Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al-Qaeda’s Leader.” See more opinion at CNN.
Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi writer, vanished on Tuesday after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain paperwork so he could marry his Turkish fiancée. He has not been seen or heard from since.
As a columnist for the Washington Post, Khashoggi was a frequent critic of the Saudi regime. Khashoggi was living in self-imposed exile in the United States.
On Saturday, Turkish officials told the Washington Post that Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate.
CNN has not been able to independently confirm these reports and a Saudi official has denied them.
Earlier in the week, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had told Bloomberg News that Khashoggi had left the consulate unmolested, but if that was the case, why hasn’t he contacted anyone?
Media outlets around the world have reported on Khashoggi’s mysterious disappearance. If Khashoggi had left the consulate unharmed, it’s inconceivable he wouldn’t have informed his fiancée, family, friends and colleagues at the Washington Post.
I have known Khashoggi for more than a decade and am appalled at the possibility that the Saudi government would engineer the disappearance of a writer who worked tirelessly to promote civilized, humane values.
Khashoggi and bin Laden’s paths diverged
I first came to know Khashoggi when I was reporting on Osama bin Laden. As young men, Khashoggi and bin Laden knew each other well because Khashoggi was the first journalist from a major Arab news organization to profile bin Laden when he was fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. Both men were idealistic and religious and were opposed to the communist invasion of a Muslim country and the brutal tactics of the Soviet military.
On May 4, 1988, Khashoggi wrote a story for Arab News that quoted bin Laden as saying, “It was God alone who protected us from the Russians during their offensive last year. Reliance upon God is the main source of our strength.”
Seven years later, when bin Laden was based in Sudan, Khashoggi visited him there. Bin Laden told his old friend that that he was thinking of returning to Saudi Arabia and renouncing his war against the Saudi regime. That, of course, didn’t happen – and in 1996 bin Laden moved to Afghanistan, where he launched his war against the United States.
While bin Laden became the world’s most wanted terrorist, Khashoggi went on to have a distinguished career as a writer and editor and also an adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was the Saudi ambassador to both the United Kingdom and the United States.
The totalitarian regime in Saudi Arabia
The disappearance of Khashoggi is of a piece with much that the Saudi regime of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is doing.
In 2015, bin Salman, who is often referred to as MBS, launched a war in Yemen in which at least 6,500 civilians have been killed, many of them from Saudi munitions, according to the United Nations in a report that was released in August.
The UN report noted that, “air strikes have hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities.”
The Saudis have also arrested a range of civil society activists and conservative clerics, including some who may face death sentences.
Saudi prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for a 29-year-old Shia female activist accused of organizing demonstrations for greater Shia rights who was arrested in December.
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Similarly, the Saudis are seeking the death penalty for a prominent, reformist cleric, Salman Al-Oudah, who has called for elections in the Saudi kingdom.
Saudi Arabia was once a consensus-based absolute monarchy, but under MBS’s direction it is increasingly becoming a secularizing totalitarian dictatorship.
While there is much to praise in some of what MBS has done, such as removing the feared religious police from the streets and making real efforts to reform the heavily oil-dependent Saudi economy, there is also much that is inexcusable.
There is no hard evidence as yet that Khashoggi was murdered, but if such evidence were to emerge and the Saudis are found to be responsible, the United States should impose sanctions on the Saudis just as the Trump administration did in August against the Russians following their use of a nerve agent to attempt to kill a former Russian agent and his daughter in the United Kingdom.
Khashoggi, after all, was both a legal resident of the United States and was employed by a major American media institution.