On Monday, Saudi Arabia executed a man and his sister for murdering their parents and siblings, then burning their bodies.
The official details of the crime are as grisly as a horror movie. The pair drugged their siblings and their mother. The next morning they shot their two brothers in cold blood. They proceeded to their mother’s bedroom, where they shot her too. They lived in a room adjacent to the corpses of their family members for perhaps a day or two. When their father returned to the house, they shot him too. They dragged the bodies to the living room, doused them with gasoline, then lit them on fire.
The depravity of the crimes committed by Abdulaziz bin Fahd al-Harthi and his sister Ohoud is self-evident. But what remained shrouded in mystery is why they did it.
The official government press release is unusually exhaustive, providing the names of the perpetrators and a detailed description of exactly how they carried out the crimes. The statement said an appeals court and the Supreme Court both confirmed the sentence, and a royal decree authorizing the execution was promulgated. It also said the severity of the crime necessitated a deterrent punishment. Referring to Abdulaziz, the statement declared, “Because of the obscenity of his actions and the heinousness of his crime, which necessitates a deterrent punishment for him and for whoever is tempted to carry out a similar act, and in order to prevent the spilling of blood [through similar crimes], he was sentenced to death to set an example.”
But the statement and accompanying news coverage shed little light on the motive for the crime, which we are prepared to reveal here.
The likely reason for the obfuscation is the surprising sexual driver behind the murders. Saudi true crime reporters say the siblings murdered their family because their mother had discovered they were engaging in incest.
The absence of official details on the motive is not surprising. Reporting on crimes in the region is difficult, because there are few official avenues in the Gulf where one can obtain records or transcripts from trials. This is particularly true when it comes to crimes involving morality. It is rare to get the full picture even in court sessions, but when one does it often offers a glimpse into questions tormenting society and its arbiters.
So we had to go down an internet rabbit hole in search of any snippet of information about this quadruple homicide — a bizarre and rare case of familicide — in the quiet town of Qia near Taif in western Saudi Arabia. The emerging details point toward an alleged incestuous relationship between the brother and sister who committed the murders. The claims feed into long-running worries about porn and the internet corrupting youth in conservative societies, a popular refrain for clerics in the kingdom and throughout the region.
The first thing you’ll notice if you try to search for information about the crime on social media is that everybody in that sphere already knew the motive, though it seems to have eluded news outlets. Locals are horrified by the motive of the gruesome crime, but rather than celebrating their execution, they appear shocked by its details. Comments on YouTube videos and social media posts discussing the crime are filled with prayers to protect society from the evil perpetrated by the pair. Saudi social media posts referring to the crime invariably mention incest, “zina al-maharem” in Arabic. Some refer to a leaked recording of an officer investigating the crime originally, and point to YouTube videos covering the incident.
On YouTube, Saudi true crime aficionados producing podcasts and video shorts had covered the incident, backing up the incest theory and detailing the intricacies of the crime and how it was discovered. The true crime podcasters don’t disclose their sources, but the details of the story are consistent, including the pseudonyms ascribed to the siblings over the course of the investigation and trial.
According to these consistent reports, the story begins with a call from bystanders on June 17, 2020, three months into the coronavirus pandemic, reporting a fire at a home in Qia. A short piece from the Saudi newspaper Okaz reported that the local civil defense had responded to the call, and a spokesman said that four people had perished as a result of a blaze that had burned down a living room and bedroom in the house (images showing firemen at the house were published at the time).
This is when the true crime reporters take over. Ali al-Abdallah, a crime podcaster and storyteller who has over 640,000 followers on TikTok and over 160,000 on Twitter and hosts a podcast called “Junha” (misdemeanor), and Bangaied, a true crime storyteller with thousands of followers on YouTube, detail largely similar stories. The narration reveals the grisly crime with details worthy of a horror movie. It goes like this: After investigators arrive at the scene of the fire, they see gasoline stains outside the rooms, which prompts suspicions that the fire was deliberately ignited. A look at the bodies reveals that they had been dead for at least two days before the fire with one appearing to have sustained stabbing wounds. An investigator questions the brother and sister, who appear outside the house, dazed and the latter reportedly hysterical. The brother was revealed to be lying in the course of questioning when he said he last saw his family half an hour earlier when he left to buy groceries, even though they appear to have been dead for at least a couple of days. He finally relents under interrogation and discloses the murder plot, alleging that his sister was its driving force.
The pair had planned to murder their mother after their father left for a two- or three-day work trip at dawn.
The details differ somewhat from the official story: The true crime reporters said the pair first tried to recruit one of their siblings to assist with the killing. They shot him when he refused for fear that he would testify against them. The gunshot apparently roused their other brother, who rushed in to investigate what had happened only to get shot dead himself. At this junction the mother was awakened by the commotion, and the murderous duo shot her too. But, it turns out, she did not immediately die, so Abdulaziz stabbed her to death. Then the father returned early from his trip and, upon arrival, was shot dead as well. The pair then doused the bodies with gasoline and attempted to burn the house down, hoping the evidence would burn away with it.
Criminal investigators began poring through the phones of the two suspects, apparently restoring numerous deleted files that revealed that the pair had engaged in an illicit incestuous relationship and had followed social media accounts that encouraged incest, a theme that has become increasingly common on pornography websites. The evidence also suggested that their mother had discovered the relationship, which prompted the murder spree.
These kinds of gruesome murders are popular fodder for online conversations, as they are in many countries. But they also tap into the cultural sensibilities that eschew readily available pornographic material that can become a thing of obsession among youth in conservative societies in the Middle East, blamed almost solely as the “corrupting influence” that led the pair to their incestuous relationship.