Friday, May 30, 2008

Time to talk to Al Qa'ida?

Vikram Dodd in today's Guardian has an interview with a senior police officer, Sir Hugh Orde, head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who is tipped to be the next Chief Commissioner. Orde said the experiences of his force tackling the IRA had convinced him that policing alone - detecting plots and arresting people - would not defeat al-Qaida inspired terrorism.

Orde said: "If you look at some of the biggest risks my people have taken it is talking to people who historically they would not have dreamed of talking to. Were we going to actually police our way out of the Troubles? No. Are we actually going to police our way out of the current threat? No."

He added: "It means thinking the unthinkable."

Before everyone flips their lids and starts howling about appeasement and standing strong in the face of terror, and leaving aside the fact that the set-up of the paramilitary Irish mainland-based IRA was and is very different to the Al Qa'ida global franchise, there are solid strategic reasons for talking to your enemy.

Louise Richardson, in her excellent book What Terrorists Want, explains clearly the three things that terrorist groups seek : Revenge, Renown and Reaction. 'There is no greater affront to terrorists than being ignored', she adds.

For a terrorist to be created, you need a disaffected individual, a supportive group and a legitimising ideology. And to deter, contain and prevent terrorism, it stands to reason that you need to know your enemy. Know who your would-be terrorists are, how many of them there are, where they are, what they believe, why they believe it and what support they have in their beliefs and to facilitate their plans.

How can you find this out? Well, you can read books, hold seminars and meetings, set up think tanks, but there is no substitute for actually talking to the people involved and finding out for yourself - whether by recruiting double agents, intelligence penetration and interception, or in secret meetings. Spycraft, intelligence and diplomacy have always been key tools of war, as Sun Tzu pointed out in The Art of War.

The snag is, Al Qaida is not a disciplined, well-funded well-organised group with clear leadership. If it ever was such a thing, it is not now, not since the US and coalition forces disrupted its base in Afghanistan after 9/11. After this set-back, and the capture of many of its active planners and leaders, it morphed and reformed and is now best described as a very loosely affiliated network of people and groups spread across the world who have in common a shared ideology which is anti-Western, anti-democratic, sees violence against civilian and military targets as justifiable in terms of achieving its objectives, which tend to be local, often vague and even personal, and in some cases, hopelessly idealistic and unachievable. A Caliphate is but a dream of a golden age; it never existed and will not come into being now. Other objectives are more measurable and even achievable.


In Spain for example, the Madrid bombings were ''successful'' in that they caused a victory for the party who supported withdrawal from Iraq. In London, the bombers cited UK foreign policy and the Iraq and Afghan wars as justification for bombing those who elected the government who went to war. They also wanted to raise awareness of causes that inflamed and angered many UK Muslims.

As the current 7/7 conspirators trial is indicating, the London bombers spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan, learning from and talking to their heroes, battle-hardened jihadis/mujahideen before deciding to bring the fight back to the capital of their own country.


Who led the 7/7 bombers? Ostensibly Mohammed Siddique Khan, but he himself took inspiration, and probably clear instruction in bomb-making, anti-surveillance techniques and tactics from others who were based in the mountains of Pakistan.

Are the mujahideen of the distant mountains likely to sit down and discuss their aims and objectives with a British police officer? Not likely. But by talking to those who call themselves jihadi leaders or sympathisers in this country, and hearing what they have to say, it is possible to find out much about the aims, objectives, numbers and levels of support for what they say they stand for. This is extremely valuable information.

It s often assumed that the desire of terrorist groups like Al Qa'ida is to kill as many innocent people as possible. Actually, this is a tactic, not an objective. It's important not to mistake the effects of their actions for their aims and objectives.

Bin Laden himself has laid out many times his objectives. They are

  1. End U.S. support of Israel
  2. Force American troops out of the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia
  3. End the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and (subsequently) Iraq
  4. End U.S. support of other countries' anti-Muslim policies
  5. End U.S. pressure on Arab oil companies to keep prices low
  6. End U.S. support for "illegitimate" (i.e. moderate) Arab governments, like Pakistan
Since 9/11 and the subsequent disruption of his base-camps there, he has managed to further his appeal by issuing proclamations appearing to be backing a series of issues to garner local support in different countries and communities. This shows an adept use of communications and an understanding that his movement can change to being a franchise with a life of its own, even if he is captured or killed or dies of kidney failure. Al Qa'ida is, these days, whatever you want it to be, and that's true if you are a member of a cell that cites Al Qa'ida as an inspiration or a politician making a speech.

If you sit down with those who consider themselves to be Al Qa'ida sympathisers and bother to discover what it is they say they want, you can then do several things: you can choose to demonstrate to them that you are inflexible on their issues and that their tactics therefore doomed to failure, which is a psychological and strategic blow to them, you can demonstrate to the communities who might support them what their objectives are and see if they truly have community support for them, you can indicate that you are reasonable and willing to listen rather than being driven by reactionary vengeful ''crusading attacks against Muslims'' and you can gather information about your enemy and assess his chances of success. You may find that some of his grievances, if not his methods, are legitimate

You also grab back some of the moral high ground. And listening to grievances often takes out some of their poison. It shows that everyone has a voice, and that jaw jaw is better than war, war, as Churchill pointed out.

Being willing to listen is a sign of strength, not weaknesses. Even the Olympian immortal gods, we're told, frequently heard supplication from humans; they did not feel it demeaned them to listen. Angry rhetoric and swingeing attacks on liberties are seen as unfair by those who think they are already victimised and ignored - and such actions have consequences in terms of further radicalisation and hardening of attitudes. So I agree with Sir Hugh; let those who claim to speak for the angry and dispossessed, the bombed and the maimed and the suffering downtrodden Muslims of Britain and the world (which is what Al Qa'ida and affiliated groups claim they do) step up to the plate and make their case.

And we will see with what right and by whose mandate and authority they speak, and what support they really have, what future they plan and how they intend to achieve it, and we will see how attractive to people it really is, and whether it has any real chance of success and support.

We already know of course, and there is a reason why democracy is disliked by hardline fringe revolutionary movements: they know they would never get enough people to vote for them.

Let's hear what those who consider bombing us have to say, in all its paranoid, disjointed, angry, incoherent, idealistic entirety. Then we might have less reason to feel afraid. Though we'd not sell as many newspapers, and politicians would not be able to grandstand as much and pass as many laws.

UPDATE: Just about to go and discuss this on the World Service 6-7pm

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9 Comments:

Blogger Brennig said...

1. End U.S. support of Israel
I have no problems with this. The one-sided hypocritical stance of the US in particular and West in general needs to end. That Israel is allowed nuclear weapons whilst if any Arab state even considers building one, they become targets of US aggression and propoganda is abhorrent.

2. Force American troops out of the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia
No problems here either. However it's likely that the barbarism of the rules of certain middle-east states would quickly eclipse even today's standards as they (certain rulers) fight to cosnolidate their reign. The Saddam era in Iraq is likely to pale in to insignificance.

3. End the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and (subsequently) Iraq
No significant issues here.

4. End U.S. support of other countries' anti-Muslim policies
It's up to other countries whether or not they have anti-Muslim policies. However, the US should withdraw it's current - heinous - foreign policy.

5. End U.S. pressure on Arab oil companies to keep prices low
I agree.

6. End U.S. support for "illegitimate" (i.e. moderate) Arab governments, like Pakistan
See earlier comment about US foreign policy.

I realise all of these thoughts are in direct conflict with US foreign policy, but is that such a bad thing?

Feel free to shoot at me. :-)

May 30, 2008 4:02 pm  
Blogger Autolycus said...

In principle, you're absolutely right, of course, and you put the case with unanswerable clarity.

But there's a question about the degree to which such a policy could or should be launched separately and independently by the various countries affected, allowing both ends to played off against the middle - or whether it's possible to develop a joint approach. No chance with the present US administration, of course. But would it even be practicable within the EU?

June 01, 2008 10:10 am  
Blogger DAVE BONES said...

We already know of course, and there is a reason why democracy is disliked by hardline fringe revolutionary movements: they know they would never get enough people to vote for them.

Except of course for the famous case of Algeria..

Great post though. Abu Qatada's going to be out soon with a lot of time on his hands. Good place to start?

June 02, 2008 7:49 pm  
Blogger DAVE BONES said...

I've been saying for years that Hamza is a totally wasted asset in jail but no one listens to me!

June 02, 2008 7:50 pm  
Blogger Political Umpire said...

"If you sit down with those who consider themselves to be Al Qa'ida sympathisers and bother to discover what it is they say they want"

Isn't the problem not that we are unwilling to listen to and engage with their demands, but rather that they are unwilling to listen to and engage with us? The 7/7 bombers were British citizens who had the opportunity to write to the press and their local MPs and set up blogs. They could have organised themselves politically and stood for office. They could have undertaken street protests. They could have applied to appear on Question Time, rung talkback radio and dropped leaflets through letterboxes. They could have donated money to political parties who they supported. Or they could have left the country for one with which they identified politically.

Instead they chose none of these. They made dimwitted videos and blew themselves up. So too the failed 21/7 bombers, and Richard Reid. All of these could have issued loudly public statements that they had all kinds of concerns and were about to blow themselves up unless they got some media attention. They could have staged a demo bomb if they wanted to prove they were serious. They could have taken the IRA's mildly less abhorrent method of trying to blow up infrastructure rather than simply killing as many innocents as possible.

I'm sorry, but it really isn't 'us' who are failing to use jaw-jaw rather than war-war.

As to Mr Bin Laden's aims, with his money, education and connections he too could have found other ways to campaign for his objectives than mass murder. And the US occupation of Afghanistan (have a look at the UN reports on life under the Taliban written before 9/11 before concluding Bin Laden has a point there) and Iraq, they wouldn't have happened absent 9/11, as Bin Laden well knew. He hoped - and sadly he hasn't been entirely wrong - that the US would overreact in response to 9/11 and overreach itself economically and militarily, and thus become weaker.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the religious conviction of all of these types that they will be transported to the afterlife immediately upon detonation, to be feted by 72 virgins. If I held that view, it would be semtex all the way and no amount of indulgence by foreign media and governments would dissuade me (who wouldn't want paradise?) Religion is almost by definition the opposite of rational argument, and hence we don't see much rational argument from terrorists.

June 04, 2008 12:41 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

There's a difference between talking to monkeys and organ grinders. Talking is not necessarily negotiation; it can be information-gathering. Merely offering to talk can split terrorist groups, who are prone to paranoia anyway. I didn't say I was expecting rational argument in any case.

Jason Burke, an Al- Q expert who's spent a lot of time in the ME, who was on the World Service with me, along with a retired Lt. General from Pakistan both agreed with my by the way - and they did strike me as men who knew their stuff, havign both spent years talking to Al Q groups and leaders.

June 04, 2008 5:01 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

The ones who are encouraged to step into the hereafter with the aid of explosives are mere foot soldiers; you will note few of the strategic planners ever kill themselves, or offer their sons and daughters as 'martyrs'....

June 04, 2008 5:03 pm  
Blogger Political Umpire said...

Thanks for your response. Your second point is a good one, which I had been going to make. You would have thought the footsoldiers might have asked that themselves, but they never seem to ...

As I said, I'm not averse to negotiations as such (though would draw the line at sitting round a table with Mr Bin Laden) but the point I made should also be one repeated by the gvt and the media, which it never is.

One final thing. You distinguish between 'tactics' and 'objectives' but then offer as an example of the latter: "End U.S. support of Israel"

This too is a tactic, the objective being what OBL hopes would follow - the annihilation of Israel by its unsympathetic neighbours. I don't support every action Israel does by any means, but nor do I agree with the likes of the Iranian President about what should be done ...

June 04, 2008 5:27 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

Thanks for the link and response. Well, yes - which is why drawing them into saying openly what they want is a good way of stripping it of the glamour it has when their aims and objectives are hidden and their ability to harm us mythologised by referring to them as a terrible enemy, worse than the Hitler's war-machine, an apocalyptic foe in a clash of civilisations etc etc - it just makes them look cool.

When you actually read extremist literature, you get to see how incoherent, paranoid and racist it really is. I doubt the case made by anyone speaking for AQ would be much better. Sometimes, when you want your enemy to lose supporters and influence, you just have to let them open their mouth and prattle on and then people can see them for what they really are.

AQ can say they want a global caliphate and the Jews to the be thrown out of Israel and blah blah blah - but they can't possibly accomplish it. They have no armies, no resources. It's all just fierce words and blackmailing threats. They know it, we know it.


Isn't the problem not that we are unwilling to listen to and engage with their demands, but rather that they are unwilling to listen to and engage with us?

Yep. Call their bluff.

'So you'd like all Jews to leave Israel. I see. And how do you intend to achieve that then?'

June 04, 2008 11:02 pm  

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