Many questions surround Sami al-Haj. After talking with his colleagues, friends, family members, and lawyer, I could piece together only a partial picture of his life. He grew up in the Sudan, where an uncle, who was better off than al-Haj’s family, helped him attend college in India, where he studied computers and English. In the late 1990s, he took a job as an administrative assistant for a company called Union Beverages, and later worked in a similar role for an import-export company in the United Arab Emirates. In 1997, a former university classmate introduced him to Asma, and they married the following year. Asma told me that her husband was “a very kind-hearted person, [but] we didn’t have deep conversations about our future or experiences.” She added that he liked to sleep a lot, to watch television (usually Al Jazeera and Egyptian movies), and to read “every newspaper he could find.” In 2000, the couple had a son, Mohammed. Soon after, al-Haj answered a newspaper advertisement for a trainee position at Al Jazeera, and the family moved to Qatar. He started work on a trial basis in April 2000.
At Al Jazeera al-Haj trained as a cameraman. His colleagues remember him as quiet and eager. As it happened, he didn’t have to wait long. After September 11, the network needed journalists willing to work in a war zone, and novices like al-Haj and Abdelhaq Sadah were eager to go. On October 7, al-Haj signed a contract, and three days later the network sent him to Afghanistan with a correspondent named Youssef al-Shouly. “We tried to dissuade him from going because we thought it was too dangerous,” his brother, Asim, later told The Associated Press. “But in the end he said this was an opportunity to join the Al Jazeera team and prove himself.”
Al-Haj and al-Shouly arrived in Kandahar at a moment when the city was becoming increasingly dangerous. CNN—the only remaining U.S. network there—was already preparing to leave. So CNN struck a deal with Al Jazeera: the Arabic network could occupy the brick house that served as CNN’s bureau and transmit images over its satellite dish, which CNN could then use in its own reports. For nearly two weeks, journalists from both Al Jazeera and CNN shared the house. They often covered similar stories, and the CNN crew trained the Al Jazeera team to use its equipment. Because it was too risky for journalists to operate in Kandahar independently, most of the time they could film only with Taliban permission. In fact, Taliban commanders frequently stopped by the house with story ideas; once they brought the landing gear of an American helicopter. They were such a regular presence that the CNN staff began to worry that an unmanned drone might target the house—although the crew had given its coordinates to the Pentagon—and stretched a large tarpaulin bearing the network’s name over the nearby ground.
Al-Shouly was clearly in charge of the Al Jazeera team. He had all the sources, and he told al-Haj what to shoot. They usually produced one or two stories a day with only a few hours of sleep, and al-Haj would regularly ask al-Shouly how to improve his work. The two had little time for personal conversations, but al-Haj would talk about “his kid, his family in Sudan, that his sister and brothers wanted to go to university but they were not wealthy and he wanted to send money,” al-Shouly told me. CNN’s fixer at the time, Kamal Hyder (now the Islamabad correspondent for Al Jazeera English), remembers that al-Haj “was very particular about his prayers; he was very particular about his work.”