The enemy at my table: how Jonathan Powell talked to terrorists

Founded upon his experience of successfully negotiating with the IRA, the book is an enthralling, case study of the art, in which Powell carefully establishes his argument for why dialogue with terror groups is usually necessary.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts 
Jonathan Powell
Bodley Head, 416pp, £20

Had he not died in a gun battle with Syrian rebels in January, I am sure that the terrorist mastermind best known by his Isis alias “Haji Bakr” could have had a mutually beneficial dialogue with Jonathan Powell and gone some way to settling the controversy caused by the publication of the former Downing Street chief of staff’s latest book, Talking to Terrorists.

Founded upon his experience of successfully negotiating with the IRA, the book is an enthralling, step-by-step case study of the art, in which Powell carefully establishes his argument for why dialogue with terror groups is usually necessary – given the failure, in all but the most unusual circumstances, of military means. Having set this baseline, the author advances his case by examining the negotiating techniques employed by those dealing with a gallery of organisations, including the Basque separatist group Eta, the IRA, the African National Congress, the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

Among the successes and failures Powell describes appear innumerable, often amusing anecdotes from the world of terrorist negotiation: the cross-table punch-ups, disastrous bridge-building shopping trips and fishing expeditions. In one gloriously memorable moment, Gerry Adams, with whom Powell negotiated repeatedly in the build-up to the Good Friday Agreement, leans across the table during a tense round of talks and tells Tony Blair’s chief negotiator, “The thing I like about you, Jonathan, is that you blush when you lie.”

“Unlike you, Gerry,” comes the instant riposte from Bill Jeffrey, sitting beside Powell.

Though the idea of talking with terrorists is anathema to most governments – publicly, at least – Powell is generally convincing in carrying his argument. In essence, he asserts that no terror group is unapproachable. While there is little benefit in engaging in dialogue over the principles of terrorists, he writes, the chances of finding agreement and possible settlement to entrenched terrorist campaigns are better if negotiators focus their discussions on the “interests” of the communities that have given rise to terrorist action. (The author is canny enough to avoid the pitfall of suggesting that a solution is always possible with dialogue; instead, he advances the logic that without dialogue a solution is almost always impossible.)

So far, so good – at least until the ascendance of Isis, now the most potent and pure manifestation of terror in the world. Powell wrote his book before the coming of Isis and its metamorphosis into Islamic State (IS), which makes his study of preceding terrorist generations feel somewhat dated. Many critics argue that dialogue with this new generation of Islamic terror groups is impossible, not least because of its vision of ultra-violence as an end in itself rather than a means to a political solution. Among them is the former CIA chief James Woolsey, whose words are perhaps the most succinct. Rather than wishing to sit at a negotiating table, Woolsey notes, the current Islamic terrorists want “to destroy the table and everyone sitting at it”.

I doubt this generalised assertion. Although there are many in the Isis hierarchy who fit that mould, there are many more who do not. Take the late Isis mastermind Haji Bakr.

His real name Samir Abd Mouhammad al-Khleifawi, this former Iraqi army officer was killed in Tal Rifaat, in northern Syria, by Syrian rebels after a falling-out between Isis fighters and their erstwhile allies. I visited his grave in the spring, having been taken there by fighters from the rebel unit who had shot him.

Haji Bakr’s final resting place was marked by a pair of breeze blocks and a single wild poppy: a modest tomb for a fighter who in life was no less than the military mentor and right-hand man of IS’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Above any other Isis commander or “emir”, it was Haji Bakr who was most responsible for the structure and strategy of the terrorist army that is now ripping the Middle East apart – which makes his origins all the more interesting, especially to potential negotiators such as Powell.

For, despite his terror credentials, the jihadist defied every shrill cliché written about Isis and was more likely a pragmatist representing the aggrieved Sunni community whose legitimate anger Isis has so successfully hijacked, rather than a representative of the millenarian, apocalyptic visions of Baghdadi and his internal cartel.

Even in death, the colonel challenged expectation: he was gunned down with a BKC machine gun in his hands, his gun-toting 40-year-old Iraqi wife beside him. (She survived, wounded, and is believed to have been traded back to IS by Turkish intelligence agents, along with Bakr’s 30-year-old son, in the swap for Turkish diplomats captured by IS in Mosul.) The rebels who stormed his house told me that they found among the colonel’s belongings not only documents, disguises, passports, coloured eye lenses and wads of dollars but a half-drunk bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label, too.

A Sunni officer who had served the secular Ba’athist regime as a colonel in Saddam Hussein’s army, Haji Bakr discovered that his enraged Sunni sensibilities were best represented by Isis only after his arrest by US forces during their occupation of Iraq and his detention in Camp Bucca, where four of the six most senior figures in Islamic State – including Baghdadi – were also incarcerated. Although he was at first derided by senior jihadists as a “beardless western imitator”, he rose quickly through the ranks of Isis and, having gained the trust of the notoriously paranoid Baghdadi, he assumed command of the group’s all-Iraqi military council in 2012, assisted by two deputies, both Iraqi former officers who had served under Saddam.

There are many other Isis commanders like him. Although the commonly held western perception of Islamic State is that the group is an apocalyptic death cult that exults in terror for terror’s sake, in reality “Islamic State” is just a shorthand for a plethora of angry Sunni groups, unified by a loathing of Shia rule in Damascus and Baghdad. Disentangling their different motivations is the key to containing and suppressing Islamic State.

This approach supports Powell’s belief in dialogue. For we will never know whether or not the pragmatic local interests of former Ba’athist officers such as Colonel Haji Bakr and the majority of local IS foot soldiers in Iraq and Syria can ever be separated from the apocalyptic vision of the small group of Islamist radicals at the helm of IS until someone tries talking to them.

At that point, negotiators may discover that the political vision of former Ba’athist officers who die, gun in hand, a woman at their side and whiskey in the jar, may not be quite so far removed, after all, from those of the IRA and other old-generation terrorist groups with whom conversation reaped eventual reward.

Anthony Loyd is a reporter for the Times and the author of “My War Gone By, I Miss It So” (Grove Press, $17)

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis