in search of al qaeda
homethe journeyinside the tribal areasground zero: pakistandiscussion
November 21, 2002
photo of a sign that says foreigners only

Last December, as American forces blasted mountain hideouts in the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan, hundreds of Al Qaeda soldiers hastily fled, crossing over unguarded mountain trails and seemingly disappearing into thin air.

What happened to Al Qaeda? Where did its members find sanctuary? Has the network been scattered and rendered ineffective -- or are they regrouping and planning more attacks? And is popular support for Al Qaeda waning or growing in the countries where it has drawn its stength?

FRONTLINE asked veteran producer Martin Smith, who produced FRONTLINE's acclaimed 1999 documentary "Hunting bin Laden", to investigate what has become of Al Qaeda in the months since the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. On Aug. 12, Smith, his co-producer Marcela Gaviria, and cameraman Scott Anger set out on a two-month journey that took them from London to the Gulf of Oman, into the border regions and teeming cities of Pakistan, and finally to Saudi Arabia -- bin Laden's homeland -- and to Yemen.

Smith and his team left New York without a definite itinerary, and without knowing who or what they might find once they got to Al Qaeda country. Smith describes their unusual approach:

The standard method for most FRONTLINE documentaries is to spend several weeks traveling and pre-interviewing subjects, investigating leads, scouting locations, and doing general prep work for a "shoot" that is to follow. For the first time in my experience, we didn't do it that way.

Instead, at the recommendation of David Fanning, our executive producer, we simply filmed the research trip. We set off not knowing what we would find, to whom we would speak, and in some cases not even knowing where we were going. We just followed leads wherever they took us.

Their first stop was London, where Smith talked to a few sources he had developed during his earlier research on bin Laden and Al Qaeda. He also interviewed Sheik Abu Hamza al Masri, the infamous leader of the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London, believed by some investigators to be a terrorist himself. Abu Hamza didn't offer any tips on finding Al Qaeda operatives, but he did offer an enigmatic pronouncement: "Al Qaeda is structurally dismantled," he said, "but morally it is stronger than ever."

From London, Smith and his team travelled to the Gulf of Oman, where they spent three days on a Canadian warship patrolling the waters for boats smuggling Al Qaeda fighters across the Gulf to the Arabian peninsula.

In Pakistan, the team traveled north toward the tribal areas along the porous border with Afghanistan to investigate the rumors that bin Laden had been sighted there. And they ventured into the urban centers of Peshawar -- the city known to have been the gateway to bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan -- and Karachi, where Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a key planner of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was arrested just one day before their arrival.

As foreign journalists, the FRONTLINE team was forbidden from entering the dangerous regions known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas -- an area many believe to be a refuge for Al Qaeda fighters. So Smith enlisted the help of a young local journalist, a Pashtun tribesman named Hayat Ullah Khan, who was able to travel safely through the rarely photgraphed region. He brought back 16 hours of unprecedented footage from this lawless and violent area, including footage of a clash between the Pakistani army and Al Qaeda sympathizers.

While Gaviria went ahead to Yemen, Smith and Anger travelled on to Saudi Arabia, where they found that almost everyone -- not only members of the Saudi establishment, but even dissidents known to have ties to bin Laden -- was reluctant to broach the topic of Al Qaeda. In a rare television interview, the functional head of the Saudi government, Crown Prince Abdullah, evaded Smith's questions about Saudi Arabia's connection to the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- despite the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. After a week of getting the runaround from both sides, Smith and Anger joined Gaviria in Yemen.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Yemeni government has detained over 100 suspected Al Qaeda members at the behest of the United States. In the capital, Sana'a, Smith interviewed U.S. Ambassador Edmund Hull, who believes that a number of Al Qaeda operatives are at large in Yemen, and Yemeni foreign minister Abubaker Qirbi, who insists that the government is doing all it can to apprehend Al Qaeda terrorists. They also met with a young, articulate Yemeni woman named Rahma Hugira. Vehemently anti-American, Hugira told Gaviria that Osama bin Laden is her hero. A journalist and an activist, she is working to free the suspected Al Qaeda detainees. She told Gaviria, "I know they are just innocent men paying the price for this war."

The journey ends in Taiz, a small town in the central highlands of Yemen, where families talked of their hatred for America. Smith met a Yemeni family that boasts of having six members in Al Qaeda. "I am proud of my family," Karim Muhammad said. "I wish that I had gone to fight in Afghanistan and had become a martyr." When asked how he feels about Sept. 11, he responded, "It was the happiest day of my life."

Although they did not encounter anyone who openly claimed to be a member of Al Qaeda, Smith and the FRONTLINE team met dozens of people who shared the sentiments of Muhammad and Hugira. It's obvious that despite the successful U.S. military assault on Afghanistan, Al Qaeda and the broader movement that bin Laden has inspired is still very much alive. After meeting so many who so passionately support bin Laden and his network, Abu Hamza's enigmatic statement -- "Al Qaeda is structurally dismantled, but morally it is stronger than ever" -- makes more sense on the journey home.

The unorthodox approach to the making of "In Search of Al Qaeda" resulted in a different sort of film than the usual FRONTLINE documentary. Smith recounts:

We filmed the process, which gives the documentary a different feel, more like a film in the making. It makes for a less formal kind of film, one that cuts the audience in on some of the filmmaking and reporting process.

The Web site for "In Search of Al Qaeda" provides the viewer an even deeper look behind the scenes. In addition to the entire documentary available in streaming video, the site offers a detailed interactive map of the FRONTLINE team's journey, their fascinating e-mail dispatches from the field, and slideshows of stunning photographs from each locale they visited.

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