The Saudis may have hoped to bring down the curtain with Monday’s death sentences for five unnamed defendants. But to critics, the findings were a continuation of the denial that began the day the Post contributor was killed. They were also a poke in the eye for the United States, which for more than a year has been privately pressing the crown prince for accountability and an acknowledgment of Qahtani’s role.
Qahtani’s friends and supporters were jubilant Monday — not least because his acquittal was an implicit rejection of criticism from human rights activists and journalists. The message to critics in the West seemed to be “buzz off.”
“Saud al-Qahtani alone, a front in the face of the enemies of the homeland . . . [H]is return today made them return to their holes,” tweeted @altamimi14, celebrating the man who until Khashoggi’s death had directed the barrage of social media operations for the royal court. With this verdict, will Qahtani now return to Twitter, reviving his “#Blacklist” of enemies and mobilizing his “army of flies” online?
Another Qahtani supporter, @a_albander, tweeted a picture of Qahtani back in his heyday, before the uproar over the killing, and called him a “knight and a symbol of the loyal homeland.”
Maher Mutreb, the Saudi intelligence official who allegedly led the team that killed Khashoggi in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, wasn’t named in the prosecutor’s account, so it’s unclear whether he was among those sentenced to death. But the prosecutor’s overall finding seems to be that he and his team acted on their own, without orders from Qahtani or others, and that the operation wasn’t carefully planned. This strikes Saudis who know Mutreb as implausible.
“Maher was a bright young intelligence officer who always followed orders from his immediate superiors,” one Saudi who knows him well said Monday. “It’s unfathomable that Maher would have acted on the spur of the moment to kill Jamal without getting proper orders to do so.”
The Khashoggi case represented a breach of trust — not with the kingdom’s critics, but with its longtime supporters at the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department and Congress. Officials from all those branches of government have told me repeatedly over the past year that to rebuild a strong U.S.-Saudi relationship, the kingdom needed to demonstrate that it had turned a page — and that such a murder of a dissident U.S.-based journalist could never happen again. Monday’s action is likely to widen that trust gap rather than repair it.
The CIA still believes that the crown prince bears ultimate responsibility for Khashoggi’s death. That’s why this case cuts so deep.
A sign of the fractured U.S.-Saudi bond was the decision this fall by the State Department, backed by the CIA, to reject a proposal to train the Saudi General Intelligence Presidency, as their spy service is known. U.S. officials think such training would be helpful, and they credit the GIP as a good partner over the years. But that’s not the problem: American Foreign Service and intelligence officers worry that the impulsive crown prince hasn’t learned a lesson from Khashoggi’s death — and could make more catastrophic mistakes.
The Khashoggi case has had a strange boomerang effect among some Saudis. The more the West demanded accountability, the more some in the kingdom turned inward, defending the crown prince and his operatives. “They have served #SaudiArabia . . . and this indicates that they are honest people,” tweeted one Saudi of those exonerated Monday. That sentiment is understandable, in some ways. Nobody likes to see their government officials criticized by outsiders.
Closing the book on a murder case isn’t possible until prosecutors have gathered the facts and a court has weighed the evidence and shared it with the public. Who did it? Who sanctioned the killing and bears ultimate responsibility? That’s the basic question in any criminal case. With Khashoggi’s murder, we still don’t know the answer.