Frontline: 'In Search of Al Qaeda'
With Martin Smith
Friday, Nov. 22, 2002; 11 a.m. ET
Within three months of Sept. 11, the war on terror had succeeded in crushing the Taliban. But many of the operation’s primary targets -- members of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network of international terrorists -- managed to escape into neighboring Pakistan.
FRONTLINE's "In Search of Al Qaeda," airing Thursday, Nov. 21, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), follows the trail of al Qaeda from the Afghan border areas into Pakistan’s cities as U.S. and Pakistani authorities begin to track down some of the network’s leaders. The journey continues to other Middle Eastern countries, where local villagers, officials, and others are interviewed about what has happened to al Qaeda and its efforts to regroup. Filmmaker Martin Smith was online Friday, Nov. 22.
Smith, who served as Frontline's senior producer from 1990 to 1994, produced, directed and co-wrote "Hunting bin Laden," which was re-broadcast on PBS on Sept. 13. He also produced "The Saudi Time Bomb" and "Looking for Answers" in 2001. (He discussed those films and last season's "Dot Con" on washingtonpost.com.) For Frontline, he also produced the Emmy Award-winning "Drug Wars," in 2000, a look at 30 years of American drug policy; "The Real Life of Ronald Reagan"; "Who Pays for AIDS?"; and "The Bombing of West Philly." He also investigated private funding for the Nicaraguan contras in "Who’s Running this War?" and produced "Revolution in Nicaragua" for the Peabody Award-winning Frontline series "Crisis in Central America."
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: Good morning, Martin, and thanks for joining us. "In Search of Al Qaeda" shed an extraordinary spotlight on life in the tribal areas and the frontier provinces. After watching the bombing in Afghanistan, hearing about the war on terror and the announcement of the capture of the alleged planner of the attack on the USS Cole, it's easy to begin to think we're making great strides in neutralizing al Qaeda. Yet what you've observed is that essentially many with ties to al Qaeda have simply moved and we can't get to them. What does this portend for the mission of getting rid of al Qaeda? Is this an exercise in folly?
Martin Smith: It's a black hole, really. We have captured a number of top leaders, from Abu Zubaida to al-Nashiri, but we don't know what percentage of the top leaders we have arrested. There seems to be evermore people. And so it's unclear how much we've dismantled al Qaeda at the top. What is clear and disturbing is the sea of supporters out there, and how large that continues to be.
Washington, D.C.: Martin, those tribal areas were absolutely extraordinary. And you and your crew (congratulations to you, by the way, on a great report) went into Pakistan right after travel warnings had been issued and Americans were being urged to leave the country. Your movements were terribly restricted because of danger. Were you afraid? Were you in any particularly hairy situations?
Martin Smith: We were told that we should be afraid, many times. But what was perhaps most unsettling was that those dangers were often unclear to us. We weren't always given direct translations of what policemen were saying to us at roadblocks. There was, however, one time when we were traveling along a road and our driver became extremely agitated and unwilling to go any further. And we were aware that a German television crew had been in this same area a few months earlier and had encountered difficulties -- and had their camera and gear smashed. For the most part, we encountered people who were willing to talk, and in some cases people one to one were quite generous. However when they spoke about the U.S. government and U.S. policy, they were almost always vocal and hostile.
Arlington, Va.: Your conversation with the woman journalist who was so pro al Qaeda and pro bin Laden was absolutely chilling. What went through your head as you sat across from a woman who said she'd be willing to join al Qaeda?
Martin Smith: I've covered this story for four years. I have to say, I have spoken to many other people who express the same thoughts. It wasn't the content of what she said that surprised me, but I was blown away by how compelling, articulate, logical and intelligent she was. I had never encountered someone who spoke with so much charm and force as she did.
Hartford, Conn.: After watching "In Search of Al Qaeda" last night, I seems clear that many of the local officials in the countries you visited are either unable or unwilling to aggressively pursue and capture suspected al Qaeda members in their midst, for fear of upsetting their fellow Muslims. Do you foresee more efforts by the U.S. to take matters into its own hands in order to capture or kill al Qaeda members, as was done recently in cooperation with Yemen via the drone plane? If so, at what point does the U.S. begin to undertake such operations without first obtaining permission of the country in question?
Martin Smith: If the United States is going to undertake such operations, they're going to be very top secret. So it's not going to immediately come up on the press's radar. These are remote areas. The United States also has to weigh the necessity of hunting al Qaeda against the danger of destabilizing already volatile countries. You've put your finger, I think, on the problem America faces. I don't think we're ready to go ahead with operations in Pakistan or Yemen on the ground yet.
Washington, D.C.: What was your sense of Gen. Musharraf when you were interviewing him? I continually get a profound sense that this guy's barely holding the country together and had virtually no control over exactly the things he needed to control. How has the recent election affected your perception of Musharraf and his potential effectiveness?
Martin Smith: Musharraf strikes me as firmly in control of the military, and because the military is the most powerful institution in the country, I'd have to say he has a fairly good grip on things right now. But he is a man who is being whipsawed by events. Not so many years ago, Pakistan was being fed money by the CIA to help build jihadi armies to counter the Russians in Afghanistan. Now, those same jihadis, many of whom have ties to al Qaeda, are under attack. And Musharraf, having many links into those groups through his intelligence services and army, is being forced to quickly come down on them by the Americans. He doesn't want to say so publicly, but he's in a very difficult situation domestically. For the time being, though, he seems capable of maintaining control.
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.: Marty:
1. Coincidence that administration discloses capture of Nashiri same day as your broadcast?
2. Was Musharraf credible in your interview?
3. Do you agree with New York Times description of yourself as "gaunt"?
4. My favorite shot -- your driver cleaning dashboard as translator speaks to you over front seat.
Martin Smith: On the first point, I'd have to say it's coincidence that they announced Nashiri's capture on the same day as the broadcast.
Musharraf was both credible and not credible. For him to not be aware of those missile attacks is ludicrous. In fact, some of his own intelligence officers from the ISI were killed in those attacks on the al Qaeda camp. The link between the ISI and al Qaeda, therefore, is real, and he is dodging it.
Put it this way: given the subject matter, gaunt and haunted is perhaps better than fat and jowly.
My driver kept a very clean vehicle.
Nice to hear from you, Emerson.
Boston, Mass.: What happened at Tora Bora? It was obviously not a success for the U.S. military. How did so many al Qaeda fighters, and bin Laden, escape the bombing?
Martin Smith: It was a decision of the U.S. government not to put U.S. soldiers on the front lines of that battle. And subsequently they've determined that was a mistake. There was also a gross lack of coordination between the American supervisors, the Afghan mercenaries and the Pakistani forces waiting at the border. I could go into great detail, but in short, the Tora Bora campaign was a mess.
Arlington, Va.: In your film, during your interview with an official -- forgive me, I forget who he was -- he said, with regard to al Qaeda:
"It's not an inability to catch them, it's an inability to locate them."
Pardon? While it was clear what he meant in the interview, it's the kind of statement that makes you do a double take, as it's one of those semantic dances that seem to proliferate whenever anyone talks about al Qaeda. And in watching, I found that the more you were able to clarify, in a sense the more confusing and overwhelming the entire situation became. Did you have that experience in reporting this story?
Martin Smith: Right on.
Santa Fe, N.M.: I missed the special last night. Does PBS plan to show it again in the near future?
washingtonpost.com: On the Frontline Web site, you can find out if the show will re-air in your area. Click on "schedule" in the left-hand column and type in your ZIP code to see if your PBS station will re-air the program.
Martin Smith: It's also streamed, fully, on the Web. If you have DSL or T-1 or cable modem you can view it fully on the Web. There's also additional footage from the Tribal Areas on the Web, as well as many additional terrific resources that Frontline put together.
Washington, D.C.: I admit it. I have totally lost interest in the search for al Qaeda -- because I think there is no such search.
Without question, the authorities in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and probably other terrorist/Muslim countries know exactly who and where the al Qaeda leadership is. But rather than track down the terrorist leaders, the current U.S. administration has used terrorism as a means of railroading through civil service, budget, energy, and corporate-regulatory legislation of its choice -- all largely irrelevant to actual terrorism.
Why should the public take any interest any further?
Martin Smith: You obviously have enough interest in al Qaeda to watch at least some of the program and to be aware of it and to write to this Webcast. Unfortunately, I wouldn't mind an al Qaeda-free life myself. But they're with us, indeed among us, and it behooves us to understand not just where they are and how to catch them, but who they are and why they hate us.
Harrisburg, Pa.: It amazes me how you conduct such dangerous work. How much risk do you feel you are at when you are known to be questioning people to learn how terrorists and soldiers have escaped? My highest praise goes to you for your work.
Martin Smith: I would say most people find it easier to not be confrontational or hostile. There are of course risks, but most of the hostility that I ran into was generalized against the U.S. government, as I said earlier. I don't relish danger, but it does come with the work.
Washington, D.C.: Is the root of the anti-American hatred (is that redundant?) the support of Israel? Is it U.S. presence on the Saudi Peninsula? Perceived U.S. attacks on/indifference to the plight of Muslims? All of the above? Is one more prominent a reason than the others?
Martin Smith: It depends on who you speak with. I think it's all of those things, plus the Western cultural imperialism -- movies, CDs, pornography -- these are also things that are found to be threatening. And all of them contribute to Muslims feeling as if they are being victimized by the West.
Wheaton, Md.: Has there been a lot of cooperation between al Qaeda and the various Palestinian terrorist groups?
Martin Smith: I can't give any definitive answer to that, but my short, educated guess is that there has not been. I've seen no real evidence that there is a connection there.
Cambridge, Mass.: Mr. Smith: I have a two-part question for you. How, practically speaking, do you manage to arrange interviews with people who generally elude the camera, especially someone like Crown Prince Abdullah, who gave his first-ever on-camera interview to you for your film? Related to this, is it ever a challenge to get either elusive or high-profile people on camera since you are an independent producer and don't have an internationally-known media outlet, like BBC or CNN, behind your name?
Martin Smith: It is difficult and very time-consuming. I have excellent and persistent people working with me. I basically try to let them know that we're not going away until they talk.
Delhi, N.Y.: I'd like to thank you for informing us about the bottom line problem for the future -- that of the support system within the Arab, or Muslim world, that enables al Qaeda's terrorist activities to continue. From the beginning I have not understood the logic (their logic) of why the Arabs have so virulently stood behind al Qaeda's claims of Muslims being victimized by the U.S. Is anyone planning an in-depth look at their complaints and how much, if any, actual evidence is there to support their contentions? For instance, as far as I know, Israel is a sovereign nation and even if we were dealing with any level of rational leadership there, what right would the U.S. have to dictate or enforce policy to another country? And are we at crossed swords with Iraq simply because we are there to defend other Arab nations from invasion, or am I missing something here?
Until last night I was unaware that they all as a societal norm stood so solidly behind mass murder and indiscriminate destruction as rational tactics to accomplish any goal. Do Muslim religious leaders have any civil or moral responsibility towards innocent potential future victims? If Sharia is based on the Koran who ultimately defines the letter of the law and what provisions does it provide to define and punish murderous acts?
Martin Smith: Not all Muslims in these countries are virulently anti-American. Our report focused on those who were, because that's the nut of the problem. They likely only represent a minority percentage of the whole, but nevertheless they number in the millions.
There are many reports from time to time, both on Frontline and other media outlets, on why this minority hates us. it's work that I'm most likely going to be continuing to do myself. We did a program last fall called "Looking for Answers" that was one attempt to address this question.
You make a good point about Israel and American involvement there. What I encountered in the Middle East and South Asia was a perception on the part of many that America was doing next to nothing to restrain Sharon. That's a perception that I'm not sure we're successfully addressing.
Alexandria, Va.: What was the relationship between the Pakistani intelligence services on the one hand and the Taliban/al Qaeda on the other prior to Sept. 11?
Did Pakistani intelligence services have any advance knowledge of al Qaeda attacks on the U.S.?
Martin Smith: The ISI encouraged and arranged for some Pakistanis to take training in al Qaeda camps. As I said earlier, when U.S. missiles struck an al Qaeda site in Afghanistan in August of 1998, some ISI officers were there and killed. But as to whether they had advance knowledge of 9/11, more reporting and more work needs to be done.
Washington, D.C.: You really did an outstanding job on that report.
How much western style investigative journalism is conducted in the Tribal Regions by the Pakistani press and journalists like the one you hired (Hayyat Ullakhan -- pardon the phonetic spelling)?
Since the military operations in Tora Bora in December 2001 it has seemed that one of the most likely hiding places for al Qaeda operatives is in the madrassas (religious boarding schools) in Pakistan's border areas. Do you feel that any Pakistani authorities are making efforts to keep tabs on the madrassas activities?
Finally, there was a report this week (I believe it was TIME magazine) about some elements of the Pakistani Frontier Corps actually helping shield al Qaeda from outside forces. The report mentioned a town used fairly openly by al Qaeda in a no mans land type of border area near Shkhin (sp?), Afghanistan. Do you think the Pakistani Frontier Corps is capable of such brazen corruption?
Martin Smith: There are reports coming out of the tribal areas by Pakistani reporters such as Hayyat Ullakhan -- he writes for a couple of newspapers in Pakistan. Their work, however, is hindered by the extreme lawlessness of the region where the gun is far mightier than the pen.
As far as the Frontier Corps is concerned, the situation is I believe so much like the intelligence services, or the ISI. There are fundamentalists and militant jihadis within these organizations. I don't think that they are protecting al Qaeda on orders from the top, but I do believe within these organizations there are those who will either provide safe havens, safe passage, or simply look the other way. One interview I did off camera with a government official was striking, in that at one point while talking to him, he said, "How do you know I'm not jihadi and sympathetic to al Qaeda? As an American reporter, you'll never know."
The madrassahs are under scrutiny. The incident in Jani Khel that was profiled in the film involved students from the local madrassah. And my reporter, Hayyat Ullakhan, has been the target of threats from at least one cleric in a madrassah that I will not name. I've heard stories that al Qaeda has been harbored inside the madrassahs. This again bears more investigation. It was the allegation in Jani Khel, that the madrassah was harboring four al Qaeda men. That's why the tribesmen's homes were destroyed.
Washington, D.C.: What was your sense of the ability of the UK, Interpol, MI5, Scotland Yard, etc. -- essentially, the British -- to do something about suspected Islamist terrorists like the cleric in the North London mosque where Moussaoui and Richard Reid attended?
Martin Smith: Another cleric at that mosque, Abu Qatada, who preaches there, was recently arrested. However, Abu Hamzah, the man interviewed in our film, has British citizenship. He enjoys the vigorous protections that British law provides, vis a vis freedom of speech. And while the Yemenis would like to extradite him, and the Americans have expressed wanting him for questioning, the British are reluctant to easily extradite one of their own. It opens a can of worms they don't want to open.
Fairfax, Va.: Who is financing the proliferation of weapons throughout the region? Is it all residuals from Afghanistan and Iran/Iraq? I can understand Kalishnikovs in Pakistan, but how did so much firepower end up in Yemen?
Martin Smith: Only a few years ago, Yemen was embroiled in a civil war. Like Afghanistan and Pakistan, they were armed during the last stages up to the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. South Yemen was a client state of the Russians, North Yemen of the West. As in all these Cold War hot spots, they were handed a lot of firepower.
Chicago, Ill.: Do you view Ariel Sharon and his hard-line tactics as a key source of problems with Muslims?
Martin Smith: Clearly, many Muslims revile Sharon.
Austin, Tex.: After viewing your production "In Search of al Qaeda" I reach the conclusion that it is virtually impossible to root out all al Qaeda/fundamental Islamic terrorist concerns. I find it quite understandable that the present administration has continued to impress that combatting terrorism is/will be a continuing and long-term project. I note today online that Gore is saying the U.S. should concentrate on al Qaeda and avoid any conflict with Iraq for the present. My question regards your impressions about whether al Qaeda can even be sufficiently identified to proceed down a path like Gore suggests and, if so, do you think your production (or maybe just my impression of it) presented a fair explanation of the full story of where/what is al Qaeda for purposes of rooting them out (prior to going after Iraq, or otherwise)?
What are your thoughts?
Martin Smith: I would not say that our program was a full and complete portrait of where al Qaeda is and how it can be rooted out. We simply took a look at what happened after the bombing of Afghanistan last fall, to that core group of al Qaeda leadership that left Afghanistan. We followed their trail across Pakistan and then speculated as to where they went next. Al Qaeda is too far flung to cover in one hour, in any satisfying detail. As to whether we're making progress, it's clear that we are continuing to arrest al Qaeda operatives. How big a bite we've taken out of the leadership ranks, however, is harder to discern. The problem also remains that either without a strong structure at the top, we have to be concerned about individual sympathizers willing to carry out attacks on their own. As we've seen over and over again, it doesn't take much to do quite a bit of damage.
Chicago, Ill.: Why is there never any mention of the earlier bombings in Yemen? For example the 1992 bombing of the Movenpick Hotel in Aden (U.S. servicemen were there at the time) -- that Peter Bergen suggested there was evidence that it was one of the first attacks of Osama bin Laden.
Martin Smith: I'm well aware of the attack. Our story was only one hour long. Always, difficult decisions have to be made as to what is necessary to include and how much historical context is necessary.
San Antonio, Tex.: If the rest of the Christian and Jewish world were to leave the different Muslim regions, would the extremists such as al Qaeda leave all non-Muslims alone to live in peace or would they keep trying to extend and push their fundamentals and ideologies until all Christians and Jews were either converted to Muslim or dead?
Martin Smith: It's a wild hypothesis that Western influence could ever ebb in these countries. Cultural domination of the world through movies, CDs, magazines, books and television is not about to be shut off overnight. We are dealing here with a clash of cultures, and it's simply going to take time for the inevitable tensions and conflicts to work themselves out.
Boston, Mass.: What's your next project?
Martin Smith: Don't know yet. Do you have any suggestions?
San Jose, Calif.: You travel is such different worlds. What does it feel like to be in the U.S., after all you have seen? Do the trips and interviews still seem real, or does it becomes diffused when you are surrounded by Americans who have such a different take on reality? (The program was excellent, especially the coverage of the tribal areas and the interview with the Yemeni journalist. I read her essay.)
Martin Smith: I always find it healthy to spend outside of the United States, and to realize that the United States is not the center of the universe, that we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that it is. In a sense, the interviews with people in faraway places give me insights into different and equally valid perspectives on the world we live in.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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