I’ve been meaning to post this story for, oh, about three months and 16 days now.
I graduated from college (barely) in 1997, and went to work for the Toledo Blade, a newspaper in Ohio. My first assignment there was covering the night cops beat, which mainly entailed sitting in the office long hours at night — Tuesday through Saturday, 6 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. (Makes a social life tons of fun, let me tell you.)
Their vacation rules meant that I couldn’t take any time off until I’d been there for a year, so when the fall of 1998 came around and I had a week off, I figured I’d earned the right to do something special. I went online and found a $200 ticket to Paris, scouted out a cheap hotel (the Hotel Printemps, $22 a night in a great neighborhood — spartan but highly recommended), and headed off to France.
I love traveling alone. I spent my days wandering unhurriedly from museum to museum, not a stress or care in the world. There were days I didn’t speak 50 words, and the little I did say usually consisted of ordering more bread at a cafe.
On one of my last afternoons in Paris, shortly after visiting Rousseau’s tomb at Le Pantheon, I realized I hadn’t eaten lunch. But I wasn’t famished, so I stopped at a sandwich shop on a surprisingly empty street. The owner, an Algerian, was friendly, and I reasoned it would be one of my last chances to practice my French, so we started talking.
He asked what I did, and I told him I was a reporter for an American newspaper. He perked up and ran behind a curtain to the back of his store to fetch his brother. His smiling, cheery brother said he was a freelance reporter and wanted to know how American newspapers work. We settled into a conversation I’ve had many times before — yes, sometimes I come up with my own stories, yes, sometimes editors assign things, etc. — when he suddenly, non-chalantly, said: “Would you like to interview Osama bin Laden?”
This was September, 1998. The original World Trade Center bombing had been a few months earlier. Americans were hearing of bin Laden for the first time. The man told me he had connections within bin Laden’s organization and that he had interviewed bin Laden himself for an Middle East publication some time ago. And he’d helped a British reporter get in touch with bin Laden not long before. Would I like to talk with him?
In retrospect, I wish I could I say I was frightened at the prospect of being on an empty European street with a man with links to al-Qaida, but I was actually just in ambitious journalist mode: “Hell yeah, I want to chat with Osama!” After all, bin Laden had been giving interviews to Western reporters throughout 1998. Sure, the Toledo Blade wasn’t the New York Times, but maybe the sickle-and-scythe imagery of its name would appeal to a mujahedeen.
I gave my business card to the brother, and he gave me his. He said he would forward my information to Osama’s people and that I should get in touch with him in a month or two. He said it was doubtful an interview would be granted, but he said he liked me (and, perhaps, my sandwich selection) and he’d try.
This probably seems like the oddest part of my story: I didn’t think much about it for a while. Back in Toledo a month or two later, I found the brother’s business card. I reasoned that I was still a peon at the paper and there was roughly zero chance I’d ever be allowed to hike to Afghanistan to interview a terrorist. (The Blade also had and has a pretty strict policy about protecting its reporters from too-dangerous situations, which while admirably paternalistic, always made my inner reporter daredevil a little mad.) I figured I’d have more to gain at the paper by giving the guy’s card to our managing editor, a guy named Lew, and letting him do with it whatever he wanted. I did just that; Lew looked confused, said he didn’t think The Blade would be interested in an interview, and put me on my way.
Ironically, I’d later become The Blade’s ad hoc foreign correspondent, going to six countries on the company’s dime. But I never got my audience with Osama. I suppose, in retrospect, that’s not a bad thing: if i had, I’d be awfully tired from all the TV interviews I’d have given in the last three months. And I’m anxiously awaiting a call from an FBI operative asking me why my business card was discovered in a Tora Bora cave.