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Asharq Al-awsat Interviews Frank Gardner | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Asharq Al-awsat Interviews Frank Gardner

Asharq Al-awsat Interviews Frank Gardner

Asharq Al-awsat Interviews Frank Gardner

In his first ever interview with a Middle Eastern publication since an attempt on his life left him paralyzed, Frank Gardner, the BBC Security Correspondent, spoke to Asharq Al Awsat about the recent terrorist attacks in London, the situation in Iraq, and exclusively reveals intricate details about the attempt on his life.

Q: As one of the United Kingdom ”s most prominent security analysts, how do you describe the direction of the ongoing investigation into the London bombings going?

A: From the very moment that the bombings happened on July 7, the investigation became international; it was never going to be a purely British investigation and the idea that this was purely home-grown terrorism is a misnomer. In reality, there is no such thing as home-grown terrorism; there is usually an international link. When an Al-Qaeda related bomb goes off, in Casablanca , Istanbul , Riyadh or London , it is going to have an international link therefore it is an international investigation.

Initially the investigation looked towards Pakistan and there are many leads that have been followed up in Pakistan , and they have caught alive all four suspected members who were involved in 21 July bombing attempts. Now they have an incredible opportunity to gather information about how things were put together, and of course, the arrest of the man in Rome has proven to be very interesting. We know that he made a call to Saudi Arabia , we know of a support network in Britain . We also know that he was not part of a cell in Italy but was merely seeking refuge there.

I think the investigators are working under the assumption that although these were two separate cells, who quite possibly didn”t know each other, there was a degree of coordination between the two events. Possibly, they shared the same bomb-maker and recruiter, and possibly the same indoctrinator. If you get somebody to agree to carry out a suicide bombing, you must keep them informed. You have to keep them convinced that what they are about to do is right to try to stop them from pulling out or going to the police. I think it says a great deal for the Muslim community in Britain that the first leads that the authorities got came from Muslim residents in Birmingham , tipping off the police about Yasin Hassan Omar, and I understand this provided the information that led to the other arrests.

Q: In an article published in last Monday”s Washington Post it says, &#34The Saudi connection is one possibility investigators are exploring. Saudi investigators traced the suspect communications and then informed their British counterparts, but did not hear back about what action, if any, the British took. &#34We said check out these numbers&#34, said the Saudi official.” If British counter-terrorism officials were warned of the cell responsible for the 7 July bombings as early as February, what is your opinion on them not following it up?

A) If the British authorities did not do everything to check up on the information they received, then it is very shameful. The only explanation I can think of is that, perhaps, they were flooded with so many leads, that they simply did not have the resources to follow them all up. At the time of the bombings on 7th July, the governments in London had just lowered the terrorism threat level from &#34severe general&#34 to &#34substantial&#34, which means they still believed there was a terrorist threat, but that they were not aware of a particular plot. Major arrests were made last summer of suspects they believed were planning to carry out a major attack.

Q: Do you think that such warnings will be taken seriously in future?

A: I would certainly hope so. In a way, these questions should be put to a British government official as I”m only a journalist and believe me I find it just as hard to get information out of government officials as any other journalist. The BBC does not have any sort of special access. Getting information like this from the police or security sources over here is like trying to get blood out of a stone. They do not usually want to tell you very much, but I do think the security cooperation between Britain and Saudi Arabia has increased dramatically in the last twelve months.

I would hope the British authorities realize that there are things that they could learn from their Saudi counterparts. Britain and the Americans are offering technical help in Saudi Arabia but Saudis are the experts in the whole al Qaeda phenomenon. The British authorities have much to learn from their Saudi counterparts and I hope they take up that opportunity.

Q: According to a study to be published by the Center for Strategic Studies later this summer, the vast majority of foreign fighters are not former terrorists but were radicalized by the Iraq war itself. The same study found the majority of the men were inspired to go to Iraq by images that they saw on Arab satellite news channels. Do you think the sympathetic slant towards the insurgents these channels convey in their coverage is dangerous?

A: I think it is understandable, but the effects are dangerous for everybody. Inevitably, if ordinary people all over the Arab world from their living rooms watch Palestinians getting killed during the Intifada, or Iraqis getting brutalized as a result of the coalition invasion, then of course this will anger a lot of people angry, but most people will not do act on their anger. I think it has raised the risk in the countries of the Middle East , because some people feel they have to vent out their anger in some way.

However, I also think that this all started out with &#34attention-grabbing&#34. When the satellite channels were new, they needed to get an audience and establish a brand name. A high profile example is Al Jazeera airing the Bin Laden tapes in late 2001. At first, the channel aired them almost unedited. They did not question what he was saying, which led to enormous pressure and criticism from the United States .

Al Jazeera, I believe, resisted that pressure, but assembled a panel of experts to discuss the content of the tapes, and began to limit what was being aired. I understand that what we see aired on Al Jazeera is just a small amount of what Al-Qaeda has sent them, mostly because the content is too inflammatory. Therefore, I think they have grown up quite quickly, and I don”t mean that in a patronizing way. They had tremendous success, but the effect of some of their coverage has been quite negative in the Arab world.

During the Iraq war, most of Al Jazeera”s coverage started by showing the suffering of civilians. Their coverage showed bleeding babies in the market place, but from what I understand that terrible scene in the market place was actually due to a faulty Iraqi anti-aircraft missile. I still do not know if this was true or not, but everybody in the Arab media jumped to the conclusion that it was an American missile strike. I know the American military make many mistakes, and have, in the past, made mistakes in Iraq indivertibly killing civilians, but to the best of my knowledge they have never done so deliberately.

I think both sides are guilty in Iraq . Clearly, the US and Britain invaded Iraq in search of those non-existent weapons of mass destruction. They failed to plan for the aftermath of the invasion and they are guilty of some dreadful strategic mistakes such as disbanding the army and the Baath party, allowing the looting and failing to secure the borders. These were all terrible mistakes, which resulted in enormous casualties.

Notwithstanding these policy errors, we need to remember that those carrying out the killings, the bombings and the massacres in Iraq are not the British, the Americans or other members of the coalition, but individuals acting in the name of the resistance. These terrible bombings are carried out by people from the outside, who are delivering death and destruction to Iraqis.

Q: With regard to cyber-terrorism, some analysts argue the leader of

al-Qaeda is no longer Osama Bin Laden but rather the al Qaeda affiliated websites. What is your opinion on the matter?

A: I believe this to be absolutely correct. It is very hard to control how people are radicalized by the internet. I have seen reports that that there is a suspicion western intelligence agencies are trying to infiltrate some of these websites, which raises the question, why did they wait until now to do this? I think it is true that there are slight double standards here, that it is only when London got bombed that people are now taking action, or maybe there was a tactful reason for this.

I was in Oman covering a story for the BBC in November of 2001; I made some investigations into the kind of website radicalization, I tapped into some of the more radical forums, and it was incredible what some of the people were saying. Some were saying that 9/11 was carried out by the Israelis; others were saying that this was exactly the right thing to do and we should welcome it and praise it. I think nobody should praise violence because violence breeds violence, even if it is five thousands miles away because there will always be repercussions.

To be fair I think there is a lesson here for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well. Up until May 2003, there were parties in the kingdom who were not taking Al Qaeda seriously, until the Riyadh triple suicide bombings took place. Regarding cyber-terrorism, it would be very hard to control completely the internet. There is a battle currently being fought in cyberspace. There is a filtering system that is being used by intelligence agencies that monitor certain phrases that then raise a red flag. Al-Qaeda are waging a counter-intelligence battle by getting some of their lower level members to have online conversations deliberately to take up the time of the analysts by mentioning things like martyrdom or suicide operation.

Q: How would you rate the Saudi Ministry of Interior”s counter-terrorism efforts to date?

A: Over the last two years, the Saudi interior ministry has achieved remarkable success in combating terrorism although it has not defeated it and probably never will completely. However, in Britain , we have had 30 years of experience combating the IRA, and yet bombs still go off in the middle of London . No country is safe from terrorism, but that is not to say that people should not do their utmost to stop it.

In terms of combating violence with violence, the Kingdom is doing a very good job. They have successfully broken up many cells and killed or captured many of the leaders. They have also undertaken some non-violent activities as well, in terms of trying to change some of the hate-filled curricula in schools that might encourage people to attack non-Muslims. They have gone to great lengths to persuade Imams to tone down their anti-western rhetoric.

I think there is still more to be done. There are still elements in Saudi Arabia that say, &#34We have had our problems, but we”ve dealt with it and the problem is over&#34. That, however, is not the case. The list of 26 suspected militants was all but finished, and then out comes a new list of 36. This is a problem that is going to continue, and it is dangerous to say that it is over. The bases for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were laid a long time ago, it is not a new phenomena, and has been there for some time, but it took a while for it to turn its attention to the kingdom. Generally, however, I think the Ministry has done a good job.

Q: Are you satisfied with the Ministry”s response to your assassination attempt?

A: I am very pleased with the efforts made by the Interior Ministry to solve this horrible crime. They have gone to great lengths to find out who did it and how it happened. They have even sent a team over to London to explain what happened to myself and the widow of my cameraman, Simon Cumbers, who died in the attack. There are still one or two unexplained elements in their story but generally, it made sense that this was an opportunistic attack.

For the first time I was told how it actually happened, because one of the people involved in the attack is still alive and in captivity, and has told the police his version of what happened. What I have been told was that there was a group of Al-Qaeda members travelling to North Riyadh from South Riyadh for a meeting with Abdul Aziz Isa Al-Muqrin. They met him and were moving to a safe house when they saw us filming in the streets. They then decided that they would kill us.

A man called Faisal Al-Dakheel gave the orders to kill us, and the first person I saw get out of the car was a man called Abdullah Al-Subaie, who was killed in December of last year in the attack on the Ministry of Interior. I remember very clearly that he got out of the car, and he came up to me smiling and said &#34Asalam Alaykum&#34 and I said to him &#34Alaikum asalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatahu&#34, he then took out a gun and shot me.

For me, someone with a degree in Islamic studies, who respects Islam and has a great love of the Arab world, this was one of the worst moments of my life. To have somebody say &#34Asalam alyakum&#34 and then shoot you, that was a terrible thing. I have spent so much of my life telling people that Muslims are good people, that there are genuine grievances in the Arab world, that you can understand why people are angry when they look at Iraq and Palestine, but that does not mean that Muslims are violent people, and then for something like that to happen is a terrible thing.

I am enormously grateful to the Saudi police for rescuing me, and to Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz for making sure I received the best medical treatment possible at the King Faisal specialist hospital, and to the Ministry of Interior generally for investigating the attack.

I am very disappointed that more than one year after the event, we have never had a letter of condolence from the Ministry of Information. We put our trust in the Ministry of Information and did not go on some mad trip of our own. We put our faith in the Ministry of Information to look after us and they drove us around Riyadh . Yes, we did ask to go to al-Suwaydi, but we did not want to go deep into it.

I had never heard of the house of Mohammed Al Rayas or Ibrahim Al Rayas before we got there. It was only when arrived in al-Suwaydi that we spoke to somebody who told us that there was a gun battle there 6 months ago and that we could look at it so the Ministry of Information minders took us there. There were no suspicious phone calls made to London by me or anybody else. At the time, in the summer of 2004, the situation was clearly very dangerous. We trusted the Ministry of Information to look after us, we were shot, they ran away and we have never received any condolences or an apology let alone any compensation.

I am in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, I am crippled for life, I will never walk again, I will never run into the sea with my children, I will never dance, walk up stairs, climb a mountain or do any of the things I love. At the age of 44, my physical active life is over, yet I have received no compensation from the Kingdom. Now this would be understandable if I was out there on my own, as I have done in the past but I was not. I am very upset about that. On one hand, I am very grateful to the ministry of the interior and Prince Salman, but I am very angry with the Ministry of Information. I hope that the new Minister will make amends to the situation.

Q: Would you ever go back to Saudi Arabia ?

A: I think while my parents are alive the answer is no. I have been going to the Middle East for 25 years. I have always told my parents and friends that I am safer in the Middle East then I am in the streets of London. The sort of crimes that you would hear of in London are unheard of in the Middle East, so when I went to Saudi I would always say, &#34Don”t worry they are very generous and hospitable people&#34, as indeed they are. This was bad luck, but I do not think this would be fair to my parents after all that they have suffered. I am an only child and they nearly lost me. They relive that moment everyday when they got that phone call saying that I”d been shot six times and that I was probably going to die, so it would not be fair to them to go again.

I have been going to the Kingdom since 1989, initially as a banker and then a journalist. I am a huge fan of the kingdom as it is one of the most misunderstood countries in the world and it gets unfair treatment in the press. I think it is a fabulous place, very diverse and multi-cultural. When the horrors happened to me last year in Riyadh it was doubly hard because I have been going there for years feeling that I knew it.

Q: How do you see the image of Saudi Arabia in Britain today?

A: I think His Royal Highness Prince Turki Al- Faisal has done great in improving the image of Saudi Arabia in the west. He has made it easy for journalists and business people to visit the country. He has maintained a very high profile and did not hide away from the media when something bad happens in the Kingdom.

For example during the Khobar attack in May 2004, he made himself available for television immediately. He defends the image of the Kingdom and got us to understand the situation from the Saudi perspective, which is terribly important. The mistake I think the Kingdom has made in the past is never making anybody officially available to the western media, and that allowed detractors, all those people that criticize the Kingdom to be the only ones on air. He deserves to be congratulated for the improvement not just in Anglo-Saudi Relations, but also in improving the image of Saudi Arabia . I wish him further success in Washington.