A dialogue between Al
Jazeera London bureau chief Yosri Fouda and TBS Publisher and Senior Editor S.
Fouda and S. Abdallah Schleifer discuss the thrills and chills of covering Al-Qa'ida.
special report " Top Secret: The Road to September 11th" broadcast in two installments
last September by Al Jazeera contains the most detailed and undisputed confirmation
by Al-Qa'ida leaders Khalid Al-Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Bin Al-Sheeba that Al-Qa'ida
carried out the 9/11 terrorist attack. Why you? And who decided you would be the
correspondent that these two leaders would talk to, in an interview that should
have (but probably hasn't) put an end to all doubts in the Arab world as to who
are responsible for 9/11.
that question "Why me?" did come up, on the first of the two days I spent with
Khalid and Ramzi. (Their people follow the Arab manner of addressing them by their
first names; I did the same and I'll do the same here.) Once my blindfold and
sunglasses, which hid the blindfold, had been removed and I had gotten over the
shock of finding myself in a nearly empty apartment with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,
one of the most important figures in the Al-Qa'ida leadership, and Ramzi Bin Al-Sheeba,
who had a $ 25 million dollar bounty on his head at that time, just as Khalid
did, I asked them, first of all, "Why me?" me and they said Sheikh Abu Abdallah
[Osama Bin Ladin's kunya or honorific. Editors.] had picked me. Again I asked
them, but why me? And they said there are other journalists both inside and outside
of Al Jazeera who are thought of as having some sort or degree of sympathy with
their cause. So for that very reason, they said they wanted to have this story
done by someone "more secular in his professional approach" so that their message
would carry more credibility.
Rather sophisticated too, like so much else about their operation.
YF: It was
and it confirmed my initial impression that there is someone who understands media,
and particularly television, inside Al-Qa'ida. I already had that impression,
not just because of the video tapes that were sent out before and after 9/11,
but because after I got the first phone call, from a man who turned out to be
an intermediary, asking for my fax number, I received a three-page fax with an
outline of a program Al-Qa'ida had in mind for me to do to mark the first anniversary
of 9/11. The fax proposed story ideas, locations, and personalities. I later learned
Ramzi Bin Al-Sheeba passed it on to the intermediary who made the contact.
So in a sense from the
beginning of the contact we had some sort of unwritten contract or understanding.
They knew who I am and they knew what my program is all about, so when I made
the decision to accept their invitation and go for the story I knew it was going
to be about information and not just rhetoric.And
that's what happened.
And this was not my first
contact with Al-Qa'ida. I had gone to the Pakistani tribal areas last January
(2002) to check out reports that at least 150 Al-Qa'ida fighters had managed to
evade Pakistani and American forces and crossed over into Pakistan after the collapse
of the Taliban. They knew I was there but conditions were such that I couldn't
make direct contact. But after I left they sent me tapes of two fighters, who
told how they had managed to escape and evade arrest in the tribal areas. I used
those tapes in a Top Secret report that was broadcast the first week of March
Anyway the interview wasn't
some sort of discussion and I didn't go there to argue with them and I didn't
go there to judge them. I went there in the hope I could come back with some solid
information and they knew that and that's why they cut a long story short, and
started telling me specifics, about how it was.
seems like they were quite prepared for you and ready to get right down to business.
I mean they started first of all by introducing themselves with their rank within
the organization. I already knew about both of them. Even before September 11th
the FBI had a $5 million dollar price on Khalid's head. He is an uncle of Ramzi
Yusef, the Pakistani who is now doing life in an American prison for organizing
the first attack on the World Trade Center, and Ramzi had already been accused
by the FBI of involvement in the attack on the USS Cole off Aden in October 2000.
Ramzi was a flat mate of the key hijackers when they lived in Hamburg and he was
already implicated and wanted by security agencies all around the world. " Recognized
us yet?" Khalid said; he said it as a joke. At that moment Ramzi was shaking my
hand. "You will," Ramzi said, "when your door is knocked at by the dogs from intelligence.'
So Khalid got right down
to business, laying down the conditions that I would not talk about their means
of communication, nor would I mention their real code-names and if I was asked
what they now looked like, I was to say they looked exactly like the photos in
circulation that I would be shown. Then I was asked to place my hand on the Qur'an
and solemnly swear to this.
Khalid struck me as shrewd
and very direct. He was obviously annoyed that I had been allowed to bring my
mobile phone with me; he snatched it, switched it off, removed the SIM card and
battery, and put it away in another room. After prayers, which were led by Ramzi,
I asked him if he was traveling, since he had used the shorter prayer form for
travelers. Ramzi said 'Yes, we're traveling. You didn't expect us to show you
where we live, did you?'
At that moment Khalid
asked to see my British passport. I was taken back and a little concerned. I handed
it over and he leafed through it very quickly. 'Nice one, that,' he said and when
he came to my Pakistani visa he noted down the serial number and handed it back.
Khalid told me there would
be no filming on the first day and that they would provide me with a camera and
cameraman on the next day; that they would provide for everything. Ramzi added
that I would be taken straight from the safe house to the airport when they were
Then with very little
fanfare Khalid introduced himself as head of the so-called Al-Qa'ida military
committee and Ramzi as coordinator of the 9/11 operation - which they would describe
either as "the Holy Tuesday operation" or "the Martyrs' Operation" or the "Manhattan
and Washington Raids" using the old Arabic word ghazwa used at the time of the
Prophet, to describe raids against enemies which were like modern-day commando
do you say "so-called?" Did they use that phrase?
at all. But that was how I felt at that moment; I hadn't thought of Al-Qa'ida
as a formal organization and suddenly I'm in front of somebody introducing himself
as the head of the Al-Qa'ida military committee. Well, they have committees and
departments and Khalid told me they had a department for martyrs; it was from
that department that they picked the men who would accompany the hijacker pilots
and leaders and he said they were never short of people, who in his own words,
were "willing to die for Allah." His problem was actually the opposite-of having
to choose from among them, to pick the right people who would suit the requirements
of any particular operation. In this case, at least at the leadership level, suitable
people familiar with the West.
It became very clear to
me, not just from the titles, but from the relaxed, calm, and easy way they talked
about the preparations and planning for two days that Khalid and Ramzi were the
two master planners of 9/11. They were both proud of what they had organized,
Ramzi speaking calmly and with authority while Khalid would make decisive interventions.
Khalid was the more active of the two. His hands never stopped moving as he walked
As I mentioned in my article
in the Sunday Times Magazine (Sept. 8, 2002) there were clear limits on what they
would say and I'm sure there are still many details of the planning that, at the
time of my interview, remained known only to these two men and possibly one or
two others. But I was able to fit what they said into the gaps that existed in
past attempts at explaining the plot and I've built up an account which I outlined
in the Sunday Times article and which is the basis for my documentary report.
It's an account that has been described as unprecedented and an account that I
believe is authentic.
Ramzi and Khalid told
me how two and a half years prior to 9/11 they took the decision within the military
committee to attack inside America and they started to look for targets. Khalid
said that the first thing that jumped into their minds was striking at a couple
of nuclear facilities but they dropped this idea for now, being concerned that
it might "get out of hand." He wouldn't elaborate beyond that. But when I asked
him what do you mean by "for now." He said "for now" means "for now."
that means that Khalid, who is still at large, was implying that Al-Qa'ida reserved
the right to blow up nuclear facilities in the future?
That's exactly what I got from him and I think he wanted to underline this. Incidentally
it was Khalid, as chairman of the military committee, who had come up with the
proposal that the "martyrdom operation" in America should target prominent buildings.
His plan was similar to an earlier one to send 12 airliners simultaneously into
American landmarks. Intelligence agencies know about this earlier plan, "the Bojinka
plot" as they call it because it went disastrously wrong. Khaled had worked on
it in 1994-95 with his nephew Ramzi Yousef, who was on the run after the first
World Trade Center bombing. Yousef was hiding out in Manila working on bomb designs
and initial logistics. But he fled his apartment when chemicals he had stashed
there for making bombs caught fire and he left behind a laptop containing full
details. Within months he was arrested in Pakistan. Khalid who had just arrived
in Manila at the time of the fire managed to escape and he wasn't heard of again
until his name was given to FBI interrogators by Abu Zubaydah, a senior Bin Ladin
deputy, who was arrested after a gunfight in Pakistan last March (2002). Now Khalid
was explaining to me how he not only resurrected the Bojinka plot but had refined
it into a devastatingly effective act of war. In 1999, Mohammed Atta, an Al-Qa'ida
"sleeper" who had been studying and working in Hamburg since 1992, was earmarked
along with other sleepers by the military committee to pilot the death flights.
That autumn, in 1999,
they all got together in Kandahar, meeting in a building used so often by volunteers
from Saudi Arabia that it was known as Al-Ghumad House, after the large Al-Ghamdi
clan; later on, four young Ghamdis would end up as foot soldiers in the hijackings.
According to Ramzi, the council consisted of the four pilots as well as Khalid
al-Mihdar and Atta's deputy, Nawaf al-Hazema. According to Khalid, four reconnaissance
units were sent to America in pairs or singles over the next five or six months.
In the autumn of 2000, Atta entered the US to begin flying lessons in Venice,
Florida, along with Marwan al-Shehhi who piloted the United Airlines plane that
he crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center. Ziad Al-Jarrah was
nearby in another training school and [Hani] Hanjur, already a trained pilot,
was undergoing further training in Arizona. Ramzi told me that a decision was
taken not to put them all in the same flight school. The idea was to keep contact
to a minimum.
you have a sense, during your two days with them, who was higher in the leadership?
obviously Khalid Sheikh Mohammed outranked Ramzi Bin Al-Sheeba by far. Khalid
is head of the military committee and Ramzi was the coordinator of 9/11 but I
think even there he came to be called the leader or coordinator of 9/11 by default.
He originally wanted to join the other 19 hijackers. But he was turned down twice
when he tried to get an entry visa. When he failed I think he just focused on
his role as a coordinator.
was by his own admission, that he tried twice and failed, or is this something
you uncovered on your own?
he mentioned it and I had that confirmed from other sources. I also interviewed
the owner of the flight school, Arne Kruithof, where Ziad Al-Jarrah (who flew
the United Airlines plane which crashed in Pennsylvania) learned how to fly. And
Kruithof confirmed that he had twice tried to get Ramzi an entry visa upon Ziad's
urging, and because Ramzi had poor English Kruithof referred Ramzi to an English-language
school; they tried for the visas and they failed. When Ziad asked Kruithof why
the visa requests were turned down, the flight school owner said he didn't know.
But American officials subsequently made no secret of it. They said Ramzi was
turned down because he was implicated in the USS Cole attack.
sources are presumably American intelligence sources?
if I understand you correctly, American intelligence sources be it within the
INS or some other agency the INS checked him out with, knew at the time they turned
Ramzi down that he was implicated in the Cole attack. That's rather odd, because
if they knew that and turned him down for that reason, you'd think they would
have wondered who else was at that flight school and why? Or, even more to the
point they should have issued him a visa just to get him in to the United States
and grabbed him for the Cole attack. If that's the case it fits right into a list
of intelligence blunders by both the FBI and the CIA that have already surfaced
in the press and in Congressional hearings.
that's right. I mean if you consider this angle, its really a large angle because
of certain coincidences, at least seven or eight other missed opportunities like
this one, that just don't leave one with a comfortable sense; that suggest that
9/11 could actually have been aborted. There is still an ongoing debate about
this in the States.
I do believe, even having
come back from Pakistan with the first direct admission intended for public eyes
and ears by Al-Qa'ida that they were indeed responsible for 9/11, that we only
have part of the picture. A lot of questions have still to be answered. A lot
of questions. Some people would wonder about the very sophistication of the operation,
and whether or not, even if Al-Qa'ida wanted to do it, whether or not they were
actually capable, alone, of executing it.
say that but I remember in the past-back in 1970 when I was reporting on the Palestinian
fedayeen for Jeune Afrique and NBC News-how the PFLP (Popular Front for
the Liberation of Palestine) hijacked simultaneously and nearly flawlessly four
planes originating from different international airports and flew three of them
to Dawson Field in Jordan and one to Cairo via Beirut and after getting everybody
off the planes, blew them up. In retrospect those were much nicer times - people
hijacked planes then to make a political point, not to murder the passengers and
lots of other people. In fact they were even pleasant to the passengers. Al Qa'ida
makes one almost a little nostalgic for old-fashioned Marxist revolutionaries.
But that isn't the point I am trying to make. The PFLP had significantly fewer
resources than Al-Qa'ida and certainly invested far less time and money in preparation
than we know Al-Qa'ida did, above all from your report but also from earlier reconstructions.
Yet the PFLP pulled it off taking over four international carriers, which had
far tougher security than American domestic airliners prior to 9/11.
there is another thing. You know I was interviewed on CNN on the eve of the first
anniversary of 9/11 and Jonathan Mann, who was interviewing me for his program
"Inside," challenged my information during the taped interview, when I referred
to the case of a group of Israelis taking pictures with a clear view of the World
Trade Center, waiting for the first plane to hit. I told him that I had it on
record from Vince Cannistraro, the CIA's former chief of operations for counterterrorism,
and off record from the FBI and I used it - that the Israelis were there in position
before the first plane hit. Well Jonathan Mann refused to accept this and he kept
saying that was impossible and I kept telling him to go look at my footage for
Part I which was already in CNN's hands in Washington DC.
What happened is that
they had asked me to go on Mann's show live and I now regret that I didn't but
I was so tired at the time that I had requested he do the segment with me at a
reasonable hour for Qatar and tape it. So when the interview appeared in his show,
the part where I allude to the Israelis and quote Vince Cannistraro was cut out.
Incidentally, when the Americans finally released the Israelis and sent them back
to Israel the cover story was provided by Shimon Perez who told the press that
the arrested Israeli were indeed intelligence operatives but they were in New
Jersey monitoring US-based Hamas operatives and had no prior knowledge of the
is the story, rather hushed up at the time, about a group of Israeli intelligence
agents posing, I believe, as art students. According to the ABCNEWS website version
which ran late in June and which also quoted Vince Cannistraro, the Israelis were
taking pictures of the World Trade Center in flames, from the roof of a white
van and of themselves with the trade center in the background, and they were arrested,
held, and eventually deported. Nothing in that report about Israelis being there
I wish I had seen your
documentary with Cannistraro saying what you quote him as saying. But certainly,
if any intelligence agency could have penetrated Al-Qa'ida, it would be Mossad,
or whatever name this particular branch of Israeli intelligence goes by. It's
more or less common knowledge in Palestinian as well as Jordanian intelligence
circles that the Israelis penetrated Hamas a long time ago. And the accuracy of
their targeted assassinations on the West Bank and even in Gaza indicates they
have a very large pool of Palestinian agents. None of us know for certain what
that story means but it wouldn't be the first time that an intelligence agency
holds back information from an allied intelligence agency either for the sake
of political gain or not to compromise their undercover assets, or, in the case
of the FBI and CIA, probably out of bureaucratic jealousy. And horrendous as that
implication sounds it wouldn't be the first time a US government has covered up
an Israeli outrage against Americans, directly, or, in this possible case, indirectly,
-I'm thinking, of course, of the Israeli air force attack on the USS Liberty during
the June 1967 war which left a number of American sailors dead or wounded, but
which has left behind too many survivors ever to be completely hushed up.
But to get back to Ramzi.
Shortly after your documentary appeared around the anniversary of 9/11, Ramzi
was caught by the Pakistanis and turned over to American intelligence officers.
This capture was described by President Bush as a major boost in the war of terrorism
but you found yourself initially denounced as "a pig and a traitor" on various
Islamist websites and you told the Washington Post (which reported as did other
media that the interview had taken place in Karachi last June) that you "couldn't
blame people for thinking what they do" and that you yourself wondered at first
if there could have been some unforeseeable link.
Well there were rumors going around at the time that American intelligence agents
were secretly planting tracking devices on Al Jazeera correspondents likely to
be in contact with Al-Qa'ida. But when you think about it, that doesn't make sense.
If that were the case why would the intelligence apparatus wait for all that time
to act? According to the official version, the interviews took place in June but
they didn't get hold of Ramzi until early mid-September. Actually this question
of dates is very important for another reason. All of these Islamist websites
that were denouncing me alluded to my interview as taking place in June. That's
what I mentioned both in my article in The Sunday Times Magazine and in my documentary-that
I met them in June.
YF: I lied.
you're going to come clean with TBS, right?
Yes, of course. I lied because I needed to lie. I'll tell you why. Because I thought,
maybe even expected, that if something went wrong and I needed to get in touch
with them through a website or a statement or a fax or whatever-the people that
I met then and the people who were around them, they would be the only ones who
would know that I had met them one month earlier than I let on, and so I'd know
I was talking to the right people.
So after the first wave
of denunciations a pro-Qa'ida website "jehad.net" put up a statement online in
the name of Al-Qa'ida clearing me of any blame or connection with Ramzi's arrest
and I knew this was an authentic communiqué because it alluded to the interview
taking place in May.
then who started the rumors in Pakistan that you were responsible for the arrest?
YF: I really
don't know. It might have been one of the Pakistani journalists close to the government,
not because the government had anything against me, but it could have been about
throwing the blame away from them; after all, they made the arrest and turned
Ramzi over to the Americans, so they might be afraid of a reprisal from Al-Qa'ida
and indeed, the "jehad.net" statement that cleared me, put the blame on the Pakistani
it could just have been a gut reaction or, perhaps a better metaphor, a knee-jerk
reaction by a typical Pakistani militant who is pro-Qa'ida but doesn't really
could be it, but you know until now I cannot blame some people for making that
sort of association. Look at the coincidence of the timing of the broadcast of
Part 11 of the documentary with the Ramzi interview, and the announcement of the
arrest because until now I am not really sure whether the arrest happened that
day or maybe a little less than a week before because there is a Reuters report
that Ramzi was actually arrested on the 9th. Part II was broadcast on the 12th.
And I'm also saddened at the fact that the timing of the arrest shifted the attention
of viewers away from the content of the documentary, from the very art of journalism,
and the making of the difficult story that it was; that it became instead part
of a breaking news story about the arrest of one man. But of course it is a major
story and perhaps the most important investigation that I've done until now.
in light of the fact that the "jehad.net" site has exonerated you, do you think
that this is not the last story you are going to do with Al-Qa'ida? Are you ready
to do more?
I'm ready to do more but I think they're going to remain underground for a while
but I do expect them to get in touch with me somehow. Whether they are going to
invite me to again meet with them or some other members of Al-Qa'ida or whether
they will just throw a tape at me and provide me with some information, that's
another story. But I do have the feeling that they might like to get in touch
with me again. When so many people in our part of the world were making an unfortunate
connection between my work and Ramzi's arrest, Al-Qa'ida were the people I worried
least about-Khalid and the people around Khalid and Ramzi, because they knew what
happened exactly before, during, and after the interviews and then they watched
the documentaries. I must confess I was flattered when they said that Yosri Fouda
kept his word, he made good on his promises even though they had some reservations.
Well I expected that anyway and I was glad they had reservations.
for you that they had some reservations about your reporting; otherwise you might
be on your way to Guantanamo by now. Were you surprised that there was no operation
during the anniversary of 9/11?
not really, I mean, although they tried to give me the impression that the organization
was still alive and kicking, and they would like to launch a thousand operations
like 9/11, that sort of talk didn't strike me as really serious. I think they
are in a lot of trouble; I think they would be happy just surviving everything
that's been happening since 9/11. I think they need some time to regroup and rethink
and in light of the uncertainty that remains as to the fate or whereabouts of
Bin Laden or Dr. Ayman [Al-Zawahiri] for that matter, they will need a lot of
time to regroup. They obviously have problems. When I left they kept my tapes
because they wanted to black out their faces and then they promised to send me
the tapes of the two interviews - a little more than an hour with each. But nothing
came, finally I got an audio tape of my interview with Ramzi sent to me by Ramzi
and that's what I built my documentary around along with some of the material
I remembered from our conversations and other material I had.
That feeling I have that
the organization is going through very difficult times is stronger today than
ever, because at the time I was working on the documentary I felt that if Bin
Ladin was really dead, as some think, particularly given Khalid's one slip of
the tongue when he referred to Bin Laden in the past tense, then Ramzi Bin Al-Sheeba
would have been the natural replacement. Even though Khalid outranked him, and
was eight years older than Ramzi, Khalid still deferred to him as the Imam to
lead prayer and he has the charisma of a leader for a group like this.
Ramzi made quite an impression
on me. True I'm not surprised that it was Ramzi who got caught and not Khalid.
Khalid was much more careful, much more experienced and Khalid is much more the
operational officer type; more tactically minded, less ideological than Ramzi.
For instance Ramzi would comment on the CIA and Mossad and say that the people
had too high an opinion of them and that we shouldn't have such an attitude because
Allah is not with them and things like that. Khalid wouldn't use such terms or
express such a concept.
But Ramzi made an enduring
impression upon me. His philosophy, even his vocabulary, is very much like Bin
Ladin's. At just 30 years of age he eclipses his master with field experience
in coordinating an unprecedented operation on Western soil. Yet Ramzi also has
Bin Ladin's serene charm, zest, and religious knowledge.
knowledge? Al Azhar would certainly contest that. From an orthodox, Azhari perspective
all of those fatwas that Bin Ladin and Dr. Ayman issued and which Ramzi
obviously believes in, were totally off the wall and were thoroughly condemned.
I'm not saying that Bin Ladin wasn't or isn't pious, but the idea of him being
qualified to issue fatwas, as having some sort of deep knowledge of the
religion? The only people who have reason to believe that are his own followers
and some of those writers for the National Review and those Christian Fundamentalist
or Evangelical ministers in America who want to believe, like Bin Ladin's followers,
that Bin Ladin and Al-Qa'ida is Islam.
there is something about Ramzi and the people around him-it's religious and more
than religious. It's like a certain psychological or psychic state of certainty
they are living in. It's very significant that they refer to the "Holy Tuesday
Operation" first as holy and secondly as a ghazwa-the raids launched at
the time of the Prophet. It was used during that time but not after that. It tells
you a lot; they are convinced they are literally reliving or living in a psychological
way in that time.
not in any self-conscious sense, given their mastery of computer technology, the
Internet, video cameras, media needs, general operational skills, ability to move
in and out of European and American cities without particularly attracting any
attention. Putting aside the traditional Pashtun dress that Bin Ladin and Dr.
Ayman and I assume the other leaders all adopted once they had sunk roots in Afghanistan,
they are far more modern in their skills and mode of operations than a good many
they do live in a special state of mind, be it a psychology or whatever, that
is certainly more than that of religious practice. At one point Ramzi told me
that Mohammed Atta would call him a few weeks before 9/11 to tell him, "Brother,
don't be sad. We will meet one day in paradise," and Ramzi would say to him, "Inshallah,
when you are in Paradise and see the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him), please
extend our regards to him as well as to Abu Bakr and Umar and the Companions."
And the group all had kunyas, as Abu Fulan, the father of this or that.
but that's very Arab. Even the most secular Palestinian fedayeen did that.
not in the same way. They took the kunyas of famous Muslim warriors in
the time of the Prophet and the earliest caliphs. Ramzi, who after all was the
coordinator, knew his men better by their kunyas than by their real names
and he would have trouble remembering the real or formal names of some of his
did Ramzi and Khalid handle those reports about the peculiar behavior of some
of the members of the group-that some of them hit the striptease clubs before
the operation, and drank alcohol or had girl friends? Did you ask Ramzi and Khalid
quite early on and Ramzi simply denied it. He said those reports were fabrications.
As for Ziad Al-Jarrah having a Turkish girl friend, Ramzi insisted they were married.
But that was strange because they had met in another city in Germany and moved
to Hamburg together, where Ramzi met Ziad, but Ziad and his girl friend never
actually lived together. In fact when I visited Ziad's family in Lebanon, they
not only denied that Ziad was married but they absolutely insisted he had girl
friends and liked to go to the clubs in an effort to convince me that their son
couldn't conceivably be mixed up with a band of religious fanatics. And Arne Kruithof,
the owner and manager of the flight school, Florida Flight International, where
Ziad learned how to be a pilot, was very fond of Ziad and spoke highly of him
and he said they use to go out together. So I asked Kruithof if Ziad would drink
and he said yes he would order a pint of beer.
own instinct is that just as they inhabited a psychic or psychological state that
convinced them they were reliving the Prophet's experiences at the very moment
they were about to violate both the very strict shari'a ("Islamic law")
rules governing war and the Prophet's canonic sayings condemning the killing of
civilians, so they must have assumed that the purifying nature of their approaching
martyrdom gave them some sort of cosmic dispensation.
of dispensation and states of mind, when I was in Karachi waiting to meet up with
Ramzi and Khalid, my contact called me at the hotel I was staying at to arrange
a meeting time. Since it was Friday I suggested we meet in the mosque either before
or after the prayer and he said to me "No, no, no! Don't leave the hotel." And
I said, "But it's Friday and there are the prayers," and he said, "No, no, no!
God will forgive you." But I think their sense of dispensation was derived directly
from the idea that they were engaged in jihad ("holy struggle"). Now you
know, in jihad there are certain liberties allowed.
mean like not having to pray in a congregational manner if that puts the believers
in danger, or being allowed to say one's prayers on horseback if on guard or patrol
and not having to dismount and pray, as one usually does, on the ground.
Well, I believe they took the liberty of making their own interpretation of these
dispensations or liberties granted to the one making jihad.
documentary is built around the actual voice of Ramzi telling you how Al-Qa'ida
pulled it off. And there was the much earlier amateurishly filmed video tape that
the American government says they found in Afghanistan, and which was not intended
for public viewing, in which a militant Saudi sheikh, visiting with Bin Ladin
leads Bin Ladin into an acknowledgement that it was Al-Qa'ida operatives known
only to him and a few others, who staged the operation and Bin Ladin re-enacts
his great joy when the operation succeeded well beyond his expectations. My intuition
as a journalist told me when I watched the tape on CNN that it was authentic and
that it was Bin Ladin but my intuition also told me that the Sheikh was an intelligence
agent, probably for the Americans and the their taped conversation a sting operation.
A few days later a respectable British newspaper confirmed it was a sting but
they said it was set up by Saudi intelligence. And certainly the former head of
Saudi intelligence has made it clear in no uncertain terms that 9/11 was an Al-Qa'ida
operation. Now despite all of this and other documentation, so many Arabs were
in a state of denial and many are still in a state of denial, insisting that Al-Qa'ida
or any Arabs for that matter could not have had anything to do with this operation,
that this was a Mossad or CIA operation.
very very sad, being an Egyptian and having graduated from Cairo University and
then studying TV Journalism at the American University in Cairo to know that just
about every newspaper and TV station in the world were dying to have a couple
of words from me on this story except for the Egyptian press. You know, I'm told
that some of the leading columnists in Egypt like Salah Montasser criticized my
coverage and asked rhetorically "How come Yosri Fouda had access to American airports?
There must be something between him and the CIA."
As for that tape you mentioned
that we didn't screen, I have some news for you. Until I got to meet Ramzi and
Khalid there was a lot of doubt as to the possibility that that tape might have
been fabricated. But I got it on videotape from one of the other people from Al-Qa'ida
who were there at the apartment that the tape was legitimate. I asked him whether
that tape was genuine and he said it was. And in the end when I went back I put
that Saudi Sheikh's video tape with Bin Ladin on and listened to it for four or
five times, and certain bits and pieces that Bin Ladin said on that tape fit in
very nicely with what Ramzi and Khalid had said to me. You know like the first
time that they knew of the zero hour.
SAS: I understand
what you are saying and I've been convinced of that tape's authenticity since
the beginning. And your experience just confirms it. What I am trying to say to
you however, is don't you ever wonder about the prevailing mentality that makes
so many people who seem otherwise to be functioning in such a rational way oblivious
to the unhappy, unfortunate facts of this situation. To be in such a state of
denial. Doesn't it ever fascinate you as a journalist to come back and find your
own work being doubted?
until this very day I get some emails from some people actually questioning whether
the voice I had on the tape was actually Ramzi's voice. And I get the feeling
it's a waste of time for me to try to assure them, to convince them, that, yes
this tape has all of the same answers that he made to me face-to-face when I was
in October you and Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali, the managing director of Al Jazeera,
and Faysal Al-Qasem, who anchors the Al Jazeera show "The Opposite Direction"
flew into Baghdad from Damascus and two of your group actually met with Saddam,
which simply hasn't ever happened to journalists before, or certainly not for
many years. First Al-Qa'ida and then Saddam. Could this be it, could Al Jazeera
be the long sought for link between Baghdad and Al-Qa'ida that some people in
the Bush administration have been looking for?
No, no, no, don't say that!
Actually we each had different missions. Mohammed was going to Baghdad to talk
about expanding our facilities there, Faysal wanted to do a live interview for
his show with the Iraqi Minister of Oil and I was trying to pursue my investigative
report on the whereabouts of the Kuwaitis who have been missing since the Iraqi
occupation of Kuwait and where never returned to Kuwait or accounted for. We thought
if we all went in together as a team for a meeting with the Minister of Information
this would strengthen our respective cases.
We did meet with Mohammed
Said Al-Sahhaf, the Iraqi minister of information and with Abed Hammoud, Saddam's
personal secretary; the man who is always standing just behind Saddam. His moustache
is even thicker than Saddam's. And Tahir Al-Habbush, who is a major figure in
Iraqi State Intelligence. There was a lavish dinner in Al-Habbush's garden. The
next day, he drove a car with Mohammed Jasim sitting next to him and Faysal sitting
in the back, to a new presidential palace, Faw Palace, near the airport. There
they all waited in a sitting room for about five or ten minutes when Saddam entered
the room. He handed each one of them a cigar. Then Iraqi TV came in and filmed
I had been trying to get
permission to search for the missing Kuwaitis and I was invited to Baghdad and
I was told by my hosts that they would open any door into any prison at a moment's
notice. I asked if I could bring along any delegate from Kuwait or an international
organization like the UNHCR and the Iraqis agreed. So I flew off to Kuwait and
relayed this message to the Minister of Information Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahed. The
minister was skeptical and when I met with the Kuwaiti National Committee for
the Return of the POWs they said it would a case of walking into a setup if they
came along and of course none of the missing would be found (implying that the
Iraqis would hide them). Their presence would make Saddam look good. And they
refused point blank to appear on a panel for my story with their Iraqi counterparts.
It took me three days to convince them that even if all we get is news about one
missing POW it is worth it so in the end they agreed to appear on program with
the Iraqis. I did some more shuttling back and forth, including a chance to film
at Basra Prison after all the prisoners were released, so there was nothing there
but empty cells, and the Iraqis let me film them at the Kuwaiti border handing
over the Kuwaiti Archives.
like some of the time you were playing a similar diplomatic role for the sake
of a good story as Walter Cronkite did nearly thirty years ago, when, with Mohamed
Gohar's help (Gohar was then filming for CBS Cairo), Cronkite got President Sadat
and Prime Minister Begin to talk to each other by satellite, on CBS Television.
That was the beginning of the peace process. When was the last time you were in
a year and a half ago when I was working on the story about the assassination
of an Egyptian nuclear scientist who was part of the Iraqi nuclear project. He
was assassinated in Paris in 1980 while he was there on a mission representing
Iraq to finalize a deal to import important material for the Tamouz reactor. He
was assassinated the same year the Israelis took out the Tamouz. A former Mossad
agent subsequently wrote a book acknowledging the assassination.
the difference in the mood then and now?
YF: I think
that the Iraqi government is very much more open to the outside world, perhaps
because they truly feel the heat and they are looking for some sympathy.
theory is Saddam believes, in the end, in Saddam. Not in socialism, not in Arabism,
not in Islamism. He believes in Saddam and if it's necessary to close down the
prisons and free the prisoners so that Saddam may survive he closes down the prisons.
And since he is a man of much cunning and impulse, if he is convinced that only
free elections and invitations to all the Iraqi parties to return from exile and
set up shop in Baghdad-to the Iraqi Communists, the Kurdish parties, the old Nasserist
Arab Socialists, the Islamist parties-he just might do it if he is convinced that's
the only way to save himself.
YF: I think
that's a viable theory and I would add to it. If Saddam thinks that killing Saddam
would save Saddam he would try to figure out how to do it and survive.
about exile? Rumors are starting to fly about possible haven for him in Saudi
Arabia or in Russia.
of the question. Because to say Saddam is for Saddam, means, without even saying
it, Saddam in Power. You know I always try to make this distinction between the
government and the people. For those in the government, or at least for many of
them at the top, its too late to jump off Saddam's boat onto an alternative vehicle.
The die is cast for them. Their fate is linked inescapably to Saddam. As for Iraq,
it's been set back by the war and then the sanctions at least fifty years. Everything
is being recycled. A university professor's salary is worth three dollars a month.
They all survive on rations and by selling personal effects. But what amazes you,
in the midst of all this suffering, nobody dares to even begin to criticize. You
feel this very deeply; it takes so long to penetrate into the inner feelings of
Iraqi people, and when you do you run up against a wall of fear.
Al Jazeera ever cover the Iraqi exiles, the opposition? Perhaps as much as 25
percent of Iraq's population is living abroad in exile but if you mention this
to the Egyptian man in the street, educated or uneducated they are oblivious to
we have interviewed a wide range of Iraqi opposition figures in Europe and America
and elsewhere. If the U.S. government with all its power is not capable of pulling
together a truly unified Iraqi Opposition front, then what can Al Jazeera do but
talk with individuals in the opposition and that's what we are trying to do. Some
of the opposition thinks that Al Jazeera sides with the Iraqi government, which
is absolutely untrue. Yes, Al Jazeera has sympathy for the Iraqi people who have
suffered so terribly, particularly for the last decade, when suffering was not
only for those who fell out of favor with a mukhabarat ["secret police"]
regime, but the generalized suffering due to the post-war sanctions. TBS