London, Asharq Al-Awsat—”Would you like to take tea with the leaders of Tupamaros?”
This was the question an acquaintance put to me in the 1970s during a visit to Uruguay for a meeting of the International Press Institute (IPI). Normally, every reporter would welcome an invitation to tea with the locals. In this case, however, the trouble was that the Tupamaros were a guerrilla movement that had engaged in acts of terrorism against the Uruguayan government for years.
Journalists covering conflicts across the globe often face a similar dilemma, with a mixture of trepidation and dreams of heroism. In my case, there was no prospect for heroic pretentions, if only because by the time I met the leaders of the Tupamaros they had already decided to put down their arms and were engaged in negotiations to secure a share of power in Montevideo. The five men I had tea with were in their late 50s or 60s and looked grandfatherly. None appeared resolute enough to say boo to a goose, let alone terrorize a US-equipped army.
The question of whether or not one should meet a terrorist for an interview has been part of the debate about journalistic ethics since the 19th century, when anarchists in western Europe and Narodniks in the Tsarist empire used terrorism as a political tool. Initially, the barrier to such encounters was the refusal of terrorists to accept the bona fides of any journalist. To Sergey Nechayev, the semi-legendary Russian terror-master, all journalists were agents of the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police. In contrast, Peter Kropotkin, Nechaev’s fellow Russian and the guru of anarchism, favored talking to journalists as a means of “spreading the message.”
The initial difficulties were not limited to problems of persuading terrorists to talk to journalists. A much bigger difficulty was how to ward off pressure from the secret police, who wanted to turn journalists into informers.
Over the years, like in other fields of journalistic practice, something of a norm concerning contacts with terrorists emerged through the work done by pioneering reporters. Georges Sorel, the French civil servant turned writer, based his seminal work on political violence on a series of interviews he conducted with anarchists and Marxists who used terrorism.
The next big question was who could one regard as a terrorist. The question has been debated for 150 years and still inspires heated controversies in the United Nations. The cliché, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” makes consensus on a definition hard, if not impossible (my own view is that one’s man’s terrorist is every man’s terrorist).
Lack of a commonly accepted definition enables journalists to claim that they are acting as doctors or undertakers, dealing with everyone regardless of their station in life. That bit of fudging enabled some of us to interview people like Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian–Serb terror-master who was to end up on trial as a war criminal.
It also enabled John Miller, star reporter for ABC television in the US, to interview Osama Bin Laden in his early days as “the most wanted terrorist on earth.” Bin Laden also gave interviews to a number of Saudi journalists including Jamal Khashoggi of Arab News.
Bin Laden must be regarded as the terror mastermind most interested in seeking publicity for himself. In the decade that preceded his disappearance in 2002, he met at least 20 reporters, among them British journalists Robert Fisk and Abdel Bari Atwan. Even after he went into purdah he tried to remain in the news by sending occasional audio- and video-tapes to the Qatari TV channel Al-Jazeera.
Bin Laden was not the only publicity hound among terror leaders. Abimael Guzmán, leader of the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), a Peruvian terror outfit, had a long list of journalistic contacts whom he would telephone at all hours, through day and night, supposedly to offer “exclusives” but more probably to relieve his boredom. Legend has it he had a five-year telephone love-affair with a lady reporter for whom he even composed a poem.
Talking to terrorists could, of course, mean taking risks with one’s life. This is what the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, a truly beautiful soul, found out when he was lured into a trap in Pakistan with a promise of meeting a top Taliban terror leader, and ended up with his throat cut in front of a camera, like a sacrificial sheep.
Sometimes, the reporter walking into the lion’s den is not murdered but seized as a hostage. This is what happened to Terry Anderson, a correspondent for the Associated Press, who became a prisoner of Hezbollah in Beirut for almost six years. The Lebanese branch of Hezbollah lured other journalists with of promises of interviews and then held them as hostages, among them the Irishman Brian Keenan and the American Jerry Levin. Controlled by Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah acted on orders from its Khomeinist masters in Tehran. However, the Iranian mullahs also seized journalistic hostages of their own, including the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib, lured with promises of exclusive interviews. Right now, Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post stringer, is still hostage in Tehran.
One way to protect oneself is to develop a profile that is appreciated by terrorists one hopes to cover. This is what some Western reporters have done by adopting an anti-American position to please Hezbollah, the mullahs in Tehran, the Taliban, and even Al-Qaeda.
Some terror masterminds play hard to get when they are in power but start begging to be interviewed once they are booted out. This is the case with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader. During his tenure as big-cheese in Kabul he granted only one interview to the German news Agency’s stringer, Bizhan Torabi. Once he was kicked out in 2002, the mullah became “available” for interview to the Voice of America and the BBC Pashto Service, not to mention half-a-dozen Pakistani publications.
Some terrorists murder reporters as a matter of course because they regard that very act as the most effective means of advertising their power. The most recent victims of this tactic are American reporters James Foley and Stephen Sotloff, beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The issue of talking to terrorists has inspired a number of books, among them Anne Speckhard’s seminal Talking to Terrorists, Jessica Stern’s Terror in the Name of God and Joe Navarro’s Interviewing Terrorists.
However, even today, to talk or not to talk to terrorists, is still the question.