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Snowden documents reveal Al Jazeera reporter on US 'terror' list

Al Jazeera Islamabad bureau chief Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan was described as being 'a member' of al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood
File photo shows Doha-based Al Jazeera's studio

WASHINGTON - US authorities placed an Al Jazeera journalist on a watch list of suspected terrorists, linking him to al-Qaeda, a report said on Friday, citing documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The online news site The Intercept said Al Jazeera's Islamabad bureau chief, Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, was on a terror watch list, and was described in the National Security Agency documents as "a member" of both al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Zaidan told The Intercept he "absolutely" denied being part of the organisations, while noting that he had through his work conducted interviews with senior al-Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden.

Responding to the report, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it was "deeply troubled" by the allegations.

"Colouring the legitimate newsgathering activities of a respected journalist as evidence of international terrorism risks chilling the vital work of the media, especially in Pakistan where journalists routinely interview Taliban and other militant groups as part of their coverage," said Bob Dietz, the committee's Asia programme coordinator.

According to The Intercept, Zaidan was cited in the documents highlighting a programme called Skynet, which analyses location and communication data from bulk call records in order to detect suspicious patterns.

Skynet seeks to identify people such as couriers for organisations such as al-Qaeda based on call "metadata" or information about the call without looking at the contents of a conversation.

In a statement to The Intercept, Zaidan said that "for us to be able to inform the world, we have to be able to freely contact relevant figures in the public discourse, speak with people on the ground, and gather critical information. 

"Any hint of government surveillance that hinders this process is a violation of press freedom and harms the public's right to know.

“To assert that myself, or any journalist, has any affiliation with any group on account of their contact book, phone call logs, or sources is an absurd distortion of the truth and a complete violation of the profession of journalism.” 

The intercept quoted an Al Jazeera spokesman as saying the fact that Zaidan was placed on the watch list was “yet another attempt at using questionable techniques to target our journalists” and “a gross breach of press freedom”.

CNN analyst Peter Bergen, an author of books on al-Qaeda and bin Laden, told The Intercept: “I’ve known [Zaidan] for well over a decade, and he’s a first-class journalist.

“He has the contacts and the access that of course no Western journalist has,” Bergen said. “But by that standard any journalist who spent time with Al Qaeda would be suspect.”