Talking to Terrorists Could Back Channel Diplomacy Prevent the Worst?

In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Harvard terrorism expert Louise Richardson discusses the recent bombing plot in Britain, the advantages of negotiating with bin Laden through back channels and the damage the term "war on terror" has done to American interests.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The suspects arrested in the most recent British terror plot are disproportionately doctors. Is there a connection between the medical profession and terrorism?

Richardson: We’re so surprised when it’s a doctor -- someone who’s devoted to caring for people rather than killing people. It seems so incongruous. That's why I think it was more a case of this being a very good cover. There are about 240,000 doctors registered with the National Health Service (NHS) in Britain, of whom 90,000 are foreign born. It’s actually very easy to practice in Britain as a foreign born doctor.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is it plausible that these doctors may have become radicalized after having treated Middle Eastern victims of the war on terror?

Richardson: Well, we haven’t seen doctors radicalized from the experience of caring for patients anywhere else. The more general factor is that terrorist leaders try to recruit highly educated followers because they’re more skillful.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is education a ticket to moving up the ranks of a terrorist organization?

Richardson: The recruits flocking to Iraq and Kashmiris joining terrorist groups out there tend to be from the ranks of the poor. Leaders are almost always more educated than the rank and file. One needs skills to succeed in any complex organization. And if you look at the groups active in Europe, one needs to be familiar with the Internet and use computers. But we’re seeing a growing incidence of educated terrorists. The classic examples are the hijackers from Sept. 11. The leaders of that operation were very highly educated.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Should we be concerned that the suspects in Britain were doctors?

Richardson: The one really troubling aspect of this is access to radiological materials -- clearly hospitals are one of the places where one could gain this access. To that extent doctors could be particularly useful, if there were plans to build a radiological device.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The suspects were presumably screened before being hired by the NHS. Is it possible that they were radicalized in the short time after they arrived in Britain?

Richardson: We don’t know whether they came to the UK as a sleeper cell with this plan in mind, or whether they were radicalized since they came. There seems to be some evidence that they were radicalized by the war in Iraq, and that would then speak to a years-long process. … But, if you look at the reaction of the family members to these attacks in Britain and to those July 7, 2005 attacks in Britain, the family members seem to have been stunned by the news that their kin was involved. And that’s telling.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What about instances of “Instant Jihadism” -- sudden, dramatic conversions to radical Islam, as in the case of the Belgian woman who carried out a suicide attack in Iraq in 2005?

Richardson: Unfortunately, violence in Iraq has expanded faster than social scientists’ ability to keep up with it. So it’s very hard to draw real conclusions from Iraq. In areas where we have good information, the leaders of groups which deploy suicide operatives have all been completely consistent, expressing the view that we’re not interested in people wrestling with personal demons. They don’t want people who are unstable -- they’re more liable to be sloppy or to reveal plans. “Instant Jihadis” would not be very attractive for terrorist organizations.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you explain the rationale behind suicide attacks?

Richardson: The same way that people explain the fact that soldiers jumped out of foxholes in Vietnam and soldiers lost their lives at the Battle of Somme -- there’s an intense feeling of group solidarity in terrorist organizations. We often think that suicide bombings are solitary acts. That’s almost never true. They are almost always carried out in highly coordinated groups involving eight to 10 people. Terrorist groups consciously create that sense of shared destiny, just as national military forces do.

Terrorists are also motivated by “the three R's:" revenge, renown and reaction. They want revenge for injustices, and they want fame and glory. Suicide attacks become an attractive option for downtrodden and disgruntled people who want to earn the respect of their peers and their societies.

The Humiliation of Failed Attacks

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Then was the failed suicide attack in Britain a humiliating experience for the terrorists involved?

Richardson: Absolutely. It is humiliating to come away from a suicide attack still alive. Interestingly, in the instance of a failed attack, terrorist groups try to mitigate the humiliation by destroying the video suicide notes before they can reach the public.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If revenge is one of the motivations for terrorist attacks, how can governments evaluate the legitimacy of the terrorists’ grievances?

Richardson: It’s very effective to take into account what your enemy is thinking. As we’ve found out, if you don’t try to understand terrorists, you may well just be playing into their hands. A purely military response might only exacerbate the perceived grievances that motivate terror attacks. It’s unbelievable, but the public diplomacy budget of the United States is only two-thirds of one percent of its military budget -- even though public diplomacy could be an effective way to combat the impression of the United States as an imperialist power.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You’ve mentioned the possibility of setting up talks with groups like al-Qaida. How would such talks be set up?

Richardson: Well, I’m not suggesting that President Bush sit across a table from Osama bin Laden. They would be informal, set up through back channels. These sorts of efforts from the British government were instrumental in the successful resolution of conflict in Northern Ireland. And it’s conspicuously lacking from the United States right now.

Talks wouldn’t have to be negotiations. Sometimes diplomacy is just a matter of feeling the other side out, of finding out what they actually want. If we could find splits within the organization of al-Qaida, we could play them off of each other for our benefit, isolating the most radical elements. Some people say that setting up talks with terror groups would grant them too much legitimacy. But, in my view, declaring war on a terror group is actually the most effective way of granting legitimacy.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In 2004, Osama Bin Laden issued a video addressed to the European Union, in which he offered a truce with Europe in exchange for a pull-out of European troops from the Middle East. The EU dismissed the offer. How do you think they should have responded?

Richardson: Europe made the right decision. Ultimately, it’s up to a state to decide how its strategic interests line up with the perceived grievances from other parties. In that video, bin Laden had put away the automatic weapons, and appeared sitting behind a desk. He wanted to come across as a statesman, as a legitimate representative of his group.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: We’ve been hearing a lot about the stoic temperament of the British in the face of terrorism -- contrasted implicitly, presumably, with the hysterical reaction of Americans after the onset of terrorism. To what extent is staying calm an important part of fighting terror?

Richardson: Even-handedness is absolutely a part of any effective response to terror. Remember, terrorists are trying to provoke a reaction. Now, the British have developed that even-handedness partly because they have a history of having dealt with terrorism with the IRA. Political leaders play a big role in setting the tone. And the leadership in the United States has had a catastrophic influence in that regard. The Bush administration’s coinage of the “war on terror” has been more detrimental to American interests than anything else.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Has the Democratic Party done enough to resist the Bush administration?

Richardson: Unfortunately not. Perhaps the country hasn’t recovered from the hysteria encouraged by the Bush administration. Just a few weeks ago, John Edwards, one of the Democratic nominees for president, suggested that the “war on terror” terminology should be disbanded -- and he was excoriated. Hopefully, the Democrats will be able to make more headway towards an effective anti-terror policy before the next election.

Interview conducted by Cameron Abadi.

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