Mint tea with the terrorists

Under US law, it is an offence to give any "aid or counsel" to groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah. Bu

Osama Hamdan wears an ordinary business suit and hands out an ordinary business card with his e-mail address and telephone number. But he never carries his own mobile - just in case Mossad tries to put explosives inside it again.

Hamdan is in the downstairs bar of an elegant Beirut hotel, talking to me and to Bobby Muller, an American Vietnam veterans leader and a joint winner of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

It's not an ordinary conversation. Behind Hamdan lurk three burly and bearded bodyguards. Occasionally, one steps forward with the mobile phone. In the meantime, Muller, whose spine was severed by a bullet when he led a combat assault in Vietnam, discusses the impact of Hamas's decision to stand in the Palestinian assembly elections in July, thus apparently joining the "Arab Spring" of democracy so lauded by President George W Bush.

If Hamas wins enough votes to join the Palestinian government, Bush will be in a dilemma, explains Muller. The president has promised hundreds of millions of dollars to the Palestinian Authority - but US law forbids him from giving money to terrorist groups. The law is so tight that Muller himself, by taking part in this conversation, and by giving Hamdan an anti-war DVD, might be giving "aid or counsel" to a banned terrorist. That, too, is a violation of US law. Even buying a cup of mint tea for a Hamas leader could be considered a form of "aid". Just telling a terrorist group to turn to peace could be an offence.

Last month, however, in Beirut, Muller joined a private meeting of former intelligence officers and diplomats, some with very high connections in Washington, who were prepared to talk to declared terrorists. Those present included not only Musa Abu Marzuq, deputy leader of Hamas, and two of his senior colleagues, but also leaders of Lebanon's Hezbollah, another group banned by the US. It was the first time in at least ten years that Hamas or Hezbollah had talked to a high-level American delegation. Representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and Pakistan's Jamaat-e-Islami party were also there.

The Israeli government condemned the talks, arguing that it simply gave the terrorists credibility. But as we all know, there are always talks with terrorists - whether with the IRA, the African National Congress, or Iran during the Lebanese hostage crisis.

Some argue that the lack of dialogue between America and militant Islam is the most dangerous aspect of the current conflict. Those who take this view include Alastair Crooke, a former officer with MI6 who, for more than five years, was the European Union's secret and not-so-secret mediator with Palestinian militant groups. "While the stakes are getting higher and higher," says Crooke, "there is a widening gulf of understanding between the west and militant Islam. There has been an enormous retreat from the level of contact that there was a few years ago, whether academic, diplomatic, or otherwise."

Crooke was withdrawn from the West Bank in 2003 by Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, ostensibly for his own safety, but amid protests by Israel that he was getting too close to Hamas. He retired from government service soon afterwards. Now he is on a mission to continue privately what he can no longer do officially, and the Beirut talks are part of that. But he wants to widen the contacts to radical Islam in general.

For nearly three decades, Crooke was secretly one of Britain's leading intermediaries with militant groups - in Ireland, Nami-bia, Colombia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Working for the EU in Palestine, he was called "brave to the point of madness" by one Israeli newspaper after his exposure as a former MI6 man. Criss-crossing the West Bank by local taxi, always unarmed, he negotiated a series of ceasefires and agreements. At times, he was the only outsider maintaining contact with groups such as Hamas.

Milton Bearden, a station chief for the CIA in Islamabad in the mid-1980s, remembers Crooke as "a natural on the frontier" and as "a British agent straight out of the Great Game". At that time, Crooke was helping to co-ordinate British assistance to the mujahedin rebels in Afghanistan. It was then that he got to know some of the militants who would become leaders of al-Qaeda.

Bearden, now retired, supports Crooke's efforts to establish a dialogue with radical Islamists through a new organisation called the Conflicts Forum - and described by Crooke as an "action tank, not a think-tank". Yet Hamas is known in the west for detonating suicide bombs in crowded buses and cafes in Jerusalem. Invited to dinner with the participants in the Beirut talks, and sharing jokes with the Hamas men over tiger prawns, avocado, pasta and cherry tomatoes, I wondered privately how one would explain all this intimacy to the mother of a child killed by a suicide bomber. As the Israeli spokesman did not fail to ask, how did the former CIA men who were present feel about chatting to members of Hezbollah, the same group accused of organising the kidnap, torture and execution in 1985 of William F Buckley, the former CIA station chief in Beirut?

But as one American at the talks said: "Most of the terrorism accusations against Hezbollah, such as hostage executions, relate to events more than 20 years ago. The key question is whether they can be transformed from a private army into a normal political party." Crooke argued that we have to get beyond a debate over good and evil. Islamist violence is a matter of politics, and it has to be dealt with politically. The Beirut talks, he said, were not a negotiation, but rather an exercise in listening. Just as in a hostage negotiation, where two apparently irreconcilable sets of demands must be matched, the first and most important step is to remove false expectations and correct misunderstandings.

Muller, who founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, likens the Crooke initiative to his own private mission to Vietnam in the early 1980s, which led to the first postwar return of US combat veterans and became the precursor to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Hanoi. The biggest failure of the Vietnam war, says Muller - and to illustrate the point, he gives Hamdan a DVD copy of The Fog of War, Errol Morris's documentary about Robert McNamara, US defence secretary during that time - was the total American ignorance of the Vietnamese and their culture. That failure is being repeated. "People in America have absolutely no idea of the history of the Middle East, its geography and its experience of resisting occupation," says Muller.

And what is the greatest single misunderstanding? According to Hamdan, it is that Palestinians and many other Islamist resistance groups are not part of some global struggle against America. They are engaged simply in a struggle against occupation. Hamas rejects attacks on western targets; its violence is concentrated within home territory and exclusively against Israel or Israelis.

"We are not targeting by our resistance even the Israelis outside Palestine," says Hamdan. Nor does the terrorist violence necessarily imply a rejection of democratic politics. Hamas and Hezbollah insist their military tactics are never to be used for gaining political power - only to resist Israeli aggression.

While such statements are yet to be tested, it is true that many of the groups that the US has declared to be terrorist organisations are greater supporters of democratic elections and an open society than the US-supported dictators in the region. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, which is widely accused of influencing the ideas of al-Qaeda, is now the principal champion of democracy and reform in Egypt. Its leaders, though banned from the Beirut talks, have been encouraging militant groups across the region to engage in the democratic process.

Knowing now that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and no strong links with any terrorist groups - least of all the 9/11 hijackers - the Bush administration has gradually changed its justifications for the Iraq war. Increasingly, we are told that it was about promoting liberty. But asks Hamdan: "Can America accept the results of what it is calling for? It is talking about democracy and reform - and we are doing it."

Muller believes that, one way or another, Washington will have to find a way to open up an official dialogue with Islamist militants. America's commitment in Iraq is becoming so demanding that it will require a new military draft - a draft that will be a wake-up call to the entire United States. And there will be no way out of Iraq for the US unless it starts looking hard at its whole policy for the Middle East. "Our exit strategy from Iraq is going to be engaging a whole lot of issues on a regional basis," he says.

Crooke, for his part, argues that radical Islamists are not seeking a dialogue with the west to establish legitimacy or gain publicity. "They enjoy very high credibility already in their own societies." And by regarding all such groups as enemies, the west is stoking up trouble. As he puts it: "By isolating and demonising, we make the situation more violent. We cannot close off all avenues to protest that are not pro-west and pro-secular and pro-capitalist."

Stephen Grey is former editor of the Sunday Times Insight