‘I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists. I tell them that I was also a terrorist yesterday, but, today, I am admired by the very people who said I was one’ Nelson Mandela
‘If inciting people to do that [9/11] is terrorism, and if killing those who kill our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists’ Osama Bin Laden
The beauty of really good satire is that it makes us question our assumptions and our politics. So when Ali G asked ‘What is Terrorism?’, it wasn’t solely for our amusement. It’s a very good question to which there is no clear answer.
The maxim that ‘one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist’ still applies. In ‘Talking to Terrorists’, Peter Taylor reflects on his career of reporting on and interviewing (and let’s be careful about definitions here) non-state paramilitaries that use violence to achieve political ends (in the broadest sense of the word). Mandela and Bin Laden couldn’t be more different when it comes to respect for human dignity and democracy but terrorism is a hugely subjective term; you can label any non-governmental guerilla force as ‘terrorist’ depending on your point of view.
Peter Taylor has a long and distinguished career as an objective and trustworthy reporter. He earned his journalism chops from reporting on Northern Ireland in the early 1970s and became one of the most informed writers on Republicanism and Loyalism. He later became a noted expert on Al Qaeda. ‘Talking to Terrorists’ principally focuses on these two areas.
Almost everyone who lived through the worst of the ‘Troubles’, as they were so euphemistically called, felt that the conflict/war/terrorism could have gone on forever. Apart from John Hume and a very small circle of politicians, government officials, and ‘spooks’, few had any optimism that a negotiated settlement was possible. One of those optimists was Derry businessman Brendan Duddy and Taylor gives this remarkable man, known as ‘the Mountain Climber’, his well-earned place in history. Duddy was a go-between and facilitator for IRA negotiations in the 70s and 80s when literally no-one else would meet them. His role as a sherpa for peace is worthy of John Le Carré and Taylor does justice to this unsung and modest hero. Taylor’s first-hand observations about Martin McGuinness make for interesting reading too.
Al Qaeda and the Taliban are fundamentalist in their world view, ruthless in their tactics and long term planners when it comes to strategy. They would also fit most people’s definitions of terrorists. Taylor meets with jihadists and Islamic extremists and seeks to understand their motivation; he asks them how they were radicalised and questions them directly as to whether they consider themselves to be terrorists. The responses are significant and varied; future negotiation may be possible on some narrow issues and Taylor notes that while issues like Palestine are clearly well-defined political subjects for discussion, the re-establishment of a Caliphate is an obvious non-runner; there is limited room for manoeuvre.
Many aspects of ‘The War on Terror’ have been hugely damaging for the US. Guantanamo has been both a policy and PR disaster with little actual intelligence coming from the detainees. Waterboarding and torture have been morally wrong – Taylor quotes an Intelligence source as saying torture can never be justified, even with a ‘ticking bomb’ scenario – and the US, and the CIA in particular, has suffered terrible ‘reputational damage’ over the last decade. Taylor highlights the refusal of the FBI to take part in ‘enhanced techniques’ and rightly praises them for upholding the rule of law. His account of the London ‘7/7’ bombings is chilling.
Taylor is an old-school journalist: unassuming, reliable and a collector of impeccable contacts. He lets the story speak for itself and never hogs the limelight. This book is essential reading in the burgeoning Al Qaeda and the War on Terror literature. It is a parable for our times, for ‘terrorists’, as used to be said about the poor, will probably always be with us. ‘Talking to Terrorists’ is a superb show-case for Taylor’s expertise.
‘Talking to Terrorists – Peter Taylor’, Harper Press, £14.99