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Ahmad Zaidan

He is the Islamabad bureau chief for Al Jazeera television, an Arabic-language news channel based in Qatar. Zaidan was one of the last journalists to interview Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and he has been the recipient of several of Osama bin Laden's communiquÈs, including an audio recording released in November 2002, in which bin Laden allegedly applauds the recent terrorist attacks in Bali and Yemen. Zaidan believes Al Qaeda is regrouping and that sympathy for them in the Muslim world is increasing. This interview was conducted on Sept. 7, 2002.

Ahmad Zaidan photo
Ahmad Zaidan photo

You've interviewed Osama bin Laden twice. Did you ever discuss with him what would happen if he couldn't base his operations out of Afghanistan?

... He wanted to drag America to Afghanistan. He wanted to fight America, like he said, like our Muslims fought in Somalia against Americans.

And the way they fought the Soviet Union?

Exactly. The Soviet Union also.

So he wanted to drag America into a battle. What did he say that would do? What did he think would result from that?

He was thinking that that battle will defeat America, and will force America to withdraw from Afghanistan; such a defeat will damage American respect in the eyes of West, in the eyes of the world. ...

What's your assessment now of Al Qaeda and their strength and their capability at this point? What's happened to them?

Look, when I visited Afghanistan in October 2000 and went on Jan. 9, 2001, what I have seen by my eyes in Kandahar, for example, there was big gathering, if you remember, with the party of his son. I noticed around 500 to 600 Arabs around Osama in those days.

You attended the wedding party?

I was there. I attended that wedding party. What I have collect some information from them, gathered some information from them, that at least there are 2,000, 3,000 Arabs with Osama in Afghanistan. Now, it is difficult for me to differentiate between Al Qaeda and other groups. There are many groups.

But what I have, what I collected information, is that there are at least 2,000, 3,000 troops are with Osama. So if we want to take that total number, 2,000, 3,000, and let us say that 300, 400 Al Qaeda have been killed during the last [battle] with Americans.

Tora Bora?

Tora Bora. I don't want to vote a number more than 400 will have been killed or have been arrested and have been taken to Guantanamo. By this calculation, I think that not more than 20 percent or 30 percent of Al Qaeda have been finished, which means that at least 70 percent of the strength of Al Qaeda still exists.

Karachi is a very, very big city, 12 million  citizens. It's very easy for you to hide over there.

The other important thing is that, on the leadership level, we can see just Abu Zubaydah who has been arrested. Muhammad Atef is in charge of political wing has been killed. And the rest are intact, which means that at least 80 percent or more than 80 percent of Al Qaeda leadership, it still exists, and is still there. ...

Of the 80 percent that you talk about -- and you're putting that number over a thousand, by your calculation -- most of these are just foot soldiers? Or do they represent real terrorist capability against the West?

It is difficult to say that they have capability. The problem is, when you go to Afghanistan, definitely it's difficult for you to judge whether he has that capability or doesn't have that capability. ...

You had made a point yesterday about the Saudis and their ability to travel. That goes to the heart of the question as to why 15 of the 19 are Saudi citizens. There was this sort of change in the organization of Al Qaeda to become more of a Yemeni-Saudi organization. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Exactly. This is nature. If you are American, you will trust American people. If I am Syrian, I will trust Syrian people. Of course, it doesn't mean that I am not trusting American people, I am not trusting Jordanian or Saudis. But it will take time to trust other nationalities.

I know the tradition of my own people. I know the customs. I know everything about my own people. That's why I think Osama trusted his people, Yemenis. Trusted his people, Saudis. And it was very difficult, very, very easy for him to gather information about this man or that man who was visiting him.

But if you want to talk about some other Arab countries, which the movement in those countries are very restricted, intelligence service is very strong. So it is very, very difficult for you to collect or gather some people and bring them to Afghanistan from there.

So that's why I think it was very easy for Osama to get people from Saudis, to get people from Yemenis. To get passport in Saudi, to get passport in Yemen is not big deal. But in other Arab countries, a very big problem. ...

What do you think happened after Tora Bora to Al Qaeda? What was the effect of Tora Bora on the organization, and where did it go?

According to my judgment, according to my assessment, Americans have been deceived in Tora Bora. Americans have been shown that Al Qaeda is there. Osama is there. Leadership is there. According to many informations, he left his mobile or his satellite phone open. Now I don't believe it. I think America has been deceived there. A lot of American tanks have come there. Then Al Qaeda, before that, they have been spaced and they have been scattered.

You think before Tora Bora?

I think before Tora Bora.

Bin Laden, the leadership and many of the soldiers left?

Exactly. Maybe it was in Tora Bora. No doubt about it. But I think before the operation, Osama and the leadership and many of his followers, what you call successfully fled or escaped.

Is there evidence that he was tipped off? Do you have evidence that he was tipped off or that he knew ahead of time what was going to happen?

No. It is difficult to have proof for that. But according to many Afghans, according to many sources, yes, I think he was in Tora Bora before, in the beginning of the battle. But Tora Bora took more than maybe one and a half months. So that's why I am saying that America has been deceived, or the American powers. The Western powers have been concentrated in Tora Bora, and they forgot the other part of Afghanistan.

Were they deceived by whom? Deceived by Afghan warlords who--

I think [deceived by] Afghans, I am hearing of Afghans long time. I covered Afghan war for quite long time. Afghans, nobody can expect them. Nobody can read their faces. Nobody can read their what you call their decision or something. That's why maybe they are just not there with you. But after two minutes, maybe they will change their reality very easy.

Why they will change their reality? Maybe they will come to their conscience that, "Look how I am cooperating with Americans against my own people." This is one of the reasons. The other reason maybe they would say, "OK, the people of the tribes, if they know that I am working for Americans, so I will be dubbed as an agent. Or maybe I will face trouble in the future."

So a lot of things is involved. That's why it is very difficult to judge the Afghans and to say clearly Afghans are with the American or with Al Qaeda or with this or with that. ...

Why would a member of Al Qaeda want to escape to Pakistan?

There is not another route. There is not another way for them. ... This is one reason, and a geographical reason. Another reason is a matter of sympathy. If you could travel there, you will find that there is a lot of sympathy for Al Qaeda or for Taliban. ...

What are the tribal areas? How do you explain this phenomenon of these tribal areas to a foreigner? What are the tribal areas?

Tribal area is where there is no central government law there, that is semi-autonomous area. There is freedom to carry guns. There is freedom of everything. They have their own type of elections. It is not directly observed or ruled by Islamabad government. All of them of course are Pashtun -- one nationality, speaking one language, they have just one religion. They have very strong relation with each other. ...

I don't believe that wholeheartedly they are with Pakistan. If you were there, you will feel that the food is Afghani food. Psyche is Afghani, what you call Afghani psyche. The mood is Afghani mood. They are looking to Kabul more than they are looking to Islamabad. They very much care, very much worry about what's going on in Afghanistan more than they are worrying on Pakistani side. ...

It seems the problems will come home to roost in this area, because Islamabad has allowed this area to have autonomy. But yet Pakistan won't allow the United States to come in there and search for Al Qaeda, so it becomes a free zone much like Afghanistan was.

It is a free zone. It is not a matter of free zone after Sept. 11. It's a free zone since 200 years.

Why did the government in Islamabad not take control of this area?

Because the British troops could not take that, the rule of that country, that area when they were ruling this subcontinent. It is not an easy thing. I mean, I told you that--

There are British graveyards in the tribal areas.

Exactly. British graveyard. I'll tell you an important thing, that British divided this area. I mean, my brother here, my son is there. My cousin here, my nephew is there. So they divided it in such a way that it is very much difficult for me to accept that division.

What you're saying is, they drew borders?

Exactly. They drew borders. ...

You've been in there as a Pakistani, as an Al Jazeera correspondent. Give me some sense of the mood of the people.

Again, I'll telling you one thing, it is very difficult to judge this type of people. When they see, for example, American people, they will say, "Oh, we don't have Al Qaeda. We don't have any people here. We are peaceful people. We like peace and this and that."

Then they see me, for example, as a Muslim or as a Pakistani. They will say, "OK, we are Muslims. We are against American. We are this, we are that." So that's why I'm telling you it's very difficult to judge this type of people. But in generally, I think that Islamic parties are gaining ground in tribal area.

Still, even today?

Yes, even today gaining more, what you call, ground over there. ...

How many people died in Tora Bora, do you think? How many Al Qaeda were killed?

It is difficult to give exact answer to that. But I don't think more than 10 to 20.

Ten to 20?


And about 150 were captured?


The Frontier Corps has told me 192; so somewhere between 156 and 192. And the battle of Shah-e-kot?

In Shah-e-kot, I don't think much of Arabs have been killed. I think that more than a few Arabs. I don't want to say more than 10 Arabs, not more than 10. And even if you remember, you Americans did not show more than two or three dead bodies there. I talked to many correspondents who were there, and they confirmed to me that they didn't see more than two, three dead bodies. ...

So then most of them then come across into Pakistan?

Now it is, the important thing, I don't think that a lot of Al Qaeda are engaging in fighting.

So they've come the Pakistan, to the tribal areas. Have they gone beyond there? Do you have an idea of where they've moved since those battles, since March or since December?

I mean, logically, I tell you that they are coming to Pakistan or going to tribal area or they are harboring inside Afghanistan. But as evidence, I don't have any evidence whether they are coming here or they are staying in Afghanistan. ...

They could have stayed in Afghanistan. But we do know that some have gone to [Pakistan.] I mean, 35 people were in [Faisalabad] in this villa with Abu Zubaydah. We know that some of them have probably come down to Karachi. There's been a number of stories about leadership hiding out in the Binori Madrassa down there. Have you heard these stories?

Exactly because recently Al Jazeera reported there was -- we have one program, and they were saying that one, two of Al Qaeda leaders harbored in Karachi. It is very logic for me, you know.

But Karachi is a very, very big city, 12 million, population, citizens. It's very easy for you to hide over there. It is not big deal. It very difficult for Americans to bomb Karachi, for example. At the same time, it is very difficult to find out the exact location of those people harboring in Karachi where there are more than 12 million.

Beyond that, do you [have] evidence, or have you heard stories about people moving beyond Pakistan -- back towards Yemen or Saudi Arabia?

I think they have moved, according to some reports. Still the problem is, in the war, as we are saying, the victim the truth. It is very difficult for us to find out the truth.

The first casualty--

Yes, first casualty is truth. Since we don't have that direct contact with Al Qaeda, it is difficult for them to speak out nowadays. That's why it's difficult to get exact information.

But according to many sources, they have fled Afghanistan, even before the American attack. They have fled Afghanistan to Iran. From Iran, they came down to Syria or Jordan or through to Saudi Arabia or Yemen and maybe to other countries. But I think that this is happen before American attack on Afghanistan.

So you think there was a regrouping taking place in some of these places?

I think they are regrouping, number one. Number two, America make it more difficult for them now than ever before. Because before, they were only just in one part of the world -- that's Afghanistan -- which is very easy for you, if you intelligence service or if you are whatever.

We didn't do a very good job of observing them in Afghanistan. We didn't have any idea what they were up to. So it might have been an easy job, but we didn't infiltrate their organizations.

It was a very easy job, I think. But it is a flaw of intelligence service. ... Anyhow, but I think now the job is very much difficult. Number one, in the sense of scattering of such people; number two, is extremism is taking, more roots. Sympathy with Osama in Arab world, in Muslim world is getting more ground. I think such circumstances is making more difficult for Americans to observe the situation or to look at the situation. ...

Afghan intelligence is giving interviews saying that bin Laden has been seen in Dir and Zawahiri has been seen near Chitral, and the tribal areas are full of Al Qaeda. We talked to the head of the Pakistani Frontier Corps. He says that no more than five to 10 Al Qaeda have come across into those areas. Who are we supposed to believe?

... I think this is a game. We are entering the game between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan want to blame Afghanistan. Afghanistan want to blame Pakistan. And you know Afghanistan, they are believing that, "Look, if you blame Pakistan with harboring Osama bin Laden, then the American will take revenge for us from Pakistan, what they have done against us for the last--"

That'll put heat on Pakistan. And they'll punish the ISI.

Exactly. Exactly.

So the Afghans point to the Pakistanis, the Pakistanis point at the Afghans, and Al Qaeda moves off to Saudi Arabia or Iran or somewhere else? Give me your best estimate, given that we get these conflicting reports. We get reports from Afghan intelligence saying that Al Qaeda has gone to Pakistan. We get reports from the government of Pakistan saying, "No, they're not around here. They haven't come into Pakistan in any large numbers." Who am I supposed to believe? Or what's your best guess?

In fact, you have to believe everybody. Because everybody doesn't know anything what's going on.

I have to believe everybody?


But it's all conflicting information.

Because if the American have satellite footage, if the American have their own physical presence in Afghanistan, if the American have their own physical presence in tribal area, if everybody is here in Pakistan and you could not judge what's going on -- how we, as journalists, how Pakistan, who has very few resources, limited resources, will judge what's going on?

I think it is not the fault of Pakistan. It is not the fault of Afghanistan. It's the fault of everybody. It's of fault of United States when they neglected Afghanistan, when they washed out their hands from Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Soviet troops. And know they remembered Afghanistan while Afghan have been destroyed, their country has been destroyed. Everything has been destroyed. No one gave them a lift. No one tried to reconstruct their basic infrastructure during the last 10 years. They left Afghan to fight each other, to kill each other. And now I think the world has to pay the price. ...

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