Saturday, January 28, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Talking to Terrorists: A Personal Journey from the IRA to Al Qaeda Author: By Peter Taylor

Thank you Peter Taylor for the email..& the kind words..you made my day (28 Jan 2012)

Peter Sent a Signed Copy ...(26 March 2012)..


Published in Daily Times / Saturday, January 28, 2012

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

When Peter Taylor, BBC’s acclaimed investigative journalist, hunts down ‘terrorists’, he just wants to talk. Churchill’s philosophy of ‘Jaw-jaw instead of war-war’ appealed to the audience in one episode of the 2007 BBC Doha debates titled ‘Talking to al Qaeda’. A former ISI chief present on the occasion admitted that they had already established secret channels of communication. But as the host pointedly asked, to what end given the American National Intelligence report that the enemy regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability regardless.

Since then this region has watched hastily made peace deals crumble and efforts at diplomacy fail. Five years down the line however, the Taliban are toying with the idea of opening a liaison office in Qatar.

This part memoir that documents Peter Taylor’s 40 years’ experience of talking with the ‘terrorists’ and part mystery that maps al Qaeda’s global footprint in elaborate detail gives a panoramic view of terrorism. At the time of publication, Faisal Shahzad had yet to make his abortive move on Times Square in New York and bin Laden’s lair was still ‘undiscovered’. The book presents a detailed map that traces evolving terrorism hotspots across the globe beginning with the time when the US was ‘tone deaf to the concept’ and OBL was a tiny blip on the intelligence radar.

The detective work put into the identification of Faisal’s predecessors sheds light on a different aspect of the war. It puts readers on the trail of the Lackawanna Six (Yemeni Americans) who came face to face with ‘the’ bin Laden but were never activated, others like the UK airline bombers apprehended before they could strike, still others who survived only to become valuable assets. Spectacular intelligence coups notwithstanding, the journey is harrowing. He documents the genesis of al Qaeda — (the original and its continental spin-offs), the paralysing effect on the world and its polarising effects on communities.

He then narrates the brilliant investigative work that led to these perpetrators spreading out over different continents. Glimpses of chaotic backstage preparations that helped save the day provide the ‘feel good’ side of the story. What happens to the terror suspects afterwards is less reassuring. The final chapters that detail the torture tactics are particularly difficult to get through for they hand the moral high ground to the enemy.

While shocking stories of abuse are on record, efforts at rehabilitation and the rights of detainees also become part of the narrative. The Saudi rehabilitation/reintegration programmes do their bit in making the world a safer place by taking released Guantánamo prisoners to help them make better life choices. The writer gets access to al Ha’ir — Riyadh’s top security prison where he is greeted with traditional Arab courtesy complete with Krispy Kreme doughnuts and the sight of a certain prisoner surrounded by comfort — the same man on whom rehabilitation had reportedly backfired at least once (pg 275).

The writer is seen conversing with an assortment of ‘jihadis’ or ‘mujahids’ (as some believe themselves to be) and their families in a bid to understand the psyche of an average terrorist. Filling the gaps are stories of disillusioned recruits who disagree with al Qaeda’s core philosophy of ‘indiscriminate killing’ renouncing their mentors and seemingly decent citizens with a future turn into manic killers.

This comprehensive study engages with the purveyors of ‘jihad’ to evaluate its twisted trajectory through an ever changing, constantly expanding battlefield. It wonders at how perfectly normal the converts appear to be — showing that the common path to radicalisation many have embarked on does not necessarily begin with a radical mosque. A shady ‘spiritual guide’ becomes the common denominator in this saga of a lost generation (pg 227). The book later trails off to seek the crucial connectors linking the worldwide web of terror to provide a vital timeline of events 9/11 and beyond.

Early chapters on Northern Ireland offer a historical vantage point to observe the manifold dimensions of a peace process. Since Peter has spent 30 years covering Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) provides a recent reference point to help assess the value of dialogue. The behind the scenes manoeuvring that led to the cessation of hostilities and involved maintaining an open communication channel, and in one case breaking the chain of command, is illuminating. Apparently, there would be no Good Friday agreement if it were not for that breach of protocol.

Defusing the al Qaeda bomb poses unique challenges. He acknowledges that their ultimate aspiration for a Caliphate like the IRA’s United Ireland dream can be set aside, concluding that perhaps less fantastic demands can be accommodated. While talking to henchmen has yielded results, preparing the groundwork for peace is shown to be a painstakingly slow process. “There would still be a question,” he adds, at the end “of who to negotiate with given the way in which al Qaeda has evolved into a global phenomenon with many disparate affiliates not all of them linked to the core leadership” (pg 312).

What Peter took away from the IRA was that “intractable conflicts can be resolved”. Talking to Terrorists: A Personal Journey from the IRA to Al Qaeda is a bold piece of journalism that coolly aligns some powerful sounding arguments with the ‘dialogue over destruction’ theme.

Images courtesy of: http://artswrap.co.uk/sites/default/files/imagecache/event_image_full/Talking%20to%20Terrorists.jpg

Saturday, January 14, 2012

VIEW: Coups: Bloody, Medium, Rare

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, January 14, 2012

By Afrah Jamal


One cannot initiate a change of guard in Pakistan without sending the entire nation into a paroxysm or rattling the international community. Not when said change comes atop a war of (some very mean sounding) words between the state and its military.

The New York Times (NYT) editorial, ‘Pakistan’s besieged government’ (January 12, 2012) appears concerned about the fate of Pakistan’s democracy. They hint at “disastrous patterns” and bring up the olden days, implying that a repeat of those times is perhaps in the offing. They then observe that “no civilian government in Pakistan has ever finished its term” and hope that this one would be allowed to do so. Their concern is touching.

The latest crisis precipitated by the firing of the Defence Secretary and the prime minister’s ill-timed statements against our omnipotent military commanders triggered warning bells for Pakistan’s fledging democracy. These back to back incidents gave the impression that a coup was imminent, leading to frenzied speculations. Those who tuned in to the media (mainstream, social) came upon stricken-looking anchors, hysterical headlines and hurried debates all centred on a possible military takeover. These fears are not entirely unfounded and emerge from a not-so-distant past where the military, skilled in overnight redecoration, dictated the national narrative. The bitter aftertaste of earlier coups continues to linger.

Recent events show the military to be in tune with the public sentiments — however grudgingly, not because their special brand of coups (bloody-medium-rare) are no longer effective but maybe because there is less tolerance and sweeter alternatives available. Nevertheless, a coup is the first thing that comes to mind (theirs, ours, everyone’s) when the judiciary, military and the government start exchanging pleasantries and tacking words like dishonest, treacherous, violator of the constitution to the postscripts. Sternly worded warnings issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) countering the prime minister’s accusations can only fuel our overactive imaginations.

The landscape has changed drastically over the past 10 years and yet something remains the same. Pakistan is used to waking up in the morning to fresh faces and a shiny new leadership. The people clamour for a military takeover and then resent them for it. Each time the situation warrants an intervention. Each time it ends badly. Yes, the public is fickle — their taste in politicians is questionable, their memory is notoriously short and choices are limited. But their stance on military rule has always been clear.

Coups, even if they appear justified at the time, are to be discouraged for several reasons. Governments that cannot finish their tenure then accuse the establishment of cramping their style and use these pleas to garner sympathy for their next bid. And it works. Political martyrdom allows the same faces to keep coming back, citing these interruptions as the sole reason for their spectacular failures.

While a coup may not be forthcoming, some changes might. Political parties seem geared up to bid adieu to the government. Something has set events in motion, which might lead the Opposition to seek a no-confidence vote in parliament (the PML-N reportedly falls short of the required votes) or convince either Imran Khan to start his civil disobedience movement or the government to agree to a fall election.

Pakistan’s young democracy needs to find a foothold. The present government has had a busy four years — they have fallen out with the judiciary, the military and the people and quietly watched the railways, airlines and steel mills implode. If people are disillusioned it is not just because the leaders failed to deliver on those enticing promises but because they appeared indifferent to the current tailspin.

No one disagrees with the NYT’s airy observations that “no civilian will ever be able to do a competent job if the military keeps pulling the strings”. The military men have had ample opportunities to step in but they have spent the better part of 2011 quashing such rumours. The danger seems to have been averted but that ‘endangered’ sign continues to hang outside the civilian government’s doorstep. This government is in a legal bind, some might argue of its own making. Others will find it ironic that trying to safeguard their government against an imaginary coup actually brought them to the brink of a real one.

Images Courtesy of: http://www.newageislam.com/controlpanel/picture_library/bohan114.jpg
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