The Canadian connection to the Khashoggi murder

Publication name: National Post
Date: YYYY/MM/DD - 2018/10/20
Page: A6
Reporter: Allison Hanes

The details emerging about the disappearance and likely killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi grow more sickening by the day - and with them, the certainty that this was an assassination orchestrated at the highest levels of the Saudi regime.

Surveillance footage shows a close aide to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul before Khashoggi arrived and leaving the country hours later laden with a bulky suitcase. This confidante of MBS, as the de facto ruling royal is known, was among 15 Saudi security officials who arrived in Turkey shortly before Khashoggi was last seen and departed again shortly after, including a forensic pathologist with a bone saw. An audio recording purports to capture the torture, dismemberment and beheading of the Washington Post columnist partly in the office of the Saudi consul himself.

The macabre evidence has come out in Turkey’s tightly controlled media, strongly suggesting state approval for the release of the information. Each disturbing fact further unravels Saudi Arabia’s angry denials and casts doubt on the White House’s credulity in the face of their strategic ally’s claims that “rogue” agents may have accidentally killed Khashoggi during a botched interrogation.

But as international outrage mounts over the apparent slaying and coverup, a Canadian connection may shed new light on Khashoggi’s horrific fate.

Another Saudi exile based in Quebec supplied the Washington Post with secret recordings he made of emissaries allegedly sent by MBS. They promised him money and security in exchange for returning home and halting his criticism of the Kingdom.

Omar Abdulaziz, who is a permanent resident of Canada, said the meetings occurred in Montreal in May. The two interlocutors hinted there would be trouble if Abdulaziz didn’t accept their entreaties. They brought his younger brother from Saudi Arabia along for the meeting. At one point they wanted Abdulaziz to go with them to the local consulate to pick up a new passport.

Khashoggi had told friends of similar attempts to lure him home in the months before he vanished.

Abdulaziz was also a friend of Khashoggi, and told the Washington Post the two critics had discussed co-operating on projects to counter Saudi propaganda at home and promote democracy in the Arab world.

Abdulaziz earlier this week spoke to CBC about his association with the journalist and wondered if their discussions may have been a factor in his apparent demise. Another CBC report published on Oct. 1 - one day before Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and was not seen again - also revealed Abdulaziz had been a target of powerful spyware surreptitiously installed on his smartphone in June.

The discovery made by the Citizens Lab at the University of Toronto tracked a type of espionage tool that is frequently used by foreign governments. It grants unfettered access to infected phones, including texts, emails, phone conversations, contacts, photos - even control of the camera and microphone to eavesdrop on the owner’s activities.

The Citizens Lab investigation determined with a high level of probability that Saudi Arabia deliberately targeted Abdulaziz, who came to McGill University in 2009 as a student, began criticizing the Kingdom’s repression and abysmal human rights record on social media, had his scholarship revoked in 2013, claimed asylum, and was granted permanent residency in 2014.

“So now, maybe they’re using just hacking stuff to get to my phone. Tomorrow maybe they’re going to harm me physically,” Abdulaziz told CBC when the spying allegations became public. “It’s about how far they can go. What are they capable of doing?” Haunting words in light of recent events.

The grisly details about Khashoggi’s apparent death do indeed seem to demonstrate how far the Saudis are prepared to go to eliminate one outspoken nuisance in a faraway land.

MBS has been hailed as a reformer since assuming daily control of Saudi Arabia from King Salman, allowing women to drive, opening cinemas and opening the oilrich Kingdom to investment. But he has also shown thin skin, impulsiveness and a sinister side.

Under MBS, Saudi Arabia has cracked down on dissidents, confined members of the royal family to the Riyadh Ritz, briefly kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon, imposed a blockade on Qatar and waged a war in Yemen that has killed countless civilians and pushed the country to the brink of famine.

And let’s not forget the furious and over-the-top rebuke of Canada in August. When Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her department tweeted their concern for the detention of activists Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada, Saudi Arabia slammed the door on trade deals, recalled its ambassador, halted flights by its national airline, uprooted students on scholarships, threatened to remove medical residents working here and unleashed online trolls to whip up support for Quebec sovereignty - all over perceived interference in its domestic affairs.

It was all meant to send a message to allies and rivals alike: mess with Saudi Arabia and pay the price.

Canada was left isolated during this diplomatic tantrum. Few countries rushed to our defence. The United States declined to stand up for its friend and neighbour, underscoring a low point in our historic alliance. President Donald Trump’s admiration for dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin or North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s cosy relationship with MBS no doubt factored into the muted response.

The world has long been willing to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s egregious human rights abuses, brutal suppression of opposition, persecution of religious minorities, subjugation of women and fomenting of extremism. Its vast oil reserves, tremendous wealth and strategic importance in the Middle East have shielded it from pressure to reform.

But it’s difficult to ignore what looks like the barbaric murder of a journalist by a high-level hit squad on foreign soil.

Saudi Arabia is behaving like a rogue state and the international community must demand accountability - and real accountability, not throwing a patsy under the bus.

The silencing of Khashoggi’s is appalling. But the Canadian connection hints that it may not be a one off.

ahanes@postmedia.com