After more than two weeks of wild rumors and salacious, unsourced allegations concerning the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi — a story that captured global headlines — the tragic truth has become clear: the Saudi dissident is dead.
Here is what we actually know at this hour, and what we don’t.
HERE’S WHAT WE KNOW
- The Saudi government now publicly admits it is fully responsible for the death of this U.S. green card holder who was engaged to a Turkish woman but residing in northern Virginia.
- The Saudis say their intelligence officials were supposed to interrogate Khashoggi (pronounced, “ka-SHOW-gee”) at their consulate in Turkey and then bring him back to the kingdom. When the Khashoggi protested and began raising his voice, the Saudis say one of their officials put the 59-year old journalist in a “chokehold” and “covered his mouth” to quiet him but in the process killed him.
- The Saudis say “the team then wrote a false report for superiors saying they had allowed Khashoggi to leave [the consulate] once he warned that Turkish authorities could get involved and that they had promptly left the country before they could be discovered,” according to al-Arabiya news service.
- These false reports were fed to senior Saudi officials which formed the basis of their public statements — once the agents were found to be lying, the government conceded culpability.
- 18 Saudi intelligence officials have been arrested for participating in Khashoggi’s death, according to the state prosecutor.
- 5 senior Saudi officials have been fired in the affair. NBC News reports that “in addition to the deputy intelligence president and the Royal Court adviser, several other top intelligence officials were dismissed: Mohamed bin Saleh al Rumeh, assistant to the president of general intelligence for intelligence affairs; Abduallah bin Khalifa al Shaya, assistant to the president of general intelligence for human resources; and Rachad bin Hamed al Muhamadi, director of the general department for security and protection in the command of general intelligence.
HERE’S WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
- Is the current Saudi account the truth? Many journalists, Members of Congress, business leaders and others are expressing skepticism. Others are waiting for more information to confirm or deny the Saudi explanation. President Trump is vowing to stand with Saudi Arabia as a strong U.S. ally against Iranian and other radical Islamist aggression in the Middle East, yet he is also expressing concern about shifting Saudi narratives. “Their stories are all over the place,” Mr. Trump said.
- Did Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as “MBS”) directly authorize the capture or assassination of Khashoggi? The Saudi government says the Crown Prince authorized Saudi intelligence to bring dissidents back to the kingdom, not to murder them. “There were no orders for them to kill him or even specifically kidnap him,” said a Saudi official, speaking on condition of anonymity to Reuters. “MBS had no knowledge of this specific operation and certainly did not order a kidnapping or murder of anybody. He will have been aware of the general instruction to tell people to come back.”
- Do Turkish authorities have audio tapes of the Khashoggi’s murder from listening devices inside the Saudi consulate? Turkish media has been rife with the most wild, salacious and horrifying allegations regarding details allegedly gleaned from such recordings. Western media, including many U.S. media outlets, ran with such stories as factual without verifying their credibility. Yet as of this writing, U.S. officials say they have not heard any such recordings, or read any transcripts, or been given such items. Nor is it even clear that such recording exist. Agence France Presse noted on Friday, “The existence of the tape has never been confirmed on the record by Turkish officials.”
- Where does this all leave the U.S.-Saudi alliance? Many journalists, Members of Congress and various Mideast experts are demanding the Saudi government be “punished.” Some are calling for the cancellation of military sales. Others are calling for sweeping economic sanctions. Still others are calling for more targeted sanctions on Saudi individuals via the Global Magnitsky Act, a law that is used to target the world’s worst human rights abusers. That said, other experts note that while this is a tragic, sordid affair and the administration must deal with it forthrightly and not soft-peddle it, the White House should also not overreact or take steps that might fundamentally undermine the U.S.-Saudi alliance. The U.S. shares very real and important national interests with the Saudis, from thwarting radical Islamism in the region to establishing between between Israel and all of her Arab neighbors. Throwing the Saudis under the bus is shortsighted and imprudent. The Turks hardly have clean hands, having killed and arrested hundreds of dissidents, journalists and other innocents during the regime of President Recep Erdogan. The Iranians are the worst terrorist state on the planet. Yet the very same Obama administration officials who are demanding the Saudis be severely punished were the same people who removed all sanctions off of Tehran and forked over to the tyrants in Tehran $150 billion in cash. How exactly should the Trump administration proceed? How will they proceed? It may take more time, more investigation of the facts and more weighing of the implications of every move before the administration is ready to make any final decisions.
For now, please pray for the Khashoggi family, for comfort at this very hard time. Please pray for more facts to be revealed in a timely way and a complete picture to emerge. Please pray for U.S. leaders to have the wisdom to know how best to handle the situation. Please pray for the leaders of Saudi Arabia — vital allies of the U.S. and the West, and critical to Middle East peace-making — to know how best to deal with tragic injustice and make sure it never happens again. Please pray, too, for the people of Saudi Arabia who have been very much in favor of the economic and social reforms that MBS has been implementing, and surely want to see these reforms continue and expand, not the kingdom be suddenly isolated and potentially destabilized.