John Cooley: Scholar-reporter on the Middle East whose acclaimed books included 'Unholy Wars', a study of al-Qa'ida

Friday 22 August 2008 00:00

John Cooley covered the Middle East for American newspapers and radio from 1953 until his death. As correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, he became the acknowledged dean of the American press corps in Beirut some time during his tenure there from 1965 to 1975. Like his British contemporary and Beirut neighbour David Hirst of The Guardian, Cooley was a scholar-reporter whose profound knowledge of the Arab world made him required reading as much for Middle East heads of state as for the Monitor's regular readers. He was the author of several books, including Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and international terrorism, published two years before the attacks on the World Trade Centre.

He began covering the North Africa and the Middle East in 1953 with the independence struggles in Morocco and Algeria. He knew the political leaders, as well as the people whose lives they governed, but was never blind to their flaws. His integrity and dedication to digging out every detail of a story made him one of the most respected journalists in the region.

Cooley covered wars in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel without succumbing to the first-person bravado that characterised the battlefield writing of his lesser competitors. His ABC News colleague and long-time friend Mike Lee wrote, "John was a journalist's journalist." It was no surprise to those who read his articles and books that in 2002 Cooley received a George Polk Award for his distinguished career in international reporting.

Born in 1927 in New York, Cooley graduated in 1949 from Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. Speaking fluent German and French, he was taken into the army and sent to Austria and Germany in the early years of the Cold War. On his return to the United States, he went into journalism as a reporter for the old New York Herald Tribune. Soon, he moved to Morocco and began writing for The Observer and United Press International, as well as broadcasting for NBC News. He left Algeria in 1964 and became Middle East Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor in Beirut the following year.

The Monitor was then one of only two national newspapers in the United States (the other was The Wall Street Journal), and it enjoyed high prestige within the profession for its accuracy and fairness. Cooley used to joke that the only restrictions placed on him by the paper were the use of euphemisms that did not offend the followers of the Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. Instead of "killed" or "murdered," the words were "slain" or "passed away". His freedom to report at that time made him one of the few American journalists not to be swept away by the euphoria of Israel's six-day victory in the war of 1967, observing the harm that was done to the Palestinians and the inevitability of more wars until the conquered territories were returned. The Monitor's editors stood by him when the Israeli lobby lodged complaints against him.

His interviews with David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, and the Shah of Iran were classics of the genre and led to more head-of-state meetings, with Saddam Hussein, Anwar Sadat and King Hussein of Jordan. Cooley was not deferential in interrogation, but his influence was such that the leaders tried to put across their points of view through him.

During the Black September war in 1970 between the Palestinian commandos and the Jordanian army, Cooley spoke to both sides. He was one of the few reporters who spoke as familiarly with King Hussein as he did with the king's antagonists, George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Yasser Arafat of Fatah.

As he revealed in his excellent study of the Palestinian commando movement, Green March, Black September (1973), he bore no grudge against Habash for holding him, his wife Vania, and 90 other journalists hostage in their hotels in Amman. Green March, Black September, which received a harsh reception from Zionist reviewers but a favourable one from the public, was an immediate classic that introduced Western readers to Palestinian history and culture. His sympathetic treatment of Palestinian poets, including Mahmoud Darwish, left no doubt that there was – despite Golda Meir's famous denial – a Palestinian people.

When I moved to Beirut as a graduate student in 1972, every journalist I met sooner or later referred me for answers to my questions to John Cooley. He was working from the ABC News bureau in Beirut's Gefinor Centre, where he doubled as a radio correspondent and mentor to the bureau chief Peter Jennings. He always made time for younger correspondents and rarely lost patience with us for our lack of historical perspective. I can still see him at the telex machine, filing his long essays to The Christian Science Monitor and then running next door to grab a rare clear open line to New York to file his radio pieces. The problems he had changing paper rolls on the telex only endeared him more to those who knew him.

An absent-minded professor, he seemed to dwell apart from the mundane world of technology while immersing himself in the life-and-death battles for survival of the people he wrote about. With interests that ranged beyond the confines of the Arab world, Cooley took an active interest in Cyprus, Greece, Turkey and the various lands inhabited by Kurds – as well as the more arcane subjects of currency counterfeiting and world water shortages.

In 1975, when the civil war made Beirut unsafe for his family, Cooley decided to leave the city for his wife's home in Athens and continued his close watch of the Middle East from there. All of his possessions, including his valuable files and books, were packed up with his furniture for shipment. When Beirut port was looted, everything he owned disappeared. His only copies of the books he had written, including his 1965 Baal, Christ and Mohammed: religion and revolution in North Africa, were among the lost items. He took it philosophically, but like the good reporter he was, he found the culprits, a group of Phalangists. He confronted them, but they did not return anything.

From 1978 to 1980 Cooley served as Pentagon correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor in Washington DC, before accepting a position with ABC News in London in 1981.

From London, he continued to cover the Middle East – flying out on general assignment and in crises. His coverage of the conspiracy behind the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie bombing won him an Emmy in 1990. This was a particularly productive period in his life, with regular reporting too for the Monitor and ABC News radio, as well as writing books.

His book on Osama bin Laden, Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and international terrorism, was published in 1999 (with an updated edition appearing after the 11 September attacks) and is regarded as one of the most accurate studies of the roots of al-Qa'ida and its war on the United States. In 2002, Cooley published information that Jordanian intelligence had warned the American government "that a major attack was planned inside the continental United States. It said aircraft would be used. . . The code name of the operation was mentioned: in Arabic, Al Ourush al-Kabir, 'The Big Wedding'".

Neither the Bush administration nor the flawed 9/11 Commission explained why the warning was ignored.

Charles Glass

John Kent Cooley, journalist, broadcaster and writer: born New York 25 November 1927; married 1951 Edith Stoegermayer (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1970), 1970 Eugenia Katelani (one son); died Athens 6 August 2008.

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