When Donald Trump announced that his first trip abroad as president would take him to Saudi Arabia and to Israel, it was a signal that the new administration had returned America’s traditional alliances in the Middle East to their privileged status. For the prior eight years, the Obama White House had, in contrast, prioritized relations with these countries’ regional adversary in Iran and embraced the Islamic Republic’s regional allies, Turkey and Qatar, as key interlocutors and partners. The Obama administration also supported Islamist movements in the Middle East, principally the Muslim Brotherhood, that threated to topple regimes and instigate more hostility toward the Jewish State. Even before taking office, it was clear that the Trump administration would reverse these policies.
Obviously, some were alarmed both at the American turn back to Jerusalem and Riyadh as well as the Trump administration’s recognition of the threat of political Islam, but none more than the architects of Obama foreign policy and the many talking heads, reporters, think tank wags and politicians who supported it and comprised their “echo chamber.”
That effort, spearheaded by former National Security Council Communications Director Ben Rhodes, organized a chorus of voices in support of Obama national security policy and waged brutal rhetorical war on its enemies in the press. Indeed, over the last decade, this community has come to broadly view the Iranian regime, Erdogan’s Turkey and Qatar-sponsored Muslim Brotherhood as positive forces in the Middle East. Moreover, they resented the efforts by Israel and Saudi Arabia to combat their signature achievement, the Iran Deal, an agreement they believed would solidify a new alliance with that country.
In some ways, the American public’s support for the Jewish State made it difficult for Obama partisans to wage total information war against it, even as they did just that during the intense time of the Iran Deal debate in 2015. The monarchy of Saudi Arabia, by contrast, was vulnerable; it quickly found itself the target of a relentless and hostile American press corps.
By the end of the first week of October 2018, when the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi set off a global media firestorm, these voices, including many that were prominent in American media, were primed to take advantage—and revenge. Faced with a common enemy, members of the media and policy community who comprised the “echo chamber” that spun and amplified the positions of the Obama administration soon found themselves aligned with a sophisticated Turkish and Qatari information operation to target the US-Saudi alliance.
Due to their policy biases and the friendly intellectual environment created and nurtured by petrodollars inside the Beltway, American elites and policymakers have been soft targets for Qatari influence and information operations. Information operations use media and traditional tools of public relations to advance policy interests through narratives. A negative message is always more potent than a positive one, so operators of all kinds quickly find that the easiest way to advance one’s interests is to coordinate and weaponize media attacks on one’s enemies or rivals.
The narrative focusing on the death of Jamal Khashoggi was to be put into the service of both Qatar and Turkey’s main interest, undermining the stability of its rival, Saudi Arabia. When complete, the successful information operation would depict Khashoggi a heroic martyr to independent journalism and freedom, while Saudi Arabia would be the embodiment of evil and callousness. It is clear now that, not only was Khashoggi transmogrified in death into a major front in Qatar’s war on its Gulf neighbors; in life, he was Qatar’s asset in that war, as well.
The effort to transform Khashoggi from the political operative he was into a journalist and martyr for freedom was an information operation waged largely in the United States. It targeted a diverse audience spanning from “echo chamber” commentators and media figures to politicians, who would then be moved to act based on the new attitude and information the campaign had inserted into the discussion. This operational aspect is of primary importance; as information operations always work to advance policy interests, in order to succeed, these perceptions must affect policymakers and cause them to alter policy.
As the news of Khashoggi’s disappearance and death broke, nearly the entire media was abuzz with praise for the late columnist and engaged in an effort to turn him into a martyr for democratic values, free expression and freedom.
As the Post described him recently, “[Khashoggi was] a writer of modest influence beyond the Middle East when he was alive. In death, he has become a symbol of a broader struggle for human rights.” No outlet did more in the service of cementing that symbolism than the Washington Post and its news and editorial staff. Since October, that outlet has functioned unofficially as the most relentless and influential anti-Saudi lobbying shop in the nation’s capital. Indeed, the successful campaign of hagiography spearheaded by The Post prompted Time Magazine to name Khashoggi and other members of the media “Person of the Year.”
Of course, in order to do this, the media largely ignored salient facts about him that emerged almost immediately: his long history as an apologist and propagandist for the Muslim Brotherhood; his youthful collaboration with Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda in Afghanistan; his antipathy toward both Israel and Shia Muslims; as well as rumors about his questionable and financial links to Qatari intelligence.
Now, shockingly, the Washington Post itself has largely revealed those rumors to be true. We now know that Jamal Khashoggi was never a journalist—at least, not in the usual sense of the word; he was a highly-partisan operative who worked with a handler to publish propaganda at the behest of the Emirate of Qatar. He was, in other words, an agent of influence.
Rumors have floated inside the Beltway about the contents of Khashoggi’s text messages and, potentially, evidence of wire transfers from Qatar found at his residences in Turkey and in Virginia. The Post’s pre-Christmas release of this information is almost certainly in an effort to get ahead of a story that another outlet is pursuing, and frame some rather explosive revelations in the least damaging way.
In an extensive background portrait of Khashoggi buoyed with accounts from sympathetic friends, reporters Souad Mekhennet and Greg Miller admit that, “text messages between Khashoggi and an executive at Qatar Foundation International show that the executive, Maggie Mitchell Salem, at times shaped the columns he submitted to The Washington Post, proposing topics, drafting material and prodding him to take a harder line against the Saudi government.” The article also glides past crucial context about the relationships Khashoggi cultivated with Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood figures, especially in recent years, and why these connections are important to the work he was doing on behalf of Qatar.
Still, this report is crucial because the campaign to lionize Khashoggi and to destroy the US-Saudi relationship was built on the fiction that the Saudis had killed a mere journalist. Knowing the truth about Khashoggi—not only his anti-Americanism and pro-Islamism (which, for most of the media, is no sin), but his ties to Qatari information operators—would complicate the narrative greatly. The gory murder of a spy in the process of a rendition to his home country isn’t pretty, but it’s a far cry from the image the media wanted to present.
Before anyone else did so, we at the Security Studies Group (SSG) understood the implications of this information operation and aggressively began pushing back on pundits who were attempting to create a false Khashoggi hagiography. In time, some journalists and media figures began to question the defensibility of their position and to withdraw to positions that they found more secure.
Over the course of the next hours and days, SSG generated several research products, including backgrounders, articles and interviews that punctured the narrative by linking Khashoggi to the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist Islamist groups. We had opened the narrative space in the debate for questioning and thoughtfully assessing Khashoggi’s Islamist background and sympathies. SSG Sr. Fellow Matt Brodsky published the first widely-distributed article about the late columnist’s Brotherhood connections, “Why is the Media Ignoring the Most Glaring Questions about Jamal Khashoggi?” at the Spectator. Using our research, soon other allies felt emboldened enough to publish aggressive push-backs on the unwarranted praise for Khashoggi in the mainstream media.
The inevitable hysterical overreaction from the press made it possible for us to increase not only the visibility of our message, but the credibility that comes from the public’s recognition of blatant media bias. The rancor of the “echo chamber” was best captured byPost, which noticed our campaign and tried to do damage control on October 19 with, “Conservatives mount a whisper campaign smearing Khashoggi in defense of Trump”:
In recent days, a cadre of conservative House Republicans allied with Trump has been privately exchanging articles from right-wing outlets that fuel suspicion of Khashoggi, highlighting his association with the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth and raising conspiratorial questions about his work decades ago as an embedded reporter covering Osama bin Laden…
Our offensive to highlight Khashoggi’s Muslim Brotherhood links and pro-Islamist sympathies was so successful that the Qatar-funded Brookings Institute issued a paper on October 19, “On Jamal Khashoggi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia,” to address (and begrudgingly acknowledge) the columnist’s Ikhwan membership and subsequent support for the Islamist movement. Even devoid of context for most readers, The Post’s recent acknowledgement of these connections—to the Brotherhood, as well as to elements of the Qatari network of foundations in Doha and Washington, especially—offers a great deal of vindication for our efforts in the service of accurate analysis.
This didn’t stop many commentators and media voices in the United States from partaking in this influence operation for reasons of their own. But before the partisan American “echo chamber” could engage, though, foreign sources would shape the stream of facts that could be molded into a potent narrative about Khashoggi’s death.
As Brad Patty and Nick Short concluded in their assessment of this information campaign, SSG’s “Firehoses in the Khashoggi Case,” this happened within hours of Khashoggi’s disappearance in Ankara. Turkey took advantage of the silence from Saudi Arabia in the crucial first 36 hours of the controversy to shift the narrative from Khashoggi’s disappearance to leaks of increasingly-brutal and graphic reports of his death at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Officials from Turkey’s Erdogan government—a longtime regional rival of the Kingdom’s power and influence and, lately, an Islamist nation building a growing alliance with Qatar and Iran—began to distribute weaponized, unverified information to the press. They gave it directly to reporters at prominent American media outlets, especially David Kirkpatrick at the New York Times and a massive team from Khashoggi’s alma mater the Washington Post.
Another major source of news about Khashoggi was, unsurprisingly, Qatar’s Al Jazeera network, and Middle East Eye, a relatively new outlet with ties of its own to Qatar. Some of the most scandalous, unverified stories in the press were sourced to Turkish officials and conformed “by a high-ranking Arab official.” There is a very high likelihood this is a home-town official from Qatar. For months, US major media outlets and high-profile “echo chamber” pundits were knowingly assuming the risk of broadcasting false Turkish and Qatari narratives, without adequately informing their readers of the risk being passed on to them.
By December 2018—when the campaign had done great harm to the US-Saudi relationship and America’s alliances in the Middle East—Erdogan was publicly bragging about his part in this successful information operation, and as well he should. It caused tremendous damage to the Kingdom and the Crown Prince, but also elevated Turkey and Qatar and gave it leverage to use with the US and others.
Once President Trump released a robust statement supporting the US-Saudi alliance, intense political pressure was felt from anti-Trump forces in the American media, which pushed Democrats toward Qatar and Iran, and away from Saudi Arabia. Suddenly, the alliance had become a partisan issue; prominent Democrats in Congress began calling for a reevaluation of American policy toward the country. The intensity with which the Kingdom’s critics have attacked the US-Saudi relationship specifically points to more than just a target of opportunity. These critics could be placed into (at least) one of the following categories: (a) a pro-Iran position; (b) a pro-Islamist/Muslim Brotherhood position; and (c) anti-Trump. Often—as with the case of the Washington Post—it is a combination of all three.
Led by Sen. Chris Murphy and Elizabeth Warren, voices from the political left seemed to outdo each other in berating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom President Trump and members of his administration have warm relations. They are trying to use outrage over Khashoggi’s death to force a Saudi surrender in the war in Yemen; and end to arms sales, a break in US-Saudi relations, or even to depose Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman from his position in the Kingdom’s order of succession. This, of course, was the Qatari policy aim and the conclusion of a successful information operation.