The prevailing narrative about the bizarre case of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is that Saudi Arabia’s hard-charging young crown prince ordered him kidnapped and perhaps killed in order to silence a particularly effective critic who wrote widely read, disparaging columns about the royal family and the crown prince’s own ambitious reform agenda.
But Middle East insiders say some deeper subplots played into Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance — stemming from his long career of political activism, ties to Saudi intelligence and Mr. Khashoggi’s past relationship with the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr. Khashoggi, who was 59 when he disappeared at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, is said to have withdrawn years ago from any formal affiliation with the Brotherhood, but his past ties to the transnational Islamist group are believed to have been a source of distrust for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The 33-year-old prince branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and one of his signature moves as heir to the Saudi throne was to cut off all ties with the rival Gulf nation of Qatar. The prince blames Doha for financing the Muslim Brotherhood to foment unrest against the powers that be across the Arab world, in particular Saudi Arabia.
Since leaving Saudi Arabia for self-imposed exile in the U.S. last year, Mr. Khashoggi has worked to create an advocacy group called Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) to promote Arab Spring-style freedom movements across the Middle East.
Some say Mohammed, who has a reputation for quickly identifying and crushing any threats to his authority, was well aware of Mr. Khashoggi’s political activities and likely more concerned about them than his journalistic efforts as a columnist for The Washington Post.
Longtime regional analyst and former Wall Street Journal publisher Karen Elliott House said in the newspaper this week: “Those who watch the crown prince closely say he is determined to pre-empt any hint of possible disruption before it can materialize.
“So Mr. Khashoggi’s decision to register in the U.S. a new political organization, perhaps funded by Saudi regional rivals, might have triggered this action,” wrote Ms. House, who is also the author of an influential 2012 book on Saudi Arabia.
The New York Times, citing interviews with longtime friends of Mr. Khashoggi, reported that he was in the midst of raising money for DAWN when he disappeared in Turkey, whose own government is a rival to Saudi Arabia in the Muslim world and has close ties to Qatar and to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Qatar has not commented on claims by Turkish officials that Mr. Khashoggi was killed by a Saudi “hit squad.” The crown prince, meanwhile, has denied any knowledge of what happened and has pledged to support a transparent investigation into the journalist’s disappearance.
Meeting bin Laden
Mr. Khashoggi had a long and varied career in Saudi affairs before he became a U.S.-based opinion writer, including working on and off for the Saudi government.
The Khashoggi name was well-known in U.S. government circles long before Jamal Khashoggi came onto the scene. His uncle Adnan Khashoggi was a noted global arms dealer implicated in the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra scandal.
Jamal Khashoggi reportedly engaged in occasional work for Saudi intelligence during the era of Prince Turki al-Faisal, who headed Riyadh’s spy agencies from 1979 until just before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
As a younger man in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Khashoggi considered himself a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which analysts often describe as a foundational group behind the emergence of al Qaeda.
In his 30s, Mr. Khashoggi drew international attention for interviewing Osama bin Laden. According to the 2007 book “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” Mr. Khashoggi met with the emerging terrorist leader in Sudan in 1995 and pressured him to disavow violence.
“I was aware of Jamal for many years, during his tenure as a reporter and editor,” Warren David, the founder of the U.S.-based media organization Arab America, wrote on the organization’s website Wednesday.
Mr. David described Mr. Khashoggi as a “man of principle and integrity” who believed in the promotion of democracy in the Arab world and as someone steeped in the challenges of navigating the tumultuous media scene in Saudi Arabia and across the Middle East.
“Jamal could speak from experience. He was the editor-in-chief of the Al-Arab News Channel, owned by Saudi prince and philanthropist, Al Waleed bin Talal Abdulaziz al Saud,” Mr. David wrote. “After the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, Prince Waleed founded the channel which would focus on freedom of speech and democratic media.
“In February of 2015, Al-Arab News Channel debuted in Bahrain under the leadership of Jamal Khashoggi. On the first day of broadcast, the opposition leader of Bahrain’s uprisings was interviewed,” wrote Mr. David. “Shockingly, within a couple of hours, the channel’s closure was announced. After searching for a new location, and securing a home for the network in Qatar, Jamal was ready to initiate broadcasting with the new network but was informed by Prince Al Waleed in February 2017 that the channel would never open.”
While Mr. Khashoggi often and ironically expressed support for the crown prince’s social and economic reforms, he made no secret of his disgust with Mohammed’s crackdown of perceived critics.
“With young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power, he … spoke of making our country more open and tolerant,” Mr. Khashoggi wrote in September 2017. “But all I see now is the recent wave of arrests. … The arrested are accused of being recipients of Qatari money and part of a grand Qatari-backed conspiracy.”
Although the columns were often critical, analysts are at a loss to explain why the Saudi leadership would risk geopolitical blowback and the strains on U.S.-Saudi ties that would result from an operation to kidnap or kill him. Many say Crown Prince Mohammed simply underestimated the reaction the mission would spark.
Mr. Khashoggi’s “ties to the Muslim Brotherhood do not seem to have involved any links to extremism,” said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “His criticisms of the Saudi government seem to have been limited to the kinds of reforms the kingdom will eventually have to make.
“In fact, a more enlightened and pragmatic Saudi crown prince might have seen them as actually helping in the near term by acting as a counterweight to the hard-line Saudi conservatives that challenge every [reform],” Mr. Cordesman wrote this week.
But others say Mr. Khashoggi crossed a line in his columns for The Post.
David Ottaway, a Middle East fellow at the Wilson Center who knew Mr. Khashoggi for more than 20 years, wrote in The Post on Wednesday that “Khashoggi’s unpardonable sin was to call for debate not about the crown prince’s social reforms, which he wholeheartedly supported, but about the crown prince’s stifling intolerance for anyone who cast even a speck of dirt on his highly polished image as the kingdom’s long-awaited savior.”
But sources close to the Saudi government insist the crown prince would never go so far as to order an assassination.
“Saudi policy toward a critic like this is always to buy people off, try to bring them back into the fold,” one source told The Washington Times. “An act like this is totally out of character for the royal family. If it happened, it would be because it was a total [mistake] by some people and there will be consequences.”
Still others say the prince is a new kind of leader for the tradition-bound, hierarchical kingdom, one who drew global attention last year by engineering a nearly three-month-long house arrest of dozens of fellow princes and leading business figure, including several older relatives within the royal family.
Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the prince has ushered in a sharp shift in the way Riyadh conducts itself on the world stage.
“The Saudis may have used money, not force, for decades to get their way with bribes, but that all changed with Mohammed bin Salman,” Mr. Landis said. “Frankly, I don’t put it past him to have put out an order for [Mr. Khashoggi] to be whacked in the same way [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is whacking opponents overseas, because it sends a message and intimidates critics.
“Every Saudi who might be thinking about speaking up,” he added, “is [now] going to be quiet.”