- The Washington Times - Monday, October 15, 2001

DOHA, Qatar The Arab television station that broadcast Osama bin Laden's riposte to the West after the first air strikes on Afghanistan struck a secret deal to screen his propaganda 15 days before the raids.
Based in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, the Al Jazeera channel was told by the terrorist leader to be ready to receive a videotaped message of defiance "any time" after it approached him through contacts in Kabul.
In return, the station which used Afghans hired for their links with al Qaeda to assist in the deal assured bin Laden that it was ready to broadcast his opinions in full, regardless of any protests from the West.
So anxious was the station to publicize his views that it ordered its Kabul correspondent who had fled the city shortly after the World Trade Center atrocity to return, even though he feared for his life.
The revelations, obtained during a visit to the channel's headquarters in Qatar, will intensify international pressure on the station to curtail its dealings with bin Laden.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell warned last week that bin Laden's videotaped appearances could contain coded messages to his terrorist supporters.
The British government was also privately infuriated that the station broadcast bin Laden's words within hours of the bombing and felt compelled to arrange a "rebuttal" appearance by Prime Minister Tony Blair to counter fears that al Qaeda had scored a propaganda success.
The channel played down its links with bin Laden until now, claiming that his taped message and an al Qaeda video which it received two days later were sent to it simply because its office in Kabul made them a convenient channel for bin Laden to contact the outside world.
But Ibrahim Helal, the station's chief editor, admitted there were much closer links with al Qaeda than the station had acknowledged. He said that the station had actively solicited a taped message from bin Laden.
"After American investigators started talking about bin Laden, we contacted our correspondent in Kabul asking if he can get any reaction of denial from that side. Al Qaeda was getting accused. He told us that we can get reaction any time. Fifteen days before we received this tape, he told us: 'Expect a reaction.'
"Somebody came to Kabul with this message, then with the tape itself. I deny the rumors that we had the tape and that we embargoed it until after the attack. It happened just by chance that it arrived immediately afterwards. A couple of hours after."
Inside the Al Jazeera studios a heavily guarded compound in Doha there is little sympathy for the station's critics.
There is a great deal of pride at the fame brought to the station by the bin Laden tape, the al Qaeda video and the subsequent footage of American attacks on Kabul.
"Everybody feels proud and happy here because this channel is becoming famous, and we will become famous, too," said Abdullah Khalid, a satellite engineer.
For Ibrahim Helal, who worked in London for the BBC's Arabic channels, the channel is simply doing its job.
"If we can reach Osama, or Osama can reach us, or if we can reach [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar [Mohammed], it is just journalism. You have to try your best to get information," he said.
"You have to know what the other side looks like; you have to listen to him. If I put myself in the other camp, in the West, even politicians in the West need to know him; they need to know what al Qaeda thinks.
"We are giving them a great chance to get to know the other side of the story."
Similar sentiments were expressed by Hamad bin Thamer al Thani, the chairman of Al Jazeera and a member of the Qatari royal family.
"I am not in a position to know whether there is a message in any videotape we receive. Our target is to do things professionally from a journalistic point of view. We leave security concerns to security people. If we have scoops, we will cover them," he said.
"According to all that we see throughout the world, Al Jazeera is on top with Arab public opinion. We will maintain our editorial policy which is based on respect for all opinions."

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