More than two years after dissident journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the US is finally getting around to doing something about it.
Only not really.
Khashoggi, you’ll recall, entered the consulate in October of 2018 in order to obtain paperwork for a marriage. He never came out. Or at least not in one piece, and certainly not alive.
Within hours of his disappearance, every intelligence agency from Ankara to Moscow to London to Washington knew exactly what happened to him. He was killed by Saudi operatives at the behest of Mohammed bin Salman.
The operation was clumsy, and even if it wasn’t, the idea that the Saudis were going to dispatch with a prominent journalist inside Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s police state without Erdogan leveraging the tragedy for geopolitical gain was naive in the extreme. Even you wanted to suggest Erdogan allowed it to happen (i.e., Riyadh wasn’t naive, and told Erdogan ahead of time), that’s not the kind of thing you can trust him with, especially at a time when he needed to secure leverage with the White House after a fraught summer that included a currency meltdown exacerbated by a spat with Donald Trump.
Over the subsequent weeks, Erdogan went to great lengths to ensure the story stayed in the news and to generally keep the pressure up. All manner of details about the operation were leaked by Turkish media and eventually, the CIA faulted bin Salman. Corporate executives feigned disgust and pretended to ostracize the Crown Prince, but ultimately, money talks, and Riyadh has quite a bit of it. They’ve got some oil too, as it turns out.
To be sure, bin Salman didn’t escape from the episode completely unscathed. In fact, it forever tarnished his international image, complicated plans to take Aramco public, and briefly jeopardized foreign investment in the Kingdom. The monarchy conducted a farcical internal investigation. They found some scapegoats. Steve Mnuchin pretended to care, but Trump repeatedly refused to place the blame where it belonged.
Jared Kushner maintained a famously cozy relationship with the Crown Prince, and Trump was very proud of the arms he was busy selling to the Saudis.
At one point, Trump ludicrously claimed that Khashoggi’s demise might remain a mystery forever. “Will anybody really know?,” he asked, during an interview with Chris Wallace. “All right, will anybody really know?,” the former president pressed.
Yes. The answer was definitively “yes.” In fact, everybody (not just anybody) knew. Because the idea that 15 Saudis (some of whom held high ranking positions in the government) somehow managed to procure not one, but two Gulfstream IV jets, fly to Turkey, assassinate a famous dissident in the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate and then beat a hasty retreat back to Riyadh without bin Salman knowing anything about it, was the silliest thing anyone had ever heard — a laughable proposition on par with suggesting Vladimir Putin has no idea who poisoned Alexey Navalny.
By early 2019, this charade reached peak absurdity when Mike Pompeo refused to comply with a Magnitsky Act request.
Fast forward two years and the US government, under new management, publicly released a report implicating the Crown Prince. The declassified document is just four pages long. It’s embedded below.
“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” it reads, adding that,
The IS-member Saudi team that arrived in Istanbul on 2 October 2018 included officials who worked for, or were associated with, the Saudi Center for Studies and Media Affairs (CSMARC) at the Royal Court. At the time of the operation, CSMARC was led by Saud al-Qahtani, a close adviser of Muhammad bin Salman, who claimed publicly in mid2018 that he did not make decisions without the Crown Prince’s approval. The team also included seven members of Muhammad bin Salman’s elite personal protective detail, known as the Rapid Intervention Force (RIF). The RIF-a subset of the Saudi Royal Guard-exists to defend the Crown Prince, answers only to him, and had directly participated in earlier dissident suppression operations in the Kingdom and abroad at the Crown Prince’s direction. We judge that members of the RIF would not have participated in the operation against Khashoggi without Muhammad bin Salman’s approval.
There’s nothing new in the assessment. Indeed, it appears to be the same assessment the Trump administration had years ago. What’s new is the public shaming and US sanctions against al-Qahtani and Hassan Mohammed al Asiri.
The State department plans “to impose visa restrictions on individuals who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities.” State has apparently made a list of 76 Saudi nationals who could be subjected to some manner of punitive measures.
One person who won’t be on any list, though, is Mohammed bin Salman.
Some things will never change.