Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi became a figure of global importance when he disappeared on October 2 after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, leading to allegations that agents from Saudi Arabia lured him to the consulate so they could murder him.
Khashoggi has a long career as both a writer and political activist, but accounts of his disappearance usually refer to him as simply a “journalist.” Following are some details of his background:
Khashoggi was a Saudi national and lawful permanent resident of the U.S.: He was born in Medina, Saudi Arabia, 59 years ago and was educated in Saudi Arabia before traveling to the United States and earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Indiana State University.
According to an article his Turkish fiancée Hatice Cengiz wrote for the Washington Post a week after his disappearance, he recently spent a year in “self-imposed exile in the United States” and planned to divide his time between Washington and Istanbul while he worked on his career as a writer. Cengiz said Khashoggi had applied for full U.S. citizenship. At the time of his disappearance, he was a lawful permanent resident of the United States — in more common parlance, he had a “green card.”
He had some famous relatives and big connections in the Saudi elite: Jamal Khashoggi’s uncle was Adnan Khashoggi, the arms dealer of Iran-Contra fame, who died in 2017 at the age of 81. Adnan Khashoggi was, at one point, the personal physician to the first monarch of the modern Saudi line, King Ibn Saud. At the height of his fame, he was widely but incorrectly hailed as the “richest man in the world.”
Jamal Khashoggi’s cousin Dodi al-Fayed became posthumously famous as the boyfriend of England’s Princess Diana, dying along with her in a car crash in 1997.
Khashoggi was at one time a supporter of the Saudi royal family. According to the UK Independent, last year he looked up a Saudi expatriate who had been his anti-regime sparring partner on numerous talking-head shows and said he was wrong to have defended the monarchy for so long.
In his younger days, Khashoggi traveled with then-King Abdullah, befriended billionaire investment mogul Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, and worked as an adviser for Prince Turki al-Faisal, who served as head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom. Prince Alwaleed was among the highest-profile Saudi royals detained in a hotel during Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on corruption and/or consolidation of power in early 2018.
He had long experience in media: Khashoggi wrote for numerous publications in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, including the Saudi Gazette. He held some of these positions while largely supportive of the government in Riyadh and others after he became critical of the leadership.
In 2003, he became editor of a reform-minded Saudi paper called Al Watan, which fired him only two months later because he published articles and cartoons critical of senior clerics, who complained to the Interior Ministry that he was undermining their authority. He returned to Al Watan in 2007 and served as editor for three years, and he resigned after publishing an opinion piece critical of fundamentalist Salafi Islam.
In 2015, after five years of planning with Prince Alwaleed, Khashoggi launched the independent Al-Arab News Channel from Bahrain. It lasted less than 24 hours before the Bahraini monarchy shut it down supposedly because the network violated Gulf Cooperation Council media guidelines by airing an interview with an opposition leader. The Al-Arab News Channel eventually resumed operations but was shut down permanently in early 2017.
Khashoggi has been a regular contributor to the Global Opinions section of the Washington Post since 2017.
He interviewed and traveled with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan: The interview that made Khashoggi’s career was with Osama bin Laden, who personally invited the young journalist to cover resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The nature of Khashoggi’s relationship with bin Laden is one of the most hotly debated aspects of his complex past. Khashoggi’s admirers say he was simply covering an important leader in a resistance movement against Soviet imperialism that was, after all, supported by the United States, and he was disgusted with bin Laden for mutating the successful mujahideen resistance against the Russians into the worldwide horror of al-Qaeda.
Khashoggi is said to have pleaded with bin Laden to turn away from terrorism in the 1990s and, in 2002, described the 9/11 atrocity as an attack on “the values of tolerance and coexistence that Islam preaches,” as well as an attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
“I collapsed crying a while ago, heartbroken for you,” he wrote to the spirit of Osama bin Laden after the latter was killed in 2011 by U.S. special forces. “You were beautiful and brave in those beautiful days in Afghanistan before you surrendered to hatred and passion.”
Khashoggi’s critics see him as either star-struck by the mystique of the Afghan resistance fighters or much too comfortable with the Islamist goals of al-Qaeda, breaking with bin Laden primarily because he thought the terrorist leader’s approach was too aggressive. Khashoggi did not fly out to Afghanistan for a quick interview with bin Laden; he spent a great deal of time with the founders of al-Qaeda and could not plausibly have been blind to their emerging ideology.
He was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and supports Hamas: A great deal of the increasingly partisan argument in the U.S. over Khashoggi’s past boils down to how much credit to give him for apparently changing his mind about people like Osama bin Laden and organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood.
He unquestionably saw himself as a member of the Brotherhood in his youth; it was one of the reasons he secured the bin Laden interview. The friendly interpretation of his history is that he and the Muslim Brotherhood both changed over time.
Although left-wingers are treating mentions of Khashoggi’s past with the Brotherhood as a “smear” or “hate crime,” Khashoggi himself wrote in defense of the organization only a few months ago. He said the U.S. has an unhealthy and irrational “aversion” to the Muslim Brotherhood, which he portrayed as the true force of democracy in the Arab world and the only antidote to “authoritarian and corrupt regimes.”
Khashoggi castigated the United States for accepting the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi in Egypt and strongly supported “political Islam,” which he saw the Brotherhood as embodying. In his view, authoritarian regimes desperate to stifle democracy prodded American policymakers into opposing the Muslim Brotherhood, allowing them to retain their power and keep corrupt income streams flowing.
“There can be no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is a part of it. A significant number of citizens in any given Arab country will give their vote to Islamic political parties if some form of democracy is allowed,” he wrote.
In recent years, Khashoggi has allegedly supported the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas, presenting its cause as a battle against sinister Israel that all Arabs are obliged to support.
The New York Times admitted in a largely admiring October 14 profile that Khashoggi’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood at the time of his disappearance was “ambiguous.” The overall tenor of the profile was that support for “political Islam” is not inherently unreasonable and Khashoggi spent the latter decades of his life making a strong effort to avoid extremism. The term almost invariably used to describe his beliefs by those favorably disposed to him is “complicated.”
To simplify them somewhat, he believed in Islamic political supremacy and thought only a properly managed religious government could be honest, but he appeared aware his preferred political model could easily slip into the hands of extremists. He was inclined to support the legitimacy of governments that allowed democratic representation, even if their duly-enacted policies were repressive by Western standards, and challenge the legitimacy of those which did not — a comparison most clear in his writings about Egypt and his native Saudi Arabia.
He was an implacable critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS): Khashoggi’s last few years were dominated by his antipathy to the government of Saudi Arabia after Mohammed bin Salman was elevated to Crown Prince.
His work with Prince Turki al-Faisal and closeness to Prince Alwaleed bin Talal aligned him with a faction of the royal family he saw as moderates. They lost power and influence with Crown Prince Mohammed’s rise.
Among other complaints, he saw the already tenuous freedom of the press in Saudi Arabia disintegrating almost completely when MBS took power and left Saudi Arabia in 2017 for his safety. “I was under the risk of either being banned from travel, which would be suffocating, or being physically arrested, just like many of my colleagues,” he told the Colombia Journalism Review in March.
Khashoggi saw MBS as paranoid, obsessed with eliminating all challenges to his power, and more authoritarian than imposing an ambitious reform agenda on traditionalist Saudi Arabia could possibly require. As he noted to the Colombia Journalism Review, he was a longtime supporter of many of the reforms MBS implemented and had been fired on more than one occasion for advocating them.
Khashoggi was especially critical of Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen and the strange treatment of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was effectively summoned to Saudi Arabia, imprisoned, and forced to resign, precipitating a regional political crisis. Khashoggi was highly skeptical of the Trump administration’s embrace of the crown prince and has said he was “ordered silent” by the Saudi monarchy after criticizing President-Elect Donald Trump shortly after the 2016 election.
He was politically active: Some of the objections to classifying Khashoggi as simply a “journalist” concern his ongoing political activism. The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Khalid bin Salman, said last week that Khashoggi retained many active contacts in the Kingdom and was still in regular contact with him personally. Prince Khalid returned to Saudi Arabia shortly after those remarks and evidently will not return to his post in Washington.
At the time of his disappearance, Khashoggi was working on launching a non-governmental organization called Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). The Daily Beast described this group’s charter as an expression of Khashoggi’s Islamist philosophy, offering “a counter-narrative in the Arab world and the West to Arab Spring skeptics” and endorsing free elections even if they “result in some governments that are less favorable to U.S. interests.”
The Washington Post was said to be aware Khashoggi was raising funds for this group and intended to serve as its leader and was confident he would be fully “transparent with readers about these efforts as they progressed.”
Former Wall Street Journal publisher Karen Elliott House speculated DAWN was the reason Saudi agents may have taken action against Khashoggi, perceiving the organization as “funded by Saudi regional rivals” and essentially pushing a Muslim Brotherhood vision of the Arab Spring inimical to the Saudi government.
“Democracy is currently being slaughtered everywhere. He wanted to alert Western public opinion to the dangers of remaining silent in the face of the assassination of democracy. The Muslim Brothers and Islamists were the biggest victims of the foiled Arab spring,” Khashoggi’s friend Azzam Tamimi told the Associated Press last week.
Tamimi said he and Khashoggi created a similar organization in 1992 called Friends of Democracy in Algeria, intended to push back against the government of that country after it nullified an “imminent Islamist victory” in an election.
The Associated Press forgot to mention that the thwarted Islamists in that election went on a massive killing spree that left the streets filled with bloody corpses. The goal of the Islamic Salvation Front was to turn Algeria into a fundamentalist Islamic republic. Its descendant organization, the Islamic Salvation Army, is allied with al-Qaeda in Syria.
Conclusion: The problem with taking the full measure of Jamal Khashoggi’s writing and political careers is that everything in the Middle East is “complicated.” Idealistic organizations are often linked to brutal extremist groups and aspiring fundamentalist tyrants, with the strength of those links hotly debated by observers within and beyond the region.
The dimmest view of Khashoggi’s history is that he was a public-relations man for the Muslim Brotherhood and perhaps even al-Qaeda; the brightest view is that he truly believed democracy was more important than almost anything else to Arab nations, the necessary precursor to all other benevolent reforms, and stable democracy in the Middle East is impossible without making room for political Islam.
Khashoggi’s view of the Arab Spring and his plans for a political organization are the mirror image of the theory that authoritarian means, as practiced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, must be employed to impose liberal reforms on Islamist countries in order to create the cultural conditions necessary for democracy to flourish. If Khashoggi has been murdered, his death will be the latest bloody milestone in an ideological battle that is far from over.