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Robert Fisk, daring but controversial British war correspondent and author, dies at 74

Veteran British journalist Robert Fisk stands in front of a damaged building in the Damascus suburb of Douma, during a tour by Syria’s Information Ministry to the town days after it was captured from rebels by Syrian government forces in 2018. (Bassem Mroue/AP)

Robert Fisk was widely regarded as one of England’s most daring and controversial journalists of his generation. Best known for his reports in the Times of London and later the fledgling Independent, he was among the few foreign correspondents brave (some said foolhardy) enough to live full-time in the volatile Lebanese capital, Beirut, during its years of civil wars and foreign interventions by U.S., U.N., Syrian and Israeli forces.

He won more British journalism awards than any of his peers, including British Foreign Reporter of the Year seven times and the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2002. The New York Times described him in 2005 as “probably the most famous foreign correspondent in Britain.”

Having suffered an apparent stroke at his home in Dalkey, a suburb of Dublin, he died Oct. 30 in a nearby hospital at 74, according to David Marley, acting editor of the Independent, where Mr. Fisk had continued to work until his death.

Although born in England, Mr. Fisk had also taken on Irish citizenship and wrote acclaimed books on the history of the Emerald Isle. He earned a PhD in political science from the University of Dublin and initially distinguished himself with his reporting and books about Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland.

Having learned Arabic, he became one of very few Western foreign correspondents to interview Osama bin Laden, years before the Saudi-born al-Qaeda founder became globally infamous.

Mr. Fisk sought out the elusive bin Laden in various caves and hideouts along the Pakistani-Afghan border and interviewed him three times in the 1990s, surrounded by bin Laden’s heavily armed guards.

Bin Laden was said to have been impressed by Mr. Fisk’s determination to find him, his brazenness, his Arabic and his historical knowledge and reporting on the Middle East. Marking Mr. Fisk with a divisive distinction, the terror-group leader was reputed to have said, “I consider him to be neutral.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Mr. Fisk condemned the mass killings orchestrated by bin Laden while focusing his journalism on the motives of the attackers and the failures of U.S. intelligence. To some, that smacked of sympathy for the terrorists, leading to a deluge of hate mail. But he considered such questions critical to distinguishing between the Muslim faith and the fanaticism of radical Islamist terrorists.

Mr. Fisk was attacked on a reporting trek to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in December 2001, beaten by Afghan refugees as just another Westerner responsible for the “filthy war” in their homeland, in his telling.

“And — I realized — there were all the Afghan men and boys who had attacked me who should never have done so,” he wrote, “but whose brutality was entirely the product of others, of us — of we who had armed their struggle against the Russians and ignored their pain and laughed at their civil war and then armed and paid them again for the ‘War for Civilisation’ just a few miles away and then bombed their homes and ripped up their families and called them ‘collateral damage.’ ”

Mr. Fisk covered a range of atrocities across the Middle East, including then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s assault on the restive city of Hama in February 1982. But some of his most memorable and horrifying reportage unfolded that September, following a massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, where Lebanese Christian militants massacred Palestinian and Lebanese civilians as Israeli soldiers stood by.

Mr. Fisk, one of the first reporters to enter the camps after the killings, said he found an estimated 2,000 civilians “butchered.” (Some later estimates climbed far higher.) “I’d never seen so many bodies,” he later told Britain’s Observer newspaper. “I stopped counting at 100. I climbed over corpses. I remember thinking: if these people have souls, they would want me to be there.”

The vivid craftsmanship and palpable outrage of Mr. Fisk’s storytelling brought him undeniable attention and status as a marquee writer. But in 1989, Mr. Fisk quit the Times of London, disillusioned by what he called, under owner Rupert Murdoch, an increasingly “tame, pro-Tory, pro-Israeli paper shorn of all editorial independence.”

More specifically, he was angered after editors rewrote a scoop that directly challenged the American military narrative of a deadly incident in the Persian Gulf.

The story in question involved the USS Vincennes, a Navy cruiser that downed an Iran Air passenger plane over Iranian territorial waters, killing all 290 on board in July 1988.

“Within 24 hours, I had spoken to the British air traffic controllers at Dubai, discovered that U.S. ships had routinely been threatening British Airways airliners, and that the crew of the Vincennes appeared to have panicked,” he later wrote about his final rupture with Times editors. “The foreign desk told me the report was up for the page-one splash. I warned them that American ‘leaks’ that the Iran Air pilot was trying to suicide-crash his aircraft on to the Vincennes were rubbish. They agreed.

“Next day, my report appeared with all criticism of the Americans deleted, with all my sources ignored,” he continued. “The Times even carried an editorial suggesting the pilot was indeed a suicider. A subsequent U.S. official report and accounts by U.S. naval officers subsequently proved my dispatch correct. Except that Times readers were not allowed to see it.”

Within months, Mr. Fisk moved to the Independent, which had been launched three years earlier in London, and he continued writing stories that attracted notice in world capitals. An ardent believer in the cause of the Palestinian people, he was labeled “anti-Israel” or “anti-Semitic” by high-profile detractors including Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz.

In 1996, Mr. Fisk reported that when Israel fired artillery shells at a U.N. compound near Qana, in southern Lebanon, they had known the compound contained peacekeepers as well as 800 Lebanese civilians who had taken refuge there. More than 100 died and even more were injured.

Mr. Fisk found video evidence that Israel, which claimed it was had been responding to mortar fire, had sent a drone over the area before the attack.

Robert Fisk was born in Maidstone, southeast of London, on July 12, 1946. He was deeply affected by visits with his father, a World War I veteran and treasurer on the local government council, to battlefields across the English Channel. At 12, he grew determined to become a journalist after watching “Foreign Correspondent” (1940), an Alfred Hitchcock movie about an American reporter who stumbles into intrigue in World War II Europe.

He graduated from Lancaster University in 1968 and received a doctorate from the University of Dublin in 1983. After an early career working at provincial newspapers, he joined the Times of London in 1972 and covered the bloody religious conflict known as the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

In 1979, the Times sent him to Beirut to cover the Lebanese civil war. He largely spent the rest of his career there, and his flat on the Corniche, a seaside road and promenade, became a magnet for other foreign correspondents who sought him out for guidance.

Though dangerous, the city was the perfect geographical base for covering other regional conflagrations. He covered the 1979 Iranian revolution, the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, the Persian Gulf War and everything else of news-making import. He also traveled to Europe to cover the Balkan conflict after the break-up of Yugoslavia.

More recently, he drew criticism for his coverage of the Syrian civil war, from detractors who said he was insufficiently critical of sources in President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

His finest books, in the opinion of most critics, were “Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War” (1990) and “The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East” (2005).

In 1994, he married California-born journalist Lara Marlowe, at the time Beirut correspondent for Time magazine and now a foreign correspondent for the Irish Times in Paris. They divorced in 2006 and had no children. Survivors include his wife, Nelofer Pazira, an Afghan-born Canadian documentary filmmaker and human rights activist.

“People are frightened of dead bodies because they’re frightened of dying,” Mr. Fisk told the Observer in 2008 regarding his lifetime of witnessing carnage. “I’m very careful. I want to live a long time. But I’m not afraid of the institution. I’m one of the few people who knows he’s going to die.”

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