Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera gained international notoriety after 9/11 when it aired taped messages from Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda henchmen. U.S. officials suspected that al Qaeda was using these broadcasts to transmit coded messages to its operatives world-wide. But the network’s influence spread even further after its coverage of the war in Afghanistan was lauded by many in the Arab world. The network is estimated to reach about fifty million people worldwide and has been labeled the CNN of the Arab world.
But like CNN, Al-Jazeera’s image was tarnished by revelations that its coverage of Afghanistan and the war on Iraq may have been shaped by outside agents. One of its correspondents in Afghanistan was later accused of being part of the Taliban government. The network was heavily criticized after it aired footage of coalition soldiers killed or imprisoned by the Iraqis. And after the war, it was harshly criticized by Secretary of State Colin Powell for broadcasting yet another message from a top al Qaeda official.
Now the CNN of the Arab world has fired its general manager, Mohammed Jassem Ali-Ali. Ali-Ali had set up and run the network since its inception in 1996. He had previously worked for Qatar television; Al-Jazeera is based in Qatar, but repeatedly aired exclusive footage provided by Iraqi officials during the war. The firing came after the London Sunday Times reported that Iraqi intelligence agents had successfully penetrated the network and converted it into an “instrument” of the Iraqi regime. Al-Jazeera spokesmen denied any connection between the reports and Ali-Ali’s removal.
The Times obtained documents from top secret Iraqi intelligence files that cover the period from August 1999 to November 2002. The files show three Iraqi agents worked inside the network. Their mission was to secure favorable coverage by the network for the Saddam Hussein regime. At least one of the agents received gifts from Iraqi intelligence in return for his services. That agent reportedly supplied the Baghdad regime with letters written by Bin Laden and advice on how best to get pro-Iraqi spokesmen onto the network’s broadcasts. The documents also show that Iraq had recruited two Al-Jazeera cameramen. They supplied Iraq with insider information and film of the Iraqi military during the first Gulf War.
There is nothing in the files to show that Ali-Ali was on the Iraqi payroll, but a series of contacts with him is well-documented. And other documents quote Ali-Ali telling Iraqi officials that the network “leans toward the Iraqi side because they know the truth of the aggression that Iraq is subjected to.” Iraqi intelligence also claims that it dissuaded the network from airing footage of a 1988 Iraqi chemical attack on the Kurds.
The news of Ali-Ali’s dismissal has received widespread coverage in Europe and throughout the Middle East. In the U.S., wire-service stories were picked up by a number of local dailies and the Fox News Channel ran a brief piece. But the mainstream media seem to have ignored the story altogether. Maybe it hits too close to home.