To interview Osama bin Laden would be an ambition for many reporters. But the Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir has managed to question America 's Most Wanted on three separate occasions. He is now putting the finishing touches on an upcoming biography of Bin Laden, which the Saudi-born terrorist himself suggested he write.
It all began when Mir traveled to Afghanistan in 1996 and met Taliban leader Mullah Omar. "I asked him, 'Why are the Americans supporting you?' Because at the time the Americans were supporting the Taliban and Benazir [Bhutto]'s government in Pakistan was also supporting them," Mir says. Mullah Omar mentioned an article Mir had written accusing the Taliban of working on an American agenda, and which was now being propagated by Radio Tehran. "He said, 'Believe me, for God's sake, we are not American agents,'" recalls Mir. The mullah then dropped the bomb: "If we are American agents, then why have we given shelter to Osama bin Laden?"
Mir was not ready to believe that Bin Laden could be in Afghanistan. So Mullah Omar arranged a meeting between the two men. This first interview took place a few months later, in eastern Afghanistan. Mir says he asked Bin Laden why al-Qa'ida had killed 20 Pakistani soldiers in Somalia in 1993. Back then, media organisations were not interested in a relatively unknown Bin Laden, and Mir says "the interview was a flop" in terms of being picked up internationally.
The second interview happened a year later, in 1998. The two spent three days together. Bin Laden tried to justify his decree to kill innocent non-Muslims. Though not an Islamic scholar, Mir says he kept pressing the terrorist leader with counter-arguments. Mir's notes became so extensive that he told Bin Laden it would be impossible to summarise their discussion in a newspaper article. It was then that Bin Laden suggested he write a book.
"I said, 'OK, I will write a book, but I will write it objectively.' So he said, 'If you want to write objectively, it means that you will criticise me.' I said, 'Yes, I will criticise you.' He said, 'Then there will be some parameters, some conditions, and you will have to accept the conditions.'" Bin Laden drafted an agreement, in Arabic, which he and Mir signed. It allowed Mir to write critically of Bin Laden, but also allowed the latter the opportunity to read the final manuscript.
Mir completed the book in a few months, but he had to travel to Afghanistan to show the script to Bin Laden. In the meantime, bombings had occurred in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, and the United States had fired retaliatory rockets into Afghanistan. Bin Laden disappeared into thin air.
Their third meeting took place in Kabul in November 2001, under intense US bombing. "I informed him about the book and said it was ready and I would like him to review the script. He said he was in a hurry and could only give a short interview. When he was running away, the bombing started, and I ran away with one of his security guards. One of the al- Qa'ida leaders said, 'Now you are free to publish whatever you want.' So I am no more bound to that agreement which was signed between me and him."
Mir's interview made world headlines: it was the first with Bin Laden following the September 11 terror attacks, and in it Bin Laden claimed to possess nuclear weapons. "I wish to declare that if America used chemical or nuclear weapons against us, then we may retort with chemical and nuclear weapons," Bin Laden told Mir. "We have the weapons as deterrent."
Mir is a household name in Pakistan – not for the three chilling Bin Laden interviews but as host of the popular current affairs show Capital Talk. Pakistan's deteriorating law-and-order situation, coupled with tales of deep-rooted corruption and political infighting, have resulted in soaring ratings for news shows; some anchors are as famous as movie stars.
Mir, 42, is not comfortable being compared to a Bollywood celebrity. "Many people say this, but I think it is not fair for a journalist to think of himself as a showbiz star. There is a big difference between a film actor and a TV journalist. If we behave like film stars then we will destroy ourselves. Our survival lies in following the true spirit of journalism, which is entirely different from the film world."
Mir received a three-month broadcasting ban by the old Pervez Musharraf regime, and another in June last year by the current democratic government. "Some top government functionaries just called the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority chief and asked him to ban Hamid Mir. I am so weak that only a telephone call from the chief executive in Pakistan can ban me or every TV anchor and channel," he fumes. "Why we are weak? Because, even today, we have not achieved the goal of an independent judiciary in Pakistan."
He says his book on Bin Laden should "hopefully" come out this year. "I have spent 11 years on that book," he says. "So definitely there are some revelations which will come out, and may create problems for me also." He believes that people in Pakistan and many other Arab countries are not ready to listen to objective analysis. "Even today, the majority of Pakistanis think 9/11 was not done by al- Qa'ida or Bin Laden – that it was Israel or the Jewish lobby," he says. "It is very difficult for a Muslim and Pakistani journalist to write objectively on Bin Laden and al-Qa'ida. This is the problem."
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