Talking to Isis could lead to peace, yet for some reason we’re not allowed to do it

The highly politicised 'listing' of armed groups by governments has been found to achieve very little

Robert Fisk
Sunday 15 February 2015 19:52
Temporary memorial for Kayla Mueller, a US aid worker killed by Isis earlier this month
Temporary memorial for Kayla Mueller, a US aid worker killed by Isis earlier this month

An important academic investigation to be published in a few days prompts me to ask important questions. Could we save the lives of our people in Isis hands if we talked to the “Islamic State” it claims to represent? Jordan publicly declared its willingness – tragically in vain – to do a hostage swap with Isis. And didn’t the Americans exchange a US serviceman for Taliban prisoners? More to the point, won’t talking to the bad guys be more effective in bringing peace than refusing to communicate until they’re disarmed or destroyed?

To put it another way, should we talk to the killers of the “Islamic State”? Or al-Qaeda? Or Hamas? Or – let us cross the line – the Provisional IRA? Or should we join in the madness of “listing”, drawing up mammoth charts of those to whom we can and cannot talk: a “good” and “evil” list, defining those good “terrorists” (the PLO, the post-Good Friday IRA, the squeaky clean version of the Muslim Brotherhood) and the really horrible “terrorists” (Isis, al-Qaeda and any lesser creatures whom Israel and the US, and thus the UN and even the EU, deem utterly satanic).

Not long ago, I was chatting in Beirut to a Tory MP who had maintained moderately good relations with the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah militia. Only with the Hezbollah political party, you understand. Not those vicious anti-Semitic chappies who threaten Israel. But then Britain and the EU decided that all of Hezbollah – even those supporters who wouldn’t know one end of a Kalashnikov from another – were verboten, beyond the pale, too unspeakable to be spoken to. End of all chit-chat, therefore, between a UK parliamentarian and Hezbollah politicos. Much good did that do.

And research by the Queen Mary University of London School of Law and the Berghof Foundation in Berlin strongly suggests that the “listing” of armed groups by governments – often for clear political reasons – prevents what the writers call “peace building”, hindering the host of NGOs, academics, lawyers and others who are trying to explain the benefits of human rights and political moderation to armed groups whose brutal methods have never been challenged. As Véronique Dudouet of the Berghof Foundation explains, Building Peace in Permanent War – the title of the academic study – illustrates the paradox of “terrorist listing” and “its pernicious impact on contemporary armed conflicts”.

International, regional and national lists of thousands of designated “terrorist” entities now span the globe. The war on terror, the report says, has “presented a formidable challenge to those seeking the peaceful resolution of conflicts caused by legitimate and long-festering grievances”. In short, how can professional mediators and “peacebuilding organisations” continue to work if they don’t know whether their activities are lawful?

The report contains the kind of academic jargon that makes me roar with anger – “conceptual tools”, “non-state armed actors” and “global counter-terrorism listing instruments” abound – and it’s rather mild to the Western governments who threaten all those who “talk to terrorists” with legal action at home while doing deals with the same rogues behind everyone else’s back. The Israelis organise Hezbollah-Israeli prisoner releases, for example, via the German secret service.

The paper looks at terrorist “listing” in Somalia, the Palestinian occupied territories and Turkish Kurdistan, but its analysis of Hamas “listing” – and reference to the Taliban – tells the whole story. The EU’s exclusion of Hamas from diplomatic relations – the EU obediently following the Israeli-US lead – resulted in Europe’s marginalisation in Palestinian talks. An American NGO withdrew from training and mediation work with the Taliban in Afghanistan when US diplomats could not give them assurances that their work was lawful. Jimmy Carter’s US-based “Carter Centre” ended conflict-resolution talks with “Hamas” leaders. An EU mental health project in Gaza collapsed because of “a prohibition of dialogue with relevant [Hamas] officials”.

The UK-German report contains a truly surreal remark from a Palestinian NGO which deserves a finale all of its own. “I believe that we need to talk to Hamas to educate them and we need to let them know what’s going on,” he said. “But we cannot make a workshop, we cannot offer a Nescafé or cappuccino for any one of them. It’s considered as materialistic support … can you imagine it? You cannot offer them a coffee!”

I’m yet to reward the kindness of a stranger

On 2 February, I recalled in The Independent the kindness of a Heathrow dispatcher called Doug Tibble who returned my contacts book after I left it on a (then) BEA aircraft in 1972. I lost his note, failed to reward him for his kindness and asked if anyone knew where he was today. Now Penny Proudlock has written to say that she worked for BEA and knew Doug. “It was entirely in character that he returned your precious contact book,” she says. “He was quite a big man, but very gentle, and quietly spoken.”

Then she went on: “He and his family suffered the most dreadful tragedy: his son served as a police officer in London and he was murdered in a showdown with some criminals … Doug bore this loss with huge dignity.”

In fact, Constable Stephen Tibble was murdered by a Provisional IRA member called Liam Quinn in Kensington 40 years ago. Stephen was newly married, 21 years old and had been in the police just six months. Off-duty and unarmed, he chased Quinn on his private motorcycle after the IRA man had escaped some colleagues, tried to stop him and was shot twice in the chest. After years on the run, Quinn was sentenced to life, served 11 years and came out in 1999 via the Good Friday Agreement.

Alas, I still don’t know if Doug Tibble, who would be in his eighties, is still alive.