called the consulate. An official told him to arrive at 1 p.m. to collect his paperwork.
At about a quarter to one, they set out. CCTV cameras captured the couple’s unhurried stroll as they walked, hand in hand. Khashoggi wore an open-collared shirt and a blazer, Cengiz a headscarf and a long black dress.
At the security blockade typically positioned at the consulate’s south-facing side, Khashoggi once again handed her both his phones. Using a handheld metal detector, a security officer conducted a quick scan of Khashoggi’s person. Then the journalist passed between the metal barriers and walked briskly up to the main entrance. A doorman in a powder-blue blazer greeted him with a slight bow, and he was gone.
By the time Khashoggi’s flight to London reached cruising altitude that afternoon, the plot to end his life was already in motion.
For months, the Saudis had been trying to lure him back to the kingdom. They never expected him to simply walk right through the front door. But that’s what happened on September 28 when he’d shown up at the consulate, unannounced.
While the officials inside knew he was among their government’s high-value targets to bring home, there was no protocol for someone on the list simply appearing in their midst. So they’d let him go, holding on to the carrot they knew would bring him back. By the time Khashoggi’s flight to London reached cruising altitude that afternoon, the plot to end his life was already in motion.
Upon Khashoggi’s departure, the security attaché at the consulate made a pair of calls to Saudi intelligence. Turkish intelligence had audio surveillance up and running on the consulate — part of the standard spy-versus-spy games that routinely took place between the two diplomatic rivals. But the recordings weren’t monitored in real time. (Coincidentally, the Saudis had sent a screening team to sweep the building for bugs the day before Khashoggi’s first visit. Had they been more competent, the world might never have discovered what happened inside.) Portions of the tapes were later played for a UN investigator, and transcripts leaked to Turkish reporters.
On one of the calls, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a Saudi intelligence officer often seen alongside MBS during his international travels, asked if Khashoggi would be back. The attaché confirmed that he’d been told to return for his paperwork on October 2.
The gears of the intelligence apparatus churned into motion. The consulate quickly transmitted video and images of Khashoggi’s visit back to Riyadh. That evening, Turkish intelligence recorded the consul general in Istanbul, Mohammed Alotaibi, talking to another Saudi official about a call from the head of state security back home. He needed personnel to carry out “a special and top-secret mission” that would require about five days. The kingdom would supply flights and accommodation, the official said.
Through the night, Alotaibi organized logistics and emphasized to officials that the mission at hand was “very important and [developing] rapidly.” Someone from the consulate would need to return home for “an urgent training,” he told another official. “They called me from Riyadh,” he said. “They told me they asked for an official who worked on protocol. But the issue is top secret. Nobody should know at all. Even none of your friends will be informed.”
The next day, two security officials left Istanbul for Riyadh.
The pair returned via a commercial flight on October 1, the day before Khashoggi’s scheduled arrival. Accompanying them were three Saudi intelligence officers, including two who had worked in the office of the crown prince.
The morning of October 2, just an hour before Khashoggi himself passed through the airport, nine other Saudis from Riyadh with diplomatic clearance spilled out of a private plane. Among them was Mutreb, who would serve as the ground commander for the mission. Joining him were four Saudi security and intelligence officers, two of them previous members of MBS’s security team, and a brigadier general named Mustafa Mohammed al-Madani, who bore a passing resemblance to Khashoggi. The strangest figure among them was Salah Mohammed Tubaigy, a forensic doctor at the Ministry of the Interior. He was known for conducting rapid autopsies.
The team now totaled 15. They checked into a pair of hotels near the consulate — the Wyndham and the Mövenpick — and waited for the next move.
Khashoggi was likely having breakfast with Cengiz around the time that the consul general sent word to non-Saudi staff to stay home that day. Others were told to clear out by noon for a sensitive diplomatic meeting that would take place in the building that afternoon.
The 15-man team split into two groups. Five left their hotels and drove together to the consul general’s residence a few kilometers away. The other 10 walked to the nearby consulate.
Cameras caught Mutreb leaving his hotel wearing a black suit, and then passing the same police barriers that Khashoggi was to cross three hours later. Mutreb was followed shortly afterward by Tubaigy, the doctor, and al-Madani, the Khashoggi lookalike. At just past noon, a car backed out of a covered driveway abutting the side of the consulate. It was replaced with a boxy black van.
After watching her fiancé enter the consulate, Cengiz walked to a nearby supermarket and bought a newspaper to pass the time, along with some water and chocolate for him when he emerged. As the minutes dragged on, she didn’t at first see any cause for concern: On Khashoggi’s previous visit, officials had taken 45 minutes just to inform him he would need to return another day.
By 4 p.m., her annoyance began to percolate into worry. She called her sister, asking her to look up when the consulate closed (apparently forgetting she could do so on her own). Moments later, her sister texted back: The consulate had closed 40 minutes earlier.
A thick haze of fear enveloped Cengiz. She approached the front door and informed the Turkish security officer that her fiancé, a Saudi citizen, had gone inside hours before and never emerged. He said he assumed everyone had left. She called the consulate’s main number and told the same story to the official who answered. The officer hung up and walked out the door to where she waited.
The building was empty, he told her. Jamal Khashoggi was no longer inside.
Within hours, Khashoggi’s disappearance made international headlines. In its initial response, the Saudi government professed to be as baffled and concerned as the rest of the world. “Mr. Khashoggi visited the consulate to request paperwork related to his marital status and exited shortly thereafter,” the Saudis told The Associated Press. “The government of Saudi Arabia follows up diligently on any reports related to the safety of any of its citizens.”
The next night, October 3, in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, a group of journalists from Bloomberg sat across from MBS, perched on couches in an opulent room in the Royal Palace. The prompt for the interview was an offhand statement by President Donald Trump at a rally in Mississippi, before Khashoggi’s disappearance hit the news, asserting that the Saudi state wouldn’t “last two weeks” without US support.
The crown prince professed to be unruffled. “Saudi Arabia was there before the United States of America,” he observed, a gold-fringed map of the world looming above him. “You have to accept that any friend will say good things and bad things.”
The conversation moved on to the prospects for the upcoming public offering of the Saudi oil company, Aramco, and the Saudi government’s $45 billion contribution to the “Vision Fund,” a $100 billion venture-capital investment pool created by the Japanese firm SoftBank. The Vision Fund had plowed hundreds of millions of dollars of growth fuel into hot startups like Uber, Slack, WeWork, and DoorDash, spreading Saudi money around America’s tech hubs like fairy dust. Without Saudi Arabia’s largess, the crown prince pointed out, there was no Vision Fund. He gave the reporters a scoop: The Saudis planned to put another $45 billion into the fund’s upcoming next round.
About halfway through the interview, one reporter raised the mystery around Khashoggi’s whereabouts.
“We hear the rumors about what happened,” MBS replied. “He’s a Saudi citizen and we are very keen to know what happened to him.” He acknowledged that Khashoggi had entered the consulate, but suggested that he had left after some time. The Turkish government, he added, was welcome to search the consulate — sovereign Saudi territory, he emphasized. “We have nothing to hide,” MBS said.
As he spoke, cracks were already spidering through the official Saudi story. Turkish officials publicly stated that Khashoggi had, in fact, never left the consulate. By October 7, while the Saudi consulate stonewalled on the search that MBS had supposedly just promised, the Turks were firmly asserting that Khashoggi had been killed there — and suggesting they had evidence to prove it. By October 10, Turkish intelligence officials had released stills from CCTV cameras showing the arrival of the assassination team.
The explanation from the Saudis evolved in tandem, from dubious to farcical. They called the accusations “fake news” and “lies,” and claimed that the men had simply traveled to Turkey on a group vacation.
On October 15, Trump weighed in for the first time on Khashoggi’s disappearance. Standing under an umbrella outside the White House, he said that Saudi King Salman, MBS’s father, had personally issued him a “flat denial” of any government’s involvement.
“I don’t want to get into his mind, but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers,” Trump said. “Who knows? We’re going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon.”
Where the bottom could be found depended on how deep you were willing to dive.
When did the story of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder begin? Was it the day in June 2017 when Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud summoned his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef and told him he’d be abandoning his royal claims in favor of his cousin? Was it the day that same month when Khashoggi — the bleak future for press freedom under MBS now apparent to him — fled the country in fear, leaving behind a wife who would have to divorce him and children he would rarely see?
Or perhaps it was the Saturday in November 2017 when guests at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh were asked to suddenly pack up and leave.
On that day, they were replaced by hundreds of senior princes and government officials, arrested on corruption charges at the behest of the crown prince. Inside this velvet jail, Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide to MBS better known for running the Saudi government’s social-media office, helped orchestrate their interrogation and torture. Al-Qahtani bragged to a Canadian businessman that the detainees had been slapped and hung upside down. One general reportedly died, his neck twisted, but verifiable information was scarce. The Saudi government denied accusations of physical abuse. It announced only that the prisoners had agreed to hand over their allegedly ill-gotten riches.
The scene at the Ritz drew scattered international condemnation. But not from the White House, where Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, had formed a close bond with the then 31-year-old crown prince. They were said to be in regular touch through WhatsApp. “They saw a like-minded partner in Washington, Jared Kushner, and they very successfully cultivated him,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst for the Arabian Peninsula at the Crisis Group. “There’s just no other way to put it. They saw him as a way in, and they seized it.” MBS later reportedly told the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates that he had Kushner “in his pocket.” Kushner had visited MBS days before the shakedown.
“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” Trump tweeted during the crackdown. “Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!”
If there was an international-relations lesson for MBS from the Ritz, it turned out, it was that allegations of kidnapping and torture would do little to blunt his standing in the US as a budding reformer. In certain circles, the “anti-corruption” rhetoric served only to enhance that standing.
The same month of the Ritz detentions, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recounted flying into Riyadh for an epic nighttime bull session with MBS. Lauding him as a workaholic change agent, Friedman declared the crackdown a necessary corrective, tactics aside. “Only a fool,” he wrote, would not root for MBS’s supposed reform agenda. Friedman closed the column with a question for MBS, borrowed from a “Hamilton” lyric: Why was it that he worked so hard like “he’s running out of time”? “I fear that the day I die I am going to die without accomplishing what I have in my mind,” the crown prince replied.
Khashoggi took a different view of those accomplishments. He too wanted to see an end to the rampant corruption in the kingdom, he wrote in a November Washington Post column. But MBS’s cheerleaders were overlooking his broader repression. “As of now, I would say Mohammed bin Salman is acting like Putin,” he wrote.
Four months later, Khashoggi appeared on the Al Jazeera program “UpFront,” with the journalist Mehdi Hasan. On the panel alongside him was a supporter of the regime, who argued that MBS was a reformer working to modernize and liberate the kingdom, a leader who should be “judged by the context of his country’s history.”
For Khashoggi, the problem was not so much the reforms themselves — he had long supported efforts to open up freedoms for women, for example — but a fear of the intellectual repression that seemed to animate the crown prince’s efforts. “As we speak today, there are Saudi intellectuals and journalists jailed,” he said, sounding pained. “I still see him as a reformer. But he is gathering all power within his hand. It would be much better for him to allow a breathing space for critique, for Saudi writers, Saudi media, to debate the most important, needed transformation going on in the country.”
It was that possibility of open dialogue that had pulled Khashoggi into journalism. The grandson of a doctor who’d administered to King Abdulaziz Al Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi grew up close to the royal family. He’d flirted with radical religious politics, joining the Muslim Brotherhood in his 20s before becoming a journalist. He’d then made his name chronicling the exploits of a young Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan before Al Qaeda, risen to become a columnist and newspaper editor, and even worked inside the royal court. People would recognize him in the street and stop him to thank him for his work.
Along the way, he’d become a dogged proponent of reform — for both the Saudi government and society. But in 2010 Khashoggi was fired from his post as editor in chief of the daily Al Watan for publishing columns challenging the country’s strict Islamic laws. It was his second firing from the same paper; after the first, he’d gone abroad to work as a spokesperson for Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom and then the US. The second time he’d lasted three years, but by 2016 his views had gotten him barred from Saudi newspapers and TV entirely. Late that year, after he wrote a column in a London newspaper criticizing the newly elected President Trump, he received a call from al-Qahtani informing him that he was “not allowed to tweet, not allowed to write, not allowed to talk.”
Less than a year later, he was gone, having fled the country and landed in Virginia. There he joined as a regular opinion writer for The Washington Post, attempting to rouse the world to the clampdown in his country — the same issue he was articulating on “UpFront” in March 2018. That night, Hasan asked Khashoggi why he had chosen self-exile. “Simply because I don’t want to be arrested,” he said.
In early April, another group of luxury-hotel patrons were abruptly informed that their reservations had been canceled. This time it was at the Four Seasons Silicon Valley, in Palo Alto, and the guests were making way for the crown prince and his dozens-strong delegation.
MBS was arriving at the end of a cross-country tour of the US, a choreographed PR effort to burnish his image and solidify connections with political and business leaders — from companies the prince had invested in and those he was courting. Swapping his traditional Saudi thobe for a suit and open-collared shirt, he met with a smiling Richard Branson at a Virgin Galactic hangar in Southern California. He tried out goofy prototype goggles from Magic Leap, the Florida-based augmented-reality company that had raised over $2 billion without releasing a product. In the Valley, he would hang with Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and its current CEO, Sundar Pichai. He shared a laugh with Tim Cook at Apple and walked the bright, curved halls of its behemoth new headquarters. He held court with blue-chip venture capitalists like Marc Andreessen, Vinod Khosla, and Peter Thiel.
MBS had made such visits before. In 2016, he stopped in at Facebook for a tour with Mark Zuckerberg. Then as now, the story that preceded him was that of a young dynamo in step with the high-tech world, determined to transform a century-old monarchy. But this time he arrived as a future king, and a confidant of the president’s son-in-law. He also brought along something even more attractive in the Valley: stacks and stacks of cash.
Under MBS, the kingdom had already been sloshing money around the tech world to diversify its economy and wean itself off its dependence on oil production — the centerpiece of “Vision 2030,” MBS’s economic modernization plan. The investments were also a vehicle to boost Saudi Arabia’s standing in the international community. “When you put money somewhere, you have influence, and it makes you more and more connected to the international financial system,” said Yasmine Farouk, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The system needs you.”
The linchpin of MBS’s investment efforts was a mammoth, $45 billion contribution from the government’s Public Investment Fund, or PIF, to SoftBank’s Vision Fund. When the fund launched in 2017, it was instantly the biggest player in the Valley. It became Uber’s largest shareholder and pumped over $125 million into Slack, the workplace-messaging startup. WeWork alone garnered $6.4 billion. But that was just the beginning.
Days before Khashoggi’s Al Jazeera appearance, on the eve of MBS’s trip to Silicon Valley, PIF had announced an additional $400 million direct investment in Magic Leap. It also agreed to pour another $400 million into Endeavor, the holding company for the LA talent agency WME. There was, as well, a second Vision Fund in the works, one that would focus on funding artificial-intelligence technology.
If the executives of Silicon Valley had been inclined to challenge MBS on his human-rights record —and at that point there was little evidence that they were — the bottomless funding he’d come bearing seemed to be enough to put them in a mood to skip it.
Amid all the goodwill and shared opportunity, though, there was something — someone — lurking behind the smiles and handshakes: Maher Mutreb. He was often photographed scowling in the background as the crown prince met with business and community figures around the world. A US-trained colonel in the intelligence service, Mutreb had worked for al-Qahtani, the head of the Saudi social-media office and the man who’d participated in the torture at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton. Mutreb, as it happened, knew Khashoggi from the mid-2000s when they’d both spent time in London.
Mutreb’s boss, al-Qahtani, had been reaching out to Khashoggi for months, gently suggesting it was time to return from his self-imposed exile. Al-Qahtani assured the columnist that he could do so safely, even offering him a job in the royal court if he returned. Khashoggi politely declined. The whole thing, he told friends, could be a ruse to throw him in jail.
Behind the scenes in MBS’s court, however, the discussions about Khashoggi’s fate had been decidedly less solicitous. Khashoggi, after all, wasn’t just another dissident abroad, railing against the kingdom’s leadership — he was a former insider whose criticisms were viewed as betrayals.
“We could possibly lure him outside Saudi Arabia and make arrangements,” the crown prince had told associates in August 2017, The Wall Street Journal would later reveal. According to intelligence intercepts obtained by The New York Times, his rhetoric had turned more chilling a month later. He complained to al-Qahtani about Khashoggi’s critical columns and his punchy Twitter presence.
Al-Qahtani warned that going after a journalist abroad risked a backlash. MBS reportedly responded that the national interest of Saudi Arabia dwarfed the risk of a little bad publicity.
If Khashoggi couldn’t be lured anywhere, MBS concluded, he would need to be brought by force. And if that didn’t work?
He would pursue Khashoggi, he reportedly said, “with a bullet.”
To the current Saudi government, Jamal Khashoggi was clearly no mere journalist living abroad and criticizing the regime.
He was a traitor to the royal family to which he’d once been close.
But to those offenses would be added a third revelation, in the summer of 2018. And it appears to have been the product of high-tech espionage employed by forces connected to Saudi intelligence, according to a Canada-based surveillance-research lab. Khashoggi was beginning to do more than criticize, that spying showed. He was helping organize forces to oppose MBS’s crackdowns.
In May 2018, less than a month after MBS’s goodwill tour in the States, a 27-year-old Saudi dissident in Canada named Omar Abdulaziz received a message from a group of Saudi officials who had been reaching out to him for months. They were coming to Montreal, where he lived, with a potentially lucrative proposal.
“Tyranny has no logic, but [MBS] loves force, oppression and needs to show them off,” he wrote to Abdulaziz. “He is like a beast ‘pac man’ the more victims he eats, the more he wants.”
That Abdulaziz was on the government’s radar didn’t come as a surprise. He’d left the country in 2009, at age 18, to study English at McGill University on a government scholarship. While still a student, he’d launched a satirical YouTube show called “Yakathah,” a kind of Saudi “Daily Show” mocking his home government. The popularity of his critiques, particularly back home, had led to more serious activism and a Twitter account that grew to over 100,000 followers.
It wasn’t long before Abdulaziz caught the attention of the Saudi government, which revoked his scholarship. In 2013, Abdulaziz was granted Canadian asylum. He kept up his activism, and a few years later, in 2017, a mutual friend suggested that Jamal Khashoggi was interested in speaking to him. Other activists were wary of Khashoggi, given his past affiliation with the royal family, but Abdulaziz agreed to talk. Despite never meeting in person, they quickly became confidants.
By 2018, they communicated almost daily. Over WhatsApp, they formulated plans to work together and lamented reports of journalists and activists being arrested back home. Khashoggi seemed agonized that even those who largely agreed with MBS could be rounded up and punished for whatever minor disagreements they had dared to voice.
“Tyranny has no logic, but [MBS] loves force, oppression and needs to show them off,” he wrote to Abdulaziz. “He is like a beast ‘pac man’ the more victims he eats, the more he wants.”
That May, when the government proposed the meeting in Montreal — possibly to dangle a reward for Abdulaziz’s own return — Khashoggi warned his friend to meet the agents only in public places, and not to be lured back to Saudi Arabia. “If you want to take their money, it’s your decision,” he told Abdulaziz. “But do not go back; do not trust them.”
On May 15, Abdulaziz sat down to await the government representatives at a café. In his jacket pocket he carried his iPhone with the recorder app running. Two men sat down across from him without explaining their precise roles vis-à-vis the Saudi government. That they represented some kind of official overture was apparent. But one of them assured Abdulaziz that their message came from MBS. “No one can better deal with this subject than the prince himself,” they told him.
The agents were at first friendly and respectful, as al-Qahtani had been with Khashoggi. They told Abdulaziz that his friend Jamal, who’d similarly been “a headache” for the government, was himself considering returning home. Perhaps it was time for Abdulaziz to do the same? He could reap significant rewards should he choose to return voluntarily. They promised him a meeting with MBS the day after he landed, at which the crown prince would grant him any wish. The alternative, they were sad to report, was to be picked up at an airport somewhere and detained. After that, he “would not be much use for the state.”
Even though Abdulaziz had no intention of taking them up on their offer, he met with them repeatedly over four days. He hoped to persuade them to wire the money first — perhaps the hundreds of thousands of dollars they owed him for his canceled scholarship, he said. No, they replied, he would have to return to collect the money. At one point, in a bid to sway him, the agents produced his brother, flown in from Saudi Arabia. Abdulaziz was rattled but held firm. Soon the agents, with his brother, disappeared from Montreal as suddenly as they’d arrived.
Through the summer of 2018, Abdulaziz and Khashoggi ramped up their plans to collaborate. Al-Qahtani’s social-media office had been engaged in a relentless, years-long online propaganda and trolling campaign. Fueled by bots, it had targeted activists inside the country and dissidents outside, eventually earning al-Qahtani the nickname “Lord of the Flies.” Abdulaziz and Khashoggi planned to launch an online youth movement to push back, with $5,000 in initial funding from Khashoggi. “Cyber bees,” they began calling them.
Only later would a throwaway line from the agents who approached Abdulaziz in Montreal come to seem ominous. One of them had suggested to him that even if he wasn’t coming home, he should at least drop by the Saudi Embassy and pick up a new passport.
Most journalists and activists working under repressive regimes know, at least ambiently, that their governments are trying to watch their every move.
Less widely known, perhaps, is that governments can buy software, on the commercial market, to hack phones and record everything on them. Rarer still is to catch a hack in action. But that’s exactly what a computer scientist named Bill Marczak did in the summer of 2018.
One afternoon in July, Marczak, a postdoc at the University of California at Berkeley, was sitting at home on his couch, staring at his laptop. He had acquired an unusual hobby: tracking cellphone spyware installed by repressive regimes around the world.
Marczak’s interest in government hacking and surveillance was sparked in 2012 by the events of the Arab Spring. Then a Ph.D. student in computer science, he had cofounded an organization to provide online assistance to activists in Bahrain, where he’d spent part of his youth, and to do research on repression in the region.
Soon, the Bahraini activists told him about another issue: They’d been receiving a fusillade of suspicious-looking emails.
When Marczak analyzed the messages, he discovered that they were created to plant spyware on the activists’ devices, allowing someone — possibly the government — to quietly monitor them. Working with a Canadian organization called Citizen Lab, Marczak publicized the attempted hacking.
Soon, Marczak was receiving similar requests from activists and dissidents in all corners of the world. He built a complex methodology to discover whether mobile phones had been compromised. If they were, Marczak and his team would warn the dissidents, analyze the software, and publish their findings.
The most sophisticated of all the spyware they uncovered was something called Pegasus, produced by NSO Group, a highly secretive Israeli company. Pegasus allowed its users to create and send a single link that, if clicked, would give them total visibility into a target’s phone. Calls, emails, texts — everything. The software could capture encrypted messages before they were sent, and turn on the phone’s camera and microphone to surreptitiously record anything in the vicinity.
Pegasus, in other words, was nothing less than the ultimate surveillance tool. In the hands of NSO’s clients, which Citizen Lab discovered included governments like Mexico and the UAE, it could be invaluable.
Sitting on his couch that afternoon, Marczak paged through data he had collected that indicated where Pegasus had been in operation. Whenever a dissident forwarded it a suspicious link, Citizen Lab used data from the link to scan the internet for servers controlled by the Pegasus software, and then collected all those Pegasus connection points in a database. Now, they were doing the reverse: starting with the Pegasus servers and searching for devices trying to connect to them. Marczak, in other words, was attempting to determine whether they could proactively identify compromised devices in action.
That’s when he noticed something odd. Typically, he would have expected to find phones making those connections inside Saudi Arabia, where the government would likely be monitoring its citizens. Instead, the data showed a single phone in Canada repeatedly connecting with servers that Citizen Lab had observed appeared to be under the control of an operator connected to the Saudi government.
Pegasus, he realized, had compromised someone in Montreal, seemingly on behalf of the Saudis. Everything they were saying and doing could apparently be vacuumed up by these servers with the help of NSO, in real time.
“Hey, I think I found something interesting,” Marczak messaged the director of Citizen Lab. The Montreal phone’s connections formed a pattern. By day, they were connecting to Pegasus from a residential internet service provider. By night, the connections came from a university network.
With the help of some of his old Bahraini activist friends, Marczak gathered six names of Saudi dissidents living in Canada who seemed to fit the pattern. To narrow the list, he would have to talk to people on the ground.
That August, Marczak flew to Montreal to meet with dissidents and activists who were, understandably, suspicious of his intentions. When he reached Abdulaziz, the 27-year-old Saudi insisted they meet in a public place. One afternoon at a coffee shop, Marczak sat across from him and tried to explain the pattern of connections that had led him to Abdulaziz. Sure, that could be him, Abdulaziz replied, agreeing to let Marczak look through his phone.
Marczak opened the messaging app and searched for a link from sunday-deals.com, a website commonly used by Pegasus. And there it was, in a June message purporting to be from the shipper DHL, telling Abdulaziz he could use the link to monitor a pending shipment.
Had Abdulaziz clicked it? Sure, he said. He’d ordered a batch of protein powder that morning through Amazon and assumed the message was connected.
“You mean it’s not legitimate?” Abdulaziz said.
“It’s not legitimate,” Marczak said.
Marczak switched the phone to airplane mode and connected it to the internet through his laptop. He hoped to use his own software to catch the spyware in operation. But it was too late: Whoever had installed Pegasus had already disabled and removed it, leaving no trace besides the phantom text message. Perhaps they’d done it precisely because of this meeting, Marczak wondered.
In the moment, Abdulaziz seemed surprised but not shocked that every communication on his phone for the past two months had been monitored. But if Marczak was right, it meant the Saudis had seen his exchanges with Khashoggi about MBS’s government, about their plans, and about the cyber bees.
Within weeks of Marczak’s alerting him to the hack in August, Abdulaziz’s two younger brothers back in Saudi Arabia were arrested, along with eight of his friends. Abdulaziz viewed it as the government’s attempt to extort him into coming back home and perhaps making good on the agent’s promise. If they couldn’t jail him, they’d find the next closest thing.
Abdulaziz remained defiant. “My activism will not stop,” he told a reporter. “I do not accept blackmail.”
When Abdulaziz informed Khashoggi of the hack shortly after he heard about it from Marczak, the journalist laughed nervously, wondering aloud if he too might be under surveillance. Then on October 1, 2018, Marczak and his colleagues at Citizen Lab released a report about the Abdulaziz hacking. There was no evidence that Khashoggi had read it when he walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul at 1 p.m. the following day.
Later, in portions of the audio surveillance dribbled out by Turkish intelligence to local reporters and heard by the UN investigators, the grotesque snippets from what followed would come to shock the world. While the various translations of the dialogue sometimes conflicted, there was enough overlap to piece together a coherent firsthand account of a murder and a cover-up.
As Khashoggi and Cengiz walked up to the barriers outside the consulate at 1 p.m., Mutreb and Tubaigy, the doctor, were inside, making last-minute calibrations.
“We will first tell him that we are taking him to Riyadh,” Mutreb can be heard saying on the tapes. “If he fails to comply, we will kill him here and get rid of the body … [Will it] be possible to put the trunk in a bag?”
“No. Too heavy,” Tubaigy replies. He calmly lays out the steps they will take to deal with the corpse. “I have never worked on a warm body before, but I will take care of it easily. When I cut cadavers, I usually put on my headphones and listen to music. At the same time, I drink coffee and smoke.
“It is easy to take apart joints,” he continues, “but it will take time to chop it into pieces. It is not a problem. The body is heavy. Usually, one hangs the animal on a hook after butchering them to tear them into pieces. I have never done that on the ground. When I’m done chopping up, you will wrap the pieces into plastic bags, place them in suitcases, and take them out.”
If Tubaigy had any concerns, they were not humane, but bureaucratic. “My direct manager is not aware of what I am doing,” he complains to Mutreb. “There is nobody to protect me.” But there was no point worrying about it now. It was almost time to begin.
“Has the sacrificial animal arrived?” Mutreb says.
Moments later, at 1:14 p.m., Khashoggi acknowledged a nod from the guard in the powder-blue blazer and walked in the consulate’s bronze double doors.
Inside, he was ushered up to the second-floor office of the consul general. Awaiting him was what would have surely seemed a baffling collection of people. But the mystery resolved as soon as Khashoggi learned that al-Qahtani, the man who had tried to persuade him to return — the man who had overseen the brutal operations at the Ritz — was patched into the room via Skype.
Accounts from those who heard the tapes would differ slightly, but according to Turkish reporters, Mutreb and al-Qahtani seemed to enact a muddled good-cop-bad-cop routine. Al-Qahtani insulted Khashoggi, berating him for his betrayals. Mutreb at first took a softer tack. His sins against the government would be forgiven if he came home, he told the journalist.
Khashoggi said he hoped to return, someday.
“We will have to take you back,” Mutreb responded. He told Khashoggi that there was an Interpol notice — a kind of international arrest warrant — against him.
“There isn’t a case against me,” Khashoggi said. Sensing the danger, he tried to bluff his way out. He claimed that people were waiting outside for him — a car and driver, he said, plus his fiancée. “I am not going to Riyadh.”
It didn’t matter, he was told. Let’s make this quick, an official said. They asked Khashoggi what phones he used. They would need him to send a message to his son, in Saudi Arabia, explaining that he was in Istanbul. “Do not worry if you cannot get through to me for a while,” they instructed him to write.
“What should I say, ‘See you soon’?” Khashoggi asked. “I can’t say ‘kidnapping.'”
In response, an official told him to take off his jacket.
“How can this happen in an embassy?” Khashoggi said.
“Help us so that we can help you,” Mutreb said, “because at the end we will take you back to Saudi Arabia. And if you don’t help us, you know what will happen at the end. Let this issue find a good end.”
“There is a towel there. Are you going to give me drugs?” Khashoggi asked. He still sounded calm.
“We will anesthetize you,” came the response.
Then Mutreb gave the order.
Five agents converged on Khashoggi. He struggled, and amid the chaos one agent could be heard saying, “Keep pushing. Push here. Don’t remove your hand.”
“Let go of my mouth,” Khashoggi said. “I have asthma. Stop, you’re choking me.”
Turkish surveillance then captured what sounded to some like a plastic bag being placed over Khashoggi’s head. It was followed by only muffled sounds of struggle. Then nothing.
Mutreb pulled out his phone and made a call. “Tell your boss,” he said into the receiver. “The deed was done.”
The remainder of the kill team’s plan proceeded with a grotesque efficiency. One agent removed Khashoggi’s clothes and handed them to al-Madani, the lookalike. Another pulled out sheets of plastic.
Tubaigy then picked up the bone saw he’d brought from Riyadh.
Two hours later, the boxy van in the consulate’s covered driveway pulled out. It carried Mutreb, Tubaigy, and, in all likelihood, Khashoggi’s dismembered body. They drove the short distance to the consul general’s home. In the driveway, three men unloaded three trash bags and a rolling suitcase.
Back at the consulate, al-Madani left through a back door, avoiding Hatice Cengiz at the barrier out front. He was dressed in Khashoggi’s clothes, save for a pair of sneakers in place of the journalist’s black derby shoes. Accompanied by another agent wearing jeans and a hoodie and carrying a white plastic bag, he jumped into a taxi and asked to be driven to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul’s historic old center.
Somewhere inside the mosque, al-Madani changed again, back into his own clothes. The agents ditched the white bag and hopped another taxi to a Metro station. If anyone checked the CCTV footage around Istanbul later, presumably they would see that Khashoggi had left the consulate and gone sightseeing.
Just before 5 p.m., Mutreb, Tubaigy, and another agent left the consul general’s residence. There was no sign of the trash bags or suitcase they’d brought inside.
By then, a pair of private jets were en route from Riyadh. Mutreb and five others caught the first one — a Sky Prime Aviation plane, tail number HZ-SK1 — out of Istanbul at 6:30 p.m. The plane flew overnight to Cairo and then departed for Saudi Arabia the next evening. Seven others left on Sky Prime HZ-SK2 just before 10 p.m. The last two members of the kill team departed on a commercial flight direct to Riyadh at 1:30 the following morning.
It had been 12 hours since they’d assassinated Khashoggi.
By the evening of October 2, Turkish intelligence was already reviewing seven hours of audio surveillance it had captured from inside the consulate. Since the recordings hadn’t been monitored in real time, at first the intelligence agents had trouble discerning Khashoggi’s fate. Perhaps, they concluded, he had been drugged and transported out of the consulate in a box, still alive.
The Saudi cover-up, meanwhile, had already begun. The morning of October 3, the staff of the consulate was told to avoid the second floor, which was cleaned around 11 a.m. That evening, cameras captured a fire in a barrel outside the consul general’s home.
On October 5, a consular official drove the boxy van that had been seen pulling into and out of the consulate to a car wash. The following day, Saudi officials invited reporters from Reuters into the consulate with a camera. They wanted to show that they had nothing to hide, that they remained as baffled as anyone about Khashoggi’s disappearance.
“The citizen Jamal isn’t in the consulate or in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Saudi consul said, on camera. That much, at least, was true. The lie came next. “The consulate and the embassy are doing their best to look for him. We’re concerned about the case,” he said, his eyes darting from side to side. Yes, the consulate had security cameras installed at all its entrances, he said in response to a journalist’s question. Somehow, they just hadn’t recorded footage that day.
The Saudi ambassador to the US followed up with a statement: Any reports “that the Kingdom’s authorities have detained him or killed him are absolutely false, and baseless.”
But the plotters could already see the ruse was dissolving.
On October 10, a new team began arriving from Riyadh. It included members of the Saudi genetics-testing and criminal-evidence departments and appeared to be tasked with carrying out a more professional level of cleanup. By the following day, the team consisted of 11 members, including a chemist and a toxicology expert. For three days, they worked nearly round the clock inside the consulate.
Even as the Saudis continued to maintain that Khashoggi was merely missing, the Turkish authorities concluded from a closer examination of the surveillance that he’d been killed, his body likely transported to the consul general’s home. The Turkish press, fed evidence from the National Intelligence Organization, began publishing photos, videos, and dossiers on the 15 members of the kill team — arriving at the airport, checking into their hotels, entering and exiting the consulate.
The Saudi-owned satellite news channel Al Arabiya reported instead that the 15 Saudi suspects were merely tourists. Khashoggi hadn’t been killed, and reports to the contrary were “fake news,” they asserted.
On October 15, Turkish authorities were finally granted access to the consulate. The investigators found little of interest. The rooms had been so thoroughly cleaned, they told local reporters, that they failed to detect even the trace levels of DNA typical for an office.
At the consul’s residence, Saudi officials shadowed their every move, suddenly declaring certain areas off-limits. As at the consulate, the CCTV cameras had mysteriously failed to record anything on October 2, they said. Noticing a well on the property, the Turkish investigators asked permission to inspect it. The request was denied.
Agnès Callamard, a French-born human-rights expert who ran the Global Freedom of Expression Project at Columbia University, followed the Khashoggi saga from New York, increasingly concerned. She’d spent years documenting state-sponsored killings in her capacity as the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions — a kind of roving, independent investigator into unlawful death. She would know what a cover-up might look like.
On October 15, she and a colleague penned an op-ed article for The Washington Post, calling for an independent investigation sponsored by the UN Security Council. “Khashoggi’s disappearance must lead to accountability and consequences,” they wrote.
Nothing happened. “There was a mood internationally to brush it off,” Callamard told me later, “and move on with business as usual.”
By that point, the Saudi government had been maneuvering to establish another narrative. In a phone call on October 9 with Jared Kushner and John Bolton, then the US national security adviser, MBS explained that Khashoggi was a “dangerous Islamist” and a known member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Publicly, the Saudi government was still claiming that Khashoggi might be alive. Privately, the crown prince was already justifying his killing.
MBS had been investing in his relationship with the Trump administration since the moment Trump took office. After feeling shunted by an Obama administration determined to make a nuclear deal with Iran, the king and the crown prince saw common cause with an American president eager to repudiate his predecessor’s signature accomplishment. They found an easy familiarity, too, with a leader willing to keep power within his own family, as Trump had done with Ivanka and Jared. Oil, arms sales, mutual dislike of Iran, and counterterrorism had long formed the four pillars of the US-Saudi relationship. To those could be added a fifth, more personal one. Having a president’s son-in-law in his pocket, as MBS reportedly said, was about to pay its dividends.
So it appeared less than coincidental that it was Trump who first publicly floated the “rogue killers” theory — that the 15-man team had been sent to bring Khashoggi back and, against orders, ended up killing him. That became the story the Saudi government pivoted to on October 19, after the forced admission of the murder undid its first set of denials. The Saudis’ chief prosecutor appeared on state television to report that in fact the journalist had been killed. A fistfight had broken out in the consulate, he falsely claimed, and Khashoggi had, unfortunately, lost his life.
The next day, a Saudi spokesperson told Reuters that the government had detained 18 suspects in connection with the killing, including the 15 named by the Turkish authorities as part of the kill team. (Whether they’d done so while “on vacation,” as the Saudis had claimed, was left unaddressed.) Still, the Saudi government persisted in its claims that the murder had been, as one official called it, a “huge mistake.”
It took less than a week for the story to change: On October 25, the Saudi government admitted that the killing was premeditated but maintained it had no idea where Khashoggi’s body was. It also claimed that some members of the state’s security apparatus, including al-Qahtani, had lost their jobs. But the 18 suspects originally arrested soon dwindled to 11 who were criminally charged in connection with the murder. That included Mutreb and Tubaigy, along with nine security agents. Not among the accused was al-Qahtani — and, of course, MBS himself.
Experienced Saudi-watchers found it impossible that such an elaborate operation could take place under the crown prince’s nose, given his control over the state security apparatus. By November 16, both The Washington Post and The New York Times were reporting, via anonymous sources, that the CIA had concluded the same: MBS was not only aware of the killing — he’d ordered it. Among the other evidence leaked from a report to The Wall Street Journal was that MBS and al-Qahtani had exchanged 11 texts during the timeframe of the murder.
As public indignation around the Saudi government’s possible role in the murder grew, even the Trump administration seemed forced to at least gesture at concerns about the relationship. The Trump administration announced sanctions on 17 Saudis, including al-Qahtani, who the Treasury Department announcement said “was part of the planning and execution of the operation that led to the killing of Mr. Khashoggi.”
The Times reported that in private, even Trump rolled his eyes when aides asked whether MBS could have been ignorant of the operation. Publicly, however, he stood by his son-in-law’s pal. On November 20, the president issued a bizarre statement reaffirming his faith in the Saudi regime and MBS. “The world is a very dangerous place!” the release began. After several paragraphs trumpeting the dangers of Iran and a celebrating a vague Saudi pledge to invest $450 billion into the US, the statement turned to Khashoggi’s murder, calling it a “terrible” crime, “and one that our country does not condone.” It revived MBS’s evidence-free claim to Kushner and Bolton that the Saudis considered Khashoggi an “enemy of the state” and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“It could very well be that the Crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump continued. “That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi.”
By January, Callamard, the UN special rapporteur, realized that Trump was likely to be proved right about the unknowable facts by default. The world was not going to mobilize around an independent investigation. The Security Council hadn’t so much as proposed one.
So she decided to launch it herself. “At a gut level I thought, ‘That cannot be the end of the story,'” she said.
Most of her work had involved large-scale killings by armed groups. But Khashoggi’s death fell within her mandate “to examine situations of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions in all circumstances,” according to the resolution that created it. Her position by nature required no UN approval for any particular investigation. “It was a bit daunting,” she said. “I was on my own, looking at the most spoken-of killing, a major news item, a major international-relations hot potato.” She organized a team of lawyers and translators and arranged her first trip to Turkey.
After weeks of negotiation, Turkish intelligence allowed Callamard to listen to — but not copy or authenticate — portions of the surveillance tapes, together with a translator. She then crisscrossed Europe and North America, interviewing Hatice Cengiz and Khashoggi’s friends and colleagues, including Omar Abdulaziz. In December, Abdulaziz had filed a lawsuit against NSO Group, the maker of Pegasus, alleging that the information obtained in the hacking of his phone was a “crucial factor” in the decision to execute Khashoggi.
The suit remains pending. In a statement to Business Insider on Tuesday, the NSO Group declined to comment specifically on the Abdulaziz matter but said that a review of “every government NSO does business with” showed that Khashoggi himself “was not targeted by any NSO product or technology.” As for Abdulaziz, NSO Group had told The New York Times that its software was “licensed for the sole use of providing governments and law enforcement agencies the ability to lawfully fight terrorism and crime” and that its contracts were “only provided after a full vetting and licensing by the Israeli government.”
The Saudis refused to acknowledge Callamard’s investigation at all, ignoring her requests. The Washington Post reported that the government had offered Khashoggi’s children houses and monthly payments as compensation for the killing. (Khashoggi’s son denied that any settlement had been reached.) The kingdom did open its doors to several prominent Instagram influencers, to whom it offered paid tours to see the positive side of the country. “It’s not propaganda,” the prince in charge of the effort told Bloomberg. “It’s simply a human engagement exercise.”
Many of the tech executives and venture capitalists who’d fêted MBS the reformer in Silicon Valley remained publicly unwilling to engage. If a VC on Sand Hill Road was alleged to have ordered a brutal murder, one would have expected their co-investors and investees to distance themselves at the least — even wash their hands of the blood money entirely. When the accused orchestrator sat in a palace in Riyadh and held the strings to even greater billions, the strategy seemed to be utter silence.
Some, like Richard Branson and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, decided to skip a late-October economic conference hosted by MBS in Riyadh nicknamed “Davos in the Desert.” Others chose to quietly remove themselves from Saudi projects, as executives at Apple and the design firm Ideo did, exiting an advisory board of Neom, a “mega-city” project in Saudi Arabia.
Otherwise, none of the budding tech moguls who’d supercharged their growth curve off the Saudis’ billions seemed willing to touch the Khashoggi matter — even after the facts were known. (Business Insider contacted a dozen tech startups that received significant investment directly or indirectly from Saudi Arabia; the few that responded wouldn’t comment on the record.) The only company to publicly repudiate the Saudi money was Endeavor, the Hollywood talent behemoth, which announced in March that it was returning the $400 million it had been granted from the Saudi Public Investment Fund.
In August, SoftBank announced that it would soon begin investing its Vision Fund Two into a new batch of companies. Despite MBS’s claim in October that the Saudis were injecting another $45 billion, they were nowhere to be found among the investors. Whether this was because of a newfound resistance to Saudi money or a newfound reluctance by MBS to spend it wasn’t clear. As Uber’s valuation flattened after its initial public offering and WeWork postponed its IPO under pressure, the Vision Fund itself was starting to look like a less-than-sure bet as an investment.
In June, Callamard and her team released their harrowing 100-page report, cataloging the gruesome details of the plot and its execution. It argued that the secret trials of the 11 accused henchmen in Saudi Arabia were unlikely to produce justice. (Al-Qahtani, the lead planner of the murder, had meanwhile disappeared from public view in Saudi Arabia, leading to still unconfirmed rumors that he’d been poisoned. In September, Twitter suddenly decided to suspend his long-dormant account.)
Instead, Callamard recommended that the US open an FBI investigation into the murder and sanction MBS — “in view of the credible evidence into the responsibilities of the Crown Prince for his murder” — until the Saudis provided evidence about the plot that could establish whether he was involved.
Days after the release of the report, however, Trump said in an interview on “Meet the Press” that he’d failed to even raise the murder in a call with MBS. It had been “a great conversation,” he said. “It really didn’t come up in that discussion.”
Even as some members of Congress — Republicans and Democrats — kept pushing for consequences for Khashoggi’s murder, the Trump family remained steadfast in its loyalty. Trump ignored a bipartisan congressional directive to issue a report on the crown prince’s involvement and vetoed an attempt to block US support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen. Business between the two countries had, in fact, remained brisk: Less than three weeks after Khashoggi was murdered, the administration granted authorization to two private US companies to share sensitive nuclear information with the Saudi government.
The message to MBS couldn’t have been clearer. “As long as President Trump is in power, and as long as MBS is paying money — buying arms, investing in US companies and the US economy — he would know that he has some kind of cover, some kind of protection,” Carnegie’s Farouk told me.
After two Saudi oil facilities were damaged by recent drone attacks that White House officials allege originated in Iran, Trump was asked by a reporter if he’d promised the Saudis “that the US will protect them.”
“No, I haven’t. I haven’t promised the Saudis that,” Trump replied. “But we would certainly help them,” he said. “They’ve been a great ally. They spent $400 billion in our country over the last number of years. Four hundred billion dollars.” Saudi Arabia, he said in conclusion, “pays cash.”
Almost exactly two years since MBS’s corruption crackdown, and two weeks before the anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder, Khashoggi’s adopted paper reported that Kushner was headed back to Saudi Arabia for this year’s Davos in the Desert. The forum is being held at the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh.
On October 20, 2018, Hatice Cengiz awoke to the buzzing of her phone. It was a message from Khashoggi’s best friend. “God rest his soul,” he wrote. The Saudis’ chief prosecutor had just admitted on television that her fiancé was dead.
On October 2, when Khashoggi had failed to emerge from the consulate, she had spent the evening making frantic calls, seeking any answer to where he’d gone. The officials’ lies about his fate were cause for a cruel optimism that he could still be alive. Perhaps he had been kidnapped, shepherded out of the country, and taken back to Saudi Arabia. Disappeared, but still alive. It seemed beyond reason that they had just killed him.
She spent her days talking with his relatives and friends, trying to shield herself from the endless waves of curiosity and concern from all corners of the world. She gave few comments, held no press conferences. When Jamal walked back out from wherever he was, she thought, he would speak for himself.
For Cengiz, that fact of his death brought not just grief but questions. Some were straightforward, fueled by anger: Where was his body? Who was responsible? Who would seek justice for him? Others, she later said, were unanswerable, turning over and over in her head. “Was he angry with me?” she wondered. “What did he go through? What did he feel when he realized they were going to kill him?”
Left to grieve in the glare of a global spotlight, she’d had to set her studies aside as diplomats and governments concealed and spun and rationalized the death of the man she loved. She looked into TV cameras and described the agony of that day. She wrote a book in Turkish that included pages from her diary written in the days following the murder, intimate professions of the love his own country had exploited. All of it tinged with the hope of nudging the world toward an understanding of what was lost that October morning — or maybe even justice.
“These days are very precious for Jamal, I believe,” she told me through a translator when we met on September 27 in a hotel suite near Grand Central Terminal in New York. “So I have to do whatever I can for him.”
She had come to New York to deliver a speech in conjunction with the annual UN General Assembly meeting. Among the things she was pushing for were the recommendations from Callamard’s report: a full investigation by an entity like the FBI, and accountability for everyone in Saudi Arabia responsible for what she called “a political assassination.”
Ours was the last of a series of back-to-back interviews Cengiz gave that day. In some way, each exchange forced her to recount or reflect on the worst moments of her life and the grief that followed. Yet she seemed not weary, but unflinching, direct.
“Yes, I missed out on certain things career-wise, but I don’t care about it for the moment,” she said. “What matters is Jamal, and I need to defend his rights.”
The question of MBS’s accountability had reemerged that morning, when PBS released a trailer for an upcoming “Frontline” documentary about Saudi Arabia. In it, the journalist Martin Smith said that he tracked down MBS at a racing event and asked him about his role in Khashoggi’s murder. “I get all the responsibility,” Smith said the crown prince told him, “because it happened under my watch.” Asked how the killing could have taken place without his orders, he’d said, “We have 20 million people. We have 3 million government employees.”
A few days later, the crown prince enhanced his denial, in an interview with “60 Minutes.” Calling the killing a “heinous incident,” MBS replied “absolutely not” to a specific question about whether he’d ordered it, and then reiterated that he couldn’t have kept watch on the actions of even his closest advisers among Saudi Arabia’s millions of citizens.
In Cengiz’s view, for MBS to issue such a statement at all showed that the pressure from the media coverage of the killing was getting to him. But its phrasing, she suggested, was also intended to send a message: “That he is the one in charge of the Saudi administration and Saudi government. And by saying that, he is strengthening his place.” He was also, she believed, implicitly admitting that as the all-seeing ruler, he knew exactly what happened in the murder plot. “And now I am addressing him,” she said. “If so, now that you’ve confessed that, please share the details of this incident.”
Before we stood up to leave, I asked Cengiz how she kept herself from being overwhelmed by cynicism.
“This totally changed my life, and clearly divided my life into two,” she said. “I’m 35, and I have suddenly started the second half of my life with a new agenda. And now nothing matters to me.” She’d left her earthly concerns behind, she said. She was no longer afraid of death.
“To love and to be loved is the most important thing,” she said. “I guess we must live for the things that are really worth it.”