Osama bin Laden gave Simon Reeve his big break. In 1998, while working as an investigative reporter, Reeve published The New Jackals, a book about ‘the future of terrorism’. It went largely unnoticed until 2001, when Reeve suddenly found himself in demand as the world’s foremost Al-Qaeda expert.
The BBC contacted him about working on a documentary. It wanted Reeve to infiltrate the terrorist network; instead he wrote and presented Meet the Stans, in which he travelled from Kazakhstan to Afghanistan. Over 20 series exploring lesser-trod parts of the globe followed, making unflappable Reeve, as fearlessly adventurous as he is engaging, one of the BBC’s most prolific presenters. But his career did not take a traditional path.
“I didn’t go to university; I left school and went on the dole,” he says. “I was in quite a bad way in my late teens and I was very close to ending it all. It took a lot to pull me out of that and to rebuild my life.
“People say things like, ‘Visualise where you want to be in five years’ time’ – screw you! I could barely visualise where I wanted to be by the evening. Taking things day by day, setting small challenges – could I get myself out of bed, could I get myself to the newsagents – simple things like that gradually pulled me out of a dark place and set me on the road to work. It started to give me purpose and meaning in life, which I think is what many of us really need and crave, and is often absent from people’s working life now.”
Reeve’s father had encouraged him to apply for a post boy position at The Sunday Times, and the 19-year-old stood out in a newsroom of Oxbridge graduates. Then-editor Andrew Neil took a chance on him, and reporting on the 1993 World Trade Center bombing started a weird, completely unpredictable journey, leading to the high-flying life he lives today.
Having travelled to more than 120 countries, Reeve has hunted with the Bushmen of the Kalahari, been hunted by the KGB, and detained on suspicion of spying in the secretive Soviet enclave of Transnistria.