Frank Gardner, 23 April 2006
Do you have time for some supper?” called Amanda from the kitchen. I looked at my watch. It was Tuesday June 1 2004 and the car taking me to Heathrow airport would be here in 20 minutes, but I was packed and ready to go. “I’ll be right down,” I replied, and walked out of our top-floor bedroom, unaware that that was the last time I would ever see it.
Three days earlier there had been a bloodthirsty raid by Al-Qaeda fanatics in the eastern Saudi town of Al-Khobar. The terrorists had found a prominent British expatriate, Michael Hamilton, shot him dead, tied his body to their car bumper and dragged it around town in some kind of grisly parade of their power. Then, masquerading as government security forces, they had marched into a residential complex housing many westerners, Indians and Filipinos who worked in the vast oil industry. Rounding up all those they suspected of being non-Muslims, according to the testimony of survivors, the militants coolly slit the throats of the “non-believers”. By the time order was restored, 22 people had been killed.
Saudi Arabia’s charismatic ambassador to London at the time, Prince Turki al-Faisal, had wasted no time in touring British television news studios to defend his government’s record in tackling terrorism. A former Saudi spymaster, Prince Turki was unusually open and frank. He encouraged British journalists to visit, helping with visa requests. I was to go there for BBC News with Simon Cumbers, a freelance Irish cameraman and trusted veteran of countless assignments.
Amanda and I sat up talking late that night. My wife was understandably anxious; clearly there were people on the loose in Saudi Arabia who hated westerners with a passion. “Do you have to go to Saudi?” she asked. I did not. Unlike some other networks, the BBC is quite reasonable about asking people to go to difficult places and I have never been told the equivalent of “Go to Baghdad or pick up your P45”. But Saudi Arabia was not considered a high-risk country like Iraq or Afghanistan; I knew of no visiting journalists who had ever been threatened there.
“Then are you taking a flak jacket?” asked Amanda. This was a touchy subject between us: she has always maintained I had agreed at our wedding never to be a flak-jacket journalist, a pledge I have no recollection of making. In truth I have never seen myself as a “war correspondent”, believing that no story is worth getting shot for, although there are occasions when it is wise to wear a flak jacket as a precaution. But I did not feel this was one of them: no civilians wore flak jackets in Saudi Arabia and if anything it would only attract unwelcome attention. Amanda’s concerns troubled me, however, not just because I did not want her to worry while I was away but because she has an uncanny knack of being right about places she has never even been to.
“So what are you going to say when terrorists have got a gun to your head?” she asked me. I tried to reassure her — and myself — that we were going to tread extremely carefully. We would put ourselves entirely in the care of our Saudi minders, and knowing how over-cautious they tend to be our only problem should be not getting enough access to interesting subjects. One of the last things I packed was a miniature copy of the Koran, one of several I keep to give as presents to hospitable Muslim hosts, a gesture that always brings great appreciation.
Please VISIT http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/article708300.ece FOR the rest of this story…. OR buy Gardner’s book: Blood and Sand: Love, Death and Survival in an age of Global Terror, London, Bantam Press, 2006.