October 15, 2018

Amateur Hour in Riyadh - Saudi Arabia to admit killing Jamal Khashoggi

Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul

In a stunning turn of events, numerous news outlets are reporting that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will issue a report acknowledging the death of Jamal Khashoggi as the result of an interrogation that went bad. According to Russian media, citing Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, Khashoggi died from a "suspicious" heart attack during interrogation at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

At least the Saudis are no longer pushing the myth that he left the consulate after a short visit. Anyone who has served in any intelligence, internal security or national-level law enforcement service knows that foreign diplomatic missions - embassies, consulates, legations, etc. - are under constant surveillance. That surveillance includes visual and electronic monitoring. In every assignment to embassies and consulates I had over the years, I just assumed that I was being watched and monitored at all times. In some countries, it was obvious.

The Saudis must have known that their consulate in Istanbul was the subject of Turkish intelligence service surveillance. I think the Turks compromised their surveillance operation against the consulate by claiming to have audio tapes of the interrogation and subsequent murder of Khashoggi.

The Turks' story about retrieving the audio from an Apple watch is ludicrous - even the Saudi intelligence service (not highly competent by any measure except maybe arrogance) would have made sure Khashoggi was not wearing any sort of device that could record the event. In addition, that suggestion was debunked by technical analysts.

I am surprised the Saudis were not able to detect and defeat what must be a Turkish intelligence service audio penetration of their facility. Then again, I have worked with both the Turkish national intelligence organization (Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı) and the Saudi military intelligence directorate. While neither are particularly good at foreign intelligence collection operations, they do excel at supporting internal security in their countries.

In Saudi Arabia in particular, the function of the intelligence services is not to collect information on foreign military threats to the Kingdom, it is to develop intelligence on threats to the royal family and its continued rule. From personal experience, the United States intelligence agencies have repeatedly diverted valuable collection assets to assuage Saudi fears of a perceived coup against the ruling family.

That said, why would the Saudi intelligence apparatus concern itself with a journalist turned op-ed writer and political activist living in the United States?

Jamal Khashoggi* was once a prominent Saudi and at times an adviser to the royal family. In 2017, he left the kingdom after becoming a vocal critic of the government, in particular the newly-named Crown Prince Muhamad bin Salman, commonly known in the West as MBS.

Criticism of MBS is a sensitive issue in the kingdom, as his ascendance to the throne upon the death of his father King Salman bin 'Abdi al-'Aziz will be the test of the Saudi succession beyond the sons of the kingdom's founder. A smooth transition from the first to the second generation is essential to the ruling family's retention of power.

Since King Salman named his son as crown prince, both father and son have made sometimes astute and sometime not so astute political moves to consolidate support for the eventual transition of power. This has included a series of high-profile arrests - who can forget the spectacle of the Riyadh Ritz Carlton hotel being used to detain some of the richest men in the country? - as well as placing close allies in key positions.

By way of example, in April 2017 King Salman named his second son, Khalid bin Salman, to be the ambassador to the United States, arguably one of the most important diplomatic positions in the kingdom.

For more on the naming of the crown prince and ambassador to the United States, see my two earlier analyses:
- New Saudi ambassador the United States - another al-Sudayri in a power position
- Saudi Arabia - King Salman names his son as crown prince.

Turkish officials have accused Saudi Arabia of sending a team of 15 men (photo left), mostly military intelligence officers, to interrogate and kill Khashoggi and dismember his body with a bone saw before flying it back to his native country.

I find this hard to believe, but it is hard to argue with the facts as presented by the Turks. There were two charter flights, numerous rental cars, video surveillance, as well as the claim of audio recordings of the actual event.

On the face of it, it appears that the Saudis have committed premeditated murder.

That said, I cannot for the life of me fathom why the Saudis would kill Khashoggi - he was not that big of a deal.

For argument's sake, let's assume that at some level in the Saudi government, a decision was made to eliminate Khashoggi. That would have come from a senior official, likely someone in the diwan (royal court). Was it the king, the crown prince, director of general intelligence, the minister of the interior? While we may be told a name, we may ever know the truth.

It may be that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman directed the intelligence director to "take care of" Khashoggi and that set a series of bad decisions in motion. I have met King Salman, and am familiar with MBS - neither are stupid. I am hoping that this was all a terrible chain of mistakes.

However, the two leaders still bear the responsibility for these actions. There will be consequences.

* If the name Khashoggi sounds familiar, it should. Jamal's uncle was Adnan Khashoggi, the billionaire arms dealer implicated in the Iran-Contra affair.