From the very first moment I joined Al Jazeera in 2005 to lead the launch of the English channel’s Washington broadcast center, there was talk of the imminent demise of Wadah Khanfar, the managing director of Al Jazeera Arabic. But until last week, when Khanfar abruptly announced his resignation, it seemed that the stronger the rumors were, the higher he climbed.
Many believe that Wikileaks provided the silver bullet that finally brought him down. Leaked diplomatic cables document a series of meetings between Khanfar and US embassy officials in Qatar, raising questions about the extent of US influence on both him and the channel. One especially damning cable from 2005, which has received extensive play in the Arab press, alleges that Khanfar agreed to a US request to remove certain pictures from the Al Jazeera website. Al Jazeera has claimed Khanfar’s resignation was in the works before the cables’ release; he has said he stepped down as the specific mission he agreed upon with the Qatari owners—“to transform Al Jazerra into an international news network,” as he put it in an exit interview—had been accomplished. Whatever the reasons, Al Jazeera has much to thank Khanfar for. He had built it into a global network, and led it to its greatest triumph.
Khanfar was at graduate school in Johannesburg when the original Arabic channel launched in 1996, and first appeared on air as an analyst on African affairs. This evolved into a job as a correspondent based in South Africa. In 2001 he began his ascent, and his career as a problem solver, when he was brought in to replace the Kabul bureau chief, Tayseer Allouni, and repair the damage caused by his perceived proximity to the Taliban. Then, at the height of the 2003 invasion Khanfar moved on to oversee Al Jazeera’s Baghdad operation during one of its most challenging periods.
In 2003, following a scandal not unlike the one that many believe to be the cause of Khanfar’s sudden resignation, Mohammed Jassem al-Ali, the original Qatari managing director of the channel, was forced to step down. The Sunday Times published documents discovered in post-war Iraq that alleged ties between al-Ali and Saddam Hussein’s security services.
After a brief caretaker administration, the channel called on Khanfar once again to repair the damage, and appointed him managing director. By this stage, Washington’s view of Al Jazeera had changed: once regarded as a budding institution necessary for regional reform, the channel was now seen as a strategic threat. Its popularity meant it could not be ignored, and the fact that many of the voices the channel hosted were critical of US actions in the wider Middle East meant it had to be neutralized. Now out of Baghdad and safely in Doha, the threats Khanfar faced were more rhetorical than physical, but ferocious nonetheless. (It is during this time that President George W. Bush is alleged to have mused out loud about bombing the channel.) As the violence in Iraq grew, so too did the pressure from Washington. Yet the more Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld railed against the channel, the more popular it became. The only real threat to the prestige of both Khanfar and Al Jazeera would come from within, with the announcement of the launch of the English language channel.
The early recruits to Al Jazeera English, myself included, were drawn by a compelling vision. It was to be the first truly global channel that did not come from any fixed cultural or national context, but rather addressed a heterogeneous audience by originating from four separate broadcast centers scattered around the world. The only problem was that it was never clear why the channel was called Al Jazeera, or indeed why it was headquartered in the Middle East. The vision never fully embraced the success of the original channel, and even appeared to place itself beyond it. Many seized on the fact that the English channel was established as a wholly separate entity as a repudiation of what were considered to be the excesses of Al Jazeera Arabic. This was when the rumors really began to fly that Khanfar would be undone by his alleged Islamist sympathies—much like Tayseer Allouni, who, before his own fall, had been, as Khanfar was now, one of the channel’s best known figures.