There are few more feared destinations in Cairo than Tora Prison — a notorious complex where hundreds of political prisoners have been jailed, often subjected to unspeakable torture.
But one day in 2008, one of the prison’s most celebrated inmates, democracy advocate Ayman Nour, figured out a way to hoodwink his jailers — and ultimately get himself freed. How did he do so? A clever ruse that Nour concocted with the active collaboration of a visitor from Saudi Arabia, Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi’s role in helping Nour outsmart the jailers of Tora Prison is told for the first time in “A Revolution Crushed,” Episode 4 in the latest season of Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland” podcast, “The Secret Lives and Brutal Death of Jamal Khashoggi.” It is a story that illustrates the Saudi journalist’s political transformation — and his penchant for inserting himself into the midst of events that rippled through the Middle East.
Khashoggi had once been a friend of Osama bin Laden, championing his battles in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupiers. He later became a spin doctor for a harsh antidemocratic Saudi monarchy and was sometimes assigned to what one former colleague called “secret missions” to collect intelligence.
But in the years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Khashoggi’s views began to evolve as he became an increasingly outspoken supporter of democracy and freedom of speech.
That led him to visit Nour — a dissident whose case was so well known that multiple U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, had publicly called for his release.
But getting in to see him wasn’t easy. Journalists were barred from Tora Prison. So Khashoggi listed himself as a relative of the prisoner’s wife.
Then, under the watchful eyes of the jailers, sitting across from each other at a table in the warden’s conference room, Khashoggi and Nour implemented their scheme.
Khashoggi had brought with him a pack of cigarillos, or mini-cigars, that he plunked on the conference room table. Nour was ushered in and brought his own pack, placing it on the table as well, as he sat down across from Khashoggi. “When we stood up to leave, each took the other’s pack,” recalls Nour, now living in exile in Istanbul.
And inside Nour’s pack, which Khashoggi smuggled out of the prison, was an eloquent letter to Sen. Barack Obama, then a Democratic candidate for president.
Before long, the letter popped up on Obama’s Facebook page.
“Dear Senator Obama: These lines, which I’m not certain will see the light or reach you, were written behind the walls of an old prison in the south of Cairo,” the letter read. Nour explained why the charges against him by Hosni Mubarak’s government were a sham.
“The real charge is that I committed the crime of dreaming of change!” the letter continued. “Me and the generation I belong to — in Egypt and the Arab region — views you as a gifted and inspiring model for the dream of freedom. [I] look forward to hearing from you — today, tomorrow and in the future.”
The letter had an impact. In February 2009, just a few weeks after Obama’s inauguration, Nour was released from prison — a move that was widely interpreted as a gesture by Mubarak to the new American president.
“That’s an amazing backstory. I wish I did know it,” Ben Rhodes, then one of Obama’s top foreign policy advisers, says on “Conspiracyland” when told about Nour’s account of his visit with Khashoggi that day.
Rhodes says he recalls Nour’s letter but had no idea that Khashoggi was the person who smuggled it out of Tora Prison.
“He kind of pops up everywhere, you know,” Rhodes says about Khashoggi on “Conspiracyland.” “To me, this story kind of captures just how much this guy was not just a journalist in Saudi, not just an opposition figure in Saudi — he was a real regional figure who was connected to everybody, particularly people that were in the different movements against authoritarian leaders. And so there’s a kind of a Zelig quality to his role over the last decade.”
It’s a Zelig quality that resurfaced just a few years later, when Khashoggi found himself in the middle of pro-democracy Arab Spring protests that swept through the region. Rhodes recounts on “Conspiracyland” how the Obama administration was deeply divided over those protests. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and even Vice President Joe Biden were wary of the demonstrations, fearing they would disrupt relationships with autocratic regimes like that of Egypt’s Mubarak, which the United States had long viewed as allies in the global war on terror.
“Mubarak has been an ally of ours,” Biden said in an interview with “PBS NewsHour” at the time. “I would not refer to him as a dictator.’
But Khashoggi immersed himself in the protests, flying to Cairo, huddling with Nour to plot strategy and celebrating the massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square against Mubarak. Khashoggi, like millions of others in the region, saw them as the harbinger of a new era in the Middle East. “We are witnessing the events of the massive transformation in Egypt” and a new “road map” for the region, he wrote for the Saudi newspaper Al Watan on Feb. 13, 2011 — and then tweeted out the article, proclaiming how proud he was to have written it.
The elation of Khashoggi and other pro-democracy activists was short-lived. Mubarak stepped down — an electric moment in Cairo — and was soon replaced by a democratically elected government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and headed by Mohammed Morsi. But Morsi failed to deliver on his promises of democratic reform and in 2013 was deposed in a coup engineered by the defense minister and former chief of military intelligence, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and heavily backed — with funding and other support — by the Saudi government.
The overthrow of Morsi was a crushing blow for Khashoggi. And for his efforts, he was subjected to a wave of vicious tweets and threats on Twitter.
“I hope, inshallah, I see you get killed at Tahrir Square,” read one. And read another: “Can you just die and relieve people from your dirty face and your tweets that are dirty like your face?”
It was a sign of what would become one of the crueler ironies of the Arab Spring. The same social media tools the protesters used to spread their message of democratic reform would soon be turned against them — with Jamal Khashoggi as one of the prime targets.
Next on “Conspiracyland”: Episode 5, “The Rise of the Bullet Guy”
A new king, Salman, inherits the throne in Saudi Arabia and names his young son Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, as his defense minister. U.S. officials — including President Obama’s ambassador in Riyadh — embrace him as a change agent who has the potential to bring his country into the 21st century. But others in Washington begin to have their doubts when MBS launches a barbaric war in Yemen that slaughters innocent civilians by the thousands.
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Johnny Green/PA via Getty Images, Chris Hondros/Getty Images
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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.
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.
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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?”
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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