Arab editor who called bin Laden only ‘half a terrorist’ quits

Israel- and US-bashing Abdel Bari Atwan ends 24-year career at helm of London’s Al-Quds Al-Arabi

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Al-Quds al-Arabi editor Abdel Bari Atwan (photo credit: screen capture/YouTube)
Al-Quds al-Arabi editor Abdel Bari Atwan (photo credit: screen capture/YouTube)

Abdel Bari Atwan, the controversial editor of the influential Palestinian-focused daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi who hailed the 9/11 attacks as heralding “the end of the US empire,” announced his retirement Wednesday. He said he wanted to write a new book in English and spend more time with family.

“Today I end my position as editor-in-chief of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, the newspaper I am proud to say waged fierce battles against occupations and foreign domination and corrupt oppressive dictatorships. It always stood on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden,” Atwan wrote in his parting op-ed.

A native of the Gaza Strip and a veteran Egypt-trained journalist, Atwan was appointed the first editor-in-chief of the London-based newspaper — founded by Palestinian expatriates — in 1989. In his brash and self-confident style, Atwan quickly gained fame and notoriety for anti-Israeli and anti-Western comments.

With its Arab nationalist tint, Al-Quds Al-Arabi under Atwan became the most dominant anti-monarchic voice in Arab press, serving as a significant counterbalance to large Saudi-funded Arab newspapers such as A-Sharq Al-Awsat and Al-Hayat, which are also based in London. The Arab Spring, at first celebrated by Atwan as a pinnacle of Arab awakening, was soon viewed more sourly as Islamist forces gained dominance and the region plunged into deep violence.

In March 2008, Atwan was quoted justifying a terrorist assault by a Palestinian gunman on Jerusalem’s Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in which eight students were killed, since the religious seminary was responsible for “hatching Israeli extremists and fundamentalists.” During a TV interview last month, he said he considered Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden only “half a terrorist” due to his positive engagement with US forces in Afghanistan. Atwan was also famously quoted as saying that he would dance in Trafalgar Square if Iranian missiles were to hit Israel.

In 1996, Atwan became the first and only Arab journalist to interview bin Laden, who was hiding in Afghanistan; Atwan later recounted the meeting in a 2006 book The Secret History of Al-Qa’ida. On the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, he wrote that the worst terrorist attacks in US history will be remembered as the end of the US empire, since “all empires collapse when they pursue the arrogance of power.”

Such comments have helped Atwan garner extreme popularity on the Arab street; he boasts a Twitter account with nearly 180,000 followers.

“I cried like a baby over your resignation. You are the spiritual father of national and pan-Arab journalism,” wrote one Twitter follower Wednesday.

“If truth could be embodied it would be you,” wrote another admirer. “[You represent] a neutral opinion, even if it goes against what I believe. As Arabs, we are proud to count you among us.”

Atwan, who has said he is banned from visiting the US, promised his fans he would continue producing a daily opinion piece on his Facebook page.

“I have received death threats from Arab and Western and Israeli police states, and waged a fierce battle against supporters of the Zionist lobby in Europe and the US, before the US prevented me from visiting it. They all have tried and continue to try to defame me and silence my voice,” Atwan wrote in his op-ed Wednesday.

“One of the Israeli press attaches even boasted once in an interview with the British Jewish newspaper Jewish Chronicle that one of his main achievements in London was reducing my appearances on famous channels such as CNN, BBC and Sky News as an expert on Middle Eastern affairs. This is the highest and only badge of honor I received in my life.”

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