BBC TwoAge of terror


Page last updated at 12:49 GMT, Wednesday, 7 May 2008 13:49 UK

Age of Terror Q&A

Award-winning BBC journalist Peter Taylor has been reporting on global terrorism for over 35 years.

Peter Taylor

His recent series, Age of Terror, investigated notorious terror attacks over the last three decades and explored their repercussions.

Viewers were invited to put their questions to Peter about terrorism and a selection of the best and most representative comments are shown below.


Question: You mentioned possibly opening a dialogue with al-Qaeda. Would this be possible, as unlike the IRA whose motives were political, al-Qaeda's are religious and are therefore more dangerous, as at least the IRA could be reasoned with and had its limits. Surely you need moderates and these seem to be lacking among Bin Laden's followers.
Sean Corr, Dunstable, Beds

Answer: It's seldom appreciated that al-Qaeda has two agendas, one "near" and one "far". The "near" agenda consists of Bin Laden's opposition to US support for Israel and the lack of resolution to the Palestinian question, the West's occupation of Muslim lands (Iraq and Afghanistan), the West's support for the "infidel" regimes like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, the Gulf States, Pakistan etc. All this is patently clear from reading Bin Laden's speeches and utterances.

The "far" agenda revolves around the restoration of the Caliphate - the old Muslim empire under Sharia law - stretching from Spain and Morocco to Indonesia. To answer your question, the "near" agenda may be amenable to political discussion and negotiation. The "far" agenda is not. Remember that "terrorists" begin with absolutist demands - look at the IRA's demand in earlier years for a British withdrawal from the North. Such demands become tempered once reality kicks in.

Northern Ireland

Question: In mainland UK our biggest fear is of Muslim terrorist attacks. But I hear of streets still being closed off in Northern Ireland due to bombs or suspect bombs. Do you think that the IRA groups that are still active could become a threat to mainland UK again? And have we neglected a possible threat from not just current IRA groups but a new generation of IRA fighters that are being influenced by the internet?
Jason, Hertfordshire

Answer: The incidents you refer to in Northern Ireland are relatively few and not generally typical. The Real IRA in particular and to a lesser extent the Continuity IRA are still a threat and it would be unwise to suggest that they are not. However, I think their actions in Northern Ireland are severely constrained by the intelligence services on both sides of the border being one step ahead. I think the threat to the UK from both groups in relatively small - although it's always possible that an attack, or attacks, may get under the wire. Intelligence can never be 100% - see Canary Wharf. And I don't think there are many potential young militant republicans who are being influenced by the internet. It's young Muslims who are largely being influenced and radicalised by it.

Question: Who did the IRA fear the most? The British government, RUC or the Loyalist terrorist groups and why?
Richard Pagan, Dumfries, Scotland

Answer: I think the IRA reckoned that all three groupings were a threat and "feared" them all in about equal measure - although I don't think the IRA would use the word "fear". The agencies that inflicted most damage on the IRA were MI5, Special Branch and Military Intelligence by recruiting agents and informers to penetrate its ranks. There's no doubt too that there was collusion that led to the targeting and assassination of prominent republicans by loyalist paramilitaries.

Question: You refer to the IRA as terrorists repeatedly in your programme. They were freedom fighters. Had Britain lost WWII, and we had a German army of occupation, and we resisted, would we have considered ourselves terrorists. If we blew up German army targets, government offices etc, would this have been terrorism?

Answer: I do not "repeatedly" refer to the IRA as "terrorists" in the programme. I usually refer to the IRA as the IRA. However I may describe some of their actions as "terrorist" attacks where civilians are deliberately targeted and killed. Examples include the Kingsmills massacre by the so-called South Armagh Republican Action Force - a nom de guerre for the IRA - and the massacre of Orangemen at Tullyvallen. Arguably Enniskillen could fall into the same category.

Question: Which active figure do you believe was the first to shift their beliefs enough to break the cycle of violence in Northern Ireland and help start the process towards peace?
Lawrence, Bristol, United Kingdom

Answer:I think the first "active" figure to do so was Gerry Adams. Martin McGuinness followed, thus forging the unique political and military alliance that ultimately led to Mr McGuinness becoming Deputy First Minister.

UK response to terrorism

Question: Do you believe that the prevent strand of the UK counter terrorism strategy (CONTEST) is an effective means of combating the radicalization of "home grown" Islamist terrorists or could it be improved and, if so, how?
Gary Bradley, Madrid, Spain

Answer: A difficult one. I do think that Operation Contest is well intentioned and well conceived - a recognition of the pressing need to counter the radicalisation of young Muslims via the internet and radical clerics in the UK and elsewhere. But I think that Contest has to be part of a wider strategy that includes recognition of foreign policy issues, notably Iraq and Afghanistan, and domestic issues like the legal period of detention. All these contribute to radicalisation. But Contest is a necessary beginning.

Question: How has violent jihadi global Islamic terrorism altered the way the police in UK work? What are they doing well? And what are they not doing which they should? Thanks
Paul Teare, Cambridge, UK

Answer: Global jihadi extremism has profoundly affected the way that police in the UK work. The problem is one of perception. As the threat comes primarily from within the Muslim community in the UK - with training invariably carried out beyond its borders, mainly in Pakistan - it is the Muslim community that the police inevitably monitor and watch. This inevitably gives rise to tensions since Muslims believe they are being singled out and stereotyped. This in itself contributes towards resentment which fuels radicalisation. However the police and government recognise this danger and are actively trying to counter the perception by explaining to the Muslim community when, for example, a raid has taken place, why such action was taken. Intelligence sensitivities often make this difficult. It's all a question of establishing community confidence and trust. This takes a long time. One encouraging sign is that Special Branch officers now openly identify themselves and talk to leaders of the community, obviously to gain intelligence but also to address their concerns. Important lessons have been learned from Northern Ireland. As the Metropolitan Police slogan read in the days of the IRA's attacks on London, "Communities Defeat Terrorism". The slogan remains good today.

Western response to terrorism

Question: What measures by the West do you believe are necessary to convince the general Muslim population that the West is not deliberately persecuting them more than it is any other group, and so stop any unspoken support for terrorists?
Andy Miller, London, UK

Answer: I'm not a politician but the following are my general observations. There's no doubt that the perception of victimisation is exacerbated by the West's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Muslims I have spoken to - especially the young - make this clear as do the would-be suicide volunteers in videos they recorded in connection with the alleged Airlines Plot. Governments have to show by their deeds and not just their words that Muslims are treated no differently from any other members of their societies. The problem is that currently would be extremists come from that section of the community.

Governments also have to counter the influence of the radical clerics who influence them. The British government has already started to do this. How successful it will be remains to be seen. I accept that the current debate over the length of detention during which suspects can be held also exacerbates the perception that Muslims are being singled out so the government has to make a convincing case - especially difficult when the Director of the Crown Prosecution Service say an extension to 42 days isn't necessary. The police also have to explain in as much detail as possible why they take certain actions to convince the Muslim community that such actions are directed against individuals and not the Muslim community in general.

Question: Why is the West so afraid to call a spade a spade and give the "War on terror" its proper title, namely a War on Political Islam or Islamism for short? Surely we can never win a war of ideas against opponents our governments refuse to even correctly identify out of some misguided and suicidal sense of political correctness? We would never have defeated the Nazis by declaring a "War on Blitzkrieg" for fear of offending ordinary law abiding German socialists!
Nick Gibsone, Edinburgh, UK

Answer: Calling a spade a spade - and the spade in the current era of the Age of Terror is, as you indicate, Islamist extremism - would only exacerbate the situation and the term would be meaningless to most people.

Question: Do you think the current problems with Islamic terrorists is a result of the West foreign policy in Islamic regions or because of fundamentalist Muslims?
Luca Jandu, St. Albans, England

Answer: I think it is the result of the combustible interaction of the two - with one fuelling the other.

Question: Do you agree that there is no military solution to the problem of terrorism and that political engagement with the "terrorists" is the only answer?
Clive Gibson, Manchester, England

Answer: Yes broadly I agree with one important proviso. A military and judicial response to terrorism/political violence goes hand in hand with political engagement - although largely prior to it. Such engagement, for example in Northern Ireland, went on covertly for several years to prepare the ground for talks - as it did prior to the Oslo Agreements in the Middle East.

Genuine, open dialogue between combatants usually happens only once ceasefires or cessations to hostilities has been declared. However political engagement with al-Qaeda is more complex because of Osama Bin Laden's agenda, although not precluded on some counts, i.e. American support for Israel.

Question: At the time of a terrorist campaign, it seems, for the victims that it will never end. This jihad against the Western world really does seem like it will never end because it is a way of thinking fighting a way of life. Do you think a change of leaders in the future will change the outlook for the world?
Adrian Hartland, West Midlands/England

Answer: I do think a change of leadership in America in particular would make a difference. The Bush presidency exacerbated the situation presiding over the abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib - abuses that only played into the hands of al-Qaeda and its surrogates. I do not think that the "jihad" will go on forever, although it will probably be with us for the foreseeable future.

Question: Is it not a fact that as each successive government escalates its operations against "terrorists" it simply re-enforces the targets' own belief that they are under attack and therefore perpetuates terrorism?
Keith Redfearn, Sheffield, UK

Answer: I don't think such measures "reinforce" the perpetrators' belief that they are under attack. They know that they are the attackers. What it does is reinforce the belief among sections of the community from which they come that they are under attack as they see draconian anti-terrorist legislation and surveillance directed against them. This in turn can increase support for the so called "terrorists" and act as an aid to radicalisation. However this is not a blanket reaction. The extremists don't have to recruit armies - just a handful of willing acolytes to make up cells.

Terrorism and the media

Question: Who is the terrorist target and why: Civilians, the media consumer or the media?
Hayley Watson, Canterbury, UK

Answer: Not sure I completely understand your question. "Terrorists" operate to "terrify" and use the media as part of that process. The greater the atrocity and the higher its profile, the greater the coverage and the greater the "terror". In Western democracies, the targets are citizens who, the "terrorists" believe, will put pressure on governments to meet the "terrorists'" demands. The difference between the current phase of Islamist "terror" and its predecessors is that al-Qaeda and its surrogates deliberately set out to kill as many civilians as possible. For example, with notable exceptions, the IRA by and large did not set out to kill civilians deliberately. Of course I recognise that civilians were regarded as, those awful, insensitive words, "collateral damage" - see the second Age of Terror programme on the Enniskillen bombing.

Question: While terror has evolved into a global menace, do you think media has matured into a responsible agency capable of the courage to remain committed to truth?
Swaroop, Mysore, India

Answer: The media is a hybrid animal and is often accused as being part of the problem. In fact the media is made up of many outlets, both print and electronic, and many sections of it often have their own agendas. I think it would be beneficial if critics of the media were more selective. In the Age of Terror, for example, we have been meticulous in trying to establish the truth of the events we have chosen to cover.

Question: "One mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter". In regards to Palestine in particular, how do you view the Western media's obsession with describing Palestinian actions as "terrorist" and Israeli actions as "defensive", and does this bias impact on the injustice felt by the Palestinian people, making it easier for extremist groups to enlist new support?
Adam Di Chiara, London

Answer: I agree. The media is at fault. The BBC does not use such language opting for "militants" or "insurgents" and does not describe Israel's actions as "defensive". The words journalists use does colour the interpretation of events and the way in which they are perceived by audiences and readers. I try to be careful in the words I use.

General questions

Question: You said in your piece that a new and even more deadly phase of the Age of Terror began with 9/11 in New York. Where and how do you think the next growth in the scale of horrors will take place e.g. will it be dirty bombs or biological warfare or long term sleeper cells? Living this past 48 years in N Ireland, I was always struck by the hubris of politicians (including British PM's) who said "never, never" e.g. never will we talk to terrorists. You quoted Winston Churchill as saying: "It's the end of the beginning." He also said "Jaw-jaw is better than war-war". How do we get that latter message across to today's people and politicians that meaningful engagement with other people and places at all diplomatic and trade and cultural levels is necessary to avoid the problems and misunderstanding that foment terrorism? In the long run, I believe this is much more cost effective and better than increasing security budgets (necessary and prudent as they are on the ground).
A D Mee, Belfast, N Ireland

Answer: The fear is that the next phase in the Age of Terror will be biological, chemical and possibly some form of nuclear attack. This fear is expressed by the FBI's Joseph Billy Jnr in the final episode, "War on the West". I agree with you that dialogue is invariably the prerequisite of resolving a "terrorist" conflict but, as I said in "Ten Days of Terror" it requires, dialogue, patience, goodwill and an extraordinary capacity for forgiveness.

Question: At what time do you think that terrorists become freedom fighters?
Dave Clucas, Dopuglas Isle of Man

Answer: "Terrorists" are always "freedom fighters" to those who support them. "Freedom fighters" is a concept that only becomes currency once the "freedom fighters" achieve power but even then the term seldom passes into common parlance by their former enemies.

Question: When former terrorists become statesmen does this not become a symbolic justification of the terrorist acts? What does it say about the legal concept of punishing murderers and does it not make a mockery of those who advocate non-violent activism?
Peter Sarachino, Guelph, Canada

Answer: A difficult question with an answer that would appear to vindicate "terrorism". For example, I doubt if Sinn Fein would be in government in Northern Ireland without the IRA's campaign. Therefore Sinn Fein's presence in government is, to republicans, a symbolic vindication of the IRA's "armed struggle". The political compromise at Stormont was the result of the government's determination to try and bring that campaign to an end. However to the DUP, Sinn Fein's partner in government, the compromise represents the defeat of the IRA since the organisation has now put its arms "beyond use" with an acceptance that "the war is over". Far from achieving its goal of a united Ireland, the Republican Movement had now recognised Stormont and the principle of majority consent.

With the release of republican and loyalist prisoner, the compromise of the Good Friday Agreement did mean throwing the legal principle of punishing murderers out of the window in the interests of establishing peace. The subsequent electoral victory of Sinn Fein was at the expense of the SDLP, the advocates of "non violent activism". In the end, the deal had to be done by bringing the two extremes together.

Question: Why is it easier for such groups to recruit largely from the poor and illiterate than middle-class citizens? Is it to do with poverty or are the poor more nationalistic than the middle and rich classes?
Kyahurwa Christopher, Kampala, Uganda

Answer: As I've said in previous programmes, the poor and dispossessed have nothing to lose which is one reason why they provide ready material for recruitment. "Nationalism" becomes a cause that they are ready to embrace in the belief that it will help alleviate their condition. However it would be wrong to suggest that "terrorist" organisations are the exclusive preserve of the "poor and illiterate". A good number of their members are educated and middle-class - for example the IRA's Mairead Farrell who was shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar. This particular strata often provides the organisation with its organisational and ideological drive. Ironically in the process of achieving power, some of its working class members metaphorically morph into the middle-classes, although lifestyles do not necessarily change. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, for example, still live in the areas they came from - West Belfast and Londonderry/Derry.

Question: In your experience, would you say that terrorists prefer to have a lot of people dead or a lot of people watching? Is this changing?
Peter, Glasgow, Scotland

Answer: It remains a fact that the more people die in an attack, the greater the coverage it receives. One feeds off the other. The response of the media is an important factor in the "terrorists'" calculation in planning and mounting an attack - as evidenced by some of the attacks we covered in Age of Terror. I don't think this is likely to change.

Question: There is a very definite period (something like 1967-1970) when the idea of organised small groups striking back at overwhelmingly larger establishments seems to have crystallised into what we now call "terrorism". It was almost a global phenomenon. What happened to trigger this? (A combination of Vietnam, the 1967 war, the death of Che Guevara, Paris, and the end of the Summer of Love perhaps?) The period generated some unlikely bedfellows (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Red Army Faction (RAF) for example). Certainly terrorism existed before this (the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Michael Collins, the Stern Gang. The first hijacking was carried out by Israel, I believe, in the 1950s). These are generally viewed as "struggle", with a "purpose". Modern terror is seen as somehow "mindless". Why do you think the genuine struggle of the Palestinians, and the less credible grumbles of, say, the Baader Meinhof were (are) viewed as they are?
John Ramsay, Edinburgh

Answer: Yes, it's notable that the Provisional IRA emerged in late 1969 and the civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland began in 1968, often regarded as the Year of Revolution that defined the climate of the time. Ideology bound apparently disparate groupings like the PFLP and German extremists together. The PFLP trained the RAF as well as operating with the Revolutionary Cells - as covered in the first programme, "Terror International".

I certainly do not regard modern "terrorism" as "mindless". There is invariably a purpose - political, religious or otherwise - behind it and it is futile to think otherwise. This does not mean that governments have to accept the purpose but they have to understand it in order to counter it on various fronts. The PFLP and the Palestinian cause had a credibility that, for example, the Baader Meinhof and Red Brigades groups did not because many could identify and understand the Palestinian cause. This was rarely the case with the German, Italian and French (Action Direct) groupings - although their members were equally committed for different reasons.

Question: You have spent time with many dangerous individuals. Has the reputation of an interviewee ever impacted upon your ability to ask the 'tough' question? In short, have you ever been over-awed by your subject, fearing a smack in the chops, or worse?
Dominic Gover, London

Answer: Fortunately not, although I have on occasions had to take a deep breath before asking the "tough" question. I know that it is something that I have to do and the audience expects it of me. To fail to do so would be tantamount to "bottling out". So far I've avoided the "smack in the chops" - or worse!

Age of Terror programme trail
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