Why talk to al-Qaida?

Posted: June 10, 2008 in Guardian
Tags: ,

Am gradually penetrating the Brit press more, which is good. Here is my latest on the Guardian’s Comment is Free page. Was a reaction to something someone said about talking to Al Qaeda, something which on the face of it is a pretty silly idea.


Why talk to al-Qaida?

Negotiation worked in Northern Ireland, but the conflict with al-Qaida is completely different. We should instead address the causes of radicalisation.

Sir Hugh Orde, the Northern Ireland police chief, recently put forward the idea of “talking to al-Qaida” as something that the British government would eventually have to do in order to persuade the group to stand down. In a lecture last week, Peter Hain echoed some of his comments.

The idea of negotiation as a way of achieving peace is founded in the successful British experience of dealing with Irish separatist groups, but is fundamentally inapplicable to dealing with al-Qaida.

First of all, some sort of basic explanation of what al-Qaida actually is seems in order.

One of the most convenient models to describe the broad group that we tend to clump together as al-Qaida has been provided by senior French civil servant Philippe Errera. He sees “three circles of threat” within the broader term al-Qaida: first, there is the core al-Qaida, that has transferred to the badlands in Pakistan’s frontier provinces; second, there are regional al-Qaida affiliated groups like al-Qaida in Iraq or al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb; and finally, the group is most likely to plague us here in Europe, and that is “freelancers … who profess to act in the name of al-Qaida.”

There may indeed be connections, however tenuous, between the two subsidiary groups and the al-Qaida core – but this does not mean that there is the sort of operational command that we would traditionally associate with a movement seeking a political goal through violent means. This is partially a product of the dispersed nature of the group and its penchant for operations that are increasingly conceived and conducted at a low level, but also as a result of the fact that al-Qaida is not as monolithic as it might attempt to make out. So the first question is, who do we talk to?

While the al-Qaida rhetoric is globalist, the motivations of the various sub-groups – the other “circles” – are often deeply rooted in local issues. For example, while al-Qaida affiliated groups in North Africa or Central Asia ascribe to Osama’s millenarian pronouncements, their radicalising influences, goals and targets all tend to be more locally oriented. Similarly, for Europeans who go out to Afghanistan or other fields of jihad to train and either fight there or back here, while they may be buying into the globalist rhetoric, one suspects that their driving motivation will not be identical to fighters coming from Saudi Arabia. For some of the “freelancers” who show up in the UK, it is very hard to gauge the degree to which they are in any way connected to al-Qaida core.

And even within the al-Qaida core, one can discern a bias towards different enemies amongst different members. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s pronouncements often reflect his roots in the Islamist struggle in Egypt, with specific references to events there and the Mubarak regime’s actions. Similarly, Osama bin Laden’s Saudi roots are reflected in his anger against the ruling family there.

So, even if we identify an individual, and are able to select one whose goals represent such a globally diverse group (a conclusion than in itself might emphasise the “clash of civilisations” rhetoric that gives al-Qaida sustenance), the next issue is to what degree can we accommodate it.

If we assume they are not nihilists and take what they are after at face value, then they either want all westerners to leave Muslim lands or they want to re-impose the caliphate under their rigid medievalist interpretation of sharia law – or some combination of both. This is hardly the sort of comprehensible conclusion that separatist groups like the IRA or Eta seek.

Extremists regularly cite the Taliban’s Afghanistan as the pinnacle of achievement, and so it would not seem totally unfair to imagine that this is what they would like to bring about internationally (or at least in the Muslim world). Is there any part of the Taliban’s Afghanistan that we would want to be imposed on anyone knowingly and with our support? In fact, might this not spur some sort of backlash when those condemned to this fate decide to do something about it and decide to punish us for leaving them in this position?

None of this is to somehow say that talking to our enemies in general is a bad idea – however, within the context of al-Qaida it would seem to be counterproductive. The better approach is to instead address the multifaceted reasons why people chose the path of radicalisation that leads to the decision to connect themselves to al-Qaida or its ideology in some form.

The British government has just released an updated version of how it proposes to do this, and others have pointed out a key element of this is demystifying al-Qaida – much of this, however, would be undermined if we started to open discussions with Bin Laden on how to achieve a partial caliphate.

This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Tuesday June 10 2008. It was last updated at 10:40 on June 10 2008.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s