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7 unanswered questions a year after Jamal Khashoggi’s killing

Protesters gather for a rally over the disappearance of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington in October 2018. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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A year ago, Jamal Khashoggi walked into Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul. He never walked out.

The gruesome killing of the Saudi journalist, a contributor to The Washington Post and a critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sent shock waves through capitals in the Middle East, Europe and North America where the young Saudi prince was carefully cultivating an image of a modern reformer.

Saudi Arabia first denied any knowledge of what had happened to Khashoggi and claimed he had walked out of the back door.

But more than two weeks after Khashoggi was killed on Oct. 2, Saudi Arabia admitted he had been killed by agents of the kingdom and pledged to bring the killers to justice.

Now, 12 months after Khashoggi’s murder, the urgency of the matter has largely faded and a number of major questions still linger about the killing and the response to it.

1. What happened to Khashoggi’s body?

We know Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate on Oct. 2. But there are still many specific facts we do not know about how that murder took place, including what happened to the body.

According to a report on the killing by Agnès Callamard, a U.N. special rapporteur, released in June, men carrying “what seem like plastic trash bags” and at least one suitcase exited the consulate after Khashoggi’s death.

Shortly after the men carrying these bags were seen exiting, an apparent body double was seen leaving the consulate in Khashoggi’s clothes and walking around Istanbul. The ruse was quickly foiled when observers quickly spotted that the man was wearing different shoes than the Saudi journalist.

Reports citing Turkish intelligence officials suggest Khashoggi’s body parts may have been taken to the Saudi consul’s home nearby, where they could have been burned in a furnace. Another line of investigation Turkish authorities pursued was that Khashoggi’s remains were dissolved in acid and disposed in a well on the consulate grounds.

Neither theory about the fate of Khashoggi’s body has been confirmed by Turkish or Saudi authorities.

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2. What happened to Saud al-Qahtani?

Saud al-Qahtani was known to be a close ally of the Saudi crown prince, serving as a media adviser to the royal court. In addition to that job, Qahtani played a more nebulous role in which he created a “blacklist” of online critics of Saudi Arabia.

In the months before he disappeared, Khashoggi had told friends he had received calls from Qahtani urging him to come home to Riyadh. After Khashoggi was killed, Qahtani mocked the Turkish investigation into the journalist’s killing and denied any role in it.

However, when Saudi Arabia finally admitted involvement in the killing, it said it had fired five top officials and arrested 18 other Saudis as a result of the initial investigation. Qahtani was among those fired. The next month, prosecutors said he was under investigation and was forbidden to leave the country.

Since then, little has been heard of Qahtani. He has not been seen in the Saudi court case into the killing of Khashoggi, and diplomats said he has not been charged. Some reports claimed he was spotted away from home in Jiddah, while others said he remained under house arrest. Speculation grew that he had died; even his Twitter account was suspended.

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3. Could the crown prince not have known?

In interviews with U.S. media outlets around the anniversary of Khashoggi’s death, Mohammed has denied any involvement or foreknowledge of the killing but said he takes responsibility for the death, as it ultimately took place under his watch.

“If there is any such information that charges me, I hope it is brought forward publicly,” he told interviewer Norah O’Donnell of CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

A CIA assessment made shortly after Khashoggi’s death concluded with “high confidence” that Mohammed had ordered the assassination, citing a variety of evidence, including a phone call the prince’s brother Khalid bin Salman, at the time the Saudi ambassador to the United States, had with Khashoggi.

Moreover, the crown prince, the preeminent political power in the kingdom, is known as a micromanager, and many analysts have argued he would not have allowed such a sensitive operation to go ahead without his personal approval.

“Do you think I can act by myself without taking orders/guidance?” Qahtani said in a tweet from 2017 that was widely shared after Khashoggi’s death as evidence Mohammed maintained strict control over Qahtani’s efforts to silence dissidents. “I am an employee and a trustworthy executive to the orders of the king and the crown prince.”

4. Has Saudi Arabia ended its policy of targeting overseas dissidents?

Khashoggi was just one critic of Mohammed who had left Saudi Arabia who found himself facing the wrath of the Saudi state.

There are numerous accounts of dissidents who fled abroad who have been targeted, whether they were tribal sheikhs who were forcibly returned from Jordan, young activists who faced threats and surveillance in Canada, or even Saudi princes who clashed with those who held power.

Though efforts to silence critics of the Saudi kingdom stretch back decades, they appear to have intensified under Mohammed. In recent years, dissidents had found themselves targeted all over the world, with Saudi agents working covertly or co-opting the local government. In a number of cases, those targeted disappeared from the public eye.

The Saudi government has insisted Khashoggi’s killing was a tragic mistake and has pledged to restructure its intelligence services, but the kingdom has not been clear about whether it will end efforts to target and intimidate critics who have fled to other countries.

5. What is the fate of Khashoggi’s family?

Khashoggi’s children — two sons and two daughters — have generally kept a low profile in the year since the killing and have refrained from openly criticizing the kingdom.

Salah, the oldest son, even met with the crown prince and King Salman shortly after his father’s murder. He later told CNN the king had assured him “everybody involved will be brought to justice” for the killing and that he had faith it would happen.

The Post reported in April that Khashoggi’s children have received million-dollar houses in the kingdom and monthly five-figure payments as compensation for the killing of their father and that they may receive much larger payouts when the trial is completed.

But some friends of Khashoggi have suggested Salah, the only child who lives in the country, may have been banned from leaving Saudi Arabia.

6. Will there be a full international investigation into the killing?

Since January, 11 officials have been on trial in Saudi Arabia for their alleged role in the killing of Khashoggi.

However, the trial takes place behind closed doors. Saudi Arabia has not named the defendants, and the trial is closed to the media, though a few diplomats have been allowed to attend. It is unclear what the status of the trial is or even how many trial sessions have taken place.

U.N. Special Rapporteur Callamard found herself stonewalled by Saudi officials. Though she said she never found a “smoking gun” linking the crown prince to the killing, she has called for a freeze on the prince’s assets and that sanctions be imposed against him until he is either cleared or definitively implicated.

Saudi Arabia has resisted any effort to launch an international probe.

7. Has the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia actually changed?

Khashoggi’s killing led to bipartisan calls for action from the U.S. Senate, with even longtime supporters of the kingdom such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) suggesting sanctions be imposed against Saudi Arabia.

Among the public, the murder appears to have damaged Saudi Arabia’s already negative reputation further, according to recent polls.

However, the Trump administration has appeared unwilling to sideline a longtime — and lucrative — ally. The crown prince has maintained a friendly relationship with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in addition to the president himself.

In April, the president vetoed a bipartisan resolution to force an end to U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. At the Group of 20 gathering of world leaders in Osaka, Japan, in June, Trump happily stood next to Mohammed for the so-called family photo of world leaders.

The White House has restricted access to transcripts of the president’s calls with the crown prince and his father, CNN reported last week.