Page last updated at 09:41 GMT, Tuesday, 15 April 2008 10:41 UK

Journey through terror

Having covered everything from the IRA to al-Qaeda in four decades of journalism, few people in Britain have spent as much time as the BBC's Peter Taylor with the people behind political violence. Here he reflects on some of his experiences.

I first became aware of the word "terrorism" in 1970 when the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) blew up two aircraft at a remote airstrip in Jordan to try and secure the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli and other jails.

They let the passengers and crew off first. Al-Qaeda would have killed them. At the time I never imagined that I would spend most of the next four decades covering the bloody evolution of the Age of Terror.

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Peter Taylor's The Age of Terror is broadcast on BBC Two at 2100 BST on 15 April
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That same year the IRA was beginning to emerge in Northern Ireland, planning to turn the issue of civil rights into a violent insurgency designed to drive the British out of the province. "Bloody Sunday" on 30 January 1972 was my first taste of the Irish conflict.

I'd never crossed the Irish Sea before and didn't even know where Londonderry was on the map. When I heard that British paratroopers had shot dead 13 civil rights marchers that day, I felt ashamed not just at what appeared to have happened but at my own ignorance of the situation that had brought it about. I thought I had better try and find out.

One of my first encounters with someone labelled a terrorist by the UK government took place shortly after "Bloody Sunday" when I met the young Martin McGuinness in the disused gasworks in Derry's Bogside area.

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Ruthlessly abnormal

He was the leading IRA figure in the city at the time. I chatted to him and vividly recall his saying that he would rather be mowing the lawn or cleaning the car at the weekend than doing what he was doing. I almost believed him.

It was also an early revelation that so-called "terrorists" do not always fit the media and governmental stereotype. Many are normal people prepared to do ruthlessly abnormal things in the name of a cause that often pays little respect to the sanctity of human life.

Peter Taylor sits by the Israeli wall

Had anyone looked into a crystal ball at the time and told me that one day Martin McGuinness would become Northern Ireland's deputy first minister I would have thought they were joking. "Terrorists" can and do become statesmen. I remember meeting Gerry Adams in darkened rooms in the 1970s when he was on the run from the "Brits" and never imagined that one day he would be feted by presidents and prime ministers.

Covering republican and loyalist political violence in Northern Ireland. I gradually realised that however abhorrent it might be, the violence was not "mindless".

Suicide bombers

There was a reason for it - a principle that applied to many other groups whether Eta in Spain, the PLO in the Middle East, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or "liberation" movements in Africa. In the Irish context it took me some time to realise this - that the historical roots of the conflict lay in Britain's partition of Ireland and not in some ancient religious war between Catholics and Protestants.

Poster showing Osama Bin Laden
9/11 was seen as a pivotal moment by many

When I talked to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and the fedayeen - or militants - on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, I could understand why they felt the way they did and why they were prepared to hit back against Israel. I could also understand Israel's reaction when they saw their men, women and children murdered.

And the hatred is still there. Palestinians still live under occupation now hemmed in by the giant, snaking wall between the West Bank and Israel, designed to stop infiltration by suicide bombers. One fedayeen family told me whilst filming the Age of Terror they were trapped "like birds in a cage".

Black people in South Africa felt equally marginalised and bitter in the segregated days of Apartheid. In 1981, when Nelson Mandela was still a prisoner on Robben Island, I filmed for Panorama young ANC guerillas - "terrorists" to the Apartheid regime - training in the bush in Angola.

Changed world

It was the only time such a sequence was recorded. They had fled to join the guerrillas following the massacre of Soweto students five years earlier. They told me of how they planned to return and liberate South Africa. They had no hesitation about using the violence that had been used against them. I wondered at the time if they would do what they promised. They did.

Whilst preparing the film, I had lengthy dealings with Thabo Mbeki, then the ANC's press officer in Lusaka and brought him BBC coffee in a BBC cardboard cup in the Panorama office. Again, if you'd told me that one day he would be president of South Africa...

Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat
Many political movements have used violence and been accused of terrorism

And what about al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden? I remember editing my True Spies series at White City when news and pictures of 9/11 came through. Like most of the rest of the world, I couldn't believe what I was watching. That was the day the world changed and a new and even more deadly phase of the Age of Terror began.

I approached al-Qaeda and its Islamist surrogates as I had other such groups but what I found was far more complex and dangerous. Complex because there was a mixed agenda that ranged from the dream of restoring the 7th century Caliphate under sharia law to removing the occupying infidel, primarily America, from Muslim lands; and dangerous, because al-Qaeda's aim was to kill as many civilians as possible in the "jihad" fought against the so-called enemies of Islam - "Jews and Crusaders".

In marked contrast, most "conventional" insurgent groups, including the IRA, by and large did not deliberately target civilians. When civilians were killed, they were euphemistically described as "collateral damage".

Jihadi camp

Al-Qaeda's justification was simple. "You kill our innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, now see what it feels like when we kill you." Such was the rationalisation of the 7/7 bombers in London.

Getting to interview a formerly active jihadi is difficult. Most are either dead or in jail or still plotting in the shadows. But I did manage to meet and film one, Salim Boukari, a former member of an Algerian extremist group who trained in a jihadi camp in Afghanistan and was now in a German jail serving a sentence for planning to cause an explosion in Strasbourg.

Salim Boukari
Salim Boukari was jailed for plotting an explosion in Strasbourg

The alleged target was the city's annual Christmas market. He'd agreed to do the interview via an intermediary but when I arrived with the crew, he asked me what the camera was for. I said to record the interview he'd agreed to. He said he hadn't and refused to be filmed.

The obliging prison guards then let us adjourn to another room where I spent a very difficult 45 minutes persuading him to change his mind. He eventually did and gave a remarkable, intelligent interview in which he explained what he did and why he did it.

He talked movingly and articulately of Palestine and the oppression suffered by his Muslim brothers and sisters all over the world. Again, Salim Boukari wasn't the stereotypical "terrorist".

People sometimes ask me where and when will my journey end. I honestly don't know. All I do know is that the Age of Terror is far from over. Perhaps, as Winston Churchill famously said: "It's the end of the beginning."


Here is a selection of your comments.

You're brave to put this point of view - a kind of Trainspotting of Terrorism. Explaining, but not excusing, these people and their acts. Terrorism seems often to come from idealistic, sometimes intelligent people suddenly seeing that as a group, we have less of a sense of morality than we could and then totally losing faith in humanity. I thoroughly recommend the short book "Occidentalism" to interested readers - it shows in a very accessible way the parallels between Western and more recently Mid-East extreme political philosophies and their dependence on each other for their existence.
David, London, UK

Not much doubt where your sympathies lie. As for the "IRA did not deliberately target civilians" well no, apart from Enniskillen, Birmingham, Warrington, Harrod's, the Europa, Hyde Park, Omagh.... Still, nice to know that the killers are only "so-called" terrorists, who are really potential "statesmen", "normal", "moving", "articulate", "intelligent" people, who'd rather be mowing the lawn. I'm sure their victims will take comfort from that.
Gordon W, Didcot, UK

It is such a disservice to the targeted people to refer to terrorism as "mindless" or its perpetrators as "insane". I have always been confused by the rush to dismiss terrorists' grievances; especially with al-Qaeda and the US. Shouldn't understanding the terrorist reasons and rationale be priority number one? Characterising the enemy as lunatics implies they cannot be reasoned or negotiated with, and ensures the conflict will only be fought in the bloodiest and most violent way possible.
Tom A., Phoenix, USA

For a reporter who covered the topic for 40 years, he has a poor grasp of facts. The IRA and Spain's Basque terrorists regularly placed bombs in places where the public was sure to be hurt or killed, with little likelihood of killing police or government officials. If that's "collateral damage", no guilt can be assigned to anyone for killing civilians.
Kurt Williamsen, Appleton, USA

As Peter Taylor mentions, from a historical perspective it's interesting how many of these conflicts have their roots in British colonialism. Ireland, Iraq, India and Israel were all subject to or created by partition under British rule and the effects of this are being felt even today.
Oliver, London, England

Look at Peter Taylor's experiences. History is the judge that so-called "terrorism" is usually the result of deep injustices which subsides when sincere attempts are made to redress it as in Northern Ireland and South Africa in this example, and which cannot be solved by any amount of repression and crude force and demonizing tactics as in Sri Lanka and Palestine. The solutions to the problems of Iraq and al-Qaeda must be also found through dialogue and compromise, not on the battlefield. Not just politicians, but also the people voting for them must realise this.
Vivek, Zurich, Switzerland

Your coverage of terrorists, via the BBC, seems to always focus on those who are reacting to a state sanctioned land occupation by violent resistance. In a power reversal how would you interview Dick Cheney about the bombing of civilian areas in Iraq under the cause of stabilisation? Would you classify the routine bombing by the US air force as a terrorist act?
Bill Shannon, Pittsburgh, PA

Peter Taylor seems to be saying in the article that if terrorists are eloquent and articulate, perhaps even well-dressed, they are somehow more acceptable than "mindless" thugs. Sorry, but I don't see how. To my mind these characteristics make them far more dangerous, not less, as they are more likely to be taken seriously and have their twisted logic repeated and believed. The deliberate targeting of civilian targets (human or infrastructure) is morally wrong and cannot be justified, no matter how presentable the perpetrators or how wronged they believe they are.
Elliot, Herts, UK



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