“Has the sacrificial victim arrived yet?”
”He has arrived.”
Those are quotes from Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Turkish intelligence obtained (one does not ask how) an audio recording, and highlights from the transcript are part of the new documentary The Dissident.
Directed by Bryan Fogel, who won the 2018 Academy Award for his documentary Icarus, the film is paced for breathless suspense, but its added cinematographic touches are not even necessary: There is enough drama in the raw events to fix anyone’s eyes to the screen.
Khashoggi was killed in broad daylight and dismembered with a bonesaw in a conference room at the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul.
“Don’t do this!” he says again and again. Someone’s hand covers his mouth. You can hear him wheezing (he had asthma) and grunting.
“Almost there. Almost.” “Is he asleep yet?” “Keep pushing.” And after almost eight minutes: “Take his pants off.”
A Saudi agent will soon be captured on camera wearing those pants; he will remove the clothing and false beard at a public restroom. For now, Khashoggi’s fiancée is still waiting for him outside the consulate. And his killers—an entire team flew to Istanbul from Saudi Arabia for the occasion, eight of the fifteen on a private plane owned by the kingdom—are struggling with logistics.
“Will the body and the hips fit into a bag this way?” one asks.
The consulate ordered seventy pounds of meat to be delivered that day, and the Turkish authorities believe it was roasted in a tandoori oven at the consul general’s residence to hide the smell of burning body parts. Fire would have dissolved Khashoggi’s DNA, and there was a covered well in the garage floor that investigators were not allowed to drain and inspect.
Nor were they allowed inside the consulate for the first thirteen days after the murder. When they did enter, the conference room smelled “oddly clean,” one investigator noted. By then, the consulate will have announced that he suffocated accidentally. And that a drug that was administered by rogue operatives had an unexpected effect. And that he died in a fistfight.
Khashoggi “was not killed in an unplanned way,” says Istanbul prosecutor Irfan Fidan, and the conference room was not chosen at random. The room was wired with cameras and speakers, he points out; someone could easily have watched everything that happened, even given orders.
By “someone,” he no doubt means the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Sultan. Khashoggi went to the consulate in Istanbul at the direction of the crown prince’s brother, who told him that was where he would obtain the documents he needed to remarry. The United Nations investigator pronounced the murder a state operation, “overseen, planned and endorsed by high officials.” The CIA came right out and said it: The crown prince of Saudi Arabia had ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
• • •
Over months, Fogel won the trust of Khashoggi’s fiancée, and the film braids their personal story into a geopolitical spy thriller, a police procedural, an expose of corrupt power, and a history lesson. Something for everyone, this murder has. Yet the doc is not streaming on Netflix, which bought Fogel’s previous film. Nor can you find it on Amazon Prime, even though Amazon’s Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post. Bezos did cut off communications with the crown prince after the murder—by which time, his phone had been infected by malware concealed in a message from the prince’s personal What’s App account.
The Dissident brought audiences at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to their feet, and many left in tears. Then the doc sat, untouched, for six months. Finally, a small company called Briarcliff Entertainment acquired it and made it available for rental online. It will be shown at movie theaters beginning March 11—in New Zealand. “What I wanted,” Fogel tells Variety, “was for this film to be streaming into 200 million households around the world. I wanted people to have easy access to it. Instead, we pieced together global distribution here and there.” He is convinced that “global media conglomerates are aiding and abetting and silencing films that take on subject matter like this.” Refusing to touch The Dissident “had everything to do with business interests and politics and, who knows, perhaps pressure from the Saudi government,” he says. “Decisions are being made that it’s better to keep our doors open to Saudi business and Saudi money than it is to do anything to anger the kingdom.”
Such decisions are not confined to the entertainment industry. In 2019, shocked by Khashoggi’s murder, the U.S. Congress braved the Saudis’ ire and voted to ban weapon sales to their country. Trump vetoed, insisting that arms sales continue. “Could have been rogue killers, who knows,” he had suggested earlier. Now, his point was that a great deal of money was changing hands and he did not want to interrupt its flow. He began working to secure immunity for the crown prince.
This was apt; in the documentary, we learn that it was Khashoggi’s criticism of Trump that ratcheted up tension with the prince. Mohammed bin Sultan was courting Jared Kushner’s favor at the time.
The Biden Administration released the intelligence report holding the crown prince responsible in late February of this year.
• • •
Khashoggi’s murder puzzled the world, not only because it was committed so brazenly—and to this day, without sanction or consequence—but because he had, for more than three decades, been extraordinarily mild in his criticism, more a loyal reformer than a dissident. As sacrificial victim, he made a chilling point: If they were willing to kill Khashoggi, they would kill anyone.
In the old clips, you watch the friendly, round face with its gray beard, sweet smile, spectacles. There was an innocence about him, his friends say. He stayed human, no matter how formal or weighty the situation. A clip shows him chuckling because a cat has leaped into his lap during a filmed interview. “You should keep that for the movie,” he says. He talks about his “crazy love for history.” We hear him at panel discussions saying, “I’m sure the tide eventually will be won over by the reformers” and noting that the Saudi king is not a dictator; he rules by consensus. “Press the Saudis and You’ll Put an End to Reform” warns the headline for one of his columns.
For decades, Khashoggi was an insider in Saudi Arabia, part of the institution. Any journalist there has to be, notes his friend Wadah Khanfar, former managing director of Al-Jazeera. Saudi journalists “inherited this culture from the moment in the desert when the poets used to come to the chiefs praising their wisdom.”
Besides, Khashoggi liked the crown prince’s reforms, his efforts to emancipate women and end extremism and corruption. His only reservations about the prince, who was the power behind the throne his father assumed in 2015—were Mohammed bin Sultan’s use of intimidation and tendency to silence opposition.
After watching Saudi Arabia use its wealth to counter the Arab Spring, Khashoggi grew more critical—and was told, “Don’t tweet. Don’t write.”
“I am suffocated in Saudi Arabia,” he told Khanfar. Finally, reluctantly, he left. His wife had to divorce him, and he had to leave their children. “I’m not ‘in exile,’ please don’t use that painful description,” he tweeted, saying his life in D.C. was only temporary. He still hoped to return to Saudi Arabia someday. But for the moment, he was thrilled to report and write freely.
Years earlier, Khashoggi said, when friends were arrested, he remained silent, because he was afraid. “I have made a different choice now. I have left my home, my family, and my job, and I am raising my voice.”
By 2017, he had an enormous audience.
• • •
Khashoggi met Hatice Cengiz at a conference on the Middle East. A Turkish Muslim, she wore serious schoolmarm glasses and had a strong jaw, wide mouth, clean features that lit into beauty when she was happy.
“How lonely he looks,” she thought as he spoke. Monarchies, he was saying, resist change. She followed him on social media, then asked to interview him. “I am worried,” he told her. “Any ruler who values only his own opinion is leading his country to a problem. Because having one person make all the decisions, it’s always wrong.”
He wrote that “Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.” One of his Washington Post columns was headed, “Saudi Arabia Wasn’t Always This Repressive. Now It’s Unbearable.”
In 2017, Khashoggi began working with a young activist, Omar Abdulaziz Alzahrani, to counter the trolls the Saudi monarchy was using to manipulate social media. Since the Arab Spring, Twitter had become “the parliament of the Arabs.” In Saudi Arabia, eight out of ten people, eighty percent of the country, used Twitter. Khashoggi saw democracy as the solution to the problems of the Middle East. And while he had never been as rash or blunt as young Alzahrani, he joined his effort to foil the manipulation. He also warned the younger man that doing such work could get him killed.
The gentle reformer, temperamentally suited for thoughtful nudges, was becoming a dissident.
And now he is gone. The doc opens with Alzahrani, who now lives in Canada and must now move from city to city to stay alive. He has his own YouTube show, the first ever to criticize the Saudi royals. Its name is one of Khashoggi’s favorite expressions: Say It and Walk Away. Alzahrani is running away—we see him receive a text, sent anonymously in Canada, warning, “There’s a team that’s going to kill you soon.”
“I knew I was doing something dangerous,” he says, “but I didn’t know we were going to lose so many lives because of it.” Now, he wants revenge as well as democracy. “Jamal’s death changed everything.”
Everything, and nothing.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.