(October 23, 2018 / JNS) Media pundits everywhere are not happy that Jamal Khashoggi’s friendship with Osama bin Laden has become a topic. Robert Costa and Karoun Demirjian write in The Washington Post about a “whisper campaign” with conservatives “raising conspiratorial questions about his work decades ago as an embedded reporter covering Osama bin Laden.”
CNN headlines claim that Rush Limbaugh “falsely ties Khashoggi to bin Laden.” The Daily Local News complains that “conservatives are smearing slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi in an attempt to justify President Trump’s handling of the journalist’s death.” Even Howard Kurtz of Fox News’ Media Buzz seemed to dispute that Khashoggi knew bin Laden in any other context than as a journalist.
But Khashoggi’s relationship with bin Laden predates his days as an “embedded reporter” in Afghanistan, and it endured after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan in 1989. Need proof? Take a look at Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006).
Wright, who is certainly no conservative, lists Khashoggi as one of the 560 people he interviewed for his book, and Khashoggi is quoted extensively. Let’s have a look.
In Chapter 3, Khashoggi is quoted about his early friendship with bin Laden when, as high school students, they both joined the Muslim Brotherhood together: “ ‘We were hoping to establish an Islamic state anywhere,’ said Jamal Khashoggi, a friend of bin Laden’s who joined the Brotherhood about the same time. ‘We believed that the first one would lead to another, and kind of have a domino effect which could reverse the history of mankind.’ ” (p. 78)
In 1991, bin Laden offered to protect the desert kingdom, with his Afghan Arabs, from another potential Saddam invasion. When he was rebuffed, tensions mounted and he moved to the Sudan. In 1994, he formed the Advice and Reform Committee (ARC), and criticized the Saudi rulers from the safety of Khartoum.
Khashoggi was a visitor to bin Laden’s Sudanese base. Wright describes the Al Qaeda leader taking him on tours of his gardens and horticultural genetics labs. They feasted together on Saudi dishes while bin Laden discussed his Sudanese construction projects and the recent attempts on his life: “Bin Laden obliquely blamed ‘regimes in our Arabic region’ for the assaults. When his old friend Jamal Khashoggi asked him what he meant by that, bin Laden pointed to Egyptian intelligence” (p. 193).
In 1995, Wright explains, bin Laden “began to have second thoughts about his life.” So the bin Laden family contacted Khashoggi about the situation. “His family heard about his yearning to come home, and they turned to a longtime friend of his, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who had covered bin Laden’s exploits in Afghanistan. Khashoggi’s job was to get Osama to grant an interview in which he renounced violence … bin Laden cheerfully received his friend. Khashoggi had visited him several times before in Khartoum.” (p. 199)
When the Saudis eventually found the situation unbearable, they, too, enlisted bin Laden’s old pal Khashoggi to talk sense to him. Here is how Wright tells the story: “Khashoggi explained his mission, and in clear, unambiguous language, bin Laden condemned the use of violence inside the Kingdom. Khashoggi pulled out his tape recorder. ‘Why don’t you say that on the record?’ he asked.” (p. 200)
Notably, bin Laden only told Khashoggi that he would renounce the use of violence inside Saudi Arabia. America was still his primary target. But bin Laden balked, so Khashoggi urged him to act: “ ‘Osama, this is very dangerous,’ Jamal replied. ‘It is as if you are declaring war. You will give the right to the Americans to hunt for you.’ ” (p. 200)
Wright conveys a sense of desperation, as Khashoggi appeared genuinely concerned about his friend. He tried to assure bin Laden that he was not an agent of the House of Saud, but rather an old friend trying to lend assistance: “I’m not representing the government. Just say something, break the ice! Maybe there will be a positive reaction. Don’t forget you said a few nasty things about the Kingdom.” (p. 201)
When bin Laden failed to take the lifeline his childhood friend was offering, Khashoggi became exasperated: “ ‘Osama, any Saudi person would be afraid to be seen with you in public,’ said Jamal. ‘Why can’t you see that?’ ”
Whatever else he was or was not, Jamal Khashoggi was a friend of Osama bin Laden.
A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.