Terrorism – Big Ideas

Terry Waite


Terrorism – A Sensible Approach

Terry Waite
Terry Waite

In January 1987, Terry Waite was Special Envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury, he went to Beirut to try and negotiate the release of British and American hostages but, ended up being taken hostage himself, for four years

His experience has left him with a surprisingly pragmatic view of terrorism and terrorists. Here he discusses those views and his experiences.

My ordeal made me realise just how complex the idea of terrorism is. But, I wonder if the current simplistic approach to it is making the world an even more dangerous place. We are currently engaged in, what has been described as, a global war against terrorism. Ever since 9/11 our politicians have vowed to destroy men and women who promote violence and fear. Yet, six years on it seems that terrorism is becoming more not less prevalent. There are few countries that haven’t suffered from attacks on innocent people.

The first thing to say, is that people often disagree about what, exactly, constitutes terrorism. For some, the bombing of Iraq by coalition forces is seen as an act of state terrorism. For others, the behaviour of the Israeli military also provoked terror.

Terrorism – A Definition we can agree on

If we are ever to combat this menace, we first need to reach a definition that we can agree on. Terrorism is the use of violence with political ends in mind. It’s a form of warfare which ignores the conventional rules of warfare. Terrorism is indiscriminate, uncontrolled, chaotic and unpredictable. It makes no distinction between innocent parties and guilty parties and the psychological damage it inflicts is out of all proportion to the physical. However, even if it engenders shock and revulsion in most of us, it has proved to be an effective way of drawing attention to your cause.

TerrorismWe think of terrorism as being a modern phenomenon yet, violence, the means of inducing terror, is as old as mankind itself. The Greeks and the Romans were constantly coming up with inventive ways of slaying their enemies. In an early spat between Islam and Christianity, the blackened plague-infected corpses of Tartars were loaded into guns and blasted at their Genoese enemies. One of the very first examples of bio-terror. But these were all military campaigns, legitimate tactics in the heat of battle. It wasn’t until 1789 that the idea of terror as a deliberate political strategy was formed by Maximilian Robespierre during the French revolution.

For the next 200 years, the idea of terror that could be used against the state would spread across the world and the popular perception of the terrorist as someone who stands outside the social norm was born. I believe that, generally speaking, terrorism is a symptom. It’s a symptom of a deeper disorder that has gone unaddressed.

Ironically, my first encounter with extremism came about through my work with the Church of England when I was asked to undertake a delicate mission to Iran in the 1980s. Iran was a country in turmoil, the Shah had been deposed in a bloody Islamic revolution and been replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini. There was deep mistrust of the West. I was working as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Special Envoy when several church workers in Iran were accused of spying and imprisoned. Months passed with little news. After repeated requests by their families I decided to fly out to Iran to see if there was anything I could do. I had little experience with hostage taking, but knew instinctively what I needed to do.

I managed to form a good relationship with one of the hostage takers; a revolutionary guard. He took me to his home on one occasion and we had a meal. I discovered that his family had suffered dreadfully under the Shah’s regime The West had done nothing, they were perceived to be interested only in oil revenues.

While the Shah was a friend of the West, he was seen as a despot by many of his subjects which is why they rebelled against him and why there is still a lingering resentment of the West today. Through quiet diplomacy and listening to the Iranians point of view, I eventually secured the release of the church workers.

My experience in Iran changed the way I thought about perpetrators of what some might consider terrorist acts and the motivation of people who use violence for political ends. These men an women, and many of them are women, never refer to themselves as terrorists. They often claim to be fighting against oppression and terrorist is a label applied to them by others and it’s this distinction between terrorist and freedom fighter which continues to cause problems Almost all have some kind of recognisable political agenda.

African National Congress – ANC

Who we call a terrorist and who we don’t often depends on our political sympathies. Take the African National Congress for example.

The ANC was set up to fight for the right of the South African black majority. Life for black South Africans, in the days of apartheid, was grim and for many years they suffered injustice and discrimination at the hands of the white minority. When peaceful protest failed the ANC set-up a military wing in 1961 led by Nelson Mandela who was imprisoned for refusing to renounce violence. It’s stated aim was to create maximum havoc and confusion, but they also targeted civilians, frequently killing and maiming innocent people. Now, however, the ANC is South Africa’s ruling party and Nelson Mandela, a man once regarded as a terrorist, is the country’s most respected elder statesman.

The IRA is the oldest modern terrorist organisation. It styled itself as the people’s army and it’s aim was to unite the country even if the only way of doing that was through violence. “Freedom” Martin McGuiness once said “can only be gained at the point of an IRA rifle but I apologise to no-one for saying we support and admire the freedom fighters of the IRA”. The truth is, the IRA would never have been so effective nor had as much popular support if the Irish Catholics hadn’t had genuine grievances. They were discriminated against in housing, in employment and under represented in the police and local government. When peaceful protest led to further repression there was a resurgence of support for the IRA and it’s political wing Sinn Fein. The result was more than 30 years of blood-shed. When the bombs hit where it hurt, economically, the government had to negotiate. A massive bomb attack on London’s financial centre paved the way for the peace process.

Oliver North

Oliver North
Oliver North

My own experience of what motivates terrorists was defined by my experience in Lebanon as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Special Envoy. In the 1980s there was a spate of hostage taking across the Middle East; Beirut was the epicentre. As a hostage negotiator, I’d become involved, at the highest level, with the British and American governments. My US contact was Oliver North, a high-ranking official in the Reagan administration. North was a highly controversial figure, he’d been implicated in selling arms to Iran and using the proceeds to finance anti-government rebels in Nicaragua. I’d always said to terrorists that I would never do deals, that I had nothing to offer, yet here I was linked, unwittingly, to a man who’d done just that. On a visit to Beirut I was told I could see the hostages. It was a ruse, and I ended up a hostage myself. My captors interrogated me obsessively about the Oliver North affair. I was tortured and at one point had a gun put to my head and told that I would be killed. I wasn’t killed ,but I would spend another 4 years in Beirut as a hostage.


My kidnappers belonged to Hezbollah, a powerful political and military organisation of Shi’a Muslims. It was set up in the early 1980s in response to the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. It’s always been against Western interference in the country. Hezbollah has taught me that for many oppressed people, violence often seems to be the only way out. Could it be that when we in the West ignore inequality and injustice we inadvertently encourage terrorism.

There is no bigger cause for genuine grievance than the Palestinian issue, the flashpoint for much of the violence in the Middle East today. Since the end of the 19th century, persecuted Jews have been emigrating to, what was then, Palestine, a British protectorate since 1920. For years there was an uneasy coexistence between the Arabs, the British and the Jews, but the Jews wanted independence and underground groups advocated the use of force to establish a Jewish state. In a series of terrorist attacks, Zionist groups targeted the British presence in Palestine. The British abandoned Palestine after 4 years of violence and in 1948 the State of Israel came into being. Over the next 20 years, Palestine was gradually subsumed by Israel until it ceased to exist. When the Palestinians protested, the world ignored them. When they turned to terrorism, as the Zionists had done before them, the world couldn’t ignore them any more. The Palestinian cause shows the limits of terrorism. By the end of the 20th century, more than 30 years of violence may have kept their cause alive, but they are still no closer to achieving their ultimate goal; their own state. They were up against a powerful opponent who felt unwilling and unable to compromise and the result was a cycle of violence which has militated against the Palestinians.

Freedom Fighter
A Stereotypical Terrorist

My experience as a hostage taught me that terrorist groups are made up of so many different types of people. You have those at the top, who are the strategic thinkers, who are the politicians, and they are often the face we know and whose statements we hear. You have those who are passionate and committed to the political cause and then you have a few you might describe as psychopathic, those who kill for the sake of killing.

The problem is that within some movements the psychopaths take over altogether. In the late 20th century, some countries were torn apart by extreme left-wing terrorist groups, like Bader-Meinhof and the Red Brigade. They believed in a kind of revolutionary nihilism. Their aim was to wreck society and those who serve it. For them, violence became an end in itself, They were the genuine heirs of Robespierre who enjoyed the feeling of power terror gave him. Many people claim that’s what we face today, a similarly nihilistic enemy which is equally fanatical, equally uncompromising.

The July 7th attacks marked a dramatic escalation in the tactics employed by terrorists. It was the first time suicide bombers had struck in Britain. What made it all the more shocking was that the bombers themselves were British. Despite being British they saw themselves as being a part of a much wider ideological struggle against the oppression of their fellow Muslims everywhere. The question was, were they genuinely driven to violence, or did they choose it.

So how should we combat terrorism? What we shouldn’t do is foster terrorism ourselves which is what I believe we have done in Iraq. The war has, inadvertently, created a new generation of terrorists and they’re fighting what they perceive to be an occupying force. In this case the British and the USA.

These are lessons which we in the West have failed to learn and we run the risk of alienating reasonable people, Muslims included, when we adopt the methods of the terrorist.

CREDITS: All of the above information was taken from the UK’s Channel Five series “Big Ideas”


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