Al Jazeera’s A. Zaidan: I am a journalist not terrorist

Al Jazeera’s Islamabad bureau chief Ahmad Zaidan says the accusations against him are a threat to journalism as a whole.

Ahmad Zaidan
[Al Jazeera]

This article was translated from Arabic to English.

In a recently leaked document, the National Security Agency (NSA) alleged that in addition to my work at Al Jazeera, I am a member of al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The report was filled with enough contradictions to undermine the credibility of the entire document, and the allegations in the document contained errors unbecoming of the most powerful national security agency in the world. Such inaccuracies expose how weak and shallow the work is of those who prepare such documents for the agency- that is the real danger the agency faces . 

More importantly, however, the allegations against me put my life in clear and immediate danger, when we consider that many people have lost their lives as a result of such fake information. This document brought back memories and important dates in my life and I find it important to recount these here to set the record straight and to refute this document in its entirety. 

On January 25 2001, I received a phone call from a man who spoke in excellent Arabic telling me that he wanted to meet with me in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, which borders Iran and Afghanistan. From there we were supposed to go Kandahar, the Taliban’s seat of power, where there would be a meeting with “important people”. 

More importantly, however, the allegations against me put my life in clear and immediate danger, when we consider that many people have lost their lives as a result of such fake information.

by Ahmad Zaidan, Islamabad bureau chief,

The last two words in that conversation filled me with excitement and anxiety at the same time. Firstly, I was excited as a professional journalist for the opportunity to meet with people who were making international headlines, an important moment inmy career as a journalist. At the same time, I had this deep anxiety about my own safety because meeting with people who are under constant surveillance means they could be hit by a missile or a bomb anytime, any minute.

To alleviate my sense of anxiety, I called a retired Pakistani general I knew and asked him, “How long does it take for an agency to fire a missile on a target once they identify its location?” It turns out, it takes the Americans 20 minutes to do so, according to the general.

When I landed at Quetta airport, I was met by a man who was supposed to take me to an unknown location to meet people, and to this day I still don’t know who these people were. There were several other Afghan men with him. After exchanging greetings, I rode in the car with them towards the unknown. The driver kept going from one place to another; we even drove by Kandahar airport and back in a clear attempt to evade surveillance and to confuse any prying eyes, but also to make sure that I didn’t know where they were taking me.

The whole landscape was new to me despite the fact that I had been in Kandahar five years before, when together with a Pakistani journalist and friend, Rahimullah Yusufzai, I interviewed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

When we finally reached our destination, it turned out that it was the wedding of Osama Bin Laden’s son, Abdallah, to the daughter of his military commander Abu Hafs al Masri. 

After the wedding was over, and considerable time had passed by, I realised that the danger of being obliterated into a hundred pieces by a missile or a bomb was over. Later on, I was escorted to meet with Osama Bin Laden, who was with some of senior al-Qaeda leaders.

It was obvious to me during the meeting that Bin Laden wanted to use my presence to break the silence that was imposed on him by the Taliban. Although I was not allowed to carry or use a tape recorder or a camera during that interview, I was mindful enought to write everything down so that I could use the material for my book, “Bin Laden Unmasked.”

When this surreal adventure finally came to an end, Khaled Shaikh Mohamed approached me and handed me a three-minute tape of Bin Laden son’s wedding to use for my report on Al Jazeera.

OPINION: Journalist not a terrorist

This was my last interview with Bin Laden. Prior to that, I had met him in Kabul in November of 2000 and he had indirectly claimed reasonability for the attack on the USS Cole, a US warship docked at the Yemeni port of Aden. There were no further meetings with Bin Laden, but a new phase of the war between al-Qaeda and the US ensued when al-Qaeda started releasing its tapes and messages in response to US strategies and bombing campaign against them. 

I was the recipient of the first tape Bin Laden released in October 2001, in response to the US bombing of the Tora Bora mountains in the aftermath of the September 11 2001 attacks. Many more tapes were release after that, between 2001 and 2011. I was the recipient of some of them, and I made the information public at the time. I firmly believed that I was well within my rights as a journalist, providing news and information to the public.

I also believed that one of the roles of a journalist is to be a mediator of sorts, especially when there is a meltdown in communication, and conflicting parties are resorting to everything but dialogue to resolve their differences. The role of the media, as I learned it throughout my life, was to be a vessel to transport information and ideas. This information and these ideas are supposed to help decision-makers make the right decisions. And of course, all people have the right to access information. 

I knew bin Laden: Part 1

The funniest thing about the leaked document is that the information it contains is public information, but the charges it lays out are utterly ridiculous. It’s shocking that the people who put together these reports are actually in charge of America’s security. When we were young, we looked up to America as the home of freedom. Of course we knew America mainly from Hollywood movies, but we also knew President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and we knew that America stood for noble human principles.

It was clear that the NSA neglected to consider the obvious; my own announcements about my repeated travels throughout Pakistan, as well as Kandahar, Kabul, and the tribal areas. It also ignored my taped reports on Al Jazeera television that showed where I was and with whom I was meeting between 2001 and 2011. Instead the NSA went on to track and analyze my every movement.

The date of the document is rather peculiar, as it dates back to 2012, about 13 months after the killing of Bin Laden in 2011. Why was it so important to track me after he was killed, and after he had started leaning toward support of the Arab revolutions, as revealed in the documents retrieved from his Abbotabad compound? Those documents, or at least some of them, have been released by US intelligence.

Did American national security require surveillance of my movements before or after the killing of Bin Laden? I don’t know, but I will try to answer.

First : I must point out that people around the world have a hard time believing the official American narrative when it comes to America’s foes, like al-Qaeda, or actions like the killing of Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein.

Second : American courts have made they deemed the NSA spying on the phones of journalists as illegal. So if the data collection by NSA was illegal, the use of such data should also be illegal.

Third : The document contained glaring contradictions, such as alleging that I am simultaneously a member of al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. I obviously cannot be a member of both. Any college freshman studying political science would know the difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda. The two have different sets of ideologies and are sworn enemies. According to the NSA’s logic, anyone who met with the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood is therefore one of them, including American officials who met with imprisoned Egyptian president Mohamad Morsi and the leaders of the Tunisian an-Nahda movement.

Fourth : What is happening to me now is just the beginning of what’s happening to journalism. It is not just the issue of targeting me personally or al Jazeera, but it’s more than that. The real issue here is the freedom of the press and the right of journalists to reach and collect information. American laws, and the US constitution itself, emphasise this freedom along with other rights and privileges.

If we suppose, for the sake of argument, that accessing information and reaching its sources is a crime, why didn’t the US declare from the beginning that any news organization or journalist who meets with Bin Laden would be placed on the terrorist list? Strangely, I was deemed a member of al-Qaeda not because of my TV interviews of Bin Laden, but rather based on my movements within Pakistan. Strangely, my visits to Kabul and Kandahar and the tribal areas, which I made public, were not taken into consideration.

Moreover, it is conspicuous how Americans are dealing with journalists who meet with internationally wanted individuals. If the journalist happens to be an American one, such as my colleague and friend Peter Bergen who interviewed Bin Laden in 1997 and traveled from Washington to Kandahar, the NSA’s radar, so it seems, looked the other way. The same thing happened with British journalist Robert Fisk who interviewed Bin Laden, and ditto for Pakistani journalists.

So is there some Western double standard in dealing with the freedom of the press and the right to access information? Does one set of standards apply to the Western journalist, and another to the Arab journalist?

Fifth : It is interesting to point that the document also mentioned that I have the telephone numbers of very important people. Was I supposed to have the phone numbers, with all due respect, only of garbage collectors, for example? Am I supposed to only have the contacts of unimportant people?

The importance and the professionalism of journalists depends on the importance of their sources. One of our main jobs is to be in touch with the public figures that influence people’s lives. If the movements and telephone numbers are evidence that a journalist is a member of al-Qaeda, then there would be no journalism, journalists or free press.

Sixth : For over a decade, I have been covering armed Islamic groups, including al-Qaeda, by reporting on their pronouncements and activities publically. I also covered western and American diplomats and visitors to Pakistan, a country that is a member of the so-called “war on terror”. So if the issue had to do with American national security, American intelligence could have requested to meet with me to ask about what they have in mind regarding my line of work.

The entire issue has nothing to do with American national security. It is an attempt to undermine my professionalism or perhaps carry out a preemptive character assassination should I decided to enter politics one day in my home country. Such actions are a reminder of the American McCarthyist era or the Spanish Inquisition.

Seventh : Many thanks to my dear friend Peter Bergen, the national security analyst at CNN, for his support for me and for standing up for the profession of journalism. I also would like to thank the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York and the many who spoke out in support of me, Al Jazeera and free press. This proves that these values have not died, even if some organisations and governments would like to kill them.

Finally, the timing of the NSA document is important because, in the aftermath of killing Bin Laden in 2011, American officials testified that US national security has become safer. In the decade that preceded the killing of Bin Laden, all my dealings and reporting on al-Qaeda was done openly and I was never questioned or harassed by the US intelligence.


The date of the NSA document – June 5, 2012 – is important to me. Just three months before, I was able to enter and report from my homeland, Syria, which I hadn’t seen since the age of 18, when the former dictator Hafez Assad was in power. I filed two different reports on the battles of the Free Syrian Army in the province of Idlib. My reporting had angered the regime, which conveniently announced on state TV that I was a member of al-Qaeda.

I was surprised that three years after the Syrian regime’s accusations against me, the NSA was repeating the same accusations, while not taking notice of my reporting on the Bin Laden tapes in the previous decade.

This was an attempt to assassinate my professionalism, as a precursor to a political assassination. It seems to be driven by Syrian intelligence deception. I must ask, therefore, is the national security of the Assad regime more important than the national security of the United States and the American people?

I reserve the right to take legal action based on the NSA document. It is a document that is unfair to America, journalism, Al Jazeera, and me personally.

We have the right to be skeptical about claims made by the United States.

We also have the right to be concerned about the way the US classifies people and threat levels according to background and skin colour. Will we ever see the day when all journalists, regardless of race, are considered equals in ability and competence? The only standard should be the ability to access accurate information. This is what Al Jazeera has always strived for, and also what has given Al Jazeera credibility and such a wide audience.