Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi critic and Washington Post columnist, murdered in Saudi consulate in Istanbul

First posted July 11, 2019 3:42am EDT
Last updated August 30, 2021 5:53pm EDT

All Associated Themes:

  • Foreign Policy
  • Legal Action
  • National Security
  • Press
  • Professional Consequences
  • Violence / Threats

External References

Jamal Khashoggi became an opinion columnist for The Washington Post in 2017 after moving to the United States in self-imposed exile. When Khashoggi visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2, 2018, in a routine effort to obtain documents related to his planned marriage, he was murdered. His assassination spurred a multinational crisis as leaders struggled with how — or whether — to punish Saudi Arabia.

Key Players

Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist. He wrote for Saudi newspapers and advised the Saudi royal family until moving to the United States in 2017, a self-imposed exile fueled by his disagreement with Saudi crackdowns on Free Speech. Upon arriving in the United States and settling in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., Khashoggi became a columnist for The Washington Post, writing about Middle Eastern and Arab world politics until his death.

Mohammed bin Salman is the crown prince of the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia and the presumptive heir to the Saudi throne. Colloquially referred to as “MBS,” he is regarded by some as a modernizing, dynamic force in a country that has historically maintained many orthodox Islamic traditions and policies. Crown Prince Mohammed has been responsible for such reforms as allowing women to drive and restricting the powers of the religious police. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Turkish government allege that he was ultimately responsible for the killing of Khashoggi.

A Saudi hit squad arrived in Istanbul in advance of Khashoggi’s appointment at the Saudi consulate, then allegedly executed a plan to murder and dismember Khashoggi there and cover up the assassination. In March 2019, The New York Times reported that members of this team had been involved in a multiyear effort spearheaded by the crown prince to repatriate, detain, and otherwise silence Saudi dissenters.

On the campaign trail in 2016, U.S. President Donald Trump was critical of Saudi influence on the United States, but he took a more conciliatory tone after coming into office. Trump often discusses the value of arms deals between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the Saudis’ ability to provide oil to the United States, and the strategic importance of the country in the region. After the CIA accused Crown Prince Mohammed of being responsible for the killing of Khashoggi, Trump refused to condemn him. 

Mike Pompeo is the U.S. secretary of state. He and the Saudi crown prince have been reported to have a strong friendship. While Pompeo claimed to be taking a harsh stance against Crown Prince Mohammed for Khashoggi’s killing, he was criticized for smiling alongside him in photographs following the murder. 

Further Details

Khashoggi had a long history of outspoken progressivism in the face of Saudi conservatism, often to the detriment of his career. In 2003, months after becoming editor-in-chief of the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, he was fired for publishing criticism of the government. According to Al Hdhod, Khashoggi was forced out of Al-Watan after it published an editorial critical of Ibn Taymiyya, an influential figure in Wahhabism, the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia. Memri reported in 2003 that Khashoggi was fired by the order of the Saudi Ministry of Information. According to the Encyclopedia of Censorship, the Saudi Ministry of Media (referred to as the Ministry of Information and Culture in 2003) is responsible for the widespread censorship of the media in Saudi Arabia. The Encyclopedia describes how the Ministry of Information creates a culture of self-censorship in the country by sending unofficial directives to the media, then leaving it to the minister of information to determine how the writer and publication should be punished. 

After being fired, Khashoggi moved to London, where he became an adviser for Turki Al Faisal, a Saudi diplomat and politician. Khashoggi returned to his position at Al-Watan in 2007. He resigned in 2010, following his decision to publish criticism of Salafism, a strain of Islam that includes Wahhabism, this time by Saudi poet Ibrahim Al-Almaee, according to the BBC. The BBC also reported speculation that Khashoggi had been forced to resign. He remained in Saudi Arabia, working for and founding various newspapers in the region, until June 2017, when he moved to the United States. He told The Economist that he went into exile because he felt uncomfortable as a journalist in Saudi Arabia — increasingly restricted and unsafe after making public comments that the Saudi government should be nervous about Trump’s election. He later explained that he was referring to Trump’s vague and contradictory stances on various Middle Eastern conflicts as his cause for concern. Khashoggi revealed to The Economist that Saudi officials had banned him from writing and tweeting thereafter.

At this time, many well-publicized reforms were occurring in Saudi Arabia, spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed. But the reforms were accompanied by a crackdown on the crown prince’s political opponents, resulting in dozens of high-profile arrests. In November 2017, Saudi Arabia introduced a new anti-terrorism law, which gave the government a broad mandate to regulate political speech through censorship and content manipulation. According to Human Rights Watch, the legislation changed the definition of terrorism to include “disturbing public order,” “shaking the security of the community and the stability of the State,” and “exposing [Saudi Arabia’s] national unity to danger.” It established a prison sentence of five to 10 years for portraying the crown prince or king “in a manner that brings religion or justice into disrepute.” Freedom House criticized the legislation and in 2018 described “an escalating intolerance for all forms of political, social, and religious dissent” in Saudi Arabia, giving the country an Internet Freedom Score of “not free,” despite Crown Prince Mohammed’s supposedly progressive changes. 

On Sept. 28, 2018, Khashoggi visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul for divorce papers that would allow him to remarry. He was told to return Oct. 2. That day, Khashoggi drove to the consulate with his Turkish fiancee and left her with a cell phone and instructions to contact one of his friends in the Turkish government if he did not return, according to the BBC. She ended up waiting 10 hours for Khashoggi to emerge from the consulate, but he never reappeared.

In fact, within minutes of entering the building, Khashoggi was murdered. According to the Saudi public prosecutor later tasked with building a case against Khashoggi’s assassins, Khashoggi was met by a 15-man team sent either to return him to Saudi Arabia peacefully or to kill him, it having been decided that forcefully transferring him instead to a safe location in Turkey was not possible. The Saudi prosecutor explained in his Investigation Results Briefing that Khashoggi was given a lethal dose of a drug and subsequently dismembered by the group and transferred outside of the building. The exact location of Khashoggi’s remains is still unknown. The Turkish government alleges that the team tampered with surveillance footage to cover up the crime, creating images of him supposedly leaving the consulate and disappearing into a crowd at a popular nearby tourist attraction. The Saudi public prosecutor also claimed that one of the conspirators dressed in Khashoggi’s clothes and attempted to impersonate him leaving the consulate.

Following his disappearance, there was widespread confusion about the circumstances surrounding Khashoggi’s alleged assassination. The Turkish government took a lead role in investigating the incident and was among the first to conclude that he had been murdered by individuals working for the Saudi government. On Oct. 17, 2018, The Times reported that Turkey had obtained an audio recording of the killing inside the consulate, which the Turks said proved Khashoggi had been murdered and dismembered almost immediately after he arrived. The Turkish government shared the audio with the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. On Nov. 13, CNN received a leaked transcript of the recording. CNN described the killers listening to music as they dismembered Khashoggi and said the transcript suggests that they called several people, presumably updating officials in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, about the progress of their mission. 

Amid intensifying public backlash worldwide, Saudi Arabia agreed to join Turkey in investigating Khashoggi’s murder, according to the BBC. As part of the inquiry, the Saudi government ordered a public prosecutor to investigate the case and, more than two weeks after the incident, Turkish investigators were given access to the consulate for DNA testing.

On Nov. 15, 2018, the Saudi public prosecutor on the case charged 11 Saudis with involvement in the killing and requested the death penalty for five men who admitted to carrying out the crime. In his statement, the prosecutor explained that 21 people were suspected of being involved in the killing and elaborated on the gruesome process of Khashoggi’s murder. However, the Saudi government maintains his assassination was a “rogue operation” and that the indicted individuals acted without the knowledge of high-level officials, notably the crown prince.

As investigators uncovered evidence, U.S. intelligence officials became increasingly convinced of Crown Prince Mohammed’s role in the killing, according to a report in The New York Times on Oct. 17, 2018. The Times said, at the time, that the growing number of people from the crown prince’s entourage who were implicated in the killing suggested his involvement. Also of note was Pompeo’s visit to Saudi Arabia to speak with Crown Prince Mohammed around this time. Politico reported Oct. 18 that Pompeo advised Trump to give Saudi Arabia more time for its investigation and told the press, “I didn’t want to talk about any of the facts. … They didn’t want to either, in that they want to have the time to complete the investigation in a thorough way.” In contrast to Pompeo, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin canceled his trip to the Future Investment Initiative summit, scheduled for late October 2018, in Saudi Arabia, after several business and media leaders decided to withdraw. 

On Nov. 15, 2018, the Trump administration levied sanctions on 17 Saudis implicated in the killing, according to Politico. The next day, The Post published the CIA’s conclusion that Crown Prince Mohammed was responsible for Khashoggi’s death, citing “people familiar with the matter.” The Times reported in March 2019 that the Saudis who carried out Khashoggi’s murder were part of the Rapid Intervention Group, a name used by U.S. intelligence operatives to describe Saudi agents involved in a broader campaign to silence dissent in Saudi Arabia. The campaign included the widely reported detention of hundreds of businessmen, former officials, and royals at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. It also involved the forced repatriation, torture, and psychological abuse of a wide range of dissidents, from women’s rights activists to Free Speech advocates.

But, despite the evidence, the Trump administration chose not to blame the crown prince for killing Khashoggi. On Nov. 20, 2018, the White House released a statement saying that “King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”

On Dec. 4, 2018, CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed senators on the agency’s findings. The senators emerged from the closed session sharply opposed to the administration’s soft stance toward the murder of Khashoggi, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) describing a “smoking saw” connecting Crown Prince Mohammed with the crime. 

Khashoggi’s assassination came amid growing criticism from the international community over Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen’s ongoing civil war. The Saudi government supports the Yemeni government against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, sending aid and materiel to the nation, according to the Washington Examiner. Many nations and international organizations have described the conflict as a humanitarian crisis, with widespread famine in the country and the deaths of more than 10,000 Yemenis. The United States has sold weapons to Saudi Arabia for years, but with the deepening crisis in Yemen, the U.S. government has come under increasing pressure to limit its Saudi arms sales. In Trump’s public statement on Nov. 20, 2018, regarding Khashoggi’s murder, the president referenced $110 billion in contracts that Saudi Arabia had signed with U.S. defense companies, seemingly using it as a justification for leniency on the Saudi government to maintain a healthy relationship with the oil-rich country. 


The United States, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom levy sanctions against 18 Saudis allegedly involved in Khashoggi’s killing

Those sanctioned include one Saud al-Qahtani, but not Crown Prince Mohammed. The Department of the Treasury released a statement on the sanctions, saying: “Saud Al-Qahtani is a senior official of the Government of Saudi Arabia who was part of the planning and execution of the operation that led to the killing of Mr. Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on October 2, 2018. This operation was coordinated and executed by his subordinate Maher Mutreb, and involved participation of at least 14 other Saudi government officials. … The Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where Mr. Khashoggi was killed, was overseen by Consul General Mohammed Alotaibi. All these individuals are designated as being responsible for, or complicit in, or having directly or indirectly engaged in serious human rights abuse.” In November 2018, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Finland joined Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, and Norway in banning arms sales to Saudi Arabia, according to the Washington Examiner

Senate votes to end U.S. aid for Saudi war in Yemen, declares crown prince responsible for Khashoggi’s death

On Dec. 13, 2018 the Senate unanimously passed Senate Joint Resolution 69 (SJR 69), which was intended to end U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen. It also included the text: “[the Senate] believes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.” The resolution, a rebuke to the crown prince and the Trump administration, was markedly bipartisan, having been sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and drawing sponsorships from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). The measure drew strong criticism from Saudi Arabia, while Trump refused to say whether he agreed with the Senate’s accusation that the crown prince was responsible for the assassination. 

On July 2, 2019, Poynter reported that Trump met with Crown Prince Mohammed privately during a June 2019 overseas trip to Asia for an international economic summit. In this meeting, the U.S. president reportedly brought up the Khashoggi situation with the crown prince. “He’s very angry about it,” Trump told reporters. “He’s very unhappy about it.” During other parts of the trip, Trump ignored questions about Khashoggi while also praising Crown Prince Mohammed, calling him a “friend of mine,” as well as thanking and congratulating him for doing “a spectacular job.” On July 2, The Washington Post’s Press Freedom Partnership ran an ad in The Post highlighting the 10 most pressing cases of journalists under attack as identified by the One Free Press Coalition. Khashoggi’s murder continues to top that list, because his killers have not been punished. 

Senate and House pass war powers bill that Trump vetoes, which the Senate fails to override in May 

In early April 2019, Congress passed a War Powers Resolution meant to counter Trump’s foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia. The legislation ordered the president to remove troops involved in combat activities abroad, such as in Yemen, if there had been no “declaration of war or specific statutory authorization” from Congress. The bill, Senate Joint Resolution 7 (SJR 7), was vetoed by Trump on April 16, 2019. “This resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future,” wrote the president to the Senate in a veto message, Vox reports. SJR 7, unlike SJR 69 of the previous December, did not mention Khashoggi or hold Crown Prince Mohammed responsible for his murder. 

In a May 2 vote, the Senate failed to secure sufficient votes to override Trump’s veto.

UN names members of international inquiry into murder of Jamal Khashoggi

On Jan. 25, 2019, Al Jazeera reported that the United Nations had named the members of an international inquiry into the Khashoggi killing. The team consists of Agnes Callamard, Helena Kennedy, and Duarte Nuno Vieira. Callamard directs the Columbia Global Freedom of Expression Initiative and has a mandate from the UN to investigate executions around the world; Kennedy is a renowned English lawyer; and Vieira is an expert in pathology and forensic science. The inquiry, released June 19, 2019, comes as a response to international skepticism of the rigor of the Saudi investigation, which failed to draw a clear connection between Khashoggi’s killing and the crown prince. According to Time magazine, the investigation found that credible evidence of Crown Prince Mohammed’s involvement in the killing warranted a broader international inquiry into the details of his role. The Saudi government, Callamard says, is accusing a senior aide to the crown prince, Ahmed Asiri, of orchestrating Khashoggi’s death.  

The trial for the 11 indicted individuals began Jan. 3, 2019, according to Vox. By March 2019, Al Jazeera reported that there had been four court hearings, but due to a lack of transparency surrounding the proceedings, little information has subsequently emerged regarding the defendants. In a July 2019 op-ed for The Washington Post, Callamard wrote that the trial remains ongoing, but that it is “unlikely to deliver real justice.” 

Khashoggi named Time Person of the Year

In 2018, Time magazine gave its prestigious Person of the Year award to “the Guardians in the War on Truth,” one of whom was Khashoggi. In the feature article about the award, the magazine wrote of Khashoggi: “He told the world the truth about [Saudi Arabia’s] brutality toward those who would speak out. And he was murdered for it.” 

Khashoggi’s children given houses and multiple thousand-dollar payments as compensation for father’s killing

Khashoggi’s children — Salah, Abdullah, Noha, and Razan — have received payments of over $10,000 and homes, each worth as much as $4 million, from the Saudi royal family, The Post reports. A Saudi official explained that the payments were part of a longstanding tradition of providing restitution to the families of victims of violent crime, according to The Post. The report also states that the payments were part of an effort to come to a long-term agreement with Khashoggi’s relatives, to ensure that they continue to exercise restraint in their public comments about their father’s murder.

Saudi court sentences five men to death for involvement in Khashoggi murder

The Saudi government announced on December 23, 2019 that it would execute five unidentified Saudi nationals involved in Khashoggi’s assassination. Three others were sentenced to a combined 24 years in prison for their roles in the killing.

The trial determined, in line with past Saudi claims, that the murder was not a planned affair, but the work of a gang of rogue agents. Numerous governments and human rights organizations have challenged this claim, concluding that the assassination was orchestrated by the Saudi government’s highest authorities. 

Saud al-Qahtani, a former advisor to the Saudi crown prince who is said to have played a key role in organizing Khashoggi’s assassination, was cleared of any wrongdoing. 

Human rights lawyers have labelled the trial, which was closed to the public, a “whitewash” and “mockery of justice.”

Biden declassifies intelligence report pinning Khashoggi murder to MBS, stops short of further sanctions

The report, published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on February 26, 2021,  found that “Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

Despite acknowledging the Saudi autocrat’s approval of the assassination, the Biden administration decided against subjecting him to sanctions. 

While some have painted the administration’s response as a deft foreign policy maneuver, many journalists and human rights advocates have decried the move as feckless and enabling. 

“Instead of imposing sanctions on M.B.S., Biden appears ready to let the murderer walk,” Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in a column. “The weak message to other thuggish dictators considering such a murder is: Please don’t do it, but we’ll still work with you if we have to.”

The Saudi foreign ministry, for its part, denounced the report as “false” and condemned the killing “abhorrent crime and a flagrant violation of the kingdom’s laws and values.” However, the ministry also avoided a more harsh rebuke. 

Some Saudi operatives who participated in murder received training in the U.S., New York Times reveals 

According to the June 22, 2021 report in the New York Times, four Saudi intelligence workers received paramilitary training in the United States the year before Khashoggi’s death. 

The operatives were trained by private security company Tier 1 Group under a contract green lighted by the State Department. There is no evidence that American officials were aware that the operatives partook in MBS’s campaign to extinguish Saudi dissent in and outside of the kingdom. 

Khashoggi family members targeted by spyware before and after his murder, Washington Post investigation finds

A digital forensic analysis by a global cohort of newspapers and human rights groups determined that the phones of Khashoggi’s wife and fiancee  had been targeted by an advanced, military-grade spyware in the days and months around his murder. 

 Developed by the Israeli cyber-arms company NSO Group, the spyware, known as Pegasus, is capable of penetrating and remotely surveilling almost any Apple or Android smartphone device. NSO Group has sold the software to numerous authoritarian regimes who have employed the technology to spy on dissidents. 

Investigators found that the phone of Khashoggi’s wife, Hanan Elatr, was targeted by Pegasus software six months before his death. A Pegasus user later targeted Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, days after she accompanied him on his fateful visit to the Saudi consulate in 2018. It is unclear whether or not Khashoggi’s phone was hacked.