ABC TV (AUS) Enough Rope [transcript]

There are two types of war correspondent - those who stick to the circuit of military briefings, safe hotels and careful excursions into unstable areas, and those who throw themselves at the job with apparently reckless disregard for their own safety. Mike Ware is one of the latter. Writing from Afghanistan and Iraq for 'Time' magazine, he spent much of the past few years behind enemy lines, bringing back stories of the Taliban, Afghani war lords and, more recently, Iraqi insurgents. A few weeks ago some of those insurgents sent him tapes showing in chilling detail just how they go about their work, tapes whose images were soon flashed around the world.

ANDREW DENTON: Mike, thanks for being on Enough Rope. How does a boy from Brisbane end up in the middle of an Iraqi insurgency?

MICHAEL WARE: Yeah, I'm sort of asking myself that same question every night before I go to sleep. It's quite hard to fathom actually. But, yeah, from suburban Brisbane to the trenches in Baghdad, to having the words I write read in the White House, it's all quite a trip actually.

ANDREW DENTON: The President reads?

MICHAEL WARE: Well, so we're told, or perhaps it's read to him! I did say it was "read in the White House".

ANDREW DENTON: Your ability to get close up to groups that others can't is quite extraordinary and you describe this as 'gumshoe journalism' - you're basically on the ground with the Iraqis, earning their trust. How do you do that?

MICHAEL WARE: Well, it's pretty difficult, as you can imagine. I've been here in Iraq for just over 18 months now. I arrived before the war and then was here through all the conflict. And then as soon as the first phase, as I call it, of the war finished - the actual invasion - I quickly turned my attentions to the second phase which we're in now, the insurgency and the occupation.

Now, I started off very simply with the 'bad guys' as people from the West and certainly Fox News likes to call them. In the beginning they were just ragtag groups - you, me, cousin Ahmed, we go out, we shoot at a passing American convoy and feel a lot better for it. So, I started just hooking up with these guys, talking to them individually. Over time, they started to get their act together and they formed into groups, then that group would join another group and then suddenly there'd be a structure and it would grow and there'd be commanders. And I just kept in touch and followed them as they progressed, so it's taken well over a year and it's had some moments, I can tell you.

ANDREW DENTON: Journalists who worked with you in Afghanistan describe what you did almost like method acting. Is that part of your approach?

MICHAEL WARE: Well, I mean, I think it's very important, I mean, not so much to be a chameleon as such, but you really do have to immerse yourself in whatever environment you find yourself in. Really, what I want to do is find out what makes these things tick. I mean, this is world history playing out before us.

So, in the beginning it was Afghanistan. I mean, we had al-Qa'ida terrorist camps there, a Taliban regime, we had the American war machine charging in. Well, I wanted to see what that was all about. Now, for me I think the only way to do that is to really get down in amongst it and let it all wash over you, so I have been known on many occasions to go in Afghan drag. I mean, I grow my beard down to a suitable Taliban length, I wear what the Americans perfunctorily call a 'man dress', but it's actually a salwar kameez. I learned to speak a little bit of Pashtu, enough to bluff my way through a checkpoint, so that if I'm driving or passing through your village or eating in your restaurant you don't know that I'm not a Pashtun.

ANDREW DENTON: Nonetheless, as you said, you speak a bit of Pashtun, you don't speak fluent Arabic, I know that. How vulnerable does this make you, Mike?

MICHAEL WARE: It means I must always have a translator almost surgically attached to me, grafted on to me. It's really my 'Jiminy Cricket' or alter ego, I guess. I can't function without a translator. I might be able to order tea but I mightn't be able to ask for sugar in it. To do every little thing, I need to have a translator with me, so that becomes an integral part of your life. You've got a constant shadow with you and they become integral to you. You've either got to gel with this person and find a real trust, because you and he - it's always a he - are about to go to hell and back. That's always guaranteed. So, you've really got to know who each other is. It's quite a challenge.

ANDREW DENTON: Can you describe what hell and back means?

MICHAEL WARE: It can be anything from disease... I've had recently - a little while ago - I had typhoid, for example, or it might just be in Afghanistan, I was the proud home to a colony of rare parasite that a team of experts in Australia congratulated themselves on because they could only find reference to it in out-of-date textbooks. So it can be anything from that to being held hostage by Saddam's Fedayeen militia, which happened to me during the war very briefly, having a gun to your head, sitting in a room with a group of people, having someone walk in and in a language you don't understand ask for permission to execute you. Then a debate goes on about the relative merits of whacking you or not, and you don't learn this until, or if, you walk out the room and your translator decides to tell you about it.

The other thing is the American war machine. I don't know how many times I've nearly been killed by the Americans, be it from ordnance falling from the sky, I've had a tank leap out of a ditch and ambush me, I've had soldiers shooting at me. So, hell and back can be all sorts of things. It's body and soul.

ANDREW DENTON: In amongst all this, you trust your translator who hopefully is loyal, but how do you know who else to trust? There must be a great degree of instinct and guesswork?

MICHAEL WARE: There's a very simple rule about that, Andrew. You trust no-one. People can turn on you in a minute and it's very hard to see it coming. I mean, you almost develop this intuitive sense, especially when I'm out there - I'm out there in tiger country. It's territory controlled by the other side, what the military would call the enemy. Now, I'm completely at their mercy, so the mood can change in the blink of an eye, and across the cultural barriers, sometimes it's hard to know just what different signals or body language mean.

I had an incident just a few weeks ago with some of the Iraqis who were involved in the kidnappings and beheadings. Now, I'm with them. Suddenly, a flash passed over this guy's face and he turned. Now, he turned on my translator and I could have sworn I was about to see my translator executed as some kind of message to me. Now, that's how precarious it got. And we very quickly had to move to diffuse it and all that was was just a subtle hint in his voice and a look in his eyes and then it was on, so that's what it's about. It's kinda hard.

ANDREW DENTON: A few weeks ago you brought to the world's attention tapes from the insurgents detailing how they go about suicide bombings. We're going to look at an excerpt of one of those now.


ANDREW DENTON: Mike, how did you come by these tapes?

MICHAEL WARE: They were brought to me by insurgent sources. For a over a year I've been getting a variety of tapes, pamphlets, materials. It's one of the ways that I can learn about them, about what's making them tick, how their moods are shifting, how their designs, their tactics, their goals are constantly being amended.

The most disturbing thing about that tape, though, is that's essentially from al-Qa'ida. You've got Iraqi fighters defending their homeland, you've also got al-Qa'ida here fighting the global Jihad, the clash of civilisations. That's who does those suicide bombings, and that's who that tape is from. Now, apart from the disturbing images, the most difficult aspect of that whole experience for me is this - that the al-Qa'ida central committee, the shura, the group of leaders, physically sat around and discussed me by name before they gave that to me. That's not entirely comfortable, having al-Qa'ida talk about you personally, weighing up your relative merits and then deciding to hand you something very, very special, in their eyes.

ANDREW DENTON: When you look at that young man who's addressing the camera before going to kill himself, is there something for you to be admired about a man who can willingly face his death for his beliefs?

MICHAEL WARE: The important thing about what you're illustrating here is about this commitment that you see in the face of this guy and, in that tape, in the face of many others. There's no negotiation here. I mean, you can see it for yourself. These are committed individuals. They're on a path and they do not deviate from that path and they're not tempted from it. And that's the mindset that we're dealing with. That's what we've come here into Iraq and stirred up. Now, I want my mum and dad, my family, my friends and by extension, the public, to know that's what we're up against. That's what we're facing. That's what American GIs every day are dying from. We've got to understand this and to understand that it's not always pleasant, and you've got to look into the face of it just like that young suicide bomber.

ANDREW DENTON: How do you possibly combat that, Mike?

MICHAEL WARE: The only way we can combat that, the only way we can deal with really what the conflict here in Iraq has become, is on the grand scale. We're not going to stop the fighting in Iraq by addressing it in Iraq. This is now the global Jihad that Osama bin Laden inspired with September 11. This is what it was all about. September 11 was the end of al-Qa'ida, really, not the beginning. All he wanted to do was by his 'great deeds' to his mind, open the Pandora's box of Jihad and that's what's happened. That's Bali, that's Madrid, that's now the insurgency here in Iraq. You've not going do stop that in those individual places. We've got to address the big picture, the big Jihad - the big West and East. I mean, something has started here that I think we're going to be living with for a long, long time in many forms. As one American intelligence officer said to me, "I was telling my mum that this is a new Cold War," he said, "and it's going to have its ebbs and flows, high-intensity, low-intensity conflict, but we're going to be living with this". From what I see, that's nothing but right.

ANDREW DENTON: We read in our papers today, Mike, of the Tawhid Islamic group threatening to bathe Australia in pools of blood if we don't withdraw our troops. Do you know anything about this group, and should we take this threat seriously?

MICHAEL WARE: Firstly, take that threat very, very seriously. Even if it's come from a bunch of yahoos who don't have the capabilities to carry out a tenth of what's they're threatening, it doesn't matter. That sentiment expresses something very real. Trust me. I mean, Australia now, particularly since our Government's choice to involve us so publicly in the war here in Iraq, much lesser degree with Afghanistan... It's Iraq that has entered Australia into the global Jihad lexicon. I mean everyone knows. You ask them who is the coalition here - it's America, it's Britain and it's Australia. People even know John Howard's name. I see signs - "War criminals, Bush, Blair, Howard". Osama bin Laden himself has listed us as a legitimate target. When I read their material coming out on the Net and documents that I've retrieved from al-Qa'ida safe houses, we're right up there. Have no fear. So if these guys can't do it, there's others looking to. Trust me on that.

Tawhid's an interesting name. The group that's here in Iraq, led by the Jordanian terrorist, a former intelligence officer by the name of al-Zaqawri, he's been a fringe player for al-Qa'ida for a long time. The Iraq war had made him the pin-up boy, the star. He now rivals Osama. Well, his group, I hate to say it is al-Tawhid. He formed that many years ago, principally as a channel of funnelling men and documents and communications between Europe and the Middle East. Eventually that blossomed into individual terrorist organisations, everywhere he goes, wherever he sets up his new branch or version, its name is a play on the word 'tawhid', which is 'unity' or 'unification'. In Iraq it's... (Speaks Arabic) - 'unity in Jihad'. This new group concerns me - this name - because it includes 'tawhid'. I don't know anything specifically about them, but at first blush, that suggests some kind of link to Zaqawri and that's not a link that we should relish.

ANDREW DENTON: What precautions do you take against being kidnapped, Mike?

MICHAEL WARE: Quite frankly, Andrew, there's not a great deal you can do. I mean, I'm literally surrendering myself to men who kidnap, and in two cases, to men I know who have been involved in the beheadings. There's certain things you can do, but it only goes to an extent. It's all about calculation, quite frankly. The big thing that I do is that I rely on again coming back to understanding the environment you're in, the culture here. In the Middle East, with the Arab world, there's a true meaning of the word 'guest'. Hospitality is a very serious thing, so if you invite me into your home, you're giving me your cloak of protection, so even if your brother comes to the house to kill me, you're honour-bound to defend me. So, using the experience that I've gained, using the contacts that I've developed, the fact that people have come to know me and know that I play it straight, then I can cultivate a situation where I will get an invitation and that will get me into a place where no other journalist can go and will get me out.

The complicating factor now is the foreign al-Qa'ida presence. I can be with an Iraqi group or Prince who does protect me and shield me, but he can do nothing against the foreign fighter al-Qa'ida presence. If they walk in the room, I'm dead. So, it's a matter of calculation, it's rolling the dice.

ANDREW DENTON: I've seen you referred to by some journalists as a bit of a cowboy, an adrenaline junkie, "the Steve Irwin of Baghdad" was one description. How do you respond to that?

MICHAEL WARE: I don't bring my little boy here and hang him out over the front of insurgents. I haven't done that yet. Although, that might make a good picture! But look, yeah, I cop a bit of that, but I've got big shoulders. I mean, Philip Knightly, one of the doyens of journalism and particularly conflict writing, he said in every war someone inevitably steps forward, one person steps up. Well, at the moment, for better or for worse, maybe that's me. I don't know. So there's bound to be some flak. And there's a fundamental...I don't know, almost a failing on the part of the press corps in general. I mean, you can't report a war from your hotel room or from the hotel bar, as much as I wish I could. You've got to be out there.

ANDREW DENTON: You mentioned your mum before. I know that you were on Sydney radio a couple of weeks ago and your mum asked for a tape of it because she hadn't heard a great deal from you. I know you're dealing with a lot of fear despite the fact you're smiling now. Is there a part of you that would like to come home?

MICHAEL WARE: I mean, I guess, but...there's a lot of things here. I mean, I think there's a job to be done here. I think that it needs to be done well, because this is the war of the 21st century and this is only the beginning, so we've got to start getting into it and learning about it now. And we as journalists have to do this so someone's got to do it. Plus, sometimes I get the feeling that not many of us journalists can really do it. There's only a few of us prepared to go that extra mile. Among that few I feel there's an even greater responsibility. So I feel a kind of a sense of wanting to be noble and wanky, a sense of duty, to some degree.

But there is another element that you touched on. I wouldn't call it the 'adrenaline junkie', but there's something extraordinary about living your life in conflict zones. I mean, you really see the best and the worst of what humanity has to offer. I mean, it's an extraordinary experience for me.

ANDREW DENTON: Just quickly Mike, we're nearly out of satellite time. What would you like your family to know?

MICHAEL WARE: That everything's safe. I'm in no danger, Mum, and I'm staying in the hotel bar, covering the story.

ANDREW DENTON: I hope that's all right, Mike, and that you travel safely. Thanks for being with us tonight.

MICHAEL WARE: Thank you very much Andrew. It was a pleasure. Weird, but a pleasure.

ANDREW DENTON: (Laughs) Mike Ware, ladies and gentlemen.