Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Making Peace with Bad People

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Making Peace with Bad People

Article excerpt

Byline: MICHAEL BURLEIGH

TALKING TO TERRORISTS: A PERSONAL JOURNEY FROM THE IRA TO AL QAEDA by Peter Taylor (Harper Press, [pounds sterling]20) AS THE medium of television expires, so the cliches that inform it become more desperately obvious. Nowadays, every documentary presenter is obliged to take viewers "on a journey", in which he or she discovers stuff on behalf of the audience.

This convention underpins Peter Taylor's episodes from Irish Republican and Islamist terrorism, for his Talking to Terrorists is "not an autobiography but the story of a journey". Taylor has dealt with Irish Republican terrorism since the late 1960s, and earlier published a trilogy about the main actors in that conflict. His television documentaries may not be "art", in the sense that Adam Curtis's Power of Nightmares BBC series was "art", but the workmanlike Taylor is honest enough to recognise that the threat from terrorism is real, and not a conspiracy against our civil liberties.

Taylor's unexceptional thesis in his new book is that in most conflicts, governments have found covert ways of talking with people publicly branded as psychopathic monsters. British intelligence officers spoke via metaphorical "bamboo pipes" (notably through Brendan Duddy, a freelance intermediary) with the Provo leadership. Taylor shares the view of Tony Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, that it is always good to talk, even if this means airbrushing the efforts of the British Army from the picture.

Taylor writes that 9/11 "marked a turning point in my journey", which is one way of describing the murder of three thousand people. He has ventured far and wide in order to talk with low-level jihadis and those who seek to thwart their murderous activities. Among the choice moments in the book is a British jihadist preparing to record his shaheed video: "When you mention Allah, do that [points finger]. …

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