It has been nearly six months since Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, but the aftershocks continue. The U.S.-Saudi defense and intelligence partnership has been rocked. The future of the relationship is on hold, pending answers from Riyadh.
This case is personal for us at The Washington Post. Khashoggi was our colleague, and my friend for 15 years. To understand how his murder happened and whether it’s possible to rebuild the U.S.-Saudi relationship, I’ve interviewed more than a dozen knowledgeable American and Saudi sources, who revealed some previously secret details because they hope to establish new rules and accountability that might preserve the relationship.
The bottom line is that unless the crown prince takes ownership of this issue and accepts blame for murderous deeds done in his name, his relationship with the United States will remain broken. Saudi officials claim that Mohammad bin Salman, or MBS as he is known, has made changes, firing Saud al-Qahtani, his former covert-operations coordinator. But the Saudi machine of repression remains intact, run by many of the same people who worked for Qahtani.
MBS took a small step toward placating critics Thursday when the kingdom released three female human-rights activists from prison, while they await trial. Eight other women who campaigned for women to drive and other issues remain in detention.
Among the previously undisclosed findings:
r Some members of the Saudi strike team that was sent to Istanbul received training in the United States, according to U.S. and Saudi sources. The CIA has cautioned other government agencies that some of this special-operations training might have been conducted by Tier 1 Group, an Arkansas-based company, under a State Department license.
r A U.S. plan to train and modernize the Saudi intelligence service is also on hold, pending State Department approval of a license. This project was developed by Culpeper National Security Solutions, a unit of DynCorp, with help from some prominent former CIA officials. No work on the project has been done.
r Michael Morell, former acting director of the CIA, was publicly identified as Culpeper’s chairman of the board in 2017, but he no longer holds that position. A source said Morell withdrew within days of Khashoggi’s murder because of his concern about the direction Saudi Arabia was heading. Morell declined to comment.
Tier 1 Group and DynCorp are both owned by affiliates of Cerberus Capital Management, based in New York. The company wouldn’t confirm or deny whether any of the 17 perpetrators of the Khashoggi killing who were sanctioned by the Treasury Department had been trained under the Tier 1 contract.
r NSO Group, an Israeli-founded company that provides sophisticated tools for hacking cellphones, has reviewed and modified its relationship with Saudi Arabia, according to a Saudi source, because of concerns that its technology might have been misused.
The company wouldn’t confirm or deny this account.
The best narrative of Khashoggi’s murder seems to come via a bug planted in the consulate by Turkish intelligence. A Saudi who has carefully read a transcript of that illegal surveillance described its contents. He said it indicates the team planned to kidnap Khashoggi and bring him back home for detention and interrogation - but that the plan was botched and Khashoggi was killed. His body was then dismembered and disposed of.
The transcript, as described by the Saudi source, is chilling. Maher Mutreb, the Saudi team leader, tells Khashoggi: “You’re coming back with us.” Khashoggi protests, “No! I have people outside waiting for me,” meaning his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. Mutreb insists: “You’re coming!” Khashoggi screams as he is grabbed, the Saudi source said.
What happened next remains conjecture. The Saudi source says there is a note in the transcript indicating that Khashoggi was given an injection.
This source said the shot was probably a powerful sedative, administered by Salah Tubaigy, a medical specialist from the Saudi Interior Ministry who was part of the team.
A bag was then placed over Khashoggi’s head, and he screamed: “I can’t breathe. I have asthma. Don’t do this.” Khashoggi died soon after - possibly from a sedative overdose, choking or asphyxiation. After his death, the transcript describes a buzzing noise, perhaps from an electric saw as his body is cut into pieces.
Khashoggi wrote often about his fervent desire for modernization and rule of law in the kingdom.
In his last moments, Khashoggi pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, but his murder may yet give oxygen to his demand for reform.
David Ignatius is published twice weekly by The Daily Star.