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 later that he was 24 years old) and I felt he was out of order. I responded in kind.
“Not at all. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said that those who have permission to be among the believers must have safe passage. Besides, I am a guest in this house.”
The missionary waved away such an appeal to tradition.
“What permission?” he snapped.
I looked at Saad. He looked blankly back at me. This wasn’t going as planned. I had a visa, of course, but to get into the country quickly I had arranged it privately through a Saudi businessman. Did I really have permission? Or was I just assuming my right as a westerner to go where I pleased?
“The Koran states, quite clearly, that it is the duty of the believer to kill intruders and spies,” the missionary said.
My disbelief left my instincts intact. If this was bargaining, then I would bargain. “Why take the Koran literally?” I asked. “How can you be sure of every word?”
“I’ve memorised the Koran. All my friends have too. It’s the word of God. I think that maybe even talking to you is to leave the sunna, the tradition of the Prophet. Then I’ll become a mubdi [one who innovates].” He pulled a face at this.
I twisted my water glass, looking into his soft black eyes. It was vital to coax him out of whatever he was thinking.
“I have this treaty of which you speak. I have permission from the sultan of this land to be here. He is the guardian of the two holy shrines. So I can be here and not be killed.”
“What proof do you have?”
“Here,” I said, pulling my passport carefully out of my top pocket and paging through it as if it, too, was holy scripture. “Here. The king’s firman, his royal permission.”
Getting a visa to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not easy, so my aplomb was not entirely out of place. It was a long and elaborate sticker, with a picture of me and details like the fact that I was a Christian. The missionary read every word of it.
“Indeed, this permit is from the king of Saudi Arabia. But there are some clerics who say he is illegitimate.”
“But the Friday prayers are read in his name.”
“That’s true,” he said, and then, with magnanimity. “All right. I can accept that you do have permission to be here.”
The drama of our conversation evaporated. His one-man tribunal had passed a “not guilty” verdict.
“Thanks for your confidence,” I said.
“Well, I suppose if we killed Americans like you it would be hard on the religious leaders here,” he said generously. “The principle of success is to balance knowledge and jihad. The official religious leaders go too far towards knowledge. But if you go too far towards jihad, you end up like Algeria.”
As I led the missionary through his life story, the conversation became almost matey. He had studied theology, and was the only one of his brothers who had become religious. He considered that only 20 per cent of Saudis were true Wahhabis who imitated the lifestyle of the companions of the Prophet by wearing a short thobe and by brushing their teeth with miswak, the fibrous ends of a desert bush. Others were fussaq, or corrupted.
The missionary’s first assignment had been in Baku, in Azerbaijan. I knew it well, and could sympathise with the uphill task he faced in that relatively westernised country. He told of his shock at seeing people kissing, the vodka consumption and the complication of sharing a stairwell with unveiled women neighbours. He had made only one convert, he admitted, who stopped drinking and began to pray.
Then he discovered Afghanistan. He did three tours of duty there, lasting one to three months, revelling in the way his Saudi Arabian identity and Koranic learning gave him a holy aura with the Afghans. The high point of one tour was giving a Friday sermon at a mosque in Kandahar.
“The hotel in Afghanistan was very cheap, and they didn’t even ask for my passport,” he said, his face lighting up. “They said, ‘You’re a Muslim, and this is the land of Islam.’”
The missionary’s frankness and our shared experience of foreign travel made me feel closer to him. But he was naive.
“I took 200 miswak sticks for cleaning teeth with me. I wanted to teach them the tradition of how Muhammad let the beard grow, with some clipping of the moustache, how one should wash one’s elbow joint, the armpits and the pubic hair,” he said. “This is what sets us apart from the animals.”
“Did you meet other Arabs there?”
“Yes, I gave lessons to al Qaeda, in its al-Farouq camp. There were Saudis, but also Germans, Turks, Australians, an American, a Russian, all sorts.”
“And the group that carried out the attacks on America?”
“Yes, them too. I knew several of them. Wonderful boys.”
He believed that the hijackers he met were motivated by vengeance. “Why did al Qaeda want to kill Americans? Because America acts as a shield for Israel. Because it protects corrupt Arab governments. Because America occupies the Arabian peninsula. And because America is the strongest. They think that a really good attack will break this powerful government, that Islam will be able to expand. We believe that Islam will come to embrace the whole world one day.”
“What about the innocents in the World Trade Centre?”
“It’s asymmetric warfare. That’s something that was predicted in the Koran.”
“But Muslims were killed too.”
“You can’t help it, and they’ll go to heaven anyway.”
“Are you actually with al Qaeda?”
“I might be, I might not. We might agree on the goals, we might share interests. I have a cause: to gain knowledge. Al Qaeda is the military side, the sword.”
Years later, I met people who had studied the youths who bombed London on 7th July 2005. They said the only common thread in the bombers’ life stories was teenage rebellion gone ballistic. Other studies talk of the importance of group loyalty, rather than ideology or family background. But the missionary, now in his stride, and in tune with Osama bin Laden’s rhetoric, was spinning it as an attack motivated by winning glory for “Islam,” by which he meant the peoples of the Islamic world. He was seeking a clash of civilisations.
When we reconvened the next day, the missionary arrived with Saad at my hotel looking like a medieval monk. The cloth on his head was starched but loose, like a cowl, and he glowered at the evidence of luxury around him.
“I hate hotels,” he harrumphed.
We inspected the hotel’s restaurants, which sought to transport guests as far as possible from Saudi reality. One was done up like a French boudoir, the other like something from a South Pacific island. The missionary growled, made for the reception desk as if to complain, then thought better of it. Worldlier Saudis looked with curiosity and some scorn at our group. His type was recognisable, but marginal too.
We repaired to a Chinese restaurant. The missionary tried and failed to keep up his tradecraft. He took the battery out of his phone, knowing that cellphones send locating signals even when turned off. But then he put the battery back in to make a call. A spring roll arrived, which he poked but didn’t touch.
Life in the Afghan camp had been a strain. He had got so sick from the water that his friends had had to carry him around. Weak and delirious one night, he woke up and saw one of the trainees for the jihad sitting up to watch over him. For the missionary, that was the kind of moment of love, exhilaration and common purpose that made it worth it.
“In Afghanistan, everything changes. Your mind opens up. When you meet Osama, you realise he’s not just doing something regional, but he’s got a global plan. Osama’s a belief, not a person. Even if he’s killed, someone else will carry on. One of my friends once saw Osama looking at a map. He had the misty look in his eyes that he got when he talked about the future. My friend asked him, ‘Oh sheikh, what are you doing?’ He replied: ‘I’m thinking of changing the map of the world. There will be the Abode of Islam, and the Abode of Infidels.’”
“Are you sure you’re on the right path? Can you really win?” I asked.
“In Afghanistan, Osama used to say that when a lion puts its head into a beehive, the bees only have to sting in seven or eight places and the lion will die,” the missionary said. “The world has changed. We’ve changed too. We used to think there’s a long way to go. Now there may be just five or six years to the universal Islamic caliphate.”
“Did you actually do much guerrilla training?” I asked.
“Me? No. Some people do the fighting. I do ideology.”
One piece of tradecraft, though, I did admire. As the waitress cleared away our tea, the missionary pulled out a crumpled 500-riyal banknote, far too high in value for the bill. It had clearly performed this role before. I waved it away and the Wall Street Journal picked up the tab.