‘He Will be Part of That History’: Steve Coll on His Friend (and Source) Jamal Khashoggi

October 2, 2019
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Jamal Khashoggi, looks on during a press conference in the Bahraini capital Manama, on December 15, 2014. (Photo by MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH / AFP)

Journalist Steve Coll first met Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s, when Coll was reporting on the Gulf War for The Washington Post.

Over the next three decades, the two stayed in touch as Khashoggi rose through the ranks of Saudi Arabia’s tightly controlled state media industry. Meanwhile, Coll worked as a foreign correspondent and editor, and eventually named managing editor at the Post. It was there he wrote his Pulitzer-winning book, Ghost Wars, about the CIA, Afghanistan and the rise of Osama bin Laden — with Khashoggi as a source.

As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came in to power, Khashoggi would be banned from writing in the kingdom. Khashoggi relocated to the United States, where he was able to write about his home for The Washington Post (by then, Coll had left the post to become dean of Columbia University’s journalism school). He wrote for the Post until his death in Oct. 2018.

Ahead of the one-year anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, FRONTLINE talked to Coll about Khashoggi’s relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood and Osama bin Laden, his dreams of a free press and democracy in Saudi Arabia, and the legacy he leaves behind.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

When was the first time you met Jamal Khashoggi?

I was on the tour of meeting people like Jamal in the kingdom when I first started reporting there for The Washington Post. When I really got to know him as a source was later, when I was working on Ghost Wars; he’s not named in that book.

Back then, there were very few points of entry for outside journalists, but there was a kind of standard firmament of accessible people who are almost informally, if not formally, designated by the government to be interlocutors with international visitors. Those range from progressive princes to people like Jamal, who was at the Arab News for many years, as well as in other roles.

Though their newspapers aren’t free in the sense that you would find in Europe or the United States, at different phases of the kingdom there was more space or less space on how far you could go to express opinion and in reporting. I met Jamal in that context.

He told me a lot of how the Muslim Brotherhood worked in the kingdom, where Osama [bin Laden] fit in relation to the Brotherhood, how he had been a part of it and he had left it, how the splits evolved, Jamal’s own experience with it and his own departure from it, and how toxic it was in the kingdom. At the same time, it was a vehicle for activism for some causes like the Afghan war, which the Saudi royal family very much supported.

Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood is a political, religious and social organization and movement widely known for its lobbying, business and charitable campaigns, as well as its support of Sharia law. After Khashoggi’s death, some critics highlighted his connections to the Brotherhood — rumors that were widely condemned.

Jamal told me this amazing story about when he embedded as a journalist with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — this Afghan rebel who was a big deal in the jihad and is very much still alive. He was a radical element of the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation. He was supported by Pakistani intelligence and he was connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. Jamal was over there as a Muslim Brotherhood “journalist” and he embedded with Gulbuddin, and he told me the story of how Kabul fell in 1992 and how Gulbuddin got outfoxed.

It was through that conversation that I got to know Jamal’s history with the Muslim Brotherhood. I started talking to him about where Osama fit in the radical streams in the kingdom, and he helped me identify a couple of other important people who had known Osama in those days.

At the time, did Jamal identify himself as a journalist?

He self-identified as a journalist and essayist, a political analyst, an editor. In the kingdom, there was a lot of emerging satellite television in the 1990s, most of it held offshore. Networks like Al Arabiya were semi-authorized, and members of the royal family would buy into them. It gave the royal family a way into the era of satellite television, fax machines and underground taped sermons: this was all about their political anxieties.

Their strategy was to allow a little bit — like the Chinese strategy — of open discourse without surrendering important political control, and let people blow off steam. There were always subjects that you were authorized to have diverse opinions about, most of them having to do with issues outside of Saudi Arabia, like Middle East trends, the future of Lebanon, the Palestinian-Arab conflict and the world’s response to that.

There were times when I think Jamal would test the limits, as evidenced by the fact that he was removed from his [editorial positions] repeatedly. He would test the limits by talking about political reform in the Arab world. He broke with the movement, but he was interested in what the Muslim Brotherhood was interested in, and this was true all the way up to his murder, and it’s why he was murdered.

What was your sense of what motivated his work?

Like a lot of editors you would meet anywhere, he was straddling worlds. He liked ideas. He was interested in politics; he was interested in political change.

I think, for him, the huge turning point was the Arab Spring. This was, in large measure, exactly what he had been pressing for, though it was far more radical than anything the kingdom would countenance. It was enormously exciting for people like him to see the Arab world demanding democratic participation.

He was excited about this pluralistic model of democratic competition in the Arab world. He felt that it was the final stage of Arab social development. In every other region in the world — never in a straight line — but in Latin America, Asia, Africa, political participation had broadened since the end of the Cold War.

“Dear Arab pessimist, don’t limit your observations to Iraq and Syria where there are floods of blood and hatred fragmenting both countries. Don’t limit your observation to Libya, which replaced its freedom and salvation from the dictator with chaos, conflicts and fighting between its rebels. Don’t limit your observations to Yemen, which lost its government. Look at Jordan and Morocco where there is hope and where reforms are paving the way for a better future, despite all the mayhem in the region.” – Jamal Khashoggi, writing in Al Arabiya on Sept. 1, 2014

While there were still dictatorships, and some of the democracies were riddled with corruption and abuses of power. Nonetheless there was a broadening of political discourse and participation. He felt the Arab world was ripe for that, and it was necessary for the Arab world to advance, and here was a turning point.

The kingdom was absolutely petrified of those discussions. You had a sense there that this was dangerous, and needed to be suppressed in the way we’ve seen MBS do that. So, the more Jamal persisted with his insistence that this discourse was necessary and legitimate, that it had to happen, the more he crossed over from being a kind of straddler of the rules in the kingdom to opposition.

Once [Mohammed bin Salman] came into power, that kingdom no longer existed.

What was your impression of how Jamal balanced his notoriety within Saudi Arabia, his growing audience in the West, and his sense of personal safety?

I was one of the people who wrote a letter for him when he came to the United States. We met, and we talked about it. He had gone into exile. I think he had decided he would choose the space that exile offered over the privileges that he enjoyed, some of which he had been deprived of: placed under house arrest, essentially forbidden from writing or speaking. He lost his family.

He always seemed jolly and together, and he had resources and support, a lot of friends. But still, it was a big change. It was a hard thing to do, and he chose to do it.

He immediately moved into the role of dissenting exile and wrote vigorously with the support of the Post and spoke out a lot. He was so accustomed to the way things had always been, as you can see in his decision to enter that consulate against the advice of some friends.

He still held out the belief that this was not a society that would ever do what it did to him, that there were still civil servants and diplomats and consulates like that, that it wouldn’t harm him, that the harshest punishments for people like him tended to be house arrest or withdrawal of travel privileges, that nobody’s going to physically assassinate you or strip you of your bank accounts, even though all these things were happening. He knew it.

He knew the way [Mohammed bin Nayef] had been treated, he knew what was going on with some of these other cases where people were abducted abroad and brought home. But I think there was just a part of him that thought that these things happen in phases, this is a phase, MBS won’t be forever, and eventually he’ll be able to go home. I don’t think he appreciated the extent to which MBS was building something more like a Ba’athist kind of regime.

Can you tell me about when you first heard about Jamal’s disappearance, and your experience of the public and private conversations around it in the weeks that followed?

A friend of mine who knew him, an academic, wrote me within a few hours after he had not come out of the consulate. He was looped in with some people who knew he was going in, and we all just began talking to one another.

I called around to try to find out what was being organized by way of response, and whether there was some way to help by writing or calling. A lot of this was already underway. He had such a huge network of friends and acquaintances and supporters in Washington, I think this was something that MBS also didn’t understand.

This was a mutual misunderstanding: Jamal didn’t understand that this was becoming a much harsher dictatorship than it had been in decades, very rapidly. And MBS didn’t understand that Jamal was not like all of the other people that he had already successfully abducted and tortured.

It was a little bit out of a Quentin Tarantino movie, in terms of the operation. It’s so amateurish. If you’re going to kill somebody in the Arab world, even in Turkey, all you have to do is hire someone, who hires someone, who hires a Kurdish gangster who drives by on a motorcycle and shoots him and drives away and no one every knows who did it or why. The whole thing was whole grotesque and easy to detect. Bizarre.

For you, as a journalist, did you feel like you wanted to or should write about Jamal’s murder? What was challenging when weighing whether or not to cover a story you were a part of?

I wasn’t sure what I would add. I spoke to lots of people about it. I didn’t write for the New Yorker, but it wasn’t a decision I made. I was quite clear about what I thought about his murder in public.

What physical mannerisms, or aspects of how Jamal carried himself, still stand out in your memory?

He was really a gentle soul, and his interest in politics is what makes for good politics. Even where you might disagree with him, about say, the Muslim Brotherhood sharing power, it was always a gentle conversation. He was quite intelligent; he was quite well-read and thoughtful. I’m sure that informed people’s shock and outrage.

He was a big guy; he’d always look the same over the years. When you saw him in the States he’d usually be in Western dress, in Saudi Arabia he’d be in Saudi dress. He seemed quite comfortable in both worlds.

He had this very distinctive accent and tone of voice. He always spoke in the same modulated tone; it was one of those voices that was very easy to listen to. He didn’t go on forever the way some people do, and he was always saying something interesting, something that you felt you were learning from.

He was comfortable with lots of different kinds of questions, he was never evasive. All those qualities, that’s not typical in Saudi Arabia, or many newsrooms in the United States. He was part-journalist, part-scholar, and he just had this very full way of thinking about things. You could poke fun at almost anybody and he would join you in laughing.

How do you think Jamal would want to be remembered?

I think he’ll be remembered in Saudi political history, eventually, as somebody who wrote and talked about political change. It is coming eventually — it will come — and he will be remembered as one of the original thinkers. He will be remembered as a Ben Franklin or a Thomas Payne, someone who wrote about the political future before it arrived.

I don’t know whether he would have thought about himself that way, but I think he definitely saw himself as willing to make sacrifices to remain in the currents of political change in the Arab world, which had been the focus of most of his life’s work.

I think Jamal was part of that tradition, of Arab political thinking and reform. And I think that’s how he’ll be remembered, because these changes will come to Saudi Arabia one day. Maybe not in my lifetime, but they will come. And he will be part of that history.

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