'Abu Hamza called me. He was so sweet'

Yvonne Ridley, the reporter imprisoned by the Taliban and then vilified by Fleet Street, found Islam and an unlikely supporter. But her new career at al-Jazeera has come to a mysterious end, she tells Julia Stuart
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The Independent Online

It was a curious way to be given the boot. At 11pm a secretary from al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite news station, popped round to Yvonne Ridley's home in Doha, Qatar, and informed her that she was "terminated". Ridley, who had worked as a senior editor on the station's English-language website since July, was warned not to go back to the office and that security guards had been told to keep her out.

The old Ridley, who, in 2001, was famously imprisoned for 10 days in Afghanistan by the Taliban after being caught dressed in a burqa on the back of a bolting donkey while on assignment for the Sunday Express, would probably have reached for a stiff drink. That option, however, was out. Ridley had converted to Islam just before she left London for her new job at al-Jazeera.

Ridley, 45, says she had no idea why she had been sacked and had yet to receive a formal letter of explanation: "I'm bewildered."

Jihad Ballout, a spokesman for al-Jazeera, initially said: "Her manager deemed that she simply does not fit in the aim of what he envisages for the operation." But the plot thickened a few days later when Ridley's lawyer, Katrina Wilson, said al-Jazeera was now claiming that her client's employment had not been terminated, but that she had been suspended pending an investigation by management into an unspecified "alleged wrongdoing". Ridley has not yet received an exit visa and cannot leave the country.

Sources close to the journalist fear that al-Jazeera may have come under pressure from the White House to get rid of her. The news organisation is said to have already bowed to US demands to remove two cartoons from its website. One showed the twin towers imploding and two giant petrol pumps rising through the ashes. Ridley had some input into the content.

Neither would the White House have been impressed by the final story Ridley wrote for the website - about American soldiers tying up women and children in their own homes during house-to-house searches. When she sent pictures of a seven-year-old Iraqi girl in plastic hand restraints to the US military in Florida for comment, she was warned not to publish them on the site. She ignored the request. Another theory is that she irritated her employers by continually speaking out about things that did not meet with her approval, such as the quality of writing of some stringers.

Ridley left the full-time staff of Sunday Express in December 2001. She did some work for BBC radio in Afghanistan and for Channel Five news in Iraq.

It was then that she was approached by al-Jazeera. She was attracted by the prospect of working in a Muslim country. Her interest in Islam was sparked by a visit from a Muslim cleric during her captivity. She promised she would study the Koran if they let her go - and she kept her word. "I wanted to know what is in this religion that gives the Taliban the right to oppress women. I was absolutely amazed by what I was reading because, far from subjugating women, the Koran makes it perfectly clear that women are equal in education, spirituality and worth," says Ridley.

"I think Islam has had a really positive effect on my life. It's made me more tolerant, more philosophical and much more calm. I feel far healthier and more confident."

As well as the alcohol ban, casual relationships are out. "I haven't spent one single night sitting by the telephone. I don't have that hassle in my life any more, which is great."

When the rumours about her conversion began to emerge, prematurely as it happens, she received a telephone call from Abu Hamza, the London-based Islamic extremist whose shrill defence of the September 11 hijackers - he announced that they should be hailed as "martyrs" - earnt him hate-figure status in the sort of tabloids for which Ridley once worked. (Indeed, Ridley herself reported just a year ago that "according to CIA and FBI documents seen by the Sunday Express, Abu Hamza is described as the spiritual leader for al-Qa'ida in Europe".)

Today, she refuses to denounce the cleric, to whom she had spoken many times as a reporter. "As a Muslim, I don't think it's constructive to criticise other Muslims." And she talks fondly of his approach to her. "He said, 'Sister Yvonne! I'm so happy.' I said, 'That's really kind of you to call. However, it's a wee bit premature. I haven't [converted] yet.' He said, 'You'll get all the care and support you'll need from the Muslim community and any time you need any help you just give me a call.' He was so nice. That was a very sweet thing to do."

She adds: "I don't have a problem with him. I think the media has created this monster and the Muslim community go along with it. In fact I've criticised various Muslim leaders for criticising him. I've said just ignore him, he's hardly representative of British Muslims."

Ridley has capitalised on her capture. As well as the TV and radio work, she has written a book about her experience, In the Hands of the Taliban, and her first novel, Ticket to Paradise, centred on the twin towers attack, will shortly be published in America. The BBC is hastily re-editing a programme it has just made on her new life, which will be screened next month. "The only media who I've refused to co-operate with was a Belgian male magazine that wanted to do some glamour shots," she smiles.

Despite the high profile her adventures have given her, she says she regrets the fact that she is best known for her capture. And she will go to her grave denying that the stunt was reckless.

"The reality is that journalists all over the world are taking risks daily, but they accomplish them on the whole without something backfiring. If you look at Robert Fisk, I know he is one of the few journalists like me who has gone into Afghanistan and out of Kabul to get the stories of what is happening. I know that he has had to sneak around to be able to achieve what he has achieved. I was unlucky and I'm paying for it."

'Yvonne Ridley: In the Line of Fire', BBC4, 15 December, 8.30pm