The Life and Death of Jamal Khashoggi

‘Kingdom of Shadows’ studies the career and fate of the dogged Saudi journalist.

Jamal Khashoggi is better known for his grisly death and dismemberment on Oct. 2, 2018 than for his decades of dedication to the field of journalism, and for the balances he died trying to keep. The highs and lows of Khashoggi’s sometimes mysterious career parallel cynical US blunders in the mideast. Director Rick Rowley’s documentary Kingdom of Silence: The Exile and Murder of Jamal Khashoggi tells of the Saudi-born Khashoggi, who was both reporter and participant in the anti-Soviet fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

It was a struggle he crossed the dangerous Hindu Kush to join. Khashoggi’s comrade in arms in Afghanistan was a handsome, charismatic Saudi mujahideen named Osama bin-Laden. And Khashoggi helped make bin-Laden’s name.

America used the Afghan war as a proxy fight against the USSR. Rowley shows us footage of Ronald Reagan bringing Afghan guerrillas into the White House. One of these fighters takes off his shirt to show Reagan the wounds the Russians gave him. 

If there’s one single lesson from the last few decades of US foreign policy, it’s simply that there’s sometimes a great deal of wisdom in doing nothing, even if the voters hate inaction. Our support for these Afghan jihadis blew back in our faces on Sept. 11, 2001. The attacks were a result of bin-Laden’s call for revenge against the West, for profaning holy Saudi Arabia with infidel US military bases.

It should have been a lesson for Khashoggi, watching his former freedom-fighting comrade turning into an out-and-out terrorist. But it didn’t keep the reporter from rallying for the later US invasion of Iraq on TV news talk shows. Khashoggi’s connections to the Saudi royals make this war-drum beating suspicious. As Kingdom of Silence points out, W’s war never would have taken place without the approval of the sheiks.

Much of the background here is provided by Khashoggi’s friend, Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker. Wright mentions how deep Khashoggi’s sources were in the Saudi kingdom — “there wasn’t a place closed to him,” he notes. Wright adds that Khashoggi knew more than anyone alive about the links between the Saudi upper class and the 9/11 attacks.

Details are filled in by FBI agents, Arabic colleagues, and high-ranking US officials, such as national security advisor Richard Clarke and former CIA head John Brennan. Journalist Maggie Mitchell Salem, in tears, describes her much-missed friend Jamal as “a big teddy bear… a big brother.” Truly, it’s a real asset to a journalist to look cuddly and trustworthy. But Salem notes also that Khashoggi was a compartmentalizer, who nobody knew completely. 

In his words, read by Nasser Faris, Khashoggi describes his personal struggle. “I do my best to be a journalist and not a revolutionary” he once said.

Indeed, Khashoggi tried to keep moderate in revolutionary times. He was moved to the core by the Arab Spring demonstrations in 2010 — particularly the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, the dictatorial leader of Egypt.

The exit of Mubarak in 2011 made the Saudi royals nervous. Their gold helped finance the Egyptian military coup that evicted the democratically elected new government in Cairo.

In 2015, Khashoggi worked on a Saudi news network akin to Al-Jazeera, to be called Al-Arab. It was to be based in Saudi’s neighboring nation Bahrain. The Bahrainis pulled the plug after Al-Arab’s one and only evening of programming. Clearly, pressure came Saudi Arabia’s newly-ascended monarch, the 80-year-old King Salman. One of King Salman’s first decisions was to appoint his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as Minister of Defense.

From then on, Khashoggi’s days were numbered. 

There’s a famous anti-joke that the initials MBS of trillionaire Prince Mohammed bin Salman actually stand for “Mister Bone Saw.” Strange to see the usually supine Sen. Lindsey Graham saying the evidence of royal murder was unignorable. In the Khashoggi killing, “there was not a smoking gun, but a smoking bone saw.”

Still, in conservative circles in D.C., there was talk that Khashoggi’s death had to be chalked up to the cost of doing business with our good friends in Saudi Arabia. Even as the US Senate passed a resolution pinning the murder on MBS, the Trump administration hardly murmured about the killing. Trump continued participating in visits to Saudi Arabia, for photo ops of sword dances, and gripping and grinning with MBS. (Kingdom of Silence includes the bizarro footage of Trump and some Saudi aristos caressing a glowing orb, a happenstance that reminds one of business in Woody Allen’s Sleeper; to be fair, this weirdness happened a year before Khashoggi’s death.)

The Biden regime is likely to continue this support. MBS is seen in Kingdom of Silence getting into a royal huff as Barack Obama tried to discuss the civil rights problem in Saudi Arabia. Not that it mattered; Obama’s regime gave logistical support to MBS on his civilian-killing, refugee camp-bombing war in Yemen. Our presence in this conflict is undeniable. It’s noted in Kingdom of Silence that the Saudi campaign against Yemen is referred to in the Arab world as “the Saudi-American war.” 

In his last years, Khashoggi left Washington D.C. for Istanbul, where so many Arabs fled in political exile. He was, as he put it, “No longer in the Kingdom of Silence,” since he was in a city with so many other Arabs who couldn’t return to their native countries.

The Saudis had been watching Khashoggi very closely for years — particularly after Khashoggi’s meetings with Andrew J. Maloney, a lawyer who was trying to get civil damage money from the Saudis to victims of Sept. 11. Khashoggi knew he was a marked man. He knew it even before the fatal appointment at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, where he’d gone to get papers for his latest marriage.

The conspirators advised their Saudi controls that “the sacrificial animal has arrived.” Khashoggi personally knew Maher Mutreb, one of the men waiting for him with trash bags and a surgical bone saw. (Mutreb was “a nice guy” says a commentator, unironically.)  A UN investigator named Agnes Callamard describes the aftermath — including the almost laughable disguises the hit squad used as they left the embassy.

The growls and wobble of horror-movie sound on Brian McOmber’s soundtrack seem to anticipate the story’s grisly end. But Kingdom of Silence doesn’t wallow in gore. Instead, it gives us a computer screen of the transcribed words of the killers, taken by surveillance by Turkish intelligence listening devices. (“SOUND OF SAW BEGINS.”) Rowley’s decision to be this discreet deserves praise. It’s like Werner Herzog’s refusal to include the actual tape of the devouring of Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man. As we’ve seen, not every documentary maker has that kind of taste. 

One wishes there’d been a little more here about the aftermath of the crime, how a secret trial in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh sentenced some of the assassins to death — including the nice guy Mutreb. MBS tried to spin the murder as unpremeditated. Then he took a kind of responsibility: he didn’t order it, he said, but “it happened under my watch.”

A takeaway from Kingdom of Silence that Khashoggi was a pious Muslim and a patriotic Saudi. As he wrote in editorial upon editorial, royal terror was not essential to the governing of Saudi Arabia. Absolute monarchy is an absolute evil, in our age or any age.  But the latest Saudi regime indulges in full-force medievalism — public decapitations and gibbeting of dissidents and shia Muslims alike.

John Brennan calls hopes for Saudi reform “naive and fatuous.” Moreover: “Do you really want a Saudi Arabia that looks like Beirut or Teheran?” Once a cold warrior, always a cold warrior… and thus always a thinker in binary terms. It’s as if Saudi Arabia had only two paths, either as a reactionary monarchy, or else a failed state.

Khashoggi was a sometimes slippery man. Yet he was inarguably brave: “You are in a war, you cannot give up, you cannot disappear.” His steadfastness shames our government tactics to go along and get along… an example being Trump stating bluntly that it would cost the US too much money to sanction Saudi Arabia, even over the shocking political murder they planned and executed.

Kingdom of Silence is now streaming via Showtime.

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