Even if you never read any of his work, there’s a good chance that by now you’ve at least heard the name of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. After going missing from a Saudi consulate in Turkey two weeks ago, Khashoggi’s disappearance and presumed murder has become a major political crisis for the Trump administration. But more than that, it’s served as a tragic reminder that journalists writing about oppressive regimes—like Khashoggi did through his work on Saudi Arabia—remain seriously threatened.
A longtime insider in Saudi Arabian politics who reportedly worked at one point with Saudi intelligence, Khashoggi began opposing the government in recent years, following the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s consolidation of power, writing about his native country as a Post columnist. He had recently filed paperwork to launch a pro-Democracy NGO called Democracy for the Arab World Now, but had been reportedly accused by the Saudi government of being a sympathizer with the extremist Muslim Brotherhood group, and on the payroll of Saudi Arabia’s nemesis, Qatar. He fled Saudi Arabia for the United States in 2017, and as recently as August had begun telling friends that he feared for his life.
Here’s what you need to know about Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance, apparent murder, and everything that’s happened since.
At 1:14 pm on October 3, Khashoggi—a Saudi national with U.S. residency—entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to obtain requisite paperwork for his upcoming wedding. While his fiancé waited outside until midnight, Khashoggi remained inside the consulate, ignoring or unable to check his text messages, and was never seen in public again.
Saudi officials initially dismissed reports that they’d taken Khashoggi into custody, telling the New York Times shortly after his disappearance that reports claiming he’d been taken were “false.”
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While Khashoggi has not been officially declared dead thus far, overwhelming evidence suggests that while inside the Saudi embassy, he was detained and murdered by a group of 15 operatives, the leader of which reportedly had close ties to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
According to a report first published in the pro-Turkish government Yeni Şafak newspaper and corroborated Wednesday by the New York Times, once inside the consulate, Khashoggi was immediately brought into the office of Saudi consul general Mohammad al-Otaibi, where operatives began to beat and mutilate his body, cutting off his fingers. They later injected him with an unknown substance and spent the next seven minutes slowly killing him, before calling in forensic doctor Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy, who urged those present to listen to music while be began to dissect and dispose of his body with a bone saw.
Turkish officials claim to have both audio and video evidence of Khashoggi’s torture and dismemberment, although that footage has not been made publicly available.
Saudi Arabia’s Denials
After initially denying any role in Khashoggi’s disappearance, Saudi leaders later reportedly mulled releasing a report claiming that Khashoggi was indeed dead as a result of a botched interrogation and abduction attempt.
A source with knowledge of the proposed report told CNN that “the report will likely conclude that the operation was carried out without clearance and transparency and that those involved will be held responsible.”
In other words, Saudi Arabia seemed prepared to make the implausible claim that Khashoggi’s death and dismemberment were all a mistake carried out by rogue operatives who were not working on behalf of the royal family.
Turkey has largely lead the ongoing forensic investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance. In addition to claiming to possess footage of Khashoggi’s death, Turkish officials have also released passport scans of some of the men they claim were responsible for Khashoggi’s murder.
In a broader sense, Turkey may also be using its investigation into Khashoggi’s presumed murder as a means to show its cooperation—and gain leverage—with the Trump administration, as part of its complicated tri-lateral relationship between Washington, Riyadh, and Ankara, and increasingly authoritarian reputation under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
President Trump’s Response
Following initial reports of Khashoggi’s disappearance, President Donald Trump has been quick to offer cover for Saudi Arabia’s denials about their involvement.
Trump also insisted that the alleged death and dismemberment of Khashoggi would not stop a planned arms sale with the Saudis, saying: “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country—they are spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs for this country.”
The president also overtly denied having any personal monetary stake in Saudi Arabia, despite numerous financial ties linking him with the kingdom.
Speaking in an Oval Office press briefing a week after Khashoggi’s presumed murder, Trump continued to distance himself from the story, telling reporters, “It’s in Turkey, and it’s not a citizen, as I understand it,” before adding that “a thing like that shouldn’t happen.”
He later invoked Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in his defense of Saudi Arabia, saying, “Here we go again with you know you’re guilty until proven innocent.”
As more details about Khashoggi’s disappearance began coming to light, however, Trump took a (very slightly) stronger stance, praising Saudi Arabia for announcing they would launch an investigation into the alleged murder following a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He also claimed to have asked Turkey to turn over their evidence that Khashoggi was killed, “if it exists.”
Congress Demands Action
While Trump continued to tread lightly, members of Congress were decidedly more willing to take a stronger stand against the Saudi crown prince’s presumed role in Khashoggi’s disappearance. “[Mohammed bin Salman] had this guy murdered in the consulate in Turkey,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said in an interview with Fox & Friends on Tuesday. “Expect me to ignore it? I feel used and abused.”
He later added: “This guy has got to go. Saudi Arabia, if you’re listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose, but MBS has tainted your country and tainted himself.”
Sen. Mark Warner, the Democratic ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, also criticized the Saudi royal family. “It strains any credibility that somehow the leadership of the Saudi regime, which is so authoritarian, wouldn’t have knowledge of these actions,” he told CNN.
A group of senators, led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker and ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez, also penned a letter to the White House demanding a full investigation into Khashoggi’s death, and threatening sanctions on any nation found to be responsible.
Mike Pompeo Goes to Turkey
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been dispatched by President Trump to meet with Saudi and Turkish officials over Khashoggi’s death, although his work so far has seemed to largely reaffirm the Trump administration’s stance that Saudi Arabia—and specifically the crown prince—are both capable of investigating the murder of a U.S. resident on their own.
“The Saudi leadership strongly denied any knowledge of what took place in their consulate in Istanbul,” Pompeo told CNN after a conspicuously lighthearted meeting with Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday. When asked later by reporters whether the Saudi government had even confirmed whether Khashoggi was dead or alive, Pompeo said simply: “I don’t want to talk about any of the facts. They didn’t want to either, in that they want to have the opportunity to complete this investigation in a thorough way.”
The Trump Administration’s Relationship With Saudi Arabia
The United States and Saudi Arabia have long enjoyed close economic and military relationship, with the U.S. aiding the Saudi’s ongoing war with Yemen to the point that Pompeo has actively appeared to try and dilute the horrific nature of that conflict for fear of pissing off American defense contractors.
But the relationship between the Trump administration and the Saudi government goes much deeper than that. It was in the capital city of Riyadh that a newly elected President Trump made his global debut, facilitated in large part by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, whom the Saudi crown prince once reportedly boasted was “in his pocket.”
For his part, Mohammed bin Salman has been enjoying a year of glowing accolades naming him a “reformer” for his role in advocating for number of small-scale changes in Saudi society. He has, nevertheless, been a driving force behind massive crackdowns on dissident voices in the kingdom as well.
What Happens Next
In the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi’s disappearance, a number of media figures and organizations began immediately pulling out of the Saudi sponsored upcoming “Future Investment Initiative” conference.
But given the Trump administration’s lead-footed response to Khashoggi’s apparent assassination, it remains to be seen whether anyone—least of all the Saudi crown prince—will actually face any real consequences for the apparent murder.