Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder: Closing the Case

On Monday the public prosecutor of Saudi Arabia announced that justice has been done. Five people have been sentenced to death for the murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a team of Saudi agents inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. Unfortunately, he didn’t say who they were.

No problem. They will probably be executed by the end of the week (Saudi ‘justice’ doesn’t generally go in for lengthy appeals), and dead men don’t talk. Once the five men are shorter by a head and their families have been bribed and/or intimidated into silence, their names will be released – and that will be that. Case closed.

We do know the names of the condemned five already, however, because the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the case, Agnes Callamard, has published them. All of them are quite junior members of the hit team that murdered Khashoggi, or junior members of the mission control team back in Riyadh. The most senior is an intelligence official called Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb.

Mutreb worked for Saud al-Qahtani, who is special adviser to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. Needless to say al-Qahtani is not among the eleven who were charged with the killing, although he was almost certainly the operational controller in what was (after the fact) characterised by the Saudi regime as a ‘rogue operation’.

It was nothing of the sort. It is inconceivable that such an operation could have been carried out (by a 15-strong hit team flown in from Saudi Arabia on two private jets) without prior authorisation from MbS. In a tightly centralised regime, the Crown Prince makes all the final decisions that matter – and this one certainly mattered.

Murdering a famous Saudi journalist who writes a column for the Washington Post, and doing it on the soil of a more-or-less friendly country (Turkey), is a big deal, and MbS could not have been left out of the decision-making loop. As for the story, assiduously peddled by Saudi sources, that it was just a kidnap operation that went wrong, the Turks have the goods on that lie.

The Turkish intelligence services had bugged Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul (surprise!). Their recordings of the conversation among the Saudi killers before Khashoggi arrived – to pick up a document certifying that he was divorced, so that he could marry his Turkish fiancée (who was waiting outside) – make it clear that their intention was murder.

Minutes before the journalist entered the consulate, two of the Saudi officials discussed how to dispose of Khashoggi’s body. One says: “The body is heavy. First time I cut on the ground. If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished.” After some further discussion the other asks if “the sacrificial animal” has arrived yet.

So they killed him (probably with a lethal injection), cut his body up with implements that included a saw for the bones (there are the sounds of a saw on the Turkish recordings), and handed the bagged bits over to a local Turkish accomplice, who dumped them in a still undiscovered place. Then the hit team flew home again, after a job well done.

Having listened to the tapes and sent copies to all of Saudi Arabia’s major Western allies, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan said publicly that he could not believe that Saudi Arabia’s elderly and frail King Salman bin Abdulaziz had been personally involved. However, Erdoǧan pointedly did not say the same about the man’s reckless and ruthless son, Muhammad bin Salman, who actually runs the place.

Everybody knows that MbS ordered the hit. It fits his modus operandi, which features hasty and foolish decisions (like the military intervention in Yemen and the blockade of Qatar) that he then has plenty of time to regret at leisure as they go wrong. But he’s not going to pay a very big price for the Khashoggi murder.

The United States, Germany, Britain and France sat on the Turkish recordings for three weeks before Canada went public about them and forced the others to admit that they had received them too. Even then they dissimulated and prevaricated, desperately seeking some way to avoid accusing the crown prince of the crime.

And in the end none of them called him out on it. Five low-ranking Saudi officials, some of them no more than mere muscle, have taken the fall for the murder, while the directors of the operation will get a slap on the wrist (and, after some delay, a rich reward for their service and their silence).

As for the prime mover in the crime, he escapes any criticism at all from his foreign friends, who want to go on selling him arms and buying his oil. And nobody at home dares to say a word.
To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Having…murder”)