Time to talk to Al Qa'ida?
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
- End U.S. support of Israel
- Force American troops out of the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia
- End the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and (subsequently) Iraq
- End U.S. support of other countries' anti-Muslim policies
- End U.S. pressure on Arab oil companies to keep prices low
- End U.S. support for "illegitimate" (i.e. moderate) Arab governments, like Pakistan
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