Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “The Osama bin Laden I know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader.”
Corey A. Stewart, the Republican nominee for the Senate seat in Virginia, appeared on CNN Friday and told Anderson Cooper that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul three weeks ago, was “a mystery guy. He’s a mystery figure. There are a lot of things that say he was a bad guy … there’s a lot of reports out there that he was connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, reports that he was connected to Osama bin Laden.”
This has been a common talking point among some of President Donald Trump’s supporters, which is to suggest that Khashoggi’s killing matters less if he was aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood or once knew Osama bin Laden. Trump and some of his backers have been at pains to blunt the condemnation that has been hurled worldwide at the Saudi regime, and in particular, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in whom the US administration has invested much political capital.
More than a decade ago, long before any of this was a matter of controversy, I interviewed Khashoggi at length in London for a book I was writing, “The Osama bin Laden I Know.” On June 13, 2005, I asked Khashoggi a number of questions about the nature of his relationship with bin Laden, his connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the proper role of religion in politics.
When I spoke to Khashoggi, he was working as a media adviser to Prince Turki al Faisal, then Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom. Before that role, Khashoggi had worked for a variety of Saudi newspapers as a journalist and later an editor. Prior to his journalism career, he had studied business administration at Indiana State University, from which he graduated in 1983.
Khashoggi discussed his pioneering reporting for Arab News about bin Laden, his understanding of the formation of al Qaeda, and the last time he met with bin Laden. Khashoggi also discussed his feelings about the 9/11 attacks and his hopes and fears for the future of Saudi Arabia.
What follows are excerpts from that interview. This interview shows that Khashoggi wasn’t some kind of secret jihadist, but a journalist simply doing his job who evolved from an Islamist in his twenties to a more liberal position by the time he was in his forties.
It’s also clear from the interview, which Khashoggi gave 13 years before he was was killed in what the Saudi foreign minister agrees was a murder (and six years before US Navy SEALS killed bin Laden), that he had once been close to bin Laden, but had become increasingly alienated from him, particularly beginning two decades ago when bin Laden first declared his war against the United States.
By 2005, Khashoggi said he had also rejected the Islamist idea of creating an Islamic state and had turned against the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia. He also had embraced the Enlightenment and American idea of the separation of church and state.
Khashoggi attended college in Indiana during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a period when he first became interested in political Islam.
“I was introduced to political Islam and I become an activist in a sense. It was after 1980, with the Iranian revolution and the rise of Islamic awareness throughout the world. I was still living in Terre Haute (Indiana) at that time and I began to attend Islamic conferences and meetings.”
“Seven months after my graduation [from college in Indiana] I ended up in working in a [Saudi] newspaper. I was about 24 or 25. I was religious at that time.”
Khashoggi came to know bin Laden when he was living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the early 1980s.
“Osama was just like many of us who become part of the [Muslim] Brotherhood movement in Saudi Arabia. The only difference that set him apart from others, and me, he was more religious. More religious, more literal, more fundamentalist. For example, he would not listen to music. He would not shake hands with a woman. He would not smoke. He would not watch television, unless it is news. He wouldn’t play cards. He would not put a picture on his wall. But more than that, there was also a harsh or radical side in his life. I’m sure you have some people like that in your culture. For example, even though he comes from a rich family, he lives in a very simple house.”
Khashoggi was the first journalist from a mainstream Arab media organization to cover the Arab volunteers fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviets during the 1980s.
“In late ’87 I had a scoop. I was invited to write about the role of Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan and I liked the idea. It was Osama [who invited me]. I knew him slightly in Jeddah. We were almost the same age. I liked his enthusiasm. He was very enthusiastic, very devoted. We are from the same generation, same background. I went to Peshawar [in Pakistan] and then I traveled inside Afghanistan. [I found a] very enthusiastic bunch of Arabs who believe in what they are doing, very proud of what they are doing.”
“I interviewed Osama. [He was] a gentle, enthusiastic young man of few words who didn’t raise his voice while talking. [We discussed] the condition of the mujahideen and what he [bin Laden] was doing to help them. I did not know him thoroughly enough to judge him or expect any other thing from him. His behavior at that time left no impression that he would become what he has become.”
Bin Laden founded al Qaeda in Peshawar, Pakistan, in August 1988. He soon told Khashoggi about his plans for the group.
“Al Qaeda was founded almost the same time when I first heard it from Osama himself. Bin Laden saw that Afghan jihad would be over soon, the Soviets have withdrawn, and it’s just a matter of time. He predicted that the mujahideen would be victorious in weeks or months. So what will we do with those Arab mujahideen? They will go back to their countries, but the flame of jihad should continue elsewhere, so he saw that there would be opportunities in places like Central Asia. But there was no talk of United States, Europe. It will be called al Qaeda. Whenever we see an opportunity of jihad arising, we will call upon those members of al Qaeda to come and join us.”
“I was surprised, and I discussed it with him, and I said: ‘But Arab regimes will not like that.’”
Khashoggi met bin Laden for the last time in in 1995 in Sudan, where al Qaeda’s leader was then living in exile.
“Osama was almost about to change his mind and reconcile and come back to Saudi Arabia. It was a lost opportunity.”
In 1997, bin Laden gave a bellicose interview to CNN and subsequently issued a declaration saying he was at war with the United States.
“I was very much surprised to see Osama turning into radicalism the way he did. When I heard that announcement in that declaration he made. It is not Osama. It is not the way he was brought up.”
Khashoggi was at work when he first heard the news of the 9/11 attacks.
“I was in my office in Arab News in Jeddah. I was thinking of Osama at that time. I was thinking of him — no doubt about it. Two days later I wrote an article about 9/11 and I said, ‘May God help us. The Americans will come out from their wounds, but we will have a problem to last us some time.’ And I think I’m right.”
Khashoggi explained his political vision for Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East, which was to find an accommodation between secularism and Islam.
“Right now I don’t believe that we must create an Islamic state. I think an Islamic state would be a burden, maybe would fail, and people will have a big disappointment. Maybe it would shake our belief in the faith if we insist on establishing an Islamic state. What if the Islamic state failed? Like in Iran. Then we are going to doubt the religion itself. The Quran stresses that it is prohibited to force the religion on others. ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ It’s a matter of choice.”
“I think we must find a way where we can accommodate secularism and Islam, something like what they have in Turkey.”
In 2003, Khashoggi was forced out from his job as editor of the Saudi Al Watan newspaper because of critiques he had published of the conservative Wahhabi religious establishment in Saudi Arabia.
“The clergy. They didn’t like me. They didn’t like the way I ran the paper. Totally lobbied against me and they got me out. I miss journalism and I think it’s a very interesting time in my country. I see change, and I would like to be part of that change.”
Stewart and other Trump supporters who are hoping to smear a murdered journalist with his relationship with bin Laden that ended almost 2½ decades ago, or his purported Islamist sympathies, are not familiar with the facts of the matter, which Khashoggi laid out clearly in his 2005 interview.