More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 73

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

I first became aware of Osama bin Laden in the spring of 1994, in the Albanian capital, Tirana. Albania had always been, at least in my own mind, romantic and remote. In reality, it was all of that, together with a considerable capacity to catch you unawares.

My interest in Albania was not entirely academic. A few months previously I had met a girl on an Adria Airways flight out of Ljubljana airport. Usually, Adria upgraded me to Business Class: not only was I a regular flyer with them, but, after the June 1991 attack on the airport, I had supplied their directors with a set of rather handsome photographs of the immediate aftermath of the bombing, showing their shredded Airbus A-230.

However, on this occasion the aircraft was packed out and there was only one seat left in economy. Seated beside the empty place was a strikingly attractive petite, dark-haired girl with large brown eyes.

Conversation proved easy. “Hello. Me Megan. Who you?” The young lady proffered her hand. It was the beginning of a long friendship. She called me from London a couple of days later with the imprecation: “You come fetch me.” I did.

She liked to come to stay at my remote country house home in the East Lothian countryside for the peace and quiet. And I loved to go and stay at her home in the centre of the Albanian capital, Tirana, because there was always so much going on there: usually a revolution of some sort.

She was well connected and she used to take me to see all the top people, like Sali Berisha, the President, and government ministers by the score. Her grandfather had been the general in charge of the loyal Zogist forces during and immediately after the Second World War. Then, one day, as he left his home in Tirana, the communists executed him at the garden gate.

One morning, as we left the office of the Minister of Tourism on Tirana’s main central boulevard, I noted a large poster and Megan provided a translation. It was announcing that “some Arabs” were to undertake a programme to build 800 mosques all over Albania in a bid, I surmised, to corral the happy, bad Muslims of the country and make them into true believers.

Although the country was traditionally Muslim, a hangover from the centuries of Turkish rule, religious observance had hardly been encouraged during the post-war years under communist leader, Enver Hoxha. Also the harsh social conditions in the country and the traditional clan system meant that religion had slipped down the agenda: the Albanians liked to live life, which was rather fragile in many parts of the country, and drinking alcohol was one of the most popular national pastimes.

I made inquiries about the Arabs. It turned out that the funding for this ambitious programme originated in Saudi Arabia with a family called bin Laden . . . but that the active links were coming out of the Sudan. The principal figure involved, a man called Osama bin Laden, was in disgrace in Saudi and had set up shop in Sudan. He occasionally visited Tirana but I was, hardly surprisingly in retrospect, unable to pin him down.

People often ask me if I ever interviewed Osama bin Laden. Would that I could say I had. In fact, he gave very few interviews to journalists over the years. John Simpson of the BBC says he once met him briefly but the encounter was not friendly and OBL did not communicate with him apart from by issuing dire threats from on top of a white horse.

Robert Fisk, one of the world’s top Middle Eastern journalists and commentators secured a significant interview with him in those early days, in December 1993. The Palestinian journalist, Abdel Bari Atwan, was selected by OBL to interview him in Afghanistan in 1996 and entered his lair via the Pakistan border city of Peshawar.

CNN correspondent, Peter Bergen, also secured a brief, broadcast TV interview. After 9/11, there was just one interview with him before he dropped out of sight completely. The Pakistani journalist, Hamid Mir, actually interviewed him three times and sports a black Casio watch he claims was a present from bin Laden.

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