Friday, November 19, 2021

Prior to his murder, Jamal Khashoggi offered to help 9/11 victims suing Saudi Arabia

Michael Isikoff·Chief Investigative Correspondent

The meeting was rushed and, for Jamal Khashoggi, as risky as they come. The famed Saudi journalist, living in exile in the suburbs of northern Virginia, was furious with his government. He had just learned that it had imposed a travel ban on his adult son, blocking him from leaving Saudi Arabia — a clear punishment for Khashoggi’s increasingly forceful criticisms of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

And so, on the morning of Oct. 26, 2017, an agitated Khashoggi did something that for him would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier. He called a former FBI agent working for the families of 9/11 victims who were suing his government and asked to get together right away to discuss how he could help them.

Khashoggi’s rendezvous that morning with ex-agent Catherine Hunt at a northern Virginia coffee shop has long been a subject of mystery and intrigue. Why would Khashoggi — once a Saudi spin doctor who vigorously defended his country over the events of 9/11 — want to talk to a representative of the lawyers seeking to hold his government accountable for the terrorist attack? And even more significant, did senior Saudi officials know what he was up to that morning? And if they did know, did that play a role in his brutal slaughter inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul less than a year later?

In a special bonus episode of the Yahoo News podcast "Conspiracyland," Hunt — a veteran agent who worked counterterrorism and counterintelligence cases from Los Angeles to Baghdad — provides an exclusive account of her strange encounter with the Saudi journalist. It comes at a time when the lawyers for the victims’ families are entering a new and crucial phase of their case, having recently deposed three of their most important witnesses: a former Saudi Embassy official, a reputed Saudi intelligence operative and a radical imam at a Saudi-government-funded mosque, all of whom were suspected for years by the FBI of having provided assistance to two of the al-Qaida hijackers in the run-up to 9/11.

How strong a case the families have against the Saudi government remains far from clear, given that those and other depositions remain covered by a court-imposed gag order as well as a “state secrets” privilege imposed by former Attorney General William Barr that has blocked key details about the FBI investigation into the Saudi role in 9/11 from becoming public. (The lawyers for the families — with backing from members of Congress — are asking current Attorney General Merrick Garland to lift the privilege.)

But either way, Khashoggi’s meeting with Hunt stands out. It represents a tantalizing moment when the 9/11 families and their legal team, at least for a brief moment, seemed on the verge of getting the cooperation of a well-connected Saudi insider with intimate knowledge of his country’s interactions with al-Qaida.

In fact, it was Khashoggi’s unique background — as a onetime friend of Osama bin Laden who was later hired as the media adviser to a powerful Saudi prince and former chief of Saudi intelligence — that had prompted Hunt to reach out to him in the first place, about two weeks prior to their meeting.

“If you look back on the history of his career, he had a tremendous amount of connections and access to information,” Hunt said. “So he really was in a position to potentially be very helpful to us.”

When she first talked to Khashoggi, he was — according to Hunt — “very interested” in getting together, and they began discussing setting up a meeting. And then, early on the morning of Oct. 26, Khashoggi called her and wanted to move the meeting up, telling her he had urgent business to attend to and wanted to see her right away. She rushed over to the coffee shop in the Tysons Corner shopping mall that Khashoggi suggested. When she got there, she says, he was “very upset” that his son had been barred from leaving Saudi Arabia by authorities there. It had happened, as Khashoggi explained it, only because he was “being targeted by the regime.”

At that point, Hunt said, “he started to instruct me a lot about the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and that they were charged with the responsibility of spreading Islam throughout the world. He explained that really, it was a fundamentalist version of Islam that was being propagated, and that the current government was trying to reform that position.

“He said it more in a question: ‘Is my country responsible for tolerating and even supporting radicalism? Yes. And they must take responsibility for that.’"

Even that relatively small concession, Hunt thought, was “golden.” Here was a prominent Saudi apparently prepared to say his country should be held accountable for the spread of radical Islam — and the ensuing acts of terrorism it caused. But then Khashoggi said something even more surprising. He asked if the New York-based law firm Hunt was working for, Kreindler & Kreindler, was prepared to offer him a job as a consultant to the 9/11 families' legal team. If so, he emphasized, they would have to be secretive about it. No more get-togethers in the Washington, D.C., area, where the Saudi presence was extensive.

“He was very interested in talking about it,” Hunt said. “He wanted to have the next meeting in New York, not the D.C. area.

“I was excited,” she added. “I was thrilled that he was so positive about it. I think he could have added a tremendous amount.” As to Khashoggi’s motivation in making such an offer, Hunt said: “Here he was, he found himself in exile. And I think working with the law firm would have given him a chip in the game, if you will.”

But Hunt never heard from Khashoggi again — and the full significance of their meeting didn’t hit home until more than a year later, in the weeks after his murder inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. The Washington Post had reported that the then Saudi ambassador to the United States, Khalid bin Salman (or KBS, the brother of Mohammed bin Salman), might have played a role in luring Khashoggi to Istanbul. The ambassador responded in a tweet that he'd had no contact with Khashoggi since they communicated via text on Oct. 26, 2017 — the same day as the meeting with Hunt.

What Khashoggi and KBS (now the country’s deputy defense minister, who met with Biden administration officials this week during a trip to Washington) texted or communicated about that day remains unknown. But Jim Kreindler, the lead lawyer for the 9/11 families, said he is convinced Khashoggi sought to use the meeting with Hunt as leverage with the Saudi ambassador to help his son.

“There isn't a doubt in my mind that after speaking to Catherine, he called KBS and said, ‘Hey, the plaintiffs' lawyers had an FBI agent talking to me. I didn't give them anything yet, but, you know, you mess with my son and I'm going to spill the beans.’"

To be sure, Kreindler has no hard evidence to support his speculation. But the curious timing of Khashoggi’s meeting with Hunt — on the same day he was communicating with the Saudi ambassador to the United States — adds one more mystery to the many surrounding the last year of the journalist’s life before the Saudi team of assassins injected him with a lethal dose of drugs, suffocated him and then carved up his body inside the consulate in Istanbul.