Jamal Khashoggi's Murder Remains a Mystery

The conventional account leaves major questions unanswered.

A demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of Jamal Khashoggi.
Osman Orsal / Reuters

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi is not a game of Clue, but it often resembles one. Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, in the annex, with a syringe. Or was it Salah al-Tubaigy, in the consul’s office, with a bone saw? About three months have passed since Khashoggi walked into the consulate in Istanbul, and nearly as much time has passed since Saudi Arabia confirmed—after a period of flailing attempts at denial—that its agents had killed him there shortly after he arrived. Souad Mekhennet and Greg Miller, writing in The Washington Post (where Khashoggi was a contributing writer), recently offered further details, purporting to exclude one possibility: that the Saudis killed Khashoggi in a botched rendition, a kidnapping gone wrong. According to their account, and it is the one that has been most widely accepted, the assassins downed Khashoggi with an injection of sedatives and immediately set to work dismembering him and hiding his remains.

The Saudis have ceased offering new versions of their own account of these events. But The Washington Post’s reporting raises many macabre questions:

  • Why kill him in the consulatethe one place in Istanbul where Saudi culpability would be undeniable? Istanbul is a big city, and Khashoggi lived there openly and without security. I met up with him in London not long before his assassination, and when we had breakfast, he sat with his back to the street, in an open café. To slay him with a bullet to the head would have been simple, speedy, and deniable. Many other options exist. Consider the lengthy menu of deniable assassination techniques apparently used by Russia in Ukraine, England, and elsewhere.
  • Why kill him with sedatives? “The Saudi team brought a syringe packed with enough sedative to be lethal,” according to the Post. Assassins have used many weapons, ranging from firearms to a ricin pellet embedded in the tip of an umbrella. You can guess the advantages of each weapon. A syringe of sedatives is, by any measure, a peculiar choice. Sedatives are not reliable killers, unlike, say, cyanide. But why get pharmacological at all? Evidently the integrity of Khashoggi’s body was not a major concern, so why not just shoot him in the head, strangle him, or stab him in the heart?
  • Why deploy a team of more than a dozen easily recognized Saudi operatives? A kill mission, especially one in a location of the assassins’ choice, does not require a team of that size, and indeed is more secure with fewer people. Instead of sending in two jets loaded with security personnel, why not fly in three or four killers on Turkish Airlines, traveling separately and using false identities?

Some have suggested that the whole point of the operation was to intimidate other dissidents, and that the assassination was a “noisy” one, conducted at the consulate to demonstrate the Saudis’ willingness to kill anyone, anywhere. That hypothesis prompts still other questions:

  • Why bring in a Jamal Khashoggi look-alike? Among the most ludicrous details of this whole stupid plot is that the Saudis seem to have brought in a Khashoggi double, dressed him in the real Khashoggi’s clothes, and sent him from the consulate to blend into crowds, as if the real Khashoggi had left the consulate alive. (In a further touch of incompetence, reminiscent of a Coen brothers’ film, the double wore his own shoes instead of the victim’s.) The easiest explanation for this premeditated act of subterfuge is that the assassins did not want anyone to know that Khashoggi was in the hands of the Saudis, either dead or kidnapped.
  • Why was Saudi Arabia so ill-prepared for Khashoggi’s death? One might expect a killer to profess shock at the death of his victim. The Saudis’ response was pathetically clumsy, far in excess of what would be necessary to convey genuine shock. The crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, gave denials that directly contradicted his own government’s official admissions just days later. His brother, the ambassador to the United States, did the same, burning all credibility and perhaps requiring his imminent replacement in that role. In the unrefereed cage match of international diplomacy, Saudi Arabia has spent most of the past few months being thrashed mercilessly by its rival Turkey. Saudi is more isolated than before in its cold war with Iran and Qatar. The assassination has caused a rift with the United States larger than any in the past 40 years. No one thinks the Saudis have chosen this disaster, or indeed prepared themselves for it.

According to multiple anonymous reports, the assassination began with a threat. One of the assassins “informed Khashoggi that he was going back to Saudi Arabia,” write Mekhennet and Miller. Even if the speaker implied “… in multiple Samsonite suitcases,” this is an odd way to begin an assassination, but a sensible way to tell your victim that he can come home the easy way or the hard way. A scuffle ensues. Khashoggi loses consciousness and dies—possibly of asphyxia from mismanaged anesthesia, possibly of blood loss after having his limbs sawed off.

Both scenarios—murder and botched rendition—end the same way, with Khashoggi dead. (Neither should inspire any pity for the Saudis. If you kill someone in your consulate, even by accident, you own the consequences.) One advantage to the “botched rendition” scenario is that it would answer all the questions above. You can’t render someone from a café; you need a setting over which you have total control. Sedatives are an odd way to kill someone, but they are the only way to bring him home alive against his will. You need a large team, perhaps including a jet configured for a medical flight, to render someone.

In the months before Khashoggi’s murder, rumors were circulating about his desire to return to Riyadh. I do not know whether the rumors were true, although he himself told me expatriate life had left him lonely and homesick. If the rendition theory is correct, I suspect the body double was intended to buy the Saudis enough time and deniability to allow the real Khashoggi to appear in Riyadh and announce that he had returned to the kingdom and resumed total loyalty to the king and crown prince.

That the Khashoggi murder might have been a botched rendition remains an unpopular opinion, and contrary to the growing perception of the crown prince as brash and incapable of considering even the fairly obvious concerns outlined above. It is possible that the assassination of Khashoggi proceeded exactly as the conventional account has it. But I have not heard any of those who believe the operation went as intended explain these lingering mysteries. Keep asking these questions. Any story about the killing that doesn’t answer them is incomplete.