Reporting for Al-Jazeera

I guess I didn't know what else to do, so I became a journalist. I thought of all the potential choices in front of me and realised journalism was big enough for me to carve my own space, and make the best use of the skills I had.

I guess I didn't know what else to do, so I became a journalist. I thought of all the potential choices in front of me and realised journalism was big enough for me to carve my own space, and make the best use of the skills I had.

For me being a journalist means it is twenty-four hours a day. But I have never viewed myself as an Arab journalist. I just view myself as a journalist who happened to have been born in an Arab country speaking Arabic and who works for an Arab organisation, or rather a news organisation that goes out in Arabic.

The most important thing for me is being committed to the truth, or at least what I think is the truth — bearing in mind from a journalistic perspective, there can be one, two, three, four, or five truths no matter whether you work for radio, television, or the press.

Over the past ten years or so there's been a Quantum leap in the Arab concept of journalism, especially when it comes to TV journalism. I consider myself, and my colleagues who work with me, to be lucky to be part of this.

Yes, the world has been rapidly changing over the last few years — that's why I consider myself to be fortunate. Post 9/11, contrary to what some people believe, makes my job less difficult when it comes to covering stories in our part of the world.

I have been established as a journalist for a long time, having worked for a number of news organisations, including the BBC. I now present and produce 'Top Secret', a current affairs-styled programme on Al Jazeera. Arabic communities know me, and they like my programme. They think that I've got credibility. It is because of this reputation that I am the only journalist on earth to have interviewed the Muslims who were involved in September 11.

Somebody from the Al-Qaeda network called me out of the blue. It was a go-between who said, 'I know you from your shows and if you're thinking of doing an item to mark the first 9/11 anniversary we might provide you with something.'

Everything went through my mind, from an interview with Bin Laden, or other important people, to maybe some tapes that had never been shown before. I didn't know. But I was very excited by it.

I never told a soul about this approach — not even my boss. I didn't want to put him in a difficult position because I knew how difficult it would be to keep such a big secret. The moment I told someone, everybody in the world would know in a matter of hours rather than days. That would put me in a dangerous position, and of course it would lose me the contact for such an extraordinary story.

Of course I calculated the kind of personal risk involved in meeting these people. But, I couldn't see how they might benefit from by killing a fellow Muslim.

And I was aware there is a difference between you as a journalist hunting somebody out and somebody hunting you out. They needed me. They wanted me. They wanted me there — and this is the difference between my case and Daniel Pearl's case. Daniel wasn't invited.

They wanted to get something out; they wanted to use a journalist and it was up to me to be used, or not to be used. And I do not believe I was used. So it was my decision to put my life on the line because I believed I could come back with something that we could all learn from.

I also guessed that they were desperate to tell the world about what happened on September 11; to take the credit for it. You have to remember that at that time Al-Qaeda was very much on the run. Nobody, including some of the top members of Al-Qaeda, knew whether Bin Laden was alive or dead.

They wanted to boost the morale of their people and they also wanted to send a very strong message to the Americans that they could actually invite a journalist all the way from London to Karachi, come out of their hideout, meet this journalist for 48 hours, give them a world exclusive and go back to wherever they came from. Never ignore the psychological element that whoever did 9/11, one day would like to take the credit for such a spectacular operation.

I also knew that they would be more interested in their own security rather than in mine, so I reckoned they would take good care of me. Therefore, I knew that I would be okay, and I was excited about what was awaiting me. I had no idea what was in the offing. All I knew was that they were prepared to give me an exclusive to mark the first anniversary of 9/11.

I didn't have any moral conflict about going to Karachi to do the story. I reasoned with myself that it was about something that happened in the past. Naturally, if it had been specific information about an imminent attack on a civilian target in the future I would have sought somebody out and told them. My only thoughts were, 'Don't try to be clever. Just listen to what they're going to tell you as to how you're going to get there.'

The journey itself turned out to be complicated and disorientating because I was blindfolded until I got to the safe house, where I was met by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Asif Ramzi Binalshibh.

Prior to this, if they have given me the choice of interviewing either Bin Laden or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, I would have said Khalid and Ramzi'. That's why I was really stunned when I knew it was Khalid in front of me, who introduced himself as head of the Military Committee of Al-Qaeda. He then introduced Ramzi as 'the' co-ordinator of September 11.

This was the first time that the world knew that Khalid held such a high-ranking position in Al-Qaeda. If you looked on the FBI website before my visit, all you would read about is Khaled's implication in the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, and his implication in the 1995 Philippines-based plan to hijack a dozen US airliners and crash them into the CIA. This is nothing whatsoever to link him to September 11; nothing even, to link him to Al-Qaeda.

After that I ceased to be surprised any more.

I must say they were very welcoming. They had respect as well as criticism about my work. They also chastised Al-Jazeera for the way it did not give Al-Qaeda enough air-time, its often positive depiction of Western media, and for its interviews with Israelis. That became one of the hottest points in our talk. It was a bit of a problem in the beginning but I took it easy and tried to present our side of it.

The nature of my programme however, is not about arguing, it's not about debating, rather it is documentary style. Therefore, I knew I had time to edit the footage when I got home, so all I had to do for two days was listen, ask about details and coordinate dates and locations.

This particular story of course had an immediate impact because coincidentally on 12 September when part two of the documentary went out, Ramzi Binalshibh was caught. That was the most difficult week of my life; much more difficult to handle than the 48 hours I spent with those guys in Karachi.

It was two in the morning. The second part had just been on air, and having worked non-stop for five months, I went back to the hotel thinking I could take a well-earned break. The night editor called me, and said, 'Yosri would you like to have a shower and come and join us? Ramzi Binalshibh has been arrested and people are calling us from everywhere in the world and asking, "When are you guys going to turn in Bin Laden?" ’

People didn't know those interviews had been done five months ago, so I knew I needed to keep my cool, set the record straight and let people decide for themselves. Some people came up with ludicrous scenarios — like my phone was bugged, and how Ramzi had called me on his mobile (he never called me) and how the CIA matched his voice to what they had on computer.

For God's sake! If any of this was true I would have been in Guantanamo Bay!

As a journalist I always try to be professional. This means you're not supposed to be part of your age, you're not supposed to be part of your society; you're supposed to watch things. I always imagine a circle with things happen inside that circle. I walk around the edge of the circle, but once I set foot inside the circle I'm not a professional journalist any more.

I'm sick and tired of journalists who try to make us feel guilty because they've been out to a war zone and filmed some stuff, or actually just attended a briefing by the military, filed a story from a five-star hotel, and then come back pretending to be heroes. Come on!

You are doing a job; the job that you are paid for. Everybody can go through hazards. My work has thrown me into war zones. But I can tell you London can be risky now. The front line is right here and could become a war zone at any moment.

Even if it's doing a story on prostitution it can be dangerous. You can lose your life because of it, so what's the difference between interviewing Al-Qaeda members, and that? You're just trying to get the truth, that's all.

I am Muslim in everything I do. At least I hope the very beautiful values and principles of Islam such as being honest, being truthful, and doing your job to the best of your knowledge are with me all the time. I don't think there's any contradiction whatsoever between embracing Islamic beliefs, and working as a secular journalist, because I also believe these values and principles lie within Christian and Jewish traditions too.

As a journalist you are like a surgeon. Irrespective of what you believe in, if there's an emergency you operate even when the person on the table may be an enemy.

I'll give you an example of this. While getting the story of some of the POWs of the 1967 war between Israel and the Arabs, I interviewed a few Israeli Officers. I was shown some pictures from the Israeli Ministry of Defence. An office told me, 'I saw my commander take out his pistol and shoot some POWs; they were tied down and completely helpless.'

Of course you feel it. You feel it as an Arab, as an Egyptian, as a human being in general. It's also linked to your childhood memories, and that can be very personal. But does this mean that being an Arab I put down my camera and kill him? Of course not! You're a journalist, you there to get the story.

So you listen to him; you try to do something about it. You try to make people learn from the lesson, so maybe this will never happen again to anybody in the world. But once you let your personal feelings control you, you're not a journalist anymore.

As a journalist you should try to see things from every possible angle — for your own sake to start with, but most importantly because you need to inform your viewers without patronising them.

You need to tell them the truth. You need to treat them as grown-ups, adults who can think for themselves. Patronisation is disinformation that does not serve anyone. When you talk down to someone, you're not telling them the truth, which makes them ill-prepared for what is happening or is going to happen.

So it's up to you to try and make a difference. To take a chance — even with your own job, to a certain extent. I'm not saying you should bang your head against a brick wall. But gradually you can try and implement certain things by showing that you believe in something, and then explaining why you think this is the right way to do it.