The World

Why More Dictators Are Killing and Abducting Dissidents Abroad

And why they’re getting away with it.

Jamal Khashoggi.
Jamal Khashoggi.
AFP/Getty Images

In Sheridan Circle on Washington’s Embassy Row lies a small plaque, little noticed by both tourists and locals, marking the spot where a car bomb killed Chilean diplomat-turned-think-tanker Orlando Letelier along with his American co-worker Ronni Moffitt in 1976. Letelier, since leaving Chile, had become a leading critic of Augusto Pinochet’s regime, and declassified documents later showed that the dictator had directly ordered the killing.

A dictatorship killing one of its citizens on the streets of a foreign capital is a brazen act but is by no means unheard of. Social scientists have traditionally defined a state as the entity that controls the use of physical force for domination within a given territory. But states, particularly those of an authoritarian bent, have frequently sought to project violence against dissidents and defectors far beyond their borders. An effective authoritarian state needs its most prominent critics to know that an ice ax in the back is still a possibility, even if they leave.

While it’s not exactly a new phenomenon, as Letelier and numerous other historical cases prove, the killing or abduction of foreign critics by authoritarian regimes appears to be alarmingly normalized today. Also alarming: Some of the countries where these crimes take place seem uninterested in doing anything to stop them.

Last week, Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist and critic of its ruling royal family living in exile in the United States, visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain a document related to his upcoming wedding. He has not been heard from since then, and Turkish officials reportedly believe he was murdered by a special team sent from Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s government has been brutal to dissidents and opponents, and technically speaking Khashoggi entered Saudi territory when he went inside the consulate building, but he had apparently been unconcerned, telling friends before his disappearance that he had been treated well during previous visits to Saudi embassies and consulates. His fiancée says he told her not to worry, since “they would not dare attempt anything within Turkey’s borders.”

Then again, perhaps no one should assume they are safe from a government that more or less took the prime minister of Lebanon hostage for several days last year. Ghanem al-Dosary, a London-based Saudi dissident, told the New York Times that Khashoggi’s disappearance was a message from the regime to its critics “that our hands can reach you wherever you are.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has demanded that the Saudi government prove its claim that Khashoggi walked out of the consulate unharmed. While a reasonable request, this umbrage is somewhat ironic given Turkey’s own pursuit of its critics abroad. Under Erdogan, the Turkish government has launched an aggressive crackdown on supporters of Fethullah Gülen, the influential and controversial cleric it accuses of orchestrating a failed 2016 coup. Thousands of accused Gülenists, including U.S. citizens, have been arrested, and the manhunt has gone global as well. Often, this is a matter of pushing foreign governments to extradite Gülenists back to Turkey, but sometimes the line between arrest and abduction has been blurred. In March, six Gülenists in Kosovo were shipped back to Turkey after being arrested over links to Gülenists schools, but Kosovo’s prime minister said he had not been aware of the operation, and local media dubbed it a “kidnapping.” In July, the government of Mongolia prevented what appeared to be an attempted abduction of a Gülenist school leader. Then there’s Gülen himself: Special counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly looking into allegations, corroborated by former CIA Director James Woolsey, that Turkish officials had met with former U.S. National Security Adviser and unacknowledged Turkey lobbyist Michael Flynn to discuss a plan to abduct the cleric from his compound in Pennsylvania and deliver him back to Turkey. And that’s not to mention the beating of protesters in Washington by Erdogan’s own bodyguards in 2017.

Of course, the most prominent recent attack by an authoritarian government on an exiled critic was the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in March, an attack that Vladimir Putin’s government has only half-heartedly tried to deny. According to a BuzzFeed investigation last year, U.S. authorities believe that as many as 14 people, including billionaire Boris Berezovsky, whose death had been ruled a suicide in 2013, had been killed by Russian secret services in Britain in recent years. Dozens more opponents of the Putin regime have been killed under suspicious circumstances abroad.

China has also been reaching across borders to pursue its critics. Prominent dissidents have been reportedly abducted from Thailand and sent back to China for detention. As for foreign-residing Uighurs—the Muslim minority that Beijing has recently been repressing in a brutal campaign that’s been dubbed a “cultural genocide”—the authorities’ preferred tactic appears to be threatening their families living within China unless they return home.

Last week also saw the bizarre disappearance and resignation of Meng Hongwei, the Chinese official who led Interpol, in what appeared to be a highly unusual move by a state government against the leader of a major international organization, all the more troubling since the exact charges against Meng have not been made public.

Numerous other examples abound. Two women are currently on trial in Malaysia over the killing—likely in cooperation, willing or not, with North Korean operatives—of Kim Jong-nam, brother of the current North Korean leader. The government of Iran stands accused by French authorities of orchestrating the attempted bombing of a meeting of a prominent exile group in Paris.

The response of the governments of countries where these incidents happen has often been muted—and that’s a problem. The British government’s tepid reaction to the 2006 poisoning of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko very well could have led Vladimir Putin to conclude there would be little consequence for pulling the same stunt there again.

Often diplomatic considerations are behind these muted reactions. France, for instance, is unlikely to press its case against Iran too hard, given that it’s currently trying to preserve what’s left of the 2015 nuclear deal.

It’s hard to make those sorts of excuses for President Donald Trump, who has spoken approvingly of how leaders like Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, and Erdogan conduct their business. When Putin suggested allowing Russian investigators to question 11 U.S. citizens he views as enemies, including former Ambassador Michael McFaul, in exchange for “cooperation” in the investigation of 2016 election interference, Trump called it an “incredible offer.” Trump was also reportedly reluctant and angry about the expulsion of Russian diplomats in response to the Skripal poisoning.

After days of silence over the alleged abduction and possible murder of Khashoggi, Trump, who often touts his close relationship with the Saudi royal family, finally acknowledged that there were some “pretty bad stories” going around about the journalist and U.S.
resident’s fate and said, “Hopefully that will sort itself out.” The Saudis are probably not too worried about a fierce U.S. response at this point.

But if we’re going to fault Trump’s rhetoric for contributing to the sense of impunity felt by authoritarian governments, we should also acknowledge Barack Obama’s covert drone campaign in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. This isn’t to draw any moral equivalence between the targeting of members of groups like al-Qaida, the Taliban, and ISIS and the murders and abductions of dissidents and journalists by dictatorships. But the targeted killing of a country’s enemies outside a declared battlefield was once considered exceptional, and the U.S. has helped make it routine.

More disturbing still may be the possibility that state violence is becoming globalized. The human rights community, more often than not, views the world in terms of distinct countries, classifying them as “free” or “unfree.” The much-maligned International Criminal Court is hamstrung by the fact that its jurisdiction is limited to only the countries that accept it.

Once upon a time, it was thought that globalization would undermine authoritarian systems in individual states as economic liberalization and new forms of communications overwhelm their defenses against outside influence. But the influence, of course, ended up going both ways. Today, we live in a world where China’s economic clout influences what classes are taught at U.S. universities and what movies are produced by Hollywood. The same internet that brings Western media into Russia allows the Russian state to influence elections around the world.

Authoritarian states clearly do not feel their authority is limited by state borders. So it’s no surprise they don’t feel their ability to inflict violence is limited either.