Diplomatic Savagery: An Interview with Ferhat Unlu on the Jamal Khashoggi Murder

February 27, 2019

Selahattin Emre Celebi conducted an interview with Ferhat Unlu, one of the authors of the book ‘Diplomatic Cruelty: The Dark Secrets of the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi,' which seeks to shed light on the Jamal Khashoggi murder that occurred in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Ferhat Unlu from the special investigation department of Sabah newspaper.

Selahattin Emre Celebi interviewed Ferhat Unlu – from the special investigation department of Sabah newspaper – on the new publication, ‘Diplomatic Cruelty: The Dark Secrets of the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi,’ written by Ferhat Unlu, Abdurrahman Simsek, and Nazif Karaman. The book details almost every point on the brutal murder of the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi that occurred in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.

We would like to thank Mr. Ferhat Unlu for the time he shared with us, and to the authors of the book, which seeks to provide the Turkish and international public on the truths of the murder.


You describe the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi as the most ‘interesting’ murder in history and according to the data provided in your book, the murder was the most covered topic both in Turkey and the world media in October 2018. What makes it so important?

This is a peculiar case – in Turkish we call this ‘idiosyncratic’ in a negative sense of the term as it’s the first time in the modern history of international diplomacy that a citizen has been murdered in the embassy of his/her own state. There is no example of this in the history of diplomacy. On the other hand, with regard to the history of intelligence, there is no example of such an operation either. This murder is planned as – so called – an intelligence operation; this is the purpose, to be honest. However, intelligence services conduct these kinds of operations in very detailed, well planned, and executed in a much more sophisticated fashion. For example, a consulate is not chosen as a place of murder! There is no example of this. Another interesting fact about the murder is the location of the place. I personally believe that an influencing factor for the Saudis to choose Turkey – but not a western state like Britain or the U.S. – to execute the murder, is to give a message to the opponents of the Saudi regime currently in Turkey that Turkey is not a safe place for them.

On the other hand, the Saudis cannot dare to execute such an operation in a ‘superior’ western country. According to the Saudi perception, Turkey is a rival country. They often take a hostile approach towards Ankara in Middle Eastern affairs, so this operation was an opportunity for them to target the government. However, the execution of the operation – leaving traces all over, coming to the airport with a team of 15 officers, records of their images and voice records during the operation were all a total fiasco. Especially, failing to predict the possibility that Turkish authorities will record everything stunned the Saudis. If the operation had been successful, including the stuntman, it would have been a historical operation and Turkey would have had difficulties to clean up its image as a result of the murder. However, Turkey prevented this by providing both voice and image records of the operation and revealed the real story behind it in a very successful manner. These are other historical and significant developments, since the murder was one of the most interesting operations in history.

The Jamal Khashoggi murder was a total fiasco for the Saudi administration as they left traces all over, coming to the airport with a team of 15 officers, records of their images, and voice records during the operation were a total intelligence fiasco.

Why was the murder so brutal and violent? Could they not have silenced the victim in a more ‘moderate’ way?

Well, the post-mortem process is a factor. You came to execute the operation with a forensic expert. The intention here is to get rid of the body. Bringing a stuntman reflects that as well. They wanted to kill the victim, and wanted the body to disappear. They wanted to say: “Look, an opponent of the Saudis disappeared in Turkey and Turkey could neither prevent this, nor find the body.” I do not believe that the barbaric nature of the murder has anything to do with punishing the victim. No one deserves and nothing justifies this violence. But according to the plan of the operation, after murdering the victim, the ‘instinct’ to get rid of the body – taking the body out of the consulate, bringing it to the residence, and ‘extinguishing’ the body – with the purpose of eliminating evidence, caused them to conduct such a brutal and barbaric murder.

Why Khashoggi?

You ask the basic 6 questions of journalism in your book: What? Where? How? When? Why? Who? We can answer almost the first 4 in detail at the moment. But how do you answer the last two? Why this murder? Why Khashoggi? What is the message given here? And how do you read this in the bigger picture considering that international balances across the globe are changing? 

Well, we have indicated 4 parameters in our research. Yes, of the reasons for the murder of Khashoggi was due to the fact that he was an opponent of the Mohammad bin Salman administration. He was not an opponent of the Saudi Kingdom, he was a patriot who loved his country. In the past, he worked as a consultant for Turki b. Faysal of the Saudi intelligence service, therefore he was a person who was close to the administration.

In addition to being an opponent to MbS, he was a columnist for The Washington Post. He was a critique of MbS and was criticizing him in Washington, where the Prince got the most important support for his administration. Khashoggi’s influential criticism of Mohammad bin Salman in Washington angered the Crown Prince.

Another reason why Khashoggi was targeted was due to his stance on the Muslim Brotherhood. Although Khashoggi criticized the Muslim Brotherhood from time to time, he did not totally oppose them. He had a more balanced stance, which was totally unacceptable for MbS.

Khashoggi’s arguments of seeing Turkey as a model state for the Saudis and the rest of the Middle East, in my view, was another reason why he was targeted by MbS, who is jealous of Turkey and President Erdogan.

Finally, another reason for targeting Khashoggi was his intention to give life to the project ‘The Bee Army’ together with Saudi activist Omar Abd al-Aziz. This ‘The Bee Army’ project was planned by Abd al-Aziz and Khashoggi against the troll army of Saud al-Qahtanti called ‘The Fly Army.’ The conversations between Khashoggi and Abd al-Aziz were detected by MbS with the help of an Israeli cyber security company. This last point, probably forced by Qahtani, had a significant effect in the final decision to target Khashoggi.


The title of the book contains and oxymoron: diplomacy and horror. How will this murder effect diplomacy and how will it be remembered in history?

As a journalist, I wouldn’t dare commenting on the history. As journalists, we provide facts for historians, that’s all. But I don’t think that there will be another example of this kind in the future of diplomacy. The political approaches of states reflect on their intelligence operations. For example, Turkey is a democratic state – I’m highlighting this for the outside world – whether they like it or not. Therefore, it minimizes security and terror threats in a democratic fashion as much as possible. It is a state that can differentiate between the guilty and non-guilty. We saw this during the ‘Trench Operations’ in 2015 in south-eastern Turkey. This is the concept of Turkey, it does not change. At the moment, Turkey strategically moved a bit further to prevent the threats outside its borders in Syria. This is a strategical change, but the understanding and approach does not change. You won’t kill opponents, if you have a terrorist group like FETO, you will judge them according to the constitution and put them behind bars. Therefore, it is unimaginable to think that Turkey will conduct such an operation.

When we look at other countries and their intelligence services, you cannot see these kinds of operations in the U.S. and Russian intelligence services. Maybe MOSSAD comes close to these kinds of operations – for example there was an operation in Dubai by Mossad members who were using British passports and angered the British administration – but even they will not think of such an operation. There are some unwritten rules in diplomacy and intelligence operations. Saudis destroyed all these rules with this operation. I believe that no one – including the Saudis – will plan such an operation in the future, and this murder will probably remain as the only one in history. It will be a milestone for the history of intelligence wars by heating up tensions between various states as well.

There are some unwritten rules in diplomacy and intelligence operations. The Saudis destroyed all these rules with the Jamal Khashoggi murder.

Turkish Wisdom

What does the murder mean for the Turkish state, public, and media? How has the Turkish state and intelligence service dealt with the process?

Turkey has been very successful in preventing any undesirable result of the incident towards its security and political image. During the first days of the incident, some argued that this could lead to a declaration of war between the Saudis and Turkey, resembling the murder of the Crown Prince in the Balkans, which triggered the start of WWI. But thank God, Turkey has been quite successful during this sensitive process.

From another point, Khashoggi was a guest in Turkey and Turkey is a country where opponents can easily take shelter. For example, during the 80s, many opponents of the Iranian regime had been eliminated by the Iranian intelligence service, but Turkey had been a place for harbor for many Iranian opponents at that time even though Turkey was not a state that was politically independent, it set its principles clear with regard to its intelligence. During 2008-2015, Russia had eliminated many Chechenia opponents, conducting some operations in Turkey. But Turkey put an end to these operations by making a deal with the Russian administration, and they have not been able to conduct such operations in Turkey since then. We have many ties with Russia at the moment, including the S-400s and cooperation in Syria, etc.

During the first days of the incident, some argued that the Khashoggi murder could lead to a declaration of war between the Saudis and Turkey, resembling the murder of the Crown Prince in the Balkans.

When we look at the bigger picture, Turkey has been quite pro-active during the process. First, by taking the incident as an attack on its political image, and secondly, by dealing with the incident with a humanistic approach. Turkey has been trying to solve the puzzle since the murder and informed the international public with the details. With the orders of President Erdogan, the Turkish state used all aspects of intelligence diplomacy and managed to bring the incident to the attention of the international public in a successful manner. The head of the Turkish intelligence service met with the heads of American, Canadian, British, French, and German intelligence services. If Russians had asked for evidence, it would have been given to them as well. Therefore, by conducting open intelligence operations, Turkey convinced Western countries, who also had no doubts about the incident. After convincing such countries, the United Nations also became involved in the process. Recently, the special envoy to the UN, Agnès Callamard, came to Istanbul and carried out research, speaking with us as well. These are quite important developments. Turkey did not want to lead the case alone and managed to bring it to the attention of the international public successfully. In a way, Turkey managed to counter the attack made on its image and security, just like a boomerang.

It’s sad that there is no piece from the corpse of the victim and President Erdogan has voiced this on many occasions. This is inhumane and unacceptable. It is not only against our religious and cultural values, but this kind of treatment is against all belief systems and values. Any human being, regardless of any affiliation, at least deserves to have a decent funeral ceremony.

In this regard, Turkey has fulfilled part of its responsibility, seeing it from a humanitarian perspective. And this time, Turkey did not suffer from what we call ‘valuable solitude,’ as Turkey informed the international public very well on the incident and the international public reacted in a positive way.

How about the Turkish public? How do they see the incident? What is the general attitude of the Turkish public towards the Saudi regime and the people responsible for this murder?

Look, this and similar regimes in the region are ‘strange’ regimes. They are established by hegemonic Western powers; their ideologies are invented by the West. Look at Wahabism, for example, consolidated a couple of centuries ago. Their economies are dependent; they may have petrol but they do not control the market. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is not an independent state. In this regard, Turkey’s position is quite different from Saudi Arabia. Turkey is aware that the Saudi administration is not independent, of course, keeping aside the Saudi society, as Turkey has no problem with the Saudi society. There are many opponents of MbS within Saudi Arabia who are Saudi citizens and MbS is suppressing them with very harsh methods. After seeing these developments, Turkey realized that this cannot continue like this. I mean the real ‘armageddon’ will begin after the death of King Salman Abd al-Azizi – father of MbS. Of course, we don’t know what kind of result will come after the competition starts between families and princes during that time. MbS may find himself all alone after the death of the King. Although Turkey has seen the King clear of the murder, the current position of MbS is supported by the King himself. King Salman has chosen MbS for the position and keeps him there with his full support, even though MbS is not the eldest child; he is the youngest child of the youngest wife. Therefore, I see this Khashoggi murder as an incident that its aftershocks will continue for a long time.

In a way, we can relate this with the downfall of FETO. When did it start? February 7, 2012. You may take the date earlier, but February 7 was the first serious ‘fight’ between FETO and the Turkish Republic, when the terrorist organization rebelled against the central authority of the state, targeting then PM Erdogan. This is when the downfall of FETO began. In this regard, we may compare February 7 with the Khashoggi incident: what the February 7 event was for FETO, the Khashoggi incident is the same for the current Saudi administration. I believe we will see the aftershocks in the upcoming days. We call this the ‘9/11’ of the Saudis in the book, and there will be, and currently are, serious consequences of this incident.


At this point, can we clearly determine who was responsible for this brutal murder?

Yes. The political responsibility belongs to MbS and the executers are the killer team of 15 people – these facts are certain. Look, this incident is the subject of a crime. I read and studied crime for long years, wrote 5 books on crime cases. Crime is the subject matter of my work and from the perspective of criminology, everything is clear. Only the Saudis are hiding the facts. The actors who took place in the murder, the execution of the operation and the political responsibility are all apparent, ready to start a trial. These evidences have been given to the UN special rapporteur – Agnès Callamard as well. Therefore, all the evidence required for a fair international trial exist, but the Saudis are not cooperating on this issue. The Saudi Foreign Minister even said that they do not know where Maher Abd al-Aziz Mutreb is – a member of the killing team and a close aid of MbS. This is totally unacceptable and ridiculous. Is it possible for a hit squad of 15 Saudis to arrive in Istanbul and murder an opponent Saudi journalist inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul without the knowledge of MbS? In such a case, would they be able to return to Saudi Arabia? They will be executed if they did such a thing according to their own will. Even al-Qahtani cannot do such a thing. This is not even a probability. So, everything is clear. There is only the trial left, but the Saudi administration refuses to cooperate.

One of the members of the killing team – Mashal Saad al-Bostani – reportedly died in a so-called traffic accident. But he was probably murdered. This is confirmed by various sources, and Turkey has also confirmed this. Now, they are saying that they do not know the whereabouts of Mutrab. I mean he is the main executer. Another member of the hit squad – Salah Muhammad Tubaigy – used to live in Jeddah after the incident according to our investigation, but we do not know whether he is still there or not. There is a rumour that the whole team are being kept together in an anonymous location. In short, the Saudi administration will not give these suspects to Turkey or the UN for a trial because of the possibility that they will speak and reveal all details including the name of who gave the order. They did not even allow the UN rapporteur to enter the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. In other words, the Saudi administration is not cooperating with anyone in order to solve the murder, even more, they have tried to sabotage Turkey’s attempts during the investigation process. We will see the outcomes of this historical incident in the near future.

The political responsibility of the Jamal Khashoggi murder belongs to MbS and the executers are the killer team of 15 people – these facts are certain.

Where do you think the body is?

We cannot talk about a body, but the remains of a body, since it was cut into pieces. And I believe these remains are in Turkey and were not taken out. Most probably inside the well of the Saudi consulate, if it were not removed from there later on. Another possibility is that they got rid of the pieces in another way. It is not difficult to do this once the body is dismantled, but not with acid. There is no evidence of this method being used according to our investigations. But we do know that the pieces of the body were taken to the residency from the consulate with suitcases. This is clear and Turkish authorities have tracked these steps. Video and voice recordings during and after the incident also confirm this. But, after this point, it is not clear. Just like with the entrance of Khashoggi going to the consulate and never leaving, the suitcases with the body pieces entered the residency and never came out. So, there is a high chance that they got rid of the remains inside the residency. They did not allow Turkish authorities to search the well, arguing that according to the Vienna Agreement, Turkish authorities could only search inside the buildings and not outside of them. Turkey is still trying to pursue a thorough investigation inside the consulate, but the Saudis are not responding at all. At this point, the situation is shameful and Saudis are fearful that this brutal murder will be revealed with all the evidence and remaining details.

To answer the second part of your question, I believe that the political future of MbS is at stake. The support of the U.S. is decreasing; any disagreement with the Trump administration can shake his seat. For example, if the rapprochement between the MbS administration and Russia gets stronger, the U.S. administration can easily pull down MbS. Former Crown Prince Muhammad b. Naif is a person trained by the FBI. These are clear in open sources, I am not making it up. Therefore, the U.S. always has a B plan. And the possibility of MbS getting closer to Putin is not something unreal. He has been approaching Russia since the murder, and we saw this at the G20 Summit. Khashoggi had also been writing against Putin, describing MbS as the Putin of Saudi Arabia. Here, the important point will be the decision made by the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council after the UN finalizes its report. But personally, I do not believe that the political career of MbS will continue, I highlight here again, after the death of King Salman.

“I believe that the political future of MbS is at stake. The support of the U.S. is decreasing; any disagreement with the Trump administration can shake his seat.”


What is the place of this murder in your life as a Turkish journalist?

Let me tell you this, we as a country, and not just as journalists but the whole of society, have been combatting terrorism, and I do not mean just one type of terrorism but various terrorist movements with different genetics, in a democratic approach for a long time. We have seen many attacks with different natures. But we have never seen such an attack on our soil. This is new for us. Unfortunately, this incident has entered our intelligence and diplomacy history as a ‘negative experience.’ It was not in our hands to prevent it, and after the incident, as the whole of Turkish society, we have done and are still doing what we have to do. I did not know Khashoggi, but as far as I know, he was a decent man who stood by Turkey during the July 15 coup attempt. Some rumoured that he was a Turkish spy, referring to his origins in Anatolia, which is really funny. He loved Turkey and its society, which is totally normal. But this point made the Saudi administration furious. It is really unfortunate that a man with 4 children and grandchildren, and who was in the eve of getting married was murdered this way. It is truly a sad story.

As journalists and as the special investigation department of our newspaper, Abdurrahim Simsek, Nazif Karaman and I felt like we had a responsibility. During our investigation, we realized that we needed to write a book on this incdent and were convinced that we could be the only department who could finish such a detailed research in a short period of time. And I believe we have done our best with the publication of this book.


Authors Abdurrahim Simsek, Nazif Karaman, and Ferhat Unlu presenting their book to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


Selahattin Emre Çelebi studied political science at Bilkent Univetsity. He holds an M.A. from the Department of Arabic and Islamic Civilizations at the American University in Cairo.