One Year After Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder, Friends and Colleagues Reflect on His Work and Legacy
A demonstrator holds a poster picturing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a lightened candle during a gathering outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, on October 25, 2018. (Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images)
On Oct. 2, 2018, 59-year-old Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi entered his country’s consulate in Turkey to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage. He never reemerged.
Suspicions of a rendition quickly evolved into CIA-backed reports of a gruesome state-sanctioned murder and dismemberment. The news sparked an outpouring of international condemnation and calls for answers.
One year after his death, FRONTLINE reached out to Khashoggi’s wide network of friends and colleagues to learn about his work, the days following his disappearance and his legacy in the Arab world.
“HE WANTED TO BREATHE FREEDOM”
Jamal Khashoggi wasn’t always a critic of the Saudi government. For many decades he was a staunch supporter of the kingdom — in the mid-2000s, he worked as a media aide to the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
Robin Wright, author, journalist and distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, met Khashoggi in the early 1980s.
I never would have thought that I would be doing an interview like this, even though Jamal warned me in August that he felt threatened.
When I started going to Saudi Arabia in 1980 and ’81, Jamal was always a person to see to understand the thinking within the regime. He was an editor, a journalist who was very closely associated with the government.
While he would be candid about the government, he also believed in the monarchy. I think that was true to the end. It wasn’t the system that he challenged, it was the individuals who had usurped power — all avenues of power — in the kingdom.
Nihad Awadmet Khashoggi in 1994, the year Awad co-founded the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a prominent Muslim civil rights and advocacy group.
I remember walking into his office in Jeddah. What captured my attention was, to the left of his desk from where I was sitting, there was a poster from Tiananmen Square, the famous [man] who stood in front of a tank.
I could not take my eyes off that poster; you don’t see posters like this in Saudi Arabia. It gave me so much more information about his personality, his courage, his ability to appreciate freedom of expression and those who are willing to sacrifice for freedom.
Steve Coll, author, journalist, and dean of Columbia Journalism School, met Khashoggi in the early 1990s while working on his Pulitzer-winning book Ghost Wars.
He was really a gentle soul, and his interest in politics is what makes for good politics. Even where you might disagree with him, it was always a gentle conversation.
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.
Bill Law, a London-based freelance journalist, met Khashoggi in the early 2000s when he was deputy editor-in-chief of the Saudi newspaper Arab News.
I was immediately impressed by his wonderful sense of humor. It was clear to me that he was committed to attempting to move Saudi society forward, to establish a kind of structure that would enable people to live more freely.
He was constantly pushing. He would get sacked and moved aside and brought back. He struck me as someone who was bold and brave and ready to push that envelope and keep pushing it.
Azzam Tamimi is a British-Palestinian academic and host of a weekly show on Al-Hiwar TV; he met Khashoggi in 1992.
Jamal, like most of my generation, was looking forward to seeing things improve in the Arab region, because we had dictatorships all over the place, and with dictatorships come corruption. At the same time, he believed that the Saudi monarchy was actually doing a great deal of good for Muslims around the world.
Jamal believed in a process of gradual change, gradual reform, and this was the project he was working on: simply calling for democratization, respect for human rights, and trying to enlighten world public opinion about the situation in much of the Arab world.
Nihad Awad He was looking for ways to write, to report, to explore people’s lives and his country; that was his role as a journalist. Obviously, the government recognized that he had a unique talent, and they hired him as an adviser. He thought maybe, in his role, he can do something good to benefit society, to benefit his country.
He wasn’t able to express his personal opinion when he became a government official, so to speak. But the Jamal we know stayed inside him and did not change and was just waiting for the right moment to relive his life of promoting freedom, and for him to have that freedom himself. He wanted to breathe freedom.
Bill Law I think he felt secure in the way he was playing the game. It was really only when Mohammed bin Salman came to power that I think that sense of security started to slip away. He got out…when other colleagues were about to be arrested or had at the point been arrested, because Mohammed bin Salman had launched this roundup of people he perceived to be threats or critics. That was when he decided to leave.
INSIDER TURNED OUTSIDER
In 2017, less than a year after the Saudi royal family barred him from writing, tweeting or appearing on TV, Khashoggi left Saudi Arabia for the United States — leaving friends and family behind.
Bill Law Not only did Jamal leave, but he went to Washington and he was writing for the Washington Post. That made Mohammed bin Salman very, very uneasy, because his great fear was that somehow Jamal Khashoggi would influence politicians and have the ability to turn them against him.
He was paranoid and greatly exaggerated the threat, I think, Jamal presented. Jamal was a supporter of Vision 2030, this effort to remake the Saudi economy, and he wrote in support of it. This is a terrible thing about Mohammed bin Salman: those who could best support him were the people he turned against the most avidly and the most savagely.
Robin Wright Jamal thought big, and usually from his Saudi “prison.” It was only once he left Saudi Arabia that he realized those big thoughts might be able to hold MBS and his cohorts to account. I think it was through the Washington Post that he became the conscience of the kingdom. As he discovered his own voice, he realized he was an instrument on behalf of Saudis who don’t have a voice. That’s why, I think, the regime felt he was dangerous and had to be silenced.
I would always say to him, “Can I quote you on that? Are you sure you want to say that?” And sometimes I’d read back what he said to me to make sure he was willing to say these things. It was fascinating to see the evolution of someone being on the Saudi payroll, the voice of the kingdom, becoming its leading critic-in-exile.
Steve CollLike a lot of editors you would meet anywhere, Jamal 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 him to see the Arab world demanding democratic participation.
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 it. So, the more Jamal persisted with his insistence that this discourse was necessary and legitimate, the more he crossed over from being a straddler of the rules in the kingdom to the opposition.
He lost his family when he went into exile. 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.
Nihad AwadJamal was very sad. He used to be very sociable, and he could not live by himself. He was really in pain, all the time, for not having his family around. And I tried to be his best friend. But nothing can compensate for not having his family.
He was basically alone, away from the country he loved, the society he grew up in, away from most of his friends and family members, and concerned about all of them. They weren’t allowed to travel after he left. He was trying to balance between his ethical obligation to do what he believes is right versus not causing any indirect harm to these people.
Steve Coll 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.
“IT WAS A TRAP”
In Oct. 2018, Khashoggi traveled to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain papers for his upcoming marriage. His fiancée waited for him outside of the consulate, but Khashoggi would never be seen again.
Azzam Tamimi Since mid-2017, Jamal came to the conclusion that it wasn’t safe for him to be in Saudi Arabia anymore, but he didn’t feel anxious about being outside Saudi Arabia. Even until the last minute.
We were together the day before he was killed, here in my office in London, and we spoke about this. He felt comfortable about going to the consulate, he didn’t feel threatened. He had been there a few days earlier, and he came out to the impression that they were trying to help him. Now we know from the facts that it was a trap.
While we were having lunch, I said to him, “Are you sure you can trust them? I’m just not feeling comfortable about it.” And he laughed and said, “You’re probably worried because I’m getting married.”
He left London for Istanbul in the early evening on Monday and I followed the next morning. When I arrived in Istanbul and switched on my mobile I had a message saying that my friend had gone into the consulate and hadn’t been out since. That was the first sign that something was wrong.
Robin Wright There was no doubt in my mind [that he was dead.] People don’t just walk into consulates and disappear if they have a loved one standing on the outside.
Steve Coll It was a little bit out of a Quentin Tarantino movie, in turns of the operation. It was 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 grotesque and easy to detect. Bizarre.
WHAT COMES NEXT
Widely covered across the world, Khashoggi’s death sparked fresh scrutiny of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Nihad Awad As a believer, as a believer in God, as a Muslim, we believe that if don’t get justice here then we will get justice over there. But we will not rest until we get justice. And those people who have to be brought to justice.
They underestimated who Jamal was, and what Jamal represents to the world, as journalist, as someone who loved his country, someone who was not violent and never believed in violence. Jamal always was respectful while talking about the rulers, even in private discussions. He had an integrity we do not see in many people. He was no threat to the state, but that state is a threat to everyone now.
Many people talk about Jamal, but there has not been a serious enough effort to bring the perpetrators to justice. There has been no effort to give the family and his loved ones, including his fiancée, the right to find his body or the remains to do proper burial.
There’s no closure. And that’s really sad, that power is overruling morality.
Robin Wright I’m a journalist. My first commitment was to the truth, which was the best tribute to Jamal, because at the end of his life, he was the truth-teller. Quoting him, and not letting the Saudis try to spin a fantastical story. But I also remember doing an interview with NPR and just weeping.
You can’t believe that his body would disappear and that it’s still missing, and that the world isn’t doing more, whether it’s the Turkish authorities, American intelligence, nobody is doing anything about finding his body. Somebody’s got to know, and it’s shameful, on the first anniversary of his death, that his body has not been found. There will be a blip of publicity and tragically, nobody is going to pay attention a year from now again.
Jamal’s death was the best reflection of the reality of MBS. He’s not the only one who has been persecuted, or punished, or intimidated, or forced into exile. And he won’t be the last. But he’s a name that everybody knows. For the rest of his life, MBS will be haunted by the fact that he will be linked to the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi.
I had the privilege of knowing him; it was fascinating to watch his life unfold. But it’s not just my loss. It’s everybody’s loss. It’s terrible.
Steve CollI 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, who wrote about the political future before it arrived.
Jamal was part of that kind of tradition, of Arab political thinking and reform. 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.
Azzam TamimiI think he really never expected this to happen to him. We had more concern for him than he had for himself. Probably today, as he is looking down upon us, he would be delighted that his death has not been in vain. I think it has exposed much more clearly what the Saudi regime is about, especially under Mohammed Bin Salman. The world today knows a lot more about this dynasty and this rotten kingdom.
We’re heading towards democracy. We discussed this, me and him and some colleagues, even on that day. Soon we will see the second round of uprisings in the Arab world. We’re seeing signs in Algeria, in Sudan, and now Egypt is moving again. Jamal, myself and several of our friends, we have no doubt that democracy will be established one day in the region.
Bill LawHe had much more courage than I ever had, to go up against authority, to speak truth to power. I felt this sorrow and then anger that this voice had been silenced in such a terrible and awful way. There didn’t seem to be any kind of reciprocal outrage coming from the governments in the West, there was more of an attempt to find an apology to let Mohammed bin Salman slip away from his terrible responsibility. That made me angry.
It wasn’t just that he was taken and murdered in the way that he was, it was what he represented. He was so important, and not just in Saudi Arabia but right across the region. If you look at the landscape of media in the Gulf and the entire Middle East today, it is in really desperate shape. He had the courage of his convictions and he paid for it with his life.
It is a terrible loss, and it will never stop being terrible.
Jodi Wei contributed to this article.