The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Records shed light on online harassment of Jamal Khashoggi before his killing

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a news conference in Manama, Bahrain, in 2014.
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a news conference in Manama, Bahrain, in 2014. (Hasan Jamali/AP)

A few months before he was killed, dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi witnessed an ominous change in the kind of attention he was getting from his estranged homeland.

The usual critiques of his essays on Arabic social media became harsh and personal, and occasionally threatening. Influential Saudis reviled him on Twitter as an “extremist,” a “criminal” and a “donkey,” attacks that were instantly repeated and amplified by scores of other Twitter accounts, some of them linked to Saudi officials.

“It’s the beginning of the end, Khashoggi,” read one posting in December 2017. “Every word you said against the nation is tallied and will be punished soon.”

Ten months later, Khashoggi was dead, his body hacked into pieces by Saudi operatives who lured him to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, allegedly on orders of Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful Saudi crown prince commonly known as MBS, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment. But even as criminal proceedings gather steam in Turkey, investigators elsewhere are showing renewed interest in the nonviolent attacks that preceded the journalist’s death.

Nearly two years after the killing, a review of Twitter records by U.S. experts is shedding new light on the pattern of allegedly coordinated abuse and intimidation during Khashoggi’s final months, when he was living in Virginia, a campaign that some officials say may have violated U.S. laws, with potentially serious implications for the relationship between Washington and Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor on Monday announced what officials said was the final ruling in the cases of eight people who had been sentenced to prison terms between seven and 20 years for the killing of Khashoggi. The defendants were not named but all are believed to be members of a 15-man hit squad that traveled from Saudi Arabia to Turkey.

The government has denied any involvement by Mohammed or other top leaders in the journalist’s killing, or in any organized attacks on his character.

A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington said any threats made on social media would run counter to Saudi laws. “Saudi Arabia takes these crimes seriously and prosecutes violators to the full extent of the law,” said the spokesman, Fahad S. Nazer.

A Saudi-directed campaign against Khashoggi, if proved, could constitute a breach of the chief statute regulating weapons sales to foreign countries, U.S. officials and legal experts say. The Arms Export Control Act explicitly prohibits commerce with governments that harass U.S. citizens or residents — a provision intended to protect foreign dissidents and asylum seekers in the United States. Saudi Arabia is one of the U.S. defense industry’s biggest foreign customers, purchasing billions of dollars’ worth of military hardware every year.

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In Congress, some lawmakers are urging the Trump administration to hold Riyadh to account, arguing that Saudi Arabia has crossed the line multiple times, not only with Khashoggi but also with other Saudi dissidents and even non-Saudi U.S. citizens.

“It’s incredibly dangerous to allow autocrats like MBS to get away with the murder and intimidation of their critics, not just on their own soil but on ours,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat and a former head of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. “The Arms Export Control Act prohibits arms sales to governments that engage in precisely this kind of conduct, and it’s about time we started enforcing that law.”

Silencing critics

An essayist, editor and author in his home country, Khashoggi was accustomed to criticism because of his outspoken calls for political reform. But after becoming a contributing columnist for The Washington Post in the fall of 2017, his articles earned him new celebrity across the Arab world, as well as the ire of Saudi leaders who viewed him as a dangerous agitator.

Beginning in late 2017, Khashoggi began describing to friends a daily torrent of hateful comments and messages emanating mainly from Saudi Twitter accounts, just around the time his Post columns were gaining wide circulation in Arabic. The attacks quickly became personal, replete with vile insults and dark threats, leaving Khashoggi emotionally distressed and deeply worried for his family’s safety, and his own.

“The man wept every day; he felt grief and deep pain,” said Maggie Mitchell Salem, a close friend and confidante for nearly two decades at the time of his death. The daily vitriol became so intense that Khashoggi questioned at times whether he should continue writing, Salem said.

Khashoggi told friends he believed the campaign against him was orchestrated by Saud al-Qahtani, the powerful media adviser to Mohammed who was responsible for the kingdom’s image management as well as shadow efforts to silence its critics. In 2017, Qahtani announced the creation of a “black list” targeting dissidents who spoke out against Mohammed and other government officials.

In February 2018, Khashoggi singled out Qahtani in one column as the public face of a Saudi policy that “chastised, and worse, intimidated anyone who disagrees.” “Saud al-Qahtani, leader of that unit, has a blacklist and calls for Saudis to add names to it,” he wrote. Qahtani was fired by Mohammed in 2018 in the aftermath of the Khashoggi scandal. A Saudi court found him not guilty of offenses connected to Khashoggi’s death. Turkish authorities have issued a warrant against him in the case.

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News reports after Khashoggi’s sudden disappearance in October 2018 described an extensive Qahtani-led effort to discredit the journalist, including the use of a “troll farm” in Riyadh where a small army of government workers used phony Twitter accounts to post messages skewering Khashoggi’s essays and slamming his character. But according to a new analysis, only a small portion of the anti-Khashoggi campaign was visible to Western eyes. Most of it was conducted in Arabic, on Twitter accounts widely read in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, according to the review by the Soufan Group, a private security consulting firm headed by Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent and counterterrorism official.

Partnering with forensic analysts from Limbik, a New York firm, the Soufan Group analyzed hundreds of Arabic Twitter accounts that were flagged by Twitter officials in 2019 as being part of a government-backed Saudi influence operation. Scores of those accounts — many of them subsequently blocked by Twitter — had been involved in attacks against Khashoggi, Soufan said. Some accounts were clearly connected with Saudi citizens, while others appeared to be “bots,” a kind of automated account used to help spread messages on social media.

The review documents an online offensive against Khashoggi that began in fall 2017 and continued for weeks after Khashoggi went missing on Oct. 2, 2018. The last images of Khashoggi were taken by surveillance cameras that showed the journalist walking into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul that day.

A sampling of Arabic messages reviewed by The Post contained numerous lines of attacks as well as multiple vaguely worded threats against Khashoggi’s life. Some denounce the journalist as a “villainous Arab” and traitor to his country; others label him as a “terrorist” supporter of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State; still others accuse him of being a paid agent for Saudi Arabia’s chief rivals, Qatar and Iran.

“The masks will be removed, God willing, and we will get Khashoggi,” reads one posting from early October 2018. Another cites an Arabic parable about a bull that uses his horn to unearth a lost knife, which its owner then uses to slaughter the animal. The reference suggests that Khashoggi is supplying authorities with the means for his ultimate execution.

“A bull was impaled on its own horn,” the post reads.

The initial messages often were repeated and spread by scores of other Arabic Twitter accounts registered to individuals in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, the analysis shows. Some accounts bore the hallmarks of automated “bot” or fake accounts, said Limbik CEO Zach Schwitzky, who led the cyber-forensics analysis.

Soufan described the tactics as a case study in the use of social media by authoritarian regimes to crush dissent and silence potential troublemakers.

“They use Twitter Arabic to tell people, ‘We’re monitoring you, and we know what you’re doing,’ ” he said. “It is not a platform for freedom of expression. It is for intimidation and control.”

While Khashoggi was perhaps the most famous target of such campaigns, he was not the only one. Soufan initially launched his investigation after he personally began receiving regular threats from Arabic-language Twitter accounts.

His analysis discovered that some of the same accounts posting menacing messages directed at him also were involved in the attacks against Khashoggi — and often used language that was eerily similar.

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“The stuff they told Jamal was identical to what they said to me: ‘The end is near.’ Or ‘You’re going to end up in a garbage can,’ ” Soufan said. “With Jamal, we know how it ended. They continued to hit him virtually until they finally eliminated him physically.”

Soufan said he delivered the results of his Twitter analysis to the FBI. A Saudi official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about the case, disputed Soufan’s contention that the former FBI agent had been targeted by a government-backed harassment campaign, saying the allegations “appear to be nothing more than a baseless conspiracy theory.”

A U.S. citizen of Lebanese descent, Soufan is perhaps a less likely target for physical violence, but current and former U.S. officials said such threats cannot be taken lightly, especially when directed toward noncitizen asylum seekers with fewer protections.

Numerous other Saudi dissidents have described being targeted either with online harassment or threats of physical harm, or both. Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi political analyst who requested asylum in the United States in the early 1990s, said his relatives have been imprisoned and tortured in Saudi Arabia because of his activism. Emails from a hacked Saudi Foreign Affairs Ministry server in 2012 showed that al-Ahmed was being actively surveilled by Saudi officials in the U.S. capital because of what the Saudis saw as “subversive” views.

Al-Ahmed said the U.S. government has repeatedly failed to use its leverage to prevent attacks against dissidents such as Khashoggi and himself, failures he says undermine the country’s global image as a champion for free expression and human rights.

“I have been disappointed again and again by American officials who would rather sell weapons and appease weapons-makers than actually carrying out the country’s policies,” al-Ahmed said. “For 60 years there have been opportunities for the United States to try to improve human rights in my country. But it seems that it doesn’t really care.”