On Oct. 2, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into his country’s consulate in Istanbul for what he hoped would be a routine visit to get some documents. Instead, he was slain during that visit, and his killing sparked a global backlash against Saudi Arabia and its powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Some of the details of what happened in the consulate have been confirmed, but a number of key questions in the case are still unanswered:
1. What happened to Khashoggi’s body?
On Wednesday, Turkish investigators laid out the most detailed explanation yet of how Khashoggi, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post and prominent critic of Saudi leaders, was killed. They said the journalist was strangled as soon as he entered the consulate, in line with a premeditated plan.
But Khashoggi’s body still has not been found. Saudi officials previously said that the body was given to a “local collaborator” for disposal, but Turkish investigators have suggested that person may not exist. Instead, they are considering whether Khashoggi’s dismembered body was destroyed in acid, either in the consulate or the nearby residence of the Saudi consul general.
“Khashoggi’s body was not in need of burying,” a senior Turkish official told The Washington Post.
The remains might give investigators a number of key clues, but they have a larger value for Khashoggi’s friends and family. “He did not have a funeral yet. This is not acceptable in Islamic rules," said his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, to ABC News, referring to the Islamic practice of burying the dead soon after they expire.
2. How high up did the plot go?
It took the Saudi government more than two weeks to admit that Khashoggi had been killed, and even longer to say that the killing was deliberate. It eventually arrested 18 Saudi nationals and fired five top officials in response, but Turkish investigators have said the kingdom has offered little practical help in uncovering exactly what happened. “We did not get the impression that they were keen on genuinely cooperating with the investigation," one official told The Post.
Since the early days of Khashoggi’s disappearance, there has been a deep suspicion that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the plot. In particular, the high-ranking nature of some of the suspects identified by Turkey made it hard to imagine the plot was independent of Saudi leadership.
“It’s inconceivable that an operation using royal guards, other court officials and the consulate was not authorized by the crown prince," Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said to The Post.
U.S. intelligence intercepts suggested that the crown prince ordered an operation to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his home in Virginia. He also described Khashoggi as a dangerous Islamist in phone calls with President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and national security adviser John Bolton.
But the kingdom has repeatedly denied that Mohammed had any involvement. Indeed, his father, King Salman, appointed him to head a review of Saudi intelligence services that was ordered in response to Khashoggi’s killing.
3. What will the repercussions be?
Saudi Arabia has been a key ally of the United States and other Western countries for decades. As the second-most-senior royal in his country, Mohammed bin Salman initiated economic and social reforms that were greeted warmly by many foreign allies, especially Trump. His campaign of arrests and crackdowns on political rivals and activists was less commented-upon, and the brutal Saudi war effort in Yemen caused little trouble for Riyadh.
But the killing of Khashoggi has changed that. Even if the crown prince were not directly involved, the cruel nature of the crime — and the incompetent attempts to cover it up — suggest deep dysfunction.
Saudi Arabia’s reputation in the United States has been clearly damaged. Numerous American companies and government officials pulled out of a recent investment conference in Riyadh. U.S. lawmakers have suggested some form of targeted sanctions against Saudi officials, and there is growing opposition in Congress to U.S. support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen.
So far, though, there has been little practical change. Trump has been reticent to criticize the Saudis and repeatedly suggested that he wouldn’t consider canceling arms deals with the kingdom. There is barely any more action in other Western capitals. Germany is one of the only countries to make a major move so far, suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia until further notice.
It’s also unclear whether there will be major changes in Saudi Arabia itself. Though Riyadh is pledging its own investigation into the killing of Khashoggi, that’s unlikely to satisfy the country’s critics. Few Saudi royals have the ability to push back against Mohammed bin Salman, and he appears to still have considerable support from his father and from the Saudi public.
“Life is good here because our crown prince is always working hard for us and making our life better,” Rashid al-Awadin, a retired soldier in the farm town of Al Dilam, said to a Post reporter. “I support him, and nothing is going to change that, no matter what. I will follow his lead as long as he is alive.”