U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on September 18, 2019. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain]

Architects of a Murder: The Fate of Jamal Khashoggi’s Assassins

Two weeks ago, a criminal court in Riyadh indicted eleven men for the murder of fifty-nine-year-old Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who met his gruesome end in a private room of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul over a year ago. The killing was quickly exposed by Turkish intelligence, and became, evidently much to the perpetrators’ dismay, front-page news across the world. In this piece, we examine those involved in the killing, and their fate.

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A statement released by the Saudi Public Prosecutor two weeks ago revealed several official rulings over Khashoggi’s murder – a crime that was simultaneously investigated by officials from Ankara, Riyadh, and the United Nations. Eleven men were indicted for his murder, five of whom were sentenced to death, three were sentenced to jail time totalling twenty-four years, and three others were acquitted without conviction. Crucially, ten more men were released from custody due to insufficient evidence of their involvement. The convictions came over a year after Saudi authorities admitted that Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent journalist who had fled the Kingdom to be able to criticise the government of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman from a position of relative safety, had been killed by Saudi intelligence operatives.

Saudi Arabia has never been slow to issue the death penalty. The Wahhabi state has beheaded over six hundred people since 2015 alone for a dozen capital crimes that include, as was the case here, murder and espionage. Indeed, while Saudi criminal justice grants a victim’s family the final say over the death penalty, such a punishment was demanded by the Public Prosecutor almost immediately after Khashoggi’s murder was uncovered, and if the defendants’ appeals are overruled, then five more Saudi nationals will face the state executioner in a public square.

These particular men, however, are no petty criminals. The quintet facing execution have been named as Fahad Shabib Albalawi and Waleed Abdullah Alshehri, both members of the elite Saudi Royal Guard; Turki Muserref Alshehri and Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, both officers of the Saudi foreign intelligence service; and Dr Salah Mohammed Tubaigny, a university professor and forensic surgeon for the Interior Ministry.

Behind closed doors, the Saudi criminal court found all five men guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi – something that in part reflects the findings of the UN Special Rapporteur on the journalist’s assassination. In fact, as well as specifying very directly the obvious criminal nature of Khashoggi’s death, the UN investigator cited six violations of international law. Namely, her investigation asserted that the act constituted the arbitrary deprivation of life, an extraterritorial use of force, a non-official usage of consular mission, an act of torture, an act of forced disappearance, and an affront to freedom of expression.

Despite all of this, the convictions of these five men make up only a fraction of the full story as far as many elements of the international community are concerned. In fact, the process is something that the UN investigator herself has called “the antithesis of justice”, and that US Congressman Adam Schiff, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said “contradicts evidence and common sense”. To know why, we need to understand exactly what happened, and who the real plotters were.

Anatomy of a Killing

The findings of the UN Special Rapporteur into Khashoggi’s murder make for transfixing reading, and now constitute a publicly available, ninety-nine page long, summary of a brutal assassination. The world now knows exactly how the day unfolded.

A private jet landed in Istanbul at 03:30 on the 2nd of October, 2018. It carried nine Saudi intelligence officers, including a forensic surgeon. Dr. Tubaigny’s appearance on the manifest was one of the most compelling arguments that this was a premeditated murder.

The group all checked into a hotel just before five o’clock in the morning. As the Turkish airport authorities later admitted, the men had left the airport entirely unchecked.

When morning came, Khashoggi, who was in Istanbul to obtain legal marital documents, called the Saudi Consulate ahead of his arrival. Since many ordinary staff members at the Consulate had been pre-emptively instructed to stay home that day due to apparent ‘engineering works’, it will have been unusually quiet when the target arrived at around one o’clock. Turkish officials have estimated he was dead within ten minutes of crossing the threshold.

Once inside, Khashoggi was confronted by two of the Saudi intelligence agents. Knowing he was a high-profile dissident, he nervously bargained with them for several minutes, but to no avail. According to the forensic investigators, as well as a number of audio recordings from inside the building, Jamal Khashoggi was ultimately sedated, asphyxiated, and then dismembered with a bonesaw.

The Saudi operatives split up after leaving the building – one of them wearing their latest victim’s clothes – and returned to their hotel at around six o’clock. Within twenty-four hours they were all back in Saudi Arabia, having neutralised one of the Crown Prince’s most diligent critics and callously disposed of his remains in the gargantuan Turkish metropolis’s garbage waste system.

The path leading to Khashoggi’s murder did not begin on that day in October, however. It is understood that his movements and communications were being monitored by Saudi intelligence – via his friends’ mobile phones, infected by malware – for some time. His surveyors will have known exactly when he was planning on being at the consulate in Istanbul, and records of the communications between them show they were prepared.

The Chief Architect

Khashoggi’s murder did not occur in a vacuum. It speaks to the reach of one of the most sophisticated intelligence agencies in the Middle East, to the reputation and command by the Crown Prince himself, and to the ideological conviction of a single one of his most trusted advisers: another middle-aged former journalist, no less.

Saud al Qahtani is forty-one years old. His official appointment to King Salman’s royal court in December 2015, and then later to the Crown Prince’s personal media surveillance team, was in itself an act of good public relations for the Saudi royals. He posed no perceivable risk to them, bearing the surname of the major Qahtan tribe and beginning his media career at the government’s own Al-Riyadh newspaper. From there, he cemented his role as a propagandist, and one whose social media profiles (some of which are now suspended) seem to show genuine fanatical conviction to the Kingdom’s cult of personality.

The fact he was made one of the chief architects of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder speaks to his proficiency at his job. But his public activity also portrays a persona – whether authentic or deliberately embellished – of personal royalist fervour and willingness, even enjoyment, of his job. Posts against online supporters of Qatar amid the Gulf countries’ economic blockade of the island nation, for instance, were often darkened by personally threatening language. Indeed, since his profile has become better known in the international media over the last year, many journalists outside of Saudi Arabia have sought to further expose his activity, and reports have surfaced of his personal harassment of activists on line, not simply by allowing the security services to perform such a task for him. There is credible evidence that was present at the 2017 interrogation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, and allegations he engaged in ‘cruel, inhumane and degrading’ treatment of the detained foreign dignitary. Equally disturbing are allegations made by more than one female Saudi activists that, during their own incarceration, al Qahtani was personally present at the time of their torture. According to one woman, this included sexual threats and a promise to “dissolve her in acid”.

With such a record, it is unsurprising to see why al Qahtani was chosen to lead the hunt for Khashoggi. The journalist wrote in one of his many Washington Post articles, preserved online as an unsettling epitaph, that “Over the past 18 months, MBS’s communications team within the Royal Court publicly has chastised, and worse, intimidated anyone who disagrees. Saud Al Qahtani, leader of that unit, has a blacklist and calls for Saudis to add names to it. Writers like me, whose criticism is offered respectfully, seem to be considered more dangerous than the more strident Saudi opposition based in London.”

Al Qahtani was sacked from his post after the story of Khashoggi’s murder was uncovered, and his international movements are now hampered by strict financial sanctions by the US Treasury and State Department, as well as the European Union – not to mention his ongoing subjection to a Turkish arrest warrant. But if his advertised ideological convictions are to be believed, this does not mean that his career after his acquittal last month will see a change of heart.

A Future Life in Shadow

Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, undoubtedly one of the world’s most influential men and al Qahtani’s direct employer, is beset by challenges to an ambitious economic agenda. Seeing the conviction of some – if not all – of Khashoggi’s murderers will have been a humiliating attempt to rebuild Saudi Arabia’s reputation, as he works towards his Vision 2030 image of a vibrant regional hub and a welcoming market for global investors. This image is paramount for MbS, and although Al Qahtani is unlikely to be publicly given such an official role again, the fact that he was one of the ones acquitted – escaping the fate of the surgeon and the royal guard among others – demonstrates the value of his domain to the royal family. For them, image and veneer, is everything. Al Qahtani’s acquittal indicates the Crown Prince still has use for the operative, and, although his gruesome reputation and international status means he is now bound for a life in shadow fully at the future King’s mercy, he is sure, with time, to re-enter the royal folds.

أتقدم بجزيل الشكر والعرفان لمقام مولاي خادم الحرمين الشريفين، وسمو سيدي ولي العهد الأمين؛ على الثقة الكبيرة التي أولوني إياها، ومنحي هذه الفرصة العظيمة للتشرف بخدمة وطني طوال السنوات الماضية…
سأظل خادماً وفياً لبلادي طول الدهر، وسيبقى وطننا الغالي شامخاً بإذن الله تعالى.

“I will forever be a loyal servant to this country and this nation shall always stand tall”

(@saudq1978) October 20, 2018 (Eighteen days after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder)

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John Scott is a Scottish security analyst with expertise in counter-narcotics and non-state groups. John has degrees in Political Science from St Andrews and Glasgow University, and recently completed a NATO Military Security course in Lithuania. He has contributed policy research for a political group in the Central African Republic and organised crime analysis for Intelligence Fusion, and now works in political risk for a leading intelligence firm in London.

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Photo credit: State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain