“It’s Vastly More Dangerous Now:” Scott Anderson on Reporting from the Middle East

On November 2, 2016, longtime war correspondent Scott Anderson visited the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics to discuss his latest project, “Fractured Lands,” which was featured in a special issue of the New York Times Magazine on August 14. In eighteen months of reporting for this story, Anderson chronicled how six individuals from Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan have experienced the unrest that has gripped the Middle East since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. His 42,000-word story was accompanied by photographs by Paolo Pellegrin, as well as a virtual-reality video, “The Fight for Fallujah,” by filmmaker Ben Solomon. “Fractured Lands” was supported with funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which also arranged Anderson’s visit to the University of Chicago.

Before the event, former Gate Co-Editor-in-Chief Patrick Reilly spoke with Anderson about the experience of reporting “Fractured Lands” and his thoughts on the region’s future.

The Gate: You have said you were looking for “ordinary people with extraordinary experiences” for this story. Could you explain the process of locating those six individuals for this story?

Scott Anderson: With each one, it was a little bit different. The only person I knew beforehand, of the six, was Khulood, the Iraqi woman. I had worked with her very briefly about ten years ago. She had been my fixer for about ten days in Jordan. I was doing a story on Iraqi refugees who had gone to Jordan at that time. So she was the only one I knew then.

With Majd Ibrahim, this Syrian refugee, I had met him on a beach. I couldn’t go into Syria, because I couldn’t get permission to go in on the government side. I couldn’t get a visa, and I couldn’t go in on the rebel-held side either, because it was so dangerous that the New York Times wouldn’t allow it. So I realized that I needed to find a refugee, someone who had left Syria. After some trial and error, I went to this island in Greece where a lot of refugees from Syria and Iraq were coming across from Turkey. And I interviewed a number of Syrian refugeesvery quick, cursory interviews. It wasn’t the right time to try and do an in-depth interview there. But I then found two or three, maybe four people, who I had a lot of interest in, and stayed in touch with them through email. And when Majd got to Germany, and wrote me that he was there, I went to Germany to see him.

With Majdi el-Mangoush, the Libyan, that connection came from talking with people who had been in Libya. I heard this amazing story about this Libyan Air Force cadet who had gone on a spying mission for the Qaddafi regime, gone to his hometown, and switched sides, and so I thought he had a very interesting storyhe had been on both sides of the civil war.

With Azar Mirkhan, the Kurdish doctor, I had spent a lot of time in Kurdistan, and I had actually started out talking to his brother first as a potential subject. Then when I met Azar, he was fighting on the front lines against ISIS, so he seemed like a more intriguing figure to focus on.

With Laila Soueif, the Egyptian subject, she’s the only one who has some fame, at least within Egypt. She and her husband had been political dissidents for about thirty years. And Egypt has become a very difficult place for Western journalists to work, and so I knew I needed to line up at least a good idea of who I was going to be focused on ahead of time.

And then the last one was Wakaz, the ISIS fighter. For him, I interviewed about twenty ISIS fighters who were in prison, and Wakaz’s story was by far the most compelling. So I did two interviews with him.

Gate: How were you able to get access to the Kurdish prisons where these ISIS fighters were being held?

Anderson: Because I had spent so much time there. I had actually made two long trips to Kurdistan. Over these two long trips, I had learned about the existence of these secret prisons, and I had spent a lot of time trying to find out the people who would administer them. And then I gained access just by working gradually, getting up to the people who could say “yes” or “no” to giving me access. But it took a long time. It took probably about ten days of going from one person to another and pushing until I finally got access.

Gate: Since the story came out in August, have you heard from any of the six people who you have profiled?

Anderson: Yeah, I’ve heard from Majdi, the Libyan, who really liked it. Surprisingly enough, I haven’t heard from Laila, the Egyptian, but two of her children are still in prison. She’s still teaching at Cairo University, and I know that she’s now in legal trouble of her own, so it could be that she’s very busy. I’m surprised that I haven’t heard from her. I’ve heard from Khulood, who’s in Austria, and she was very appreciative of the article, and I’ve heard from Majd Ibrahim in Germany. I haven’t heard from Azar, and certainly I haven’t heard from Wakaz.

Gate: While you were interviewing them and preparing this story, were you concerned that this kind of coverage could put them in danger?

Anderson: No. That has been a concern of mine with stories in the past. Of the six I featured in “Fractured Lands,” no. Azar said some rather impolitic things. He wouldn’t have been in any physical danger, but Iraqi Kurdistan is a very small place and he was very blunt-speaking, so he might have caught some grief from people he knows because of what he said to me. Probably the one I’d be the most concerned about was Majd Ibrahim, the Syrian, because even among the refugees in Europe, there’s a huge amount of paranoia among Syrians, worrying about the secret police, that they’re being watched, which is one of the reasons why Majd didn’t want his face to be shown. He’s the only one of the six that I followed, who you never see his face.

Gate: In the article, you quote a peshmerga officer named Sirwan Barzani asking rhetorically why the Kurds should devote more men to re-capturing Mosul. Recently Al-Jazeera reported that there are currently forty thousand peshmerga supporting the Iraqi Army in its campaign to retake Mosul. Do you think the Kurds now see more value in helping with the campaign?

Anderson: First of all, I think that figure of forty thousandI highly suspect that’s high. I can’t imagine there’s forty thousand peshmerga. That might include back-base auxiliary guys. I think the arrangement that’s been cut is that the peshmerga, by and large, are doing outskirt operations, they’re sealing the outer roads. I would be really shocked if peshmerga would want to be in the vanguard of going into Mosul. I think there was a deal cut between the Kurds and the Americans that the Kurds will help us out with this operation, because the Kurds certainly are fighting there, and they probably are better fighters, man-for-man, than the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army has a few units that are much-improved, and have received really intensive American training in the past year. They will be in the vanguard, going into Mosul, but I think why the Kurds are involved at all is that they are hoping to leverage this, and that they’ll be allowed to declare independence. But I don’t think they’ll be allowed to. I don’t think the Americans will allow them to.

Gate: Assuming that plays out, what do you see their position being in a post-ISIS Iraq or a post-Mosul Iraq?

Anderson:  I think more of the same that they already have, which is essentially their own state, but an undeclared one. They have to maintain this fiction that they’re still part of Iraq, and I think the Americans will force them to maintain that fiction. But there will be more of a direct pipeline now. The first time I was in Kurdistan, a big complaint among the peshmerga was that all the weapons they were getting to fight ISIS had to be routed through Baghdad. And I understand that that’s changed now, that they’re getting direct aid from the Americans and from the Germans. I think there were probably a lot of backroom deals that were cut as part of the whole operation on Mosul. So I’m sure that if they’re not going to be allowed to declare independence, they’ve extracted other things from the Western powers, and especially the United States, for participating. Certainly no one can reasonably expect that they are going to be pushed back into a unified Iraq. That’s just never going happen. I think Kurdistan will just remain a de facto independent state.

Gate: Thinking more about the sources of the region’s instability, after your article came out, the National Review ran a response by David French. He wrote that the article dealt with one of the two “terrible diseases” in the Middle East, one of them being the tribalism that you write about, the other one being militant Islam. But the latter one just doesn’t factor very much in the lives of the six people you write about. How would you respond to critics like him?

Anderson: Critics who criticize that I didn’t emphasize Islam? I think that’s overplayed, and I’ve always felt that that’s overplayed. Regarding the composition of ISIS, yes, there are people in the leadership positions and among the foreign fighters, for whom this is a clash of civilizations, this is a clash of religions. I think for the vast majority of people in ISIS, like Wakaz, the kid I profiled, it’s not about religion, and it’s not about politics. It’s about a futureless existence, doing something that, they get paidWakaz was getting $400 a month, which is vastly more than he was making beforeand it’s about living large in the short term and not really thinking about what’s going to come in the future. And I think the vast majority ofand certainly of the foot soldiers within ISISalmost everybody I talked to fit that profile. I think that radical Islam, while of course it’s a component there, I think that a much stronger spur has to do with tribal affiliations, and to a lesser degree sectarian affiliations. But so much of it is really tribal.

Gate: Early on in “Fractured Lands,” you quote an interview you did with Muammar Qaddafi in 2002, where he predicted that Iraq would become a breeding ground for al-Qaeda if the Americans invaded. Some of the characters in “Fractured Lands” have also made predictions about their countries’ futures. As someone who has reported on the region and researched it for so long, do any of these predictions strike you as likely to play out?

Anderson: First, just to clarify, that was Qaddafi’s take on what was going to happen in Iraq. That wasn’t mine. He predicted that al-Qaeda would rise and he was absolutely accurate in what you saw happening in Iraq. Yes, I’m trying to think of the people I talk to, and who made predictions about their countries. That would be Majdi in Libya, Laila in Egypt, and Majd the Syrian. Majdi is somewhat hopeful for the future of Libya. He has this interesting ideahe worries that Libya will fracture. There’s one great regional split in Libya between East and West, essentially, and people talk about Libya becoming two countries. In Majdi’s view, once the disintegration gets going, Libya could be six countries. Beyond the split between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, there’s all this tribal stuff. So he would like to see the re-imposition of the monarchy. Qaddafi overthrew the monarchy in 1969. Majdi sees the monarchy as the only thing that might reinstate the glue that keeps the Libyan nation together. And he feels that there are more and more people feeling this way. So he’s mildly optimistic, although I think he also clearly worries about the future of Libya.

Laila Soueif in Egypt is predicting that as the economy of Egypt continues to deteriorate, that as the government becomes more and more repressive, there will be either another popular explosion that will be much bloodier than Tahrir Square, orand I suspect that this is more likelythat Sisi gets pushed to the side by the other generals, and they put in a more user-friendly head of state, a kind of figurehead for the junta.

It’s very hard to find anyone who’s optimistic about Syria. Majd Ibrahim’s take was that Syria was going to continue to burn for at least ten years, and it would only stop when everyone who has taken up weapons in this war is killed. So even if the rate of killing accelerates, that’s still going to take ten years for that to happen. So it’s a really grim view of the future. I personally think he’s probably right, but I think it’s probably going to take longer than ten years. I see it going on for a long, long time.

Gate: You mentioned in your article that one of the things that helped some of these countries, especially Libya and Iraq, manage their internal tensions was oil wealth. Do you think the region has more to lose if the oil price stays low?

Anderson: Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s a really hard one to read, because oil is so cheap now, it’s almost not worth pumping in a lot of places. And I think you can come up with different answers or different scenarios in different countries. I think that if oil rebounded in Iraq, if more money came into Iraq, then you just have more infrastructure existing in Iraq. And you have more outside interests that might, with money, start knitting together this confederation idea, where you have three joint mini-states as part of Iraq. In a place like Libya, the more money that comes in, the more it actually has an opposite effect, the more it balkanizes the country. It’s going to be interesting when Libya runs out of money, which is going to be in about six months, seven months. In a curious way, if there’s no money coming in to fuel the militias, and get them new weaponry, does actual poverty bring them to some kind of rapprochement between themselves? It’s possible. It’ll either get worse or better.

Gate: You’ve been covering the Middle East since 1983. How has the experience of reporting from the region changed since then?

Anderson: It’s vastly more dangerous now, and it’s vastly more dangerous wherever ISIS is operating, or where there are even groups like ISIS operating, the main difference being that there’s now a bounty on the heads of Western journalists. If you’re a European journalist, and you are taken hostage, your government will ransom you out for millions of dollars. The American government won’t pay ransom if you’re taken hostage, but you’re still a trophy killing. So wherever ISIS is operating, if you’re a Western journalist, or a relief worker for that matter, you’re kind of a walking-around pot of gold. You’re probably worth, say, five million dollars to ISIS. So what’s a finder’s fee on five million dollars, for someone to hand you over to ISIS? Five percent? Ten percent? A lot of money. And meanwhile, you as a journalist are trusting your life on people you’re paying two hundred dollars a day, three hundred dollars a day, for a driver or a fixer. So the economics are really quite frightening. So in that way, it’s become infinitely more dangerous. We’ve never seen this before, where you’re actually going through the area with a price tag on your head. And it’s become more difficult too, on a level of government obstruction. I’ll use Egypt as an example. If they could get away with it, the Sisi government would kick out all Western journalists tomorrow, because they have nothing to gain by having Western journalists report on their human rights abuses. So yeah, I think it’s become much more dangerous.

Gate: You have talked a lot about Western journalists. Have you worked very much with local journalists in your coverage of the region?

Anderson: I haven’t worked with them, but I’ve certainly met a lot and conferred with them.

Gate: Have their experiences changed very much in the time you’ve been working there?

Anderson: Oh yeah, I mean it’s much more dangerous to them too. You look at Syria … the Western journalists who get taken hostage and murdered, they tend to get a lot of the the press, but a huge number of Syrian journalists have been killed … and all the citizen reporters who were reporting from Raqqa, when ISIS uncovered them, they were killed in these really hideous ways. A lot of local journalists have been killed in Iraq. It’s the combination of ISIS, and the risks of combat anywhere, of armed bands roving around the country and setting up checkpoints. You’re often not sure of who exactly you’re dealing with. It seems every year that the statistics on the number of local journalists who have been killed go up.

Gate: What was the most memorable part of reporting “Fractured Lands”?

Anderson: It’s hard to say what was the most memorable. It’s such a long process, and I spent so much time with each person. I would say the most gripping, or the most dramatic, was being in Iraqi Kurdistan, and seeing some of these hostages coming across, having been ransomed out. Also, being on the front lines, seeing ISIS-held villages a kilometer away, and realizing you were just very much on this frontline. On the one hand, you had a rather enlightenedbut screwed-up in its own wayKurdistan, a Western-supporting pseudo-democracy, but then, a kilometer away, people existing in essentially the Dark Ages.

Gate: How did your subjects and the people you interviewed react when you told them about your project?

Anderson: I’m trying to think of the number of people I actually told about the complete scope. I wasn’t actually sure myself. That was the question mark hanging over this whole thing. If I got great material, and if I did a good job, I was going get the entire magazine, but it wasn’t a done deal from the beginning. So I tried not to over-promise to people. I mean, most stories I’ve done for the New York Times Magazine are cover stories. But I never go in with an idea that that’s going be the case. I never promise people that. But obviously, you come into an area, and you’re with the New York Timeseverybody’s heard of the New York Times. So that’s going to open a lot of doors. And then sometimes it actually closes some doors. I mean, it’s very hard for people to remain anonymous. It’s not like it’s going appear in the West, and there’s not going be an echo effect back home. There’s absolutely going be an echo effect. So I think for some people, it dissuades, but certainly on balance, it’s a very positive thing to go into an area like that for an organization like the New York Times. A couple of the people I told that the idea, at least, was that I was going to tell these different stories, and try to say something about the entire region.

Correction: An Al-Jazeera article regarding the Mosul campaign was incorrectly quoted during this interview. The article states that the total force fighting for the city, which includes the Iraqi army, Kurdish peshmerga forces, and other groups, numbers about forty thousand; the Kurdish peshmerga alone do not number forty thousand.

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