When I reach Iyad El-Baghdadi at his office in Oslo, the human rights-activist tells me he doesn’t have much time to talk. He and his team of researchers have been working around the clock to unearth details about a tantalizing mystery that is making headlines around the world: What happened to Jamal Khashoggi? On October 2, the Washington Post columnist walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul for a routine visit and never emerged, sparking fears that he was murdered and even dismembered by Saudi security forces.
El-Baghdadi, who was given asylum in Norway after being expelled from the United Arab Emirates for his criticism of the regime, runs the popular website and podcast Arab Tyrant Manual. This afternoon, he and his team started comparing the entry and exit times of the 15 Saudi nationals who flew into Norway in the early-morning hours of October 2, all of them flying back to Saudi Arabia that same day. El-Baghdadi tells Fast Company that, contrary to some reports stating that the Saudi team came together in two private jets, some of them arrived on regular commercial flights, and they arrived and departed in three batches. The person who stayed the longest, arriving at 3:30 a.m. and leaving at 10:20 p.m. was apparently Saudi Arabia’s head of forensics.
His team has also discovered a Saudi version of caller ID, allowing them to type in the names of Saudis who were identified in Turkish media reports about the disappearance, revealing their phone numbers. El-Baghdadi says some of them appear to be close aides to Saudi King Mohammed bin Salman.
Wisdom of the crowds
El-Baghdadi and his team are part of a global army of online sleuths–including journalists, amateur online detectives, and researchers–that has emerged this week to investigate the case, fascinated by the mystery of Khashoggi’s disappearance and its geopolitical drama, complete with Saudi denials and international condemnation of the Saudi regime.
“For us, it’s personal,” says el-Baghdadi, who was a friend of Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime. Within hours of the journalist’s disappearance, word started to spread among his friends, who had long been concerned for his safety. Initially, they all feared that he had been kidnapped. “Jamal never indicated that he feared for his life. He feared for his liberty, that he would be lured back to Saudi Arabia. That was the worst-case scenario for me and everyone. It turned out to be much worse.”
When details emerged about the team of Saudis who flew in, he realized that Khashoggi has probably suffered a much worse fate. And his team went to work, piecing together clues and sometimes collaborating with Bellingcat, the online investigators who have also revealed new details in the mysterious poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England earlier this year and the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.
“The work is not very glamorous,” says el-Baghdadi. “Google and Google Maps, some reverse searches of phone numbers and names, essentially using info that is already out there,” he adds, noting that Turkish newspaper Al-Sabah has been dumping a lot of data, which allows his team to reconstruct some of the details of that day.
And they’re keeping an eye on information leaked by Turkish security officials and Saudi sources, including the rumor that it was a botched kidnapping and that Khashoggi was killed by mistake. “Maybe an overdose of sedatives and that they really didn’t intend to kill him, but then they had to clean it up,” he says. “But I don’t buy this story. Because why do you send 15 people, including the head of forensics, in order to kidnap someone?”
On Twitter, el-Baghdadi has been continuously posting new updates in the case, and crowdsourcing more details:
1. مشعل سعد البستاني
2. صلاح محمد الطبيقي
3. نايف حسن العريفي
4. محمد سعد الزهراني
5. منصور عثمان اباحسين
6. خالد عايض الطيبي
7. عبدالعزيز محمد الحساوي
8. وليد عبدالله الشهري
9. تركي مشرف الشهري
10. ثائر (؟) غالب الحربي https://t.co/XS7peM1pnC
— İyad el-Baghdadi | إياد البغدادي (@iyad_elbaghdadi) October 9, 2018
Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, has been so inundated with queries regarding the case and the Skripal poisoning that earlier this morning he posted a guide to open-source investigations for amateur sleuths:
I'm getting a lot of people asking how they can get started doing open source investigations. I wrote a guide for this as part of an old Kickstarter campaign that you can read here https://t.co/s9rBfoHJJI
— Eliot Higgins (@EliotHiggins) October 11, 2018
The Saudi embassy, which has emphatically denied any role in Khashoggi’s disappearance or death, did not return requests for comment.