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Fisk: Bin Laden was a "Has Been"

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ROBERT FISK, the Beirut-based correspondent for The Independent, knows his way around the geopolitics of the Middle East better than most.

But more than that, Fisk speaks with the rare authority of having been there. Over the last three decades he has covered most of its major conflicts.

His political nous is also honed by a critical understanding of colonial history, a rare quality in today’s world of event-driven, embedded journalism. His books, Pity the Nation and The Great War for Civilisation, are classics of the genre.

My brief encounters with Fisk (in radio interviews) have revealed that he can be abrasive. He is a dogmatic man who does not suffer fools.

For somebody who must be pestered day and night by all manner of people, I’ve found him to be extremely generous with his time – but, understandably, wary of being exploited for his views.

I remember some years ago he put the phone down on me as we were going live on Voice of the Cape’s Drivetime. After the show I sent him an angry e-mail in which I accused him of being inconsiderate to our listeners.

To be honest, I didn’t expect a reply. But reply Fisk did. He said he gave time to community broadcasters across the world, but when he heard we were a Muslim broadcaster (via the station ID) he’d had to bail out.

Nothing against Muslims, he said, but he didn’t know us. He couldn’t risk being used to further potentially hidden agendas. I then realised that we’d been remiss not to adequately inform him about VOC, and having done that, he graciously agreed to do the interview.

I read later that Fisk had even walked out on a lunch with diplomats in Beirut. It was during the civil war and it was an act that saved his life. Agents for one of the factions in the conflict had told him afterwards he’d been monitored, and that any public bonhomie with a hostile foreign entity would have put him into his grave.

This principled awareness of a reporter’s role is what has sustained Fisk’s career. To be able to reflect the truth you need access to all sides of the story, and to be fair and consistent, you can’t afford to belong to any camps.

Fisk’s generosity of spirit, and nuanced understanding of events, would come to the fore in dramatic fashion in Afghanistan when an enraged mob would set about him after the US post 9/11 invasion.

Fisk was injured in the attack, and could so easily have basked in self-pity. Instead, he penned one of his most moving frontline dispatches, saying that he understood exactly why he – a symbol of the west – had been assaulted.

If I were a lecturer, I would make all my students read that piece. It’s not only informative journalism; it’s also a great instance of humanity.

It’s for all these reasons that I take commentary by Robert Fisk seriously. And when it comes to Bin Laden, I pay attention, because he is the only English-speaking journalist to have interviewed him three times.

Bin Laden’s demise, ten years after 9/11, has evoked a polarised response across the globe – from the Taliban threatening to avenge his death to the triumphalism of President Barack Obama.

There was also extensive comment about Bin Laden’s location in the heart of Pakistan, and an outcry about the nature of his “sea burial” and the refusal by Pakistan and the US to show his body.

But if you speak to Fisk – which I had the privilege of doing on air recently – these are merely distractions to more pressing international issues, such as the Middle East political earthquake.

After crustily accusing me of sounding like “an American radio-show host” when I used the cliché “icon of terror” for Bin Laden, he told me that the al-Qaeda figurehead was a “has been”.

He was a “middle-aged nonentity” who had never done anything. Bin Laden had wanted a Caliphate across the Middle East, but he’d completely failed in everything he tried to do.

“I would love to ask him what he thought of Egypt,” he said.

According to Fisk, al-Qaeda had become irrelevant and that Pakistan – who always knew where Bin Laden was located – had possibly felt he had no more use. He suggested that Bin laden had been betrayed for reward.

When asked about Bin Laden’s funeral at sea, and fears of a shrine being erected at his grave, Fisk answered that his marine entombment was “as creepy” as al-Qaeda and Bin Laden.

“Bin Laden was a Wahhabi, a man who didn’t even support the idea of a marked grave, so how do we understand that? It’s fairly obvious that it (Bin Laden’s death) was an execution mission, and perhaps we were not meant to see that,” he said.

On the question of Pakistani intelligence, the ISI, being pro-Taliban (and al-Qaeda sympathetic) he replied that open US support of India in Kashmir had caused huge resentment in Pakistan.

“I’ve been told by various sources, some even in the Pakistani military, that US policy on Kashmir is unpopular, and seen as about as biased against Pakistan as Israeli policy is against Palestinians,” he said.

The US saw India as a bulwark against China, and this foreign support of Indian Kashmir was a deep-rooted, if not sufficiently appreciated issue in Pakistan.

“The sentiment of the Pakistani generals is: (for Kashmir) let the US bleed in Afghanistan via the Taliban,” commented Fisk.

And, finally, how did he feel about the demise of Bin Laden?

“Well, he was responsible for thousands of deaths, so there you go. He probably got his just desserts. But then, just desserts are not the same as justice, are they?”

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