'I just fell apart crying heartbreak to you': A murdered journalist's years-long relationship with Osama bin Laden

·Chief Investigative Correspondent
·8-min read

For Jamal Khashoggi, it was the chance of a lifetime. Throughout the 1980s, Arab fighters were flocking to Afghanistan to wage war against the Soviet army. Khashoggi, then a young reporter, was offered a world exclusive — to cover the conflict and get rare access to the frontlines.

The man who invited him: a fellow Saudi who was then his good friend, Osama bin Laden.

“Arab youths fight shoulder to shoulder with Mujahedeen,” read the headline on one of Khashoggi’s stories in the English-language Arab News that ran on May 4, 1988. The piece extolled the struggle of the mujahedeen warriors and portrayed bin Laden as central to the conflict — calling him by his nom de guerre, Abu Abdullah, and quoting him approvingly about how the Afghan war was only the start of a jihad that would reverberate throughout the Muslim world.

Tears from the Arab News May 4, 1988 article with Jamal Khashoggi pictured with a rocket launcher; and, below, Osama bin Laden seen in the photo on the right.
An Arab News article from 1988 includes a photo of Jamal Khashoggi with a rocket launcher and a photo, below right, of Osama bin Laden.

And illustrating the article, next to a photo of bin Laden, was a picture of a smiling Khashoggi, carrying on his shoulder a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Khashoggi’s long and complicated relationship with bin Laden is the subject of “Jamal and Osama,” Episode 3 of the new season of the Yahoo News podcast “Conspiracyland,” “The Secret Lives and Brutal Death of Jamal Khashoggi.” It is a story that, like much in Khashoggi’s life, is open to multiple interpretations. When he went to Afghanistan, was he just a journalist in search of his first big scoop? Or was he also a fellow Islamist who shared the worldview and goals of the Arab fighters whose cause he was championing?

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The answer, it appears, is a bit of both. Khashoggi never condoned the slaughter of innocents that marked bin Laden’s later terrorist career. But he never renounced his friendship with bin Laden either. And as one longtime colleague says in the podcast, he remained “conflicted” about the al-Qaida leader until the end of his life.

“I just fell apart crying heartbreak to you, Abu Abdullah,” Khashoggi tweeted in Arabic hours after the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden in May 2011. “You were beautiful, brave in those beautiful days in Afghanistan before you succumbed to anger and passion.”

The path that led Khashoggi to the caves of Afghanistan winds through a college campus in the heart of Middle America: Indiana State University in Terre Haute. Khashoggi was among hundreds of Saudi students attending the school in the late 1970s. While studying journalism, he made an impression as a devout Muslim who regularly prayed at the local Islamic Center and shared some of the prejudices of his fellow countrymen.

Omar Farooq, a convert to Islam who prayed with him at the Islamic Center, recalls Khashoggi urging him to shun contact with Shiite Muslims, whom many Sunni Muslims, like the Saudis, viewed as heretics. Khashoggi, he says, “approached me about why I was spending time with these Shiites. As far as Jamal’s attitude, I don’t think it was different than any of the other Saudis, and that would just be, as I say, pure hostility.”

Khashoggi’s views on the subject were very much influenced by his involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood — a movement begun in Egypt as a secret society seeking to restore a purified version of Sunni Islam to the center of civic life throughout the Arab world. Khashoggi had begun attending Brotherhood meetings as a teenager growing up in Medina. When he returned from Indiana, he met and became close to a fellow Muslim Brother, bin Laden. The two had a similar outlook, as Khashoggi himself made clear in taped interviews he did in 2005 with journalist Lawrence Wright and which are played publicly for the first time in “Conspiracyland.” (Wright wrote about Khashoggi’s friendship with bin Laden in his book “The Looming Tower.”)

Muslim militant and Al Quida leader Osama Bin Laden speaks to a selected group of reporters in mountains of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan in 1998. (Rahimullah Yousafzai/AP)
Osama bin Laden speaks to reporters in Afghanistan in 1998. (Rahimullah Yousafzai/AP)

“Osama is from a generation, our generation, who were hoping to establish the Islamic state,” Khashoggi told Wright. “Just, an Islamic state, anywhere, because we believe that one state will lead to another. It could have a domino effect which could transform or reverse the history of mankind.”

That was the perspective Khashoggi took to Afghanistan when bin Laden invited him to come cover the conflict. The CIA — with the financial assistance of Saudi intelligence — was backing the mujahedeen for strategic Cold War purposes: to counter and weaken the Soviets. But for Khashoggi, the time he spent with bin Laden and his fellow warriors was a personally moving experience.

He told Wright in those taped interviews about the “many, many times” he spent with bin Laden, traveling with him, staying in his camps, even sleeping with him in the same cave. What was moving about all this? Wright asked him.

“It was moving because we were in a cave,” Khashoggi replied. “It was dark at night, on candlelight. He had a sentiment of Muslims, a concept of jihad, and of being close to God. Knowing that you’re doing the right thing ... fighting those bloody Soviet infidels. It was a beautiful thing to me, particularly at that age.”

Khashoggi repeated the story about his time with bin Laden in the Afghan cave years later to Hanan el-Atr, the Egyptian flight attendant he married in an Islamic ceremony in Virginia in June 2018. (The two never got a civil marriage license.) 

“He admitted to me how he was sleeping in a cave which was in a rough area, and he wasn't in a good posture,” Atr said in an interview for "Conspiracyland." “And Osama bin Laden met Jamal’s body and covered him. [Jamal] said, ‘Hanan, as a human, he’s very kind. It's not like what you think.’”

After the Soviets withdrew and the Taliban took control of the country, Khashoggi and bin Laden went their separate ways. Khashoggi, whose coverage of the Afghan war made a splash, moved up the ranks of Saudi journalism, becoming editor of a major newspaper, Al Watan, and gaining a reputation as somebody who was close to the royal family.

Bin Laden, for his part, founded al-Qaida and began to denounce the royal family — in part over its decision to allow American troops onto Saudi soil. By the mid-1990s he had taken off for Khartoum, Sudan, surrounded by Egyptians led by another hard-core Islamist, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Osama bin Laden (L) sits with his adviser Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian linked to the al Qaeda network, during an interview with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir (not pictured) at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. The date is unknown. (Visual News/Getty Images)
Osama bin Laden, left, with Ayman al-Zawahiri at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. (Visual News/Getty Images)

But Khashoggi and bin Laden would soon reunite. Bin Laden’s family — likely with the backing of Saudi intelligence — recruited Khashoggi to fly to Khartoum and attempt to convince bin Laden to renounce violence and return to Saudi Arabia.

As Khashoggi would later tell Wright, he and bin Laden met three nights in a row for lavish dinners on a terrace by the al-Qaida leader’s house, with Sudanese servants laying out platters of rice and lamb. Armed with his tape recorder, Khashoggi pushed bin Laden. But bin Laden went back and forth — at times expressing a willingness to forswear violence (but only off the record) and at other times talking about waging jihad against the Americans and expelling them from the Arabian Peninsula.

“We hit them in Aden and they left,” bin Laden told him. “We hit them in Somalia and they left again.”

Finally, on the third night, Khashoggi told bin Laden he needed an answer — yes or no. Bin Laden huddled with his Egyptian confederates and came back to Khashoggi and asked him, “What’s in it for me?”

Khashoggi was frustrated. “I would say to him, ‘Osama, you should be aware that people, Saudi people, would be afraid to be seen with you in public,’” he told Wright in those taped interviews. “‘Why don’t you see that?’ Again, he would just put that smile, that famous smile, on his face. It made me feel as if he was out of touch. As if he doesn’t realize what he’s done or become.”

Khashoggi’s views would evolve over the years, especially with the advent of the Arab Spring protests of 2011, causing him to become a fervent apostle of democracy in the Mideast. But he maintained a “soft spot” for bin Laden that stayed with him for years, according to Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi academic and colleague of Khashoggi's who worked with him at the Saudi Embassy in London in the years after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a news conference in Manama, Bahrain in 2015. (Hasan Jamali/AP)
Jamal Khashoggi in 2015. (Hasan Jamali/AP)

For Khashoggi, what bin Laden “had done in Afghanistan and how the godless communists were defeated, for him that impacted him a lot throughout his life,” Obaid says. “That thing impacted him. So he saw him as a hero.”

Obaid says he would press Khashoggi on bin Laden and even grew exasperated at times by his friend’s attitude, lecturing him about how the al-Qaida leader had killed innocent people. One day, Obaid walked into Khashoggi’s office at the embassy in London and showed him pictures of people jumping from the World Trade Center towers to escape the burning buildings. “‘You see. Look, this is bin Laden that did this,’” Obaid recalled telling him. 

“‘If we cannot come out and condemn this, then we are no better than him,’” Obaid continued. “And [Khashoggi] took the pictures and he went quiet. And then several hours later, I saw him again and he said, ‘Yeah, you're right.’”

Even then, Obaid says, he sensed Khashoggi’s inner conflict about his old friend. “I would say he was ideologically, and I would even go as far as theologically, conflicted by him,” he says.

Next on “Conspiracyland”: Episode 4, “A Revolution Crushed”

With his life threatened by one Saudi prince, Khashoggi is rescued by another Prince Turki bin Faisal, the former chief of Saudi intelligence who hires the journalist as his media adviser while serving as the Saudi ambassador in London and later in Washington. But when Khashoggi returns to journalism, he develops a passion for democracy that leads him to Cairo, where he smuggles a letter from a prominent Egyptian dissident out of prison that winds up on the Facebook page of Barack Obama. It is the start of Khashoggi’s involvement in civic protests that later makes him a champion of the Arab Spring only to watch in horror while those democratic dreams are crushed.

In case you missed it:

Episode 1, “Exclusive: Saudi assassins picked up illicit drugs in Cairo to kill Khashoggi”

Episode 2, “Arms, harems and a Trump-owned yacht: How a Khashoggi family member helped mold the U.S.-Saudi relationship”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Universal History Archive/Getty Images, Hasan Jamali/AP

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