The day I met a disciple of Bin Laden—and had to bargain for my lifeby Hugh Pope / April 28, 2010 / Leave a comment
Four-year-old Hugh Pope outside Petra in 1964. He would spend most of his adult life reporting from the region
It was a couple of months after 11th September 2001, but it never occurred to me that I was at risk from al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. I was there as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and I still believed in the cloak of innocence: the idea that my reporting represented an honest, universal right to know.
My travelling companion, Saad, was the son of a dissident religious sheikh. He was, I felt, a moral person who wouldn’t have anything to do with terrorism. So when he arranged a meeting for me with a da’i—a “caller to the faith,” or missionary—this seemed perfectly safe. Saad picked me up at my hotel one evening and I thought nothing of leaving with him. Only later did I realise I had told nobody where I was going.
The meeting was at Saad’s home. The missionary made a dramatic entrance: no handshake, no real introduction, and no name. He wore an unhappy, untrimmed beard and a robe that was not only short in the fundamentalist Wahhabi fashion, but grey, a signal of dissent against the starched white thobe, the floor-length shirt that is Saudi national dress.
The first flurry of greetings over, we sat side by side on the cushioned bench. Saad sat down opposite. In my most correct Arabic, I told the missionary of my interest in telling readers in America about al Qaeda’s motives and goals.
“I know that western media seems distant and hostile, but that’s because your voice is not heard. People are not familiar with your perspective. I can make your viewpoint known.”
“Shouldn’t I kill you?” he said, stating something that had clearly been on his mind.
“That’s quite unnecessary, I assure you,” I replied without thinking. I kept looking into his eyes. With a twinge in my belly I realised that he was serious. Yet I still found it hard to believe that I was in danger. Word games and political joshing are common in the Arab world. This missionary was slight and thoughtful. I sipped at my glass of ice-cold water.
“You are an infidel, one of ‘those whom it is obligatory to smite,’” he continued, as if he was debating with himself. He was a lot younger than me (I learned…