As increasingly horrific reports continue to emerge about the fate of dissident Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, shocked friends of the missing Washington Post columnist are vowing to push for justice on his behalf.
“We’re fighting like hell,” Karen Attiah, Khashoggi’s editor at the Post, tells PEOPLE. “Like absolute hell.”
The 60-year old Khashoggi, a Saudi native who had been living in self-imposed exile in Virginia, vanished on Oct. 2 after walking into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
He reportedly went there to obtain divorce papers so that he could marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. But Turkish authorities believe that instead of being handed the promised papers, Khashoggi was lured there to be tortured, killed and even dismembered inside the consulate by a hit squad flown in from Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
A well-known journalist in his home country, Khashoggi — a one-time insider with the ruling House of Saud — had grown increasingly critical of the policies imposed by the country’s 33-year-old de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS.
Khashoggi fell afoul of Saudi authorities, American intelligence sources tell PEOPLE. He fled to Virginia in 2017.
“He knew he was in danger,” says David Ignatius, Khashoggi’s friend and Post colleague. “He felt he should not go back to Saudi Arabia.”
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In the United States, Khashoggi soon took up a column for the Post, where he continued to criticize bin Salman.
He was aware that his work was being translated and read overseas, colleagues say, and that his views provoked ire in some royal quarters. “He was often scared,” Ignatius says. “He was worried.”
Attiah says Khashoggi was “excited” and “proud” to have the platform of the Post.
“Still,” she tells PEOPLE, “it was painful for him to have to write about the repression in his country. He said Saudi Arabia was always harsh, but never like this.”
An impending marriage was enough to send the usually wary Khashoggi — whom friends describe as “lonely” — inside Saudi territory abroad, to the consulate in Istanbul.
What happened after he entered the building more than two weeks ago is still the subject of official dispute, though Turkish authorities, quoted anonymously in various news articles, have described a grisly end orchestrated by the Saudi government, apparently in retribution for Khashoggi’s open criticism.
Saudi authorities, meanwhile, previously denied any wrongdoing and said that Khashoggi had left the consulate that day unharmed.
It remains unclear if the crown prince had any direct knowledge of what happened to him, though some sources have reportedly said it would be unlikely he would have been unaware given his position.
Under international scrutiny and amid further damning news reports, sources told CNN and other outlets this week that Saudi Arabia was possibly preparing to concede that he had been killed in an interrogation or planned abduction gone wrong.
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The case has cast a harsh light on the U.S.’s years-long, if controversial, support of Saudi Arabia. Various politicians, including those in the Trump administration, have sounded their concern. (Khashoggi was a legal U.S. resident.)
While officials scramble to address what has become an international crisis, the missing man’s friends and colleagues agonize over his fate — and vow to find answers.
“I hope that this story turns out to have a better outcome, but with this much time and no answers, it seems increasingly unlikely that he is alive,” Attiah says. “I hope I’m wrong.”
Says Ignatius: “I’m hoping and praying, but more and more it’s looking like he was killed and in a horrible way.”
Khashoggi’s Post colleagues remember a tall man who was amiable and engaging, with a “sweet moon face” and a “gentle” spirit.
On his values, though, he could be stubborn.
“He had an inability compromise,” Ignatius says. “He believed in telling the truth. Some people don’t know how to compromise. He was one of them.”
In the wake of his vanishing and reported death, Attiah says, she is re-reading Khashoggi’s columns that she herself edited.
“He put himself in the feelings of other prisoners sitting in cells,” she says. “Now that we’re all imagining what was going through Jamal’s mind, I wonder: Did he overestimate how safe he was?”
Attiah keeps going back to the day Khashoggi walked into the consulate and her first inkling that something wasn’t right.
“That morning I was brushing my teeth and I thought, ‘I haven’t talked to Jamal in a while,’ ” she recalls.
She senses now that she will never talk to Khashoggi again.
“The truth is Jamal is not here,” Attiah tells PEOPLE. “The truth is he went into the embassy and never came out.”
It’s a devastating reality — and a motivating one. The Post has published excerpts from some of Khashoggi’s columns on a tribute page to the missing writer.
“If anything, this has energized me to continue this mission,” Attiah says. “Whoever did this, they can’t kill a mission.”
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