Three Theories on Jamal Khashoggi’s Fate

Killing him in cold blood would not have been in the Saudis’ best interest.

A still image taken from CCTV video shows Jamal Khashoggi as he arrives at Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on Oct. 2, 2018.
A still image taken from CCTV video shows Jamal Khashoggi as he arrives at Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on Oct. 2, 2018. (Reuters TV)

Last week, when Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, I said the situation carried a strong aroma of foul play by the Saudis. Now, in the absence of even the feeblest explanation by the Saudis of what might have befallen Khashoggi, other than a planned hit, the strong aroma has graduated to a full-on cadaverous reek. What are the other possibilities? Did the bureaucratic errand he completed in the consulate persuade him to exit through a side door, fleeing his fiancée—she was waiting outside—without a farewell? A growing crowd of U.S. congressmen and Cabinet members is concluding that Saudi Arabia assassinated its most prominent dissident, and that sanctions or more must follow. The Saudi response: denial, but no alternative theory.

The strongest evidence that Saudi Arabia did not kill Khashoggi is that its response to these inevitable accusations has been so hapless, and the predictable fallout so disastrous. If Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) ordered an operation that ended with Khashoggi dead, what MbS has gained by terrifying other dissidents and ending Khashoggi’s series of mildly blistering Washington Post columns cannot be worth his loss of international support. His friends are fleeing. The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman profiled MbS and his radical plans for Saudi Arabia last year. Even then, long before anyone thought MbS might turn his consulates into abattoirs, critics mocked Friedman for his credulity and for thinking this Arab tyrant would turn out to be more enlightened than his predecessors. (Never mind that MbS has implemented many reforms—including the end of official support for Saudi Arabia’s least popular export, jihadi Salafism—that the West has long been demanding.) Friedman’s column this week on Khashoggi all but admitted that MbS is starting to look crazy. MbS spent two years crafting an image of reform-minded indispensability. If the consensus holds that he killed Khashoggi, he will take years to get back to where he was before Khashoggi stepped into the consulate.

The nations that gain from this affair are two regional enemies of Saudi Arabia: Qatar and Turkey. Officials from the latter have leaked virtually all the graphic details of the killing: that Khashoggi was dragged from one room to another; that the moment of his death was videotaped; that his corpse was hewn with a bone saw brought for the occasion. These details suggest a plan conceived and executed by professional slaughterers. But the details of this operation raise macabre practical questions. Why the bone saw, a piece of specialized surgical equipment? As a former butcher I can assure you that a saw from Home Depot will hack apart a mammal just as effectively, and is cheaper and much easier to explain. These official sources all portray the killing as cold-blooded (“like Pulp Fiction,” said one cinephile source), with every detail planned, to maximum psychopathic effect. Khashoggi had long-standing sympathies with the Muslim Brotherhood, which now finds its greatest support from Qatar and Turkey. Now those two governments have an effective wedge issue to divide the United States from Saudi Arabia, and extraordinary evidence that MbS is as sinister, and perhaps also as buffoonish, as Qaddafi or Saddam. This is the best week for Qatar and Turkey in some time.

So what happened? One possibility is that the Saudis lured Khashoggi into the consulate to kill him and dismember his corpse. Under this theory, consistent with the Turkish accounts, MbS is deranged. To carry out this assassination, he chose the one place in Istanbul where Saudi guilt would be universally acknowledged and undeniable. A drive-by shooting, or a car bomb, would not have sufficed. He killed Khashoggi to make an example of him, and without concern for the consequences.

Another possibility is that the Saudis merely (I use the adverb advisedly) intended to kidnap Khashoggi. They then botched the job and accidentally killed him. In this version of events, the Saudis would have informed Khashoggi that he was under arrest, and that his only choice would be to consent to transport to Saudi Arabia, to repent  publicly, and to submit to indefinite house arrest. If Khashoggi balked, he would be attacked, drugged, stuffed in a box, and brought to the airport as an unwilling passenger. In due time, after persuasion and coercion, Khashoggi would surface in Riyadh to admit his error.

A Reuters source, no more or less credible than the Turkish sources, claims that a plan to kidnap Khashoggi went awry. Like many anonymous rumors, this one comes without even basic elaboration. Did they shoot him as he tried to flee? Did he have a heart attack? Did they overdose him?

I asked Ronald W. Dworkin, a Maryland anesthesiologist and the author of Medical Catastrophe: Confessions of an Anesthesiologist, how to sedate and transport a large 59-year-old Saudi man against his will. I wish all physicians answered my questions so bluntly.

To drop Khashoggi to the floor in the first place, he said, would be easy. A big dose of ketamine—the club drug Special K, administered with the jab of a needle—would do the job. (There’s Pulp Fiction again.) Pediatric patients who threw tantrums on the way to the operating room, he said, used to get sedated unceremoniously in just such a fashion. Once he was out, they could give him an intravenous sedative, such as a benzodiazepine, and Khashoggi would be unconscious as long as they pleased.

But Dworkin cautioned that “it’s not like Mission: Impossible.” Once Khashoggi was out, they’d have to watch him closely. Crumpling him into a steamer trunk wouldn’t be enough. Judging by the shape of his head and neck, Dworkin says, Khashoggi would have required management and monitoring to keep him alive. His beard would complicate use of an oxygen mask. The operation of moving him would be “very tricky,” Dworkin says, “and require moment-to-moment attendance by someone with expertise in airway management. Without that, the patient would likely obstruct or stop breathing altogether, and die.” The Turks have released a list of passengers on the Saudi jets that came to Istanbul that day. At least one doctor was among them, but he was a specialist in forensic medicine, not anesthesiology.

At this point we are far out on a limb of speculation. But of the few scenarios that have even been suggested—planned execution, successful abduction, or failed abduction—only the third begins to account for the interests of the Saudis and their feckless reaction to the global outrage and recriminations at Khashoggi’s disappearance. Not all actions are rational, of course—but neither are all anonymous sources motivated solely by commitment to truth. All we really know is that Khashoggi walked in but not out, and that the Saudis sent a suspicious delegation to Istanbul on the day he vanished. Until the sources provide evidence to substantiate their accounts, speculation is all we’ll have.