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Top Al-Jazeera Reporter Yousri Fouda On the Media and His Interviews with Al Qaeda Leaders

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Investigative reporter Yousri Fouda from Al-Jazeera, the Arabic satellite television station, talks about his interviews with the al Qaeda members behind 9/11 and the danger al-Jazeera correspondents risk in light of the U.S. bombings of networks stations, the killing of correspondents, and the jailing of al-Jazeera reporters. Fouda speaks about the international attitude towards the network as it grows. [includes rush transcript]

Their offices were bombed twice in Afghanistan. Their Baghdad correspondent was killed In Iraq. One of their top correspondents was sentenced to seven years in prison after he was convicted of collaborating with al Qaeda. Their reporter was arrested en route to a summit in Crawford. Their New York correspondents were thrown off the floors of the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ. We’re talking about al-Jazeera, the Arabic satellite television station based in Qatar.

Al Jazeera’s programming has been seen as controversial by some in Washington ever since it began broadcasting eight years ago. The network has since grown into a CNN of the Arabic world reaching up to 55 million viewers. They are soon launching a children’s channel, a sports channel, a documentary channel and an English-language channel.

  • Yousri Fouda, Senior investigative reporter at al Jazeera and host of “Top Secret,” one of al Jazeera’s most popular shows. He is the network’s London bureau chief where he is based. He is co-author of the book “Masterminds of Terror: The Truth Behind the Most Devastating Attack the World Has Ever Seen.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined now by one of the top network journalists, Yousri Fouda. He is a senior investigative reporter at al Jazeera and host of “Top Secret,” one of al Jazeera’s most popular shows. He’s the network’s London bureau chief and co-author of the book, Masterminds of Terror: The Truth Behind the Most Devastating Attack the World Has Ever Seen. He joins us in our D.C. studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

YOUSRI FOUDA: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Well, there’s a tremendous amount to talk about, but first why don’t you start off with “Top Secret,” the program that you do. Why is it called “Top Secret” ?

YOUSRI FOUDA: It’s the first program of its kind. It tries to investigate certain issues. Especially our part of the world is full of hypocrisies and things that are meant to stay behind closed doors and under the table. I have never been short of ideas to investigate, especially in that part of the world. The choice of the title wasn’t mine, I must say; it was the chairman’s. I went for a little bit more humble titles, more conventional ones like “Behind the News” or “The Truth Behind [This or That].” But the chairman when he saw the pilot said, “This is 'Top Secret.' We’d like to go on with a series of this type.” So nothing really hot — nothing very much top secret about the way it’s done, as much as the sort of issues that we’re trying to investigate.

AMY GOODMAN: You interviewed — and the title of your book is Masterminds of Terror: Truth Behind the Most Devastating Terrorist Attack the World Has Ever Seen. Can you talk about your experience going to talk with two al Qaeda leaders who claim responsibility for 9/11?

YOUSRI FOUDA: I didn’t know that I would end up interviewing the main mastermind of 9/11 and the coordinator of the operation. Indeed, I didn’t have a clue whether indeed I would meet anybody. I went to Pakistan on the strength of a phone call from somebody who said, “We like your show. We were wondering if you were thinking of marking the first anniversary. If so, we could provide you with something exclusive.” That “we” gave me the impression that maybe he’s talking in the name of al Qaeda or any group associated with al Qaeda. And in the end, it was my decision to —- whether or not I would take the risk. And when I took the decision, nobody knew about it, including my own boss, my own mom. Nobody knew where I was, because I -—

AMY GOODMAN: Just based on this one anonymous phone call?

YOUSRI FOUDA: One phone call that was followed by a fax. He asked me for a private fax number so that he could send me a little bit of an outline of what they have on mind, and it was basically an idea. They knew what my show was all about. They knew that my show was about facts and details. I gathered that they were not in for rhetoric, otherwise they would have sought any other colleague of mine who would have a studio-based program, a chat show or maybe they could have taken the easier route, which is send a tape to al Jazeera, and al Jazeera would perhaps broadcast at least some of it.

So we had some sort of an unwritten agreement as to what we were in for. And the fact that even though they might try and send me some rhetoric, I would always have my edit suite back in London. So that reassured me to a certain extent. And at the same time I knew that at the time if you remember to put things in historical context, at the time al Qaeda was very much on the run. They had already lost a lot of their top leaders. The first anniversary was upcoming in a few months, and I thought that they might need to talk to their own people, send the message to the Americans, to the Pakistanis, and in the end I took the decision.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what did you do?

YOUSRI FOUDA: Well, I followed their instructions. They asked me to go first to Islamabad. I stayed there for a couple nights. Then they called me and said, “Take a flight down to Karachi.” I went there to a certain hotel, and they redirected me to another hotel. Then a guy showed up at my door, and I recognized his voice, that was the guy who called me when I was in London. And from then on it was a long series of — a process of disorientation and — until I was taken blindfolded to a place I thought at the moment was Karachi, and I was right.

AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t he tell you to get into the trunk of his car?

YOUSRI FOUDA: No. That was actually a small error in the book by Hugh Miles. I think he got a little bit excited. No, they didn’t put me — I was sitting in the back of the car, and they blindfolded me rather creatively by putting small cotton balls on my eyes, and following it with sunglasses, so that it looks a little bit more natural. And then when I was taken to this — what I discovered later to be a safe house, somebody took my blindfolds off, and that was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed himself.

AMY GOODMAN: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

YOUSRI FOUDA: Yes, the mastermind of 9/11.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you know that?

YOUSRI FOUDA: Well, his picture was all over the place. He was on the FBI website, pictures. And there was at the time $25 million on his head. And he introduces himself as the head of al Qaeda Military Committee, which I had no idea about. Nobody had no idea that he had already assumed this position to himself after the killing of Abu Hafs al-Masri, that’s Muhammad Atif, bin Laden’s field man. And then he introduces another guy who was sitting on the floor in another room, Ramzi Binalshibh, the coordinator of the operation.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did they tell you?

YOUSRI FOUDA: Everything. I spent nearly 48 hours with them. In the beginning, of course, it was a lot of criticism, by the way, of al Jazeera, that al Jazeera interviews Israeli officials and Israeli commentators and the rest of it, and al Jazeera doesn’t give enough time for the brothers who are in jihad against the infidels and corrupt Arab governments, and I had to listen. And, you know, it was sort of like surprise after surprise after surprise until I ceased to be surprised anymore. They told me about some — I’m sure they didn’t tell me everything, but they told me a lot of details about how they prepared for the operation, who was doing what.

AMY GOODMAN: How did they prepare?

YOUSRI FOUDA: It’s a very long story. I mean, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said they held a meeting back in 1998 and decided to hit America inside America, That was the first decision. And then it was decided — it was — they had to think of specific targets, and they moved. Actually they thought of so many targets until they arrived in the end at the targets that were actually hit on 9/11. And then came the recruitment process. The spearhead of the operation was Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, the two Saudis who arrived in California early 2000 after this so-called summit in Kuala Lumpur.

At the time, Atta was not in the picture. When Atta accidentally, as we were told, and that was confirmed in the 9/11 Commission Report, was discovered accidentally, KSM liked him very much and trusted him very much. He made him the field leader or the ring leader of the operation, and thus Nawaf was demoted to a post of deputy leader. And they had what they called Majlis Shura, consisting of the four pilots plus Alhazmi and Almihdhar, which would take the decision when it came to the fine details, like which flights, what time, who takes which flight, including the zero hour which was left completely to Mohamed Atta and his Majlis Shura or consultative council, so, I mean, everything from the strategy to the small details. But I was rather interested in the small details to fit with the nature of my program.

AMY GOODMAN: Also you were using them to figure out if they were telling the truth?

YOUSRI FOUDA: Yes, of course. I mean, as a fellow journalist, you don’t just take things at face value. You also have your own logic, your own background about things, and you can go back and check whether or not a certain piece of information is at least plausible. And they told me the sort of information that could be checked out, like specific emails that left point A to point B on a certain day, phone calls, for instance. And I have no doubt after the broadcast of my program that certain agencies would have gone back and asked Microsoft for the records of this or that. Anyway, we have very, I mean, massive literature of missed opportunities before 9/11, in retrospect, when we look at them now.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking with Yousri Fouda, one of the leading journalists of al Jazeera. He is here in Washington, actually usually based in London. You got out of there — the filming was done by who?

YOUSRI FOUDA: Al Qaeda cameramen.

AMY GOODMAN: Who were there, who were set up.

YOUSRI FOUDA: Yes, I mean, the deal was that I will show up there, bringing no one, bringing no electronics on me. They would provide for everything. From the moment I arrived at the safe house, nobody left until I left first, and then I don’t know where they went.

AMY GOODMAN: But you didn’t leave with the videotape?

YOUSRI FOUDA: No. Again, the deal was that I would do the interview, leave the tapes behind, and then they would find — for them to doctor. And then they would find a way of sending me the tapes. As it turned out, I understand that each of them went back underground, left the tapes with some go-betweens, and in the process, because of what was happening to al Qaeda, they had to rely on people that they didn’t quite trust.

It was unlike the days when they were in Afghanistan, when they could choose the kind of people with whom they would be dealing. In Karachi in Pakistan, in general, I suspect that they didn’t have much of a choice. So some people in between tried to take advantage of the situation, thinking that, 'Well, I mean, those guys — by the time they get word of what was happening, perhaps we can get away with it.' So they asked me for — basically blackmailed me into paying them some money so that I can get a hold of my tapes.

AMY GOODMAN: Like $1 million?

YOUSRI FOUDA: Yes, in the beginning it was $1 million. And I said it was a matter of principle for me. But it wasn’t only a matter of principle; I’m also a bit of a pragmatic journalist to a certain degree. I knew that they would never dare sell the tapes onto any other party. I don’t think people of the caliber of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi Binalshibh would have taken such a personal risk on their own lives for money. They could have asked me before the interview to give them the money. Maybe I would have done it, but after the interview, after they were gone, underground —

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean you would have done it?

YOUSRI FOUDA: Maybe. Maybe. If I thought that I would come back with something that everybody would learn from, that would explain 9/11, that would make everybody better prepared, maybe for the sake of this, maybe I would have. We pay guests every now and then if we think that they’ve got anything that’s newsworthy that we think that our viewers would be interested in. And it varies from, I mean, some people are paid millions sometimes for an exclusive, right? So it depends. So long as it doesn’t contradict with your fundamental ethics as a journalist and as a human being, that’s fine. But the situation then was different. So I refused, and then they asked — there was a bit of a discount. It went down to $17,000. And I said no. It was a matter of principle for me. In the end, when Ramzi Binalshibh knew about what was happening, he tried to salvage something, and he sent me the audio version of my interview with him.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s what you ran?

YOUSRI FOUDA: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Tasir Alouni, your colleague in Spain who has been arrested, convicted and sentenced, also interviewed top al Qaeda leaders. Your response?

YOUSRI FOUDA: Well, Tasir, I think he’s a brilliant guy, a very decent guy. I met him a couple of times in the headquarters of al Jazeera. At the time just before 9/11, if you remember those couple of years, he was the only journalist on earth to cover this story. He was basically a walking news agency for everybody. And I think he did a brilliant job over there. I don’t really know him on a personal level, and to a certain extent I’m comforted by the fact, although it’s not really clear in the minds of most people that — and the judge actually said — Judge Garzon, I met him in New York accidentally actually last week, and I had a few words to say to him. And he said it in front of everybody — there was a discussion — that the sentence had nothing to do with Tasir being a journalist, nothing to do with his work for al Jazeera. It had everything to do with his time in Spain, his alleged relationship to certain people in Spain long before al Jazeera came to be. So that’s — to a certain extent, I find some comfort on that.

But at the same time, I understand that the legal process is still ongoing and that we are appealing, and al Jazeera is very much backing Tasir, and I hope in the end that would be resolved. I still think that seven years is very harsh. Even given the — when looking at the charges, I can’t really figure out what the exact charge is. I mean, knowing certain people, some of them called him, some of them stayed at his home. That’s before al Jazeera came into being. Even though I still think seven years is very harsh.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the journalists, al Jazeera journalists who have been imprisoned, who have been killed in Iraq? We’ve just seen the court-martialing of Charles Grainer and Lindy England. Two of our colleagues, Suheib Badr Darwish and Salah Hassan, Iraqi journalists held at Abu Ghraib for two months, actually tortured by this gang of U.S. soldiers, what can you tell us about this?

YOUSRI FOUDA: I think many American journalists and civil libertarians have really talked — and I don’t think I will really —- I would be able to add much to them. They’ve got more credibility with the American people as to what Abu Ghraib means to us all. I will single out what it means to the Americans. I think it’s a disgrace, and I think it’s contributed a lot to the discrediting of the war on terror. It’s not my words. I take the words of Michael Scheuer, the ex-C.I.A. who actually invented the bin Laden unit. title of his book, How the West is Losing the War on Terror, because of things like this. When you lose the moral high ground, it’s just -—

And when I — we’ve just talked about Tasir. When I look at what Lindy England, Sergeant England gets three years for all the filth and dirt that she did in Abu Ghraib and to see Alouni get seven years for suspicions of maybe some contacts with certain people before al Jazeera came to being, it makes me wonder, where are we going from here? You can’t pretend that you are out there to protect and preserve the values and the principles of western civilization through compromising the very essence of western civilization, and I think this is the trouble and the problem that the Americans, especially in the wake of 9/11 — of course, in the beginning it would be very difficult to expect people to be very rational about things, but now that we are more than four years away from that, I think things need to be revised. We need to sit back and look where we’re going from here.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ayoub, the killing of your journalist in Iraq, the bombing of al Jazeera twice in Afghanistan, the arrest of your journalists going to cover the Bush-Putin summit at Crawford, do you think that al Jazeera is targeted by the U.S. government and military?

YOUSRI FOUDA: Well, I hope not, at least. When it happened first in Afghanistan, we were told that, you know, “Sorry, that was accidental.” And during the buildup to what happened in Iraq later, my boss at the time wrote to the Pentagon and said, “Well, please do not bomb us accidentally again, should something happen in Baghdad.” And we got no response.

It’s — I don’t — you know, in the absence of information, it would be very — not very proper on my part to accuse somebody, but when it happens twice, three times, when certain people within certain departments in this country do not really believe in freedom of information and what journalism is all about, when they take cue from and interpret in their way something like what President Bush said in the wake of 9/11, that you are either with us or against us, this is horrifying. I mean, hello, I’m a journalist. Can I stay in the middle? This is what my job is all about. And I think they were probably encouraged by this. They had their own interpretation. But I cannot really point fingers to certain people unless I have all the facts.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the English network of al Jazeera is going to start, a lot of people being hired from CNN, from A.P., from BBC, even the former Marine Captain Josh Rushing is going to become a reporter, who got well known in Control Room.

YOUSRI FOUDA: Indeed, and I think it’s going to be a fascinating experience to have — I mean, to the credit of al Jazeera and to the way Arabs look from the other side of the fence at things, I mean, to have Marine co-hosting a show that I think is going to be the flagship of al Jazeera International tells us something about al Jazeera and our culture at the same time. We try to present the world to the best of our knowledge in a fair, objective way. Yes, sometimes certain people don’t like that. Sometimes certain people would like you to be on their side. It is understandable. But do not kill the messenger in the end.

I think it’s going to be a great success, although I can still sense that certain people here are a little bit suspicious about it, that al Jazeera is going to be in English. But at least it’s going to be good news for al Jazeera in Arabic. It will at least prove it to people that we don’t really have horns on our heads, that the more you know about something, the more understanding and the more appreciative and the more moderate you become, basically. I think ignorance on both sides is the main problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Yousri Fouda, I want to thank you very much for being with us. One of the top journalists of al Jazeera, also author of the book Masterminds of Terror: The Truth Behind the Most Devastating Terrorist Attack the World Has Ever Seen. Thank you.

YOUSRI FOUDA: My pleasure.

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