Before the cameras started rolling, he remembers the acute embarrassment when his producer insisted on combing his hair. He was 29 years of age and was just about to interview his first active “terrorist”.
It was the first of many. Talking to Terrorists: A Personal Journey from the IRA to Al Qaeda is an account of his 40-odd years covering terrorism, 30 years of which were spent in Northern Ireland, and the last decade criss-crossing the world in pursuit of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists and their victims and interrogators.
Taylor mentions Brendan Duddy as the person who surprised him most during his years of war journalism. Duddy, or “Mountain Climber” as he is code-named, was the link man between the IRA and the British government during the Troubles. A more unsuspecting man you could hardly imagine.
Duddy first got to know Martin McGuinness when the future IRA leader used to drop into the back of his chip shop in Derry while on an errand from the butcher’s shop down the street: “He’d come in with a box of burgers, put them on the counter and chat up the girls, and I’d say, ‘Come on, Martin, there’s work to do here.’ Did he have any interest in politics? Absolutely none.”
Taylor found McGuinness equally disarming when he first encountered him. “I first met him in 1972 in the disused gasworks in the Bogside, which was the Provos meeting place in Derry. I had a long talk with him. He said he’d rather be washing the car or mowing the lawn on Sundays than doing what he was doing. I believed him, although I thought that I shouldn’t.
“I’ve known Martin McGuinness for many, many years and I’ve watched him emerge from being a senior IRA commander — if not the single most important IRA person on the island of Ireland; I think that’s certainly how Republicans regard him — to being a genuine statesman, and he’s made a remarkable journey.”
For 20 years, Duddy liaised with Michael Oatley, a suave, James Bond-type MI6 agent, and later with “Robert”, Oatley’s successor from MI5. They were pivotal players in the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Oatley used coded language when talking to Duddy.
“It’s very cold at the moment,” he would say. “Put on your woolly [long] Johns.” This was his way of warning Duddy that the government wasn’t interested in any political initiatives at a particular moment.
As regards his work as peace envoy, in which he risked being mistaken — and murdered — for being a British agent, Taylor says Duddy simply “felt impelled to do it”. The unremarkable nature of so many of the characters that Taylor has encountered, particularly amongst the terrorists, is the remarkable thing about his book.
He remembers meeting Salim Boukhari, a 30-year-old Algerian imprisoned in Germany for an aborted terrorist attack in December 2000.
Boukhari led a cell found guilty of trying to blow up the Christmas market in Strasbourg.
“But just talking to him,” says Taylor, “he was like so many we know as ‘terrorists’ — he was intelligent, articulate, committed, motivated, rational, dedicated, a normal young man like so many other so-called terrorists I’ve met, be they IRA, even Loyalists, Palestinians, Basque, South African ANC. They’re just like you and me, but the main difference is that they are prepared to kill people. You and I are not.
“That was one encounter which confirmed my increasing belief that terrorists are really quite normal people, but they are driven by a passion for a particular cause.
“Another one who I interviewed was Eamonn McDermott when I did a documentary inside the Maze Prison. Eamonn was serving a life sentence and I asked him, ‘What was an IRA man doing reading Tolstoy and Hardy?’ He looked at me and said because an IRA man is normal just like everybody else. It’s one of the themes that I explore in the book: why do apparently normal people reach a situation through their commitment to a cause as a result of which they are prepared to kill their fellow citizens?”
Taylor, however, makes a distinction between the typical IRA operative and those who operate on behalf of the nebulous, patchwork Al Qaeda organisation.
“There is big difference,” he says. “The IRA by and large — note the qualification — did not deliberately set out to kill civilians. Civilians inevitably were killed when bombs were placed in so-called economic targets or when the army or police were attacked but it was never the IRA’s policy — again, by and large — to deliberately kill civilians. There were one or two exceptions like the Tullyvallen Orange Hall Massacre and the massacre at Whitecross of the Protestants in the bus. They were rare exceptions.
“Al Qaeda deliberately sets out to kill as many civilians as possible without warning. The modus operandi of the two organisations are very different. It’s much more difficult to counter an organisation like Al Qaeda because it’s more an ideology than an organisation. The IRA was very tightly controlled. It had a structure. Once the intelligence services had got the structure before them, they could start putting the pieces together and work out who’s who and start taking them out literally or metaphorically.
“Al Qaeda is a very different phenomenon because it is driven by religious fanaticism. It is global. It doesn’t have a formal command structure, although there is a central Al Qaeda command hiding away in caves somewhere on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but it’s a terrorist organisation the like of which the world has never seen before.”