Early on the morning of Oct. 2, 2018, a Gulfstream jet carrying a team of Saudi assassins on its way to Istanbul made a quick stopover in Cairo. The purpose: to pick up a lethal dose of “illegal” narcotics that was injected a few hours later into the left arm of Jamal Khashoggi, killing the Washington Post columnist within a matter of minutes, according to notes that summarize secret Saudi interrogations of the murderers.
What the drugs were — and who provided them in the middle of the night at Cairo’s airport — remains a mystery. But the previously undisclosed Cairo connection points for the first time to the possible existence of Egyptian accomplices in Khashoggi’s death. It also provides compelling new evidence of what the Saudi government had long denied: that the hit team, dispatched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, intended to kill the journalist before the plane ever took off from Riyadh and well before Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul later that day.
The delivery of lethal drugs in Cairo to effectively poison Khashoggi is among a number of damning new details about the journalist’s grisly murder that are revealed in a new eight-episode season of Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland” podcast being released this week, titled “The Secret Lives and Brutal Death of Jamal Khashoggi.”
“Conspiracyland” traces the arc of Khashoggi’s career — from his days as a close friend of Osama bin Laden during the U.S. and Saudi government-backed war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan to his time as a media spokesman and spin doctor for the Saudi government that involved, according to one of his colleagues, being dispatched on “secret missions” by the Saudi ambassador to London, a former chief of Saudi intelligence.
By the end of his life, however, Khashoggi had become a fierce and unrelenting critic of the crown prince’s harsh crackdowns on internal dissent. “Conspiracyland” presents new details of how MBS, even while being hailed as a reformer by U.S. officials, played a direct role in supervising that crackdown: He allegedly oversaw an espionage scheme targeting the San Francisco headquarters of Twitter in which two Saudi spies stole cellphone numbers, private email accounts, direct messages and other personal information of Saudi government critics, including a close associate of Khashoggi’s.
“It was us. We did that. We have our guy at Twitter,” MBS told a former top Saudi counterterrorism official, Saad Aljabri, according to an account provided by Aljabri’s son Khalid on the “Conspiracyland” podcast.
MBS even went on to brag that “we paid” 1 million Saudi riyals to one of the spies, according to Khalid Aljabri’s account of the conversation. That amount roughly corresponds to the nearly $300,000 that federal prosecutors have alleged in an indictment that one of the spies received in payment from the Saudi government.
The pending Justice Department indictment of the two spies charges them with wire fraud, money laundering and acting as unregistered agents of the Saudi government. It refers to MBS as “Saudi Royal Family 1” and his personal secretary, Bader al-Asaker, who allegedly recruited the Twitter moles, as “Foreign Official 1.”
“There’s a direct trail of blood drops from this hack to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” said Mark Kleiman, a lawyer representing Omar Abdulaziz, a Canadian-based Saudi dissident and collaborator of Khashoggi’s whose personal information was allegedly stolen by the Saudi spies and whose phone was later infected by Saudi-directed spyware. (A Twitter spokesman said the company has fully cooperated with the investigations into the spy plot and, since being informed of the plot, has taken steps to shut down hundreds of Saudi government troll accounts on its platform.)
Khashoggi was assassinated — and his body dismembered with what U.S. intelligence officials believe was a bone saw — shortly after he entered the consulate hoping to pick up records showing he was divorced from his wife in Saudi Arabia, thereby allowing him to marry his Turkish fiancée. A report released by President Biden’s director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, in February concluded that the crown prince approved an operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi that was carried out by a 15-member Saudi hit team, seven of whom were assigned to the Saudi royal’s personal security detail.
After entering the consulate at 1:13 on the afternoon of Oct. 2, Khashoggi quickly realized he was to be forcibly drugged and “tried to run away,” according to the notes of comments made by Saudi prosecutors during a closed-door trial of Khashoggi’s killers. The notes indicate that the prosecutors’ statements were based on secret Saudi interrogations of the suspects.
Three members of a Saudi hit squad then pinned Khashoggi to a chair inside the office of the Saudi consular general, the notes show. As they did so, Dr. Salah Tubaigy, a forensic doctor from the Saudi Ministry of Interior, “injected Khashoggi in his left arm [with] a drug whose sale is illegal and which he brought from Cairo in high dosage that would be enough to kill him,” the notes read.
Plane Finder, an app that tracks the course of flights by their tail numbers, shows that the Gulfstream jet that took off from Riyadh carrying the Saudi hit team on the evening of Oct. 1 made a stopover in Cairo before landing in Istanbul at 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 2. U.S. intelligence officials declined to comment on what the CIA may have known about the Cairo connection or who in the Egyptian capital would have furnished the Saudis with the illegal narcotics.
But Richard Clarke, a White House counterterrorism adviser under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush who now serves as chair of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, said the “most likely” explanation for the Cairo stopover is that Egyptian intelligence, with whom the Saudis have a close working relationship, provided the drugs that were used to kill Khashoggi.
“There’s a hell of a lot of Saudi government money that goes into propping up” the Egyptian government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Clarke said in an interview. “And you can get a lot in return for that money. I don’t think they had to reveal the target. Just like, ‘Hey, you’ve got this stuff in your inventory. We ran out. Can we stop by and get a few sticks of butter?’ I think that the answer for the Egyptians, that’s a no-brainer.”
The Egyptian Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. Emails to the Saudi information minister and other Saudi officials went unanswered.
The notes were taken by Turkish Embassy officials who were permitted to sit in on seven sessions of a closed-door 2019 trial of the Saudi assassins, dubbed the Tiger Team, from which the news media and human rights groups were barred. No public record of the trial exists, and the proceedings have been widely dismissed as a whitewash given that no senior officials, much less the crown prince, were charged or even questioned.
The Turkish notes offer a small but at times revealing window into the secret proceedings. They were entered into the court record in Istanbul, almost entirely unnoticed, as part of more than 100 pages of evidence collected for a separate Turkish indictment in absentia of Khashoggi’s killers and translated into English by Yahoo News.
At the Saudi trial, the prosecutors made pointed references to confessions by some of the suspects during their interrogations, yielding statements that in some cases contradict the public accounts of Saudi government officials. For their part, defense lawyers for the suspects objected to the confessions, asserting that their clients were subjected to “psychological pressure” when they were questioned about their role in the murder.
A key question all along has been at what point the hit team decided that a mission that might have been originally intended to kidnap Khashoggi and bring him back to Saudi Arabia turned into a cold-blooded assassination. The Turkish notes suggest that a crucial player was Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb.
A veteran Saudi intelligence officer, Mutreb once worked alongside Khashoggi at the Saudi Embassy in London, even going for tea with him at a Mayfair hotel after Friday prayers, and years later accompanying the crown prince on trips to the United States. The notes show that Mutreb was placed in charge of the hit team due to his past relationship with Khashoggi, apparently to lull the journalist into complacency.
After reviewing the layout of the consulate, Mutreb concluded that it would be impractical to kidnap Khashoggi and remove him from the building if, as expected, he resisted. At that point, the notes say, “the decision was made to kill Khashoggi.”
The notes then add that the hit team considered burying Khashoggi’s body in the consulate garden but “gave up on the idea” because of concerns that the remains would be found. Instead, “at the instruction of Maher Mutreb,” the body was dismembered with what Turkish and U.S. officials believe was a bone saw that was brought on the plane carrying the team of assassins from Riyadh. Khashoggi’s body parts were then deposited in black plastic bags that were loaded into the trunk of a Mercedes sedan and taken to the residence of the Saudi consul general, where they are believed to have been burned in an outdoor tandoor oven.
U.S. intelligence reports about the use of a bone saw to carve up the journalist’s body got the attention of then-President Donald Trump, who pressed Saudi King Salman and MBS himself for answers during multiple phone calls, according to Kirsten Fontenrose, the National Security Council’s director of Gulf affairs at the time, who monitored the calls.
“But 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’re with you … but we’ve got to get to the bottom of this. Was there a bone saw? Was there a bone saw?'” said Fontenrose about Trump’s phone calls with the Saudi leaders.
“’I’ve been in difficult negotiations. I’ve never had to take a bone saw,'” Trump told them, she added. “‘Mike’ — to Secretary Pompeo — ‘have you ever had to take a bone saw into negotiations?’ ‘No, Mr. President, ha ha.’ And pressing, pressing, pressing, and every time.”
And the response from the Saudi leaders: “‘No, no, no, Donald, we didn’t know anything about it. We’re still trying to get to the bottom of this.'”
But despite the conclusions by the CIA that MBS had ordered the operation, Trump accepted the Saudi denials and ultimately decided against sanctions or any other actions against the Saudi leaders. He cited as a principal reason the billions of dollars in weapons purchases that the Saudis were making from U.S. defense contractors.
“They’re buying hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of things from this country,” Trump said publicly at the time. “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 do one thing very importantly, keep oil prices down. … And I’m not going to destroy the economy for our country by being foolish with Saudi Arabia. … It’s about America first.”
There are clear gaps in the evidence presented during the Saudi trial, according to the Turkish notes. For example, there is no indication if Mutreb was questioned about whether he shared his decision to kill Khashoggi with higher-level Saudi officials or was following orders from superiors. U.S. intelligence officials have said it is inconceivable that Mutreb would have made such a momentous decision on his own without getting orders or approval from higher up in the chain of command.
“That guy doesn’t make decisions to kill somebody like Khashoggi,” said Clarke. “The decision to kill Khashoggi has to go all the way to the top. Because Khashoggi’s a protected person, he’s a person who used to hang out with the royalty at the very top.”
The Turkish notes also confirm the central role in the operation of MBS’s personal enforcer, Saud al-Qahtani, a powerful figure who Fontenrose says she viewed as the Rasputin of the Saudi royal court. (The first episode in the “Conspiracyland” series, titled “The Henchman,” focuses on Qahtani’s role.)
Qahtani met with the hit team before it took off, according to the Saudi notes, stressing that Khashoggi had been co-opted by “enemy countries” — an apparent reference to Qatar and Turkey — and that his return to Saudi Arabia would be a “significant achievement” of the mission.
Although that might suggest, if it can be believed, that the original idea may have been to kidnap Khashoggi, U.S. officials quickly concluded that once the plan changed, Qahtani would have either ordered it or been part of the decision.
“We had a hard smoking gun that Qahtani directed his team to get on that plane and come over, and once we learned that the bone saw was on the plane and some things like that, that let us put [it] together,” said Fontenrose. “And we had hard smoking-gun evidence about him speaking with his team.”
Fontenrose said she was outraged by the Saudi trial’s failure to pursue any charges against Qahtani.
“And he was completely exonerated, which was infuriating, and I think a farce, and frankly, I think, an insult to the U.S.-Saudi relationship,” she added. “The rest of the folks were operatives, but they were not calling any shots. So I was watching very closely the results of the Saud al-Qahtani discussion. And when he was let off the hook, I thought, this is a sign that MBS feels like he has impunity.”
Qahtani, said Fontenrose, “was being protected because MBS considers him invaluable. Because he is the one person he completely trusts. And because he will do all of the unsavory tasks. How unsavory? I assume, up to murder.”
Fontenrose acknowledged that U.S. intelligence officials did not have “smoking gun” evidence — an intercept of a phone call, for example — that MBS himself gave the “kill order” to the hit team. But CIA officials discounted the idea that Qahtani, as the crown prince’s right-hand man, would not have been informed of the decision to assassinate the journalist and have discussed that with his boss. A U.S. intelligence source confirms that officials tracked nearly a dozen phone calls between Qahtani and MBS during the days surrounding the Khashoggi operation. U.S. intelligence officials also point to other evidence that Qahtani has played a direct role in the intimidation and torture of Saudi dissidents on MBS’s behalf, including threatening a leading women right’s advocate, Loujain al-Hathloul, that he would “cut you into pieces,” according to an account by her family.
The notes from the Saudi trial do not include some of the gruesome details of Khashoggi’s murder that were captured on Turkish audiotapes and later confirmed in an exhaustive report by United Nations special rapporteur Agnès Callamard: how before Khashoggi ever walked into the consulate, Tubaigy and Mutreb had a conversation about carving up his body (“Joints will be separated. It is not a problem,” Tubaigy allegedly said) and depositing the pieces in black plastic bags. Mutreb, according to Callamard’s report, referred to Khashoggi as a “sacrificial animal.”
And the Turkish notes provide new details about how the Saudis sought to cover up the crime. One of the Tiger Team assassins was assigned the job of destroying the video cameras inside the consulate, removing the hard drives that recorded Khashoggi’s murder and then smashing them up, depositing the remains “in different [garbage] bins in Istanbul.”
But the Turkish notes also raise questions about how seriously the defendants themselves took the proceedings. “The nonchalant behavior of the defendants who were brought to the courtroom without handcuffs and shackles has drawn attention,” one of the Turkish observers noted.
The assassins, as it turned out, had good reasons to be nonchalant. Five of them — their identities never made public — were convicted and sentenced to death. But that sentence was later commuted and reduced to 20 years. Nothing has been heard about them since. Two Saudis — both of them with close government ties and longtime sources for U.S. intelligence officials — told Yahoo News that the convicted murderers are not actually behind bars or anywhere that resembles a real prison. Instead, according to these reports, the convicts are currently residing in a luxury compound outside Riyadh, and some, including Tubaigy, the forensic doctor who administered the lethal dose of drugs to Khashoggi, have been recently spotted working out in the gym.
Next on “Conspiracyland”: Episode 2, “The Arms Dealer’s Harem”
The U.S.-Saudi alliance has been sustained for decades by an “arms for oil” bargain that was nurtured by Jamal Khashoggi’s cousin Adnan Khashoggi, a billionaire arms dealer. Notorious for his flamboyant lifestyle — marked by spectacular parties with generous offerings of cocaine and stunningly gorgeous women — he became the most conspicuous public face of Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, causing much embarrassment to Jamal and the rest of his family. And then, as his empire unraveled, it resulted in Donald Trump’s first introduction to the redeeming power of Saudi largesse.
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP via Getty Images, Brian R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images, Sabah Newspaper via Getty Images, Istanbul Police Dept./Anadolu/Getty Images.
Read more from Yahoo News:
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.
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.)
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.
“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.
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:
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
Read more from Yahoo News:
‘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?”
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.
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.)
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?’”
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.”
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.”
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.
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:
Bonus Episode 1: “Training the assassins”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: courtesy of Hanan Al-Atr (2), Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Read more from Yahoo News:
‘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
Episode 2: The Arms Dealer’s Harem
Episode 3: Jamal and Osama
Episode 4: A Revolution Crushed
Episode 5: The Rise of the Bullet Guy
Episode 6: Influence Operations
Episode 7: A Tale of Two Women
Episode 8: “Anatomy of a Cover-up”
Bonus Episode 1: “Training the Assassins”
Bonus Episode 2: “Khashoggi and the 9/11 lawsuit”
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