RIYADH (AFP) – Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who built Al-Watan newspaper into a voice for progressives and who interviewed Osama bin Laden before he launched Al-Qaeda, announced his resignation on Sunday.
Khashoggi, 52, said he was stepping down as editor-in-chief of the newspaper, in a statement published on its website.
“Jamal Khashoggi, the editor in chief, has announced his resignation from Al-Watan to focus on his personal projects,” the statement said, adding that he would be replaced in the meantime by deputy editor Sulayman al-Aquili.
Khashoggi was on his second stint as editor after having been forced to resign in 2003 over an Al-Watan editorial criticising 14th century Muslim theologian Ibn Taymiyya.
Taymiyya’s thinking is closely linked to the ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islamic school which dominates Saudi life.
Khashoggi returned to the paper in 2007 after serving as advisor to Prince Turki al-Faisal — whose family controls Al-Watan – when he was ambassador to the United States.
Under Khashoggi, Al-Watan’s writers have aggressively poked at the contradictions and oppressive effects of Wahhabism, especially with regard to women.
Khashoggi wrote about bin Laden in his formative years as a radical Islamist and interviewed him in Afghanistan in 1987 during the fight against Russian occupation.
“He was very proud,” Khashoggi told Robert Lacey, author of the 2009 book “Inside the Kingdom.”
“He showed me how he’d figured out that he could defend the whole valley from a certain vantage point. The Afghans, he said, did not think tactically like that.”
Khashoggi was working for Al-Watan rival Al-Hayat newspaper in 1994 when he travelled to Sudan to see if bin Laden, already wanted by the Saudi government, might return to the Saudi fold.
“One of his cousins called me,” he told Lacey. “He told me ‘Osama’s changed, he wants to come back.'”
Although he met bin Laden several times, the Al-Qaeda founder was unwilling to return and ultimately refused to give him another interview.