The Washington Post Sunday
What justice for Jamal looks like
After more than two years of a criminal and cynical coverup by the Trump administration, the Biden administration has unclassified the report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on the murder of our fallen friend, the Saudi journalist and Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The two-page report didn’t exactly contain new information. What happened is already known: Khashoggi was lured into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where he was murdered by a Saudi hit squad acting on the direct orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Khashoggi’s body was dismembered and his remains disappeared.
The report said the intelligence community reached its conclusion based on the total control MBS has over the kingdom, his “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi,” and the direct involvement in the murder of his senior aides and security officials.
But the significance of the report isn’t about what facts it adds but about what President Biden, who has pledged to push for accountability, should do next. No democracy can acknowledge such a heinous murder while also maintaining the status quo in its relationship with MBS’s Saudi Arabia, not least the United States, Saudi Arabia’s closest Western ally.
Which brings us to the important question: What does justice for Jamal look like?
Many advocates are calling for measures to punish MBS, including imposing Magnitsky-style targeted sanctions on the crown prince. There’s even been talk of signaling to the Saudi royal family that its own best future is best served if MBS does not become king. All of this is well and good — but narrowly focusing on punishing MBS does not do justice for Khashoggi.
Khashoggi was killed for daring to raise his voice in dissent and express himself freely. As a friend of his, I have been frustrated by how much focus has been placed on the murder and the murderers, rather than on the victim, what he loved and what made him take such chances. Any response by the Biden administration that does not place free speech at the top of the agenda risks repeating historical mistakes.
Before MBS’s rise, Saudi Arabia had one of the Arab world’s most vibrant public spheres, with people from across society discussing matters of public concern, mostly on Twitter. In March 2017, I wrote about this beautiful and inspiring phenomenon: Free expression online allowed Saudis to liberate themselves from imposed narratives and demand change from their government.
The election of Donald Trump allowed MBS to clamp down on this public sphere with brutal efficiency, arresting hundreds of people essentially for tweeting; Jamal’s own exile from Saudi Arabia came near the peak of this clampdown. MBS proceeded to replace the vibrancy and dynamism of this sphere with governmentproduced propaganda pumped out by thousands of coordinated disinformation accounts.
To get a sense of what Khashoggi cared about, consider what he did during his 13 months in exile before his murder: Besides founding a prodemocracy think tank, he collaborated with Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz to create an “online army” dubbed “the Bees” to counter Saudi government bots, a story well documented in Bryan Fogel’s recent documentary “The Dissident.” He also collaborated with my team to establish a disinformation monitor and start a conversation with Twitter about cutting off the disinformation at the source. Jamal was obsessed with reclaiming social media platforms as a neutral space for free expression.
On the flip side, most of MBS’s nefarious actions since 2017 were about clamping down on speech. If there’s one thing MBS really does not want, it’s freedom of expression for Saudis. This is where he should be hit.
The best situation would be to facilitate the rise of internal checks on MBS. Ultimately, if the United States wants a future free from foreign interventions and forever wars in the Middle East, this starts with going from a paradigm of managing bad actors to one of encouraging the rise of strong societies that can move the region forward.
The United States must begin using its tremendous leverage with Saudi Arabia to secure the release of prisoners of conscience and the lifting of travel bans. It should then monitor closely if MBS arrests any newly released prisoners, especially if they dare take to Twitter (or Clubhouse, which is rapidly gaining ground) to express themselves freely.
Jamal Khashoggi gave his life for our right to free speech. For his sake, we must keep freedom of expression at the top of the agenda. A good future that honors his vision isn’t one where MBS is sanctioned but still oppressive. A good future is one where MBS is internally checked by free Saudis who are able to demand accountability from their government. To aim for anything less is to betray Jamal and his legacy.