Assassination Fascination

Since long before Brutus, Cassius, and their gang carved up Julius Caesar in 44 BC, political assassinations have been a favorite tool of revolutionaries, terrorists, and despots.

People find assassinations to be endlessly — and not grimly — entertaining as demonstrated by the constant market for books, plays, and movies about them, both fact and fiction. Lady Macbeth is still trying to wash out that damned spot and 007 is still plying his trade while seducing beautiful women around the world. There’s even a video game called, “Assassin’s Creed.”

Judged by their number, political assassinations have become trendy over the past decade or so.

Kim Jong Un murdered a couple of his uncles for what he said was disloyalty about five years ago. He also ordered the assassination of his half-brother in early 2017 using the nerve agent VX, one of the weapons we wish we could uninvent.

Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, the historically-thriving Russian assassination industry is highly active in Russia and abroad.

Both former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko and anti-Putin journalist Anna Politkovskaya were assassinated in 2006. Litvinenko’s book, Blowing Up Russia, was banned in Russia because of its revelations of how the KGB propelled Putin to power and because it condemned Russian military actions in Chechnya. Litvinenko was killed exotically in London by someone believed to be another FSB agent who put Polonium 210 into a cup of tea.

Anna Politkovskaya was shot to death by Chechen men paid by the Kremlin to kill her. Litvinenko and Politkovskaya were two of about forty Putin opponents who have either been murdered or died in strange circumstances in the past decade.

The UK is a favorite venue for Russian assassination attempts as proven redundantly in the March attack on Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England. The attack failed despite the fact their two Russian would-be assassins used the nerve agent Novichok in sufficient quantity to sicken passers-by.

In the case of Jamal Khashoggi, we know that on October 2 he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain proof of divorce of an earlier wife which he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée. He hasn’t been seen since.

Turkish authorities say that they have audio proof that upon entering the consulate, Khashoggi was interrogated, tortured, and murdered. U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly knew that the Saudis were trying to lure Khashoggi back to that nation.

A fifteen-man team of Saudi agents reportedly flew from Saudi Arabia and may have been filmed arriving at the Istanbul consulate early on October 2 and departing the same day on Saudi government-chartered aircraft.

The Saudis vehemently deny that they killed Khashoggi and insist that he left the consulate on the afternoon of October 2. But they — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a. “MBS”) and his father King Salman — are quite capable of ordering Khashoggi’s death.

Khashoggi’s journalistic credentials don’t conceal the fact that he isn’t (or wasn’t) an admirable character. Born in 1958, Khashoggi was a radical Muslim. He befriended Osama bin Laden in the mid-1980s and was invited by bin Laden to cover Afghanistan at bin Laden’s side which he did beginning in 1987. Khashoggi reportedly was not in touch with bin Laden in the immediate years before 9/11.

Khashoggi was also a friend (and perhaps a protégé) of Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was Saudi intelligence chief from 1977-2001. Khashoggi remained a member of the Muslim Brotherhood until his alleged death. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

None of those facts are — by American standards — justification to assassinate Khashoggi.

If the Saudis assassinated Khashoggi it could not have been done unless Crown Prince bin Salman and, in all probability, his father had ordered it or at least acquiesced in the killing. Khashoggi had been an outspoken critic of MBS and his government.

The apparent assassination of Khashoggi has garnered enormous attention because he was a contributor to the Washington Post, writing occasionally for its “global opinion” sections.

President Trump has vowed to uncover Khashoggi’s fate and said that there would be “severe consequences” if he was assassinated. He has indicated that his administration is looking into the case, which means our intelligence community is trying to figure out what happened.

Several senators are clamoring for action against Saudi Arabia ranging from sanctions against people responsible for the alleged assassination to an end to military assistance and weapons sales to that nation.

The Saudis have responded to Trump’s remarks, saying they would respond to any punitive action with “a bigger one.”

There are many winners and losers if it is shown that Khashoggi was assassinated by the Saudis.

Possibly the biggest losers will be President Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Trump has placed in Kushner the responsibility for his Middle East peace plan, which is still being developed. Kushner has become a friend of MBS and is believed to be relying on him to help formulate the peace plan and to pressure the Palestinians to accept it. King Salman has reined in his son, opposing any pressure on the Palestinians to accept any deal.

If the president becomes convinced that the King Salman/Prince bin Salman regime was responsible for the assassination, his peace plan will either be further delayed and may die before it is born.

The president doesn’t want to end support for Saudi Arabia for several other reasons. As he indicated over the weekend, Trump views arms sales to the Saudis as a guarantee of a big bunch of aerospace industry jobs. He also has proposed a Middle East alliance like NATO with Saudi Arabia as its leader. That idea never would have succeeded in any event.

The president is already under pressure to rein in the Saudi-led campaign against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen in which many civilians, including children, have died. As ugly as the alleged Saudi assassination of Khashoggi would be, Trump would have to decide whether it’s more important than the outcome of the war in Yemen.

The next biggest loser would be MBS himself. His campaign to reform Saudi Arabia is already not seen as credible to many outsiders because of his crackdowns on dissidents including women who have protested for greater rights in the Saudi theocracy. Khashoggi was an influential activist-journalist highly critical of MBS’s reforms and the enormously powerful Saudi Wahhabist clergy.

Western business investment in Saudi Arabia by European and American companies is already slowing and could stop abruptly, but only briefly, if credible evidence of the assassination is revealed.

The Saudis are probably relying on the possibility that evidence of the assassination will prove impossible to establish, notwithstanding the audio recording of it that the Turkish government claims to prove it. MBS and his regime may feel confident that without more evidence, the matter will blow over shortly.

That won’t happen. Khashoggi’s association with the left-leaning Washington Post means that the newspaper has every reason to continue its accelerating campaign against the Saudi regime. The Post’s view — that hammering the Saudis is another means of trashing the president — ensures its anti-Saudi campaign will continue.

There are two obvious winners in the matter of the alleged Khashoggi assassination: Iran and Turkey’s Islamist president, Recep Erdogan. If U.S. aid to the Saudis is reduced, or if that aid is tied to restrictions on the Saudi campaign in Yemen, Iran’s forces there will be strengthened.

Assassinating Khashoggi in Turkey would have been a tremendous slap at Erdogan by the Saudis. But Erdogan, having just released American hostage Pastor Andrew Brunson, is in the position of requesting and probably receiving relief from U.S. sanctions against his nation and two of his government ministers.

None of those sanctions should be removed unless and until Erdogan leaves power. His actions, as I’ve recounted many times, have realigned Turkey against NATO in favor of Russia and Iran — for example, by his treaty with Russia and Iran to keep Syrian terrorist dictator Bashar Assad in power.

The United States has abjured assassination by our government for decades. Executive Order 12333, signed by President Reagan on 4 December 1981, mandates, in part, that, “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”

Reagan signed that order long after several bungled attempts by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro and the CIA’s alleged involvement in several other assassination plots.

That, of course, had no effect on other nations’ governments and intelligence agencies.

Political assassinations are punctuation marks in history’s text. Khashoggi’s, even if it is proven, will be a comma not an exclamation point.

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Author: Jed Babbin