On October 2, Saudi national and U.S. green-card holder Jamal Khashoggi reportedly walked into the Saudi consulate to resolve issues related to his marital status. Through anonymous leaks to the press, Turkish sources claim he did not leave the diplomatic facility alive. More anonymous sources claim he was tortured and murdered, allegations repeated in the U.S. press without evidence.
It is possible that the circumstances around Khashoggi’s disappearance will soon come to light. However, it’s equally likely that the passage of time will only further obscure events. To cast some light on the issue, I thought it was worthwhile asking what seem to me the central questions.
1. Is There Evidence Khashoggi Was Murdered?
Turkish sources say there is. The U.S. press has reported that unnamed Turkish officials have told them—or unnamed second-hand Turkish sources had told them—they have evidence, audio and video, that a team of Saudi officials detained, tortured, and killed Khashoggi.
However, no reporters, neither Western nor Turkish, have seen that evidence. If it exists, the Turks have not made it public. In one of the few leaks from the U.S. government, an intelligence official told CNN there is no hard evidence as to whether Khashoggi is dead or alive.
2. Why Has Turkey Asked Saudi Arabia to Join Its Khashoggi Investigative Team?
According to press reports, the government in Ankara has asked Riyadh to help investigate what happened to Khashoggi. The Turkish foreign minister recently complained that the “[Saudis] aren’t cooperating in full extent to uncover the circumstances of Khashoggi’s disappearance. We would like to see a genuine cooperation from them.”
This makes no sense. If Saudi Arabia is suspected of abducting or killing Khashoggi, its involvement in the investigation would compromise the probe, even giving a potential suspect opportunity to tamper with evidence. Further, if there is audio and video evidence that a Saudi team killed Khashoggi, as Turkish and U.S. media report, there is no need for an investigation—the case has already been solved.
The Turks’ two irreconcilable diplomatic tracks—official channels offering Saudi a role in the investigation while unnamed sources accuse it of murder—suggest that Ankara is negotiating with Riyadh. It’s unclear what the terms are.
3. Are Internal Turkish Issues a Factor in the Khashoggi Affair?
Because the Turkish figures and officials leaking to the press are anonymous, it’s not clear if, or to what extent, they represent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Could the sources be hostile to Erdogan?
Two years ago, his opponents attempted to overthrow him, leaving hundreds of Turks dead. Erdogan responded by rounding up followers of the former ally he blames for the coup, Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who has lived in Pennsylvania for nearly two decades. Gulen, like Khashoggi, has a green card, reportedly facilitated by CIA officials.
Presumably, Erdogan has mostly rid his police force of the Gulenists who once dominated it. However, some sources identifying as police are challenging pieces of evidence that the Ankara government is using to illustrate Saudi guilt.
The discipline shown in the messaging campaign—accuse Riyadh through leaks and reveal nothing in public—suggests Erdogan is managing the Khashoggi file directly. However, his overall management of the crisis may make him vulnerable, again, to domestic rivals.