The killing of Jamal Khashoggi: making political capital

The murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul continues to dominate mainstream media.

Khashoggi, who had been highly critical of the Saudi regime, its military actions in Yemen, and in particular Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had left his home country in September 2017 to settle in Turkey. On 2 October 2018 he went to the Saudi consulate to pick up papers which he needed to get married. It was here that he was tortured and killed.

Initially declared a missing person, it was 18 days before the Saudi Arabian government finally admitted that he had died: they first blamed the death on a fist fight, but eventually reportedly arrested 18 Saudis who were suspected of involvement in the incident. Senior officials were also sacked. However, these actions did not serve to quell the growing international uproar over the murder.

Earlier this week Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for the perpetrators of the “savage” premeditated killing to be extradited to Turkey and put on trial there. Erdoğan has been releasing information on a drip-by-drip basis, allowing further details to trickle out as he no doubt seeks to make the most political capital possible from Khashoggi’s murder. Perhaps as part of an effort to somehow guarantee the support of the US in his confrontation with Saudi Arabia, he also quickly and unexpectedly authorised the release of an American pastor who had been detained in Turkey on espionage and terror-related charges.

In the US, Donald Trump was heavily criticised for his initial response to the killing. Speaking to reporters at the White House on 15 October, he said that the Saudi king “flatly denied” any knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance, adding: “It sounded to me like maybe these could be rogue killers, who knows?” (source)

He later changed his stance, and this week described the response to the murder as “the worst cover-up” in history, before announcing sanctions against Saudi officials implicated in the incident.

Here in the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May stated that identified suspects would have visas revoked and would be prevented from entering the country.

Meanwhile, Russia has not condemned the murder, instead preferring to minimise the incident. This is hardly surprising, given Moscow’s record of arranging the deaths - both at home and abroad - of a variety of political opponents, such as journalists or exiled spies.

The Kremlin has also signalled a willingness for greater economic cooperation with Riyadh: high-level delegates were sent to the ‘Davos in the Desert’ conference that took place this week, contrasting markedly with the well-publicised decisions of the chief executives of companies such as Siemens, Deutsche Bank and Uber to withdraw from participating in the event.

President Putin will doubtless view the current unstable situation between western powers and Riyadh as an opportunity both to enhance cooperation in the hugely important energy sector, and to move into the very lucrative arms trade.

Indeed, both the US and the UK have been coming under pressure to follow Germany’s lead and suspend arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Such demands are of course nothing new: in recent months US-manufactured bombs were found to have been used in Saudi attacks in Yemen, with one of them resulting in the deaths of 40 schoolchildren. Although it would seem likely that the sale of American and British arms will continue, Russia will certainly be making offers aimed at replacing western suppliers.

The murder of Khashoggi led to several cyber operations being launched, with hackers associated with Anonymous posting a long list of websites to be targeted: attacks tagged with #OpJamalKhashoggi/#OpKhashoggi or #OpSaudi have been occurring at a steady rate ever since.

The actions have mainly comprised DDoS attacks to date. Sites hit have included the Ministry of Civil Service, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Labour, the Saudi Public Security Directorate, Saudi Tax Authority, Saudi Monetary Authority, the Royal Court and the Saudi Press Agency.

Some hackers have also focused their efforts on the financial sector, targeting the Central Bank of Saudi Arabia, Al Rajhi Bank, Banque Saudi Fransi and the Saudi British Bank. An attack against Alawwal Bank was also tagged with a new operation name, #OpBlackOutSaudiBanks.

In addition, the website for the Future Investment Initiative (aka ‘Davos in the Desert’) was taken offline after hackers managed to deface it by uploading an image depicting Khashoggi wearing an orange jumpsuit, with Mohammed bin Salman standing over him wielding a sword. A second image contained the names and other personal details of alleged Saudi “terrorists and spies”. The defacements were widely shared on social media and led to the website being taken offline for some time.

While websites targeted so far have mainly been government-owned or related to the financial sector as noted above, it is possible that hackers will expand their remit to include attacks on oil or petroleum companies, given the heavy reliance of the Saudi economy on energy.

The cyber threat level for any organisations based in Saudi Arabia is currently severe, and companies operating in the region are advised to carry out regular security audits and patch systems as quickly as possible.

We expect the situation to deteriorate further – at least in the short term.