Dining with terrorists
Meetings with the world's most wanted militants
By Phil Rees
ISBN 0330438468

Explaining the “War against Terrorism”, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has constantly warned: ‘the single greatest threat to peace and freedom in our time is terrorism’.

And in making a case for the global reach of the “War against Terrorism”, US President Bush roared to an audience of soldiers a few weeks after 9/11: ‘Afghanistan is just the beginning’. At the same time Vice President Richard Cheney said that forty to fifty countries could be targeted for diplomatic, financial or military action.   

‘This is total war. We are fighting a variety of enemies. There are lots of them out there………’ declared Richard Perle, a key Bush foreign policy advisor.

Not lagging behind of course has been Tony Blair and the British government. According to the British Defence Committee, almost all areas of the world  - similar to the US view – must be the focus of British intervention: ‘The implications of an open-ended war on terrorism ………………will become necessary as part of an integrated political and military strategy to address terrorism……..’.

Against the backdrop of a political climate threatened by fear and insecurity, the Bush administration and a host of Western allies have been actively pursuing an aggressive and brutal “War against Terrorism” on numerous fronts.

Has “terrorism” become the catch-all word of the new millennium? What does it mean – if indeed it has any meaning? Was the Christian Science Monitor correct in warning in an editorial way back in the ‘80s that it is a term that bears care in its usage not only because it provides so tempting a way to disparage an enemy but because it is one of those words [like “Fire!” in a crowded theatre] that automatically creates panic and thus clears the ‘path for extreme acts of one’s own.’

Fortunately an award-winning journalist, Phil Rees has unpacked these troubling questions in a brilliant and exciting publication called Dining with Terrorists.  

It is a story of a personal odyssey that began a quarter of a century ago, he explains in the introduction to a fascinating journey which took him from ‘Belfast to Bilbao, from Kashmir to Cairo, from Bali to Baghdad’. 

In sharing a bottle of rum with Marxist guerillas in their hideaways in the jungles of Colombia or debating with gunmen over a cup of tea in Sri Lanka, Rees invites readers to dine and drink with him as he explores what lay ‘behind the hoods and masks’.

As one of a rare breed of Western journalists who refuse to file reports in a sanitized black & white fashion, Rees’ personal account of long eventful travels into inaccessible zones of conflict has become an invaluable aid to understanding the “War against Terrorism”.        

While the vast military power of the United States and its allies confronts an enemy called ‘terror’, shouldn’t we at least know exactly who is a terrorist asks Rees.

It’s a question that has bedevilled many commentators, analysts as well as journalists. It has also been a source of annoyance for international agencies and academics to determine accurately who is a ‘terrorist’. Yet it remains a word that is used freely today!

Phil Rees’ encounters with ‘terrorists’ – encapsulated in just under 400 pages – is a vindication of his steadfast refusal to describe perpetrators of political violence ‘terrorists’.  He accepts too that some may view his journey to meet men and women accused of terrorism, to shake hands and to sit and eat with them, as “akin to hitching a ride with the devil and becoming an apologist for the worst kind of violence known to mankind”.

Citing the example of Rudolf Giuliani, the ex-Mayor of New York who declared after 9/11 that those who practice terrorism lose any right to have their cause understood, Rees contrasts his own position: “I take a different view; that the public should be informed about the causes of violence and decide for themselves who is right and who is wrong”.

Early in November 2001, Phil Rees says that while he was in a bunker with a Taliban commander and troops in Afghanistan, he began to understand that the bombs raining down on them “were part of a much grander project than the overthrow of a regime and the capture of bin Laden”.

He recollects on that day the US State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, made a remarkable avowal that in effect declared a new world order:

“The President has made it clear that the United States is engaged in a war against the scourge of terrorism….we will not rest until every terrorist group has been removed as a threat to the United States, our citizens, our interests, and our friends and allies. As the President has stated, this campaign will be along one.”

Rees goes on to record that in the shadow of the war in Afghanistan, the United States government began to construct the ideological edifice for a new military doctrine that would propel the “war on terror”. The State Department announced that twenty-two names of “foreign terrorist individuals, entities and groups” would be added to a list established under Executive Order 13224, signed by President Bush less than a fortnight after 9/11.

Dining With Terrorists is an indispensable study written in Rees’ characteristic engaging style which not only unravels the context of contemporary global events; it also allows readers to make up their own minds about who “terrorists” are.

His enormous experience having written extensively for the Independent, Guardian and  New Statesman in addition to his work on Correspondent and Newsnight for the BBC provides great depth in his various encounters with “terrorists”, be they Colombian coca farmers, Basque separatists or Kashmiri independence fighters.

Iqbal Jassat, Chairman of the Media Review Network, an advocacy group based in Pretoria, South Africa.