Article by Peter Maass

When Al Qaeda Calls

The New York Times Magazine  |  February 2, 2003
An Arab journalist’s close encounter with terrorists.

On an April day in London last year, Yosri Fouda’s cellphone rang, and a stranger introduced himself by saying, “I’m a viewer of your show.” He claimed to be in a position to “provide something top secret” and asked for Fouda’s fax number. Then he hung up.

Fouda is a star reporter for Al Jazeera, which functions something like CNN for the Arab world. His monthly program, “Top Secret,” features reports that range from the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to the exploitation of young camel jockeys in Qatar. He gets a stream of have-I-got-a-scoop-for-you offers, and most of them lead nowhere. But when he received, several days after the cellphone call, an anonymous three-page fax proposing a documentary for the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, he sensed that the call and the fax had come from Al Qaeda.

What do you do when Al Qaeda beckons? Fouda quietly asked his colleagues at Al Jazeera for advice, because if Al Qaeda was interested in talking with him, he was interested in talking with Al Qaeda, though he also wanted to stay alive.

Several days later the stranger called again.

“Are you ready to go to Islamabad?” he asked.

“Yes, absolutely,” Fouda replied.

He flew to Pakistan and was passed, secretly, from one Qaeda operative to another. It was the sort of cloak-and-dagger intrigue that led, months earlier, to the kidnapping and murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Fouda fared immeasurably better—he was trundled to a safe house, where he met Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, chief of Al Qaeda’s military committee, who confirmed that he was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Also present was Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who was introduced as the coordinator of the attacks and who had lived in Hamburg with Mohamed Atta, leader of the hijackers. Fouda’s hosts were among the most-wanted terrorists in the world. Mohammed alone was worth $25 million in bounty money from the U.S. government.

If you want to explore the intricate dance that takes place between a journalist trying to get a story and a terrorist trying to disseminate a message, and if you want to delve into the unusual relationship between Al Jazeera and Al Qaeda, you can do no better than examining Fouda’s odyssey to Karachi. I visited Fouda in London, where he has lived for the last 12 years and where he works from Al Jazeera’s bureau on the bank of the Thames opposite Parliament. Although he is just a face in the crowd as he walks to the tube station next to Big Ben, he is rock-star famous in London’s Arab neighborhoods. Throughout the Arab world, in fact, he carries the celebrity of Geraldo Rivera and the cachet of Bob Woodward.

Fouda is a chameleon. He wears a banker’s suit on important occasions but otherwise prefers a leather jacket; in Karachi, he wore a shalwar kameez, the pajamalike outfit favored by Pakistanis. He mixes easily at both mosques and pubs. He is, in this way, an excellent journalist, because he can pretend to be all things to all people, including a friend to terrorists.

“If you want to keep your access, if you want to remain useful, you have to keep your impartiality,” Fouda told me. “It’s no use if I came on my program and said, ‘The bastard sat in front of me and said this and that.’ Then you have blown every chance you may have to talk with them again and with other groups. Yes, put things in context, but keep yourself on the fence.”

The mysterious caller told Fouda to fly from Islamabad to Karachi and check into a $30-a-night hotel there. The caller, who appeared to be an Arab, furtively visited Fouda at the Karachi hotel and told him to leave by a back door and take a taxi to another part of the sprawling city. There, Fouda met another Qaeda contact, exchanged a password and drove with him to a crowded square, where the contact told him to take a motorized rickshaw to an address where another operative was waiting. After giving a different password—it was “Lahore” (another city in Pakistan)—Fouda was driven out of the city, and eventually his contact pulled up to a car parked by the side of the road.

Fouda was transferred to the other car, where two Qaeda escorts taped cotton patches over his eyes. He was not searched, nor was he asked if he had a weapon. The trust worked both ways. As the car drove aimlessly outside Karachi, so that Fouda would lose his bearings, he sat in the back seat and told his escorts that he would have shut his eyes even if he hadn’t been blindfolded; he did not want them to think he might be interested in knowing the whereabouts of the “brothers” he was being taken to interview.

“I would be considered, as far as they were concerned, more on their side,” Fouda noted as we ate breakfast at a hotel. He was dressed in a conservative blue suit, smoking one Marlboro after another and sipping a cup of coffee. He spoke precisely, as though narrating someone else’s journey. “I had a strong feeling that they would actually care about my safety so that I would come back and do the program that they wanted. I made sure that I gave them the feeling that I am all theirs.”

This is standard operating procedure for many journalists—make your sources think you are on their side. Smile sympathetically. Nod approvingly. Laugh at their jokes. Sometimes this behavior is genuine, sometimes contrived. It is one of the oddities of journalism that although reporters are always trying to convey the full truth in what they report, with some sources they may not convey the full truth of their opinions and feelings.

After half an hour or so, the car stopped, and Fouda was led into a building and up four flights of stairs. He was pulled into an apartment, and when his blindfold was removed, Fouda heard someone say: “It is O.K. You can open your eyes now.” He did, and standing in front of him and saying hello with a smile was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who addressed him as “Brother Yosri.” Moments later, as he walked deeper into the apartment, Fouda was greeted, warmly, by Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who was sitting amid several laptops and cellphones.

“Recognize us yet?” Khalid Shaikh Mohammed asked.

The atmosphere was friendly. Fouda placed his hand on a Koran and swore not to divulge information that would help anyone catch his most-wanted hosts. For 48 hours, Fouda lived with Mohammed and bin al-Shibh, sharing tea and takeout meals with them and listening as they explained how they plotted the 9/11 attacks. They said that they had decided that the time had come to take responsibility for a day of mayhem that they were quite proud to have organized. The decision to select Fouda as the messenger was made, they said, by bin Laden himself, apparently a fan of “Top Secret.”

The apartment had scarcely any furnishings. They sat and slept on the floors. There was no television, and the windows had metal bars. Mohammed had several cellphones he constantly used for text messaging—he was as dexterous as a Japanese teenager. Bin al-Shibh was frequently working at his laptops and copying data onto disks. When he wasn’t talking with them, Fouda behaved as nonchalantly as possible, not wanting to appear too interested in their secretive work. Fouda and the two Qaeda men prayed together, five times a day, which is not Fouda’s habit.

At one point, bin al-Shibh brought a gray suitcase into the room. Handing a cup of tea to Fouda, he said, nodding to the suitcase, “Yes, it is my Hamburg souvenirs, and you are the first outsider to have a look.” He placed his “souvenirs” on the floor, including a “how to fly” textbook and flight-simulator CD’s that had been used by Atta. Bin al-Shibh showed Fouda, on one of his computers, his last e-mail exchange with Atta; to evade detection, Atta had pretended to be a young man in America chatting online with his girlfriend in Germany, using code words—two high schools and two universities”—for the targets of the coming attacks. (The fourth target, Fouda was told, was the Capitol Building.)

Fouda’s desire not to offend his fundamentalist hosts ran into a stumbling block: he is a heavy smoker, but smoking is viewed as un-Islamic. He meekly asked permission to light up, and this prompted bin al-Shibh to deliver the sort of anticigarette lecture that teenagers get from parents. Fouda readily agreed it was a horrible habit that he should not indulge in, but until he gathered the strength to quit, might he have a smoke? Because the authors of 9/11 had an interest in not alienating their chosen messenger—the confidence game works both ways—they granted his wish. Fouda shifted to a spot closer to a balcony and savored his Marlboro.

Yosri Fouda was born 38 years ago in an Egyptian village, the son of a doctor. He earned a master’s in television journalism from the American University in Cairo and won a scholarship to work on a Ph.D. in Britain, but he left school to take a producing job at the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Arabic-language television service, reporting from the Balkans alongside veteran BBC journalists. After the Arabic service collapsed in 1996, Fouda agreed to work for Al Jazeera in London. “He has an image as the Arab world’s leading investigative journalist, not that there’s a lot of competition for the title,” says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Fouda’s program about his Karachi journey, broadcast for the anniversary of the attacks, ran nearly two hours. It began with Mohamed Atta’s father saying, agitatedly, that his son had not taken part in the attacks on Sept. 11, and that he was either in jail somewhere in America or had been killed to keep him silent. Atta’s father was expressing a viewpoint that remains widespread in the Arab world—that Israel and perhaps America were behind the whole thing, and that Al Qaeda and 19 Arab men were not involved.

Fouda demolished that notion. He laid out, in careful and well-produced detail, the preparations by Atta and other hijackers from Al Qaeda, drawing on the information provided in Karachi by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh (who was arrested in Karachi, apparently coincidentally, soon after the broadcast).

But something funny happened on the way to the full truth. Fouda told his viewers about the whistle-blowing memo from the F.B.I. Agent Coleen Rowley, who exposed grievous lapses in the handling of the terrorist suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, and a memo from an F.B.I. agent in Phoenix, who pointed out, before Sept. 11, that a suspicious number of Arabs were learning to fly planes in America. Fouda then asked, “Was Al Qaeda simply the knife edge in the grip of someone somewhere?” He cut to a follower of Lyndon Larouche who speculated that the attacks were engineered by “intellectuals in the Brzezinski crowd and ... the special warfare crowd in the Pentagon,” with Al Qaeda being used to do the dirty work.

Fouda ended his program by speaking directly to the camera from a street in New York. “Through this investigation, we were able to dispel doubt and ascertain the truth about those who wanted, who planned and who succeeded in delivering a severe slap to the U.S. administration,” he said. But then he raised the possibility that officials in the United States “did not actually object to receiving such a slap, in the hope they can push and bully anyone, anywhere with impunity.”

It seemed odd to conclude the program by shifting attention toward a supposed American role—especially since there is not a single mention in the documentary of the notion that the Muslim world needs to examine what went wrong and take responsibility for the mass murderers it nurtured. Was Fouda pulling his punches? Although he agrees, as most Arabs do, with Al Qaeda’s political complaints about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and America’s support for corrupt Arab regimes, he did not cheer the destruction of the World Trade Center or the bombing of a tourist-packed disco in Bali. He describes himself as a secular journalist and says he prefers living in London over Cairo; he seems to believe that fundamentalism is a problem, not an answer.

But the fact is that if you wish to remain popular in the mainstream media, you invite trouble by deviating too far from the views of your sources and audience. Harping on an unpopular truth is rarely a career-advancing or an audience-building move. Fouda delivered a bitter pill to his Arab audience simply by reporting that Al Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attacks; delivering another unpopular message, by focusing on what has gone wrong in the Arab world, might have been too much, particularly for his fundamentalist sources. It’s easier to blame America.

Fouda practices the journalism of access, which is a widespread practice, but a journalist in need of access must remain in the good graces of the giver of access. And that sometimes leads to dangerous trade-offs. There is a price for playing the game, and Al Qaeda plays it well. Two months after Fouda’s 9/11 report, Al Qaeda faxed him a six-page communique, announcing that it would devote more attention to fighting Israel. (This was just weeks before the attacks on Israeli tourists in Mombasa.) He had another global scoop, though he wasn’t the only one to gain from it. By tossing occasional exclusives to Yosri Fouda, Osama bin Laden helps ensure that one of the most influential voices in the Arab media stays on the fence.