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.”
At night, the journalists sometimes gathered in the courtyard and ate around a small fire. Occasionally, the CNN journalists borrowed a copy of al-Haj’s Koran to discuss Taliban interpretations of Islamic law. Al-Haj liked to greet Alfredo DeLara, the CNN cameraman at the time, with a high five, and was quick to adopt American jokes and phrases. “He was very excited to be there. You could see it on his face. He said he wanted to be like me,” DeLara said. DeLara and the CNN correspondent, Nic Robertson, were suspicious of everybody they met, but they saw no cause to be alarmed about al-Haj. “He just seemed like a young kid trying to get his big break,” said DeLara.
Al-Haj was detained at a moment when distrust of Al Jazeera was accumulating rapidly at the highest levels of the American government. Before 9/11, Al Jazeera was hailed as a rare independent voice in the Middle East. But after the attacks, while Middle East specialists in the government continued to advocate that the U.S. engage with the network, others in the administration developed an intense hostility toward it. According to numerous former senior administration officials, the major hubs of animosity were the Office of the Vice President and the Secretary of Defense, particularly the offices run by Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, and Stephen Cambone, the former undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
After the Iraq war began, that suspicion intensified. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, said: “There was just this visceral, ‘I-don’t-like-them, they’re-our-enemies’ response. And they would spread stories like Al Jazeera setting ambushes and IEDs”—in Iraq—”so they could film the insurgents’ attacks. These were the kinds of stories that were told inside the Oval Office . . . . I heard conversations of that nature almost every month during later 2003 and 2004.”