Page last updated at 13:30 GMT, Thursday, 29 January 2009

Opik: 'Time to talk to al-Qaeda'

By Mark Lobel
BBC News

Lembit Opik is probably not the first person the Foreign Office would call for advice on dealing with al-Qaeda.

Lembit Opik
Opik says politicians fear appearing to condone terror if talking to terrorists

The Liberal Democrat MP is better known for tabloid antics with his former pop star girlfriend and his enthusiasm for Segway scooters and playing the harmonica.

So when he announced last year, with due gravity, that it was time to for the West to speak to al-Qaeda, it was written off by some as another headline-grabbing stunt.

But the Montgomeryshire MP is deadly serious.

The third largest UK party's former Northern Ireland spokesman is casting around for a new role, since losing the race to be Liberal Democrat president.

And as someone who has closely followed the long and bitter negotiations that led to last year's peace settlement in Northern Ireland, and who has held a string of senior positions in his party, he believes he has something to contribute to the debate.

"It is time to talk to al-Qaeda. Having been through this in the past, I know this is right.

"Declaring war on terror does not deliver peace."

The son of Estonians, whose relatives fled Stalin's regime, the Bangor-born MP argues that with the world apparently entering a new era, it is time to contemplate what most Western politicians would regard, in public at least, as utterly unthinkable.

It is highly unlikely any mutually agreed settlement could ever be reached with Al-Qaeda... we have no intention of opening a political dialogue with them
Foreign Office spokesman

He is not the first British politician to call for talks with al-Qaeda. Former Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam issued a similar plea in 2004, a year before her death, but she was no longer an MP at that point.

Tony Blair's former aide Jonathan Powell, another veteran of the Northern Ireland peace process, also urged Western governments to talk to terror groups such as al-Qaeda.

But Mr Opik appears to be something of a lone voice in Parliament.

So what has prompted him to speak out? And will anyone take it seriously?

'Intransigence'

November's killing of at least 172 people at multiple locations in Mumbai reawakened terror concerns around the world.

Mr Opik says the attack is part of a cycle of terror that must be broken.

"The random killing of hundreds of civilians has obviously secured headlines from the perpetrators.

"As long as this cycle is repeated, we have relatively little chance of achieving closure on the terrorist methodology."

He blames "intransigence and the failure to communicate" for sustaining this cycle of violence and thinks that, until the "motivation" is taken away, there will be more attacks.

"My motives won't satisfy people's needs for vengeance," he says.

"For those people that want revenge, it's hard. But then the crime will have created its own ricochet.

"That would distract from any chance of strategic solutions - leaving us with a tactical ricochet of violence instead of a strategic end to violence."

'Wrong track'

Early reports which suggested an al-Qaeda olive branch may have been offered to the incoming President Barack Obama, intent on troop withdrawal from Iraq, buoyed Mr Opik's belief that they have "a fairly clear agenda" which does not involve, contrary to most official lines, "setting out to destroy the western world".

And despite recent video messages attacking President Obama and the situation in Gaza, he thinks al-Qaeda are ready to talk.

"We have to separate rhetoric from intent. Naturally there will be a bit of both.

Beginning of the Troubles
Opik thinks lessons learnt from the Troubles have been abandoned

"We'll only make progress when we take a more grown-up approach to an essentially understandable organisation."

His words will be written off by some as dangerously naive, and for those who have seen him in celebrity magazines it is hard to picture him sitting in a cave with the world's most wanted man.

"I am not setting myself up as the saviour of the western world," he says, adding that "anyone could be saying what I am saying. The real progress would be to lock people into the process much more than shadow boxing."

His thinks the British government are on the wrong track and losing valuable negotiating time.

"The British political system is afraid to acknowledge the potential legitimacy of the motives behind terror.

"They think that means they are condoning terror - nothing could be further from the truth."

'Total destruction'

Not surprisingly, the Foreign Office dismissed Mr Opik's call for it to sit down with al-Qaeda.

A spokesman conceded that negotiation can sometimes play a part in ending terrorist campaigns, but added: "It is highly unlikely that any mutually agreed settlement could ever be reached with al-Qaeda and we have no intention of opening a political dialogue with them."

Is he proposing to reward them with political influence and prestige because they pose the biggest threat to us, regardless of what impact this would have on the Middle East?
John Bew
Historian and author

Mr Opik's own party also appears to take a dim view of his one-man peace mission.

"We are light years from this point - he's kidding himself," says foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey, who last year conducted a four-day fact-finding mission to the Middle East.

He backs more dialogue between forces in Afghanistan and the Taleban, and between the west - especially the US - and the Iranian government.

But adds: "The problem with al-Qaeda is that their actual agenda is the destruction of our way of life."

He supports any informal contact with al-Qaeda or intelligence gathering the government may be engaged in, but thinks "the idea that there is a meeting of minds to be had is impossible".

And he adds, wryly: "It is possible to debate with Opik, unlike with al-Qaeda."

"Fundamentally rational"

There is also the question of whether Mr Opik's claim of parallels between the situation in Northern Ireland and al-Qaeda really hold water.

John Bew, historian and co-author of "Talking to terrorists: making peace in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country", is concerned that, were Opik's "noble sentiment" taken up, it would actually undermine the lessons from the Irish peace process.

The Cambridge lecturer and son of the Irish politics professor Baron Bew, grew-up with a ringside seat during the Troubles and subsequent peace process, which Mr Opik says we have "abandoned all the good lessons of".

Mo Mowlam
Mowlam wanted dialogue to help a 'counter-productive' war on terror

He says that dialogue with the IRA in the 1970s proved "counter-productive because the IRA believed that the British were negotiating from a position of weakness".

Whereas by the 1990s they came to the table "partly because of an effective security war", he says.

"If you talk to al-Qaeda, you risk undermining more moderate partners for peace in the Middle East - whether that be states themselves or those parties who actually have an elected mandate," Bew says.

He adds: "Is he proposing to reward them with political influence and prestige because they pose the biggest threat to us, regardless of what impact this would have on the Middle East?"

Perhaps there will be a time when negotiations are made public - and an end to the war may be spoken of - so that Mr Opik can extend his belief that "people are fundamentally rational" to the cells of al-Qaeda.

But until then, his willingness to consider direct dialogue with al-Qaeda will sit alongside the late Mo Mowlam's in 2004, former Blair aide Jonathan Powell's in March and senior Northern Ireland policeman Sir Hugh Orde's in May, and remain firmly unanswered.

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