Jamal Khashoggi: How the ‘stupid, naïve’ plot to kill Washington Post journalist backfired on Saudi Arabia

9news.com.au | Ehsan Knopf: The murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi not only shocked the world, but it also shone a light on Donald Trump’s relationship with his Middle Eastern ally.

But according to 9News correspondent Robert Penfold, it had even greater ramifications and was a “stupid and naïve” attempt at concealing wrongdoing on Saudi Arabia’s part.

The US President initially promised “severe punishment” for Saudi Arabia, if found guilty of Khashoggi’s murder.

While the CIA reportedly concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did order the killing, Mr Trump has failed to cut ties.

Mr Trump points out Saudi Arabia’s ongoing role as a key US trading partner and recently referred to MBS as a “very good ally”.

“We mustn’t forget Trump is a hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners businessman,” Penfold said.

“Every time he is questioned about why he has not clamped down on the Saudis, Trump points out they spend billions buying military equipment from the US.

“Trump has repeatedly indicated he’s not prepared to lose that income for the sake of one life.

“Then there’s the fact the Saudis have historically all but held America to ransom through their oil wealth.”

Despite Mr Trump’s support for MBS, the US Senate has condemned the Crown Prince. It has also approved a resolution cutting off US support for Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen.

The US, the UK, Canada and France have placed sanctions against 18 Saudis linked to the murder.

Several European countries have also cancelled arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

Penfold said the plot to kill Khashoggi highlighted wrongdoing, not covered it up.

“I would suggest very, very few people around the world were aware of Khashoggi’s criticism of Saudi Arabia (beforehand),” he said.

“The muddled plot to kill him only served to throw more of a spotlight on their actions.

“Certainly Saudi Arabia could never have anticipated the outcry. Nor the ongoing effects it will have for years to come on their relations with countries around the world.”

The killing

When Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, he knew something was amiss.

Former acquaintance, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, was waiting to greet him.

Khashoggi had met Mutreb during his tenure as a Saudi diplomat, but Mutreb had since turned his hand to spying.

His presence at the consulate was, to say the least, unexpected.

“You are coming back (to Saudi Arabia),” Mutreb allegedly told Khashoggi.

Turkish intelligence captured their exchange in a secret recording.

“You can’t do that,” Khashoggi replied.

“People are waiting outside.”

A hit squad of 15 men then descended on Khashoggi, with one placing the journalist in a chokehold.

“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe,” Khashoggi said, according to a transcript of the recording.

Afterwards Mutreb allegedly made three calls to Saud al-Qahtani – a top aide to MBS.

Mutreb assured al-Qahtani “the thing is done, it’s done”.

The team then commenced the next phase of their grisly plan: dismembering their victim’s body with a saw.

“Put your earphones in, or listen to music like me,” one member of the team advised.

Turkish officials have since identified him as Dr Salah Muhammad al-Tubaiqi, a Saudi Interior ministry official.

Not everyone was happy with the plan. A witness – Saudi Consul General Mohammed al-Otaibi – registered his protest.

“Do this outside,” he said.

“You’re going to get me in trouble.”

“Shut up if you want to live when you return to (Saudi) Arabia,” one of men retorted.

All the while, Hatice Cengiz – Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée – stood outside, anxiously awaiting his return.

Khashoggi had told Cengiz in the event he didn’t, to call an adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Hours passed – first one, then two, then 10. Nothing.

Cengiz went home and returned to the embassy the following morning. But it was in vain.

Khashoggi’s killers had long since departed – and with them all trace of his remains.

The fallout

Saudi prosecutors have charged 11 unidentified people over Khashoggi’s death. Five may face the death penalty.

Saudi King Salman has fired MBS aide al-Qahtahi and Deputy Intelligence Chief Ahmad al-Assiri.

In addition, King Salman announced MBS would oversee a restructure of Saudi intelligence services.

If the killers hoped Khashoggi’s story would vanish along with his body, they were soon proven very wrong.

Authorities descended on the embassy, scouring the grounds for traces of the crime.

Officers also scouted possible resting places for Khashoggi’s body. Among them were Belgrad forest and farmland in Yalova.

Turkish media published details from the recording, and the case drew scrutiny and condemnation worldwide.

MBS was immediately implicated in the crime. The Crown Prince for his part claimed Khashoggi had left the consulate “a few minutes or one hour” after his arrival.

“We have nothing to hide,” MBS told Bloomberg News.

But CCTV captured the alleged Saudi hit team arriving at the consulate before Khashoggi’s appointment. It also showed them leaving hours later.

The vision included a man resembling Khashoggi departing via the backdoor.

The man was later identified as Mustafa al-Madani. Authorities claim he was hired to pose as a body double for Khashoggi.

As part of the act, Al-Madani donned a fake beard and Khashoggi’s own – “still warm” – clothes, a senior official told CNN.

Saudi Arabia claimed ignorance. Yet over the coming weeks, the official account shifted.

On October 20, Saudi state television said Khashoggi’s death had been an accident. There had been a struggle, and an unidentified party had put Khashoggi in a chokehold, they said.

One Saudi official insisted the murder was a “rogue operation”.

Turkey pushed back on these claims.

“You don’t need a body double for a rendition or an interrogation,” one official told CNN.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir was dismissive, calling the public response “hysterical”. But pressure only continued to mount.

Turkish authorities finally released their recording to the US, UK, France, Germany and Saudi Arabia.

Then, on November 15, a Saudi public prosecutor said Khashoggi had died by lethal injection.

He added that Khashoggi’s body had been dismembered and handed over to a local collaborator.

The exact location of Khashoggi’s remains is unknown.