As a war correspondent and investigative reporter for most of my adult life, I have met people most Americans would avoid.
I have been taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists in Lebanon. Islamist activists in Gaza took me to interview a future suicide bomber. I have traveled to Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and other countries you read about on the front pages of the newspapers to interview world leaders, guerrilla fighters, terrorists, and ordinary citizens.
But as I read on Friday evening that five al Qaida suspects had just boarded an airplane in Britain for America to stand trial for their alleged terrorist crimes, I did a double-take.
I know three of these five individuals personally. And I would be happy to be called as a prosecution witness against all three of them. Here’s why.
I first met Khaled al Fawwaz at his home in London.
At his request, I took my shoes off to enter his home. His wife, if I remember correctly, was behind a curtain in the kitchen. A contact in Virginia, now in a U.S. prison for his involvement as an al Qaida “fixer,” had suggested that I travel to London to meet Al Fawwaz if I wanted to interview his boss, Osama bin Laden.
This was February 1998. Bin Laden had just issued a “fatwa,” or Islamic religious ruling, calling on Muslims to murder Americans, both civilian and military, anywhere in the world.
Our news media dismissed bin Laden’s fatwa. But I was lucky enough at the time to be working for an insightful editor at Reader’s Digest, Bill Schultz. This fatwa was an operational order, I argued. “Bin Laden is about to do something we can’t ignore.”
“Go for it,” he told me.
So with support from the Digest, I embarked for London, Cairo, and Peshawar, en route to interview bin Laden in Afghanistan to get a better idea of his intentions.
Everyone told me that Khaled al Fawwaz was the key. If I passed his “test,” I would get to bin Laden.
Al Fawwaz urged me to hire a “fixer” in Peshawar whose information he gave me. But before I went there, he insisted that I meet with Adel Abdul Bary, a “journalist” with a Saudi-owned newspaper who had spent time with bin Laden in his cave in Afghanistan.
Abdul Bary met me in his London office in a Savile Row suit. He spoke of bin Laden with great respect, almost religiously.
“Look at me,” he said, mocking his paunch and his elegant dress. “I was forced to sleep on a military cot on top of assault rifles and boxes of ammo in a cave in Afghanistan, while all they ate was uncooked eggs and raw cheese!”