Talking to Terrorists: The Documentary-Maker Peter Taylor on a Decade of Investigating Al-Qaeda

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When al-Qaeda attacked the twin towers, I was in a BBC editing suite, putting the final touches to a television series on the "Hairies" - the Special Branch officers who infiltrated "subversive" organisations. My feelings were those of incredulity, followed by horror. I realised that the focus of my work would have to change. I'd spent much of the previous two decades trying to explain the Irish conflict. I never imagined I would spend the next ten years trying to do the same with al-Qaeda and Islamist extremism.

I had tracked al-Qaeda from a distance and, almost 20 years earlier, had made a prophetic BBC documentary, Men of God, about the devastating attacks by Islamist suicide bombers on the US embassy and Marine Corps base in Lebanon in 1983 - attacks that al-Qaeda was to replicate in the years to come. Yet I still felt woefully ignorant on 11 September 2001, just as I did about Ireland and the IRA when I first covered Bloody Sunday in 1972. I knew that I needed to learn more about al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden and try to understand why 19 young Muslims were prepared to carry out such an attack and become "martyrs". The question kept recurring in the years that followed and was highlighted by the four young British Muslims who bombed London on 7 July 2005. Two of them answered it in their suicide videos. Iraq. Afghanistan. Palestine. Bush and Blair.

Trying to reflect on television the deeper reasons for radicalisation - alienation, discrimination and generational differences, all exploited by extremist Islam - proved to be enormously difficult. I found many Muslims reluctant or actively hostile to engaging with these questions. Conspiracy theories around 9/11 and 7/7 were everywhere. I felt that I was trying to understand a community in denial. The real conspiracy was that of silence. Many Muslim clerics were complicit by refusing to condemn atrocities publicly. It sometimes felt as if I was part of the problem; the media - television, in particular - were seen as the enemy. I lost count of the number of doors that were closed in my face. It brought home to me how limited the medium is when it comes to dealing with such emotional and sensitive complexities.

When I was making my series Generation Jihad, I wanted to interview two young Muslims who had just been released from jail after doing time for terrorist offences. They were prepared to talk but not to me and finally agreed to be interviewed by a young, Muslim colleague. What they had to say was more important than to whom they said it.

What I did see on those rare occasions when I was able to break down the barriers was the devastation caused to families by sons who had embraced jihad. …