Death on the Bosphorus How an Apparent Saudi Hit Job Has Shaken the World

A gruesome crime has quickly turned into a crisis in international relations: Saudi agents acting on behalf of the crown prince are thought to have dismembered a prominent opposition journalist. The West is disgusted and U.S. President Donald Trump finds himself in a tight spot. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

ddp / abaca press

The following is our cover story from this week print edition of DER SPIEGEL on events in Istanbul. This story went to print on Thursday night prior to the official statement by the Saudi Arabian government released on Saturday that the country's agents strangled exiled writer Jamal Khashoggi during a fistfight inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Saudi officials say that 18 men have since been arrested in connection with the case, including 15 men who had been sent to the consulate, along with one driver and two consular staff members. The statement was met with immediate sketicism from the international community. The Saudi government also dismissed Major General Ahmed al Assiri, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, who it claimed had organized the operation, and other intelligence officials.


Doctor Salah Muhammed Al-Tubaigy is an expert with extraordinary skills. His specialty is the rapid autopsy. In an interview with an Arab newspaper, he once boasted that he could dismantle a corpse into manageable parts in record time.

Tubaigy has had a storybook career within the Saudi state apparatus. After completing his medical studies, he opened one of the first research institutes for forensics in the Middle East. He now holds the rank of lieutenant colonel and heads up the forensic medicine department at the Interior Ministry. His task had been to bring research in Saudi Arabia up to Western standards. Now, he and 14 men have instead plunged the royal house into one of the most serious crises to face the country since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

According to the investigation conducted by Turkish police, Tubaigy landed on Oct. 2 at 3:13 a.m. together with eight Saudi Arabian secret service and military personnel in a Gulfstream IV jet belonging to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Istanbul's airport. Six other men arrived in the Turkish city a few hours later in a second plane.

Security cameras filmed Tubaigy in a leather jacket and striped sweater as he passed through passport control. He checked in for three nights at a hotel located near the Saudi Arabian Consulate, but he actually left the city at 10:46 p.m. that same day.

A Tale as Gruesome As It Is Grotesque

There are two versions of what happened in the 19-and-a-half hours between his arrival and departure. And whichever one is true, it is a crime thriller with details so gruesome and grotesque that a James Bond movie would pale by comparison. It is also one that has shaken the international community since that day.

Saudi Arabian television has claimed that Tubaigy and his colleagues traveled to Istanbul as tourists. But that hardly seems credible given that the group flew back home only a few hours after arrival. The Turkish police, for their part, are convinced that the 15 men played a decisive role in the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent opponent of the Saudi regime. He disappeared during a visit to the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul and has been missing since Oct. 2.

Turkish investigators and intelligence officials believe they know what happened in those hours: According to their version of events, the commando squad from Riyadh waited for Khashoggi in the offices of the consulate. The men drugged and beat him. Then, while he was still conscious, they cut his fingers off. In the end, they claim, the men decapitated him.

They say that forensics expert Tubaigy then unpacked the bone saw he had brought along with him. According to the Turkish investigation, he put on headphones to listen to music and recommended that people in the room next door do the same because it would make the work easier.

He then dismembered Khashoggi's body. "It was like a Tarantino film," says one Turkish investigator. According to a report published in Yeni Safak, a newspaper loyal to the government in Ankara, Turkish authorities have audio recordings documenting the murder.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman asserted in an interview with Bloomberg that Khashoggi had left the consulate after just a short time. But the prince has yet to provide any evidence to support that claim. Unfortunately, all surveillance cameras failed that day, though the manufacturer of the system swears that such a thing is not technically possible.

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The Saudi Foreign Ministry did not answer a request for comment from DER SPIEGEL. CNN, meanwhile, has reported that the government is preparing a new statement that will claim that Khashoggi died in an interrogation that spun out of control.

The Khashoggi case is straining ties between Saudi Arabia and the West. It also poses a threat to the position of Mohammed bin Salman, who has been consolidating his power since his father, King Salman, appointed him crown prince in June 2017.

Furthermore, the affair is a headache for U.S. President Donald Trump, who regards Saudi Arabia as one of America's most important allies in the Middle East. Privately, he also has close ties to the country, having completed several multi-million-dollar business deals with Saudi Arabians. And Europe is once again having to face the question as to how it wants to approach a country whose oil gives it massive influence over the global economy but which also blatantly disregards human rights.

Until recently, it looked as though 33-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to by his initials MBS, could do whatever he wanted. The prince managed to wage a destructive war in Yemen, kidnap Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, impose a blockade on Qatar and lock up scores of opponents in Saudi Arabia without any consequences for himself or his regime. The Khashoggi case now marks a turning point.

Well-Connected and Respected

Fifty-nine years old at the time of his disappearance, Khashoggi isn't just anyone. He's the well-connected nephew of arms dealer and billionaire Adnan Khashoggi and the second cousin of Dodi Al-Fayed, the lover of the late Lady Diana.

He was respected as a journalist around the world and has written for Saudi Arabian and international media, including DER SPIEGEL. He twice served as editor-in-chief of the Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Watan, forced out both times because of his critical reporting. Early in his career, he sympathized with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan and visited Osama bin Laden, who later became the head of al-Qaida. In recent years, he has turned to liberal ideas and criticized radical Islamists' strict interpretation of Islam.

Khashoggi was a big man -- literally too big for the thobe, the white, ankle-length men's robe traditionally tailored tightly in Saudi Arabia. He was tough, energetic, impetuous. In places where he turned up, people stopped and asked him for autographs and selfies. Khashoggi almost always agreed. He felt comfortable among people, and he spoke a simple, modern language. The severity and aloofness of Riyadh's elites were alien to him. He cracked jokes about the "bullfights" in the royal house in Riyadh and the beauty mania of women of Jeddah, but also about himself, the man who explained Saudi Arabia to the world.

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Few other journalists are as networked in Riyadh's centers of power as Khashoggi was. He knew about the alliances and the competition between the princes -- and, for a long time, he knew how to move safely under the protection of changing patrons. He set up a television station for Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who is today the richest man in the Arab world. And, most importantly, he long served as an adviser and confidant to Prince Turki al-Faisal when al-Faisal headed the secret service.

Khashoggi also saw opportunities in Mohammed bin Salman's rise. He initially thought the prince might modernize the country, but he soon grew alienated by bin Salman's authoritarian streak. In his articles, he denounced bin Salman's policies, especially the military operation in Yemen and Saudi Arabia's close partnership with the Trump government.

After friends were arrested and he was banned from publishing stories in Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi fled to the United States last fall. "Since MBS has been crown prince," he recently told DER SPIEGEL, "there has been immediate and quick retaliation." He paid a price for his rebellion. His wife filed for divorce and relatives cut off contact with him. But Khashoggi refused to remain silent. "I can speak when so many cannot," he wrote in one of his columns for the Washington Post.

It is said that the royal house once again reached out its hand during the summer and that intermediaries made an offer for Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia as an adviser to MBS. He turned them down. Is that the decision that sealed his fate?

'Disposed Of'

British author John Bradley, a longtime friend of Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia, compares the House of Saud with the mafia, which writes its own laws and knows no scruples. He says that Khashoggi had been connected with the royal family for years and had been part of the system. But it is well-known that the mafia only makes lifelong contracts, says Bradley. It doesn't allow people to suddenly drop out. He says Khashoggi's situation was ultimately that of a man who tried to leave the mafia and was therefore "disposed of."

Khashoggi's disappearance has triggered consternation around the world. In a joint statement on Wednesday, the G-7 group of industrialized nations called for a "thorough, credible, transparent and prompt investigation" by the Saudi government. Trump quickly dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh and Turkey this week. The political damage "will be significant," says former FBI agent Ali Soufan.

MBS had invited the elite of the international financial world to a major conference in Riyadh next week dubbed "Davos in the Desert," but International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde, the heads of the major banks HSBC, Standard Chartered and Credit Suisse and other business leaders have all now canceled. The finance ministers of France and Britain have also announced they will not go as has the U.S. treasury secretary.

So far, no conclusive evidence pertaining to the horrific crime at the consulate has emerged. As of Thursday night, the Turkish government hadn't made any of the allegedly compromising material from the consulate public, having only leaked individual details about the case. One reason is likely that the Turkish government secretly bugged the consulate, which enabled it to obtain the alleged audio recordings in the first place. Going public with the recordings would be tantamount to admitting that Ankara had flouted diplomatic tradition. Nevertheless, circumstantial evidence pointing to murder is mounting.

Retracing the Crime

The Khashoggi story got its start on Friday, Sept. 28, when the journalist first visited the Saudi Arabian Consulate to pick up some documents. He received a warm welcome and was told he should return the following week and that the papers would be ready for him then. A consular officer then called him over the weekend to set an appointment for Tuesday, Oct. 2.

Graphic: Selling weapons to Saudi Arabia
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Graphic: Selling weapons to Saudi Arabia

The Saudi consulate is located in the Levent business district in northern Istanbul, a simple building bearing little resemblance to the kinds of palaces Saudi Arabia maintains in other cities. Trees grow in the courtyard and bank towers rise into the sky in the background.

Surveillance cameras operated by the Turkish authorities recorded Khashoggi as he entered the consulate at 1:14 p.m. on Oct. 2. He knew he was taking a risk by going there, but he didn't think it was a big one. Khashoggi had spoken openly with acquaintances about his fears of being kidnapped.

U.S. intelligence agencies had only recently intercepted a conversation in which Saudi Arabian officials discussed kidnapping the journalist on behalf of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But Khashoggi felt safe in Istanbul, in part because he was friends with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mohammed bin Salman, he confided to a Turkish friend, would surely shy away from clashing with the Turkish president.

Istanbul has developed into a magnet for dissidents fleeing from the Arab world. Free Syrian Army rebels are present in the city as are opponents of the military junta in Egypt, former government ministers from Yemen and ex-parliamentarians from Kuwait. "Istanbul is the last enclave of the Arab Spring," says Ayman Nour, an Egyptian opposition politician and former adviser to ex-president and Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi. Nour also lives in exile in Istanbul.

Khashoggi welcomed the Arab Spring. In an August column for the Washington Post, he also defended the Muslim Brotherhood. "The eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes," he wrote. He also positioned himself against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who views the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat and, together with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, is campaigning for the Europeans and the Americans to classify the movement as a terrorist group.

According to a report on the American news site The Daily Beast, Khashoggi had planned to set up a lobby group to unite champions of the Arab Spring scattered around the world. In Istanbul, he met regularly with Morsi consultant Nour, a longtime friend. Khashoggi also reportedly intended to join the Arab television station Al-Sharq, which has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. All these could have been factors behind his death.

In May, Khashoggi met the Turkish doctoral student Hatice Cengiz at a conference. From that point on, he began commuting between McLean, Virginia, where he has been a resident since 2017, and Istanbul. He bought an apartment in the city, which he furnished together with Cengiz. The two had planned to get married on Oct. 3.

Under Turkish law, couples must prove that they are not already married elsewhere with documents from their home country before they can wed. That's why Khashoggi turned to the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul. Informants close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's circle assured him that he had nothing to fear, says Turan Kislakci, the chairman of the Turkish-Arab Media Association and a friend of Khashoggi.

Nevertheless, Khashoggi left his two phones with his fiancée before entering the consulate that day. She waited for him outside the door. Cengiz was to notify Yasin Aktay, an Erdogan adviser the couple were friends with, in the event of an emergency.

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