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What Did Erdogan Know About the Khashoggi Murder Plot?

A closer look reveals that Turkish intel heard the Saudi plotters days before the journalist's grisly death.
erdogan khashoggi

As the world marks the anniversary of an infamous murder, Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan has taken to the compliant editorial pages of The Washington Post to advertise his ongoing outrage.

“The murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi was arguably the most influential and controversial incident of the 21st century, barring the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks,” he charges to his American audience. “In the wake of Khashoggi’s demise, my administration adopted a policy of transparency.” 

Mark the words “in the wake of,” and consider what the effect of a little more transparency before Khashoggi’s demise might have been. 

Just to recollect, one year ago, a team of Saudi agents, almost certainly acting on the direct orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, lured dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where they immediately murdered him and chopped up his body into small pieces for surreptitious disposal. Confident that the crime would remain a secret, the Saudis initially affected innocence. “We have nothing to hide,” bin Salman told Bloomberg the day after the killing, adding that the Turks were welcome to search the consulate.  

But within days, Erdogan’s press aide Fahrettin Altun, considered Turkey’s “second most powerful man,” began leaking the details of what had actually happened. Initially, the information was vague. On October 6, for example, three days after the murder, the New York Times reported that “Turkish investigators believe a well-known Saudi dissident was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, five people involved in the investigation, or briefed on it, said on Saturday.”  

Three days later, this suggestion had hardened to “[an] official described a quick and complex operation in which Mr. Khashoggi was killed within two hours of his arrival at the consulate by a team of Saudi agents, who dismembered his body with a bone saw they brought for the purpose. ‘It is like ‘Pulp Fiction,’ the official said.” 

The bylined reporters, David Kirkpatrick and Carlotta Gall, felt constrained to add, “It remains unclear how the Turkish government determined that Mr. Khashoggi had been killed.”   

As international outrage over alleged Saudi behavior mounted, Donald Trump, the ultimate target of the Turkish leak campaign, reacted, saying on October 15 that Turkey was being “tough, very tough.” Clearly, Erdogan saw an opening in which to force a break between Trump and MBS by reducing the feckless Saudi’s name to mud in Washington. (The two Islamic leaders are bitter rivals in the battle for influence in the Middle East.)

Two days later, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo paid a hurried visit to Istanbul just as the Times relayed another damning leak: not only had Khashoggi been chopped up, the Turks had irrefutable proof in the form of audio recordings from bugs inside the consulate, which they obligingly played for CIA chief Gina Haspel (she knows Turkey well, having previously served there in an undercover role).

Erdogan then upped the ante, demanding that the Saudi government “lay bare all perpetrators from top to bottom and hold them accountable before the law” and for the “execution team” to be extradited to Turkey. As Bulent Alireza of the Center for Strategic and International Studies explained, Erdogan’s goal was “to try to force the Trump administration, which had been backing MBS without any apparent reservation prior to the murder as a key partner in its Middle East plans, to review its relationship with him. Lacking significant direct leverage over Riyadh, Erdogan hoped to induce pressure by Trump—inconceivable before Khashoggi’s murder—to either force MBS out or to weaken him into ineffectiveness.”

But despite the proof furnished by the recordings, Trump still stuck by his Saudi friends, who, as he would later declare, “pay in cash.”  

However, a review of the copious leaks makes one thing clear: Erdogan himself may very well have been just as guilty of the monstrous crime of Khashoggi’s murder as Mohammed bin Salman and his team of killers. As is evident from the now extensive record of leaked recording transcripts, Turkish security followed the planning, as well as the execution, of Khashoggi’s murder over the course of several days—almost certainly in real time.

Following Khashoggi’s first visit to the consulate on September 28 to request legal documents in connection with his divorce, officials there discussed a “top secret mission” with senior security officials close to the prince’s office in Riyadh. Such discussions continued until October 2. On that day, the hidden microphones picked up the murder team discussing the mechanics of dismembering the soon-to-be victim. At the end of the conversation, one of them asks whether the “animal to be sacrificed” has arrived. At 1:14 p.m., another member of the hit squad says, “[he] is here.” The last minutes of Khashoggi’s life are then chillingly replayed.

Given Khashoggi’s prominence as a journalist and close relations with the Turkish regime at its highest levels, the operative question is surely: what did Erdogan know about the murder plan and when did he know it? If Turkish intelligence was keeping him informed, why was Khashoggi allowed to be “sacrificed?” Could it be that the Turks might have prevented this grisly nightmare but chose not to for geopolitical purposes? 

If so, as one close observer of these events said to me, “How cynical is that?”

Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author of five nonfiction books, including Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (2016). He has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Playboy, Vanity Fair, and National Geographic, among other publications.