As the political and diplomatic fallout of the murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi continues to play out, attention within some conservative circles has shifted from Khashoggi’s murder to the views and ties he may have held during his life. Rush Limbaugh, for example, has started to accuse Khashoggi of being “a practicing, active member” of the Muslim Brotherhood and “buddies” with Osama bin-Laden. One right-wing figure on Twitter lambasted the late journalist as “a Muslim Brotherhood operative, a pro-jihad, pro-Iranian, pro–[Turkish Presiden Tayyip] Erdoğan Jew-hater. A supporter of Iran…. a warrior on the wrong side of the war on terror.”
GOP members of Congress, Fox News correspondents, and surrogates of Donald Trump such as his son, Don Jr., have all gotten in on the act, repeating and circulating these accusations under the guise of simply “reporting the facts” or “asking questions,” suggesting that the mainstream press is glossing over Khashoggi’s views. As a Middle East analyst states, “None of this is to say that killing Khashoggi can be remotely justified. But there are far too many important questions still not being asked, let alone answered.”
If we separate fact from innuendo, however, the important questions have been answered; all we need to do is pay attention to those answers, starting today with the reality of Khashoggi’s history with bin Laden.
Questions: Was Khashoggi a “buddy” of Osama bin Laden?
Answer: Once upon a time, yes, Khashoggi was a friend of bin Laden. And so was the United States.
Jamal Khashoggi definitely knew many Islamists during his life, including those who were undoubtedly terrorists, such as Osama bin Laden. Khashoggi described initially meeting bin Laden in the city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s commercial center, in he 1980s. Both young men were inspired by Islamic revolutions in the Middle East, such as the popular 1979 Iranian Revolution. This was also around the time that the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in order to prop up a communist government in that country, leading to he formation of a religiously-inspired insurgency against the Soviets called the mujahideen. Bin Laden, already developing a strict and radical view of Islam that justified employing violence on behalf of the religion, would leave his comfortable life in a wealthy Saudi family to join the mujahideen, and these veterans of the 1980s Afghan war would go on to form the core of al-Qaeda. At the time, however, the United States considered the mujahideen allies, based on a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” stance against the Soviet Union. In many American eyes, the mujahideen were brave, heroic freedom fighters battling a much stronger, godless communist army. President Reagan hosted some of the fighters in a White House meeting in 1986, Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson helped channel weapons to the fighters, an operation that was later portrayed in a 2007 Hollywood film starring Tom Hanks. Britain sent weapons as well. The popular 1988 action movie Rambo III explicitly portrays the mujahideen as “holy warriors” fighting a “holy war” (that is, a jihad).
As a young journalist, Khashoggi was offered exclusive access to his old friend bin Laden in Afghanistan, traveling there in 1988 to do an exclusive story on bin Laden and his group of jihadist fighters. That’s where Khashoggi posed for a now criticized cover photo of the reporter holding a rocket launcher while standing in the midst of Arab mujahideen fighters. As implied by the photo, Khashoggi was admittedly a supporter of the war against the USSR, but he has said that he broke with bin Laden when the latter chose to continue fight his jihad after the Soviets had been defeated; bin Laden had decided to extend his jihad to other targets, including the Saudi royal family, and formed al-Qaeda from the Afghan veterans. The group would eventually leave Afghanistan and take up residence in Sudan.
Khashoggi later crossed paths with bin Laden in the mid-1990s, as recounted by Lawrence Wright, who interviewed Khashoggi for his book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Khashoggi had been urged by bin Laden’s family, with the support of the Saudi royal family, to meet with Osama under the guise of an interview and to use their friendship to convince the al-Qaeda leader to renounce his jihad, which might smooth the way for bin Laden to return to Saudi Arabia. Although bin Laden was apparently weary of his failing jihad, he nevertheless played hardball and rejected the offer delivered by Khashoggi absent official guarantees from the Saudi government (which Khashoggi, as a private citizen, did no have to give). This would be the last time the two men would meet.
Two years later, bin Laden declared war on the United States, something he had hinted at during his last meeting with Khashoggi and an idea that the journalist tried to dissuade him from following. Bin Laden, now back in Afghanistan, explained this decision to Western audiences via a 1997 interview from with CNN’s Peter Arnett, (who, was himself later fired from NBC for a 2003 interview he granted with Iraqi state TV during the early days of the Iraq War, but that’s another story). Jamal Khashoggi would later state that the bin Laden who targeted civilians and authorized suicide attacks was not the man he knew from the 1980s.
In a later post, I’ll address the issues surrounding Khashoggi and the Muslim Brotherhood, which are admittedly a bit more complicated (largely because the Brotherhood itself is a complicated organization, to say the least).