MANHATTAN (CN) — A little less than a year before his murder in Istanbul, Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi spoke to an investigator for the 9/11 families suing Saudi Arabia and sent a text message to senior officials for the kingdom that day.
That is the blockbuster allegation that the families’ attorneys made in legal filings and in federal court on Wednesday, attempting to show a pattern of witness intimidation toward anyone too closely scrutinizing Saudi ties to the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.
“One of the witnesses related to me a very specific threat,” Kreindler and Kreindler attorney Andrew Maloney said in open court.
Maloney — a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York’s criminal division — reported three other perceived threats in a Feb. 22 sworn declaration.
“Several additional witnesses agreed to speak to our investigators only if their identities were kept secret for fear of Saudi retribution,” the 8-page declaration states.
Khashoggi met with investigator Catherine Hunt, a former FBI agent now working with the families, on Oct 26, 2017, and then texted senior Saudi officials that same day, Maloney said.
“Mr. Khashoggi had previously been a government official for Saudi Arabia,” Maloney noted. “In fact, I think he worked for Prince Turki, who was former head of Saudi intelligence. Mr. Khashoggi knew Osama bin Laden, knew of other supporters of Al-Qaeda. He had valuable information.”
The families believe that one of the officials with whom Khashoggi had been in contact was then-Saudi Ambassador Khalid bin Salman, who tweeted about his contact with Khashoggi shortly after the journalist’s death.
“As we told the Washington Post, the last contact I had with Mr. Khashoggi was via text on Oct 26, 2017,” bin Salman, the brother of Saudi Arabia’s current Crown Prince, tweeted on Nov. 16, 2018.
The subject of Khashoggi’s exchange that day with the Crown Prince’s brother remains a mystery.
“We don’t know what their conversations were about, but we do know that less than a year later Mr. Khashoggi was murdered—brutally murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in an orchestrated, premeditated murder where the Saudi officials brought a bone saw to chop up his body,” Maloney said.
Stopping short of alleging any direct tie between Khashoggi’s killing and his meeting with the investigator, Maloney claimed that other possible witnesses cited the journalist’s demise as an example of what happens to those who speak out against the kingdom.
“We don’t know what happened or why he was murdered,” Maloney added. “I’m not here to tell the court it was because of that interview or because of anything. We just don’t know.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn ordered Maloney to provide more specific details of alleged witness intimidation in writing, for her eyes only.
Categorically denying the allegation, Saudi Arabia’s attorney Michael Kellogg moved for the judge to strike any mention of Khashoggi or witness intimidation from the record.
“We believe these allegations are absolutely false and have been put forward to seek a litigation advantage,” Kellogg told Judge Netburn.
Today’s emergency hearing explored the latest bombshell allegation in a 17-year-old lawsuit, which received new life after the 9/11 families persuaded Congress to strip Saudi Arabia’s sovereign immunity in the waning days of the Obama administration.
That legislation, called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, gave the families’ lawsuit enough of a boost to withstand Saudi Arabia’s motion to dismiss two years ago, clearing a hurdle that would allow them to investigate the case.
As we told the Washington Post the last contact I had with Mr. Khashoggi was via text on Oct 26 2017. I never talked to him by phone and certainly never suggested he go to Turkey for any reason. I ask the US government to release any information regarding this claim.
— Khalid bin Salman خالد بن سلمان (@kbsalsaud) November 16, 2018
Now Saudi Arabia wants to investigate their still-anonymous witnesses.
If the allegations are not stricken, Kellogg argued: “We should be allowed to have discovery.”
The kingdom’s Minister of State Mohammed al Sheikh, a Harvard-educated lawyer who is a partner at the firm Latham & Watkins, did not mention the Khashoggi case in a blanket, 4-page denial.
“No Saudi Arabian government official, employee, agent, or anyone acting on Saudi Arabia’s behalf has attempted to threaten any potential witness or any witness’s family members in this proceeding,” al Sheikh wrote.
The 9/11 families’ attorneys note that Khashoggi himself was a potential witness.
“When we spend the time and money to hire former FBI agents to track down the people to try and get information, we’re not doing it haphazardly,” Maloney told reporters after the hearing. “We’re doing it because we think it’s a person who can provide useful information on the Saudi government’s role in 9/11.”
Describing the difficulty in tracking those witnesses, Maloney emphasized: “Remember, this is a case where we know there was a number of Saudi government officials who are accomplices in mass murder.”
For Charles G. Wolf, a widower whose wife Katherine died in the north tower, his participation as a plaintiff in the litigation has been a journey.
“Nothing can compare to 9/11 itself — OK, that’s a long, long time ago,” Wolf told reporters. “However, finding out the truth about what goes on, what’s going on.”
Wolf also reflected on the course the case has taken since the passage of the landmark legislation.
“You know, we’ve had our eyes opened in the last three-ish years,” he said.
Before the next hearing on March 23, attorneys for the 9/11 victims will further apprise Judge Netburn about the witness-intimidation allegations.
On Wednesday, she said that she does not have enough information to disclose whether any action — such as a criminal referral — should be taken.
“I take these allegations incredibly seriously, which is why I called the conference as quickly as I did,” Netburn said.