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‘Conspiracyland’ podcast: The secret lives and brutal death of Jamal Khashoggi

Jamal Khashoggi was Saudi Arabia’s most prominent journalist, writing for one of the United States’ premier newspapers. What happened to him inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2, 2018, was shocking. And the more one digs into his murder, the more it becomes clear: This was the result of a real-life conspiracy. The latest season of Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland” podcast is out now.

Episode 1: The Henchman

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Episode 2: The Arms Dealer’s Harem

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Episode 3: Jamal and Osama

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Episode 4: A Revolution Crushed

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Episode 5: The Rise of the Bullet Guy

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Episode 6: Influence Operations

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Episode 7: A Tale of Two Women

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Episode 8: “Anatomy of a Cover-up”

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Bonus Episode 1: “Training the Assassins”

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Bonus Episode 2: “Khashoggi and the 9/11 lawsuit”

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Prior to his murder, Jamal Khashoggi offered to help 9/11 victims suing Saudi Arabia

The meeting was rushed and, for Jamal Khashoggi, as risky as they come. The famed Saudi journalist, living in exile in the suburbs of northern Virginia, was furious with his government. He had just learned that it had imposed a travel ban on his adult son, blocking him from leaving Saudi Arabia — a clear punishment for Khashoggi’s increasingly forceful criticisms of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

And so, on the morning of Oct. 26, 2017, an agitated Khashoggi did something that for him would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier. He called a former FBI agent working for the families of 9/11 victims who were suing his government and asked to get together right away to discuss how he could help them.

Catherine Hunt (Catherine Hunt)
Catherine Hunt. (Catherine Hunt)

Khashoggi’s rendezvous that morning with ex-agent Catherine Hunt at a northern Virginia coffee shop has long been a subject of mystery and intrigue. Why would Khashoggi — once a Saudi spin doctor who vigorously defended his country over the events of 9/11 — want to talk to a representative of the lawyers seeking to hold his government accountable for the terrorist attack? And even more significant, did senior Saudi officials know what he was up to that morning? And if they did know, did that play a role in his brutal slaughter inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul less than a year later?

In a special bonus episode of the Yahoo News podcast “Conspiracyland,” Hunt — a veteran agent who worked counterterrorism and counterintelligence cases from Los Angeles to Baghdad — provides an exclusive account of her strange encounter with the Saudi journalist. It comes at a time when the lawyers for the victims’ families are entering a new and crucial phase of their case, having recently deposed three of their most important witnesses: a former Saudi Embassy official, a reputed Saudi intelligence operative and a radical imam at a Saudi-government-funded mosque, all of whom were suspected for years by the FBI of having provided assistance to two of the al-Qaida hijackers in the run-up to 9/11.

How strong a case the families have against the Saudi government remains far from clear, given that those and other depositions remain covered by a court-imposed gag order as well as a “state secrets” privilege imposed by former Attorney General William Barr that has blocked key details about the FBI investigation into the Saudi role in 9/11 from becoming public. (The lawyers for the families — with backing from members of Congress — are asking current Attorney General Merrick Garland to lift the privilege.)

US Attorney General William Barr speaks during a news conference to provide an update on the investigation of the terrorist bombing of  Pan Am flight 103 on the 32nd anniversary of the attack, at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, on December 21, 2020. (Michael Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)
Then-Attorney General William Barr in December 2020. (Michael Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

But either way, Khashoggi’s meeting with Hunt stands out. It represents a tantalizing moment when the 9/11 families and their legal team, at least for a brief moment, seemed on the verge of getting the cooperation of a well-connected Saudi insider with intimate knowledge of his country’s interactions with al-Qaida.

In fact, it was Khashoggi’s unique background — as a onetime friend of Osama bin Laden who was later hired as the media adviser to a powerful Saudi prince and former chief of Saudi intelligence — that had prompted Hunt to reach out to him in the first place, about two weeks prior to their meeting.

“If you look back on the history of his career, he had a tremendous amount of connections and access to information,” Hunt said. “So he really was in a position to potentially be very helpful to us.”

When she first talked to Khashoggi, he was — according to Hunt — “very interested” in getting together, and they began discussing setting up a meeting. And then, early on the morning of Oct. 26, Khashoggi called her and wanted to move the meeting up, telling her he had urgent business to attend to and wanted to see her right away. She rushed over to the coffee shop in the Tysons Corner shopping mall that Khashoggi suggested. When she got there, she says, he was “very upset” that his son had been barred from leaving Saudi Arabia by authorities there. It had happened, as Khashoggi explained it, only because he was “being targeted by the regime.”

At that point, Hunt said, “he started to instruct me a lot about the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and that they were charged with the responsibility of spreading Islam throughout the world. He explained that really, it was a fundamentalist version of Islam that was being propagated, and that the current government was trying to reform that position.

A general manager of Alarab TV, Jamal Khashoggi, looks on during a press conference in the Bahraini capital Manama, on December 15, 2014. (Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP via Getty Images)
Jamal Khashoggi in 2014. (Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP via Getty Images)

“He said it more in a question: ‘Is my country responsible for tolerating and even supporting radicalism? Yes. And they must take responsibility for that.’”

Even that relatively small concession, Hunt thought, was “golden.” Here was a prominent Saudi apparently prepared to say his country should be held accountable for the spread of radical Islam — and the ensuing acts of terrorism it caused. But then Khashoggi said something even more surprising. He asked if the New York-based law firm Hunt was working for, Kreindler & Kreindler, was prepared to offer him a job as a consultant to the 9/11 families’ legal team. If so, he emphasized, they would have to be secretive about it. No more get-togethers in the Washington, D.C., area, where the Saudi presence was extensive.

“He was very interested in talking about it,” Hunt said. “He wanted to have the next meeting in New York, not the D.C. area.

“I was excited,” she added. “I was thrilled that he was so positive about it. I think he could have added a tremendous amount.” As to Khashoggi’s motivation in making such an offer, Hunt said: “Here he was, he found himself in exile. And I think working with the law firm would have given him a chip in the game, if you will.”

But Hunt never heard from Khashoggi again — and the full significance of their meeting didn’t hit home until more than a year later, in the weeks after his murder inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. The Washington Post had reported that the then Saudi ambassador to the United States, Khalid bin Salman (or KBS, the brother of Mohammed bin Salman), might have played a role in luring Khashoggi to Istanbul. The ambassador responded in a tweet that he’d had no contact with Khashoggi since they communicated via text on Oct. 26, 2017 — the same day as the meeting with Hunt.

Saudi Arabia's Vice Minister of Defense Prince Khalid bin Salman waits for a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and others at the Pentagon August 29, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Saudi Prince Khalid bin Salman in 2019. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

What Khashoggi and KBS (now the country’s deputy defense minister, who met with Biden administration officials this week during a trip to Washington) texted or communicated about that day remains unknown. But Jim Kreindler, the lead lawyer for the 9/11 families, said he is convinced Khashoggi sought to use the meeting with Hunt as leverage with the Saudi ambassador to help his son.

“There isn’t a doubt in my mind that after speaking to Catherine, he called KBS and said, ‘Hey, the plaintiffs’ lawyers had an FBI agent talking to me. I didn’t give them anything yet, but, you know, you mess with my son and I’m going to spill the beans.’”

To be sure, Kreindler has no hard evidence to support his speculation. But the curious timing of Khashoggi’s meeting with Hunt — on the same day he was communicating with the Saudi ambassador to the United States — adds one more mystery to the many surrounding the last year of the journalist’s life before the Saudi team of assassins injected him with a lethal dose of drugs, suffocated him and then carved up his body inside the consulate in Istanbul.

In case you missed it:

Episode 1: “Exclusive: Saudi assassins picked up illicit drugs in Cairo to kill Khashoggi”

Episode 2: “Arms, harems and a Trump-owned yacht: How a Khashoggi family member helped mold the U.S.-Saudi relationship”

Episode 3: “‘I just fell apart crying heartbreak to you’: A murdered journalist’s years-long relationship with Osama bin Laden”

Episode 4: “From royal insider to target: How the Arab Spring propelled Jamal Khashoggi into the Saudi leadership’s crosshairs”

Episode 5: “‘A personality type that feels absolutely no guardrails’: How Saudi Arabia’s leader charmed Washington while cracking down on opponents”

Episode 6: A direct trail of blood drops’ leads from a Twitter hack to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder

Episode 7: “’He gave nobody a full view of his life’: In his final days, Jamal Khashoggi juggled a secret wife in the U.S. and a fiancée in Turkey”

Episode 8: “‘Was there a bone saw?’ How Trump helped the Saudis whitewash the murder of Jamal Khashoggi”

Bonus Episode 1: “Training the assassins

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images, Middle East Monitor/Handout via Reuters, Robert Giroux/Getty Images

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‘Was there a bone saw?’ How Trump helped the Saudis whitewash the murder of Jamal Khashoggi

In early October 2018, just a few days after Jamal Khashoggi had disappeared inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, White House officials first saw the TV footage that stopped them in their tracks.

A supposed Khashoggi look-alike — a heavy-set man wearing the journalist’s clothes and glasses — could be seen walking out of the consulate as though he didn’t have a care in the world. Kirsten Fontenrose, then the director of Gulf affairs at the National Security Council, suspected right away what this was: a scene clumsily crafted to cover up a murder.

“When that footage kept playing, all of us were looking at each other saying, ‘OK, does this mean they premeditated this? Is this what we’re looking at here?’” says Fontenrose, who knew Khashoggi and would regularly have coffee with him every few weeks near the White House. “Because this is a disaster. This is crazy. Can this really be happening?”

Donald Trump with Prince Mohammed bin Salman
President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a White House meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March 2018. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The story of how the Trump White House responded to Khashoggi’s gruesome murder — and ultimately helped cover up the crime — is the subject of “Anatomy of a Cover-up,” the eighth and final episode in the Yahoo News “Conspiracyland” podcast series, “The Secret Lives and Brutal Death of Jamal Khashoggi.”

It is a story in which American values and rhetorical support for human rights around the world collided head first with perceived U.S. strategic and economic interests in the region. And it is a tension that carried over into the Biden administration when the new president, having pledged during his campaign to turn the Saudi kingdom into a world “pariah,” chose not to impose any penalties on the person who the CIA had concluded was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS.

It is also a story — related in a special episode of “Conspiracyland,” “Training the Assassins” — in which Trump officials maneuvered to remove American fingerprints from the crime. President Donald Trump had nominated Louis Bremer, a managing director of the New York-based investment firm Cerberus Capital Management, to be assistant secretary of defense for special operations. But Bremer — whose boss, Steve Feinberg, served as chair of Trump’s intelligence advisory board — had potential baggage: He served on a five-person board of Tier 1 Group, an Arkansas-based company owned by Cerberus that had a State Department license to train Saudi intelligence operatives. The training took place at a compound outside Memphis, where former members of U.S. Special Forces conducted paramilitary courses in staging commando raids, evasive driving and rapid-fire shooting, according to Tier 1’s website and YouTube videos it has posted.

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When Bremer appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing on Aug. 6, 2020, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., grilled him intensely. Was he aware of reports that Tier 1 may have specifically trained members of the Saudi Tiger Team that killed Khashoggi? Had the company conducted any investigation into whether that had happened? Bremer demurred, acknowledging that “I do know that we train Saudi nationals as part of our engagement with the kingdom,” but saying he had “no recollection” of being told that some of them had participated in the Khashoggi murder. He promised, however, to check and provide written answers to the committee.

When Bremer did so, and submitted those responses for review to the White House, officials were stunned and realized they had a serious PR problem on their hands. Bremer confirmed his company had indeed conducted such training, “and there were invoices for members of the Saudi hit team,” said one former senior Trump official who was flabbergasted after reading the written responses.

Rather than disclose the American connection to Khashoggi’s murder, the White House never forwarded Bremer’s responses to the Senate and his nomination to the top Pentagon post was allowed to die. (Bremer and Cerberus declined to respond to repeated requests for comment from Yahoo News, but the former nominee recently confirmed his responses to the New York Times, telling the paper that Tier 1 Group conducted training of members of the Saudi Tiger Team that was “protective in nature.” “The training provided was unrelated to their subsequent heinous acts,” Bremer told the paper.)

Louis Bremer
Louis Bremer at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in August 2020 to consider his nomination as an assistant secretary of defense. (Rod Lamkey/CNP/Shutterstock)

Khashoggi’s murder sparked a crisis inside the Trump White House. Trump and his top aides, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, had made the Saudis the centerpiece of their Middle East strategy. The president had extolled the Saudis as a bulwark against Iranian aggression. He had taken his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia and cultivated MBS, welcoming him to the White House and gushing in front of the TV cameras about the billions of dollars in weapons the Saudis were buying from U.S. defense contractors.

But the murder of Khashoggi, a U.S.-based journalist writing for one of this country’s leading newspapers, threatened to upend all that. And top officials scrambled to contain the fallout.

“Get the full story out, whatever the full story is,” former national security adviser John Bolton says he and Kushner told the crown prince in a phone call shortly after Khashoggi’s disappearance. But Bolton acknowledged he never asked MBS directly the most obvious and important question of all: Did he order the murder? “No, I didn’t, because I hadn’t spoken to the president at that point,” Bolton said in an interview for “Conspiracyland.” “It was not something that I wanted to raise before I knew what direction Trump was going to go in.”

Soon enough, Trump himself was on the phone to both MBS and his father, King Salman, pressing for answers as well, according to Fontenrose, who monitored the calls.

“The president had multiple calls with MBS and with King Salman, specifically asking them, ‘Did you know anything about this?’” she says. “The president would flat out ask, I mean, up to a dozen times on any individual phone call, whether it was with King Salman or with MBS or both of them, ‘Did you have any knowledge of this operation?’ ‘Did you know this was going to happen?’ ‘Did you give this order?’”

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi enters the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018.  (CCTV/Hurriyet via AP)
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi enters the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. (CCTV/Hurriyet via AP)

And every time it was, ‘No, no, no, we didn’t know anything, and we’re still looking and we’re still searching.’ ‘Yes, Donald, we totally understand this makes things difficult for you, and we’re trying to get to the bottom of it.’’’

One piece of intelligence in particular had gotten Trump’s attention. U.S. officials had concluded that the Saudis had used a bone saw to carve up Khashoggi’s body.

“I mean, he would go back to it and back to it and back to it, trying to press them and telling them, you know, ‘This will change everything, you guys. We’ve got to know. We’re with you. We’re standing behind Saudi Arabia … but we’ve got to get to the bottom of this. Was there a bone saw? Was there a bone saw?

“‘I’ve been in difficult negotiations. I’ve never had to take a bone saw.’”

At one point Trump turned to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to Fontenrose, and asked: “‘Have you ever had to take a bone saw into negotiations?’ ‘No, Mr. President, ha-ha.’ And pressing, pressing, pressing, and every time, ‘No, no, no, Donald, we didn’t know anything about it. We’re still trying to get to the bottom of this.’”

While these talks were going on, the Saudis were issuing an ever-shifting series of denials. At first, three days after the murder, MBS had insisted in a Bloomberg interview that Khashoggi had left the consulate and the Saudis had no idea what happened to him. Then, as Turkish officials started to leak details of secret audiotapes they had made from inside the consulate, the Saudis declared that Khashoggi had died in a “fistfight.”

Mike Pompeo, center
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in December 2018, leaves a briefing on the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia in regard to Khashoggi’s murder. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Finally they settled on a different narrative: Khashoggi had been murdered by “rogue killers” who acted on their own. It was a formulation Trump immediately adopted — and proclaimed to the world.

“I just spoke with the king of Saudi Arabia, who denies any knowledge of what took place with regard to, as he said, his Saudi Arabian citizen,” Trump said on Oct. 15. “It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?”

The message was clear. Trump was determined to protect the Saudis — even if, as Bolton suggests, he knew the Saudi leaders’ denials were lies.

“I think this was a case where Trump very decisively and flatly decided he was going to continue to support the Saudis on a very realpolitik basis. That’s unpleasant, to be sure, but we live in an unpleasant world,” Bolton said. “Look, I think Trump knew and acted on the assumption that the highest levels of the royal family were involved in it, and he made his decision in any event. And at that point, the issue was closed for the rest of us, for Mike Pompeo, for myself. The president had made up his mind.”

Trump also made that reasoning perfectly clear when speaking to reporters on Nov. 20.

“If we abandon Saudi Arabia, it will be a terrible mistake,” Trump said. “They’re buying hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of things from this country. If I say, ‘We don’t want to take your business,’ if I say, ‘We’re going to cut it off,’ they will get the equipment, military equipment and other things from Russia and China. And I’m not going to tell a country that’s spending hundreds of billions of dollars — and has helped me out [to] do one thing very importantly, keep oil prices down so they’re not going to 100 and 150 dollars a barrel. And I’m not going to destroy the economy for our country by being foolish with Saudi Arabia. It’s about America first.”

Donald Trump
Trump talks to reporters about a meeting with the king of Saudi Arabia, Oct. 15, 2018. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Trump’s formulation — that the Saudis needed to be protected over their role in a ghastly murder so as not to disrupt lucrative arms deals — was too much for Sen. Bob Corker, then the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “To equate the probable murder of a journalist who worked for a U.S. institution, to equate that with our ability to sell arms … it was hard to believe that any president would stoop to that level of equivocation,” he said. “It was a low moment, in my opinion, as far as the moral leadership of the United States of America.”

And yet as he looks back on it, Bolton — who would famously break with Trump in a tell-all book — continues to defend the White House response, comparing MBS to the notorious Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, who was backed by the U.S. for decades despite a lengthy record of human rights abuses.

“Franklin Roosevelt once said of Anastasio Somoza, a Central American dictator, ‘He may be an SOB, but he’s our SOB.’ I’m with Roosevelt on this,” said Bolton in his interview for “Conspiracyland.” “I don’t know where the rest of you all are, but that’s just the way it goes.”

Are you saying that MBS is your SOB?” he was asked during the “Conspiracyland” interview.

No, I’m saying he’s the U.S.’s SOB,” he responded. “If somebody’s got a different idea of how to deal with Saudi Arabia, then let’s hear it.”

While running for president, Joe Biden suggested he did have a very different idea. “We [are] going to in fact make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are, and so they have to be held accountable,” he said during a 2019 debate when asked about Khashoggi’s murder.

Antony Blinken
Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

But when he had the chance to do so in February, the price was a marginal one. Biden’s new director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, released a report that had been withheld by the Trump White House and that found that MBS did approve the operation that killed Khashoggi.

But the report was skimpy, containing few new details about what the U.S. intelligence community knew about the murder. And the administration declined to impose any sanctions or punishment for MBS or any other high-level Saudi figures — a failure that Secretary of State Antony Blinken struggled to defend at a press conference.

“I would say the relationship with Saudi Arabia is an important one,” Blinken said. “We have significant ongoing interests. We remain committed to the defense of the kingdom. So what we’ve done by the actions we’ve taken is not to rupture the relationship but to recalibrate it to be more in line with our interests and our values. This is bigger than any one person.”

And as if to underscore the point, the Pentagon confirmed that just days before the release of the report essentially accusing MBS of murder, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called his counterpart in Riyadh, the Saudi defense minister, the very same MBS. The purpose, according to a Pentagon readout of the call, was to “reaffirm the strategic defense partnership between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

In case you missed it:

Episode 1: “Exclusive: Saudi assassins picked up illicit drugs in Cairo to kill Khashoggi”

Episode 2: “Arms, harems and a Trump-owned yacht: How a Khashoggi family member helped mold the U.S.-Saudi relationship”

Episode 3: “‘I just fell apart crying heartbreak to you’: A murdered journalist’s years-long relationship with Osama bin Laden”

Episode 4: “From royal insider to target: How the Arab Spring propelled Jamal Khashoggi into the Saudi leadership’s crosshairs”

Episode 5: “‘A personality type that feels absolutely no guardrails’: How Saudi Arabia’s leader charmed Washington while cracking down on opponents”

Episode 6: A direct trail of blood drops’ leads from a Twitter hack to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder

Episode 7: “’He gave nobody a full view of his life’: In his final days, Jamal Khashoggi juggled a secret wife in the U.S. and a fiancée in Turkey”

Bonus Episode 1: “Training the assassins

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: courtesy of Hanan Al-Atr (2), Dylan Martinez/Reuters

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‘He gave nobody a full view of his life’: In his final days, Jamal Khashoggi juggled a secret wife in the U.S. and a fiancée in Turkey

In the early months of 2018, Jamal Khashoggi was living in exile in the United States — lonely, sad and bewildered as he grew ever more estranged from the Saudi kingdom he had served faithfully for many decades.

But then, there was a bright spot. He fell in love. Or at least, he certainly appeared to.

“You will be the happiest bride,” he wrote Hanan El-Atr, an Egyptian flight attendant for Emirates airline, to whom he proposed, in a text message that spring. And in another: “I throw myself at you, kiss you and delight you. I take out a watch or a necklace or perfume I bought for you to delight you.”

Khashoggi’s relationship with El-Atr has always been awkward for his friends and allies. His grisly murder inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, took place on a day he had gone there to get divorce records proving he was no longer married to his wife back in Saudi Arabia — documents he needed so he could marry another woman, Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish graduate student.

Yet exactly four months before his assassination, on June 2, 2018, Khashoggi had married El-Atr in an Islamic ceremony performed by an imam in a northern Virginia mosque, according to court records reviewed by Yahoo News. The couple never got a civil marriage license that would have made their union official. But the groom plunked down $2,000 for two rings for his Islamic bride — the receipts from a local jewelry store El-Atr proudly displays as further proof of their union.

Hanan El-Atr and Jamal Khashoggi. (Courtesy of Hanan El-Atr)
Hanan El-Atr and Jamal Khashoggi. (Courtesy of Hanan El-Atr)

And yet, Khashoggi never mentioned the religious marriage to many of his closest friends at the time. It’s an example, says one of those friends, of his penchant to be secretive about much of his life.

“If somebody sits across from you when you’re interviewing people about Jamal and tells you that Jamal told them everything, they are 100 percent lying to you,” says Mohammed Soltan, the Egyptian American human rights activist who collaborated with Khashoggi during this time. “Jamal compartmentalized, he told different people certain things about his life. He gave nobody a full view of his life. He kept all of it with himself, and he gave different people the things that they needed to know. So, I had no idea about Hanan.”

The story of Khashoggi’s complicated personal life during the last year of his life is the subject of “A Tale of Two Women,” Episode 7 in the new season of Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland” podcast, “The Secret Lives and Brutal Death of Jamal Khashoggi.” It is a story that overlaps with a period in which Khashoggi, as a columnist for the Washington Post, was becoming ever more forceful in his criticisms of the harsh crackdowns of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, even comparing him at one point to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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It is also a period in which Saudi electronic surveillance of critics of Crown Prince Mohammed, also known as MBS, became ever more pervasive and oppressive. And, as “Conspiracyland” reveals, that surveillance even extended to Khashoggi’s love life, revealing vulnerabilities that MBS’s operatives were only too happy to exploit.

Atr, in an extensive and at times emotional interview with “Conspiracyland,” recounts the story of their relationship: They had met nine years earlier while Khashoggi was in Dubai for a conference. A tall and reserved woman, Atr said they had swapped phone numbers and stayed in touch, exchanging funny videos and messages about their favorite lines of Arabic poetry. But by the early months of 2018, with Khashoggi living in the Washington area and Hanan having twice-a-month flights there, they became something of an item. Khashoggi took her as his date to a birthday dinner for him that March (although there is some confusion as to the actual date of his birthday). A couple of weeks later, he proposed marriage.

“He said, ‘You sure you want to be with me?’” said Atr, recounting Khashoggi’s proposal. “He said, ‘Because I have heavy luggage, I don’t have a stable life.’”

And Atr’s response: “I’m with you, Jamal, I believe in you and love you because [of] the way you are.”

Jamal Khashoggi and Hanan El-Atr. (Courtesy of Hanan El-Atr)
Jamal Khashoggi and Hanan El-Atr. (Courtesy of Hanan El-Atr)

It is perhaps understandable that Khashoggi — repeatedly harassed online by his Saudi tormentors — wanted to keep his private life exactly that: private. That could well explain his failure to tell many of his U.S. friends about his relationship with Atr. But as she explains it, the Saudis, and their close allies in the United Arab Emirates, apparently did know about it, resulting in a harrowing experience when she flew back to Dubai.

In early May, just weeks after Khashoggi’s marriage proposal, Atr says that Emirati security forces pulled her aside at the airport. “They took all [my] devices. They came to my house. They searched [it],” she recalls. “Then they start to talk about Jamal.”

Atr says she was detained for 10 days while the Emirati security agents grilled her time and again about her relationship with Khashoggi.

But as they were doing so, Khashoggi was attending another conference in Istanbul, and starting a relationship with another woman, Hatice Cengiz. As she recalls it, she approached him at the conference and asked for an interview. When he agreed, she was thrilled. “He’s the most important journalist and name and thinker in the region,” says Cengiz. It was, she added, the start of a “very special relationship” between them.

Khashoggi left Istanbul but began exchanging messages with Cengiz. He flew back to Istanbul again that spring, got together with Cengiz and soon thereafter flew back yet again, this time with a birthday present for her — a necklace and earrings. By the summer, she says, they were talking “every day, more than two or three or four times.” Soon enough, Khashoggi was talking about getting an apartment and moving to Istanbul. And he proposed marriage again — this time to Cengiz.

Hatice Cengiz, fiancee of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is seen during an interview with Reuters in London, Britain, October 29, 2018. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)
Hatice Cengiz in London in 2018. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

But there was a bit of a problem, to say the least: He had told Cengiz nothing about Atr. Nor, for that matter, had he told Atr anything about Cengiz. “My sister is here in Istanbul,” he texted Atr in mid-July, apparently attempting to explain the extra time he was spending in Istanbul.

Things got more than a little awkward when Khashoggi met with Cengiz’s father, a businessman, who began grilling him about his intentions and his background, especially about whether he had any other wives.

“My father knows very well the Arabs get married more than [once] at the same time,” says Cengiz. “And then he asked him, ‘Are you sure you’re not married?’ It’s a little bit of a sensitive point for my father.”

Khashoggi responded: “I’m not married. I’m divorced,” recalls Cengiz. “Jamal doesn’t need to lie to anyone.”

Had Khashoggi ever mentioned to her the other wife he had married in the United States in June? she was asked.

“He told me when he proposed to me, there is no one in his life,” she replied.

But even as Khashoggi was carrying on his double life, the Saudi surveillance overseen by MBS’s right-hand man, Saud al-Qahtani, was intensifying. The Saudis had bought a sophisticated form of spyware called Pegasus from an Israeli company, NSO Group. That spyware allowed them to penetrate the iPhones of regime critics, reading their messages in real time.

One of those targeted was Omar Abdulaziz, the dissident living in Montreal whose personal data had been stolen by Saudi spies at Twitter. Abdulaziz was by then swapping messages with Khashoggi about a scheme to counter Saudi disinformation, sending SIM cards to regime critics so they could post anonymously on social media without al-Qahtani’s snoops knowing who they were.

But that summer, Abdulaziz was tipped off to the Pegasus penetration of his phone by investigators at Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto affiliated group. As soon as he learned about it, he called Khashoggi. “Oh gosh,” Khashoggi replied. “May God help us.”

Next on ‘Conspiracyland’: Episode 8, ‘The Anatomy of a Cover-up’

The Trump White House struggles with how to respond to the Khashoggi murder. President Trump makes repeated calls to MBS and his father, King Salman, inquiring about the bone saw that was believed to have been used to carve up Khashoggi’s body. But Trump chooses to accept Saudi denials of involvement in the murder so as not to disrupt huge arms sales the kingdom was committed to making from U.S. defense contractors. And when he had the chance, President Biden — who had pledged during his campaign to make “pariahs” of the Saudis — declined to impose any punishment on MBS, the Saudi official who the CIA had concluded authorized the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death.

In case you missed it:

Episode 1: “Exclusive: Saudi assassins picked up illicit drugs in Cairo to kill Khashoggi”

Episode 2: “Arms, harems and a Trump-owned yacht: How a Khashoggi family member helped mold the U.S.-Saudi relationship”

Episode 3: “‘I just fell apart crying heartbreak to you’: A murdered journalist’s years-long relationship with Osama bin Laden”

Episode 4: “From royal insider to target: How the Arab Spring propelled Jamal Khashoggi into the Saudi leadership’s crosshairs”

Episode 5: “‘A personality type that feels absolutely no guardrails’: How Saudi Arabia’s leader charmed Washington while cracking down on opponents”

Episode 6: “‘A direct trail of blood drops’ leads from a Twitter hack to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: courtesy of Hanan El-Atr (2), Dylan Martinez/Reuters

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