Last September, American-led troops discovered a trove of documents in an insurgent headquarters in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar. The papers cataloged 606 militants who had come to Iraq from abroad. The largest number were from Saudi Arabia, but the highest percentage per capita (almost 19 percent, or 112) were Libyan. And of the 112 Libyans, 52 listed Darnah, a small city of 50,000 on the Mediterranean coast.
Reading news accounts of the document find, our foreign editor, Nisid Hajari, was intrigued, and called Kevin Peraino, our Middle East correspondent. The mission sounded simple—answer the question, why Darnah?—but Libya is, well, Libya. As Kevin, who wrote our cover this week, says: "One of the frustrating things about covering the Middle East wars is that, for security reasons, it's often so difficult to tell a richly reported story about America's enemies in the region. I knew it would be tough to gain access to the people we wanted to see in a police state like Libya. I had heard warning stories about the ubiquitous surveillance, impossible bureaucrats, planeloads full of people who were denied entry because they had forgotten to translate their passports into Arabic.
"It took me more than three months to get a visa, but once I was in I was pleasantly surprised by the access. A government minder met me at the airport—a beefy guy with a slight limp who wore a sweater vest in all weather—but I found that the authorities let me travel essentially wherever I liked as long as they could keep tabs on me. We flew to Benghazi and then drove three hours along the Mediterranean coast to Darnah. I wasn't entirely sure what I would find there. When I had spoken to the brothers of some of the foreign fighters by phone ahead of time, they were deeply suspicious of my intentions. But one of the men I spoke to told me he worked at a local spice shop, so when I was in Darnah I just stopped by. Outside the shop one of the foreign fighters' brothers was unloading crates, tightly gripping a box cutter as we approached. He greeted us coolly and looked a little nervous at first to see an American show up unannounced, but he eventually relaxed and invited us in for tea. The story that he told was fascinating to me—a world that we seldom get a clear window on. By the time I left, two weeks after I arrived in Libya, I felt as though I had wandered way through the looking glass."
Kevin's story is a piece of enterprising reporting. Other exclusive offerings this week include Lally Weymouth's interview with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Karen Breslau's conversation with Hillary Clinton. In an adaptation of his new book, "The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country," Howard Fineman makes the counterintuitive case that arguing in politics is all to the good.
And in the realm of enterprise, Johnnie L. Roberts profiles Rupert Murdoch, who is making a counterintuitive bet of his own—on print journalism. After buying The Wall Street Journal last year from its longtime owners, the Bancroft family, Murdoch—master of media properties too numerous to name here—has decided to start an old-fashioned newspaper war with The New York Times. The stakes: which will become the most influential general-interest paper in the country. In a Webby world, an inky battle seems quaint, but it is real. If Murdoch believes in his cause—and he does—then this will be an epic struggle. Barons fight no other kind.