Inside Interview: Steve Centanni

Steve Centanni

While covering the Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Pakistan, FNC correspondent Steve Centanni was first to report the fall of the Taliban in their final stronghold of Kandahar. He is now based in Doha, Qatar as American troops prepare for possible conflict with Iraq.

What was the response in Qatar to the most recent bin Laden audiotape?

Centanni: People here were not surprised because Al Jazeera television, which is based here in Qatar, made its mark in the broadcast industry by first airing tapes of Usama bin Laden. So this is one more in a long line of Usama bin Laden tapes from the Arabic language satellite. People here have become used to that. Some have mixed feelings about Al Jazeera. Some think it’s pioneering, forward looking, a very useful service, others think it’s controversial, even dangerous. As to the methods of Usama bin Laden, I think most people are saying he continues to be a troublemaker and they don’t subscribe to his views. They don’t want war with Iraq, but they think it’s probably inevitable at this point. They feel that Usama bin Laden is not serving any useful purpose by trying to raise passions in the Muslim world.

Were they surprised to hear bin Laden talk about the Iraq situation?

Centanni: Some were and some weren’t. There was a mixed reaction to that. Certainly Usama bin Laden is concerned about what happens in Iraq as everyone here is, and so it was no surprise in that regard. But to hear him be so explicit and so focused on Iraq was somewhat of a surprise.

How do the citizens in Qatar feel about the American military buildup there?

Centanni: They are welcoming it with open arms. This country is a small nation—700,000 citizens and a very small to non-existant military. And it’s a country that is located in a very dangerous neighborhood. So they welcome the extra security that the U.S. military brings to their soil. They are very, very forward looking, so they think the military presence here will add an extra measure of security that could bring future stability for their gas and oil markets. They think the relationship with the United States is something that is going to be very useful over the long term. They’re not the only country that has opened the doors to the U.S. military, in fact they are only the latest ones to do so. But you have to realize Centcom is going to be here when the war begins. So they are sticking their necks out a little bit.

In general, what do Qataris think of Americans? What is the mood on the street?

Centanni: They think a relationship with America is going to be very valuable to them as the years go on. They are looking to develop one of the biggest natural gas reserves in the world, and they want to secure a stable world market for their gas. They also need security, and the U.S. is now providing it, at least temporarily.

Is the government secular or is Islamic law (Shar' iah) their constitution, as in Saudi Arabia?

Centanni: The government here is more secular. They follow Islamic law, but they are liberal and open to foreigners. They are more progressive. They’re even talking about women’s rights. Women are not required to wear the Abaya or long cloak to cover their bodies; they have freedom of choice. They’re embracing some of the ways of the West while maintaining their traditional religion at the same time. Qatar is probably one of the most progressive Arab states.  

What has surprised you the most about what you have seen there?

Centanni: Probably the degree of openness for an Arab country—the fact that they are very modern and forward looking and such a clean and affluent country. Doha is a pleasant city, a pleasant place to be.

Why don’t we hear about an Al Qaeda presence in Qatar?

Centanni: If there is any presence, it hasn’t been publicized. They are very careful about their borders and about who they let in. Everybody is checked very carefully for their credentials and their background. They probably don’t have too many Al Qaeda operatives here if any. One operative that is now in Iraq, according to the New York Times, came through here and was given safe haven by one of the relatives of the royal family. But according to local officials, he probably didn’t know who he was dealing with. That’s their take on it.

What have been the biggest challenges for you and the producers?

Centanni: The Qataris are not used to having foreign press on their soil. While they have opened their doors to the West and embrace the ideas of the West, they don’t have a long tradition of sharing their thoughts and their feelings. So they are a little bit nervous about reporters.

How is the food?

Centanni: It’s very good. It is an international country with all kinds of food. Many of the workers here are Pakistani, Indian and Filipino, and their food is here in abundance as well as Western food. It’s all very good actually.

What is most important for Americans to know about Qatar?

Centanni: That they want to be our friends and are making a very concerted effort to establish an open and lasting relationship with America. They’re really sticking their necks out by providing bases for American troops during this conflict, hoping that it pays off for them down the road. So I think while most people probably never heard of Qatar, or thought of it very much, you probably will be hearing about it more and more in the future.

Read our inside interviews with war correspondents Steve Harrigan and Jennifer Griffin.