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.”
On close examination, however, claims of links between Al Jazeera and terrorist organizations prove murky. I spoke to a number of military officers and commanders who had served in Iraq. Several told me that they suspected Al Jazeera stringers of communicating with insurgents, but had no concrete evidence. “This was reported by every commander throughout Iraq—the Al Jazeera journalists always seemed to be at the right place at the right time,” said Col. William Darley, who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 as the chief Public Affairs Officer for Combined Joint Task Force-7. “Most of the senior commanders loathed Al Jazeera. There was a very uneasy relationship of suspicion and distrust between Bremer and the cpa staff and Al Jazeera.” (L. Paul Bremer was head of the Coalition Provisional Authority.) Darley added that the Army made “probably at least a dozen” efforts to catch Al Jazeera reporters in such activities, but never succeeded. A former senior U.S. intelligence official told me that if there were any serious evidence pointing to links between Al Jazeera and Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, he would have known about it. “It wasn’t a major theme of any consequence in the intelligence community,” he said.
Asma al-haj didn’t know what had happened to her husband until late 2002, when she received a letter from him explaining that he was in Guantánamo. Around the same time, Al Jazeera issued a press release announcing that an employee was being held at the camp. The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld requesting information, but received no reply. For the next three years, little was known about the circumstances of al-Haj’s detention, until early 2005 when he obtained the services of Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer based in Britain.