Current Online

Reporters' diary follows their hunt for Al Qaeda

Originally published in Current, Sept. 16, 2002
By Dan Odenwald

As a crew of Frontline investigative reporters journey to Pakistan and Afghanistan in search of Al Qaeda, the website of the award-winning series is offering a rare glimpse into the making of their documentary.

On Aug. 1, Frontline launched the web-exclusive diary of producers Martin Smith and Marcela Gaviria, featuring regular e-mail dispatches on their efforts to locate the remains of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network since the United States declared war a year ago.

The reports describe a daunting task of reporting in a shadowy, lawless land where uncovering the truth seems nearly impossible and the memory of slain Wall St. Journal reporter Daniel Pearl haunts their every move.

On Aug. 12, Smith, Gaviria and their camera operator Scott Anger set out on a two-month trip that has taken them to London, where they interviewed Muslim sheiks, the Gulf of Oman, where they hunted for stowaway terrorists, and ultimately to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda may still thrive.

Every few days Smith and Gaviria take turns at posting e-mails and digital pictures to the Frontline website, detailing their progress as they gather footage and material for "In Search of Al Qaeda," slated for broadcast in mid-November.

The dispatches offer a candid peak into the realities of reporting from one of the most dangerous regions in the world.

"We are all vigilant," Gaviria wrote in her Sept. 2 dispatch. "It seems that every man squatting on the street might be holding a hand grenade and that every carload that passes us might be a group of jihadists hoping to shoot us down. It's this kind of fear that breeds blind prejudice."

In another posting, Smith expresses frustration that he can't trust his sources. "Rumors make headlines back home and across the world that are based on no more that what a villager tells a visitor," he wrote in a Sept. 2 update. "What am I supposed to do with the scraps we are collecting? Are there any facts? I am beginning to imagine that I will . . . write and produce an entire documentary with no facts and no documents."

Their intimate thoughts, gathered in more than 20 archived dispatches, offer web surfers the first-ever opportunity to see Frontline producers at work, says Marrie Campbell, who oversees web content for the series.

The idea came from Gaviria, who suggested that the team keep a diary of the trip. Smith called Frontline producers to see if they'd be interested in publishing it, he writes in an e-mail interview with Current.

"We had no idea whether they would really be interested until we sent in the first few dispatches," he recalls. "We realized early on that our project was going to be a kind of journey of discovery that web viewers might find interesting."

Smith and Gaviria purposely withhold some information to avoid jeopardizing a source's safety or compromising their reporting down the line. Web producers back in Boston also delete references to places where the crew was staying or scheduled to travel for interviews.

Consequently even regular readers of the website will see a lot of fresh material in the finished program that they weren't exposed to online, Smith writes.

Though pressed for time, Smith enjoys the time he spends writing the e-mails. It helps him organize his thoughts. He expects some of those notes will be useful in the editing room.

All three correspondents know the dangers in the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"We take general precautions, and we listen carefully to people we trust," Smith writes. "But the vast majority of the time, we feel no danger."

After all, he reports, Pakistan is a country of 142 million people, the great majority of whom go about their daily lives with no hostility toward Americans. In fact, Smith feels the greatest risk when he's forced to travel with armed bodyguards. With them, he feels like a bigger target than when he goes "unprotected."

Oddly enough, finding Internet connections in places such as Peshawar and Dir isn't as difficult as you'd expect, Smith reports. "You'd be surprised how connected even some of the world's most remote places are today," he writes.

Back in the United States, Campbell reports, the dispatches are slowly finding an audience. In the last weeks of August, nearly 5,000 unique visitors came to the site, and that number is expected to grow this fall. The feature is heavily promoted in this month's Frontline online newsletter, which has nearly 18,000 subscribers.

Smith and Gaviria are longtime producers for Frontline. Their past collaborations have included "Medicating Kids," "Saudi Time Bomb?" and "Looking for Answers."

Web page posted Sept. 25, 2002
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