How the Unexplained Disappearance of a Saudi Journalist in Turkey Will Test U.S. Foreign Policy

Written by Chris Billups


On October 2, 2018, a Saudi journalist entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, but he has been missing since that day. Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance remains unexplained, but as investigations continue, it appears increasingly likely that the notable Saudi journalist met a far more tragic end. At this time, it cannot be confirmed whether Khashoggi was kidnapped, tortured, or executed inside the Saudi embassy, but as each day passes and Khashoggi remains missing, those theories grow more plausible. As the world seeks answers about the mysterious disappearance, world leaders face difficult legal and diplomatic decisions.


Jamal Khashoggi, 59, was more than a prominent Saudi journalist. He also served as a former adviser to top Saudi officials earlier in his career before becoming a journalist. In his column, Khashoggi praised Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms which permitted women to drive and enter the workforce. However, he also frequently criticized bin Salman’s restrictions on freedom of expression by drawing attention to the imprisonment of intellectuals and journalists which became commonplace. Fearing retaliation for his writing, Khashoggi has lived in self-imposed exile in Washington, D.C. for the last year, where he continued to criticize bin Salman in a Washington Post column.

At 1 p.m. on October 2, 2018, Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents to marry his Turkish fiancé, Hatice Cengiz. Prior to entering the consulate, Khashoggi gave her two cell phones, instructing her to call an adviser of Turkish President Erdogan if he did not emerge. The meeting was not expected to take more than an hour, but Cengiz waited for Khashoggi outside the embassy for ten hours. He never returned.

What We Know So Far

At this time, the only verified fact is that Khashoggi entered the Saudi embassy and has not yet emerged.

However, Turkish officials have concluded that he was murdered, and claim to possess recordings proving that Khashoggi was brutally tortured before being killed and dismembered with a bone saw inside the Saudi consulate. The Turkish government has also alleged that a team of fifteen Saudi agents was flown to Istanbul to perform the killing. They claim there is security camera footage of the team arriving in Istanbul, visiting the consulate an hour before Khashoggi, and then leaving the country the same day. Under long-standing international law, Turkish authorities were not permitted to investigate the consulate without Saudi permission. Upon receiving that permission, Turkish officials claim to have retrieved fingerprints belonging to several of the alleged killers and other “important samples.”

Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have vehemently denied the accusations and insist that Khashoggi left the consulate shortly after he arrived. However, they have not produced evidence proving that Khashoggi ever exited the consulate.

U.S. Involvement

In the days following Khashoggi’s disappearance, his fiancé wrote a letter to President Donald J. Trump imploring him to investigate. At the time this is being written, President Trump has refrained from accusing Saudi Arabia of any wrongdoing because concrete evidence has not yet been released verifying Khashoggi’s fate. But as details have emerged from Turkish authorities, U.S. lawmakers have called for action following Saudi Arabia’s most recent attempt to silence such a prominent dissident. As a result, a bipartisan group of 22 U.S. Senators invoked the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016, triggering a human rights probe into the case of Khashoggi’s disappearance.

The Global Magnitsky Act does not require the Trump Administration to levy sanction against Saudi Arabia even if they are found responsible for the disappearance of Khashoggi. However, the Act does require the Administration to decide within four months whether to impose financial or travel-related sanctions against the individuals responsible. Ultimately, the power granted to the President under this Act is discretionary. President Trump has the authority to levy sanctions against any foreign person responsible for, complicit in, or otherwise shown to have directly or indirectly engaged in “serious human rights abuse.” The sanctions may be enforced against government officials or any individuals acting on their behalf if shown to be directly or indirectly engaged in serious human rights abuse. Under this Act, President Trump has the authority to levy individual financial and travel-related sanctions against Crown Prince bin Salam. Implementing sanctions of that magnitude on Saudi officials would undoubtedly strain relations with the powerful and prosperous ally which have been revitalized under President Trump.

Saudi Arabia’s inability to provide concrete evidence proving Khashoggi exited the consulate threatens Saudi Arabia’s reputation throughout the international community. International leaders from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Russia have voiced their concern about the allegations and implore Turkey and Saudi Arabia to conduct credible investigations uncovering the truth. Like President Trump, international leaders of these countries are hesitant to condemn the Saudi government until credible investigations have been conducted. To ensure credible investigations, several human rights organizations have urged Turkey to request a timely and transparent United Nations investigation to prevent political biases from affecting the investigations.

Responsibility for Khashoggi’s disappearance would be a stain on a nation that has otherwise appeared to attempt reform, perhaps illustrating some truth to Khashoggi’s criticisms.


The Global Magnitsky Act was enacted to investigate and impose sanctions upon individuals who commit serious human rights violations. By invoking the Act in this investigation, Congress has given President Trump four months to decide whether to impose sanctions if foul-play occurred. As facts are uncovered in the coming weeks, President Trump’s foreign policy will be in the international spotlight.



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Jordan Tama, What is the Global Magnitsky Act, and why are U.S. senators invoking this on Saudi Arabia, WASH. POST, (Oct. 12, 2018).

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Photo courtesy of CNBC.