This is wrong, and not just for the reason that Paul bluntly gives:
What we are dealing with here are theocratic psychopaths who follow a culture of death, who have a martyrdom complex, and whose warped interpretation of the religion they profess to follow does not allow for any compromise as that means diluting their beliefs.
But it’s not just that there’s nothing to talk about; there’s nobody to talk to. With the IRA, there was a well-structured paramilitary group that had a very clear organised political wing in the shape of Sinn Fein. None of that exists with al-Qaeda – at least, not in any way that would facilitate useful dialogue.
As Jason Burke’s reports have made clear, ‘al-Qaeda’ is not a single entity. First, there’s the group centred on Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, fugitives in the Afghan-Pakistani border regions. Their contact with wider groups is much diminished since 9/11, and in any case they have no interest in compromise. They’re also pretty hard to find.
Second, there is what Burke calls a “network of networks” or “franchises”. These are loosely affiliated groups using the ‘brand’, based mostly in North Africa and the Middle East. While Islamist fundamentalists, they have a variety of local aims; they seem to have better contacts with each other than with bin Laden’s circle – he himself is nowadays more a spiritual leader than an organiser or financier.
The third aspect of al-Qaeda is the ideology of violent jihad, spreading through disaffected young Muslims – many in Western countries – via the internet, itinerant preachers and self-reinforcing group dynamics. Such new recruits may, but need not, have had some direct personal connection with more senior coordinators form among the network of networks.
What this means is that there’s no point of contact with ‘al-Qaeda’ through which coherent discussion or negotiation would be meaningful.
There are, though, at least two respects in which communication has to feature in the counterterrorism strategy. First, in the case of young Muslims who may be falling under the sway of local extremist groups, they need direct engagement in an effort to divert them. Obviously this will have no credibility coming from the Government, and would have to be done by other Muslim groups.
Second, more broadly, al-Zawahiri is right in saying: “The battle will be fought in the media.” This is a struggle of ideas, and a lot of the victory will be won by means of sustained, intelligent public diplomacy to disarm the view that the West is morally bankrupt and that jihadism is the way to justice.
But there’s nobody we can have a discreet meeting with to get this going.