“Talking With Terrorists” review

Talking With Terrorists Review

Dispatches From the Edge

Nov. 17, 2010

“Conversations With Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence, and Empire,” by Reese Erlich, PoliPoint Press, 2010, $14.95

The following from the Washington Post is why you should read journalist Reese Erlich’s book on terrorism:

“U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops, including the U.S. military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command, whose main mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists.”

But who are these “suspected terrorists”?

To the government of President Ali Abdullajh Saleh, members of the Southern Movement, as well as Shiite Houthi in the north, are “terrorists,” but the current fighting is a civil war, one that we are being drawn into on the side of an unpopular and authoritarian regime.

“The War on Terrorism” never made any sense,” argues Erlich. “You can wage a war against an enemy country or an insurgency, but you can’t wage war on a tactic.” In short, just because a group uses the weapons of al-Qaeda doesn’t mean they are same.

Erlich tries to redefine the way we think about the term “terrorism” by placing it in a historical context and letting “terrorists” talk about their goals and political philosophy.  What emerges is far more complex and nuanced than the cartoon characterizations by the mass media.

Hamas is considered a “terrorist” organization by the U.S., and the chair of its political bureau, Khaled Meshal, a “terrorist.” But as Erlich points out, Hamas is not considered “terrorist” by other countries in the neighborhood, and it will have to be part of any eventual peace settlement. To dismiss Hamas as “terrorist” is not only false, it is politically disastrous.

Erlich’s interview with Israeli Geula Cohen, a founder of the 1940s Stern Gang, makes an interesting comparison to Meshal. The Stern Gang bombed civilians, assassinated diplomats, and used murder and violence to drive Palestinians off their lands. But while Hamas and Meshal are condemned as terrorists, Cohen and the Stern gang are hailed as heroes, with streets named after them and museums celebrating their feats.

In short, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

A major strength of the book is that the author has spent several decades reporting on this area of the world. When he challenges the mainstream media for reporting that the Taliban are a major recipient of the drug trade in Afghanistan, he can draw on more than eight years reporting on the story to demolish the charge.

The Middle East is a complex place, and the author is always careful to keep the reader informed. If one doesn’t happen to have the history of Hamas or Hezbollah in one’s memory banks, Erlich will provide it.

Erlich is not afraid of asking hard questions or going into dangerous situations, and he is sharply critical of many of the people he interviews. But he also believes the term “terrorist” is a dangerous distortion of reality that can turn a political conflict into a forever war. It also serves as a cover for the expansion of American power into the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as a stream of revenue for the arms industry.

The book is revealing and well written, and whether one is new to the subject or well versed, the reader is going to get a lot out of this slim volume of revealing interviews and sharp commentary.

Read Conn Hallinan’s columns at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com

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Filed under Middle East, Military

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