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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 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.

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