The Khashoggi murder mystery: Erdogan as Lieutenant Columbo

Turkey’s president has been teasing and taunting the murderers of Jamal Khashoggi like the famous fictional detective.

Erdogan Reuters - Khashoggi op-ed
Erdogan has acted his lucrative cards against Saudi Arabia and its two chief supporters, the US and Israel, with astonishing brilliance, writes Dabashi [Reuters]

In the long and distinguished history of great literary and cinematic sleuths, the character of Lieutenant Columbo, the fictional homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department in the American television series named eponymously after him, stands out in sharp contrast to his two other chief European colleagues: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.

Created by Richard Levinson and William Link, and most memorably portrayed by the late Peter Falk, Lieutenant Columbo featured a uniquely American contrast to his British and Belgian counterparts. In the case of Sherlock Holmes, we have no suspect until our favourite sleuth meticulously pieces together the scattered evidence pointing to the perpetrator of the crime. In the case of Hercule Poirot, as perhaps best evident in the case of Murder on the Orient Express (1934), we have too many suspects until the genius detective gathers enough evidence to charge one or more of them with the crime. In the case of Lieutenant Columbo, in contrast, he and we the audience know exactly who has committed the murder at the very onset, and the whole fun of the story is to see how the beguilingly absentminded and shabbily dressed detective actually pieces together the evidence to trap the murderer and lead him to confess.

As much else that is happening in our world today, the enormity of the moral catastrophes we face on a daily and routine basis has forced our narrative out of any normative kilter. We can no longer talk or think about political events in purely factual terms. The creative and literary worlds are now more than ever needed if we are to make sense of the actual world we live. On this column, I have had previous occasions in which I was led to resort to cartoon characters to understand the current calamities befallen the United States and by extension the world at large. 

The same is true with the case of the late Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident journalist murdered by the Saudis in their Istanbul consulate. As it has unfolded so far, the depth of moral depravity evident in the Saudi butchering a simple voice of moderate dissent defies any normative language of analysis and understanding. Political assassinations are as old as politics itself. “Et tu, Brute? /Even you, Brutus?” is now the proverbial phrase after Roman dictator Julius Caesar uttered it addressing his friend Marcus Junius Brutus at the moment of his assassination in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

But in the case of Khashoggi the question is why this particular method of murderous savagery – cutting a person into pieces, reportedly cutting his head off and chopping off his fingers presumably as trophies to be sent to the person ordering the hit back in some hideous palace in Riyadh, and then dissolving in acid what is left of the poor soul? 

Searching for a fictional metaphor

The truth of the Khashoggi murder is so bizarre, so grisly, so outrageous that restoring to the world of literary and cinematic fiction is one modest way to try to understand the dreadful terror to which we are vicarious witnesses.

It is in these terms that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi extends from factual to fictional and calls for comparison some key literary and cinematic figures. In that comparative domain, we see the figure of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appearing remarkably akin to Lieutenant Columbo, the way they both taunt and trouble the murderer.

Let me add right here this comparison does not exonerate President Erdogan himself and the campaign of fear and intimidation he has launched against independent Turkish journalism. Yes, he has not ordered any one of them chopped up to pieces, if that is the measure of our political tolerance. But according to Reporters without Borders, Turkey today ranks 157 on the World Press Freedom Index. 


Be that as it may, Erdogan has acted his lucrative cards against Saudi Arabia and its two chief supporters, the United States and Israel, with astonishing brilliance. It is in this context that we see him act in a way and through pro-government Turkish media and official press releases, presenting to the public the exact nature of the crime and who precisely is the person responsible for it.

Over the last month since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, we have seen how Erdogan is taunting the chief murderer, exactly like Lieutenant Columbo, keeps harassing him with bits and pieces of evidence, forcing him to twist and turn his explanations and alibis until he runs out of options and the ingenious trap narrows in on him. We follow the news of Khashoggi’s murder very much on the script of a Columbo episode. Through the systematic scoops and press releases, we know who the murderer is. We know how he has done it. We even know his motive, as well as the assassination team and their bone saw as the chief weapon of dismembering him. Through Turkish media and governmental statements, culminating in a crucial opinion piece by President Erdogan himself in Washington Post, we have in fact been the vicarious witnesses to what has exactly happened on that dreadful October 2 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. But we are mesmerised by the manner Erdogan as Columbo keeps teasing and catcalling the murderer.

Taunting the murderer

A key feature of Columbo’s investigative style is to force the suspect into offering full explanations for the evident questions he has in the course of his investigations. The suspect always feels obligated to provide explanations for the inconsistencies Columbo keeps detecting in the stories the murderer has offered. This very fact that the murderer keeps offering explanations and resolving inconsistencies is what intensifies the conviction that he is, in fact, the murderer. 

Now, look at the manners in which the Saudis have been forced to offer supercilious and in fact incriminating explanations of what happened to Khashoggi after he entered their Istanbul consulate in one piece. 

First, they categorically denied anything had happened to Khashoggi, with their Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman volunteering that Khashoggi had left the consulate after “a few minutes or one hour”. But Erdogan kept leaking more gory details of what had happened to the Saudi dissident journalist. The Saudis finally admitted yes Khashoggi had died while on their consular premise. “The intention was not to kill him,” the Saudis now said, he was accidentally killed when put on a “chokehold“.

But Columbo kept coming back with his notorious, “one more thing”. More details were released through the press, audio and perhaps video recordings were available, now we were told. The Saudis were trapped, they were desperate to know what exactly Turkey knew. Erdogan would not budge.

The cat and mouse game between Erdogan and the Saudis was now in full throttle. The Saudis said Khashoggi died immediately, Erdogan leaked the news he suffered for seven minutes. Later the Turkish press revealed how the Saudi butcher Dr Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy, the head of forensics at the Saudi General Security Department, cut off Khashoggi’s fingers and head. Erdogan kept the gory details coming, the Saudis were at a loss where and when and how this would end. Their most ardent supporter Donald Trump had to admit, this was the “worst cover-up in history”. This was even before Turkey revealed, on November 5, that the Saudis had dispatched “an 11-member ‘cover-up team’ to Istanbul on October 11, nine days after the Washington Post contributor vanished after entering the Saudi consulate to obtain paperwork for his marriage.” The Saudis had clumsily tried to camouflage this cover-up team as an “investigative team!” 

It was quite a miserable situation for the Saudis. However, Israelis thought the Saudi-Zionist alliance to steal the rest of Palestine was in danger so Netanyahu appealed to Trump not to abandon Mohammed bin Salman just because a dissident journalist had been chopped up into pieces. Erdogan had the Saudis, the Americans, and the Israelis where he wanted them to be: on the defensive – actively supporting a suspected murderer in full view of global public view.

The interests of the state

On October 29, Saudi Arabia sent its public prosecutor, Saud Al-Mujab, to Turkey allegedly to “discuss the investigation“. Three days later, when the Saudi prosecutor proved to have been sent with one single mission to find out how much did the Turks actually know, Erdogan finally released his first official statement on the journalist’s murder. The president revealed, through the office of chief prosecutor in Istanbul, how Jamal Khashoggi was strangled as soon as he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and then his body was cut into pieces.

The Saudis were outsmarted, outmanoeuvred, out-tricked. 

Contrary to any episode of Columbo, however, in this real-life murder, Erdogan will not have a scene in which he will face the suspect and offer the bravura final and conclusive evidence that he is the murderer. Soon after the macabre murder of Khashoggi other atrocities began piling up. First came the pipe bomber targeting Trump’s critics in US, then the murderous attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, followed by the victory of ultra-right-wing Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s presidential election. Midterm elections were approaching fast and Americans were wondering if their charlatan president will continue to wreak havoc on them and the world unchecked. Meanwhile, sanctions on Iran were unleashed, and the Khashoggi murder was pushed aside by the sheer pressure of the daily news.

Contrary to any whodunit murder mystery, we may never have a final moment of catharsis, and we may never know the full extent of what Erdogan and his security apparatus know. The interests of the state here supersede the public need for a dramatic finale, let alone the global demand for justice. Erdogan has and will continue to milk this occasion to the fullest extent of his political ambitions and by extension the interests of the state he represents. 

In an opinion piece pointedly published in Jamal Khashoggi’s own paper, The Washington Post, Erdogan brought the point home and all but named the main culprit and pointed finger at the suspect: 

We know the perpetrators are among the 18 suspects detained in Saudi Arabia. We also know those individuals came to carry out their orders: Kill Khashoggi and leave. Finally, we know the order to kill Khashoggi came from the highest levels of the Saudi government. 

At which point the Hollywood and friends had picked up where Lieutenant Columbo had left off: “More than 100 writers, journalists, artists, and activists are calling on the United Nations to initiate an independent investigation into the disappearance and apparent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.