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Documents and interviews with former Wikistrat employees cast new suspicion on the company and its relationship to murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Last month, Forensic News detailed a series of troubling documents and events relating to Wikistrat’s connections to Khashoggi and to Saudis reportedly involved in the journalist’s murder. These connections began with a leaked internal document showing one senior executive who claimed the firm had “recruited” Khashoggi just weeks before his murder while urging a lower-level employee to make contact with other journalists who had been critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Separate leaked documents showed the same executive later denied Wikistrat had ever worked with Khashoggi after the journalist’s murder. When Forensic News reached out to Wikistrat for comment before publishing that piece, a Wikistrat spokesperson issued a statement claiming Khashoggi in fact did work for the firm, and that he “was one of many analysts within the [Wikistrat] community for a while.”
The firm’s connections to Khashoggi add confusion to existing reporting regarding its relationship to Saudi Arabia. Wikistrat’s owner, Joel Zamel, met multiple times with Saudi officials in 2017, including Major General Ahmed Al-Asiri, one of the men now on trial for Khashoggi’s murder. In at least one meeting, according to the New York Times, Saudi officials broached the idea of using private intelligence firms to murder political dissidents. Zamel reportedly declined.
Wikistrat and Khashoggi
In 2018, internal correspondence from Wikistrat show a senior executive told an employee that they had recruited Khashoggi for an undefined Saudi Arabia project and asked the employee to recruit similar academics and journalists. The employee then forwarded that message to other Wikistrat recruiters, records show.
Here is a person who we’ve already recruited and we are looking for the same: Jamal Khashoggi
–Senior Wikistrat executive, June 2018
Days after Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi agents in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, the same Wikistrat executive who reported Khashoggi’s recruitment denied the Washington Post columnist ever worked for Wikistrat. That denial was included in the cache of internal messages obtained by Forensic News.
He was on a list of people we wanted to bring but he wasn’t a member of the community.
-Senior Wikistrat executive, October 2018
In preparation for the Forensic News article regarding these communications, journalists reached out to Wikistrat to inquire about the firm’s relationship with Khashoggi. Wikistrat was given an opportunity to comment on the internal messages that Forensic News was ready to publish.
The company responded with a statement attributed to Wikistrat Management, printed in part below:
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.
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.
Wikistrat’s new position that Khashoggi “was one of many analysts within the community for a while” not only contradicts the firm’s internal messages — the details of which the firm was unaware of at the time it issued the new statement — but is also inconsistent with numerous interviews Forensic News has conducted with former Wikistrat employees, as well as other internal Wikistrat data.
Multiple former employees at Wikistrat say they never saw Khashoggi’s name or profile. At least seven employees who responded to requests for information on the matter said they were entirely unaware of any Wikistrat work done by Khashoggi or any relationship the firm had with the journalist. Some of the employees expressed suspicion about Wikistrat’s statement to the contrary.
When asked about Khashoggi and the undefined Saudi Arabia project, Amanda Skuldt, Wikistrat’s Senior Project Manager until April 2017 said, “I don’t know anything about it.” One Wikistrat employee told Forensic News that Skuldt was the head of the Middle East desk within Wikistrat until her resignation in 2017. Wikistrat documents confirm that account. If Khashoggi was a member of the community within Wikistrat, Skuldt would have known about it, the employee said.
Jan Faltys, a former researcher at Wikistrat’s Middle East Desk in 2016, corroborated Skuldt’s sentiment: “I haven’t seen his name in any simulation or war games,” two of Wikistrat’s primary communities for analysts.
Tor Jörgensen, another researcher with Wikistrat who worked there from 2014-2017, said that he “cannot recall ever seeing an entry by Khashoggi. I was not even aware that he was a part of the platform to be honest.”
Sreeja Kundu, an analyst who worked for Wikistrat’s private clients from March-November 2018 indicated she never saw a reference to Khashoggi, either. “I haven’t seen his name,” she said.
Another analyst at Wikistrat who was eventually promoted to Supervisor before he departed the firm told Forensic News he had “never seen [Khashoggi’s] name in any simulations” or war-games during his tenure at the company. He was there for four years.
A sixth researcher directly involved with Wikistrat’s Middle East affairs in 2018 also said, on the condition of anonymity, that he never saw Khashoggi participate in any Wikistrat reports. This employee was particularly troubled by what he perceived to be lies by Wikistrat officials in their October 2019 statement to Forensic News.
A seventh analyst who was with the company until early 2018 put it plainly: “I did not see any mention of Khashoggi anywhere.”
Internal Wikistrat data
One former Wikistrat employee gave Forensic News an exclusive look inside the company’s online portal. The data reviewed pours cold water on the firm’s assertion that its connection to Khashoggi existed because he worked for Wikistrat. The employee confirmed that the Middle East Community was broken up into country-specific blocs, as seen below:
The employee who gave Forensic News this access confirmed that s/he never saw Khashoggi within the generalized Middle East Community or the post-2017 “Expert Community: KSA” area, nor anywhere else in Wikistrat operations.
Forensic news also reviewed a full roster of all members of Wikistrat’s pre-2017 Middle East Community, seen below. Absent is Jamal Khashoggi.
Hover to zoom.
The full roster of Wikistrat’s Middle East experts, lacking any reference to Khashoggi, is the strongest evidence yet that he rarely, if ever, participated in any Wikistrat-related activities even though one of the company’s higher-ups and a statement from the company claim that was the case. The company’s October 2019 statement that Khashoggi “was one of many analysts within the community for a while…” appears misleading at best and has not been supported by any evidence by Wikistrat. Wikistrat has not been accused of any legal wrongdoing, and the firm vigorously denies any connection to the murder of Khashoggi or related crimes.
Investigators scrutinized Zamel’s businesses
The company did, however, attract the attention of the FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee. Special Counsel Robert Mueller scrutinized Wikistrat’s connections to the Middle East, as well as Zamel’s pitch to the Trump campaign to use a Zamel-controlled social media manipulation company to assist Trump in winning the Republican nomination, and later the Presidency. That company, Psy Group, was liquidated in 2019; in June, the Israeli government made an unusual request to intervene in a court case regarding Psy Group to erase archives of data stored on the company’s computers.
Adding to the mystery are questions regarding George Nader, a former Trump liaison to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who is awaiting trial on child pornography charges in Virginia. Nader paid one of Zamel’s companies $2,000,000 after the Trump election. A representative for Nader told the New Yorker in February that Zamel bragged to Nader about conducting a secret social media operation to support Trump. Zamel and his team categorically deny these allegations.
Ongoing Nader investigation
Just weeks ago, the Department of Justice stated in a Mueller-related court proceeding that at least part of George Nader’s grand jury testimony for the Mueller probe raises “questions regarding ongoing investigations.” Nader sought access to a copy of his 900-page Mueller grand jury testimony in preparation for his child pornography trial when the government objected, citing, in part, “ongoing investigations.”
This admission by DOJ confirms Nader-related activity that was at least somewhat pertinent to Mueller’s investigation is still being probed. Mueller was known to have “keen interest” in why Nader paid Zamel the $2,000,000, the New York Times reported in 2018.
“F.B.I. agents spent hours interviewing” Zamel’s employees, the Times noted.
An attorney for Zamel and Wikistrat did not respond to requests for comment.
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