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Review: Talking to Terrorists by Peter Taylor

Peter Taylor has an enviable reputation as an expert on Irish terrorism, in reporting on violent conflict in Northern Ireland, in features for the BBC, and a series of books in which he lays bare the anatomy of terrorist organisations and their movement from war to an eventual peace.

He has also presented as a fearless critic of authority, ready to expose the abuse of human rights in the face of official denial and attempts at censorship.

Perhaps more than any other journalist he has attempted to understand the mind of the terrorist, both republican and loyalist, and, without excusing or condoning, to expose their thinking and explain their motivation to the wider world and to governments.

He has covered the Northern troubles from Bloody Sunday to the Good Friday Agreement and after and now he extends his range to al-Qa'ida and Islamic fundamentalism.

The main difference, as he sees it, is that the IRA did not set out to kill civilians while al-Qa'ida seeks to kill indiscriminately as an instrument of terror. To the victims it is likely to be academic whether they perished as targets or as incidental casualties of war.

Another significant difference is that while prepared to kill others, IRA volunteers (with the significant exception of the hunger strikers) were reluctant to die for the cause. Their aims, too, were of this world and did not involve a fast track to paradise through martyrdom. All of which makes Islamic terrorism a much more formidable threat in the long run, and almost impossible to counter.

This book is mainly about Islamic terrorism. He recounts his experience with IRA and loyalists mainly to establish his credentials and to draw some general principles, which inform his approach to the others. These principles are that in the end governments finish up talking to terrorists; that conflicts may only be resolved by talking to those who are actually fighting; and that it is necessary, throughout a conflict to keep lines of communication open between governments and those who would challenge them even if these are not being used for long periods.

There is also a sub-theme that questions not only the morality but the efficacy of torture as a source of intelligence.

The first chapter summarises the position in Northern Ireland. It also identifies the crucial role played by a self-effacing Derry businessman, Brendan Duddy, as the main channel of communications between British intelligence and the Provisional IRA.

With no political ambitions for himself, and no agenda other than to bring an end to a murderous and destructive conflict, he performed a secret and highly dangerous role for years and is unquestionably an unsung hero to whom Taylor now pays due tribute.

The book is a personal odyssey by Taylor in his attempt to understand and explain the nature of terrorism and those who engage in it. It forms a very good and readable introduction to the nature and spread of Islamic radicalism, mainly through a study of al-Qa'ida and its associates and franchisees.

It traces the involvement of the main actors in 9/11, Madrid and Paris underground, the London bombings, Bali, the American Embassies and the USS Cole, as well as a number of attempted atrocities, which were forestalled by good intelligence and international co-operation between police and security services.

He is particularly interesting on the recruitment and training of al-Qa'ida, on the high proportion of well-educated young Muslims in Western countries who are imbued with a sense of grievance at the treatment of their co-religionists in Gaza, in Kosovo, Chechnya, inflamed by the zealotry of fiery preachers in well-identified mosques and madrassas, and inspired to sacrifice all for the cause of the caliphate in a modern jihad.

To counter this he stresses the need for intelligence, for the ability to infiltrate, for understanding and the use of dialogue rather than torture to extract information.

He is deeply concerned by the American use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" and "extraordinary rendition" and the suspicion that, despite official denials, some British agents might have been complicit. He does not, however, pursue the extent to which these practices (minus water-boarding, but including being thrown out of a helicopter) were trialled in Ulster post-internment, and were similarly excused in the infamous Compton report as not amounting to torture absent the intent to inflict pain.

A big difficulty about talking to terrorists, which is rather fudged, is when it is appropriate to do so. Parties in conflict seldom talk except when they are ready to do so, which is generally when all else has failed, and talks offer the best chance of achieving their aims.

It is fair to argue that the Good Friday Agreement could not have been achieved, nor would republicans have come to the table had the IRA not been contained by a long campaign of attrition (however morally flawed at times) and penetrated by intelligence and infiltration. Both sides had fought themselves to a standstill, neither could foresee absolute victory -- there was no other way than talking. Al-Qa'ida is far from that.

Indo Review