Truth, Ambiguity and Covering Terrorism

By Yassin Musharbash (c) 

I trust the ambiguous over that which appears certain; I believe it comes closer to the truth. As a journalist this sometimes causes difficulty, because the ambiguous dwells in cumbrous words: allegedly; supposedly; reportedly... I have spent more than one deadline day shielding words like these from editors. These words don't make for beautiful articles. My hope is they make for more truthful articles. It is rare enough we stumble across something truly true.

The last time I felt this happen was in November 2013. I was standing on a tiny balcony in the city centre of Alexandria in Egypt, smoking a cigarette. Two persons sat in the living room that led to the balcony; over the past two days I had spent a total of 14 hours with them. What went through my head on that balcony was that I wanted to write about how Leah Farrall, a former counter terrorism officer of the Australian Federal Police, and Mustafa Hamid, a former Taliban adviser, had gotten to know each other and built enough trust between them to be able to write a book together over the course of two years, here in Alexandria.

I assume that most professions have their own déformation profesionelle; journalists tend to look for the truth in details: When exactly did you hear about it? What went trough your head in that moment? Was is while you were having coffee? Did you learn about it from the radio, or from television? Or did someone call you? What station was it again? And what were you wearing that day, what did you do after you learned about it? What was the weather like?

I, for one, was walking past a café in Southern Greece on that day, noticing the oddness of patrons sitting at their tables, all eyes glued to the TV set, but no one saying a word. I approached the TV set, only to witness the second tower collapsing.

It is of course not interesting at all how I experienced 9/11. But from that day on I, as a journalist, worked mainly on al-Qaida and Islamist Extremism. On 9/11, I was still a student of Arabic Studies, but I had already begun to work as a freelancer for several papers. I had written about Islamism before. On that day, Terrorism as a topic came to me, and I very much accepted it as my topic.

I could not help but think about that moment in Greece as I was standing on the balcony in Alexandria more than 12 years later. Why? Perhaps because it is always special to meet someone who knew Osama Bin Laden. More, I suspect, because in Mustafa Hamid’s case it is indeed interesting how he experienced that day.

On 9/11, he was in the Afghan city of Kandahar, where sweets were handed out when news about the terror attacks in New York and Washington broke. Others may have been celebrating that day, but Mustafa Hamid wasn't. He was angry. Only three weeks prior, he had met with Osama Bin Laden. On that occasion, the Saudi al-Qaida chief had let on plans were in place for a „big strike“ that would kill thousands. Mustafa Hamid asked Osama Bin Laden to stop his plan: „I knew what this would mean for Afghanistan“, he told me. It was a frosty meeting. It turned out to be their last encounter.

After I got back to Berlin from Alexandria I asked Mustafa Hamid to describe to me in yet more detail how that last encounter took place. What was the weather like that day? Where exactly had they met? What had Bin Laden been wearing? Had he smiled when he talked about his „plan“?

Mustafa Hamid kindly sent me two pages in Arabic. But by the time his email arrived, an unexpected process had already been set in motion: I had begun to sense that the real story was not what I thought it was when I was standing on that balcony in Alexandria.

Detail is usually hard currency in journalism. I remember that I once wrote an article about a German convert to Islam who had joined a militant Jihadi group in Pakistan. On the day before his departure from Germany he had taken his cat to the veterinarian. What a great piece of detail! But unfortunately it didn't reveal anything. And it explained nothing.

So I asked myself: What difference does it make to know what clothes Osama Bin Laden had been wearing that day?

Wasn't it more important that Mustafa Hamid was angry at the Saudi? Wasn't it more important that Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall managed to write a book together? Wasn't it more important to ask if there was something to learn from this, for all of us? I don't want to be romantic, but: If a former counter terrorism official and a former Taliban adviser can laugh together, as Farrall and Hamid do – why can't all of us?

I asked them both about the common ground in their endeavour and they agreed it was to set the historical record straight. Hamid, the eye witness; Farrall, the academic who had read literally everything on the role of Arab fighters in Afghanistan from 1979 onwards. This common ground is the reason their book is as powerful as it is (The Arabs at War in Afghanistan will be published later this summer).

But at the same time I sensed another element beyond their shared academic interest. It is significant that Mustafa Hamid recalls he chose to be intentionally discourteous towards Leah Farrall when they first met: „I thought she was like those in Abu Ghuraib“. Soldiers, torturing Iraqis, heaped in naked piles: That, apparently, was what came to his mind when he learned that Leah Farrall had been with the Australian Federal Police – even though neither Australians nor Police were involved in the Abu Ghuraib scandal. „But I quickly realised she was different, she was honest and serious, and she gave me honest answers when I asked her something.“

And how about Leah Farrall? “I remember sitting with colleagues years ago, discussing whom we would most like to talk to from the mujahidin world (a surprisingly common topic of conversation). Mr Hamid topped my list and had done so since I chanced upon two stories he had recounted in his books. In one, he told of forgetting to buy his children sweets while on a trip away and returning to face their wrath; the other, recalling encountering the body of a dead Soviet soldier, and the sadness he felt, even for his enemy.”

When Leah Farrall met Mustafa Hamid in person years later, she addressed him as „Mustafa“, and not by his nom de guerre „Abu Walid“. „That reminded me of my humanity“, says he. What was the bridge that made them trust one another? I daresay: A degree of respect for another person's life. But foremost: Honesty about themselves and openness towards the other.

The US TV series “Homeland” is a global success and critics often praise it, saying that it sheds light on the shades of grey in “Great War on Terror” that unfolded after 9/11. A CIA-Agent, a former US-Marine, who was (or was not) turned by al-Qaida during captivity in Iraq: That's the set-up. It is true that “Homeland” plays skillfully with viewers' expectations. But shades of grey? The truth is that in “Homeland” there is black and there is white. The suspense of the show really only comes from the question of who, behind his last mask, turns out to be evil. And who, at the bottom of it all, is good.

But that is not what shades of grey are about. Shades of grey don't mean that you don't know enough. Shades of grey mean that sometimes there are no simple answers.

Mustafa Hamid makes a point of the fact that he always felt in alignment with the Taliban movement but was never a member of the terrorist network Al-Qaida. Leah Farrall says: “I was happy I worked in law enforcement and not secret services because I never had to lie, and I wasn’t part of an apparatus that was involved in activities now widely viewed as repugnant and very much dictated by this black and white distinction of evil and good and with us or against us that dictated how some of the covert agencies operated in their less accountable space.” That is what shades of grey are about.

In January 2011, when millions took to the streets in Egypt to protest the Mubarak regime, I spent two weeks in Cairo. One morning I spoke to a young revolutionary who had not been attending work for days in order to live in the protesters' camp on Tahrir Square. He was very tired and had all but lost his voice. But he was euphoric. One thing he said touched me in particular: „One day it will be cool to be an Arab!“ There was so much pain mirrored in that sentence. Pain because anywhere outside of the Muslim world for all of his adult life that young man had been considered, as a Muslim and an Arab, a security risk.

Sometimes I ask myself if we can actually remember what life was like before 9/11. And how we used to look at one another and at the world. This “we” I am referring to is an almost global “we”: It encompasses almost all people considering themselves part of “the West” as well as almost all people considering themselves part of the “Muslim world”. Plus those who believe they are part of both worlds - a huge number of people.

I believe that prior to 9/11 we all used to accept shades of grey to a higher degree than after. I believe that 9/11 is the day that killed all shades of grey. The day on which many of us, as individuals, as citizens, as members of nations, consciously or unconsciously organised ourselves in patterns like shards of metal under the influence of a magnetic field.

But if one day, if that day, has such a power, I want to understand it. And by that I mean: Not as symbol; not as warning but in its concrete historical genesis. Not as a deed with its own specific operational history and perpetrators, that's what the US 9/11 commission report is for. But as that which unfolded as opposed to those which did not.

In Alexandria, I asked Leah Farrall about the single most interesting thing she learned from her studies and her conversations with Mustafa Hamid. She replied: “The role of chance.” Chance? Chance is not usually a category that plays a role in the discussions of historians or terror experts when they talk about al-Qaida and 9/11.

In hindsight, it is always tempting to interpret history as an inevitable chain of events. In the case of 9/11, one such “inevitable chain” goes like this: In 1996, Osama Bin Laden declared war upon the United Stated; pronouncing every US soldier anywhere in the world a legitimate target. On August 7th, 1998, two huge bombs exploded in front of the US embassies in Nairobi and Daressalam, killing more than 200 people. On October 12th, 2000, 17 US sailors died when al-Qaida operatives attacked the USS Cole off the Yemeni port of Aden in a suicide mission. Given this prehistory, what could 9/11 possibly be other than the next logical step?

That is true. But is also not true. It is only true in as much as all three events have already been the result of a dynamic within the al-Qaida nexus that was all but inevitable. What happened was that Osama Bin Laden gained the upper hand and the means to pursue this particular course of action – even though many in the al-Qaida leadership and close to it were not in favour of attacking the US at all. It is important to understand this: While many inside al-Qaida were against 9/11, some of those who planned the attacks had only reluctantly become members of al-Qaida in the first place. Like Khalid Sheikh Muhammed.

In the summer of 2009, I received an unusual email. “I have a message for you”, it read. Then there was a link to an uploader website. I followed the link and found a letter in which a group of Jihadists from Germany, who had migrated to Waziristan and joined a terrorist group there, invited me to interview them. Naturally, I immediately informed my editors. A short while later my phone rang, a number from Pakistan: It was the spokesman of said group, a Turkish-German militant. He said I should fly to Quetta in Pakistan, and I would be brought to their camps from there. I would be allowed to take pictures, interview who I wanted to interview, etc. My editors and I agreed quickly that I would not take that trip. It was way too risky and we could not trust these people. But we agreed to send them a number of questions. If their answers were more than just propaganda, we would decide how to deal with their proposal later. A few weeks passed. Then I learned the Americans had contacted the German Office of the Chancellery and had supplied them with the complete correspondence I had had with the militants.

The Americans? I suppose, more precisely, the NSA. Honestly, it felt horrible. I remember gesturing my wife into the bathroom and then, like in a bad movie, turning on the tap of the bathtub. I whispered to her that we would have to assume that our communications were being monitored.

"Even if there's just a 1 percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty”: This is how US journalist Ron Suskind in 2006 cites what he calls the “One per cent Doctrine”, also known as the “Cheney Doctrine”, for then Vice President Dick Cheney was the creator of this doctrine, formulated in the White house in November 2001, only weeks after 9/11.

The Iraq War, Guantanamo, Waterboarding, CIA Black Sites and renditions: Through the prism of the Cheney Doctrine all of these events seem less arbitrary, don't they? The same is true for global surveillance: Until this day, nothing explains NSA's greed for data better than this doctrine.

There is no need to compare Dick Cheney to Khalid Sheikh Muhammad to see that not only inside al-Qaida, but also within the US administrations the more extremist positions had the upper hand. Sure, Al-Qaida never distanced itself from 9/11 whereas in the US there was a process of democratic revision of all of these practices. But again: This isn't a comparison. It's just meant to re-iterate the fact that we are – in neither sphere – talking about inevitable chains of events.

Nobody knows what the world would look like if 9/11 had not happened. But what if we forced ourselves to try and look at the world as if that was the case? Bearing in mind that those responsible for 9/11 and the doctrine by which reaction was shaped are a handful of people – not millions.

I don't want to gloss over things: I am half-Jordanian, and I long for the times I experienced there as a kid. My Jordanian family is part of the country’s Christian minority. And until very recently what my aunt told me at my last visit there would have been unthinkable: That the guy in the bakery who used to bake all the cakes for our family events let it be known that he wouldn't put crosses on cakes anymore.

But by the same token I don't want to withhold that I am nervous whenever I have to travel to the US. Sure, so far I have always been allowed in. But the last time it really helped that the officer who screened me knew me from Twitter and thus was able to understand that my visa entries from Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia didn't mean I was a risk but were proof of my profession.

I believe in a way we are all prisoners – prisoners in a kind of Guantanamo of the Mind. But I don't want to live there. I want to continue to meet with and talk to people like Mustafa Hamid, even if the US decides to designate them as terrorists, and without accepting that judgment as something I have to agree with. Just as I want to keep meeting with and talking to CIA analysts and operatives without immediately categorising them as torturers or murderers. I want to draw my own conclusions. Sometimes I want to pass on drawing my own conclusions. And sometimes I even want to be able to admit that I can't draw my own conclusions.

Because I know and understand that the world is complicated and that almost nothing is either black or white; because I believe that people can change; because I know that our world, really, is a world of shades of grey.

One day we will look back on the “Great War on Terror” and its warpage, and we will realize that it didn't end on the day that Obama was awarded the Nobel peace prize; nor on the day that Osama Bin Laden was killed; nor on the day that the last NATO soldier left Afghanistan. The “Great War on Terror” will have ended, because enough people around the world will have understood and remembered that the ambiguous is closer to the truth and to reality than the seemingly certain. 

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NB: This Essay was first published in German by ZEITmagazin on May 28th, 2014. It is copyright-protected. It has been marginally edited for this Blog. 

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