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Talking to Terrorists

Alastair Crooke posts on Conflicts Forum (originally from BBC Radio 4):

At the beginning of the decade I spent a few years in the Middle East, both as an advisor to Javier Solana — the EU’s High Representative for Foreign & Security Policy — and on the staff of the commission set up by former senator George Mitchell to investigate the causes of the intifada. Part of my time was spent talking to armed militant groups. Sometimes there was an immediate objective — such as when we were taking part in the negotiations to end of the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002. But I believed a longer-term dialogue with Hamas and other Palestinian groups described as ‘terrorists’ could serve the cause of peace. Not everybody agreed. NOT talking to terrorists is an important principle, isn’t it?

I remember a friend sent me a short email: It offered support. “I know how isolated it can be” acting as a mediator with armed groups, it said. He did know: its author had pioneered the struggle to begin talking with Sinn Fein — a process that culminated with the Good Friday agreement, and eventually, with Ian Paisley taking his place as first minister alongside his deputy, Martin McGuinness. I’m sure, though, when my friend initiated those first discussions, he never imagined that it would take so many years — literally decades — to reach fruition.

I’d started talking with Islamist movements who were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the mid-eighties — 20 years ago. In one way or another, all the formative elements of today’s Islamist canvas were evident then: It was a kaleidoscope; some movements had real credibility, and were very serious about improving the lives of their members; whilst others, including the Saudi Wahhabis, were already at odds with many of the other groups. Among the troublesome was Osama bin Laden’s small contingent, which at that time numbered no more than 150 – 200 men.

There was little interest then in understanding these movements; what separated them from the others; or in trying to piece together a comprehension of the currents that were to shape the future of the Muslim world.

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