To understand terrorism, we must get close to terrorists, says Rohan Gunaratna, who has talked with Tamil Tigers, drunk with IRA men and discussed the Koran with Taliban fighters
In 1984 I interviewed my first terrorist. I was writing a book on the conflict in northeast Sri Lanka and was keen to talk to the people - civilians and combatants - on the ground. It was a meeting that led to years of research into terrorists. It was to be the first of many such interviews with the men and women who kill unarmed civilians for political reasons.
That first terrorist, a member of the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front, a Marxist-Leninist group trained on Indian soil, was being held in military custody. Travel was restricted. I carried a letter from the then secretary of Sri Lanka's ministry of defence asking for cooperation but it was a phone call from a friend that enabled me to gain the trust and the confidence of the district's coordinating officer and hence access to his prisoner. Throughout my career, it has been the personal contacts, the one-to-one relationships that I have forged, that have given me the opportunity to meet terrorists and their leaders. I was initially reluctant when my publishers encouraged me to divulge that significant proportions of the information for my book Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror had come from interviews with terrorists. I was concerned that I risked exposing my sources and intermediaries. I have to protect them to ensure the flow of information continues. This is very important, for I firmly believe that we can learn more about terrorism directly from the terrorists than from third-person accounts.
I spent three days in the camp where my first terrorist was kept. Before I met him, I was under the impression that terrorists were well-built men ever willing to kill and harm others. He changed my opinion. He was of average build, in his teens, and rather docile. He told me that his parents were teachers and he had grown up in a very well-disciplined family. His sister was a nun in a respectable convent in the northern city of Jaffna.
But he had seen injustice in society perpetrated before his own eyes and felt in his heart that he had to do something to relieve the suffering of the people. I realised that we are mostly victims of circumstance. Even a good person can be tempted to do a bad thing in certain circumstances. In most cases, the environment dictates our behaviour much more than our upbringing. Since my first terrorist, I have met several hundred from Algeria to Northern Ireland, Bosnia to Afghanistan. And I have not changed my view that people are basically good while opportunities to do good or bad are created or restricted by circumstance.
After the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Agreement of July 1987, there were three months of relative peace during which time I met Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), along with some of the key members of his organisation. The LTTE was one of the most ruthless terrorist groups, having carried out two-thirds of all the suicide attacks perpetrated in the world, including the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. My introduction was through a Sri Lankan military officer who knew one of the LTTE commanders and his deputy and had established a relationship to help negotiate an end to the fighting. The officer was subsequently killed in a road accident, the LTTE commander blew up his own ship when it was intercepted by the Indian navy, while his deputy is now living in Canada marketing seafood.
The violence in Sri Lanka did not end with the peace accord. In response to the deal, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, a Sinhala terrorist group with Marxist-Leninist and Maoist leanings, re-emerged in the south of the country. They were brutally suppressed by the military. The families of policemen and soldiers were targeted, and government forces responded with extra-judicial killings of JVP supporters. Even those who demonstrated in JVP rallies or pasted JVP posters on the walls were slain.
By this time, I had a number of school friends who were in the military and the police and had taken the law into their own hands by forming death squads. From my writings, they knew that I was studying violent groups and that I was keen to find out why ordinary people were attracted to them.
Whenever my friends had an important terrorist in custody, they felt obliged to inform me before they executed him. Often they kept him alive because they wanted me to see him. In this way I got to interview most members of the JVP's 13-man politburo before their execution. I was collected from my home by an unmarked vehicle at about midnight and driven to the safe houses where the detainees were being kept. Most knew they were to be killed. Many were keen to tell their story because they did not wish to die for nothing. They wanted to leave a record of what they did and why they did it - they had an unusually strong sense of history. Some refused to divulge critical information because they wanted the fight to continue, while others had been badly tortured and this had made them mentally tough.
Some who were to be executed had not taken anyone's life, having been only marginally involved in the group. Listening to their stories, I pleaded with some officers to free their detainees, but very few were released as that would have compromised the men and women engaged in counterterrorism operations. Gradually, though, the police and the military began to mask detainees so that they could be freed if proven innocent during the investigations. It was a learning process for all.
In 1990, I switched my attention to terrorist groups outside Sri Lanka. In the course of two dozen trips to India, I interviewed members of Sikh, Kashmiri and a variety of other secular and religiously motivated terrorist groups. I visited their shrines and offices and met their representatives in Canada, the UK and elsewhere. Their determination to fight the Indian military, one of the largest in the world, surprised me. I spent three months in the Philippines, where both the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the New Peoples Army were active. In 1993, I visited Pakistan for the first time and thereafter made several visits to Afghanistan. I interviewed almost all the leaders of Kashmiri groups and other organisations active in Kashmir. They all had grievances and aspirations. I always empathised and began to look at the issues from their viewpoint. Most of those I met had tried for years to gain their rights through democratic means but had failed miserably. My impression was that they found it difficult to use violence but they had no other option. In my writings I was hard on the terrorists but I always called on governments and international organisations to address ethnic and religious grievances before they broke out into violence. Very few leaders took any notice of these non-violent groups and dismissed protesters as a nuisance. But they did take note of terrorists, and often negotiated with them and offered concessions.
From 1994, I was based in the US and Europe. That gave me the opportunity to study terrorist support networks. The West was the ideal environment for investment by Asian, Middle Eastern, African and Latin American terrorist groups. Among the groups I studied was the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), the most violent terrorist group in Europe in the 1990s, and the IRA. I interviewed a number of key leaders including Gerry Adams and those running the IRA's support network in New York. Both Republican and Protestant groups invited me to their pubs. One night I wanted to visit a club frequented by IRA members. I did not want to tell the taxi driver exactly where I was going, so I told him to drop me by the cemetery in Falls Road.
It was quite late and he was worried and perhaps scared. Then my colleague asked him: "Sir, are you a Protestant or a Catholic." He stopped the vehicle, looked back and said: "I'm neither - I'm a taxi driver."
The European terrorists paled in comparison to their Middle Eastern counterparts. Most notable among those I have interviewed were Algerian groups active in the UK. Although most refugees have nothing to do with terrorism, the few terrorists I knew were from the asylum communities. Many had established front organisations or penetrated existing community groups. To gain government funding, some registered with western charity commissions as human rights and humanitarian organisations. I attended many of their cultural functions in the US, Canada and western Europe, during which the terrorists or their representatives politicised and radicalised the migrants and diaspora by showing films of government atrocities. The suffering of the Muslims in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, Kurdistan and Algeria affected many of those watching and persuaded them to contribute their meagre resources in the hope that it would alleviate the suffering of their brothers and sisters back home. From within their milieu, long before 9/11, I could see what was coming. I recall one taxi driver telling me: "We ****ed the Soviets in Afghanistan. Now we are going to **** the Americans."
The Americans were perceived as weak, worse than the Soviets, as they had withdrawn from Yemen, Somalia and Lebanon after terrorist attacks.
My impression was that the West was always tolerant of these networks and was reluctant to act because they did not pose a direct and immediate threat. These groups established state-of-the-art propaganda, fundraising, recruitment and procurement infrastructures. Europe and North America looked the other way because these terrorist groups raised support to target governments in the global south. But after 9/11, with instructions from the Al Qaida leadership that "it is the duty of all Muslims to wage jihad ", some of these terrorist support cells are now mutating into terrorist attack cells.
In Central Asia, the terrorists I interviewed were hospitable and tolerant compared with their Middle-Eastern counterparts. Because Asians had lived under the shadow of large non-Muslim communities, in general they were relatively moderate. As I was from Sri Lanka, a small country with no geopolitical alignments, they saw me as a friend. They often asked me whether I was a Muslim. When I said no, they replied: "Still you are our friend. We hope one day you will convert to Islam." Among some terrorist groups I witnessed changes. In South Asia and Southeast Asia, I saw increasing radicalism each time I met them. Like their Middle-Eastern counterparts, suicide terrorism has now entered these regions. Sacrifice was always in them but the drive to kill and die grew in the late 1990s. In the early 1980s, only a handful engaged in suicide terrorism - at the dawn of the 21st century, 16 groups have conducted about 320 such attacks. I believe that the world is now at the threshold of a new wave of terrorism.
Among the alleged terrorists I interviewed while they were in government custody was the American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh. I spoke with him for six hours. Like many, he regretted his role after 9/11 because he joined the Taliban to meet his obligation as a Muslim to fight when fellow Muslims were oppressed. Some, such as one Pakistani terrorist I interviewed, felt otherwise. As I was about to leave after a four-hour debriefing, he told me that he intended to sacrifice his life for God. He believed the acts he had committed were for God and that he would continue to serve him in this way. The scale of his ideological indoctrination was severe. Islamist ideologues such as Osama bin Laden misinterpret and misrepresenting religion, presenting a corrupt version of the Koran. Many of the Al Qaida members who were detained and then came to understand that theirs was not a Koranic but a heretical organisation began to work with government authorities. That is why today, more than 50 per cent of terrorists in custody cooperate to varying degrees. My own research revealed that it is not poverty or lack of literacy that drives people to join terrorist groups, but ideology, the poor and ill-educated simply being more susceptible.
I firmly believe that we learn more about terrorism directly from terrorists rather than from third-person accounts. But it is hazardous. I have escaped death several times. I was travelling with a group of terrorists who had entered into negotiations with a government. A group of peacekeepers who were armed to the teeth signalled our driver to stop the vehicle. The vehicle had been travelling at high speed and screeched to halt just before the barricade. One trigger-happy peacekeeper said: "I was about to shoot." A landmine killed almost everyone in the vehicle just ahead of my own while I was travelling in Sri Lanka. In another incident, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) kidnapped ten people about 100m away from me. But I still believe that if we are going to understand terrorist groups we must take the risks. We cannot do research on them without going into the field. As Gerard Chaliand, my mentor and the leading French expert, said: "You can only say that you are a specialist on a terrorist group if you have cooked for them."
Rohan Gunaratna is a research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St Andrews, and author of Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (Columbia University Press and Hurst & Co, £12.95).