CAIRO: From Al-Qaeda to Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq havens, renowned Egyptian journalist Yosri Fouda wrote a book about his professional experience in dealing with hard-line Islamists, whose power has grown worldwide.
The author, former chief investigative correspondent and executive producer at Qatar-owned Al Jazeera, tackled in his book, “In Harm’s Way… From Qaeda Havens to ISIL Breeding Grounds,” his two investigative journeys to interview militancy masterminds.
He borrowed the book’s title from Martin Bell’s In Harm’s Way: Reflections of a War Zone Thug.
Only one year after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Fouda interviewed the plotters in 2002 in Karachi, Pakistan, as well as members of the Islamic Army in Iraq in 2006.
“This is an experience that is very hard to be repeated, on a personal level. Professionally, however, it opened up many horizons of lessons that will remain with me as long as I live. I wish that at least one of its parts be an inspiration, particularly for my colleagues who have started to make their dreams come true on the investigative journalism path,” Fouda wrote.
“However, politically, it lit a candle in the path of understanding what has unfolded whether in Syria or Iraq, two of the most prominent Arab countries; or understanding the Salafi Jihadist outlook on the development of the conflict with the West throughout the Levant region; or the restlessness of the Arab public due to their regimes,” he added in his 233-page book.
The Way to the Unknown
In his first journey to Karachi of Pakistan in 2002, upon an invitation from Qaeda leaders, Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, plotters of the 9/11 attacks, Fouda revealed in the first part of the book that Qaeda requested an interview to show the world why they carried out the attacks.
“Sheikh Abu Abdullah (Bin Laden), may Allah protect him, asked us to take Robert Fisk … to Om Abdullah (Bin Laden’s wife) and to take Yosri Fouda to the brothers,” as Qaeda member Abu Bakr, Fouda’s guide, was quoted in the book.
Fouda succeeded to get a visa to enter the Pakistani territories easily on the pretext of an investigative report, flying from London to Dubai Airport and then to Islamabad Airport, from which Qaeda took the mission of his journey to their haven. The author said Qaeda chose him to conduct the interview because he worked with an Arab news outlet that criticized the U.S. administration’s treatment of Guantanamo prisoners.
They realized that they need to gain sympathy more than the challenge, “when that happens, the need for the media and journalists emerges,” Fouda wrote in Arabic, noting that Qaeda leaders realized at that time they had to move from “violent activity” to “political existence.”
In his first meeting with Qaeda guide “Abu Bakr,” who went on a camouflage plan to bring the author to the masterminds, Fouda showed how those Islamists have made use of the religion to justify their deeds. “Allah will forgive you,” a quote the Qaeda members use to justify wrongdoings because they, in their point of view, aim to reach a “good goal.”
Fouda begged his question how a man could think that “he has a mandate from God authorizing him to prevent a Muslim from performing the most important prayer in Islam (the Friday prayer.)”
As Fouda saw Qaeda members in an unidentified five-room flat, he noted that they misinterpret Prophet Muhammad’s battles to justify killing people with whom they believe at war.
During his experience, Fouda noticed that some of them, such as head of the military committee of the group Khaled sheikh Mohammed who provided him with the names of the 19 attackers of 9/11, did not speak Arabic fluently.
Robbery, violence, blackmail and lying exist among the group members, according to incidents detailed in the book. Some members, labeled by the author a “mafia,” bargained him and his Qaeda guide for a ransom in return for the interview tapes.
According to a deal between Fouda and the two Qaeda masterminds, the tapes and all information about the attacks were sent to him three weeks following the interview.
Boycotting his vacation in Paris, former Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani met with the author in London, insistently asking for the tapes recorded with Qaeda to inform his U.S. allies of interview’s content. However, Fouda informed him that he had not gotten the tapes.
At that time, Fouda was working as an investigative journalist with Qatar-owned Al-Jazeera net in its London-based office.
Crossing to the Unknown
In the second part of the book, the author took the readers to an illegal road he had to walk to meet with the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI) Commander Abu Moshtaq al-Zubaidi in 2006. The road is taken today by smugglers and newly recruited the Islamic State group (IS) members in their way from Syria to Iraq.
Fouda revealed in his book how jihadists facilitate the way to allow recruited youth to go to their havens in Baghdad.
Like the 2002 interview with Qaeda leaders, IAI media coordinator Abu Thaeir asked the author to interview the group leader. The journey that was coordinated with border smugglers began from Damascus, to Palmyra, to Homs, to Hama, and then Qamishli, near the Turkish and Iraqi borders where they managed at the night to infiltrate into the Iraqi territories.
At the Iraqi borders, Fouda accompanied a smuggler, Abu Laith, to meet five men who were in their way to “fight in Iraq.” However, they refused to speak to him because they were not authorized from their “Emir.”
Although Fouda and his fixer, Odai, had reached Sinjar Mountain to Mosul, then Hatra to Baiji, he decided not continue his risky journey. Abu Thaeir threatened Fouda to leave him in Iraq without any help in the way-back, and took all tapes recorded during his journey if he did not interview Commander Zubaidi. Abu Thaeir feared a “Sharia trial” in case he failed to bring Fouda.
On their way back, Fouda, Odai and Abu Laith were arrested by the Syrian border guards and then they were investigated by the Syrian intelligence. However, they were released later.
“Bin Ladenism” is a doctrine followed by “resistance groups in Iraq” was the first media statement by Zobaidi when he sent Fouda recorded statements.
Fouda did not meet the commander face to face, but both sides reached an agreement to connect in other means.
IAI sent Fouda recorded answers to his questions, on top of a film of 12 members discussing a plan to perpetrate a major operation. While Fouda was waiting for the answers, he wrote the additional film was sent to him despite his refusal.
Prophecy of jihadists increasing power
According to a “prophecy” uttered by Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Suri, the “Global Islamic Jihad” is divided into the following stages: targeting the U.S., gradually bringing “the enemies” into Muslim countries, and directly clashing with them. The author says the three phases were witnessed after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The fourth stage would focus on dealing with the Arab regimes, Fouda says.
“According to Abu Musab al-Suri, direct or indirect clashes with the Israeli enemy and its supporters will unbearably pressure the Arab regimes; it will, at the end, expose them (the regimes) before their peoples and prove they do not care about their lives as much as protecting the enemies’ peoples.”