More than a week after the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, all parties involved agree that the journalist walked into Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on the afternoon of Oct. 2.
When it comes to what happened next, however, the Saudis have a very different story.
Saudi Arabia says Khashoggi left the consulate, where he was seeking papers that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancee, after an unremarkable visit. Yet Turkish authorities, as well as the missing Saudi journalist’s friends and family, say Khashoggi did not come out of the consulate, where his fiancee was waiting for him outside.
With little evidence officially put forward by either side, journalists from The Washington Post and other news organizations have reported on unreleased details about the investigation, some of which have been obtained from Turkish officials speaking off the record. These details suggest that Khashoggi was killed at the consulate.
There has been some corroboration from other sources, including by U.S. intelligence officials who said Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had been trying to lure Khashoggi back to the kingdom.
But the Middle East is deeply divided by geopolitical interests and is a place where leaks of information — and misinformation — are often intended to drive narratives. Turkey and Saudi Arabia sit on opposing sides of this divide, and both have a reputation for muddying the water.
Turkey is “really notorious for social media disinformation, trolling, outright lies in the press” to further the government’s position, said Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Saudi Arabia has not offered any compelling evidence or even a plausible alternative hypothesis for what happened inside the consulate; it has said that security cameras at the facility did not record footage. Instead, it has tried to undermine the reports about Khashoggi by focusing on the source of information and the idea that Turkey does not have a neutral viewpoint.
Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the United States and the crown prince’s brother, released a statement this week that criticized “various malicious leaks and grim rumors flying around about Jamal’s whereabouts and fate.”
Although the Saudi government is not a neutral party in the situation, some experts agreed that the Turkish accounts needed real scrutiny. “Having been on the end of Turkish state-affiliated media attacks and lies, I can see that the possibility for manipulation here is great,” said Cook, who added that he thinks Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate.
Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has cracked down on the country’s once-vibrant and relatively free media world. It ranks 157 in Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index, having dropped more than 50 spots in a decade. The Committee to Protect Journalists says more journalists are imprisoned in Turkey than in any other country.
Some of the information attributed to Turkish officials presents a contradictory account of what may have happened in the consulate. One report suggested that the Turkish government may have video of the alleged killing of Khashoggi, while other outlets have suggested that some officials think the journalist is still alive.
H.A. Hellyer, a senior nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council in London, said the chaotic nature of the Turkish leaks in the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi’s disappearance may have been an attempt to pressure Saudi Arabia.
The Turkish line has since become more consistent, he said. “One can only imagine that the Turks' expectations of what Riyadh is going to do have changed,” Hellyer added.
Publications funded by the Saudi government and its allies appear to be attempting to cast doubt on the case, rather than present a rival theory. At the weekend, al-Arabiya English published an interview that it said was conducted with Salah Khashoggi, the eldest son of the missing journalist, in which he was quoted as saying that he did not know his father’s fiancee and stressed that he wanted to cooperate with the Saudi government.
Salah Khashoggi remains in Saudi Arabia, however, raising questions about whether any interview conducted with him would have been under duress.
Supporters of the Saudi viewpoint also have latched on to the fact that some of the reporting on the case has come from media outlets that are close to the Turkish government or news organizations such as Al Jazeera that are funded by the government of Qatar, a small Persian Gulf country embroiled in a standoff with Saudi Arabia and its allies.
“The Saudi-Erdogan relationship is stressed,” Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation, a pro-Riyadh think tank in Washington, wrote on Twitter over the weekend. He said Turkey would need to present “absolutely irrefutable evidence” for its allegations to be believed.
Turkey has remained a key ally for Qatar even as Saudi Arabia led a blockade of the tiny oil-rich state. Turkey even sent troops to Qatar in a show of strength and support last year.
The Qatar-Saudi spat has become notorious for acts of subterfuge and the leaks of information and misinformation. Qatari-linked hackers are widely suspected of leaking the personal emails of Yousef al-Otaiba, ambassador to the United States for the United Arab Emirates, a key Saudi ally. The move appeared to be a response to a hack of Qatari government websites that U.S. officials say the UAE orchestrated.
“I think we’ve got to remember, for years, there have been propaganda missives from Saudi-funded media, Turkish-funded media, Qatari-funded media — and it’s been pretty constant,” Hellyer said. “All these media operations take their cues from state apparatuses, directly or otherwise, so it makes it really difficult to rely on them independently, without double and triple verification."
Akin Unver, a professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul who specializes in digital propaganda, said both sides in the Saudi-Qatar split had made widespread use of misinformation and propaganda, often employing government-sponsored trolls and bots on social media to escalate disputes and gain support.
But despite Saudi Arabia’s narrative on Khashoggi’s disappearance, Unver said he was surprised not to have seen similar levels of propaganda from either side about the case — even though Turkey was perhaps the most active country in this field, he said.
“This means that both countries view the matter as extremely delicate and don’t want to use propaganda as a way of political communication before the diplomatic negotiations are complete,” Unver said.
For the United States, finding out conclusively what happened to Khashoggi will prove important to its Middle East policy. The Trump administration has closely aligned itself with the Saudi crown prince and is at odds with Turkey’s Erdogan on several issues, but the U.S. Senate opened an investigation of the Khashoggi case Wednesday that could result in sanctions on Saudi officials if the Turkish version of events is confirmed.
An investigation by the United States or another outside arbitrator would be the best chance to find out conclusively what happened, Cook said. “Even if the Turks aren’t lying, you have to have another layer there,” he said, “because they’ve been so bad on this.”