Until Oct. 2, Jamal Khashoggi was a legal resident of the United States, a columnist for The Washington Post and a critic of human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the mercurial 33-year-old known as MBS.
That day Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain paperwork necessary for his forthcoming marriage. What happened next is reportedly recorded on an audiotape possessed by Turkish intelligence and shared with the U.S., which captures in horrific detail the utter contempt for human rights that Khashoggi decried.
Awaiting Khashoggi was a 15-man Saudi death squad studded with agents tied to the crown prince, including its leader, Maher Mutreb. The murder was neither random nor merciful: The killers severed Khashoggi’s fingers, cut off his head and dismembered his body with a bone saw. One of them, a doctor of forensics, advised listening to music on headphones to ease the stress of butchery. Thereafter, depending on the account, the murderers either gave the dismembered corpse to a “local cooperator” or dissolved it in acid before flushing it down a drain.
That MBS ordered this atrocity is beyond serious doubt. Since his accession, he has pushed to arrest, kidnap or otherwise forcibly repatriate dissenters living abroad.
That his targets included a middle-aged journalist is confirmed by intelligence intercepts. Days before the murder, at the direction of MBS, his brother ― the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. ― advised Khashoggi to obtain the marriage documents from the Saudi consulate, assuring him of his safety. Shortly after supervising the assassination, Mutreb called a top aide to MBS, Saud al- Qahtani, saying “tell your boss” that the mission was accomplished. Given that MBS rules with absolute authority, the CIA concludes that such a complex and risky operation ― involving 15 agents flying on government aircraft to execute a perceived enemy at a Saudi consulate on foreign soil ― would proceed only at MBS’ specific direction.
Nor would any serious observer put it past him. Granted, MBS initially swathed his megalomania in cosmetic reforms, such as allowing women to drive. Having forgotten his rapturous declaration that the Iraq war would democratize the Middle East, Thomas Friedman predicted that MBS’ reforms, if successful, “will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe,” and praised his “firehose of new ideas for transforming his country.” The real firehose was Saudi Arabia’s $27 million lobbying campaign to beatify MBS in Washington.