Today Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir described the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi as a rogue operation saying that, “there obviously was a tremendous mistake made, and what compounded the mistake was the attempt to try to cover up. That is unacceptable in any government.” Since the murder occurred in the Saudi embassy in Turkey, the surrounding controversy has been slow rolled out into the public sphere almost as some kind of macabre reality television show, with the Turkish government slow leaking out details of the killing and the Saudi government changing their story every day.
The nephew of notorious Iran-Contra linked Saudi arms dealer, Adnan Khashoggi, Jamal was a controversial figure as a journalist who harshly criticized the repressive Saudi government and royal family, including the crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS). On October 2, he entered the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. From there, the facts become difficult to discern as the Saudi government releases cover stories that are quickly refuted, then new cover stories are floated out which are also quickly knocked down. Failing to cover up the murder itself, the Saudis now appear to be trying to point fingers in other directions and muddy the waters as much as possible.
However, several key takeaways can be discerned from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
First, the killing was sloppy. One story floated out by the Saudis is that Khashoggi was killed accidentally and that an argument led to a confrontation in which the journalist was killed. This could be nonsense of course, we have no idea, but it is a possibility. Later, a Saudi wearing Khashoggi’s clothes walked out of the embassy and went around Istanbul, apparently an attempt to make it appear that the journalist did in fact leave the embassy. The Saudis may want to take political assassination classes from the Russians, who, as bold as they are, know that you don’t kill political dissidents in your own embassy in a foreign country. The murder was poorly planned (if it was at all) and foolishly executed by amateurs trying to play spy games.
Second, the murder displays a form of recklessness not normally associated with the public relations savvy usually exercised by the Saudi government. While the government may be repressive, the Saudi intelligence services are known to be pragmatic, rational, and circumspect when it comes to risk mitigation. This departure is most likely linked to the rise of MBS, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia who is known for his brash leadership style. Whether or not the crown prince ordered the murder is unknown (he denies it) but his subordinates may have murdered Khashoggi after feeling emboldened by the reckless style of politics practiced by MBS.
Third, the killing reveals a profound case of insecurity within the Saudi regime. This, of course, is not something new as monarchies are bound to be looking over their shoulders in a modern world that has long passed them by. During the Arab Spring this fear was on display in full force when the Saudis sent troops to back-up the royal family in Bahrain. The ramping up of a new kind of cold war in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran also likely plays into the fears present within the Saudi government. In the modern age, governments usually cannot just murder journalists without repercussions or at least not without it spilling into the press. Murdering a journalist in your own embassy is just about as poorly conceived an idea as one could imagine. This is more so the case in an age when everyone is carrying around a camera and a phone in their pocket which is connected to a digital network. Covert operations are a lot less likely to remain covert. For the Saudis to ignore this reality shows that they had an out-sized fear of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who in a democracy would be just another critic of governmental policy rather than seen as a credible threat to the regime.
Two high ranking Saudi officials have been dismissed as a result of the fallout surrounding the Khashoggi murder, including Ahmad al-Assiri, known to be in charge of his country’s operation in neighboring Yemen. The Saudi chief communications officer, Saud al-Qahtani, has also been removed. Some believe that al-Assiri is the one who coordinated the team that kill Khashoggi, but whether or not it was done under orders from MBS himself is something we may never know.