Hamid Mir — the last journalist to interview Osama bin Laden A Special interview with Maldives Dhivehi language magazine Huvaas by Mohamed Shaheeb and Ahmed Zahir (Hirigaa) Karachi Pakistan 20 April 2002 translated by Maldives Culture editors Photos from Huvaas http://www.maldivesculture.com/maldives_osama_bin_laden.html Hamid Mir wearing his watch; a gift from Osama bin Laden Have you heard of anyone who has interviewed Osama bin Laden after September 11? If you have, then it must be none other than Hamid Mir, a young Pakistani journalist. The Americans were preparing their invasion and bombing campaign on Afghanistan, alleging that Osama was responsible for the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York, when Hamid Mir interviewed him at a secret location on 8 November last year. No other newspaper or television station anywhere in the world shared that interview. How did Hamid Mir meet Osama bin Laden? Where did their meeting take place? And what is the connection between Hamid and Osama? All this confidential information was revealed to Huvaas when we spoke with the 36 year old Hamid Mir, the editor of 'Ausaf' newspaper, an Islamabad daily. Hamid Mir (centre) and Maldivian journalists Mohamed Shaheeb (left) and Ahmed Zahir Huvaas: How did you come into contact with Osama bin Laden? Hamid: This was our third meeting. The first two times we met, he was not the most important person in the world. But that third time, there was no one more important than him. We first met in 1997, and later in 1998. We had an agreement and I was in the process of writing his biography. I travelled many places researching this book, and while I was working on it those two American embassies were attacked by someone and Osama bin Laden's name was mentioned in connection with these incidents. It became very difficult to meet him and much harder to get information for the biography. So I contacted an Islamic leader in Pakistan who was in communication with bin Laden, and I gave him a letter of questions that I wanted to ask Osama. He successfully delivered the letter and not long after he returned to Pakistan he was murdered. I don't know why. About a year later someone came to see me and asked if I had once sent questions to bin Laden. Then the answers were handed over. I looked at them in surprise and told him I didn't believe the replies were from Osama. The man said my suspicion was understandable and then he asked if I had noticed the watch bin Laden was wearing when we had met for discussions in 1998. Actually it was a great watch! It showed the Islamic calendar date, prayer times and direction of the Kaba [the direction Moslems face when praying]. I said I remembered the watch and had been very impressed by it. Immediately the man handed that same watch to me and said it was a gift from Osama. The watch is in a lot of photos of bin Laden. Here it is. (Hamid showed the writers the black casio watch on his wrist). I told the messenger I now believed him and there was no problem. Then he played a voice message from Osama for me. About three hours after the attack on September 11 that same messenger visited my office. At the time I was very scared. I asked him what was going on, and he gave me a document in Arabic from Osama. It said he supported the attack but had no hand in it. Next day I published that in the paper. The story spread all over the world, and everyone began to ask how I knew the statement was from bin Laden. Then the Pakistan government began to put pressure on me. They were telling me to say straight away that it wasn't an authentic statement. Otherwise, they said, the Americans would confront me. I replied that I didn't see any problem, and that I was simply a journalist who had published a statement I'd received. After that I had to give interviews to many CNN and BBC programs. Apparently, Osama was watching those interviews. Osama bin Laden Some time later I received a telephone message saying the Americans had bombed and destroyed a mosque in Jalalabad in Afghanistan, and I was asked if I wished to see the site. 'Why not?' I replied and then the person on the line told me to go to Peshawar without letting anyone know, and obtain a visa for Afghanistan. 'Everything will be arranged,' he said. So I left quietly, headed for the embassy to get a visa and crossed the border into Afghanistan. I told my wife I was leaving in the morning and would return that night after seeing the damaged mosque. Jalalabad was an hour's drive from the border, and as I was checking the mosque I noticed somebody familiar. I looked closely and it was the messenger. After I asked what he was doing, he told me he was keeping an eye on my movements. I asked where Osama was and he said bin Laden was available and asked if I'd like to meet him. So I asked if that was the real purpose behind this drama, and maybe we should hurry up and get on with it. But the man said no, they wanted to show me the American destruction of the mosque. This was the 6 November 2001. Speaking Arabic, he passed my message on and then told me that if I wanted to meet Osama I had to travel on to Kabul. But they wouldn't be able to guarantee my safe return. I got really frightened. I asked why, and he said that due to the intensity of the American bombing no vehicle had been able to safely reach Kabul. Nevertheless I said I was willing to take the risk. After dark, we began our journey to Kabul, driving in a jeep with its lights off so the American war planes would not be able to see us. It was a dangerous thing to do, and there was only myself and the driver. The messenger did not accompany us. After six hours we reached Kabul after midnight and went to a secret base where there were many armed Arabs. I was exhausted and soon fell asleep. At about 3 a.m. I woke up to the noise of bombs being dropped everywhere. Those Al-Qaeda fighters who were sleeping there with me were stupid, I must say. With the noise they jumped up and grabbed their guns and lit their torches as they searched for the aeroplanes. I asked them if they were mad, and told them not to light the torches or people would see them. Then I saw people dying and from that moment I lost all hope of surviving. I wrote a message for my wife and gave it to an Afghani boy I had met, along with 5,000 rupees. I told him that if I died he should deliver the writing to my wife and take my body home. I said that my wife would give him even more money then. Huvaas: What was in the message? Hamid: That all I owned was to be given to my two children. And I told my wife to remarry and have a good life... those sort of things. I was convinced I was going to die. Huvaas: Then what happened? Hamid: I handed over the paper and money and told the boy to run away because it would be bad news if we all died. Very early in the morning light he returned and when he saw I was alive he was really sad and offered to return the 5,000 rupees. No, I said, and told him to keep the money. It was winter and that morning the Al-Qaeda people came and took me to a barber shop. There was hot water there and they told me that starting from 11 a.m. I had to take 10 showers in 50 minutes. Every time I showered, they gave me a new towel. I asked them what it was all about and they said it was a necessary safety precaution. So there I was, having a shower every four minutes or so and drying myself with a new towel each time. It was really hot water. Afterwards they gave me some kind of medication. I asked what it was and they said it was a laxative. I accused them of trying to destroy me, and they said again that it was a safety precaution. I had to empty my bowels 20 times in an hour and I became very weak. Finally they explained that these procedures were very important because there may have been a chemical rubbed into my skin that the American army would use to locate Osama by satellite. Or I might have swallowed something that would do the same thing. That's why I was showering and flushing out my intestines. After all this they gave me another medication and I slept. Late in the afternoon they woke me and said I should be ready to meet their leader next morning. In the middle of the night on 7 November they took me outside and gave me another tablet. They said it was an anaesthetic. My eyes began to close and I was aware my eyes were being blindfolded and my hands and legs were being tied together. My body was wrapped in a large piece of material and I was put into the back of a jeep.I could vaguely feels that we were travelling over a bumpy area but I don't know how long the journey lasted. When they stopped the jeep and untied me I had a severe headache. They took me into a mud house and I was surrounded by armed Arabs. 'Welcome! Welcome!' they said as I entered. It was about 6.30 a.m. on 8 November 2001. They gave me breakfast and after that I was told to be ready for the interview. Osama bin Laden and Aiman Liqari About 7 a.m. Osama bin Laden and his advisor Dr Aiman Liqari arrived. Osama approached and greeted me with a hug. He apologised for putting me through so many hurdles, but that was the only way anyone could meet him now. Huvaas: Did bin Laden speak to you in English? Hamid: He understood English very well. When I asked questions in English he replied in Arabic, and it was translated into English. The two and half hour interview was recorded by Osama bin Laden's own TV crew. I was given a recording then and there. The photos were also taken by their cameras. I was told only 8 photos could be taken. I decided to take three photos of Osama, two of Liqari and Osama, and three photos of the myself and Osama. After the photos were taken, the film was rewound and given to me. A short time later Osama asked me if I was feeling hungry, and they brought tea . There was butter, jam, and milk and tea. He ate a lot, and as we were eating, he told me that when I return home and report this news it would be sought by all the world's media outlets. He said he trusted me not to reveal where the interview was recorded, and then I told him I really had no idea where we actually were. Osama bin Laden and Hamid Mir Huvaas: What did he say after the interview was over? Hamid: He said I must leave Kabul the next day, because at 5 p.m. that evening the borders were going to be closed. He said to remember not to be in Afghanistan on 10 November, and to leave within 24 hours. I asked why, and he said the answer would become clear in four days. On 9 November I crossed the border and returned to Pakistan to publish the interview. That day they evacuated Mazari Sharif, and next day they abandoned Kabul. On the third day they retreated from Afghanistan's north. Their plan was to slowly move to the mountains so innocent people would not be killed, and to store their arms. They didn't leave because they were scared of the Americans. Huvaas: What was your headline for the bin Laden interview? Hamid: I said that Osmam bin Laden claims to have nuclear weapons. Actually it wasn't the usual type of nuclear bomb. He had it in a suitcase. He said he'd bought it from a Russian scientist. Huvaas: Weren't there any problems about publishing the interview? Hamid: Yes, the Pakistan government made severe problems. Somehow they found out I had gone to Afghanistan and when they questioned me they said not to mention the nuclear weapon under any circumstances because the Americans might think Pakistan had sold it to him. I told them Osama had said he bought it from a Russian so why shouldn't I publish the information? CNN and BBC tried to interview bin Laden but I was the one who lucky enough to have the opportunity. I wanted to write what Osama said; I couldn't betray him. But when the article was published [in 'Ausaf'] the sentence that mentioned the nuclear bomb was censored. So the complete interview was published in 'Dawn' newspaper, and went out all over the world. Huvaas: Did the Americans contact you? Hamid: Yes, they did. They told me that for the benefit of the whole world I must help them obtain information about bin Laden. I said I didn't have anything more to tell them, and they were welcome to take the photos and the tape. After that I stayed in the house for about a month and then gradually started going out again. Huvaas: How many questions did you ask in the bin Laden interview? Hamid: About 40. Huvaas: Did you ask him if he was the one who attacked America? Hamid: He denied that accusation, but he praised the attack and the people who attacked the two American embassies. He did admit two things. He said he killed some American soldiers in Somalia in December 1993, and also attacked the American warship in Yemen. But he denied any involvement in attacks that killed innocent people.' Huvaas: Did you ask if it was true that bin Laden is married to a daughter of Mullah Omar, and that Omar is married to bin Laden's daughter? Hamid: Yes, I asked that question. he began to laugh at first. he said his wives are Arabs, and his children are married to Arab mujahideen. Huvaas: A while age the Americans released a video of bin Laden. Do you think it is genuine? Hamid: That tape was released after my interview. I think it is genuine, because they always video his movements. Two men follow him with the camera, and it is likely to be one of their tapes. Huvaas: What is Osama bin Laden's real message? Hamid: He has many soldiers under his command. When he meets with them he always says one thing: America is the enemy of Moslems. For instance it does not ratify UN declarations opposing Israel, although it does ratify the declarations against Iran and Iraq. America doesn't help the people of Kashmir to gain their rights, but because the people in East Timor are Christians , America is helping them. I can say that if the Americans change their policy, then bin Laden will also change. Huvaas: How is Osama bin Laden's financial status? Hamid: He has a lot of money invested all over the world. From 1997 to 2001 he trained 8,000 people. Five thousand of these are spread throughout the world. Most are in Europe and America. Their assignments were given to them a long time ago. Even if Osama is killed they will carry out their tasks. If the Americans don't want a repeat of the incidents we have seen, then they should change their policies. Otherwise Americans won't be able to live happily. There will be many bin Ladens. I think the main issue for Osama bin Laden is the presence of American troops in his home country, Saudi Arabia. He wants to chase them out. This was why he began his world-wide campaign. The Americans are responsible for the situation. They pressured bin Laden, and were responsible for the removal of his Saudi citizenship in 1994. At the time he was in Sudan and becoming a dangerous figure. Saudi Arabia and America put pressure on the Sudanese government and he was chased out of Sudan. After that he immigrated to Afghanistan and became more dangerous, conducting terrorist activities in Saudi Arabia. When it was publicly announced that he was the most wanted terrorist he became even more of a threat. When one thinks about the life of bin Laden it is clear that the origin of all this is America. Osama bin Laden was created by the bad policies of America. Huvaas: What were bin Laden's final words? Hamid: He said he was going to die a martyr's death for Allah and Islam. He said Moslems will find out very soon that he is not evil, the others are the evil ones. Huvaas: Where's bin Laden now? Hamid: He is still alive in Afghanistan. There is no doubt about it. I have no contact at all with him. When he wants to meet me again, then we'll be in touch. Huvaas: Where's your biography now? Hamid: I'm finishing the book, and I'll be trying to publish it soon.