Khashoggi friend says journalist angered Saudi government with column during its 'charm campaign'

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
A woman holds a portrait of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Yahoo News photo Illustration; photo: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — In October 2017, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi crossed a line that made him a marked man and led, most likely, to his brutal death, according to one of his close friends.

His offense: He dared to criticize the country’s volatile Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a Washington Post column that accused the supposedly reformist strongman — and a strategic partner of  White House adviser Jared Kushner — of imprisoning intellectuals, journalists and other political dissidents.

“That article came in the middle of this charm campaign that the Saudis and Prince Mohammed bin Salman were having,” said Khaled Saffuri, a political analyst who met with Khashoggi regularly in recent months, even smoking cigars with him a few weeks ago, shortly before the journalist left the U.S. for Istanbul.

In an interview for the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery,” Saffuri explained that Khashoggi evolved from a onetime defender of the royal family to an outspoken critic who became increasingly distrustful — and fearful — of his country’s powerful new de facto ruler.

He spoke as the Washington Post was reporting that Turkish officials had informed the U.S. that they had audio and video recordings proving that Khashoggi was interrogated, tortured and then murdered after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

The Saudis were spending “hundreds of millions of dollars in the U.S. and the West selling the idea that [Crown Prince Mohammed] is a reformer, that he is going to change Saudi Arabia into the 21st century,” Saffuri said. “So for someone to come and write something like this — that’s saying the guy’s not really what he’s telling the world he is — probably angered Mohammad bin Salman a lot.”

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Saffuri recalled that last May, a senior adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed called Khashoggi and tried to lure him back to Saudi Arabia, offering him a top job if he returned to the kingdom from the U.S.

“He told him the crown prince would love him back, and he would like to give him a position as an adviser — close adviser,” said Saffuri, who spoke to Khashoggi the day he got the phone call. “He said, “We know you’re a loyal Saudi, you love your country, and we love you.’”

But Khashoggi spurned the offer, Saffuri said.

“So I said, ‘What do you think, would you go?’” Saffuri said he asked Khashoggi about the job offer from the crown prince. And he said Khashoggi told him: “No way, are you kidding me? I don’t trust him one bit.”

President Trump meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman the Oval Office in March. (Photo: Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Kingdom Council/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

To the contrary, Khashoggi kept up his criticisms of Saudi policy. In his last column for the Post, published Sept. 13, Khashoggi crossed another red line when he criticized the Saudi military campaign in Yemen, writing that it was undermining Saudi Arabia’s standing internationally and calling for an end to the conflict. “The longer this cruel war lasts in Yemen, the more permanent the damage will be,” he wrote.

It marked another turning point for Khashoggi, who had in the past supported the Saudi effort in Yemen to counter the influence of the country’s mortal enemy in Iran.

“In the beginning, he supported the intervention, but with the amount of casualties, especially civilian casualties … he was saying, ‘It’s time now to stop,’” Saffuri said.

And Saffuri said he believes the crown prince and the Saudis may well have felt emboldened by Trump’s attacks on journalists as the “enemy of the people.”

Trump’s “rhetoric against journalists probably encouraged the Saudis to do it,” said Saffuri, with the Saudis concluding: “Trump hates journalists and he would not react if we kill one journalist.”

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