Aoun Sahi, a Daniel Pearl Fellow in 2010, became a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times after he returned to Pakistan, writing stories about terrorism, politics and other big news in his native country.
Then one day in early December, he got an urgent call from his editor at the Times: A Pakistani woman and her husband had gone on a shooting rampage at his workplace holiday party in San Bernardino, killing 14 people and wounding two dozen others.
His editor’s question: What can we find out about this woman, Tashfeen Malik, and where she came from?
So began Aoun’s involvement in reporting on an act of domestic terrorism. The Los Angeles Times covered the story so extensively that its staff won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting. In an email interview with Sahar Majid, an Alfred Friendly staff member, Aoun talked about how the most challenging part of the reporting was to persuade Malik’s family members to talk to him.
What was your role in the stories about Tashfeen’s life?
I covered the complete part of her life in Pakistan and some part of Saudi Arabia life. … I got credit in more than 15 stories on the subject in LA Times coverage of the attack.
I was among the first of two or three journalists who managed to talk to some close family members of Tashfeen, including her paternal aunt, one first cousin, one uncle and neighbors both in Layyah where she originally belonged and Multan where she lived after she returned from Saudi Arabia for her studies at BHZ University in Multan.
I also spoke to at least four class fellows and two of her teachers, plus police and other law enforcement officials. I was the first journalist to find and report about her linkages with Al Huda (a chain of religious institutes that teach a fundamentalist strain of Islam). I was also first to file about her religiously motivated and anti-America Facebook posts and also got the context of these posts after talking to some family members.
What were some obstacles you overcame to get the necessary interviews at Al Huda?
Interviewing Al Huda was not tough at all. I spoke to them at Multan on the phone and visited them in Islamabad. Sometimes, absence from the scene helps as you can sit back and focus on all links of the story. You would be surprised to know that I did all my reporting sitting in Islamabad while the other major U.S. papers sent at least two teams to Multan and Layyah to investigate Tashfeen’s radicalization path.
I know these areas well as I have spent a lot of time in these areas for my journalism and research. I know several local journalists and people in government in these areas. My understanding of the area helped me a lot. Like, people at Al Huda may not be easy with your physical presence at their facility when you are trying to find their linkages with a terrorist but on phone they may feel a bit more relax to talk on the issue.
Also, I never posed an aggressive question to people at Al Huda and never made them feel me a threat. But this does not mean I don’t ask them the real questions. They confirmed me about her stint at their school. They also disclosed other details of the organization with me. Playing innocent and fool help a lot when talking to people with religious background. I also know most of their jargons and major portion of their philosophy, so I talked to them in a way which was not alien to them.
Why did your team choose to focus on the Islamic school chapter of Tashfeen’s life? Do journalists believe that somehow these Islamic schools in Pakistan play a role in spreading terrorism by brainwashing students?
I have been covering the Islamic School, which we call Madaris in Pakistan, for a decade. I may be the first journalist in Pakistan who was allowed to cover a traditional Deobandi Islamic school for female students back in 2008.
We became more interested in her life in Pakistan after finding out that she used to post highly charged religious messages on Facebook. And her close family members revealed that she started becoming more religious after she started studying at BHZ University at Multan. Among her close family circles, she started preaching against western values and Indian music.
If you look into teachings of organisations like Al Huda they are plain religious but they way the they brand their message is based on paranoia and hate against the West and India. They play on almost the same lines that she was preaching. I strongly believe that most of these organisations, including Al Huda, don’t preach the use of violence, but according to Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa’s words these organizations bring one close to the red line and then it becomes a personal choice whether to take or give life.
To what extent does highlighting the role of Islamic schools in terrorism help resolve this issue?
Terrorism is the final product of what most rigid Madaris in Pakistan teach their students. They play most important role to radicalize the students and society. Their reach is in every group of society, as some chain of Madaris have also started running expensive private schools to cater the middle class families that don’t want to send their kids to traditional Madaris.
The real issue is stopping the mushrooming growth of these seminaries and regulating the existing ones. The government has failed on both fronts.
After the Peshawar school attack (in December 2015 when 140 people were killed), we saw a kind of urgency by the government to solve the Madrassa problem. It seems to be dying down now. We as journalists have been trying our best to bring the government’s focus on the Madaris. She responds sometimes and doesn’t most of the time. But, this should not discourage us.
Did you have a chance to meet Tashfeen’s close family members who could give detailed insights of her childhood, college life, etc.?
The most challenging part of the story was talking to family members. They were not ready to talk, let alone give a detailed account of her life. They were terrified and ashamed. Most of them were not ready even to own her, let alone provide details of her life. A family member also attacked journalists who had gone to her father’s family in Layyah.
Even taking to her class fellows was a gigantic task. Nobody was ready to own her after the attack. It took me five hours of texting to win confidence of one of her class fellows who then introduced me to two other class fellows. Nobody was ready to talk in details about her. We collected most of information about her in bits and pieces from several sources.
How did you find out about the award?
How can I forget that moment. On around 8 a.m. on April 19, while scrolling my emails, I saw an email from Kim Murphy, our editor, with an interesting subject: “Happy days — and big congratulations.” It was about the LA Times Pulitzer Prize.
Believe me, I read it at least thrice as I couldn’t process what did that mean. Being part of Pulitzer-winning team was not even in my wildest dreams. I went quickly to Pulitzer website. It was there I read LA Times’ (editor-in-chief and publisher) Davan Maharaj’s cover letter to the board of Pulitzer. It specifically mentioned my work along with good work of several other colleagues to build our case for the award.
It was unbelievable. The first thought came to me after overcoming the excitement was about my elder brother, Asad Sahi, who died in April 2015. The worst thing that happened to me since my birth was his death. He was the first person with whom I used to share all my successes and failures with.
It was a strange moment filled with joy and pain, tears and smiles. It took me at least half an hour to overcome the situation. I shared it with my wife and then with parents, brothers and friends.
I wrote emails to several friends including the Pearls and the Friendlys. I strongly believe this fellowship played an important role in shaping my career. I always feel strongly about the Pearls. They are like family. I have dedicated this award to my elder brother and Daniel Pearl. This is my small effort as a Pakistani to console the Pearls and Friendlys.
Here’s a link to one of Aoun’s articles in the LA Times