By now, you may have read some awful details about the fate of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
On Oct. 2, the Washington Post contributor entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never came out. Soon, leaks from Turkish officials suggested that it was not a disappearance but an assassination carried out by a team of Saudi agents. Saudi Arabia has said little other than to deny the claim — without offering evidence to the contrary.
Over the past week, journalists have tried to piece together the story, tracing the movements of the alleged Saudi agents, obtaining footage and records of their travel, tracking their links to the state. The Post now reports that the Turkish government has told the United States that it has audio recordings that prove that Khashoggi was killed. The chilling headline: “You can hear how he was interrogated, tortured and then murdered."
Reading this, you may wonder how the alleged assassins could be so sloppy, why they seem to have left a trail. The truth is, we don’t yet know exactly what happened, or why, or how. But when you look at how authoritarian regimes tend to kidnap and assassinate, it seems possible, even likely, that the gory details, or at least some gory details, were intended to get out.
Recent cases involving Russia and China are instructive. The British government this year accused Russia of orchestrating the attempted poisoning of an ex-Soviet spy, Sergei Skripal, on its soil. British officials said two Russian agents entered the country carrying a Russian-made nerve agent inside a fake Nina Ricci perfume bottle, made their way to Salisbury and put the toxic substance on the target’s door.
The case unfolded like a spy movie, with the police and media gathering clue after clue. There was the discarded bottle. There was the surveillance footage of two men strolling, faces exposed, through the town of Salisbury, right near the scene of the crime. It all came together pretty quickly: British authorities determined that the men were sent by Russian military intelligence.
Russia has dismissed Britain’s allegations as “anti-Russian hysteria.” The suspects went on Russian television and claimed that they were just two ordinary men in town to visit a cathedral, that they just happened to walk by on that day and time. It was an absurdly thin alibi, so much so that the Guardian wondered whether the denial was itself a “form of defiance,” a sort of power play designed to say, yes, our denial is ridiculous given the evidence, but what are you going to do about it?
In China, disappearances often feature spectacular violence or outlandish details, or both, and are accompanied by disorienting, meaningless denials.
In 2016, for instance, Hong Kong booksellers started disappearing in strange ways. One of the booksellers, a Swedish national named Gui Minhai, was kidnapped from his 17th-floor condo in Thailand. When he reappeared months later, it was to deliver a scripted, forced confession thinly disguised as a television interview.
In that interview on Chinese television, a gaunt Gui implied that he had secretly smuggled himself to China to turn himself in for his involvement in a 2003 car wreck. He also said he did not want help from Swedish authorities.
“Even though I am a Swedish national, I truly feel that I am still Chinese and my roots are still in China,” he said, adding that he “hoped that the Swedish side would respect my personal choice, rights and privacy and let me solve my own problems.”
The testimony was clearly staged. The color of his shirt changed halfway through the interview. His testimony made no sense. In many ways, that was the point: When authoritarian regimes “disappear” activists and critics, they are not trying to hide their work. The goal is not to build a coherent defense but to show power and to strike fear.
There are ways to kidnap or kill quietly. You don’t need to fly a large group of people to Turkey, nor do you need to strike at a consulate. If something goes wrong, you can come up with a credible excuse. But that is not what happened in Istanbul.
So as you read about Khashoggi’s fate, remember: This is something that someone, somewhere, wanted you to hear.