Your new BBC travel series sees you heading for the Caribbean coastline. Why did you pick there?
Who wouldn’t? But you’d struggle to get the BBC to cough up licence fee payers’ money for me to go on a jolly. It was essential we included life’s darker aspects. So we also went round the mainland Caribbean coast of South and Central America. That took us into the problems of Venezuela and Honduras – the most dangerous region on the planet outside of war zones.
You must have seen some pretty shocking things once there…
San Pedro Sula, in Honduras, is a city with a murder rate 200 times that of London. We were at a murder scene, the execution of two policemen, machine-gunned as they drove home from work. What was shocking was that there were no news teams – it’s become a part of everyday life there. Then we went into the city’s prison, meeting the gangs responsible for Honduras’s violence. Our bodyguard was the one man they trusted – the bishop of the city. The inmates run things there. A prisoner took control by beheading the previous leader.
Were the inmates happy to be interviewed?
They weren’t aggressive, but respectful – they showed us the nativity scene they’d made from recycled cardboard. They were all covered in hardcore gang tattoos – tears tattooed down their faces, indicating the number of people they’ve killed.
You travelled to Haiti, too – what was it like seeing how little the nation’s progressed since the 2010 earthquake?
Really upsetting. There’s a lot of poverty in Haiti, but it’s a beautiful place and I love the Haitians, they’re inspiring. Their history’s fascinating as well – they became the first free black nation in the modern world by defeating the French and British in the late 1700s. There are so many beautiful things in Haiti, you can have an incredible time there.
You also go on drug busts with local police and purposefully run towards the sound of gunfire. Did you ever fear for your life?
A few times. There are risks involved in travelling in countries where they believe in reincarnation. There have been moments of sheer terror – at a crossroads in Mogadishu, encountering stoned mercenaries who are the enemies of the gangsters that are protecting you; turning their guns on one another, locking and loading, screaming at one another. That was a moment I thought I wouldn’t survive. There was nothing I could do but hold a flak jacket against the car, knowing it wasn’t going to stop the bloke pointing the anti-aircraft gun.
Before travel presenting you wrote The New Jackals, the first book on al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, when you were in your early twenties. How did that come about?
I didn’t go to university or have many qualifications. I hadn’t a clue what I was going to do in life. I went for a job as a van driver in Wembley Park. I was the only applicant and got turned down. Then I started work at The Sunday Times as a post boy. My world opened up. 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. The book that became The New Jackals started out as an investigation of the World Trade Centre bombing in 1993 when I was 21. It broadened out into a book about this new group called al-Qaeda. When it was published in 1998 nobody read it. Then 9/11 happened.
Did your research quickly lead you to Bin Laden?
It was in 1995 when people first started saying his name. Then it kept cropping up. It became clear he was this shadowy figure behind this emerging group, the principal sponsor of the ‘Afghan Arabs’, former Mujahideen heroes who’d fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan and then been radicalised, seeking battlegrounds elsewhere. They gathered under his command and he provided funding to the conflicts in the Balkans and the Sudan. I didn’t attempt to talk to Bin Laden. Frankly, I didn’t have the money for it – I’d left The Sunday Times; I was living off baked beans.
Do you think your age helped your fearless, roll-with-it approach to investigative terrorism at that time?
You don’t know your limitations as a kid. 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. It was bizarre – getting CIA agents and al-Qaeda sympathisers sharing secrets with me. But nobody was looking into it. I’d call the policeman who’d worked on the investigation of the WTC bombing, he’d pass me on to someone from the FBI, then he’d tell me to get in touch with someone from the CIA. I was a kid – to get that level of access baffles me to this day. But no one was talking to them and they wanted to discuss what they’d found.
Surely you must have found yourself in some tricky situations?
I was in northern Italy in 1995, talking to al-Qaeda sympathisers in a cultural centre. They were OK with me, but then some hardcore fanatics arrived and
my interpreter turned a shade of green. He didn’t have to translate – it was obvious they were talking about killing us. Luckily, wise heads prevailed.
Finally is there any region of the world you wouldn’t travel to?
There isn’t really. It’s a much safer planet than people imagine. We’re brought up to be frightened by it. Life’s really short – you’ve got incredible opportunities to travel and rack up incredible experiences – I’d urge people to put themselves out of their comfort zone. You’ve got to embrace life as much as you can.
Caribbean With Simon Reeve concludes Sunday, 8pm, BBC Two, or catch up on iPlayer