Israeli Private Intelligence Firm Claimed Recruitment of Khashoggi Prior to Murder
August 22, 2019 10:27 am
Wikistrat, a hybrid geopolitical analysis/intelligence gathering company connected to Saudi and Israeli leadership, claimed to have “recruited” slain Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi shortly before his murder, and approximately one year after the firm’s owner met with senior advisors to the Saudi government.
Thousands of documents obtained exclusively by Forensic News include correspondences between a senior leader of Wikistrat and a lower-level employee that took place in summer 2018 in which the senior leader wrote that Khashoggi had recently been “recruited” by the firm and encouraged the employee to solicit similar journalists for an unspecified Wikistrat project.
Khashoggi’s “recruitment” by Wikistrat occurred just one year after a small group of businessmen, including Wikistrat owner Joel Zamel, met with senior advisors to the Saudi government. According to the New York Times report, the men allegedly discussed using private intelligence firms to assassinate Iranian political enemies of the newly-minted Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman.
While Zamel reportedly declined such offers, messages show his firm Wikistrat later recruited Khashoggi for a confidential project with unclear purposes for an unknown client.
Shortly after Khashoggi’s murder, the same Wikistrat senior leader who said Khashoggi had been “recruited” by the firm weeks earlier explicitly denied the same when pressed by employees.
Wikistrat was founded in 2009 by Zamel, Daniel Green, and former Israeli military intelligence officer Elad Schaffer. Described as “crowd sourced consultancy”, Wikistrat hires experts who produce reports for clients, often government agencies and major corporations. Analysts run simulations, war game scenarios, and risk-monitoring for a wide variety of international clientele.
Zamel, originally born in Australia, moved to Israel to obtain a Master’s degree in Government at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. After entering the clandestine market of private intelligence, Zamel founded Wikistrat and another private intelligence firm, Psy Group, both in Israel. Psy Group had a convoluted corporate structure which ran through Cyprus and ended up in the British Virgin Islands, obscuring true ownership of the company.
Psy Group achieved some level of notoriety for being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Mueller was reportedly probing a plan pitched by the firm which was designed to assist the Trump 2016 presidential campaign with social media manipulation. The plan would allegedly be bankrolled by Saudi and UAE leaders. Zamel and both firms, Wikistrat and Psy Group, have also been the target of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan investigation into 2016 election interference.
Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian author and outspoken dissident of Saudi government oppression. In 2017, he relocated to the United States due to increasing fear for his safety. Khashoggi’s concerns proved prescient, as shortly after his departure bin Salman’s government began implementing a severe crackdown on opposition speech and organization. After arriving in the United States, Khashoggi served as a contributor to the Washington Post, writing articles about his home country and the negative impact of bin Salman’s politics.
On October 2, 2018, Khashoggi and his fiancé headed to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to complete divorce paperwork related to his previous marriage. Khashoggi had attempted to complete the same paperwork inside the Saudi embassy in Washington but was told he had to travel to Turkey in order to obtain the documents.
Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate while his fiancé waited outside. He was never seen again. CCTV footage from outside the consulate captured the moment the journalist was last publicly seen. Numerous reports from media outlets later confirmed by Western intelligence agencies indicated Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate. After a struggle, Khashoggi was disposed of in morbid fashion: one Saudi assassin listened to music as he dismembered Khashoggi’s body. His remains have never been found.
American intelligence officials concluded bin Salman himself ordered the assassination, which was carried out by Saudi agents inside the consulate. The purpose of the murder was to silence Khashoggi and intimidate other dissidents.
In the days and weeks that followed Khashoggi’s murder, friends and associates of the journalist claimed he had been working on a secret social media project to push back against Saudi bots and trolls parroting government messaging and defending the bin Salman. Khashoggi wired his associate, Omar Abdulaziz, $5,000 for the project dubbed “electronic bees” in the days before being lured to Turkey.
12 days before his murder, Khashoggi tweeted public support for the bee project, saying “what do you know about bees? They love their home country and defend it with truth and rights.”
“He wrote a lot critically before in newspapers but it was only when we started to organise the opposition [with the Bee movement] that [the regime] got upset,” Abdulaziz told the Independent in 2018. Saudi agents imprisoned many members of Abdulaziz’s family, referring to the bee project as the primary justification for their detention.
Wikistrat “recruited” Khashoggi for the confidential project approximately twelve weeks prior to the murder, and one year after founder Joel Zamel attended a meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where Saudi leaders allegedly proposed assassinating Iranian opponents. Another attendee of the meeting was Saudi Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, the individual who is accused of orchestrating Khashoggi’s murder.
According to a Wikistrat employee who has since been identified as Matthew Penn:
“I was tasked by my supervisor to create an experts list of scholars, professionals, and businessmen from the Middle East, either Middle East nationals or expatriates,” “They wanted me to focus on Saudi nationals especially. ”
[The supervisor] said that Wikistrat had already recruited one Saudi for the project, Jamal Khashoggi.”
Oren Kesler, then-Wikistrat’s Director of Operations, directed Penn to find top Middle East experts related to organizations like the ME Institute, the Middle East Eye, or the Middle East Journal. Each has been critical of bin Salman’s regime. Kesler has since been promoted to CEO. He did not return a request for comment.
Penn told Forensic News that he/she was unable to discern the true purpose of the project. Kesler referred to the Saudi Arabia project as simply, “KSA Project”. “KSA” is an oft-used acronym for “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
The message did not explain the reason the journalists were being sought. The resumes of the journalists are inconsistent with the professional backgrounds of Wikistrat’s other analysts, most of whom are academics, former intelligence officials, or foreign relations experts. The murky nature of the project and the lack of any clear answers regarding its existence became extremely concerning to Penn.
Days after Khashoggi was murdered, internal Wikistrat communications show the same senior official who told an employee that Khashoggi had been recruited by the firm earlier in the summer explicitly changed course, suddenly denying Khashoggi was ever recruited in the first place. When asked by Penn about Khashoggi’s recruitment, Kesler responded simply, “No. He was on a list of people we wanted to bring in, but he wasn’t a member of the community.” This surprised the Penn and added to his concerns.
After Khashoggi was murdered, other Saudi experts who signed on to help Wikistrat with the confidential project said they never heard from Wikistrat again, despite filling out registration forms in order to work with the firm.
A Middle East scholar who was one of the experts recruited by Wikistrat told Forensic News:
“In August 2018, a Wikistrat recruiter contacted me and asked me to become one of their experts and asked for my resume,” she told Forensic News. “He said that experts, ‘will participate in Wikistrat’s projects involving Saudi Arabian topics and the MENA region in general.’ That’s all I ever heard about this project. I sent Wikistrat my resume and I followed all their instructions, but they never gave me any registration information or contacted me after that.”
The scholar clicked on a link sent by Wikistrat and filled out a registration form as part of the onboarding process, but never heard from them again.
“It is indeed bizarre since they were the ones who asked me to become one of their experts,” she said.
Wikistrat also recruited Raghad Hadidi, an instructor at German Jordanian University, for the KSA Project. She never received any follow-up instructions from Wikistrat either, despite agreeing to work with them as an expert:
“I was just interested in doing something in journalism since I am a lecturer at a university in Jordan and I teach communication and politics and philosophy and business.”
“I never got a task or heard from Wikistrat so I just forgot about it,” she said.
The lack of follow-up action by Wikistrat officials added fuel to Penn’s suspicions about the true intentions of the Saudi Arabia project.
“Usually, we give people their login information after they’ve registered with us,” Penn said. “Typically, we invite people to a [simulation], review their information if they are interested in participating, sometimes we interview them through Skype, and give them their login information after they’re approved. I found it strange that they would approve and register these people but not give them their login information. That isn’t typical.”
When asked for comment on this story, an attorney for Joel Zamel, Marc Mukasey, did not comment but directed Forensic News to another attorney. That attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The public relations team at Wikistrat responded to request for comment from Forensic News by confirming key parts of this story, including the fact that the firm had worked with Khashoggi, whom they referred to informally as “Jamal.” That official’s statement is inconsistent with prior communication regarding Khashoggi’s work.
The Wikistrat PR team told Forensic News via email that their comments were off the record; however, Forensic News agreed to no such terms. This, combined with a legal threat from Wikistrat in the event of the publication of this article, encouraged us to publish the PR team’s statement in full:
As you know the company came under a wave of media scrutiny and speculation over the past year – raising to the level of ridiculous conspiracy theories and absurd allegations. You are already responsible for publishing some of these stories, with an incredibly high proportion of false claims connecting totally unrelated dots.
Wikistrat manages a community of Thousands of subject matter experts, including hundreds on the Middle-East. The company also manages dozens of sub-communities in different countries, industries and topics. Wikistrat has conducted many hundreds of simulations over the years, dealing with many countries across the Middle East.
Specifically, the Saudi community existed within the “Middle East Desk” for years, and was broken down into country-based communities in 2017 as we continue to specialize and broaden our expert communities per desk.
Jamal, similar to many of our analysts, worked with many organizations and media outlets. We mourn his death and were shocked by his horrible murder.
There is no story here. He was not hired “weeks before”, he was one of many analysts within the community for a while. None of these individuals you mentioned were ever in touch with Jamal. We do not discuss details about analysts in such sensitive situations, or their work, for the sake of their safety and their family’s safety.
No, the company does not have – nor has ever had, a working relationship with KSA. All our analysts are contracted for providing opinions, forecasting, open-source reports and collaboratively analyzing complex issues along with other contributors from around the world.
Publishing anything insinuating otherwise, or associating the company in any way with this heinous crime, would be damaging to the company, completely unfounded, and be considered grounds for legal action against you personally and your media outlet.
Our legal counsel will be in touch with you directly in the coming days. We urge you to avoid publishing anything before then.
Though Wikistrat bills itself as “the world’s first crowdsourced consultancy”, where analysts run simulations and potential wargame outcomes, an investigative report by the Daily Beast in 2018 concluded: “Wikistrat is, for all intents and purposes, an Israeli firm; and that the company’s work was not just limited to analysis. It also engaged in intelligence collection.”
That investigation found that nearly three-quarters of Wikistrat’s clients were foreign governments.
A Wikistrat researcher told Forensic News that he/she witnessed a pattern of deeply disturbing events between 2016-2018, primarily regarding the firm’s work with Russia and Saudi Arabia. The researcher observed random deletion of simulations conducted by analysts, contradictory statements by company leaders, an “extreme” level of secrecy regarding clients, and obfuscation about the true purpose of company projects.
Connections to Trump
Wikistrat also has deep links to Trump associates. One of the earliest members of Wikistrat’s advisory council was John Hannah, a Bush administration official who worked on foreign policy issues in Iraq. Hannah later became a Trump Transition team official at the Department of State. Hannah’s associates include George Nader, a Middle Eastern businessman who organized meetings between the Trump team and Zamel, as well as other leaders like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Nader is currently heading to trial in Virginia facing charges of child pornography.
During his time working with Hannah in 2010, Nader was also hired by Erik Prince, the CEO of the private mercenary firm Blackwater, to help it “generate business deals in Iraq.” Prince, who is the brother of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education, also tried to set up a secret back channel between the Trump campaign and a Russian banker in the Seychelles in January, 2017. Prince later lied to Congress about his contacts with the Trump campaign and the Russian banker, but has not yet faced formal perjury charges.
Zamel has separate links to other members of Trump’s orbit. Former National Security Advisor and now-convicted felon, Lt. General Michael Flynn, was reportedly approached by Zamel through Flynn’s associate, Bijan Kian, with an invitation for Flynn to join Wikistrat’s advisory council. Kian himself was recently convicted on charges of conspiring to hide foreign lobbying work and illegally acting as a foreign agent, based in part on information uncovered by Robert Mueller. Flynn later pled guilty to lying to a law enforcement officer but avoided charges relating to illegal lobbying he may have done on behalf of the Turkish government.
Recent reporting also suggests that a Trump phone call with bin Salman, which took place in the immediate wake of Khashoggi’s murder, was covered up by White House officials, similarly to the phone call between Trump and the President of Ukraine at the heart of the ongoing impeachment inquiry. Multiple reports indicate that the contents of the call were hidden from officials who would typically see it. CNN reports this conversation was kept ‘very secret’ and that officials took the extraordinary step of not even making a transcript of the call, a decision considered extremely unusual by White House experts. While there is no evidence the contents of the call were related to Wikistrat, the unusual secrecy imposed on the call’s contents raises alarm bells due to the increasingly interconnected web regarding Khashoggi’s murder.
Nader’s extensive history with the Trump family and administration is intertwined with the 2016 election, as well as Zamel’s operations with Psy Group and Wikistrat. Nader first came under the scrutiny of Mueller’s investigators for his role in a Saudi influence campaign meant to curry favor with then-candidate Trump. Nader and Zamel, introduced to one another in the spring of 2016, met again in Russia at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, according to Ronan Farrow and Adam Entous of the New Yorker.
Farrow and Entous write: “According to a representative for Nader, Zamel told Nader that he was trying to raise money for a social-media campaign in support of Trump; he thought that Nader’s Gulf contacts might be interested in contributing financially.“
What followed was a Trump Tower meeting which ended up being investigated by Mueller. The meeting occurred on August 3rd, 2016 and was initiated by Erik Prince, at that point acting as an informal adviser to the Trump team. Nader represented the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia; Donald Trump, Jr. and Stephen Miller represented the Trump campaign. Zamel pitched the parties on Psy Group’s social media manipulation strategies.
According to the New York Times report, Nader conveyed to Trump Jr. that both the UAE and Saudi Arabia “were eager to help his father win election as President.”
Trump, Jr. is said to have welcomed the operation, according to the New York Times. Nader eventually paid Zamel $2 million sometime after the election, but before the inauguration of Trump. There are conflicting reports regarding the reasons for the payment.
Zamel’s representatives insisted that it was compensation for a presentation delivered to Nader about Psy Group’s potential capabilities. However, both representatives of Nader’s and former Psy Group employees have implied that the operation to help the Trump campaign may have been carried out, according to the New Yorker.
“[A]ccording to the Nader representative, shortly after the election Zamel bragged to Nader that he had conducted a secret campaign that had been influential in Trump’s victory,” the New Yorker wrote. Per Nader’s recollection, Zamel showed him reports detailing the social media work that Psy Group did on behalf of the Trump campaign. Zamel denies this (his representative said the reports were hypothetical); however, after the election, Psy Group’s CEO Royi Burstein began giving presentations to potential clients in Washington, D.C. based on information similar to the reports Nader saw.
At the presentations, “Burstien pointed out that Russian operatives had been caught meddling in the U.S.,” states the New Yorker piece. “Psy-Group, he told clients, was ‘more careful.’” The Wall Street Journal in 2018 obtained a copy of the presentation prepared by Psy Group:
It has also been reported that, while Zamel pitched the Trump Campaign during that August 2016 meeting, Nader separately offered the campaign a back channel to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, likely via General Asiri.
Psy Group also signed a contract with Cambridge Analytica, a company implicated in the 2018 Facebook data scandal which did heavily scrutinized data analytics work for the Trump campaign.
Cambridge Analytica reportedly signed a business agreement with Psy Group that “outlines a partnership whereby the two firms could cooperate on a case-by-case basis to provide intelligence and social-media services,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
While the agreement was signed in December 2016, after Trump’s election, it was allegedly designed in part to steer lucrative government contracts to the two firms. There’s no indication the partnership resulted in any deliverables.
However, there are indications that the investigation into the relationship between Cambridge Analytica, Psy Group and Zamel may still be active.
On the day the Mueller report was released, including its twelve redacted criminal referrals, Christopher Wylie, a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower who was interviewed by Mueller and Congress, tweeted simply, “(redacted)”.
— Christopher Wylie 🏳️🌈 (@chrisinsilico) April 18, 2019
Wikistrat and Saudi Arabia
Zamel’s connections to the Saudi government are voluminous and serious. In November, 2018, the New York Times published an explosive article asserting that Saudis close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed killing enemies of the Saudi government one year before Khashoggi’s death.
In the piece, the Times reported that “[t]op Saudi intelligence officials close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman asked a small group of businessmen last year about using private companies” to assassinate Iranian enemies of the Kingdom.
The small group of businessmen consisted of Zamel, Prince, and Nader.
Both [Nader] and Mr. Zamel believed that Hillary Clinton’s anticipated victory in the 2016 election meant a continuation of the Iran nuclear deal signed by President Barack Obama — and little appetite in Washington for a concerted campaign to cripple the Iranian economy. So, they decided to pitch the plan to Saudi and Emirati officials, even submitting a proposal to General Assiri during a meeting in Belgium.
Their discussions, more than a year before the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, indicate that top Saudi officials have considered assassinations since the beginning of Prince Mohammed’s ascent.
During these series of meetings, all held in Riyadh and Belgium, Nader and Zamel also pitched a $2 billion plan to General Asiri, and others, to use intelligence firms to sabotage the Iranian economy and eliminate threats to bin Salman’s nascent consolidation of power.
Prior to these meetings, in January 2017, bin Salman reportedly dispatched General Asiri to New York to meet with Michael Flynn, Nader, and Zamel, who hoped to pitch a plan to “undercut” the Iranian regime. It’s unclear if any plans went through or when Zamel last communicated with Asiri.
Asiri has now admitted he ordered an operation to “convince Mr. Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia,” though he denies planning the use of any force against Khashoggi. Asiri is currently on trial in Saudi Arabia, charged with murder.
Though Wikistrat purports to be based out of Washington, DC, one former employee told the Daily Beast that business operations were handled out of Tel Aviv. Business records analyzed by Forensic News confirm that the same Tel Aviv address was listed for each of the three main executives at the company, Zamel, Schaffer, and Green.
Records filed by branches of Wikistrat in Virginia, Texas, and New York City, show all three executives listed an address that corresponds to a nondescript building used by many other companies as a registered address.
Other exclusively obtained documents from the Australian government show that Gary Zamel, Joel Zamel’s father, has acted as a Director and Secretary of that Wikistrat branch since its inception in 2009.
Gary Zamel is a serial entrepreneur, who has amassed millions, mainly in the sector of coal mining.
Among his current ventures is CommChain, a blockchain based commodity trading platform.
Recently, Gary Zamel has done business with Ronald Lauder, one of President Trump’s longest friends, who, while Trump’s mental fitness for office was being hotly debated, issued a statement saying, in part, “[t]he President I have seen is a man of incredible insight and intelligence.”
Trump even tapped Lauder as somewhat of an unofficial liasion in an attempt to negotiate peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Lauder and Nader have a working relationship as well, dating back to the late 1990s, when they worked together to improve Syrian-Israeli relations.
In 2005, Gary Zamel and his wife purchased a mansion on the coast of Australia for over $20,000,000 from Lachlan Murdoch, who is now Executive Chairman and CEO of Fox Corporation.
Wikistrat saw a large injection of revenue in 2019 that has been deemed suspicious by at least one employee along with other financial experts.
“The real question is,” one Wikistrat analyst remarked to Forensic News, “where did this money come from? Wikistrat nearly collapsed last year, but they’ve since rebuilt all of their operations. They’ve got a new website, and their activity has drastically increased since last year.”
Employees expressed similar sentiments in the aforementioned Daily Beast report:
“It was never clear to me how much Joel [Zamel] was actually paying out of pocket to subsidize the company vs. what was brought in,” another former employee said. “Clients paid decently but not enough to sustain the company. So Joel was either substantially funding the company or we were getting money from somewhere else. That naturally leads you to focus on non-U.S. sources of income.”
Financial statements published by the Daily Beast and independently verified by Forensic News show that Wikistrat took a loss of $773,000 in 2016. By January 2017, all operations appear to have ceased: Wikistrat’s website stopped posting any simulations or analyses. An exclusive look at the internal Wikistrat portal, as seen below, shows that as of July, their last full simulation was completed in December 2016.
By the 2nd quarter of 2019, everything changed. According to the business database ZoomInfo, Wikistrat’s revenue jumped over 300%, to $102,000,000. Wikistrat’s website was redesigned, and after a year of total inactivity, the company began posting analyses, interviews, and other content.
The massive influx of cash during this period remains unexplained.
Wikistrat also deleted at least one simulation after Joel Zamel was featured in a series of news articles in 2018. The simulation was sandwiched in between a series of Russia-focused simulations, but the simulation itself, titled, “Evolution and Effect of Emerging Technologies”, did not pertain exclusively to Russia.
One Wikistrat analyst familiar with that particular simulation said that it initially seemed benign, but after Zamel’s name was disseminated in major media reports about Psy Group, the simulation was deleted. “[I]t seemed strange that they took the sim off the site when they did,” the analyst said.
Another simulation which was first reported by the Daily Beast, and can now be confirmed by Forensic News, is entitled, “The Rise of the Cyber Mercenary.”
Among the 23 threads in the simulation include topics called “Cyber Mercenaries compromise US elections” and “Using cyber-mercenaries to disseminate false information on social networks”.
One of the threads concluded with an analyst issuing a warning:
“I think that it is important that we recognize that these “cyber-trolls” are trained controversialists: they openly engage in public controversy. People are drawn to the excitement of controversy and these cyber-trolls are experts in sensationalizing a political issue. The objective of cyber-trolls is not to convince explicitly, but rather subconsciously, by inserting a seed of doubt that leads to confusion and encourages fact-skepticism. They are not afraid to use provocative and confrontational language, as it is to their advantage if it leads to an emotional rise in the reader because the reader is then more likely to engage in debate, which in-turn, creates mare buzz and attracts a greater audience, increasing the potential number of people exposed to this misinformation campaign.”