Earlier this month, The Intercept reported that the U.S. government secretly labeled a prominent Al Jazeera journalist a member of Al Qaeda and placed him on a terror watch list.
The basis for the designation was unclear, but the reporter, Islamabad bureau chief Ahmad Zaidan, denies ever having been a member of the group. Reached last week in Doha, Qatar — where the state-funded Al Jazeera network is based — Zaidan spoke to The Intercept about the reaction to his work and the implications of being tracked by the U.S. government. “To monitor and bug journalists is absolutely immoral and unethical,” he said.
Zaidan was known for interviewing senior Al Qaeda figures, including Osama bin Laden, and he covered the wedding of bin Laden’s son in 2001. If it was those contacts that caused U.S. suspicions, Zaidan says, that runs counter to the purpose of journalism.
“Our job as journalists is to reach out to everybody. We are some sort of go-between in cases where the two parties are not talking to each other,” Zaidan said. “I was thinking that when I was interviewing bin Laden and interviewing these militants, that maybe at least [they can] hear each other, and maybe it can help humanity to reach some sort of middle way.”
Zaidan also sees discrimination behind the surveillance. “If Peter Bergen is meeting Osama bin Laden, or Robert Fisk is meeting Osama bin Laden, no problem,” he said. “But if a non-Westerner is meeting some wanted people, he should be doubted?”
Zaidan’s picture and watch list number appear in a 2012 National Security Agency presentation, which shows that analysts tracked his cell phone contacts and location data — or metadata — as part of a program that looked for people who moved like Al Qaeda couriers. The presentation and other NSA documents revealed that the U.S. was obtaining bulk call data records from Pakistani telecoms, and analyzing the metadata of tens of millions of Pakistani cell phones.
“Faisalabad, Lahore — these main cities are the residence of millions and millions of people,” Zaidan said. “They are following and surveilling every one of us. Who has made them the god of this globe?”
Zaidan says he has had good relations with the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and has not had run-ins with U.S. authorities.
“I did not hide myself. Whenever I made an interview, I published it. If you have any objection to me, I am living in Islamabad, you can come ask for me anytime,” he said.
He noted that the United States is not the only country to have labeled him as Al Qaeda. Zaidan, who is Syrian, returned to his country for the first time in almost 35 years in early 2012, after the uprising began against President Bashar al-Assad. Zaidan reported from inside a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army, and soon after, he says Syrian state television aired a report claiming that he was a member of Al Qaeda and had been sent to Syria by the group’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The allegations make him fear for his security. “If you are Al Qaeda, it means they can eliminate you. And I am afraid if somebody else might do something against me and he will put the blame on America now,” Zaidan said.
But when I asked if he regretted The Intercept publishing the story, Zaidan said: “My take, as a journalist, is that you have done your job. I can’t say, ‘Ok, if I have some information about Osama bin Laden, I have to publish it, but if you have something against Ahmad Zaidan or Al Jazeera, you should not publish it.’”
“This is the right of our audience,” he said. “We should not keep our audience in the dark otherwise we are like, in fact, the National Security Agency.”