In the early months of 2018, Jamal Khashoggi was living in exile in the United States — lonely, sad and bewildered as he grew ever more estranged from the Saudi kingdom he had served faithfully for many decades.
But then, there was a bright spot. He fell in love. Or at least, he certainly appeared to.
“You will be the happiest bride,” he wrote Hanan El-Atr, an Egyptian flight attendant for Emirates airline, to whom he proposed, in a text message that spring. And in another: “I throw myself at you, kiss you and delight you. I take out a watch or a necklace or perfume I bought for you to delight you.”
Khashoggi’s relationship with El-Atr has always been awkward for his friends and allies. His grisly murder inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, took place on a day he had gone there to get divorce records proving he was no longer married to his wife back in Saudi Arabia — documents he needed so he could marry another woman, Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish graduate student.
Yet exactly four months before his assassination, on June 2, 2018, Khashoggi had married El-Atr in an Islamic ceremony performed by an imam in a northern Virginia mosque, according to court records reviewed by Yahoo News. The couple never got a civil marriage license that would have made their union official. But the groom plunked down $2,000 for two rings for his Islamic bride — the receipts from a local jewelry store El-Atr proudly displays as further proof of their union.
And yet, Khashoggi never mentioned the religious marriage to many of his closest friends at the time. It’s an example, says one of those friends, of his penchant to be secretive about much of his life.
“If somebody sits across from you when you’re interviewing people about Jamal and tells you that Jamal told them everything, they are 100 percent lying to you,” says Mohammed Soltan, the Egyptian American human rights activist who collaborated with Khashoggi during this time. “Jamal compartmentalized, he told different people certain things about his life. He gave nobody a full view of his life. He kept all of it with himself, and he gave different people the things that they needed to know. So, I had no idea about Hanan.”
The story of Khashoggi’s complicated personal life during the last year of his life is the subject of “A Tale of Two Women,” Episode 7 in the new season of Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland” podcast, “The Secret Lives and Brutal Death of Jamal Khashoggi.” It is a story that overlaps with a period in which Khashoggi, as a columnist for the Washington Post, was becoming ever more forceful in his criticisms of the harsh crackdowns of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, even comparing him at one point to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It is also a period in which Saudi electronic surveillance of critics of Crown Prince Mohammed, also known as MBS, became ever more pervasive and oppressive. And, as “Conspiracyland” reveals, that surveillance even extended to Khashoggi’s love life, revealing vulnerabilities that MBS’s operatives were only too happy to exploit.
Atr, in an extensive and at times emotional interview with “Conspiracyland,” recounts the story of their relationship: They had met nine years earlier while Khashoggi was in Dubai for a conference. A tall and reserved woman, Atr said they had swapped phone numbers and stayed in touch, exchanging funny videos and messages about their favorite lines of Arabic poetry. But by the early months of 2018, with Khashoggi living in the Washington area and Hanan having twice-a-month flights there, they became something of an item. Khashoggi took her as his date to a birthday dinner for him that March (although there is some confusion as to the actual date of his birthday). A couple of weeks later, he proposed marriage.
“He said, ‘You sure you want to be with me?’” said Atr, recounting Khashoggi’s proposal. “He said, ‘Because I have heavy luggage, I don’t have a stable life.’”
And Atr’s response: “I’m with you, Jamal, I believe in you and love you because [of] the way you are.”
It is perhaps understandable that Khashoggi — repeatedly harassed online by his Saudi tormentors — wanted to keep his private life exactly that: private. That could well explain his failure to tell many of his U.S. friends about his relationship with Atr. But as she explains it, the Saudis, and their close allies in the United Arab Emirates, apparently did know about it, resulting in a harrowing experience when she flew back to Dubai.
In early May, just weeks after Khashoggi’s marriage proposal, Atr says that Emirati security forces pulled her aside at the airport. “They took all [my] devices. They came to my house. They searched [it],” she recalls. “Then they start to talk about Jamal.”
Atr says she was detained for 10 days while the Emirati security agents grilled her time and again about her relationship with Khashoggi.
But as they were doing so, Khashoggi was attending another conference in Istanbul, and starting a relationship with another woman, Hatice Cengiz. As she recalls it, she approached him at the conference and asked for an interview. When he agreed, she was thrilled. “He’s the most important journalist and name and thinker in the region,” says Cengiz. It was, she added, the start of a “very special relationship” between them.
Khashoggi left Istanbul but began exchanging messages with Cengiz. He flew back to Istanbul again that spring, got together with Cengiz and soon thereafter flew back yet again, this time with a birthday present for her — a necklace and earrings. By the summer, she says, they were talking “every day, more than two or three or four times.” Soon enough, Khashoggi was talking about getting an apartment and moving to Istanbul. And he proposed marriage again — this time to Cengiz.
But there was a bit of a problem, to say the least: He had told Cengiz nothing about Atr. Nor, for that matter, had he told Atr anything about Cengiz. “My sister is here in Istanbul,” he texted Atr in mid-July, apparently attempting to explain the extra time he was spending in Istanbul.
Things got more than a little awkward when Khashoggi met with Cengiz’s father, a businessman, who began grilling him about his intentions and his background, especially about whether he had any other wives.
“My father knows very well the Arabs get married more than [once] at the same time,” says Cengiz. “And then he asked him, ‘Are you sure you’re not married?’ It’s a little bit of a sensitive point for my father.”
Khashoggi responded: “I’m not married. I’m divorced,” recalls Cengiz. “Jamal doesn’t need to lie to anyone.”
Had Khashoggi ever mentioned to her the other wife he had married in the United States in June? she was asked.
“He told me when he proposed to me, there is no one in his life,” she replied.
But even as Khashoggi was carrying on his double life, the Saudi surveillance overseen by MBS’s right-hand man, Saud al-Qahtani, was intensifying. The Saudis had bought a sophisticated form of spyware called Pegasus from an Israeli company, NSO Group. That spyware allowed them to penetrate the iPhones of regime critics, reading their messages in real time.
One of those targeted was Omar Abdulaziz, the dissident living in Montreal whose personal data had been stolen by Saudi spies at Twitter. Abdulaziz was by then swapping messages with Khashoggi about a scheme to counter Saudi disinformation, sending SIM cards to regime critics so they could post anonymously on social media without al-Qahtani’s snoops knowing who they were.
But that summer, Abdulaziz was tipped off to the Pegasus penetration of his phone by investigators at Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto affiliated group. As soon as he learned about it, he called Khashoggi. “Oh gosh,” Khashoggi replied. “May God help us.”
Next on ‘Conspiracyland’: Episode 8, ‘The Anatomy of a Cover-up’
The Trump White House struggles with how to respond to the Khashoggi murder. President Trump makes repeated calls to MBS and his father, King Salman, inquiring about the bone saw that was believed to have been used to carve up Khashoggi’s body. But Trump chooses to accept Saudi denials of involvement in the murder so as not to disrupt huge arms sales the kingdom was committed to making from U.S. defense contractors. And when he had the chance, President Biden — who had pledged during his campaign to make “pariahs” of the Saudis — declined to impose any punishment on MBS, the Saudi official who the CIA had concluded authorized the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death.
In case you missed it:
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: courtesy of Hanan El-Atr (2), Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Read more from Yahoo News: