'Now that red line is broken': Exiled journalist says the fate of Jamal Khashoggi sets a dangerous precedent
'If Jamal is fair game then people like us really don't have a choice'
Exiled veteran Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has not been seen since October 2nd.
That's when he walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to obtain documents for his planned marriage. Khashoggi has been living in exile for a little more than a year, and writing critically about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Turkish and U.S. officials say they believe he was killed inside the consulate. The Saudi government denies the allegation.
Exiled journalist Iyad el-Baghdadi is the creator and host of the Arab Tyrant Manual podcast. He tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury that he thinks Khashoggi's fate sends a disturbing message to dissidents everywhere.
Brent Bambury: You know Jamal Khashoggi. He was on your podcast recently and you've spoken to him since then. What are you remembering now about your final conversations with him, in light of what's happened?
Iyad el-Baghdadi: My last conversation with him was maybe two or three weeks before his disappearance. And he called me and he's like "we need to get active." But yeah, we did not really expect at all that he'd be in this situation.
Was there anything that he told you about his plans that made you think now, looking back at it, that he was doing something that could be dangerous to him and to his safety?
Well, yes and no. Yes because he wasn't just a writer. He wanted to organize a real Arab pro-democracy movement. Kind of like connect the dots and connect a lot of people through his incredible connections. And [be] someone who's connecting a network of disgruntled elites with a network of journalists with a network of funders and businessmen, to a network of activists. So he was a hub, really.
That idea of a pro-democracy movement being organized by somebody as well-connected as Mr. Khashoggi, how threatening do you think that would have been to the regime in Saudi Arabia?
Well, it's incredibly disconcerting for them. You know, not only because it is a pro-democracy movement but because Jamal was a moderate face. He was not a radical. And I truly believe that moderates are actually more dangerous to dictators like Mohammed bin Salman than radicals. Because radicals, you can dismiss them as being radical.
But the fact of the matter is that there is also a personal angle. Jamal was an insider. In fact on our podcast, we called him an insider's insider. There is a sense of betrayal here with the Saudi ruling elites, or at least with the higher echelons of power in Saudi Arabia, that "this is the guy who used to be our guy, he used to be the insider and he turned against us."
Yes, right. He worked for the royal family and then decided to start criticizing them. ... Did he understand the danger that he could have been in? Did he ever express worries to you about his safety?
As for the risk, we really did not expect such a drastic move as assassinations. And I came from those Gulf regimes and they don't do physical assassinations anymore. It's not like it's like the 1970s or 60s. They do character assassinations.
So we thought the worst thing that can happen is luring someone, giving them a false sense of security, telling them "hey come back, come back to Saudi Arabia. Nothing will happen to you." ... And then that person getting arrested. Because it actually happened to several people. In fact, we know for sure that Jamal did receive such offers. And, of course, he knew absolutely that was a trap. But as for something as drastic as an actual assassination in a consulate, I don't think anybody expected it.
Well you're talking about this as though you have evidence that he was killed in the consulate. I'm just curious what evidence you've heard? We know that is what some people believe, but we don't really have complete evidence of that at this point.
You're right, the evidence has not been revealed. To be honest we did not want to believe it. Initially we really thought that the worst-case scenario was definitely not murder, even after he disappeared. We thought that what had transpired is that he had been kind of renditioned or kidnapped and taken back to Saudi Arabia, where he would be put on trial or he would be maybe 'disappeared.'
And we thought that the reason why the Turkish authorities are not pushing so much or waiting to reveal more information, we thought it's because they're giving the Saudis a chance to bring him back. And then one day passes, two days pass, three days pass. And we think if the Saudis did have him, and he was alive they would try to refute the evidence by saying "hey, you know we have him, here's a video."
We got past the point where we can keep denying the fact that it looks like this has been a murder. I mean there are sources I cannot reveal, but it seems that the Turks and even American intelligence agencies have pretty airtight evidence that hasn't been revealed yet.
Jamal Khashoggi is a man who lived in the U.S. He was a U.S. resident, a well-known, well-connected person as you pointed out. He wrote for The Washington Post. If Saudi officials were in fact involved in his disappearance or his death, do you think that they think that they can get away with this or do you think that they've made a major miscalculation — that there was a mistake somewhere along the line?
As time goes on, we are very fearful that: what if they get away with it? What if this was actually calculated and this guy [Mohammed bin Salman] is a risk-taker rather than someone who's crazy or impulsive? [What if] he's actually taken the risk knowing that he can control the Trump reaction. He feels that he has Trump in his pocket and he has invested very heavily — through his friend, of course, Jared Kushner.
And so I'm really worried. I'm really worried that if Mohammed bin Salman gets away with this, then the precedent that would have been broken is so serious that it's going to make us all not only unsafe, but probably as activists living in exile — you know, if Jamal is fair game then people like us really don't have a choice if ever we earn the wrath of the authorities.
So in terms of dissidents, as the host of the Arab Tyrant Manual podcast, how worried are you right now about your security?
It's not that they're going to send out teams to every podcast host out there who's criticizing them. But it's just that if this passes, the way that we lead our lives as dissidents will have to change. There are certain things that we assumed will never happen to us. And now that red line is broken and we have to be hypervigilant.
The Crown Prince has spent the last year in what's been described as a 'charm offensive' in the West. I suppose you think that that ends now?
We truly hope so. I believe next week there's supposed to be this conference called 'The Future Investment Initiative' and a lot of these investors are supposed to show up in Riyadh. We hope that they pull out. We hope that this is the point where the business community breaks up with Mohammed bin Salman.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Iyad el-Baghdadi, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.