New details about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi have led to more questions than answers. One major revelation—that Egypt allegedly provided the Saudi hit squad with the lethal poison they used to kill Khashoggi, during a stopover in Cairo while en route to Istanbul—was recently reported by Michael Isikoff, the chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News, as part of the new season of his "Conspiracyland" podcast, on "The Secret Lives and Brutal Death of Jamal Khashoggi." The Egyptian connection is part of what Isikoff calls "the Saudi-Egyptian authoritarian nexus."
Isikoff is the chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News, where he is also editor at large for reporting and investigations. In his long reporting career, including as an investigative correspondent for NBC and a staff writer for Newsweek and The Washington Post, Isikoff has covered national security, money in politics, and much more. He is also the author of two best-selling books: Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story, and, with David Corn, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
In an interview with DAWN, Isikoff discusses what his reporting uncovered, including from the closed-door trial of Khashoggi's killers in Saudi Arabia, and what still isn't known about the murder. The Biden administration could have helped fill in some of these gaps, but instead it failed to make Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, "pay a price for what he had done," according to Isikoff.
After promising on the campaign trail to treat Saudi Arabia as an international "pariah," Joe Biden has instead followed the playbook of so many U.S. presidents before him, shielding an ally in Saudi Arabia that is directly at odds with America's stated commitment to democracy and human rights.
Isikoff's podcast series dives deeply into Khashoggi's life, long before he was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by the crown prince's henchmen. It also details just how far the Trump administration went to try and cover the murder up—and what remains in the dark today. "It's clear that we still don't have the full story," Isikoff says.
The following transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
DAWN: Since Jamal Khashoggi's death in October 2018, there has been a flurry of reporting about him, including at least two documentaries—"The Dissident" and "Kingdom of Silence"—many more TV segments, hundreds of news articles, and many more interviews. What prompted you to start working on this story?
For all the coverage that Jamal Khashoggi's brutal murder got—and all the political fallout—it was clear to me that there were still many unanswered questions about what happened, about why it happened, and the context in which it happened. Specifically, the sort of dysfunctional relationship—the dysfunctional alliance—between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which has had so many disruptions over the years and has created so many tensions over the years. And I thought it was important to try to pull together what was known and then do my own investigative reporting to see what more I could learn to address the many black boxes, both about Jamal's life and also what happened to him inside that consulate and why.
DAWN: What was the most challenging or unexpected part?
It is challenging when you're dealing with a closed society, such as Saudi Arabia, to get the kind of cooperation you would like. The Saudis were not forthcoming, did not grant me interviews, did not give me access to MBS himself or any of his principals, in which I could put key questions to them. But in spite of that, we were able to achieve some real breakthroughs. One of the big mysteries about this is the Saudis' own trial of the suspects.
This is Saudi justice, not Western justice. And the Saudis, under enormous international pressure, announce they are going to put the killers of Jamal Khashoggi on trial. And they have a trial that's closed to the press; no human rights monitors allowed to watch; no public record exists; no identification even of the names of the suspects who were being tried. It was a complete black hole. The Saudis announce they had this trial, and five individuals were convicted and sentenced to death—but nobody at any high level. Saud al-Qahtani, MBS' right-hand man, who met with the "Tiger Team" of assassins before they left for Istanbul, is not put on trial, is not convicted, is not, as far as we can tell, even questioned.
Yet—yet—we did have a key breakthrough. And that is, I discovered that Turkish Embassy observers were permitted to sit in on that trial, and they did take notes. They then sent those notes to Turkish prosecutors in Istanbul, who were conducting their separate trial in absentia of Khashoggi's killers. It turned out there was a wealth of details in those Turkish notes from the Saudi trial that had never been publicized, and had quite a bit of significant information. That's how we discovered that the Gulfstream jet that flew the Tiger Team of assassins from Riyadh to Istanbul on the morning of Oct. 2 made a late-night stop over in Cairo and picked up a lethal dose of illegal narcotics that was used to kill Khashoggi. A Saudi doctor from the Ministry of Interior, Dr. Salah Tubaigy, injects this lethal dose into Khashoggi's left arm, killing him within minutes. That was a significant piece of new information.
Where did the Saudi team get those narcotics from, and from whom? At a minimum, it points to other accomplices never identified before as having been essentially co-conspirators in this brutal murder. And given the close relationship between Saudi intelligence and Egyptian intelligence under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government, it raises a lot of questions about what the Egyptians might have known about what the Saudis were up to in assassinating the most prominent journalist in their country.
DAWN: If the Saudis didn't want to reveal what happened behind the scenes of killing Jamal, why did they have observers from the Turkish Embassy at the trial?
That's a very good question. It had been publicly reported that some foreign embassies were permitted to sit in on the trial, but that they would not be permitted to take notes. The Turks apparently did so anyway, perhaps in defiance of what the Saudis had ordered—we don't know. But the fact is they did, and that's where you see, in black and white, the statements from Saudi prosecutors based on confessions from the assassins, in which they lay out that they made the stop in Cairo for the purpose of picking up drugs that would be used to kill Jamal Khashoggi. And by the way, there's lots of other details in these Turkish notes that shed further light on what happened. In particular, the fact that Qahtani had met with the Tiger Team of assassins before they left for Istanbul, and that the on-the-ground leader of the Tiger Team, a Saudi intelligence officer named Maher Mutreb, had confessed to directing that Khashoggi be killed before he ever entered the consulate at all. It puts the lie to the original Saudi spin that somehow this was a tragic accident, or that he had died in a fistfight that blew up once he was in the consulate.
Of course, this is further supported by the details of [U.N. special rapporteur for extrajudicial killings] Agnès Callamard's report, in which she had access to the Turkish audio tapes from inside the consulate. It's clear Mutreb and Tubaigy are referring to Khashoggi as a sacrificial animal before he ever walks into the consulate. And they are discussing ways to carve up his body—further evidence, as though it were needed, that this was a pre-planned execution. It was not a tragic accident.
That raises the largest question of all, which is: If this was a planned execution by Saudi government operatives, who ultimately gave the OK for that? Who ultimately approved that as the mission? And that is a question to which we don't have a firm answer. There's certainly nothing in the Saudi trial that even addressed that question. But we do know what U.S. intelligence officials concluded, which is that this could not have been done without the approval of MBS himself.
DAWN: What do you think Egypt's interest was in getting involved, in supplying the drugs to the Saudi assassins? Was Egypt just doing Saudi Arabia and MBS' bidding, or did Sisi's regime also have some interest in seeing Khashoggi killed?
This is why Episode 4 in our series takes on new significance, because that is the episode that deals with the Arab Spring. It's called, "A Revolution Crushed." It's important to remember that Jamal Khashoggi was energized by the Arab Spring. He had been a loyal Saudi for many years. He had had unquestionably Islamist tendencies in his youth. He had gone to Afghanistan to champion the cause of the Mujahideen, led at that time by Osama bin Laden, a good friend of Jamal's. So he had a past that identified him very closely with the Islamist camp. But he undergoes an evolution in his thinking, and he becomes excited, energized by the Arab Spring, by the prospect of democracy and greater freedom of speech.
And where is the epicenter of the Arab Spring protests? It's in Cairo, Egypt, protesting the years-long authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak, who of course is ultimately forced to step down. An election is held, and the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Mohamed Morsi, comes to power, and the Saudis view this as a threat. As we lay out in that episode, the Saudis backed Sisi's military coup [in 2013]. They helped install him in power; they funded his government; they poured billions of dollars to strengthen and fortify Sisi's authoritarian rule in Egypt. This was devastating for Jamal Khashoggi. It was a case of his own government—the government that he had loyally supported for so many years—crushing a revolution that had inspired him and millions of others in the Middle East. So that's the context in which to look at the Saudi-Egyptian authoritarian nexus. The Sisi government owed a lot to the Saudi regime, and if the Saudi regime came asking for some help, even if they didn't know what the purpose of providing drugs to the Saudis was, they were almost certainly going to cooperate.
DAWN: You once met Jamal in Riyadh writing for Newsweek. What was your impression of Jamal then, and how has your work with the podcast affected that image of him since?
I did meet him in 2002. This was, of course, in the months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and I wanted to do a piece for Newsweek about the political culture in Saudi Arabia that would allow 15 of the 19 hijackers to be from Saudi Arabia—to address all the many questions about Saudi funding of terrorism over the years. I went, met with many people, and some government minders set up a meeting for me with a group of journalists in Riyadh at an outdoor restaurant. And as I say in the podcast, Jamal stood out. He was clearly the most prominent journalist there. He was solicitous, courteous, but what struck me is while others were trying to sort of spin me to present the Saudi perspective on this, Jamal was very focused on trying to figure out where I was coming from and what was I going to write for Newsweek. And I think that's a reflection of—he was still at that point, the loyal Saudi looking out for his country and trying to do some sort of intelligence as it were, about what might be coming down the pike from a major American new organization about his country. There was nothing nefarious about it, but it did strike me that he had a somewhat different mission than the other journalists that I was meeting with. That stood out and stuck with me.
I would like to say I stayed in touch with him over the years. I did not, but I followed his writings. I knew how important and prominent he was. And when he started to write his columns in The Washington Post with their sharp criticisms of MBS, I stood back and said, "Wow, this is really interesting." And I suspected it may not end well.
DAWN: Are there angles to this story that you would have liked to expand more?
There's a lot we deal with. This is an eight-episode series, and a big part of it is what we're able to learn about the murder itself. But it's also about Jamal's life, which is such an extraordinary and fascinating one. It goes through many different phases. He is, as David Ignatius, his good friend from The Washington Post said, a man of contradictions.
He was a man of peace, yet he first gets attention as a champion of the Mujahideen, of playing up the role of his then-good friend Osama bin Laden. He's photographed with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, holding a shoulder-held grenade launcher, smiling. He was one with the cause of fighting the Soviet infidels. Later, as he returns to journalism, he gets threatened because he is pushing the envelope of what you could publish and learns that there's a threat on his life—this is in 2003—from a powerful Saudi prince, then the interior minister, Prince Nayef. And what happens? He gets rescued by yet another Saudi prince, Turki bin Faisal, the former chief of Saudi intelligence, who hires him as his media adviser when he becomes the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom and then later to the United States. That was a move that saved Jamal's life perhaps, but also reinforced the impression of him as somebody who is inseparable from the Saudi regime. He was a spin doctor for a harsh, anti-democratic Saudi monarchy. No question about it.
He also, as we lay out, conducted what were in effect intelligence missions for Prince Turki, collecting information about Islamist networks in Europe. And that was a reason that so many Saudi dissidents were wary of Jamal throughout much of his life. But then there's the next phase of his life that I alluded to before, when he becomes energized by the Arab Spring—and, ultimately, becomes a forceful advocate for democratic freedoms and resistance to the harsh crackdowns of Mohammad bin Salman.
DAWN: Is it possible that, for the ruling elite in Saudi Arabia, that type of transformation made them fearful of Jamal's potential role in the future?
Because of his prominence, because he was so outspoken, because he was so well known in Saudi Arabia and in the West, there's no question MBS saw him as a threat. MBS' vision for his country was that he was going to be the change agent, but also the stern ruler: Nobody could navigate all the different factions within his country other than him. And, as a result, he was determined to rule his country with an iron hand. And, as we point out in Episode 5, Ben Rhodes, the former foreign policy adviser to President Obama, concluded early on—even as many others in the Obama administration were embracing MBS—that this is a guy with no guard rails, who believes he could do whatever he wants. That first pops up when he becomes the defense minister in 2015 and launches this barbaric war in Yemen. Saudi warplanes—bought from the United States, refueled by the United States, dropping cluster bombs from the United States—are slaughtering thousands of civilians in Yemen, creating this giant humanitarian crisis. This was a huge red flag for many in the U.S. government that MBS was going to act with impunity and not necessarily go along with what the United States wanted him to do.
But, of course, there was so much more over the years that unfolds: the Ritz-Carlton crackdown, the arrests of dissidents, the extensive and sweeping surveillance. And, by the way, I'll add one more beat to the surveillance story. In Episode 6, which is called "Influence Operations," we go into the Saudi plot to recruit spies inside the San Francisco headquarters of Twitter, to steal personal information, data, direct messages and IP addresses from Saudi critics on Twitter. The Saudis recruit these two spies. One of them gets paid up to $300,000 from a chunk of money routed through a Beirut bank account in the name of one of his relatives, all for the purpose of scooping up and basically stealing information from Twitter.
There's a pending Justice Department indictment in this case, as a criminal scheme of corporate espionage in the United States. Two Saudi spies are still facing that indictment, although one of them has fled the country back to Saudi Arabia. MBS is identified in the Justice Department indictment as "Saudi Royal Family Member-1." His personal secretary, a man by the name of Bader al-Asaker, is the guy that recruited the spies. He's referred to in the indictment as "Foreign Official-1." What we add to that, as if that were not enough, is the account from Saad al-Jabri, a top Saudi counterterrorism official who worked closely with the CIA, and who through his son, Khalid al-Jabri, passed along the fact that MBS not only was aware of this criminal scheme to steal information from an American company—he boasted about it. He said, "That was us. We did that. We have our guy at Twitter." That, if true, basically makes MBS a co-conspirator in a criminal plot indicted by the U.S. Justice Department.
DAWN: Why has the U.S. government been so hesitant to call MBS out—to call this all what it is—and hold MBS accountable?
That is a very important question. And the theme that runs through our entire series is the central role of arm sales in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. We trace it in Episode 2 from the very beginning, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt meets with King Ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal in the waning days of World War II, where they essentially forge that arms-for-oil bargain that has sustained the U.S.-Saudi relationship over the years.
You can take it right through to the days of Donald Trump. When you watch Trump's own interactions with the Saudis time and again, what does he come back to? It's all about the arm sales. When MBS comes to the White House, there is Trump holding up poster boards of all the big weapons deals that the Saudis have agreed to make. You'll see it when we release the last episode—Episode 8—how Trump basically knew that MBS had almost certainly ordered the operation that killed Khashoggi. John Bolton, his national security adviser at the time, says he could tell Trump accepted and assumed that the Saudi government at its highest levels had its fingerprints all over this murder, but he did not want to disrupt arm sales between the Saudis and the United States. And he said that publicly. "If we abandon Saudi Arabia, it will be a terrible mistake. They're buying hundreds of billions of dollars worth of things from this country." Trump made weapons deals front and center in the relationship. And that's, in the end, how he was able to—as he later told Bob Woodward—protect MBS. "I saved his ass."
But I should add that the Biden administration is not covered with glory in this story, either. Joe Biden, during the campaign, had said that he was going to make the Saudis pay a price for the Khashoggi murder. He would make them a "pariah." When the time came, he did release this skimpy report that at least pinned responsibility for the murder on MBS. But in terms of sanctions, in terms of travel bans, in terms of seizing assets, in terms of taking any steps that would have made the Saudis pay a price for what they had done, or MBS pay a price for what he had done, the Biden folks would not go there. And what was so striking to me in that story is just days—just days—before the U.S. intelligence community, under Biden's direction, releases that report that essentially accuses MBS of being a murderer, Lloyd Austin, Biden's secretary of defense, calls his counterpart in Riyadh, the Saudi defense minister—MBS himself—to, according to the Pentagon readout, reaffirm the strategic partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
DAWN: It seems, in many ways, the Trump connection has helped MBS consolidate power in the past few years, and that has continued during the Biden administration.
Certainly. There's no question that Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, was the principal interlocutor from within the Trump White House with MBS. When Trump takes his first foreign trip as president, he flies to Riyadh for a meeting with Saudi leaders, and MBS has a private dinner with Jared Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump. What's so interesting is at that time, MBS isn't even the crown prince. He's the deputy crown prince. Mohammed bin Nayef is the crown prince, but he's nowhere to be seen. He's not invited to that dinner, and he's barely seen in the summit at all. In and of itself, that sends a message that MBS was the guy this White House was focused on. He's the one they wanted to deal with in Saudi Arabia.
And, by the way, it wasn't just Kushner. One of the fascinating characters in our series is this guy Joseph Westphal, who was Obama's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and who talks about how he indeed saw MBS as the change agent he claimed to be. He talks about how he would go see MBS all the time and what a great sense of humor he had, and how they would laugh and joke around and share stories—they were just palsing around. When MBS comes to Washington in June of 2016, he's invited to a Ramadan dinner at the home of John Kerry, the secretary of state, and he wows the guests by sitting down at the grand piano and playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. I mean everybody's lavishing praise on this new, young reformer from Saudi Arabia, just ignoring all the red flags that were out there about his dark authoritarian impulses.
DAWN: Even with all the red flags, there's a period when some of the most prominent journalists in the U.S. portray this rosy picture of MBS ruling Saudi Arabia and welcome a new era in the kingdom. How much of that is a part of the influence operations that you lay out in Episode 6?
There were concerted influence operations throughout this period to promote MBS as a reformer, as a breath of fresh air. The Emiratis play a role in that. You have retired U.S. military intelligence officials who get lucrative consulting contracts in the Persian Gulf, who come back and tell their interlocutors what a great guy MBS is: He is the man of the future. A part of this was to pave the way for MBS to replace MBN—Mohammad bin Nayef—who was the preferred official in Saudi Arabia, particularly among U.S. intelligence officials. The campaign here was to portray MBS as the guy who should be the next king, who should be the crown prince instead.
And then that's followed by multiple other influence operations. Right after Donald Trump is elected, the Saudis immediately start buying up rooms at the Trump International Hotel [in Washington], flying in veterans from all over the country to get them to lobby Congress on their behalf without fully disclosing who's paying for it. The Saudis, within weeks of Trump's election, book 500 rooms at the new Trump International Hotel, funneling a quarter of a million dollars directly into the new president's business. That's one influence operation. The Twitter plot, of course, was another influence operation to identify critics, and basically infiltrate one of America's biggest social media companies.
DAWN: The Trump administration was very clear about its dealings with Saudi Arabia; it was very transactional. The Biden administration has made human rights a pillar of U.S. foreign policy, yet it still continues to act much like Trump did during his four years. What does that say about the U.S.? What type of message does that send to the rest of the world about America's seriousness when it comes to its core values?
Look, the U.S. has many strategic interests in the region, no question about that. And those strategic interests are often in tension with our values as a country—our democratic values, our belief in central human freedoms. And no country is more challenging in this respect than Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally that essentially shares none of our values about human rights, about democracy, about freedom of expression. How various administrations navigate that tension is a continuous issue over the years.
It goes back to the days of John F. Kennedy, when then-King Saud comes to the United States in 1962. He's recovering from medical surgery, and he meets with Kennedy at the White House. Kennedy says all the nice things about the importance of maintaining the relationship with Saudi Arabia. But Kennedy has a problem with the Saudis, which he then expresses to then-Crown Prince Faisal, who comes shortly after that, and this is that the Saudis still practice slavery. Slavery was legal inside Saudi Arabia as late as the 1960s—over 100,000 slaves, most of them Black Africans who had been trafficked to Saudi princes. And Kennedy brings this up and says, "I need you to do something about this. You cannot continue to condone and practice slavery in your country."
Kennedy has his own political reasons for this. He's under pressure to have a civil rights bill at home, restoring justice and equality for African Americans, and he's also waging a Cold War around the world that's often cast as a clash between Western freedom and Soviet slavery. And yet here's an American ally that openly practices slavery. The point here is this is a case when human rights was put front and center in the relationship. And once Kennedy laid it out to Faisal, the crown prince agreed that they would put an end to slavery in the country. It's a fascinating snapshot of how these tensions between strategic interests and human rights play out over the years.
DAWN: You detail how Kushner and MBS were exchanging hundreds of WhatsApp messages. Is there any indication that before Khashoggi's murder, the Trump administration was aware of MBS' plans to kill him?
I know that has been speculated about, but I have not seen any hard evidence that the U.S. government knew what the Saudis were planning at this standpoint.
DAWN: One of the chilling moments in the first episode is about a call Jamal receives from Saud al-Qahtani. He delivers a message from Mohammed bin Salman, and this seems to be a very crucial moment that could change Jamal's life and fate. What does that conversation say about the type of person Jamal was?
That is an absolutely fascinating episode in this. Jamal has moved to the United States, he's living in exile, he's formed friendships with all sorts of new friends who are democratic activists. Somebody who comes up quite a bit in the podcast is Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American human rights activist imprisoned by the Sisi regime, and then ultimately released under U.S. pressure. He and Jamal would go out to their favorite Persian restaurant in northern Virginia. And one day, while they're doing so, Jamal gets a DM on his Twitter from Saud al-Qahtani. And, as Soltan relates it, he's scared. Why is Qahtani messaging him? Qahtani is the one who told him to shut up, to stop tweeting, to stop criticizing the crown prince.
Jamal at one point had posted a positive tweet when MBS announced he was lifting the ban on women driving. So when Jamal finally gets on the phone with Qahtani, Qahtani is thanking him for that tweet. And what does Jamal do? He says, "I appreciate that, but I must bring up the fact that MBS has just thrown in prison a bunch of political dissidents," one of whom was a good friend of Jamal's, and that this was wrong. He starts naming the dissidents who have been thrown into prison.
Mohamed Soltan has been listening to this whole conversation. He says Jamal's hands were shaking as he had this call with Saud al-Qahtani, but even when he was being offered an olive branch as it were, he stands on principle and brings up what's important to him—and that is putting an end to MBS' authoritarian crackdowns on any and all forms of dissent. And to Mohamed Soltan, that's when he judged the full measure of the man. That's when he realized that Jamal, for all the baggage he had and all the warnings that people had given him about Jamal over the years as essentially a mouthpiece for the Saudi regime, that there was more to him and he was essentially a work in progress, as it were. And that progress was to speak out and stand on principle for greater democratic freedoms.
DAWN: At this point, it seems that Jamal had no hope that working with the establishment, with the Saudi government, would work at all.
I don't know that he ever gave up hope that somehow he could return to the fold, that he could return to his country, that he could play a role in helping to shape Saudi Arabia and its future. Even as late as September of 2017, he proposes setting up a think tank inside the United States that was designed to counter negative stories about Saudi Arabia. Jamal's a guy with different, conflicting impulses. He stood on principle, yet he wanted to be a player in his country. He wanted to help shape his country's future. And he thought that if he was inside the tent, he would have greater ability to do that. His evolution goes through many twists and turns along the way. It's really not until he starts writing those columns in The Washington Post, later that year, that he makes that final and irreparable break.
DAWN: Is there still information out there about Jamal's murder that would surprise us if made public, either from U.S. intelligence or the Turkish government?
Well, first of all, as much as we've been able to learn in the course of reporting this podcast and as much as there has been great investigative reporting by many journalists over the last few years, it's clear that we still don't have the full story. We still don't know precisely how the order came down to kill Khashoggi, and what the final decision-making process was, if that's what it was. And there's the black hole of the Saudi trial, in which nobody senior is questioned. None of the people who were convicted are asked, "Who are you taking your orders from? Who told you, Maher Mutreb, it was OK to kill Khashoggi? Who did you consult with before you did that? What did you tell Saud al-Qahtani about this? What did you say to the crown prince, himself?"
These are all outstanding questions, and it's clear that there's more to learn.