Meeting Robert Fisk

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I learned that I had the opportunity to meet with Robert Fisk, the British journalist, who was in Southern California last Friday for a speaking engagement at Chapman University in Orange. Of course, I knew his work, in part because features it regularly and the Register used his pieces during the Kosovo bombing campaign.

Mr. Fisk writes for the Independent newspaper in London, which strikes me as a bit more left-wing in policy than the Orange County Register, for which I write. He has been an outspoken critic of Israeli policies, more so than I am. I didn’t know whether he would strike me as an ideologue.

He turned out to be much more reporter than ideologue and utterly charming and delightful. A relatively small, gray-haired man who could probably talk for days, he parried with our four-member editorial board for almost two hours. Some representatives of the Council on American Islamic Relations were also present. I would have loved to have been able to talk with him one-on-one for six or eight hours, but I’ll take what I could get.


The most valuable aspect of talking to Robert Fisk is the understanding that he has been there – almost anywhere in the Middle East and surrounding territory where there have been conflicts or news – and knows more about the people and the context of events than almost anybody. He has for 26 years been a Middle Eastern correspondent – for the Independent newspaper in London since 1988 and before that for the Times of London – and Britain’s most highly honored foreign correspondent.

Robert Fisk now operates mostly out of Beirut. Over the years he has covered the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the Persian Gulf war, the conflict in Algeria, the Kosovo conflict, and the recent war in Afghanistan. He broke the story about Israeli shelling of a UN compound in Qana, Lebanon in 1996. He has written a book, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War, published in 1990 by Atheneum.

He has interviewed Osama bin Laden three times, most recently in 1997. After finishing his speaking engagement in Southern California, his plan was to return through Beirut to Ramallah.


Robert Fisk told us he first met bin Laden in Sudan in 1994, having been taken to a remote desert location whose location he wasn’t supposed to be able to identify. The future Public Enemy Number One wore a white robe “like a saviour” and seemed to be the big dog in the encampment. He talked mostly on that occasion about fighting the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

That was when he told the story, which Mr. Fisk has written about, of being right next to a mortar shell and expecting to die within the next few seconds. When the shell didn’t explode, bin Laden viewed it as a religious experience, a sign he was being saved for greater things.

Here is a story I had not heard before. Fisk told us that bin Laden told him then that after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, he offered to take care of the Iraqi dictator with his battle-hardened guerrillas. But the Saudis told him they wanted the Americans to handle the situation.

Whether that experience started bin Laden’s disdain for the Saudi regime or not is difficult to tell. It may have had some origins in his original recruitment to fight the Saudis in Afghanistan. The Saudis had wanted the Saudi force to be led by a prince (there are hundreds) but none of the princes was interested, so Osama (who had apparently led the pampered playboy life a bit himself) was the highest-ranking person willing to do it.

Whatever the origin, bin Laden’s hatred for the Saudi regime seems to have hardened since then.


In Afghanistan in 1996, shortly after he arrived in the country, bin Laden mainly talked with Mr. Fisk about the corruption of the Saudi regime and his desire to see the Americans and British out of the country. That, rather than concern about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or even the awfulness of America, seemed to be his main obsession then.

In 1997, when he interviewed him again, said Mr. Fisk, bin Laden had many more armed men in evidence and very professional security. In a cave built with help from the CIA, bin Laden said, “From this mountain upon which we’re sitting we brought down the Soviet Union. And I pray to God that he allows us to turn America into a shadow of itself.”

“I took him seriously then,” Mr. Fisk told us, “but I didn’t anticipate anything like 9/11. If he did it – the British brief was not completely persuasive – he had developed a sophisticated and extensive network.”

Although he has no direct knowledge, Mr. Fisk would be surprised if Osama bin Laden is dead.


Fisk speculates – in our conversation he was always very clear about demarcations between speculation and known facts – that Osama’s intention might have been to get American ground troops into Afghanistan, where they would be quickly demoralized. After the Somali fiasco, Fisk thinks, Osama was convinced U.S. troops had poor morale and not very good leadership and would be chewed up quickly. He was probably shocked that the Taliban fell at all, and more shocked that it fell so quickly.

But al Qaida has no particular loyalty to Afghanistan, it was just a handy base of operations.


I asked if it was constructive, as the United States has announced it was doing, to offer advice, materiel and logistical support to build a national army in Afghanistan, a place that has traditionally been highly decentralized. Fisk said that was exactly what the Russians tried to do when they tried to occupy the country. The first ambush of Russians that he covered happened in precisely the caves where the US tried to oust, capture or kill al Qaida fighters a few weeks ago in Operation Anaconda.

Incidentally, he said, the stories that Afghanistan has always been dominated by brutal, heavily armed regional warlords is not especially valid. The first resistance to the Russians was quite amateurish. It wasn’t until the CIA got in there with funding, weapons and organizational help that there were professional fighters and warlords.

Fisk thinks that to do proper peacekeeping in Afghanistan would require a force of 50,000 to 100,000 foreign (or UN or whatever) troops who could perform fairly comprehensive disarmament. I have my doubts whether that would work, and while there are probably a lot of weapons beyond what might be needed for personal defense, I’m pretty dubious about disarmament as a prescription.


Turning to the Middle East, Mr. Fisk said he thought from the beginning that the Oslo “peace process” was doomed since Israeli West Bank settlements continued and there were no international guarantees. The recent fighting, he believes, has hardened attitudes on all sides.

While he referred to Yasser Arafat as “a corrupt, despotic little man,” he believes that “every attack by Ariel Sharon leads to a mass grave.” (He investigated the Sabra-Chatila refugee camp massacres in Beirut in 1982 and believes Sharon bears great personal responsibility. He is still interviewing witnesses and participants to try to fill out the picture.)


Mr. Fisk thinks what eventually comes from a full investigation into the conflicts at the refugee camp at Jenin in the West Bank will tell a great deal about how things stand in the current conflict. During the Israeli attack last week, after resistance that may have included a suicide bomber, the Israelis brought in bulldozers to knock down buildings. Although they warned people before knocking them down, many fear there are hundreds of corpses under the rubble.

Fisk, who says the Guardian correspondent told him there was a terrible stench in Jenin, criticized Israel for not allowing Red Cross workers and reporters into the refugee camps immediately. Israeli military leaders now say the Palestinian dead are “not in the hundreds but in the dozens.” Mr. Fisk fears a massacre occurred.


Mr. Fisk believes that the August 2000 Camp David offer from which Yasser Arafat walked away was not as good a deal for Palestinians as has been generally described. He noted there was no real guarantee of a capital in East Jerusalem but a palace outside the walls, and that the Palestinians were offered “a sort of sovereignty.” By his calculations they would have gotten about 46 percent of the West Bank, not 97 percent.

He thinks there was no way Arafat could have taken the deal and remained leader, but he thinks he screwed up pretty badly in not explaining the reasons for the rejection well and in commencing violence almost immediately. He thinks the right-of-return is not the real stumbling-block, that Palestinians know very well they won’t get it but use it as leverage for some kind of compensation.

Fisk thinks that both Arafat and Sharon are essentially reactive personalities, that they don’t plan very far ahead, so the potential for disastrous miscalculation is high. He thinks the most important recent development in the region is that the Arabs are not afraid any more, either of Israel, the US or the West. He thinks most Europeans view US policy as bankrupt and uninformed, reflexively pro-Israel.


While being quite critical, as we expected, of Israel, Mr. Fisk made sure to point out that it has taken two sides to create a volatile standoff. He suggested that “in the Muslim world there is little self-criticism, no self-questioning, a tendency to fall back on myths.” There has never been a Muslim equivalent of the Renaissance, a period of respectful questioning and refinement of religious and cultural traditions.

He still runs into Arabs who believe the Mossad pulled off the World Trade Center attacks and don’t want to be confused with facts. In fact, throughout the Muslim world, he says, it’s very difficult to have serious and respectful disagreements.

Sobering but fascinating, our conversation left us with little hope that America will be able to pull a peace rabbit out of a hat any time soon.

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Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).