Will we negotiate with Bin Laden?

Tony Blair’s former chief of staff thinks one day, we might.

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff, has a rather interesting comment piece in today's Guardian, promoting his three-part documentary Talking to the Enemy, which kicks off on Radio 4 this week.

In the opening paragraph, he writes:

It has become fashionable for western leaders, including generals, to talk about talking to the Taliban. But no one seems to be able to quite bring themselves to actually do it.

Powell adds:

There seems to be a pattern to the west's behaviour when we face terrorist campaigns. First we fight them militarily, then we talk to them, and eventually we treat them as statesmen. That is what Britain did with Menachem Begin and the Irgun in Israel, with Jomo Kenyatta and the Mau Mau in Kenya and with Archbishop Makarios in Cyprus.

But it is his final para that stands out:

In the end there always has to be a political solution. Tough military pressure to convince insurgents that they cannot win, coupled with offering them a political way out, seems to be the only way to resolve such conflict. If history is any guide we will in the next few years be repeating the pattern we went through with Begin, Kenyatta and Makarios, and will be speaking to Mullah Omar, and even perhaps to Osama Bin Laden.

Sorry, what?! Talk to Bin Laden? Says Tony Blair's former chief of staff? How times change. Do you remember the ferocity with which the Labour government, for which Powell then worked, turned on the late Mo Mowlam when the former Northern Ireland secretary dared to suggest negotiating with Bin Laden et al?

From the BBC, 8 April 2004:

Ms Mowlam, who stood down as Redcar MP in 2001, said the US and UK should open dialogue with their enemies.

In an interview with Tyne Tees television to be broadcast on Easter Sunday, Ms Mowlam said the UK and US were acting as a "recruitment officer for the terrorists" by carrying out military action in Iraq.

Asked if she could imagine "al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden arriving at the negotiating table", she replied: "You have to do that. If you do not, you condemn large parts of the world to war for ever.

"Some people couldn't conceive of Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness getting to the table but they did."

Saint Mo was dismissed by her critics as hopelessly naive and a liberal softie. Will hawks dare do the same to Powell, an enthusiastic backer of his then boss's invasion of Iraq, back in 2003?

The debate over engagement with Islamist terrorists, and even Osama Bin Laden, has been shifting in recent years. In 2006, the award-winning investigative reporter Peter Taylor fronted the BBC documentary Al-Qaeda: Time to Talk?, in which he spoke to General Ali Shukri, a former intelligence adviser to King Hussein of Jordan, who told him:

There is no harm in talking. Engagement is not endorsement. Are the Americans prepared to wage war for the next 25 years?

In 2008, Hugh Orde, then head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said he believed Britain should negotiate with the leaders of al-Qaeda: "Well that's the logic of . . . I don't think that's unthinkable, the question will be one of timing."

From the Guardian, 30 May 2008:

Asked whether Britain should attempt to talk to al-Qaeda, [Sir Hugh] said: "If you want my professional assessment of any terrorism campaign, what fixes it is talking and engaging and judging when the conditions are right for that to take place.

"Is that a naive statement? I don't think it is . . . It is the reality of what we face.

"If somebody can show me any terrorism campaign where it has been policed out, I'd be happy to read about it, because I can't think of one."

There has also been a spate of books from scholars and experts in the field, emphasising the importance of "jaw, jaw" over "war, war" -- from Audrey Kurth Cronin's How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns to Mark Perry's Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage With Its Enemies to Louise Richardson's What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat.

Richardson is an Irish political scientist, a former Harvard academic specialising in international security, and is currently principal and vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews. Here is an extract from an interview she did with Spiegel Online in 2007:

Well, I'm not suggesting that President Bush sit across a table from Osama Bin Laden. They would be informal, set up through back channels. These sorts of efforts from the British government were instrumental in the successful resolution of conflict in Northern Ireland. And it's conspicuously lacking from the United States right now.

Talks wouldn't have to be negotiations. Sometimes diplomacy is just a matter of feeling the other side out, of finding out what they actually want. If we could find splits within the organisation of al-Qaeda, we could play them off of each other for our benefit, isolating the most radical elements. Some people say that setting up talks with terror groups would grant them too much legitimacy. But, in my view, declaring war on a terror group is actually the most effective way of granting legitimacy.

Hear, hear!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.