Khashoggi’s Murder and the Battle for Supremacy Between Turkey and Saudi Arabia
JNS.org – Now that Saudi Arabia has acknowledged its responsibility for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it is time to clarify Turkey’s role and responsibility in the affair from the perspective of the battle between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Saudi Arabia’s Prince Muhammad bin Salman for the leadership of the Sunni world.
Turkey’s initial leaks to the Qatari government’s news channel Al Jazeera, which Qatar’s ruler had placed at the Turkish government’s disposal, noted that Khashoggi had asked Ms. Hatice Cengiz to call Erdoğan’s adviser Yasin Aktay if he did not return from the Saudi consulate. A few days later, the Turks apparently realized that the direct connection to Erdoğan’s aide created an undesirable link to Erdoğan himself, and Mr. Aktay stopped appearing on the channel. Ms. Cengiz also stopped referring to him.
The detailed Turkish leaks about what happened in the consulate show that Turkish intelligence had invaded the consulate and installed secret recording devices, as well as secret cameras in several rooms and in the consul’s home. Turkish intelligence, and therefore President Erdoğan, knew about the tension between Khashoggi and bin Salman, whom Khashoggi had personally attacked in his articles. The Turkish leaks to Al Jazeera reveal that they knew about the arrival of three senior Saudi intelligence officers in Istanbul a few days before the murder, and about the message that they sent to Riyadh after their recon of the city. The Turks also knew that 15 Saudi “diplomats” had arrived in two private planes on the day of the murder.
According to the Turkish leaks, this sizable team talked freely while perpetrating the murder, and therefore it can be assumed that they were equally unguarded while preparing for it, and were caught on camera during the preparation stage.
Therefore both Turkish intelligence and Erdoğan had time to intervene and could have warned Khashoggi and advised him to stay clear of the consulate, but instead they chose to let him walk into the trap. They also could have warned the Saudi consul, without risking discovery of their surveillance sources, simply by saying, for example, that they were concerned about the sudden arrival in Istanbul of 18 Saudi intelligence and security personnel. But they didn’t even do that. They knew about all the preparations and could have prevented the murder, but preferred not to intervene.
With such friends, Khashoggi hardly needed enemies.
Saudi intelligence was clearly overconfident. It never crossed their minds that the consulate was bugged and filmed from every possible direction. They apparently believed that once Khashoggi entered the consulate, they could safely commit the crime on their “sovereign territory” without anyone knowing, and even stage Khashoggi’s exit using a double, allowing them to insist that Khashoggi had left, as the external Turkish cameras positioned outside the consulate would show.
Only when it became clear to them that everything had been observed and recorded inside, were the Saudis forced to admit to the murder. Even Muhammad bin Salman himself could not imagine this, and he had no advisers to warn him that in the struggle between himself and Erdogan for the leadership of the Sunni world, Erdogan would not hesitate to violate the Vienna Convention, and would invade Saudi territory — the consulate — and do in it as he saw fit.
The use of secret recording devices and secret cameras in trials would be in this case highly problematic. Usually, the party giving evidence obtained through such means is fully exposed. The Turks therefore want to avoid presenting their secret material and the way it was gathered at all costs, because in such a trial Turkey may be transformed from accuser to accused in many different aspects.
Now the Turks are trying desperately to obtain other evidence not based on their surveillance, and demanding that the Saudis extradite the murderers to Turkey. The Saudis, obviously, will not comply, so as not to allow the Turks to get out of officially acknowledging that they violated the Vienna Convention. Had the violation resulted in crime prevention it could have possibly been justified, but apparently Erdogan chose to sacrifice the pawn Khashoggi to capture the Saudi king.
Despite all the above, the current round in the battle between Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and Turkey and its partner Qatar on the other, has now been won by Turkey/Qatar. Even the first stage, the formation of an “Arab NATO” taking place at this time, apparently with generous Saudi funding, cannot change the overall picture on the international level.
In the intra-Sunni Saudi Arabia-Turkey battle for supremacy in the Sunni world, The Washington Post impetuously took a partisan rather than journalistic role, despite the fact that neither side in the battle champions democracy and free speech. The paper enabled Khashoggi to promote the anti-Saudi Muslim Brotherhood agenda in its pages, appropriating the vocabulary of democracy and freedom of speech, as if the Muslim Brotherhood espoused these values. Apparently, the Post’s experts spared the editor-in-chief relevant information about the Muslim Brotherhood and ignored the fact that President Erdoğan too is responsible for the brutal repression of press and speech freedoms in Turkey, including the disappearance of journalists that exceeds any other Middle Eastern country.
In conclusion, it is vital that we return to the tragic aspects of the affair: A human being was savagely murdered, and his murderers must face justice.
The attempt by Erdoğan and the Qatari emir to incriminate Muhammad bin Salman personally in this deed will not stand up in court. Every man is responsible for his own actions; the murderers are responsible for theirs.
Muhammad bin Salman’s responsibility is political, like Russian President Vladimir Putin’s in the recent attempt to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter, and like Xi Jin Ping’s and Erdoğan’s for the disappearance of journalists in China and Turkey respectively. On the political level, as Erdoğan knows from his own experience, the rules are different.
Yigal Carmon is president of MEMRI.