- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 7, 2002

When the audiotape from Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted man, surfaced last month, it marked the third time since July that al Qaeda operatives got in touch with journalists in Pakistan without being detected.
The latest contact was with Ahmad Zaidan, al Jazeera's correspondent in Islamabad. The Qatari network broadcast the tape on Nov. 12, the same day it was said to have been delivered. Mr. Zaidan said the man who delivered it was unknown to him and disappeared immediately after handing him the tape recording.
Mr. Zaidan himself may have been under stress for days before the broadcast, and a visiting reporter who made numerous attempts to reach him between the last week of October and the first 10 days of November found him very elusive.
U.S. agents have been keeping tabs on cell-phone traffic in Pakistan for months.
Reached on his cell phone on Oct. 27, Mr. Zaidan said he was on a plane bound for Dubai, in the United Arab Republic, and would be back in Islamabad the following week. In early November, he kept his cell phone turned off most of the time.
After the tape was broadcast, the al Jazeera correspondent told a Western reporter that he was not being harassed by the authorities. There were indications, however, that he and at least one other reporter who had earlier interviewed bin Laden in the past five years have been under surveillance.
Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist who interviewed bin Laden three times between 1997 and November 2001, said al Qaeda operatives contacted him in July this year and offered him an interview with "a very important person."
Mr. Mir turned down the offer, which he believed was to have been a meeting with bin Laden. What is surprising is that al Qaeda managed to get in touch with him even though his phones were clearly being tapped.
A visiting reporter who called him several times, either at home or in his office, could hear strange clicking sounds and a second mysterious ring before the handset was picked up.
Mr. Mir did not say he was being harassed, but he added that he turned down the offer to interview the "very important person" because of the conditions set by al Qaeda.
His contact told him the interview would take place in Iran, but he was not to mention the country when broadcasting the tape.
Mr. Mir now works for GEO Television, a private Pakistani network.
He told The Washington Times it would have been very difficult to hide the fact that the interview had taken place in Iran, and he therefore decided to turn it down.
Bin Laden needs contacts in the independent media to spread his message and terrorize the West, but since 1997, when he first began granting interviews, he has limited his contacts to a select few, including Robert Fisk of the Independent of London, and Peter Bergen of CNN.
His favorites in this region included Messrs. Zaidan, Mir and Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai. Bin Laden aides, however, have exercised extreme caution when taking journalists to secret meetings.
Mr. Mir, for example, said that before his last meeting on Nov. 8, 2001, while coalition forces were bombing Taliban positions in Afghanistan, he was blindfolded during a long bumpy night trip, made to shower five times and given a strong oil laxative to purge his bowels of any device he may have been asked to swallow.
He was then given sleeping pills, and woke up several hours later in bin Laden's hide-out.
This past summer, after Mr. Mir turned down the offer of an interview in Iran, al Qaeda contacted Egyptian journalist Yosri Fouda for an interview with "a very important person" in Pakistan, for broadcast on al Jazeera.
Amazingly, Mr. Fouda's al Qaeda contacts took him on a trip of several hundred miles inside Pakistan without being detected.
The "very important person" he met in an al Qaeda hide-out turned out to be Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, two men high on the terrorist wanted list. Binalshibh was arrested days later after U.S. agents matched his voice in the broadcast interview with a voice they picked up in cell-phone traffic, but Sheik Mohammed disappeared.
Sheik Mohammed isbelieved to be the man who either ordered the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in January, or wielded the knife himself.
The al Qaeda operatives had taken several precautions to keep Mr. Fouda from knowing where the interview took place, but he said later that despite his blindfold, he could recognize Karachi's distinctive smell.
Al Qaeda may have learned from its errorsin the Binalshibh interview. Its operatives appear to have tightened their precautions before delivering the bin Laden tape to Mr. Zaidan.

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