An interview with Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

Few journalists ever interviewed Osama bin Laden: one of them is Rahimullah Yusufzai, chief editor of the Pakistan daily The News International and collaborator of the BBC and Al Jazeera and former correspondent for Time. He met the Saudi terrorist twice in 1998. In addition to bin Laden, Yusufzai also interviewed several times Mullah Omar, whose personality is very mysterious and about whom very few details are known.

Yusufzai accepted our proposal for an interview to give us details of his encounters with the founder of al-Qaeda and with the Taliban leader. His report is rich in interesting details about both of them and their relationship.

We wish to thank Rahimullah Yusufzai for his kindness and willingness to share his experience.

Undicisettembre: Good afternoon Rahimullah, thanks for the time you are giving us and for your willingness to help. My first question is inevitably about Osama bin Laden: what do you remember about him as a person? Did anything about him strike you in particular?

Rahimullah Yusufzai: As a person, he was very tall, unusually tall. I’m six feet and he was taller than me. And he was a person who wanted to meet as many people as possible, specially he wanted to interact with the media but he was not getting many opportunities so he was well prepared for whatever he wanted to say. He preferred to speak in Arabic because he was fluent in Arabic but he also could understand questions in English, he also spoke some local languages such as Pashto.

I can also recall that to put emphasis on what he was saying he was always reciting something from the Holy Koran and he would also mention the Holy Prophet, so that would actually reinforce his argument, whatever he wanted to say.

When I met him for the second time near Kandahar in 1998 in December he wanted me to meet him to interview him at night because he said he was fasting in the daytime because it was the month of Ramadan so during the day he said he could not talk long because was fasting. So he wanted to meet me at night so that he could drink water and some tea, so he was particular because he wanted to speak long and he wanted to give comprehensive answers to my questions.

Undicisettembre: How many times did you meet him?

Rahimullah Yusufzai: I met him twice, both in 1998, both times in Afghanistan. First time was on the 25th of May in a place called Khost in south Afghanistan and the second time I met him on the 23rd of December near Kandahar, I think it was in Helmand because we drove for a long time.

Undicisettembre: In your opinion why did Osama bin Laden, right after 9/11, deny his involvement with the attacks?

Rahimullah Yusufzai: Well, when I met him in 1998 I asked him questions about the attacks against the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and I also asked him about attacks against Americans in Somalia; even then he was denying his involvement or the involvement of al-Qaeda. But he said “I support these attacks.” He said “I strongly believe that the attackers are martyrs and they were doing something good because America deserves this and because America is attacking every Muslim country.” So he was saying he was supporting them but as an organization al-Qaeda was not involved. So I think about the 9/11 attacks initially he was not willing to claim responsibility but he did not oppose those strikes.

Undicisettembre: Let’s talk about the killing of Osama bin Laden for a moment. In your opinion, was Pakistan aware that he was hiding in Abbottabad and was somehow shielding him or were they totally unaware of him being there?

Rahimullah Yusufzai: I don’t have any real evidence to make a conclusion, but I can tell you that I think at least Pakistan was aware about the American attack which took place in May 2011, so I think the Americans informed some top level such as the President, the Army chief and the ISI chief; I think they were informed beforehand. But they were told the Americans were after a very high value target so the Pakistanis should not stop them nor did the Americans need any help from Pakistan.

This is my belief. Because the Americans came here and stayed in that area for more than two hours, the Pakistanis could have easily sent aircraft to try to intercept American helicopters. And I know, because I’ve heard this from people in the military, that F-16 aircraft of the Pakistani air force were actually alerted that they had to fly somewhere but then they were told not to approach Abbottabad, the place where he was killed, and that they had to wait for orders.

So the aircraft only came to Abbottabad after the Americans left, after they killed bin Laden. That’s my personal opinion: that the Pakistani rulers knew about the American attack, but I have no evidence to say that the Pakistani knew Osama bin Laden was hiding in this place. I am still trying to get to a conclusion but I still don’t know.

I think that if the Pakistani military or government wanted to protect him they would have given him some place in some army areas, there are so many in Pakistan: in the mountains or in the desert. They could have put him there and no one would have known.

Undicisettembre: Well, actually the Pakistani government denied knowing the Americans were conducting an attack.

Rahimullah Yusufzai: Yes, Pakistan denied that and they also denied knowing that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. Osama bin Laden also declared war against Pakistan and he issued statements urging the Pakistani people to revolt against the ruler, General Musharraf. So he was actually fighting the Pakistani state, the Pakistani government and the Pakistani military. That’s why I have my doubts that Pakistan would have protected him, I don’t think they had any admiration for each other: they were fighting each other.

Undicisettembre: You are one of the very few people who also met Mullah Omar. Only two pictures exist of him, so my first question is what did he look like?

Rahimullah Yusufzai: I was the first journalist to meet him in early 1995 when the Taliban movement had emerged and captured Kandahar and I was also the last to meet him before he went into hiding after the American attack. I met him more than a dozen times and I have spoken to him on the telephone also. I have interviewed him for the BBC, for the radio and for my newspaper, but he did not allow me to take pictures of him. I tried but he did not agree because he said this is un-Islamic. In the end this also helped him because there were no real pictures of him at that time and the Americans were using wrong pictures of him on the pamphlets and matchboxes they were distributing from helicopters to encourage people to provide information, because they put a bounty for capturing Mullah Omar.

His eye was damaged from fighting the Soviets in Kandahar, he could not see from that eye. He was not a very tall man, less tall than me. He had a thick black beard, he was a man of few words. He was a village Mullah, a village cleric, not very highly educated, not very charismatic, not very articulate. But one thing very clear is that Taliban members loved him and for them he was the undisputed leader, the commander of the faithful, his word was law, whatever he said was the last word. They were fighting for him, they were following him.

I think Mullah Omar didn’t know much about the world; the only way he knew about the world was through the BBC radio which he listened to regularly. He was not a statesman, he was not a leader, he was just a simple guy, but he had the courage to pick up the gun and fight the mujaheddin that were ruling the country at that time and earlier he had fought against the Soviets. He used to tell the followers about his dreams and the followers believed him and his dreams: he was telling them the Taliban would succeed and occupy the whole country and set up their own government. He had those kind of dreams and when they turned out to be true his followers became even more impressed with him and very loyal to him.

Undicisettembre: Probably I’m not supposed to be asking you this question, but can you confirm the person in those two pictures of Mullah Omar is actually him?

Rahimullah Yusufzai: Yes, both this pictures are of Mullah Omar. The one on the left was taken when he was in a public meeting in Kandahar, I was present on the stage at that time, he was holding a cloak of the Holy Prophet Mohammed which is kept in a Mosque in Kandahar, even now. And the Afghans have this belief that whenever there is shortage of food, a natural disaster or a big emergency you have to take out this cloak of the Holy Prophet and touch it and kiss it and offer prayers and then they say that all these difficulties would be resolved. There was shortage of rains, so the Mullah Omar picked the shirt and showed it to the people. But that picture was taken from a distance and it’s not very clear.

The picture on the right is also of a young Mullah Omar with his right eye damaged when shrapnel from Russian tank fire hit his mosque in Singesar village in Maiwand district of Kandahar.

Undicisettembre: As far as you know, how was the relationship between Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar? Were they friends, allies or enemies?

Rahimullah Yusufzai: I don’t think they were enemies, I think there were friends for a long time but later their relation suffered some differences because the Taliban announced that they had restricted the movement of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders because the Americans were complaining to the Taliban that they were using the Afghan soil and that they were based there even if they were wanted for many other crimes in the world. So the Taliban said they had taken away their fax machine or telephone or whatever else.

But I also have some personal experience that their relationship was not always very friendly. For example, when I first went to Afghanistan in May 1998 to interview Osama bin Laden I reported the press conference and the interview on the BBC and when I came back the same night I got a phone call from Mullah Omar himself and I asked me “Were you in Afghanistan?” I said “Yes”; he asked “How did you come in?” I said “We crossed the mountains of North Waziristan into Khost at night dodging the Pakistani and the Afghan border authorities.” He said “Were there any Taliban? And did you meet Osama bin Laden?” I said “No, I could see no Taliban.” He asked “Did you enter illegally?” I said “Yes”, he said “Osama bin Laden held a press conference and he announced jihad against the US and Israel from Afghanistan without consulting me or asking me!” He was very angry! He said “How come he can do that? Is your reporting correct?” I said “Yes. I have the recording and I also talked to him after the press conference and he declared jihad against the US and Israel.” He was very angry and he said “How can we have two rulers? How can we have two emirs? I am the ruler! And he has to accept my orders.” I few days after I found out Mullah Omar had summoned Osama bin Laden to Kandahar to meet him and bin Laden had to go.

And I have another personal experience that Osama bin Laden renewed his allegiance or loyalty to Mullah Omar and he wanted to convey a statement and again I received a phone call from doctor Ayman El-Zawairi, who spoke English and who was my translator when I interviewed bin Laden, and he said “Brother, I am El-Zawairi, Osama bin Laden is sitting beside me but he speaks Arabic and you speak other languages so I am going to tell you about his statement, and please convey it to the BBC.” I was asked to write down or to record his statement, which I did, and the statement was “Osama bin Laden has given a statement that said ‘Mullah Omar is my leader and the commander of the faithful. I and al-Qaeda will accept and will follow the instructions given by Mullah Omar. He is our leader.’” So this statement was conveyed and we actually broadcast it on BBC.

This shows that Mullah Omar was angry at bin Laden for holding that press conference without his consent and declaring jihad from Afghanistan against the US and Israel and that he forced bin Laden to come to Kandahar to renew his allegiance to him, declare him leader of mujaheddins and Muslims. This is how the relationship was.

I disagree with people who say that al-Qaeda was running Afghanistan and not the Taliban, I don’t believe that. When I met bin Laden again in December in Afghanistan 1998, the first comment he made was “Mr Yusufzai, I had been asking the Taliban leaders if I could give an interview again after my first one in May because so many allegations have been made against me and al-Qaeda and I wanted to clarify my position but Taliban did not allow me and after six months of effort they finally allowed you to come here again to interview me.”

So who was running the show: the Taliban or al-Qaeda?

Undicisettembre: How Mullah Omar died is still not very clear. What’s your opinion on this? What is the most reliable hypothesis according to you?

Rahimullah Yusufzai: I would be wrong if I’d say I know everything. There are two versions: one is the Afghan government saying Mullah Omar died in a hospital in Karachi in Pakistan, but there is no evidence of that; the second version is the Taliban saying he never came to Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban regime and that he died in Afghanistan.

I have a third version also, which is based on my interaction with some Taliban, and I would like to meet more Talibans who were his messengers when he was ill in Afghanistan to know more. This version is that he was living in a place called Zabul in Afghanistan with the Taliban commanders in his house and he was never coming out of this house and conveying his direction and instructions to the Taliban leaders in Pakistan through two very trusted messengers, including one I hopefully will be meeting, and they said he was ill with tuberculosis and he did not have good treatment because of the very bad situation in Afghanistan and he died there and was buried secretly in Afghanistan. This is what they say.

I have no means to confirm any of these claims. His family and his trusted colleagues say he died in Afghanistan and his body is there. There is consensus, even among those who claim he died in Pakistan, that he was buried in Afghanistan in Zabul province.

Undicisettembre: What are your thoughts about conspiracy theories about 9/11 according to which the attacks were done by the US government and not by al-Qaeda?

Rahimullah Yusufzai: I don’t believe that conspiracy theory, there are conspiracy theories all the time in Islamic countries and Pakistan also. First of all: suicide bombings is mostly used by al-Qaeda and the Taliban and Muslims in general; in the past there were Tamil Tigers and the Japanese but in modern times mostly the Muslims. Then you need committed people and finding 19 people is not easy.

Also al-Qaeda has been saying they are responsible for these attacks and a lot of people have been captured even in Pakistan such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, they have been interrogated by Americans and by others. So I believe it was al-Qaeda, I believe it was ordered by Osama bin Laden. There were no Jews or Americans involved.

Undicisettembre: And what are your thoughts about conspiracy theories according to which Osama bin Laden was dead before 2011 and the Abbottabad raid was staged?

Rahimullah Yusufzai: I don’t believe that either. I believe, as I said, that top Pakistani leaders were aware because the Americans told them but they also told them not to intervene. I think it was an extraordinary attack and I think the Americans had waited, Obama had waited. They collected a lot of information through different means and eventually when they had, according to Obama, fifty percent of chance they went ahead with this. So I don’t think it was staged, I think it had been a real operation. I think bin Laden was in Abbottabad, that he was killed and that the Americans took the risks. It was not only the helicopters that came, I think there were also American aircraft waiting just close to the Pakistani border and in case any Pakistani had tried to stop them the Americans would have attacked back the Pakistani air force. They were ready for any eventuality.

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