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producers' dispatches from the front


+ "A Firehose of Information"

from Martin Smith

click here for a larger map I'm up at 4:00 a.m. to pack. We are splitting up for a few days. Scott and Marcela are flying to Islamabad via Karachi to lay the groundwork for our Pakistan filming. I am taking one of our cameras and flying via Muscat, Oman to Chennai (formerly Madras) on the southeast coast of India, where I have set up a meeting with B. Raman, a former spy for India's foreign intelligence agency (Research and Analysis Wing). Raman retired from spying in 1994 and has since established a kind of online think tank called the South Asia Analysis Group. He says they get some government and private contract work as well as prepare various monographs and research papers. And since 9/11 nearly all the work has been focused on terrorism assessments.

Raman came to my attention while I was in New York. He'd written several pieces for some Indian newspapers on the movements of Al Qaeda that were precise, detailed, and devoid of the usual overstatement that permeates much of the press on terrorism. I wanted to meet and interview him.

Normally I wouldn't venture this far out of the way for one such meeting, but six weeks ago my sister who has lived and worked as a potter in southern India for the last 32 years had a horrific accident while bicycling home from her workshop around 6:30 one evening. Apparently sideswiped by a hit-and-run driver, she ended up unconscious in the middle of a busy street at rush hour. Today she is recovering from a blow to the head that required five stitches and is nursing a badly broken, surgically repaired right femur. I'll travel to see her when I've finished talking to Raman.

The flight is long. I try to review some of B. Raman's articles but quickly fall asleep.

. . .

My hotel, the Connemara, is a beautiful, rambling colonial relic in the midst of downtown Chennai. B. Raman promptly arrives at 10:00 outside my door. He is a courteous but serious man, and as I invite him in he opens the conversation with a barrage of questions. What is FRONTLINE? Have you been to India before? (Yes.) Where did you fly from? Have you covered bin Laden before? (Since 1998.) Have you written any books? (No.) Have the U.S. intelligence agencies approached you about your trip? (God forbid, no.) Do you know that Pakistan is not safe? I think that he must be accustomed to gathering intelligence in a hurry. On a deadline. I do my best to help him.

At some point he becomes satisfied and suddenly turns the conversation around. "Well, now," he says, "you should know who I am." He then proceeds to give me a rapid-fire personal history, reviewing his career, first as a journalist, then beginning in the sixties as an intelligence officer, now as a freelance writer and columnist. "My specialty was foreign intelligence, especially in Pakistan."

Then, before I know it, he has begun a rather sharp critique of how Americans are overestimating Al Qaeda, not making proper distinctions between core members, sympathizers, and wannabes. I know that this is natural. Whenever there is a big attack it is natural for intelligence officers to believe in or reinterpret every scrap of information that appears.

"But President Bush has said there are 30,000 to 40,000 members of al Qaeda in cells throughout the world. This is ludicrous. I think there are no more than about 350 members. Most of them are from southern Saudi Arabia and Yemen."

I interrupt him and ask if I can turn on the camera I have set up. Then, after some awkward fumbling with window curtains, microphones, and framing, I start recording.

He is a firehose of information. But as interesting as it is, I interrupt often and ask him how he knows what he says he knows. "What is your source for that?" He is sometimes evasive in a way that doesn't seem so. He also admits it when he is just guessing, which I find refreshing.

As the interview goes on I conclude, rightly or wrongly, that much of what he knows comes from sources inside or around various madrassas (religious schools) operating throughout Pakistan. He even repeats a sighting he reported in one of his articles that bin Laden is hiding out at the Binori Madrassa in Karachi. He says his source for this bit of information is credible. Others have mentioned this madrassa to us already. I think this is a door we should knock on, though I wonder how I'll feel when I get there.

As the interview goes on, I am aware that everything he says about Pakistan has to be tempered, interpreted. The man is an Indian with government ties. I think this will be true wherever we go, with whomever I speak. Truth is hard to come by while everyone is spinning. On the other hand, Raman seems sincere and trustworthy. We talk about staying in touch.

As I pack to go, I am elated that I can leave this story behind for a couple of days and visit with family. I take a car to a lovely former French colonial town. Just a few years ago the road was barely passable and the trip took more like eight hours. Now there's a new fifty rupee (about one dollar) toll road.

< previous dispatch  +  next dispatch >

(Aug. 13-14)

Zubaydah Is Dead
13 August, London

Armchair Jihadists
14 August, London

Gulf of Oman
(Aug. 15-21)

Faces at a Dubai Mall
15 August, Dubai, U.A.E.

HMCS Algonquin
16 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

On Board the Algonquin
17-18 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

Like an Elephant Chasing a Mouse
17-18 August, Gulf of Oman

Dubai to Karachi
20 August

+ A Firehose of Information
20-21 August, Dubai - Muscat - Chennai

(Aug. 22-29)

Old Hash
22 August, Islamabad

Nuclear Neighbors
22-23 August, Islamabad

We Believe in God
24 August, Islamabad

Paranoid in Peshawar
27 August, Peshawar

Bombs or Dust Devils
27-28 August, Peshawar

Rumors and Half Truths
28 August, Peshawar

Pakistan Border Lands
(Aug. 30-Sept. 4)

On the Road to Chitral
30 August, Dir Khas

Prisoners' Dilemma
31 August, Dir

In the Northwest Frontier
30-31 August, Dir

Border Town
2 September, Chitral to Arandu

Don't Go to Timargarha
1-2 September, Drosh to Timargarha

An American Informer
3-4 September, Peshawar

(Sept. 5-23)

Road to Nowhere
7 September, Islamabad to Faisalabad

Faisal Town
7 September, Faisalabad

9 September, Faisalabad

The Plight of Women
10 September, Faisalabad

A Little Noticed Gun Battle
10-13 September, Lahore-Karachi

The Madrassa
14 September, Akora Khattak

The Next Big Get
20 September, Karachi - Islamabad

A Circle of Trust
21 September, Islamabad

23 September, Islamabad

Saudi Arabia
(Sept. 24-Oct. 2)

Inside the Kingdom
24-25 September, Riyadh

My Baffling Question
27 September, Unizah-Buraydah

An Obedient Dissident
27 September, Buraydah

An Audience with the Crown Prince
2 October, Riyadh

(Sept. 25-Oct. 10)

Arriving in Yemen
25-26 September, Sana'a

The Wedding Party
27 September, Sana'a

A Talking Drug
28 September, Sana'a

The World's Most Ancient Skyscrapers
3 October, Sana'a

Americans Are Vampires
7 October, Sana'a

Waiting for Rahma
9 October, Sana'a

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