MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
We're going to talk now about the man behind a name you have been hearing a lot these last few days, Jamal Khashoggi. he is the Saudi journalist who walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week and then disappeared, was never seen walking out, prompting reports that he was kidnapped or maybe murdered by a hit squad flown in from Riyadh for that express purpose. But who is or was Jamal Khashoggi, and why would he have been seen as posing such a danger to the Saudi regime that such an extraordinary operation would have been put in motion?
Well, we're going to put those questions now to Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution. Welcome.
SHADI HAMID: Hi. Thanks for having me.
KELLY: Glad to have you with us. All right, we know some basic facts - Jamal Khashoggi's age, 59; that he's an editor, that he's a critic of his government in Saudi Arabia. What else should we know about him?
HAMID: So the interesting thing about him is that he wasn't always a dissident, and he was actually a consummate insider with close connections to the Saudi royal court. That's what makes this different. This is someone who came from the inside and then decided that he could no longer support new Saudi policies under a new leadership. And he left Saudi Arabia in June 2017, and...
KELLY: He went into exile. He came to the U.S.
HAMID: Yes, came to the U.S.
KELLY: And started writing for The Washington Post. What did he write that would have annoyed the Saudi regime so much?
HAMID: So one of his pieces that is getting a lot of attention now in retrospect he wrote in September 2017 where he basically announced his break with Saudi Arabia's de facto leader, Mohammad bin Salman, also known as MbS.
KELLY: The crown prince.
HAMID: And he supported some of the general reforms that MbS was trying to put forward, including more rights for women. But he felt that if Saudi Arabia was going to go through a transformation, that the people had to be part of the conversation. And the Saudi leadership and MbS in particular increasingly moved in a direction where they didn't want any questioning of this new direction. And Khashoggi couldn't bring himself to agree with that. And I think that he was pained to have this break with the Saudi regime. He didn't want it.
KELLY: As you look back over what he wrote, what he did, what he said over the last year or two, was there a moment where it appeared he'd crossed a line and was starting to put himself into danger?
HAMID: You know, I don't know if we can point to one moment, but I think we can say that he had become the most prominent Saudi dissident but, more importantly, the most prominent Saudi dissident in the West - I mean, the fact that he wrote regularly for The Washington Post, the fact that he knew many in the policy community in D.C. So I think he was the one person who could credibly and effectively cast doubt on Mohammad bin Salman's vision for Saudi Arabia at a time when Mohammad bin Salman, or MbS, as he's called, was really trying to portray himself as this young reformer and the young reformer that America should hitch its wagon to.
KELLY: This is interesting because a lot of journalists have written critically about Saudi Arabia and the direction that Mohammad bin Salman is taking it. What you're describing is why he might have been seen as a - as more of a danger than others, that he had such a platform, that he was so well-connected in Washington and outside of Saudi Arabia.
HAMID: Yeah, and he's coming from within Saudi society. He knows the major players and leaders in the Saudi royal court. So it's different. You know, if I criticize Saudi Arabia for something, that's one thing. But if Jamal Khashoggi did that, then it's different because he's speaking from within the family.
KELLY: Does it still strike you as puzzling, though? I mean, the reports being sourced to Turkish officials, Turkish investigators saying that this team of 15 people flew in on private planes with the express purpose of targeting Khashoggi - that just seems like a massive operation to take out one editor.
HAMID: It sounds so crazy that it's hard to get your head around it that Saudi Arabia would go this far to allegedly kill one of their critics.
KELLY: Can you imagine that this actually happened in the way that Turkish officials say it did?
HAMID: Yes, I think it's the most persuasive and plausible scenario right now. I think many people have been waiting for the Saudis to offer evidence to the contrary. They haven't. But not only that, they've shown I think a surprising level of indifference almost as if, you know, they're taunting the international community in a sense. And if they really didn't do it, then there's a way for them to demonstrate that. But I think that the evidence is building. And also sources from different intelligence agencies are moving in this direction, it seems, that this is the most plausible scenario.
KELLY: Shadi Hamid, thanks so much.
HAMID: Thanks for having me, my pleasure.
KELLY: Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. We have been talking about Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.