Cock-up or murder?

Whatever the truth behind the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi – if that is ever revealed – it seems certain that some people are saying less than they know, and others are saying more. Nothing new in that. The world is drawn to a real-life crime thriller, especially when clues are strewn so carelessly about. Everyone becomes a detective and everyone has a theory. Here is mine.  

Jamal Khashoggi is dead. Almost everyone now seems to believe that, even if Western governments refuse to confirm that they know it too. The one unassailable fact is that he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Tuesday, 2 October, and has not voluntarily left it since. Either he is dead, or he is being held against his will, whether in the consulate or in Saudi Arabia.

The incident has already done such damage to Saudi Arabia’s international reputation, about which it is extraordinarily sensitive, that it seems inconceivable that – if Khashoggi were still alive – the Saudis would not have said so by now. Even if he had been beaten up in the meantime, they have had 12 days to disguise his wounds and present a blurred photograph to the world to prove it. They would still need to justify the abduction and rendition, but that is less damaging than having to justify his death. And less damaging than silence.

If Jamal Khashoggi is dead, how did he die? For Emily Thornberry, Shadow Foreign Secretary, the answer is obvious. She has been reported as saying that “she assumed on the evidence that Khashoggi had been murdered by the Saudis”. On what evidence? It is possible, but unlikely, that she has evidence that is not in the public domain (in which case she should reveal it), but more likely that she is reacting to rumours that are in the public domain. One would have expected more of a Shadow Foreign Secretary (and a lawyer to boot), but then in recent years we have got used to expecting more of our actual Foreign Secretary.

The Washington Post, for which Khashoggi was a columnist, has reported that “Turkey’s government has told US officials it has audio and video proof that missing Saudi Arabian writer Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.” Maybe it has. But the Turkish government has not said so directly. And, if true, it would be an extraordinary feat of surveillance – not only to have set up such a comprehensive system, but to have avoided its detection. And it would not be surprising if Turkey wished to give the impression that it has a great deal more evidence than it actually possesses, to pressurise the Saudis into a confession. Again, 12 days is a long time for this alleged evidence to have failed to take some tangible form.

Two fundamental questions need to be asked about the entire sequence of events, which, at the moment, few people seem to be asking. Assuming that the Saudis did decide to silence Jamal Khashoggi, what is the most likely means they would have used to do it? And why did they despatch a 15-man team to Istanbul to do whatever they had decided to do?

On the first question, I find it inherently unlikely that the Saudis would have concluded that their best course of action was to send a hit squad to Istanbul to murder Khashoggi, and then be faced with the problem of how either to find a secretive way of putting a body on a plane at Istanbul airport, or of disposing of it in a foreign country. Not impossible, but unlikely.

More likely, surely, is that they decided to abduct him when he had his pre-arranged appointment in the consulate and bring him back to Saudi Arabia. There, he might have ‘disappeared’. Or he might have been put on trial and imprisoned or executed. It wouldn’t have been the first time.

But, whichever of these two things it was, why did it take 15 men to do it? Fifteen men, it would appear, who were all dressed inconspicuously and identically. Whatever the Saudis had in mind, it shouldn’t have taken more than three or four people to do it.

Shortly before Khashoggi disappeared, I happened to watch a film about Mossad’s abduction of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. Mossad needed to take Eichmann alive, so he could stand trial in Israel for his crimes. Its agents needed to smuggle him out of Argentina, under the eyes of a hostile government that was trying to stop them. Mossad’s solution was to drug Eichmann, dress him in the uniform of an El Al pilot, and put him amongst a large group of its agents, similarly dressed.

My hunch is that this is what was intended to happen with Khashoggi. He was to be detained in the consulate and drugged. One of the Saudi team would have made his independent way back to Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi would have taken his place. Fifteen identically dressed men would have arrived, and 15 would have left. If Khashoggi’s appearance had provoked questions, he would have been said to have been ill.

But then it all went wrong. Whether under extreme interrogation, whether in a desperate struggle to avoid being injected, or whether out of plain terror, Jamal Khashoggi had a heart attack and died, or at any rate was not deliberately killed. Then the Saudi team had a different set of problems to confront. Time will tell how successful they were at avoiding detection of whatever it was they did.

This seems to me the most plausible explanation on current evidence, or the lack of it. If it did happen like this, Saudi Arabia may now be explaining to America, to Turkey, to us, to whoever, that it was all a ghastly accident, enough of an accident to prevent any extreme sanctions being taken against it.

I don’t know why I pay attention to anything Donald Trump says, since he appears to pay no attention to it himself. But his statement that the Saudi government would be severely punished if it turned out that it had ordered Khashoggi’s killing sounds like a get-out clause to me. A heart attack under extreme duress? Quite a different thing.

Whatever the truth of the matter, nothing disguises the stench. And it raises the question, for the umpteenth time, of whether we should hold our noses and continue to treat with strategically important countries that have poisonous morals, or shun them and risk harming ourselves and others. But I’m not going there. At least not today.