Saudi Arabia: Four years after orchestrating the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Crown Prince’s predator-in-chief Saud al-Qahtani remains protected and free
Four years after the brutal assassination of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi, none of the 26 men implicated in his murder have faced any real punishment. The man accused of leading them, Saud al-Qahtani, never even stood trial. Away from the public eye since 2019, the former royal advisor’s name has made a recent comeback within the Kingdom’s social media networks, amid reports hinting at his imminent return to the heart of government: a government now officially headed by none other than Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman himself.
“Since Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination in 2018 and the subsequent botched trials of his killers in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, it has become clear that no accountability will be achieved in these countries,” denounces the Middle East Desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “Other prosecution and accountability mechanisms are more urgent than ever. This is why RSF is pursuing new avenues of legal recourse in other jurisdictions, to ensure justice for Khashoggi but also a clear signal that impunity for such heinous crimes against journalists will not be tolerated anywhere.”
“Bring me the head of the dog.” With these words spoken over Skype, Saud al-Qahtani is said to have ordered the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, on 2 October, 2018.
Once the details of the crime started emerging to the public in 2018, al-Qahtani’s name found infamy as that of the man who planned and organised the hit job. The Human Rights Council report by Special Rapporteur Agnès Callamard, claimed al-Qahtani’s “communication office” had also likely been informed of Khashoggi’s planned visit to the consulate on 2 October. Despite the incriminating information, the Saudi government claimed not to have found enough evidence to charge al-Qahtani. Once the key advisor of Mohamed Bin Salman, al-Qahtani never even stood trial.
He is believed to have led the 15 men who participated in detaining and killing the Washington Post columnist at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, as well as subsequently covering up the crime. The kill crew, which included a chief of the operation, an autopsy expert, a body double, and various other men directly linked to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s security detail, was known as the “tiger squad;” a specialised group that conducted sensitive operations on behalf of the crown prince beyond the borders of the kingdom. The US Department of Treasury described al-Qahtani as a senior official “who was part of the planning and execution of the operation that led to the killing of Mr Khashoggi.”
Even before that operation, al-Qahtani had quite the reputation within the Kingdom. He managed Saudi Arabia’s image online and was known among critics as “Mr Hashtag” or “Lord of the Flies,” both nicknames in reference to his control over a Twitter mob that diffused the state’s informal political positions. He also led the attacks of those who criticised or dared question the Crown Prince’s policies, including Khashoggi, but is also reported to have had a hand in various other events that have brought infamy to the Crown Prince, including the Ritz Carlton arrests of 2017, the detention and torture of women’s rights activist Loujain Hathoul, and the kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Before he was royal advisor, al-Qahtani was a poet who wrote odes on twitter praising the monarchy under his pseudonym, al Dari; an Arabic word that roughly translates into “the predator.”
The disappearance act
After news of his involvement in the killing went public- al-Qahtani disappeared from the public eye. He was deposed from his job as royal advisor in early 2019 and fell off the grid. Since then, al-Qahtani has not appeared publicly. His Twitter account went quiet and was then suspended in September 2019. The radio silence from an otherwise ever-present and influential political figure led many to speculate that his government had killed him to cover up the crime. Soon after however, on 23 December 2019, Saudi Deputy Public Prosecutor and spokesman Shalaan al-Shalaan said that al-Qahtani had been investigated but was not charged, and that he had been released.
In 2022, a report in The Guardian revealed that he was sighted, for the first time in years, at the royal courts. “He looks very nervous, almost paranoid,” one official who has seen al-Qahtani told the Guardian, “he is still trying to keep a low profile.” These sightings happened around the same time that a swarm of tweets and social media posts praised the former leader. “The sword of the state, it’s supporter, it’s man,” said one user that tweeted a photo of him. “Saud al-Qahtani is an honorable Saudi symbol,” says another account. “He served his country, his king, and the Crown Prince with loyalty and grace.” Experts believe the tweets are part of an organised campaign aimed at setting the groundwork for the former advisor’s return into government.
Saudi authorities' decision not to try al-Qahtani in 2019 was likely due to his proximity to Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman who “approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” according to the CIA report declassified by President Biden’s administration in 2021.
Immunity or Justice
Though the White House accused the Saudi heir of approving the operation, it stopped short of sanctioning him, favoring to safeguard a healthy relationship with the Kingdom, its “strategic partner.” However, the Biden administration has an upcoming chance to hold the Crown Prince accountable: On 3 October 2022, one day after the anniversary, the US State Department is expected to inform a court about whether it thinks the Crown Prince should be granted immunity in the civil lawsuit filed against him in the US by the fiancée of the late journalist, Hatice Cengiz.
“I have faith in the American judiciary,” says Cengiz to RSF. “This is a pivotal case, and the US should affirm its sovereignty when it comes to human rights. Those who killed Jamal Khashoggi cannot keep acting with impunity and endangering everyone around them.”
In anticipation of the deadline, the Kingdom has named the Crown Prince the country’s Prime Minister as well, a move likely to shield him from the federal lawsuit. If Cengiz’s hopes are met with pessimism, it’s only because realpolitik has become the dominant approach. After having outcast the Crown Prince for his role in the Khashoggi murder, Western countries have rolled him out the red carpet in recent months, welcoming him in their palaces, shaking his hands, and even fist-bumping him, as did the US president in June 2022.
“It’s been four years,” Cengiz said to RSF, “but to me it’s like it happened yesterday. Jamal Khashoggi is all I talk about, all I do. This is not just a personal issue for me, it’s a political one, an international cause of human rights, and freedom of the press.”
A Miscarriage of Justice
No one was sufficiently punished for the killing of Khashoggi. Under pressure, Saudi Arabia tried eight of the implicated men, in a secret trial behind closed doors that fell far short of international standards. Five of these men received prison sentences, and three the death penalty. But after extracting an apology from Khashoggi’s son in May 2020, the Kingdom reduced the death penalty to 20 year prison sentences. It remains unclear whether any of these prison sentences have ever been served. Last May, witnesses told The Guardian they had spotted three of the convicted men in luxury compounds in Riyadh.
Hopes were higher for the Turkish trial: a largely symbolic but politically important ordeal in which 26 men were tried in absentia. RSF monitored the court proceedings in Istanbul over the course of two years, until the judge ruled on 31 March to close the dossier and transfer it to Saudi Arabia, just weeks ahead of a reconciliatory visit from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Riyadh. The Saudi judiciary dismissed the case immediately.
This blatant impunity for one of the most horrific crimes against a journalist in modern history has only bolstered those who wanted him silenced, and increased risks for journalists around the world.
“We want justice for Jamal and others,” says Cengiz to RSF. “Even if the legal tracks end, we will keep repeating Jamal’s name and supporting this cause. I do it for Jamal, I do it for the other dissidents, and for all those who are in prison for speaking their minds.”