The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Jamal Khashoggi’s long road to the doors of the Saudi Consulate

The long road that took Jamal Khashoggi to the front door of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and the horror that lay inside began in the 1980s in Afghanistan, when he was a passionate young journalist who supported the Saudi establishment — but couldn’t resist criticizing the royal family when he thought it was wrong.

Khashoggi’s path took him through risky territory. He was friendly with Osama bin Laden in his militant youth; his patron in mid-career was Prince Turki al-Faisal, the longtime Saudi intelligence chief; he traveled sometimes to Qatar in the past decade, as a poisonous feud grew between Riyadh and Doha. But his public writings and private messages show that in his head and heart, he was always a Saudi patriot.

Conversations with some of Khashoggi’s close friends, who shared texts they exchanged with him over the years, reveal a man whose greatest passion became journalism itself — which he expressed in a fearless, unblinking commitment to the cleansing power of the truth, regardless of the personal cost.

Columnist David Ignatius and editor Karen Attiah remember Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post, Photo: Courtesy of Hatice Cengiz/The Washington Post)

Khashoggi wondered often along this journey if he should back off, ease up and take fewer risks. But he kept speaking out, knowing the danger. His truth-telling got him fired from prominent editing jobs, rehired and then fired again. At the time of his disappearance, Arab journalism had become a cause he appeared willing to die for.

A portrait of the young Khashoggi comes from Barnett Rubin, senior fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and one of the United States’ top experts on Afghanistan. They met in 1989 at the U.S. Consulate in Jiddah, when Rubin was on a speaking tour. Khashoggi, then 31, shared a two-part series he had written the year before about his travels with the Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan. One of the photos showed the tall, bearded reporter standing among the Arab fighters, cradling a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in his hands.

Khashoggi couldn’t have traveled with the mujahideen that way without tacit support from Saudi intelligence, which was coordinating aid to the fighters as part of its cooperation with the CIA against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. But Rubin remembers that during the conversation, Khashoggi criticized Prince Salman, then governor of Riyadh and head of the Saudi committee for support to the Afghan mujahideen, for unwisely funding Salafist extremist groups that were undermining the war.

“It was typical Jamal,” remembers Rubin. “We had just met for the first time and he began complaining” to a near-stranger about mistakes by the royal family. A more careful person would have kept his mouth shut. But that wasn’t Khashoggi.

Read Jamal Khashoggi’s columns for The Washington Post

There’s a fatal symmetry to that 1989 conversation with Rubin: Salman is now king of Saudi Arabia, and his son Mohammed bin Salman is crown prince. Intelligence sources told The Post this week that MBS, as he’s known, plotted to lure and detain Khashoggi, whose outspoken commentary the crown prince feared and hated.

What happened after Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul is a macabre mystery. Turkish officials say he was interrogated, killed and hacked into pieces by a 15-man hit squad sent from Riyadh; several U.S. sources speculate that the Saudis might have tried to kidnap Khashoggi back to the kingdom and botched the job. What’s certain is that Khashoggi’s disappearance from the consulate was a flagrant attack on a courageous journalist.

Khashoggi’s intellectual interests were shaped in his early 20s when he studied in the United States and was also a passionate member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The brotherhood was a secret underground fraternity that wanted to purge the Arab world of the corruption and autocratic rule it saw as a legacy of Western colonialism. Khashoggi was hardly alone in this belief.

The flavor of that period in Khashoggi’s life was captured by Lawrence Wright, a journalist for the New Yorker who met him in Saudi Arabia more than 15 years ago. In his book “The Looming Tower,” Wright quotes Khashoggi about the brotherhood’s appeal: “We were hoping to establish an Islamic state anywhere. We believed that the first one would lead to another, and that would have a domino effect which could reverse the history of mankind.”

Bin Laden joined the brotherhood at about the same time Khashoggi did, in the late 1970s, says Wright. The two men shared a passion for the mujahideen’s war in Afghanistan, first against the Soviet Union and later for power in Kabul. Khashoggi was covering the war as a journalist, but he was clearly sympathetic to the cause.

But by the mid-1990s, Khashoggi’s friends say he had become wary of the extremism of bin Laden and other jihadists. He was moving toward his mature belief that democracy and freedom were the Arabs’ best hope of purging the corruption and misrule he despised.

An important confrontation between Khashoggi and bin Laden came during a 1995 interview in Sudan. Wright recounts how bin Laden bragged about how his terrorism would drive the United States from the Arabian Peninsula. The journalist pressed him to disavow violence inside Saudi Arabia: “Osama, this is very dangerous. It is as if you are declaring war. You will give the right to the Americans to hunt for you.” Bin Laden refused Khashoggi’s efforts to get a statement on the record.

Khashoggi concluded in the 1990s that the Afghanistan civil war was disastrous, as well. Rubin remembers a conversation with him in the mid-1990s in New York. It was snowing, and Rubin was wearing an Afghan hat like the ones worn by mujahideen fighters. “We don’t wear that hat,” Khashoggi chided him. “We call it the hat that destroyed Afghanistan.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, the world saw the catastrophic effects of al-Qaeda’s extremist ideology. Unlike some Saudis, Khashoggi didn’t try to excuse the fact that Saudis had flown the planes used in the attack. He wrote a column on Sept. 10, 2002, saying that Arabs should recognize that bin Laden had attacked Saudi Arabia and Islam when he struck the twin towers.

Maggie Mitchell Salem, one of Khashoggi’s closest friends, first met him in 2002 when she was working for the Middle East Institute. (She now heads the Qatar Foundation International, an institute in Washington partially funded by Qatar that supports cross-cultural education.) The venue was a conference organized by the Arab Thought Foundation, an organization that was supported by the Faisal family.

Salem remembers an ambitious journalist whose rise was linked with the Faisal clan — Turki and his brother Saud al-Faisal, the longtime Saudi foreign minister. Educated at Georgetown and Princeton, respectively, the Faisal brothers represented the thoughtful, moderate face of the royal family.

Khashoggi was close to these royals, but he was prepared to criticize the monarchy’s clerical establishment, too. In 2003, he became editor of Al Watan, a progressive newspaper owned by the Faisal family. But he lasted less than two months. He was fired, after he published criticism of the Saudi religious leadership.

The Faisal family came to Khashoggi’s rescue. Turki was ambassador to London at the time, and he invited Khashoggi to come work for him there. “To save his life, they got him out of the kingdom,” remembers Salem.

When Turki moved to Washington in 2005 as ambassador, he brought Khashoggi with him as spokesman. It was a difficult time: Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador (nicknamed “Bandar Bush” because of his close relationships with Bush 41 and 43), was continuing to visit the White House secretly. That angered Turki; the new ambassador was also trying to trim spending for Saudi Arabia’s public-relations firm in Washington, Qorvis Communications.

Salem recalls talking with Khashoggi about the tension between Turki and Bandar. “He thought that was what royals do to each other,” she recalls. “He felt frustrated for Prince Turki.”

Khashoggi, as Turki’s spokesman, was caught in the crossfire. It was “death by a thousand paper cuts,” for Khashoggi, says Salem.

Turks tell U.S. officials they have audio and video recording that support conclusion Khashoggi was killed

After Turki was replaced as ambassador in 2007, Khashoggi returned to the kingdom for a second stint as editor of Al Watan. He managed to hold that job until 2010, when he published criticism of Salafist extremism, a problem that had worried him for more than 20 years. He was out in the cold again.

Rubin recalls visiting Khashoggi in Riyadh in 2009, after Rubin had joined the Obama administration as the Afghanistan expert for special envoy Richard Holbrooke. He says that one of his Saudi contacts “warned me not to see Jamal” because “it will make the government suspicious.” Rubin saw him anyway.

The Arab Spring exploded in early 2011, as street protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square drove Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from office. For the Saudi leadership, it was a nightmare, but for Khashoggi, the pro-democracy movement was a dream come true. I remember talking with him in January, just before Mubarak’s fall; he told me that the Arab “renaissance” that had been building for a century was finally happening. In that, as in some other things, his optimism was premature.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) warns that military and economic ties could be threatened if Saudi Arabia is proved to have killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Video: Kate Woodsome, Breanna Muir/The Washington Post)

Khashoggi’s next patron for his free-thinking journalism was Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a reform-minded Saudi billionaire. Alwaleed bankrolled a new satellite television channel, called Al-Arab, based in Bahrain, which was seen as a potential rival to Al Jazeera, based in Qatar. The station went on air in 2015, after four years of planning, as the Arab Spring was rocking Bahrain and everywhere else in the region.

On its very first day of broadcasting, Khashoggi’s new TV channel featured an interview with a prominent Bahraini Shiite politician who had criticized the regime. The station didn’t last 24 hours before the Bahraini authorities pulled the plug. Khashoggi was out of a job, yet again.

Salem remembers telling Khashoggi: “ ‘Dude, what did you think was going to happen?’ This was so Jamal. The man put the Shia opposition on his TV channel. He couldn’t let a week go by,” without doing real journalism

The Bahrain episode defined a quality of optimism described by several of Khashoggi’s close friends. Salem explains it this way: “He had an eternal belief that things were good, and that right would win. He had a goodness, and a belief in other people’s goodness.”

The demise of the Arab Spring was a painful experience for Khashoggi, Rubin shared with me a text message Khashoggi sent him in June 2014: “Hello Rubin, As you can see things going from bad to worst in the Arab world. The only hope I think of someone can restore drive for democracy, that positive feeling that spread in Arab world after 2011.”

After the Bahrain TV station was closed, Rubin tried to cheer him up, texting: “I see you are creating problems again. Keep it up.” Khashoggi answered: “I been thinking if it’s time I gave up and retire somewhere safe in the west just to be free and write freely . . . we will never have freedom in the arab world without true democracy.”

Khashoggi was now writing a column for Al Hayat, an Arabic newspaper published in London. In December 2015, he wrote one of the clearest statements of what animated him on his journey: “In the Arab world, everyone thinks journalists cannot be independent, but I represent myself, which is the right thing to do. What would I be worth if I succumbed to pressure to change my opinions?”

Khashoggi’s world darkened with the rise of MBS, whose father became king in January 2015. First as deputy crown prince and later as crown prince, MBS used a network of operatives centered on the royal court to consolidate power and, increasingly, suppress dissent.

MBS proclaimed his desire to modernize the kingdom, and introduced some reforms Khashoggi supported, such as allowing women to drive, opening movie theaters and other entertainment, and suppressing religious extremism. At first, Khashoggi tried to be optimistic. Rubin texted him in January 2016, after an early wave of arrests and executions of Shiite clerics and accused militants, and said he worried that “maybe the real target of the executions were people like you.” Khashoggi responded hopefully: “Thanks, my friend, I didn’t read it that way, the gov . . . want to appear tough against extremism not us the people of SA.”

Jamal Khashoggi: Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable.

But the arrests and purges continued. MBS staged a soft coup in June 2017, replacing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Then in November 2017 came the sweeping arrests of more than 200 Saudis, including many princes, who were held at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh.

Khashoggi was staying in London and saying little in public as MBS grew more aggressive. Salem hosted a dinner for Khashoggi on July 4, 2017, at a London restaurant called Clos Maggiore in Covent Garden. He told her that night that he had decided to seek refuge in the United States, and he moved here a few weeks later. He texted Rubin in September about MBS: “This kid is dangerous, I’m under pressure . . . to be ‘wise’ and stay silent. I think I should speak wisely.” But in the end, he couldn’t censor himself.

Khashoggi gained a powerful platform in September 2017 when The Post asked him to be a regular contributor to its Global Opinions online forum. From his very first column, Khashoggi took aim at MBS: “When I speak of the fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to speak their minds, and then I tell you that I’m from Saudi Arabia, are you surprised?”

The day that first Post commentary appeared, Khashoggi texted Karen Attiah, his editor for The Post’s Global Opinions section, saying that “it’s so painful for me to publish this piece.” He wrote that he never thought his country would turn toward “intimidation, lies and hate.”

Friends helped Khashoggi obtain a visa that allowed him to stay in the United States as a permanent resident. Rubin wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security recalling his first meeting back in 1989 and attesting to his “character, intellect, knowledge, political perspective and work as a journalist.”

In his last messages to Attiah before he disappeared, Khashoggi described his dream of creating a broader platform at The Post for honest news and commentary in Arabic. He didn’t want to be an “exile dissident,” she says, but a journalist. “His eyes lit up” walking around the Post news room, she remembers, and he would say: “I wish we could build this in the Middle East.”

As always, Khashoggi wondered whether he could step back and reduce the danger. When he visited Salem for the last time in August in her office, he told her: “I’m thinking that for two years, I want to go to a faraway island.” He wondered aloud: “Can I just give this up? Can I just not do this anymore?” The answer was always the same: No, he couldn’t give up.

Twitter: @IgnatiusPost

Read more from David Ignatius’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more:

The Post’s View: It’s time for Saudi Arabia to tell the truth on Jamal Khashoggi

Hatice Cengiz: Please, President Trump, shed light on my fiance’s disappearance

Elliott Abrams: Why Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance will haunt the Saudi government

Ben Cardin: Here’s how the United States can stand up for Jamal Khashoggi

Read Jamal Khashoggi’s columns for The Washington Post