Ar ogue is a dishonest or mischievous person. In reality the dictionary meaning does not apply to the team that went or was sent to deal with Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent dissident journalist writing for the Washington Post and residing in Virgina. He was killed, beheaded, dismembered, his fingers severed, and within a few hours the killers were gone, according to details from audio recordings described by a senior Turkish official. As per reports Riyadh belatedly admitted that Khashoggi was killed on October 2 in its Istanbul consulate, five high-ranking officials were dismissed, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s media chief and the deputy head of the Saudi intelligence service.
Eighteen people were arrested. Riyadh has maintained that neither bin Salman nor his father, King Salman, knew of the operation to target Khashoggi. US officials have said such a mission — including 15 men sent from Riyadh — could not have been carried out without the authorisation of bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler. Saudi Arabia claimed that Khashoggi died when a discussion turned violent. In private, officials have offered a shifting narrative. In the latest version offered by an official, the original plan was to persuade Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia, and if he refused, to drug him and take him to a safe house in Istanbul. But Khashoggi became agitated, the official asserted, and he died in a chokehold.
It has been a story of accusations followed by denials and finally admission on the part of the Crown Prince that Khashoggi had been killed. However the Saudis continue to maintain that neither King Salman nor MBS had knowledge of the operation; by implication it was a rogue operation carried out clandestinely by rogue elements. Nobody to date seems to have asked the Crown Prince that if it was a rogue operation how jets (or even commercial aircraft) could have been commandeered. Were the air controllers and airport authorities in the know as well? They would have had to have advance warning. Unless these were from normal channels they would have raised alarm.
From indications the Consulate people were not surprised at the sudden arrival of a large team, unless the arrival was not sudden. In which case who alerted them? What about the Consul General himself? Was he in the know? It is suspected that body parts might be in the well of the garden of the consul general. Pursuing this line to its logical conclusion it becomes clear that the operation was huge with links and cross-links. ‘Rogues’ simply could not have pulled it off by themselves.
The most important implication relates to the handling of the affair after MBS became aware that the clandestine operation had gotten out of hand and that the finger would inevitably point towards him. Had he remained calm and consulted with experienced older royals while there was confusion over the killing he would have received wise counsel to manage the situation.
Unfortunately for him there was no one left among the royals friendly enough to ask for advice. He must have kept his own counsel or conferred with insiders while precious moments were being lost. Wise counsel of elders might have advised him to admit that he had ordered the operation but that he had ordered only interrogation or better still abduction of the journalist back to the country. It was tragic that during interrogation Khashoggi was killed. Had he done that he would certainly have faced opprobrium.
There have been precedents galore of abduction by USA, Russia, China, Israel, Iranians after the Khomeini revolution, Turkey (Abdullah Ocalan leader of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party who is still languishing in prison) and several others. In this case the grisliness of the killing and dismemberment of the body speaks of deep personal animus which again points the finger in one direction only. For leaders of countries there are times when decisions have to be taken fast. In the few minutes available close advisers examine all options with the leader and then the decision is announced where the situation so warrants. Under no circumstances must the leader panic.
This appears to have been the case here. There was vacillation and uncertainty writ large. The knowledge that a leader can panic when caught suddenly in a critical situation and might not be able to remain level-headed has very grave implications for the person’s continuance at the head. Middle East is in turmoil.
Saudi Arabia is involved directly and peripherally in several military conflicts. Not only King Salman but Saudi Arabia’s allies notably the Americans will have to take a call on the leadership of the inexperienced young prince, undoubtedly in a hurry to modernize his country but who not having been groomed into his job as was the tradition in the House of Saud might act in haste when the chips are down – for him as well as his country.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army and author of Third Millennium Equipoise.