Talking to Terrorists

Alastair Crooke

BBC Radio 4, July 15, 2007

At the beginning of the decade I spent a few years in the Middle East, both as an advisor to Javier Solana — the EU’s High Representative for Foreign & Security Policy — and on the staff of the commission set up by former senator George Mitchell to investigate the causes of the intifada. Part of my time was spent talking to armed militant groups. Sometimes there was an immediate objective — such as when we were taking part in the negotiations to end of the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002. But I believed a longer-term dialogue with Hamas and other Palestinian groups described as ‘terrorists’ could serve the cause of peace. Not everybody agreed. NOT talking to terrorists is an important principle, isn’t it?

I remember a friend sent me a short email: It offered support. “I know how isolated it can be” acting as a mediator with armed groups, it said. He did know: its author had pioneered the struggle to begin talking with Sinn Fein — a process that culminated with the Good Friday agreement, and eventually, with Ian Paisley taking his place as first minister alongside his deputy, Martin McGuinness. I’m sure, though, when my friend initiated those first discussions, he never imagined that it would take so many years — literally decades — to reach fruition.

I’d started talking with Islamist movements who were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the mid-eighties — 20 years ago. In one way or another, all the formative elements of today’s Islamist canvas were evident then: It was a kaleidoscope; some movements had real credibility, and were very serious about improving the lives of their members; whilst others, including the Saudi Wahhabis, were already at odds with many of the other groups. Among the troublesome was Osama bin Laden’s small contingent, which at that time numbered no more than 150–200 men.

There was little interest then in understanding these movements; what separated them from the others; or in trying to piece together a comprehension of the currents that were to shape the future of the Muslim world.

The Afghan Resistance had been commandeered as proxy troops in the Cold War against Russia. I recall giving a talk to Washington policy-makers which essentially was a plea for a better understanding of these movements. These Islamist groups were not all the same. In fact they could not be more different. Some possessed real legitimacy and popular support and held high-minded civic aims; but others were conspiratorial, focused almost exclusively upon violence, I suggested, then, these might become dangerous to their own societies.

I was taken quietly aside at the end of my talk. An avuncular arm went around my shoulder. This senior American politician told me how interested he had been to hear the presentation. He had listened very carefully, he said; but then hinted that, perhaps, I had missed the point: “Those groups that you were warning us about”, he said, “the ones that you particularly singled out… as posing a risk… those are the very Muslim groups that best kick Soviet ass.”

Since then our Islamist allies in the war of liberation of Afghanistan have mutated into the evil enemy of our war of liberation of Iraq. In the intervening twenty years, the West has reconfigured the world between those who preserve the values of “civilisation” and those who oppose it; it has adopted language to suggest that we face a struggle between the “civilised us” and those who lie beyond civilisation — the barbarians, whom we call evil. In doing so, it makes few — if any — important distinctions between Al-Qaida and a group like Hamas that stands in democratic elections.

Armed groups, particularly armed Islamist groups, strike at Western susceptibilities: it is Rudyard Kipling; it is the anxiety of being overwhelmed by an unreasoning, unsparing violence. There is a reek of fear. Surely, we argue, they must disarm before we can talk?

This is however a myth: history tells us that talking and armed action have always marched in parallel. The reasons why movements use arms are complex: it is about identity; it is about imbalances of power; it is about maintaining the authenticity of their cause; and it is about resistance — about refusing to acquiesce to the Western rules of the game.

A senior Hamas leader said to me once that he had gone to a conference at which Americans were present; these Americans, he told me, had wagged their fingers angrily at him: “You must renounce violence; you must disarm; and you must recognise Israel before we can talk with you.”

He said to me afterwards, “Well, I thought about what they said; and then I thought to myself, if I do all what they ask, what will there be left to talk about?”

Circumscribing violence as you talk is realistic; but talking and armed action more usually dance in uneasy partnership; one leading first, and then the other partner stepping forward, until the political music stops and either demilitarisation becomes possible; or it does not.

In negotiating de-escalation of violence with Palestinian Islamist movements — I was involved in six such initiatives between 2001 and 2003 — I have found the Islamists always to have been courteous, serious and thorough. The psychological problem lay more with the Western mindset:

“Hamas told you that they are prepared to observe a ceasefire?” “Yes.” “And they told you that they would enforce it?” “And you believed them?”

The biting scepticism represents the conviction that Islamists have “nothing to say” — and when they do speak, it is either “babble” or deceit.

When Hamas or Hezbollah announced a de-escalation of armed action or a political initiative, the reply would inevitably come, “they are clothing themselves in moderation; they do not mean it; it is a tactical subterfuge.” “Islamists are incapable of change. After all, they cannot move beyond a narrow and literalist reading of the Qu’ran.”

Yet my experience has been that leaders of Hezbollah are far from narrow in their ideology: one has Karl Popper’s “The Open Society” as his bedside reading. Hezbollah insists that its military commanders spend seven years studying philosophy.

There is a solution of course. The solution that was used finally in Northern Ireland: if the West is incapable of trusting what it is hearing — and in my experience there is never, ever, any trust at the outset to any negotiation — then sit with them. Listen for yourselves: Touch, feel and taste what is being said. Progress incrementally; progress by small steps that test whether both sides can adhere to an agreement in smaller arrangements; and if that proves successful, graduate to larger agreements.

In an effort to stimulate listening, my colleagues and I in the mediation group Conflicts Forum have tried to bring credible Americans and Europeans — former policy-makers and political leaders — to the Middle East to meet with the leaders of the key Islamist movements in the region such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The first meeting was tense: For some of those involved, it represented the first time that they had spoken to a Westerner in more than a decade. Some of the Islamists were sceptical that Westerners were capable of listening to anything other than their own voices; and our American participants brought a lot of baggage. One had lost a close friend who had been taken hostage in Lebanon in 1987 and had been tortured and killed. He blamed Hezbollah.

The fate of his friend, an American military officer attached to the UN, was the subject of heated discussion. The Hezbollah representative flatly denied that the movement “had American blood on its hands.” His emphatic denials raised some doubts: Was Hezbollah really responsible for the US embassy bombing and the Multi-National force bombing in the early eighties, as is commonly assumed in the West? After all, Hezbollah barely existed at that time… could it have had, then, the infrastructure to mount such sophisticated operation? How good was the evidence?

The debate over Hezbollah as a “terrorist” entity was resumed in Washington: Although its identity as a “terrorist” movement is seared into the Western mindset, what welled-up to the surface in thinking of the Hezbollah leader’s comments, was how fragile and how limited was the single toe-hold on which the case for Hezbollah’s guilt for the Beirut atrocities rested. It amounted to the word of a single source, known then as the ‘Baron’ in the 1980s, who like Ahmad Chalabi in Iraq, seems to have been only too happy to let the West hear what the West wanted to hear. What was equally plain was that once such myths have been created, and passed down from one media commentator to the next, for more than twenty years, they are almost impossible to shift.

Equally hard to shift, it seems, is the Western reluctance to talk with movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The link with suicide attacks — particularly those that engulf civilians and even children as victims repulses many — but history teaches us that ultimately we will have no option. The West will end by having to talk with those who possess legitimacy and credibility within their own constituencies in the Middle East… whether we like them or not. And, frankly, whether they target civilians or not.

The West speaks of the ‘war on terror’ as if it, the West, is at the centre of a concerted attack from Islamist extremists…

Because so often we do not listen, and end up imagining that the the issue is centred on ‘us’, we erase from our understanding — and policy considerations — that the real war, the war that affects our future — is not about ‘us’, the West, at all.

“Well, it seems that they have added my name to the list.” I asked the speaker, a Hamas leader that I knew well, what he meant by his name having been added to the ‘list’ – “what list?” “The list of those designated for assassination,” he said. He then explained: “You recall that the Israelis killed a number of Hezbollah fighters at the border last week?” — this was last year, 2006 — “Well the Salafi websites; those sites that follow the al Qae’da thinking — they have marked me for death for attending Hezbollah funerals — for attending the funerals of Shi’a fighters.” Attendance by a Sunni Hamas leader at a Shi’a funeral was sufficient for al-Qae’da to mark this Hamas leader down for assassination.

The really important struggle is the fight between al Qae’da and movements such as Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah to define the path and future identity of Islamism that will affect the future of the West far more than Europe and America’s combined anti-terrorist policies.

It is a real shooting war. Not some fine academic distinction of conceptual separation and classification of Islamist movements. It is bloody. It is assassination and death lists: Nawaf Mousawi, a Hezbollah leader, underlined this unmistakably, in saying to me that many of the present purveyors of sectarian hatred had “marked Hezbollah leaders for assassination.”

Mousawi said that such jihadist movements, including al Qaeda, “actually represent a greater danger to my people and to Muslims generally, than they do to Western interests — great though that may be. This is the real danger. This is the danger that needs to be recognized.”

Al Qaeda practice no direct popular mobilisation or search for legitimacy.

Al-Qaeda rests certain that, out of the rubble of Muslim society, will emerge a new Islamic society freed finally from Western colonialism.

Movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah, by contrast, look to the results of this uncontrolled and uncontrollable unleashing of emotion, anger and hatred as an uniquely destructive, dangerous and immoral vision — that will warp and destroy, rather than give birth to a better society.

The West fantasizes that by isolating movements such as Hamas, it will either make them more like us; or stimulate others to elbow them aside. My fear is that they might be right; Hamas may be by-passed; but it will not be replaced by some comfortable pro-Western liberal-secular elite. The West may finally succeed; and we will no longer be dealing with Hamas or Hezbollah: we will then be dealing with al Qae’da.

This is a transcript of Talking to Terrorists (audio), originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4, July 15, 2007.


  1. Ron Kraybill wrote:

    One of the biggest misperceptions about peace processes is that the major challenge is “across” the table. In fact, there are numerous examples to show that the dynamics behind the table are often actually what prove to be the greatest obstacle to peace.

    Designers of peace processes – including the parties themselves as well as mediators – often ignore these “behind the table” dynamics.

    Peace processes are more likely to be successful if they are built on a map of the full range of conflicts always present. This includes conflicts across the table and behind the table, and the latter must include conflicts between people often considered to be “brothers in arms”, gaps between leaders and their constituencies, and conflicts within constituencies.

  2. […] by Nima Maleki on August 28th, 2007 Alastair Crooke posts on Conflicts Forum (originally from BBC Radio […]

  3. naim khan wrote:

    I want to tell frankly that Islam is a peaceful religion and does not spread terrorism. Islam is a logical framework for all the humanity. International media is blaming Islam as a terrorist religion, but fact is opposite. Islam is obviously against terrorism. Killing one innocent man means killing all the humanity.

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