I was initially disappointed by President Joe Biden’s recent decision not to punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the release of a U.S. intelligence report that confirmed that the Saudi leader “approved” the brutal murder in 2018 of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But after seeing Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel’s documentary “The Dissident,” which contextualizes Khashoggi’s death within the larger war that bin Salman is waging on free speech, I got angry at the lack of a moral or even meaningful response to the Saudi atrocity. Leading up to his murder, Khashoggi endured a relentless social media attack by an army of operatives called “The Flies,” as well as digital hacks that allowed Saudi intelligence agents to get inside the smartphones of Khashoggi’s closest allies to monitor virtually every move the journalist made.
The prince is big on technology. Turkish officials who were allowed into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where the 60-year-old Khashoggi was sent under the guise of obtaining a document that would allow him to marry his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, shared footage with Fogel of the room in which the journalist was murdered and then butchered with a bone saw. It includes high-end equipment, Turkish police say, that would have allowed the murder and dismemberment to be seen on-screen in real time by the prince and his co-conspirators back in Saudi Arabia.
Fogel’s film includes a transcript from Turkish intelligence authorities of Khashoggi’s final struggle and death at the hands of a Saudi assassination team that included members of the prince’s personal security detail. There is no doubt that it was a state-sponsored assassination, and yet, our new president, who talked so much about being a moral force during the 2020 campaign, could not bring himself to take any direct action against the prince who ordered it.
Viewers of “The Dissident” see the words of the Saudi assassins. They joke about the “sacrificial victim” having arrived at the consulate when Khashoggi is in the building. Shortly after he enters the room where he thinks he will receive the document he came to get, a Turkish investigator tells viewers “his mouth was closed with someone’s hand.”
Khashoggi fights back and “begins to scream,” according to the Turkish official who investigated the murder.
“You are going to strangle me. You’re going to kill me. I have asthma. Don’t do this,” he quotes Khashoggi as screaming.
But more men join in to subdue Khashoggi, and at this point, “He doesn’t stand a chance,” in the words of the investigator: “Wheezing … grunting … those are the only sounds he can make as he’s being killed.”
The sawing of Khashoggi’s corpse took place at the consulate and can be heard on the tape, according to Turkish investigators, who believe the body parts were then burned at the home of the Saudi consul general. Viewers are shown images of an oven in which they believe the burning was done. According to their account, embassy workers ordered 70 pounds of meat from a local shop, which they believe was used to cover the smell of human flesh being burned.
Yeah, it is indeed graphic, grim and chilling.
But we need to know in concrete, detailed ways how barbaric this crime was to judge the actions of our elected officials who decline to punish the man who ordered it.
As powerful as the film’s account of Khashoggi’s death is, the real energy of this documentary comes from the storyline of a disciple of Khashoggi’s, Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident forced to flee his country and seek asylum in Montreal.
He is the viewer’s point of entry for the film, walking the streets of the Canadian city at night in opening shots. Though he is some 30 years younger than Khashoggi, the two men shared a bond of having left their families behind as they fled Saudi Arabia to try to find a place in the world where they could speak freely and challenge the government’s lies and crimes. Khashoggi found that in Washington D.C. at the Post, Abdulaziz finds it in Montreal as a YouTube host of a show about Saudi repression. Both were targeted by bin Salman, with family members of Abdulaziz imprisoned and tortured.
As part of their resistance to bin Salman, Abdulaziz convinced Khashoggi to fund an effort to combat the prince’s army of social media operatives, who swarm and attack opponents online. They appear to be a Saudi version of the media operation at the Russian troll farm in St. Petersburg that so influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Abdulaziz recruited his own operatives to counter “The Flies.” He named them “The Bees Army.” When Khashoggi gave him the money to help fund the effort, Abdulaziz says he told him, “If you work with us … You are not just a journalist. You’re a dissident.”
The younger man believes his relationship with Khashoggi played a role in the journalist’s death, and, right or wrong, he feels a deep sense of guilt about that. According to cyber experts in the film, Abdulaziz’s phone was hacked by Saudi intelligence operatives and every move Khashoggi made in concert with him — from funding “The Bees Army” to plotting ways to counter Saudi propaganda and attacks on free speech — was known by the prince and his operatives leading up to Khashoggi’s gruesome death.
Back in 2018 when I first heard some of the details of the journalist’s death, I was shocked. But I was not at all surprised when then-President Donald Trump gave the prince a pass on murdering an opponent. Given the prince’s autocratic manner of governing, of course Trump would be impressed with him. And then, there was all that oil as well as the billions the Saudis spent on American-made military hardware.
In 2019, Trump vetoed resolutions approved by Congress that were aimed at blocking the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia in part over the prince’s role in Khashoggi’s murder.
“I saved his ass. I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop,” Trump is quoted as saying in Bob Woodward’s book, “Rage.”
But Biden giving bin Salman a pass is something else. It is the kind of act that results in citizens not trusting any of their leaders to speak the truth and act morally in the face of power.
Saying that the assassination squad “acted on the order of the crown prince” in a debate during the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden promised he would make the Saudis and bin Salman “pay the price” for killing Khashoggi.
I guess it all depends on what your definition of “price” is.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik