Is the U.S. Complicit in Saudi Journalist’s Disappearance?

President Trump says the US is pressing Saudi Arabia for answers on the fate of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But new questions are being raised about the US role after a Washington Post report that U.S. intelligence intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture and “lay hands on” Khashoggi. We speak to Ali Al-Ahmed, founder and director of The Institute for Gulf Affairs

Is the U.S. Complicit in Saudi Journalist's Disappearance?

Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

President Trump says the U.S. is pressing Saudi Arabia for answers on the fate of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

DONALD TRUMP: This is a bad situation. We cannot let this happen to reporters, to anybody. We can’t let this happen. And we’re going to get to the bottom of it, OK? You may want to speak to the First Lady’s office about [inaudible]. I’d rather not say. But in a very high level. The highest level. Let’s say- let me say this. It’s the highest level.

AARON MATE: Khashoggi entered the Saudi embassy in Turkey last Tuesday to obtain a document he needed to get married. He has not been seen since. Turkish officials say they believe he was killed by a team of 15 Saudis- a hit squad, they say, who flew into Turkey for that purpose. According to the New York Times, Turkey believes one team member brought a bone saw to dismember Khashoggi’s body after killing him. Saudi Arabia has denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance, but it has not provided any evidence that shows where else Khashoggi might be.

And although the White House now claims to be demanding answers, new questions are being raised about the U.S. role. The Washington Post reports, “before Khashoggi’s disappearance, U.S. intelligence intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture him. The Saudis wanted to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and lay hands on him there.” In Washington today a group of supporters gathered to demand answers on Khashoggi’s disappearance. Among the speakers was Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: I knew Jamal, and actually was critical of him for not being more critical of the Saudi government. We had some very wonderful exchanges. And my heart goes out to his family and everybody who knew and loved him. Of course we want to believe he’s still alive, but I don’t believe it. I believe that he is dead. And you know why? Because I know what the Saudi government is capable of. And I want to denounce the Western democracies for their hypocrisy and their enabling of Saudi behavior for so many years now.

AARON MATE: Joining me is Ali Al-Ahmed, founder and director of Institute for Gulf Affairs. Welcome, Ali. First, let me ask you if you could speculate, what is your sense of the fate of Jamal Khashoggi right now? Do you think he is still alive? Or do you think the Saudis have indeed killed him?

ALI AL-AHMED: Until this morning the messages I’ve been getting are that he was alive. But today, and by the end of the day, we have- I’ve heard people have, they have seen a video of him being killed. That video was taken by his Apple watch. And that streamed to his iPhone, which was outside the consulate at the hand of his wife, and the Turkish authorities were able to go unlock the phone and then see the video. The gruesome video. So we have confirmation from people who said they were shown the video by the Turkish police. So [inaudible]

AARON MATE: Ali, this is a, this is a very explosive claim. You’ve spoken to people who say that they have seen video that was beamed from his watch showing his murder? Who are these people you’ve spoken to?

ALI AL-AHMED: This is an editor of Turkish government TV. I have his recorded statement that this is what happened, and that this is confirmation that Khashoggi has been killed. And it shows the actual murder. And it would be [inaudible].

AARON MATE: And you spoke to this editor personally?

ALI AL-AHMED: No, I didn’t speak to this editor personally, but I have his recording. I know that the recording came; he sent it to a group of friends that I am- and one of them sent it to me. So he knows one of my friends who- he sent the broadcast to his friends, and we have a common friend who sent it to me. And I have it in my phone. I would be happy to send it to you. You can check with him, he has a Twitter account.

AARON MATE: OK. Well, until we get confirmation from Turkish authorities, and Saudi Arabia, obviously it’s best to-

ALI AL-AHMED: This is government, government television. This is Arabic TRT station.

AARON MATE: OK. I’ve missed that report on Turkish television. So let me ask you-

ALI AL-AHMED: It’s not a report, yeah. This is, like I said, this by director of Turkish, Arabic TV. And he sent it to his friends. One of them [inaudible] is a friend of mine who sent it to me. And I have it. I’ll be happy to send it to you, and you can talk to the gentleman himself and authenticate it.

AARON MATE: OK. So as we await confirmation, public confirmation, from the Turkish government, let’s just talk about what is going on here. No matter what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, why do you think he was targeted? He was- some people call him a critic of the Saudi government, or a dissident. But that’s not quite accurate. He actually was close to the Saudi royal family, worked for them. He expressed some concerns about freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia. But he was not a harsh critic of the regime, as I understand it. Can you talk about who he- what he did, and why do you think the Saudi government came after him?

ALI AL-AHMED: He- Jamal Khashoggi has been always a loyalist until he came back, he came, ran away and fled to the United States. So he was a loyalist. And even after he left he was speaking on TV and saying that his allegiance is to King Salman. But he was critical of the conditions that Mohammed bin Salman, the son, the Crown Prince, was making the country go through. So he’s a loyalist, and he’s a man who made his career being a loyalist to the Saudi monarchy. So his career was built on that. He was advisor, he supported- he was a diplomat in Washington, and in London. He worked with the Saudi intelligence in the ’80s in organizing and recruiting fighters against the Soviet Union at the time. So he has a long history of loyalty.

That is actually exactly what made it worse for him, because the Saudi monarchy does not accept anything but absolute loyalty, without any shred of hesitation. And because he kind of departed from that- he’s loyal to the King. You know, maybe sometimes in a very awful way, to be honest, because he spoke about what he called a, I have an allegiance, a loyalty to the King, but then he criticized his son for his behavior and policies. Because at this time we are not slaves and masters anymore, so that, that term is kind of abhorrent to me.

Anyway, so because he is from within the ranks of the monarchy, or their proxies, it was important for the Saudi government to send a message to their followers, to their loyalists, that you cannot emulate Khashoggi, you cannot break with us and turn your back against us, because we will punish you harshly. And that is exactly, I think, the plan. The message was clear. There is no need to send 15 people to kill one man. One man could have done it. And you know, even getting rid of the body they’ll need a lot of help. But this was a message. This is executing your opponent in the street so that the population are scared. Exactly. This is what they are doing here. Again, he was not a dissident. He was actually critical of dissidents much more than he was critical of the government. And he was sometimes hostile to dissidents, including myself. But that does not excuse his execution or kidnapping. It is unfortunate, [especially for his family].

AARON MATE: Let’s talk about the message that the U.S. is sending here. So you have this report now in the Washington Post claiming that U.S. intelligence intercepted Saudi Arabian officials talking about a plan to lure him back to Saudi Arabia and lay their hands on him, as the Post says there. Does not seem- there’s no indication that Khashoggi was warned about this by U.S. officials. And then after his disappearance you have initially a very muted response from the White House. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put out a call for the Saudis to investigate it. Sort of a mild call for the alleged kidnappers to investigate their own kidnapping. You had Trump today saying that he’s speaking to Saudi Arabia officials at the highest levels. What do you make of the Trump administration’s response so far?

ALI AL-AHMED: I’m actually surprised that this is- I’ve been here long enough to see this before. This is the highest and the strongest reaction to incidents or crimes committed by the Saudi government ever. And so, and that, when it comes to comparison, this is the, the most widespread from the administration, and from Congress and the media, obviously. Previous violations did not- although they are much more abhorrent, they did not receive such attention under the Obama or the Bush administration. Just look at the war in Yemen a few weeks ago, last month when the Saudis bombed deliberately this bus, 40 Yemeni children. The U.S. administration actually sided with Saudi Arabia, and did not have- so this is a stronger reaction.

And I think there is something here. I have no idea what it is. It has, maybe it has to do with the fact that Mr. Trump is saying you have to pay, you have to pay to the Saudi king. And this may be yet another way of pushing the Saudis- it might not be a genuine escalation on Saudi Arabia to truly improve human rights. After all, the United States has been supporting and protecting the Saudi monarchy for nearly 60 years, and it has ignored totally the violation of human rights, including religious freedom for even Americans in Saudi Arabia; and woman driving, the last country in the world. And the lack of cinemas, and basic freedom, and so on.

So this is, I think it is, it has been the strongest reaction. I know some people don’t see it that way, but that’s the reality.

AARON MATE: Ali, let me go to that clip you mentioned of Trump speaking about the Saudi king. He said this last week at a rally.

DONALD TRUMP: Protect Saudi Arabia. Would you say they’re rich? And I love the king, King Salman. But I said, King, we’re protecting you. You might not be there for two weeks without us. You have to pay for your military.

AARON MATE: That’s President Trump speaking at a recent rally. So Ali, finally, there is talk now of this incident marking a change in U.S.-Saudi relations. Do you think, if it is officially confirmed that Jamal Khashoggi has been killed, do you think that that change will happen?

ALI AL-AHMED: I doubt it. I hope so, but I doubt it. I don’t think it will happen. Because I think the relationship is dependent on maintaining domination of the country and its resources by the United States. If Mohammed bin Salman is starting to grow his own wings and refusing to pay, as Mr. Trump put it, maybe then they would be extremely increasing pressure. Let’s remember, the U.S. government overthrew elected secular liberal democrats in Iran in 1953. So this is nothing new. So it’s not about how you treat your people. It’s how good you treat the American regime; what are you, how much you are willing to pay, and spend your money buying weapons, or conducting or supporting U.S. policies in the region. That has been the factor that the U.S. has used to evaluate its allies and foes in the region.

AARON MATE: All right. So we’ll leave it there. I just want to go back to what Ali said at the beginning of this interview, this claim that there is Apple watch footage of the killing. Again, nothing is confirmed yet publicly from the Turkish authorities, so we need to be cautious. There is a report on the Middle East Eye that cites a Turkish source, saying that Turkish police have audio and video evidence of the killing. But it does not name the source or identify what is the nature of that supposed audio and video evidence. And it also- the Middle East Eye also makes reference to Turkish police looking at the Apple watch worn by Khashoggi being synced to his wife’s phone. So we will await confirmation, again, from the Turkish police on the outcome of their investigation, and whether or not these reports of there being audio and video evidence being correct.

My guest has been Ali Al-Ahmed. He is the founder and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs. I’m Aaron Mate for The Real News.