Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Flash from the Past: Al Jazeera's correspondent jailed for being too close to Bin Laden (September 2005)


Newsweek

September 29, 2005
Newsweek Web Exclusive

Guilt by Association
A Spanish court has jailed the reporter who interviewed bin Laden after 9/11. What his conviction says about the dangerous ambiguities of pursuing journalistic balance in an age of terror.


By Christopher Dickey

When I asked the waiter for a glass of wine, I saw the man across the table from me recoil ever so slightly, as if I were testing him. Which, in a way, I was. We were ordering lunch in the old Jewish quarter of Granada, Spain, at the Torquato Restaurant (his choice). Across a narrow valley the palace and the paradisiacal gardens of the Alhambra stood as tribute to the glories of the Muslim caliphate that ruled this part of Europe for more than 700 years. But I hadn’t come for historical tourism on that afternoon of Jan. 11, 2001. I had been working to set up a meeting in faraway Afghanistan with a reputed terrorist mastermind named Osama bin Laden. I’d been told that my luncheon guest, Tayseer Alouni, a naturalized Spaniard whose family lived in Granada but who worked for Al-Jazeera television in Kabul, might have the connections to make that happen.
Indeed. On Monday of this week a Spanish court sentenced the Syrian-born Alouni to seven years in prison after convicting him of collaborating with Al Qaeda. At the same trial, 17 other alleged members of an Islamist cell, part of which prosecutors linked to planning for the September 11 attacks on the United States, received sentences ranging up to 27 years.
“Do you mind if I have a glass of wine?” I asked Alouni that afternoon eight months before 9/11. We were perusing a menu full of pork, which a devout Muslim would not eat, and many wines, which a devout Muslim would not drink, and my first impression of the graying, handsome, cosmopolitan Alouni was that, like many Muslim journalists I know, he wasn’t all that devout and he might even suggest we order a bottle. Not Tayseer. He looked at me as if I’d insulted him personally, then managed to smile. “No,” he said, and I wondered if I’d lost any chance of getting tobin Laden, and how much of an understanding we could reach.
Alouni and I ate fish then drove down to a café near Granada’s cathedral for a coffee. We talked about the Middle East, Palestine, Al Qaeda, terrorism, Afghanistan, family, friends, mutual acquaintances, measuring each other the way journalists learn to measure colleagues and sources. And I kept thinking, if Alouni was indeed close to bin Laden, how close to Alouni did I want to be?
It’s a cliché that journalism is a process of seduction and betrayal: reporters empathize with their subjects to win their trust and confidence, then sit down and write what they please in ways that the subjects may find hurtful. But most dealings with sources and contacts are less dramatic: a balancing of intellectual complicity and political distance that’s constantly measured and calibrated. There’s a lot of what diplomats call “creative ambiguity,” which is always treacherous terrain. In a civilized environment, the risks are mainly ethical and legal, as the case of The New York Times’ Judith Miller, still languishing in jail would seem to suggest. If you move into the world of guerrillas and terrorists, whether you live or die depends on making your contacts trust you, and judging how much you can trust them.
In the event, nothing came of my 2001 trip to Granada. Alouni went back to Afghanistan, and I contacted him a few times, with no result. Then September 11 happened. The world changed. And a few weeks later Alouni got the big interview with bin Laden himself—for Al-Jazeera and CNN—just as the American-led invasion of Afghanistan got under way.
How friendly did Alouni have to be with bin Laden to get that exclusive access? Did he have to be, in fact, a collaborator? Or was he playing his own games of empathy and complicity just to get his job done? He was, speaking of treacherous terrain, one of the very few journalists able to keep working in Taliban-controlled Kabul. Did the media-conscious bin Laden really choose Alouni, or just Al-Jazeera and CNN? Perhaps most importantly here and now: should the job Alouni did—the interview itself—be held up as evidence against him?
In the Spanish prosecution’s vast 1,142-page indictment of 24 alleged Al Qaeda conspirators, six of whom were acquitted this week, Alouni is said to have known several of the accused personally. Not surprising. Many, like Alouni, are exiles from Syria. Several had connections to the Muslim Brotherhood there, an organization that led a violent uprising against the hated Damascus dictatorship before being crushed in 1982. That Alouni had some ties to that community in Spain, that he kept up his contacts, and that he helped out members of it from time to time is hardly a crime.
The prosecution charged that Alouni, “apart from his journalistic activity, but taking advantage of that, carried out acts of support, finance, control and coordination characteristic of a qualified militant” of Al Qaeda. Specifically, he was supposed to have taken about $4,500 to one Mohamed Bahaiah, a.k.a. Abu Khaled, described in the oddly conditional language of the indictment as “considered at the international level as a supposed courier for the Al Qaeda organization between Afghanistan and Europe.” Alouni’s defenders say the amount was small and for humanitarian purposes, while the people who actually received it are not terrorists at all and anyway were not interviewed by the court.
The cash-carrying business is murky. Even a spokesman for Reporters Without Borders, the respected Paris-based organization that has taken up Alouni’s cause, says, “We don’t know about the money, of course.” But the prosecution’s use of Alouni’s interview with bin Laden is another matter. The prosecutor never showed it to the court, he just characterized the encounter himself: “It seems he [Alouni] was talking with his boss [bin Laden].
“We don’t understand why the prosecution insisted so much on this interview in the trial,” says Jean-François Julliard, news editor for Reporters Without Borders. It sends a chill through the press, he believes, adding the threat of jail time to the already very risky business of interviewing alleged terrorists. “I am not sure if other journalists, if they had an opportunity to interview bin Laden today, would do it,” says Julliard.
It’s doubtful they’d do a better job than Alouni. His questions were polite but tough, and bin Laden’s responses, for all their predictable rhetoric, are about as revealing a look inside the mind of the monster as we’re likely to have. The founder of Al Qaeda talks about “those brave guys who took the battle to the heart of America and destroyed its most famous economic and military landmarks.” Pushed by Alouni about the slaughter of innocent civilians, despite prohibitions in the Qur’an against such acts, bin Laden calls the religious objections “juridical” and concludes with nothing more than an emotional explanation: “If they kill our women and our innocent people, we will kill their women and their innocent people until they stop.” When Alouni asks why the Afghan people should have to pay the price of war for what Al Qaeda was doing, bin Laden blithely underestimates the force that the United States will bring to bear, insisting the Americans will leave “dragging [their] tails in failure, defeat and ruin, caring for nothing.”
Rarely has there been a more perfect articulation of the “evil ideology” that President George W. Bush talks about, and Alouni got it on the record from bin Laden’s own mouth, which is precisely what journalists are supposed to do.
I don’t know if Alouni collaborated with Al Qaeda or not. He’s appealing the judgment and his backers are optimistic it will be overturned. My brief encounter with him and my gut tell me he’s an Islamist who sympathizes with some of the arguments raised by bin Laden about Palestine and Iraq. Indeed, most of the Muslim world does. But I have no reason to believe that Alouni had any sympathy with bin Laden’s terrorist strategies before September 11 or since. When Madrid suffered its own horrific attack in 2004, Alouni interviewed victim after victim on camera, delivering a damning indictment of his own against the terrorists.
What I do know is that in this with-us-or-against-us world, governments and terrorists see information mainly as a weapon in their ideological wars. Both sides expect reporters to be either foot soldiers or pawns, and those journalists who refuse to put on the uniform of either side may find themselves in a no man’s land where it’s hard to survive at all.
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Classic Bin Laden

TAYSEER ALOUNI: What do you think of the so-called "war of civilizations"? You always keep repeating "crusaders" and words like that all the time. Does that mean you support the war of civilizations?

BIN LADEN: No doubt about that...

Al Jazeera television correspondent Tayseer Alouni was convicted in Spain this week for allegedly collaborating with Al Qaeda. My Shadowland column will look at the case in detail, and its impact on press coverage, later today. If you want to delve deeper, you should start with the full transcript of Alouni's interview with Bin Laden in October 2001. - CD

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