Into the dark: the reporter the men of violence talk to

Veteran investigative journalist Peter Taylor tells Jane Thynne how he got to grips with al-Qa'ida
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tomorrow Taylor shows how effectively he has taken on a new target as the first part of his series The New Al-Qaeda begins on BBC2. It's a chilling piece of work, with snatched videos of violent horrors and scrolls of hate-filled messages in Arabic, exploring how the terror network uses the internet as a recruiting tool. Travelling from London to Madrid to Pakistan, Taylor's bespectacled face peers earnestly, like a classics master trying to explain the gerundive, while angry Islamists outline their plans for global domination.

If the hand-held camera work and soundtrack from The Bourne Identity make it look more like a Hollywood thriller than a documentary series, it's understandable. This is a new world order and programme-makers are clutching at anything they can to hold viewers' attention for this most complex of subjects. Even people such as Taylor, who have sat in anonymous cafés with terrorists for 30 years, are finding it hard to grapple with.

"It's a massive culture shock. The IRA were all part of the same mindset. You know where you are, you have a degree of access, you get to know and interview them. There's a structure to the organisation. With these Islamist extremist groups they have a broad and diffuse agenda. You can't get to them because you don't know who they are and where they are. It's a mistake to think everybody's al-Qa'ida: I refer to them as jihadis."

The experience of videos he has seen in trawling the internet has been worse than anything he encountered in 30 years of covering Ireland. "I did watch a beheading video. I felt I ought to have a look at it to blood myself and it is shocking. Words can't describe how awful it is. I have entered an entirely different world, an alien world to me. But there is a common approach. What is common is the kind of questions I ask, such as "Why?" and "Are you a terrorist?" - standard, naive questions, and the answers are inevitably "No". Then they explain to me the reasons they do what they do."

Following the controversy over whether BBC News eschewed the word " terrorist" when covering the London bombings, Taylor says it's a term he personally avoids. "I seldom use the word terrorist, it's judgmental. If you're going to bomb trains there's probably a pretty good reason to refer to them as terrorists but I prefer not to and in Panorama I've said "the London bombers". Political violence is the term I prefer. Because behind the vast majority of these acts there is a political reason. I would be surprised if Iraq were not a motivating factor. We have spent a year talking to Muslims here and in Pakistan and as an almost uniform reaction to the question "Why?", Iraq and Palestine come up."

One of the toughest problems for the journalist attempting to cover the al-Qa'ida issue in all its complexity is one of the most basic: some British viewers find it hard to focus and distinguish between individual figures because of the names are alien to them.

"I'm acutely conscious of the plethora of names and many of them have several different names. We called our Spanish film The Drug Dealer, the Estate Agent and the Telephone Man because names can be a big inhibitor. And the fact that people don't speak English. But we don't want to over-simplify very complex stories."

Outside Television Centre they're sweeping under cars for bombs. It's a familiar landscape for Taylor who has spent all his working life in the world of counter-terrorism. After a brief stint as a classics master, he joined ITV's This Week in 1972, where his first assignment was Bloody Sunday. Since he arrived at the BBC in 1980 he has since become that rare species - the investigative journalist who survived.

"I've lasted partly because I specialised. And in a vein which has become more prominent. It just enabled me to carry on developing an interest and a speciality."

Many fear investigative journalism will be hit in the overall mission to axe 4,000 BBC posts within three years. "There's a demand to put out more current affairs while simultaneously cutting staff and there's very little extra money," said one worried staffer. "Also the ratings are nothing to what they were. No one's getting five million any more. You're very happy on Panorama to get three million. The ratings for anything on BBC 4 are soul-destroying."

Taylor, however, prefers to display equanimity. "We're all concerned. We know we have to be leaner and meaner, but there comes a point at which you're cut to the bone and the body suffers. One thing the London bombs did was bring that home to management. They were very pleased and proud of the coverage. I think our bosses have probably got the message."

Peter Taylor's series 'The New Al-Qaeda' begins on BBC2 at 9pm tomorrow