In a way, Osama bin Laden kick-started Simon Reeve’s TV career, setting him on his course as globetrotting host of his long-running series of BBC travel documentaries - including his latest, Simon Reeve’s Turkey.
On September 11, 2001, Reeve became a wanted man. As the author of the only book in the world at the time about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, suddenly everyone wanted a piece of him. In the media maelstrom that followed the catastrophic attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, he emerged as a leading expert on terrorism.
“When it came out in 1998, nobody took any interest,” he told The Telegraph. “Then 9/11 happened and suddenly I’m the only person in the world with a book about this issue and my phone started ringing before the second tower had been hit and didn’t stop for a year-and-a-half.”
His book, The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama Bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism, an investigation into the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, became a New York Times bestseller. It also brought the BBC knocking to discuss TV projects. The book, Reeves said, is “what made me”.
If the BBC had got its way, Reeve’s first TV project would have involved infiltrating al-Qaeda, but he politely told the broadcaster that wouldn’t be a wise idea. He’d already got a chilling insight into the group from his extensive research. Reeve tells of a nail-biting situation in the mid-1990s when he met with Afghan Arabs with close ties to al-Qaeda hiding out in Bologna.
“I was in a room with them and suddenly became acutely aware that they were solemnly discussing whether or not to kill me,” he told The Daily Mail. “That was a chilling moment and it still makes my palms sweaty when I think about it. All I can remember is that my mind went completely blank. Then I noticed that there was a window behind me, which might offer a means of escape if they pulled out knives or guns. Happily, the moment passed.”
Some years earlier, Reeve was a directionless teen in a major rut. After a run of dead-end jobs, he joined The Sunday Times as a mail boy at 18 years old, sorting mail by day and honing his investigative journalism skills by night.
“My world opened up,” he told ShortList. “They put me on investigations – nuclear smuggling, arms dealing, terrorism. I remember following an arms dealer from Gatwick Airport when I was 18. It gave me confidence.”
At 21, Reeve was investigating the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, flypaper to CIA agents and al-Qaeda sympathisers who wanted to talk at a time when no one else was doing much digging into the rising terrorist group. Reeve admits the fearlessness of youth became an invaluable asset.
“You don’t know your limitations as a kid,” he said. “I’d go to house parties then go home and call the head of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York and arrange to meet a Pakistani agent for breakfast.”
He told The Daily Mail, “I was in my early 20s, a complete unknown, and yet I was being given extraordinary access to James Bond-type spooks and spies, militants of all descriptions. Doors would swing open for me. I only had to ask. My big advantage was that nobody else was interested in these people at the time.”
In The New Jackals, Reeve gave the chilling warning that an apocalyptic terrorist attack on the West by al-Qaeda was inevitable. He wasn’t yet 30 when some three years later his prediction was coming to pass.
“Those warnings were either ignored or dismissed,” he said.
Despite his prediction, the World Trade Center attack on 9/11 nonetheless hit Reeve hard.
“I was at my flat in west London when my brother told me to turn on the TV. The first tower had just been hit. My book had started out as an investigation of the first World Trade Center attack, so I knew a lot of people who were working in the towers. Watching the news unfold, I was actually physically sick.”
Reeve has gone on to carve himself an enviable career as a genial but no less intrepid travel reporter - he’s travelled everywhere from Kazakhstan to Australia since 2003. He says, however, that he still puts his terrorism expert hat on from time to time.
“Occasionally, I still consult with security strategists,” he wrote in the South China Morning Post. “I'm usually called upon by people who haven't seen my travel programmes, probably because once you've started eating zebu [bull] penis soup on television, then people will struggle to take your views on al-Qaeda and Islamic militancy as seriously as if you were wearing a suit and tie.”
Watch Simon Reeve's Turkey tonight at 8:30pm on SBS.