(First published in the Sunday Times, Dec 12, 2004).
by Stephen Grey
A FORMER senior MI6 officer whose career brought him face to face with extremists from Ireland to Afghanistan is to convene talks with militant Islamic groups in an initiative aimed at changing the course of the war on terror.
Alistair Crooke, 55, who spent nearly 30 years with MI6, says he hopes to
persuade leading policymakers from Europe and America to participate.
He wants them to break a taboo on “talking to terrorists” by meeting
representatives of Hamas, the Palestinian group, and Hezbollah, based in
Lebanon. Political organisations such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and
Jamiat-i-Islami, from Pakistan, could also be involved.
Crooke’s initiative will be run through a new organisation, the Conflicts
Forum, which he describes as an “action tank, not a think tank”. It is
backed by former government, military and intelligence officials in Europe
and the United States who reject many of the methods of the “war on terror”.
It is funded from private donations but has the tacit support of some Arab
governments. However, Crooke’s plans are controversial as both Hamas and
Hezbollah are classed as banned terrorist groups by America. Some of their
members have directed suicide bombings.
Lord Janner of Braunstone, a vice-president of the World Jewish Congress,
said that Crooke was wrong to set up contacts with banned organisations.
“These people have not renounced terror and until they do it is totally
inappropriate to involve them in this way, especially at a time when there
is at last a chance for peace,” he said.
Crooke, whose colourful career has included stints in Israel, South Africa
and Colombia, believes that like many guerrilla wars in the past, the
growing conflict between militant Islamists and the West will ultimately be
solved only by negotiation.
“Most of my career has been spent in conflict zones,” he said. “I have met
many of those who are labelled terrorists and I’m convinced we can’t make
progress until we start to listen and understand what’s really going on.”
Crooke, who retired from government service last year, was made a Companion
of the Order of St Michael and St George in the new year’s honours for
services to peace in the Middle East. He is not a critic of MI6 and refuses
to discuss secret operations.
Interviewed last week, however, he called for more political analysis of
militant Islamic groups. “This is not a struggle between good and evil; it’s
about politics,” he said.
Crooke was first named as an MI6 officer by the Israeli press in 2002 when
he was attached to the European Union, working as a mediator with groups
such as Hamas. Renowned for lone missions in the West Bank, he was described
by one newspaper as “brave to the point of madness”.
According to former colleagues, his unassuming presence helped him to gain
access to the homes and campfires of some of the world’s most frightening
Born in Ireland in 1949, Crooke was brought up in Africa, mainly on a farm
near Harare in what was then Rhodesia, where his father farmed tobacco. He
was educated in Switzerland and at St Andrews University.
His elder brother Ian joined the army and became a lieutenant-colonel in the
SAS. Crooke worked briefly in the City before being recruited by MI6.
His posting to Ireland in 1975 led to his first role as a British
negotiator — with the IRA. Three years later he moved to South Africa where
as “first secretary and press officer” he joined mediation with Swapo rebels
It was during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when he was stationed
for three years in neighbouring Pakistan, that Crooke first met militant
Islamists. The mid-1980s were a wild time on the Afghan frontier, with
American money and weapons pouring in to support those fighting the Soviet
“He was an MI6 man of the old school — a romantic British agent straight out
of the ‘great game’ who was completely in his element,” recalled Milton
Bearden, a former associate from the CIA.
Crooke, who was said to return from wanderings by the frontier with the
latest piece of captured Soviet technology in the boot of his car, claimed
that the Kremlin’s failure to crush the rebels showed that guerrilla warfare
could not be defeated with conventional tactics.
“Military people complained that the mujaheddin could not fire their weapons
well or were poorly trained,” he said. “But I used to say, ‘What matters is
what’s in their belly. Have they got more fire and steel than their Russian
counterparts?’ It was about keeping the psychological advantage.”
Crooke believes that America has not learnt the lessons: “There is not
enough emphasis on winning consent, no emphasis on winning that crucial
It was in Afghanistan that Crooke first encountered Arab Islamists who went
on to form the nucleus of Al-Qaeda. Most of their extreme ideas were deeply
unpopular with the Afghan resistance, he said.
Even now, despite the September 11 attacks on America in 2001, he believes
that there may be some people within Al-Qaeda who could be worth talking to.
“It’s only by talking to people that you isolate out those who reject any
kind of solution and those who might be prepared to reach some
accommodation,” he said.
Crooke said the West misunderstood what happened in training camps in
Afghanistan, Yemen and Lebanon: 99% of training for would-be fighters was in
guerrilla fighting, not in terrorist actions. “It is a guerrilla warfare, a
classic insurgency, that the West is facing,” he said. “Acts of political
violence, terrorism, are only one small part of their armoury.”
From Afghanistan Crooke went on to Latin America, setting up contacts with
the Marxist National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second largest
Shortly after Labour won power in 1997 he was detached from MI6 to join the
European Union’s efforts to restart the stalled Middle East peace process.
His role was not only to work with Yasser Arafat’s movement but also to
reach out to more militant groups which represented a constituency of young,
After the beginning of the intifada in 2000, Crooke criss-crossed the West
Bank and Gaza, organising dozens of meetings with the militants, sometimes
acting as their only contact with outsiders.
His style was unorthodox. He often worked from a simple hotel room and
shunned the armoured cars favoured by diplomats and CIA agents. Despite the
risk, he travelled unarmed and alone.
“When I had meetings I had to be extremely careful,” he said. “I took no
phone with me so there could be no accusation that I was being tracked. I
was usually met by some boy and then was taken from one place to another.”
One stand-off after another brought Crooke’s involvement, from the siege of
the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to that of Arafat’s compound in
His most dangerous moments were in the early part of the intifada. Twice
Israeli tanks advanced on Beit Jalla, on the outskirts of Bethlehem. At the
behest of Arafat, Crooke was sent across no man’s land to try to negotiate a
Standing on the front lines by tanks trading fire with Palestinian fighters,
Crooke had to plead with Israeli paratroopers to call off their assault, at
least for a few moments. “In the end, I just walked right across no man’s
land until the Palestinian mujaheddin came into sight. I remember them
shouting move this way and that, and eventually I was inside their
By the summer of 2002 Crooke appeared to be close to his greatest
achievement: negotiating a full ceasefire by Hamas. The deal was called off
on July 23 when the Israelis bombed the Gaza home of a Hamas commander and
killed 14 others.
A year later Crooke was withdrawn on the orders of Jack Straw, the foreign
secretary. He said he was never given a reason, but some speculated that it
was because the Israelis had accused him of becoming too close to the
Crooke’s private efforts to resume contacts with militant groups are
unlikely to endear him to Israeli officials. But Bearden, now retired as a
regional director of the CIA’s covert operations, said that his objectives
“We can all go on and on killing terrorists, but sooner or later someone is
going to have to sit down quietly and start talking with some of these
different quarters of the Islamic world,” he said