The Cairo link in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi

Summary: five years ago this week the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered. Did New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez’s alleged corruption include helping Cairo avoid scrutiny for its putative role in Saudi Arabia’s assassination of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul?

We thank Amy Hawthorne for today’s newsletter. From 2015 -2023 Amy was the Deputy Director for Research at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) based in Washington. She also chaired the Working Group on Egypt (a bipartisan group advocating for more principled U.S. policies toward Egypt), and served as a resident expert on Egypt, Arab politics, human rights, and US policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Prior to joining POMED, Amy held a number of positions in government, NGOs, and think-tanks. A regular contributor to the AD podcasts,  you can find her latest podcast here.

Connecting the dots between the recently unsealed U.S. federal indictment of Sen. Menendez and his wife Nadine and media reports raises the troubling possibility that he may have done so in exchange for payments from Wael Hana, a New Jersey businessman friend of Nadine’s with reported high-level ties to Egyptian security institutions.

To unpack the potential link, let’s first review the indictment. Among its claims is that Nadine Menendez and an Egyptian official (“Egyptian Official-4”) arranged a private meeting on or about 21 June, 2021 at a Washington, DC hotel for the senator, who at the time chaired the Foreign Relations Committee, and a senior Egyptian intelligence official (listed as “Egyptian Official-5”).

The indictment states that on the day of this conclave, Sen. Menendez provided Nadine with a news article describing questions that other U.S. Senators intended to ask Egyptian Official-5 regarding a “human rights issue” in their meeting with him scheduled for the following day. The indictment says that Nadine sent this article to Egyptian Official-4 on 21 June, writing, “I just thought it would be better to know ahead of time what is being talked about and this way you can prepare your rebuttals.”

The indictment goes on to allege that two days later, on 23 June, 2021, Wael Hana purchased 22 one-ounce gold bars, each with a unique serial number, two of which later turned up in a June 2022 court-authorised search of the Menendezes’ home. (The indictment also charges Sen. Menendez and his wife with receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of other illicit payments.)

From here, we turn to media reporting that suggests the identity of Egyptian Official-5, who the indictment also says hosted Sen. Menendez and his wife for a “private dinner at his home” during the couple’s October 2021 trip to Cairo.

News coverage from summer 2021 tells us that Egypt’s powerful spy chief Abbas Kamel, a close aide to President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, visited Washington from 21-24 June, 2021 and met with U.S. lawmakers and executive branch officials. These dates match when the indictment says Egyptian Official-5 was in Washington and saw Sen. Menendez. As well, a photo included in the indictment from the October 2021 private dinner in Cairo shows Sen. and Mrs. Menendez posing with someone who resembles images of Kamel shown in the media.

As for the nature of the “human rights issue,” a 21 June, 2021 Yahoo News article by veteran investigative journalist Michael Isikoff revealed that senators intended to ask Kamel during his DC visit about a bombshell that Isikoff had reported for Yahoo a week earlier: that the Saudi government-owned plane that flew the Khashoggi kill squad from the Kingdom to Istanbul stopped enroute in Cairo early in the morning of 2 October, 2018 to pick up the lethal drugs used to murder the Washington Post columnist inside the Saudi consulate later that day.

According to notes taken by Turkish Embassy officials who sat in on a private trial of the suspects, the plane (above) stopped by Egypt to pick up a dose of narcotics that later killed Khashoggi[photo credit: Turkish police CCTV]
According to notes taken by Turkish Embassy officials who sat in on a private trial of the suspects, the plane (above) stopped by Egypt to pick up a dose of narcotics that later killed Khashoggi
[photo credit: Turkish police CCTV]
Isikoff’s source was notes taken by Turkish diplomats who were among the few observers allowed into the closed Khashoggi murder trial held in Riyadh in 2019.  Although the “trial” was a sham designed to placate the international community while enabling key Saudi suspects to escape justice, the Turkish notes brought to light by Isikoff included new information about the crime. Among the most important was Saudi prosecutors’ disclosure of the Saudi plane’s landing in Cairo to obtain the illegal narcotics used to kill the journalist. The “Plane Finder” flight tracker app, Isikoff reported, corroborated that the Gulfstream jet carrying the Saudi murder team had made a 3:30 am stopover in Cairo on October 2.

As the Middle East expert and human rights lawyer Sarah Leah Whitson told Isikoff, “It’s impossible that a Saudi government plane would have landed in Egypt without the knowledge and permission of the Egyptian authorities. And it is impossible that anybody other than Egyptian government officials would have coordinated with the Saudi government on the delivery of drugs that we now know were used in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

Isikoff’s article also quoted a former top U.S. counterterrorism official saying that the “most likely” explanation for the Cairo stopover is that Egyptian intelligence, headed by Abbas Kamel and with whom the Saudis have had a close working relationship, provided the drugs used to assassinate Khashoggi.

So that is Sen. Menendez’s possible, albeit very attenuated, link to the matter of Egypt’s potential role in the Khashoggi murder. But what is it that he may have done illegally in this regard?

Here, there is much speculation but so far no clear evidence, at least any yet available in the public realm. The indictment implies that Sen. Menendez did a corrupt favour for Cairo by alerting Egyptian officials, via Nadine, that fellow senators were planning to question Abbas Kamel about the Cairo stopover. And it implies that the two gold bars purchased by Wael Hana later found in the Menendezes’ home were payment for this information.

But it does not state this directly, and there is much that we still don’t know. For example, what did Sen. Menendez and Egyptian Official-5 discuss during their June and October 2021 meetings, and how did this corruptly benefit Egypt? The indictment doesn’t say.

It is not inconceivable that Menendez, who has publicly condemned the Saudi government’s killing of Khashoggi and criticised Egypt’s human rights record, raised his own concerns about the Cairo stopover with Kamel. In fact, the indictment quotes Egyptian Official-4 texting Nadine Menendez on 21 June, 2021 that the senator “raised it today,” although we don’t know what “it” is.

We also don’t know if the Egyptian government—which employs a high-powered lobbying team in Washington and has many other connections in Congress—had already learned through other channels that senators planned to ask Abbas Kamel about Egypt’s role in the Khashoggi episode. If so, the information in the article from Sen. Menendez that Nadine shared with Egyptian Official-4 would not have been that valuable to Egypt.

Nor do we know how and when the Menendezes obtained the gold bars bought by Wael Hana and what, if any, connection they have to Sen. Menendez’s alleged actions benefiting Egypt.

It is also worth mentioning that it would not be remarkable for a senator—especially the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee—to meet with Egypt’s intelligence chief. Washington and Cairo have had close intelligence and military ties for decades, and top officials from the two governments interact regularly in both capitals. That a prominent senator saw Abbas Kamel twice privately in the space of a few months is not in itself unusual in the context of U.S.-Egyptian relations.

By contrast, what does appear extremely unusual is a senator’s wife setting up meetings for him with Egyptian officials, communicating regularly with such officials about matters under her husband’s purview, and serving as a conduit for him to share information with a foreign government—all while maintaining a close association with someone tied to that government who did significant financial favours for her. (The indictment alleges several such actions involving Nadine beyond those related to the Khashoggi file.)

And, to state the obvious, it is extremely unusual for a senator to possess gold bars purchased by someone reportedly linked to a foreign government that has billions of dollars of American military aid and sales and other business over which that same senator has significant influence.

Indeed, the indictment includes eyebrow-raising descriptions of many corrupt favours for Egypt allegedly performed by Robert and Nadine Menendez in exchange for money and gifts and of the role played by Wael Hana. (All three have pleaded not guilty.)

In summary, the allegations about Sen. Menendez and Egypt are disturbing, but incomplete. Presumably, U.S. prosecutors have evidence that they did not include in the indictment. When the case goes to trial next May, more information will come out. And Sen. Menendez has many, many questions to answer.

But right now, as Washington digests the sordid Menendez news, it should not lose sight of the possible Egyptian role in Khashoggi’s murder that this indictment has resurfaced. Regardless of how the corruption scandal unfolds, members of Congress, along with the Biden administration and the media, must press Egypt on the reports that the drugs used to kill Jamal Khashoggi were delivered to his Saudi killers in Cairo. Uncovering the full truth of his assassination, no matter how deeply uncomfortable for Washington and its Saudi and Egyptian allies, is the least that can be done to honour his memory and make sure that such a heinous crime is never repeated.

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