On the morning after Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi went missing after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, a former CIA colleague called me with two questions, the first rhetorical: "Is this the worst-planned and worst-executed operation you've ever seen?" It certainly was. And "How long do think it's going to take before this thing brings down [Saudi crown prince] Muhammad bin Salman?" That likely won't happen.
First, let me get my own personal biases out of the way. I don't like the Saudi government. I don't respect it. If I had my druthers, I'd tell the Saudis to drink their oil.
My first overseas tour, when I was with the CIA, was Saudi Arabia, during the first Gulf War. There were two things that have stuck with me for the past 28 years. I just assumed the Saudis would be friendly and grateful, because we had gone there to protect their country, and indeed we did. Instead, they were cold, rude, and mean. Finally, I confronted one of the guards. I said, "What's your problem, with this attitude?" He said, "You are hired help. You are nothing more. You were paid money to come here and protect the oil fields. Don't expect thanks. You've been paid." He was right. This is not a mutual relationship based upon trust and affection. This is weapons for oil and nothing else.
The other thing that struck me was when I was the Human Rights Officer in Riyadh. The ambassador asked me to attend a beheading and to document it for the Human Rights report. I went to the mosque at what's called "Chop Chop Square" in central Riyadh. A large crowd had already gathered. If Saudi attendees see that you are a foreigner, they push you to the front, because they want you to see how justice is done in Saudi Arabia. That's what happened with me. The crowd pushed me right up to the execution site.
Two policemen brought the condemned man out. He had been convicted of drug smuggling. He had clearly been drugged. He couldn't walk. He was drooling. The two Saudi policemen at his side forced him to his knees and put his head and neck on a chopping block. A masked executioner came out from the mosque with an enormous curved sword that was intricately carved and, I learned later, was a gift from the crown prince.
Without breaking stride, he walked across the raised area where the condemned man had been placed, put his arm in the air, and chopped. The head fell into a basket, the body fell off to the side, and everybody dispersed after shouts of "Allahu Akbar!" It was sickening.
But let's get back to Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi apparently was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul for the express purpose of being murdered. A resident of Arlington, Virginia, he had become engaged to a Turkish woman and he wanted to register the engagement with the Saudi government as is required by Saudi law. (Khashoggi's family is of Turkish origin. He thus had no Bedouin tribal structure in Saudi Arabia for Muhammad bin Salman to worry about appeasing once the murder was accomplished.)
In Washington, Khashoggi was told that the form had to be filled out in Istanbul. He only went there reluctantly, telling his fiance' that if he didn't exit the consulate in 20 minutes she should call the police. His body still has not been found.
There are several things about this case that are fascinating to me, and the story is much larger than just Jamal Khashoggi. First, within days of his disappearance, Turkish authorities began talking about video and audio, including recordings of Saudi assassins torturing Khashoggi, cutting off his fingers, and then actually chopping him up while he was still alive. One Turkish government official said Khashoggi's Apple watch recorded the event. That was laughable. What we really saw was, essentially, an admission by the Turkish government that it has the Saudi consulate in Istanbul wired for audio and video. The Turks must have had a very good reason for exposing what's known in the spy world as "sources and methods."
Sure, every country spies on every other country. But why blow a major intelligence collection operation over one dead journalist? It's because, again, the case is bigger than just Jamal Khashoggi.
Second, Muhammad bin Salman had to call presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner to ask why anybody even cared about the murder. Why were otherwise friendly members of Congress making statements and using words like "sanctions" and "crime?" It was a mystery. As I said, Khashoggi had no tribal backing in Saudi Arabia and he wasn't a US citizen, so why should anybody care about him? I don't know what Kushner's answer was, but that Muhammad bin Salman couldn't figure out on his own that you shouldn't go around kidnapping, murdering, and dismembering journalists is astounding. That Khashoggi was a US green card holder and a columnist for the Washington Post apparently never occurred to him.
Third is the question of why the Turks would put so much into the investigation. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a nationally-televised speech condemning the killing, he assigned the Turkish National Intelligence Service to carry out the investigation, he invited the FBI in to assist, and he strong-armed the Saudi government into allowing the Turks access to the Saudi consulate and the consul's house (he had already fled to Saudi Arabia) to look for evidence.
The reason for all of this is likely geostrategic. The Turks hate the Saudis, their rivals for regional domination. The Turks have sided with the Qataris in their ongoing struggle against the Saudis. And the Turks are on the opposite side of the war in Syria, where the Saudis support what some of my former CIA colleagues call the "moderate wing" of al-Qaeda. Erdogan sees the Khashoggi killing as a golden opportunity to knock the Saudis down a peg or two, curry favor with the United States, and begin to rehabilitate his own reputation in the international press, following a roundup of journalists after a coup attempt against him in 2016. It's a no-lose situation for the Turks.
None of that, however, solves any of the problems caused so far by Muhammad bin Salman. The crown prince is only in his early 30s, his elderly father, the king, is unlikely to be on the scene much longer, and Muhammad bin Salman already has either arrested or exiled pretty much any family member who could pose a threat to his authority. He's launched a genocidal war in Yemen that the United Nations says could lead to the starvation of as many as 14 million people, he has supported and financed Islamist extremists in Syria, and he has worked to overthrow the royal family of Qatar. Muhammad bin Salman simply has to go.
I'm not going to advocate an assassination attempt against the crown prince. But I do advocate a coup against him. This is one of those moments in history where preemptive action could save perhaps millions of lives. There's been a perfect storm of events that have brought us to a point where it's actually possible. If you could go back in time, before the genocides, would you arrest and remove Hitler? Mao? Pol Pot? Pinochet? I would.
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