THE KHASHOGGI MURDER: THE MISTAKES OF THE CONSPIRATORS
reading of poisonings by Russian agents, as in the recent Sergej
Skripal case; continued secret operations of the Mossad to
eliminate its various enemies around the world; the disappearance
of the chief of Interpol in China (we’ll spare you the chronology
of vanishings from Bulgarian Markov on forth), it is a wonder that
the public opinion still reacts with shock when faced with what
happened inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2nd.
Perhaps it is the mere brutality and cruelty of the execution that strikes the public. But capturing opposers, terrorists and trying to extradite or eliminate them is a recurrent tactic in many countries.
In this case, the countries involved or judging the event from outside all have their little secrets: the US has a long history of “extraordinary renditions”, Turkey is involved in the disappearance and elimination of dissidents and in the capture and secret deportation of opposers residing abroad (lately from Kosovo and Moldavia), Saudi Arabia – which has always been fingered for the violation of human rights – has captured and eliminated dissidents abroad in the past (Nassir al Said, who vanished in Beirut in 1979; prince Sultan al Turki, kidnapped in Geneva, drugged and deported home in 2003 where he was tried; prince Turki bin Bandar al Saud, vanished in Paris in 2015, who was probably taken home with the help of the Moroccan secret services; dissident Saud bib Saif al Nasr, who was brought home in 2015 before disappearing altogether; dissident Loujiain al Hathoul, extradited from the United Arab Emirates and presently behind bars in Riyadh).
The Saudi prisons are filled with individuals that are believed to opposers of the regime. Ethical considerations brushed aside, if the Saudi authorities really wanted to capture or kill Khashoggi, they should have done so in a more professional way.
The General Presidency of the Saudi Intelligence services, that is the structure that oversees all covert operations involving national security, depends and operates under the specific orders of the King (see Invisible Dog, December 2017: “SAUDI INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES”). In this specific case, seen the current configuration of power in Saudi Arabia, the supervisor of activities involving national security is the son of the king and crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
He is not only in charge of reforming the Secret Services but also holds the office of Defense and Interior Minister. The entire security and intelligence apparatus depends from him. Nothing could be done without his authorization.
It is he who gave orders to eliminate or capture Khashoggi, entrusting the task to a man from his inner circle: Saud al Qahtani, counselor of the crown prince and director of communications in social media.
The main reason for such a badly planned operation is probably the short notice given to conspirators before the arrival of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul: the dissident journalist had visited the structure on September 28 to request some documents and had scheduled a second appointment on October 2nd. The urgency to improvise such a faulty plan was probably caused by the lack of time and by the will of the crown prince to eliminate the dissident or the private interest of his subordinates to please the prince’s whims.
Il consolato saudita a Istanbul
The wrong place
Every diplomatic structure, regardless of the country it belongs to, is under the control of local counter-espionage. Transit in and out of the structure is usually monitored, as are all other activities that could be of interest to the local intelligence services. It’s standard procedure. To think that an operation like the one involving Khashoggi, carried out inside a consulate, could pass unnoticed is a strong sign of amateurism.
More often than not the local counter-espionage will not only use external cameras but other, more technological instruments. The most recurrent are bugs inserted inside the walls of the diplomatic structure or external devices that can capture conversations inside the building from a distance.
In this case, the Turkish M.I.T. possesses the recordings to confirm the killing of Khashoggi. These recordings were shared by the M.I.T. with other information Services (surely with the CIA, then with the British, the French, Germans, etc.) but cannot be publicized for two reasons: they are the product of an “illegal” activity and because the Turkish counter-espionage does not wish to disclose the origin of the recording, the location of the devices and so forth.
Traces that cannot be easily erased
The day prior to the killing of Khashoggi there arrived in Istanbul, on board two separate private flights, 15 members of the Saudi security services and of the offices connected to the Royal family. Flights tend to leave permanent traces of the airplane’s arrival/departure and the people on board are usually known to local authorities. That is why the names of the passengers of the two flights were immediately made public. Had they used regular airline flights to transfer the killers to Istanbul, the operation and its executors would have been harder to identify.
Another incredible mistake was the use of a telephone to communicate with Riyadh: the conversations, which were also made public, revealed the goals of the conspirators and the identity of the people piloting operations in Saudi Arabia: 4 calls were made to the office of the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, where his aide Bader al Asaker was in charge.
Another telephone call reached the number of the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., US, who happens to be the brother of the crown prince and the person who contacted Khashoggi in the first place to convince him to return home. The same ambassador, Khaled bin Salman, was the one who told Khashoggi to contact the consulate in Istanbul to obtain the documents he needed.
Third colossal blunder: the physical elimination of a person always leaves some trace in the place where it occurs. Although some of the walls in the consulate were repainted, nothing can really hide from today’s technology. Traces of blood (when dissecting a corpse there is a lot of blood involved) and of other chemical agents, probably used to melt the body, were found on the premises.
Frankly, if the man was to be eliminated, it should have happened elsewhere. The Saudis probably thought that they could use the diplomatic immunity of the consular structure to prevent Turkish police from entering the building. But the clamor raised by the vanishing of Khashoggi forced them to consent to a joint investigation with the Turkish police, giving the latter access to the diplomatic seat.
Kidnapping or elimination?
The Saudi authorities initially tried to deny the killing of Khashoggi, then they attempted to publicize a version in which Khashoggi was supposed to be kidnapped and taken home but was accidentally killed in the ensuing struggle. The most credible version in our opinion is that the Saudi dissident was to be eliminated if he refused to return to Saudi Arabia.
The presence of a medical examiner among the team that flew in to Turkey from Saudi Arabia seems to confirm the idea that Khashoggi was meant to disappear and that his body was meant to be dissolved in acid; seen the danger of removing the corpse from the consulate.
The consulate’s personnel (some were Turkish nationals) were told not to go to work on the day of Khashoggi’s arrival. This circumstance too couldn’t pass unnoticed. The killing was clearly premeditated. The fact that the cameras inside the consulate were tampered with in order to erase that day’s recordings is another indirect confirmation that the killing was to remain a secret. There was even an attempt to use a Khashoggi lookalike to pretend that the man had left the building; another amateurish attempt to muddle the evidence.
Maher Abdulaziz al Mutreb
Searching for a scapegoat
Even the behavior of the Saudi authorities appeared inadequate. Saudis sought to remove the crown prince from the circle of culprits and to try to point their finger in other directions and towards other individuals. They tried to vent the possibility that the killers operated on their own while disregarding the prince’s orders. This led to the arrest of 11 individuals and to the request by the Saudi prosecution to apply the death penalty to 5 of these, two of which are important names: the counselor of the crown prince, Saud al Qahtani, and the vice-chief of Intelligence, Ahmed al Asiri. Another sure addition to the list of people to silence will be Maher Abdulaziz al Mutreb, the member of the royal guard who was communicating directly with the office of the crown prince and with the Saudi ambassador in Washington during the operation. He is a key figure who must not speak out. And perhaps another person that will be silenced is the Saudi consul in Istanbul, Al Otaibi: although unhappy with the operation, he lent his office and his residence to the conspirators. Another member of the team, an airforce lieutenant who participated in the operation, died a few days after the murder in a car accident at home. Another voice silenced.
The intent of the Saudi authorities is clearly to relieve Mohammed bin Salman of responsibilities in the killing by placing these on the shoulders of two members of his inner circle. This gives credit to the version where two or more of the prince’s aides did not follow orders.
Saudi trials aren’t public, so the so-called “culprits” will not have a chance to defend themselves. Once they are dead, perhaps after an admission of guilt is forced out of them, it will be impossible to ascertain their responsibility in the murder. Notwithstanding, it is unsure whether all this will suffice to save the king’s successor (which is the main goal right now for the Royal family).
The qualitative leap
Even before the murder of Jamal Khashoggi Saudi Arabia was a country where human rights were never at home and where the death penalty was a daily occurrence. But the arrest, torture and elimination of dissidents were usually kept secret.
The grim murder of Khashoggi represents a qualitative leap in this respect. This leap is probably due to the current internal situation of Saudi Arabia, which is plagued by intestine power struggles where dissidence is silenced with brute force.
But who was Khashoggi and what made him so dangerous that he had to be killed?
He was neither a terrorist, nor a supporter of social disorder or intrigue. He wasn’t involved in trying to topple the Saudi throne. He was just a journalist that criticized the choices of the Saudi regime (the war in Yemen, the sanctions against Qatar, the involution of power). Khashoggi had chosen self-exile in the United States to voice his opinions. He was accused of being close to the Muslim Brothers but, even if this were confirmed, a was in a very blurry way. He was a symbol of a widespread feeling of dissent and as such, for Mohammed bin Salman, who cannot tolerate those who defy his choices, was a symbol to be destroyed or at least silenced.
In this respect it is possible that other factors played a part in the brutal killing of Khashoggi: namely a strong sense of impunity on the part of the regime, which led the conspirators to act rashly, and the idea that to publicize the elimination of a dissident will convince other detractors of the regime that they will be dealt with in the same way.