It was a warm afternoon last autumn when we finally arranged to meet at a five star hotel on the west side of Los Angeles. The infamous Santa Ana winds were blowing dry heat in the hotel lobby with such ferocity that the flag perched outside was shaking like an arthritic mermaid.
Shortly past 1 p.m., a slender, rather ebullient man appears in the revolving doorway. His head is partially covered by a hood, and he is wearing a tan seersucker suit. He is accompanied by his guide who goes only by the name Thomas. Thomas seems, at first, to be a translator, but this is not the case.
In fluent English, tinged with overtones of the south Bronx, the hooded man approaches my table. I reach for his hand.
“I’m Al,” he said, “Al Qaeda.” I signal to him to sit down. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”
“Not at all,” I stammer awkwardly. “What shall I call you?
“Call me Al.” I think of "Moby Dick," and "call me Ishmael."
The punch from earlier that day starts to come up on me as I thumb through pages of questions hastily prepared for the meeting.
Thomas, the guide, senses the oncoming spirited debate, so he excuses himself to feed the meter, insisting he’s going to feed all the meters within a five mile radius. We're left alone for an intimate chat which is only interrupted by a radiant starlet server’s endless solicitations for libations.
Al orders banana Daiquiris, (I stopped counting at three), and it’s Pellegrino on the rocks for me. I pull out a tape recorder the size of a matchbook, and ask if he minds if I tape him. He swivels around anxiously in his seat—no, no tape, so I reach for the attaché case next to my seat with the yellow legal pad, and a couple of ballpoint pens in it. Startled, Al jumps up --I reassure him; no need to worry---I’m here alone, and have no intention of harming him.
He reaches in his shirt pocket for a cigarette ---“You can smoke out there,” I tell him.
We settle down for what, to him, must be an interminable talk, most of which will appear in New Street Times, but for now this excerpt:
Moi: What does the phrase “war on terror” mean to you, Al?
Al: War on terrible---terrible war, one that is going badly.
Moi: Why terribly?
Al: Lacks definition.
Moi: Tell me a bit about you. Did you go to university?
Al: Yes, I have a degree in Economics.
Moi: Got any hobbies?
Al: Speed dialing.
Moi: What is your favorite novel?
Al: “War and Peace.”
Moi: Do you have Internet access?
Moi: An e-mail address?
Al: Of course
Moi: Are you still living in a cave?
Moi: Do you think the American election will affect you, or your activity?
Al: Like I said, I majored in Economics.
Moi: Do you know why, for the past eight years, many thousands of U.S. and allied forces have been looking for you?
Al: I don’t know. Maybe I owe them money.
Moi: How would you define a terrorist?
Al: Anyone who swindles you under the shield of ideology.
Moi: Would you call yourself a terrorist?
Al: I never swindled anybody What’s scary is the illusion that one can replicate myself, and become a tribe. I thought only spiders could do that. It’s rather sinister.
Moi: What is?
Al: The illusion of being a collective noun, and not an individual.
Moi: Do you think you have committed a crime?
Moi: Have you blown up any buildings?
Al: Not lately, at least, none that I can recall.
Moi: Why would the CIA, FBI, and presidents past and present think so?
Al: I’m clueless. I’ve been farming in Helmond Province for the past eight years, and raising four children. My wife is a school teacher. My father was a country lawyer –the equivalent of your public defender.
Moi: So, you weren’t a Freedom Fighter.
Al: I’m not a soldier. I’m an accountant by trade, and a farmer.
Moi: Do you see the west as occupiers of your sovereign land?
Al: I don’t see it as my sovereign land. I only own a piece of it.
Moi: Are you fighting to defend that?
Al: I’m not fighting.
Moi: Are you prepared to take your battle to the shores of the USA now, or have you done that at any time in the past?
Al: Where would a poppy farmer and seasonal accountant get the funds for that?
Moi: Osama bin Laden?
Al: Don't know the man.
Moi: What do you think of the west’s notion of a vast Islamic conspiracy, or jihad to destroy Israel, and the Christian world?
Al: Islam has grown, and continues to grow. We presently outnumber Christians about tenfold. This isn’t a question of conspiracy, or ideology, but of changing demographics.
Moi: If you could shape the future for your grandchildren, how would it look in, say, forty years from now?
Al: There would be no nations, per se, but only continents, and planets, hence no economic imperative for domination. People would be addicted to health. The current financial carcinogens we have in place, which are outmoded, would cease to exist. There would be no free marketers, no socialists, no communists, but instead a hybrid world economy. No one would be fat; no one would go hungry.
Moi: Do you have anything to say to those who see you as a threat?
Al: If you want to see a real threat, look in the mirror.
Al stood up, took a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket, and headed out to the parking lot where Thomas stood fidgeting with a roadmap.
He waved, and vanished into thin air.
(by jayne lyn stahl