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La interessante storia di una ex spia

2 maggio 2009

Alastair Crooke ha speso oltre trenta anni della propria carriera a curare il dialogo non ufficiale con i movimenti islamisti.

Ex agente MI6, esperto di diplomazia back-door, lavora oggi in proprio.

By ROBERT F. WORTH – Published: May 1, 2009 – International Herald Tribune
BEIRUT, Lebanon
TALKING to Islamists is the new order of the day in Washington and London. The Obama administration wants a dialogue with Iran, and the British Foreign Office has decided to reopen diplomatic contacts with Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group based here.

But for several years, small groups of Western diplomats have made quiet trips to Beirut for confidential sessions with members of Hamas, Hezbollah and other Islamist groups they did not want to be seen talking to. In hotel conference rooms, they would warily shake hands, then spend hours listening and hashing out accusations of terrorism on one side and imperial arrogance on the other.

The organizer of these back-door encounters is Alastair Crooke, a quiet, sandy-haired man of 59 who spent three decades working for MI6, the British secret intelligence service. He now runs an organization here called Conflicts Forum, with an unusual board of advisers that includes former spies, diplomats and peace activists.

Mr. Crooke has spent much of his career talking to Islamists. In the 1980s, as a young undercover agent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, he helped funnel weapons to jihadists fighting the Soviets. Later, he spent years working with Hamas and Fatah as a negotiator for the European Union, and helped broker a number of cease-fires with Israel between 2001 and 2003. He earned a reputation for courage and tenacity, but in person he is disarmingly polite and mild-mannered, a slight-figured man with a beaky, impish smile.

The mission of Conflicts Forum, which he founded in 2004, resembles a kind of blueprint for the Obama administration’s current outreach efforts: to “open a new relationship between the West and Muslim world” through dialogue and better mutual understanding.

Yet Mr. Crooke, who is legendary for his deep network of contacts among Islamist groups across the Middle East, is not sanguine about the prospects for mere dialogue, especially with Iran.

“I think there is a real fear there will be a process of talking past each other,” Mr. Crooke said. “The Iranians will say, ‘we want to talk about justice and respect.’ The U.S. will say, ‘are you willing to give up enrichment or not?’ ”

To get past that impasse with Iran, and with Islamist groups generally, the West will need to change its diplomatic language of threats and rewards, Mr. Crooke said, and show more respect for their adversaries’ point of view.

Mr. Crooke has spent the past few years trying to explain that to suspicious Westerners, in a stream of articles, speeches and conferences. Although not an Arabist by training, he has developed a deep knowledge of modern Islamist movements, and launches easily into analyses of Palestinian politics, or even of medieval Islamic philosophy.

Recently, he has taken his explanatory efforts a bit further. In a new book, “Resistance: the Essence of the Islamist Revolution,” he deliberately avoids the most controversial subjects, like Israel and the status of women in the Islamic world. Instead, he focuses on what he calls the core of the Islamist revolution, which he defines as a metaphysical resistance to the West’s market-based definition of the individual and society. He invokes European social critics like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, endorsing their critiques of Western thinking and arguing that Islamism offers a more holistic model.

NOT surprisingly, the book has received some stinging reviews, and renewed accusations that Mr. Crooke has gone native. Even some of his fellow board members at Conflicts Forum say they are a little baffled — not by his sympathy for Islamists, but by the book’s broad philosophical themes.

Mr. Crooke says the book grew out of his own efforts to find common ground with Islamists, and to look beyond the usual stumbling blocks.

“It seemed to me there was a real need to understand what was happening inside Islamism better, and to valorize what they were saying in ways that could be understood in the West,” he said.

That project seems inseparable from his broader argument about dialogue. To illustrate it, Mr. Crooke describes an episode from the conflict in Northern Ireland in which the British put two opposing factions into a room for talks, “naïvely imagining that talking would help.” It did the opposite, reinforcing their anger. So the negotiators tried another approach: they asked both sides to write down their history and vision for the future on a piece of paper. After three more years of talks, the factions finally reached the point at which they acknowledged the legitimacy of the other side’s piece of paper.

“George Mitchell once said to me, ‘you don’t even have a political process until you accept that the other side has a legitimate point of view,’ ” Mr. Crooke said, referring to Mr. Mitchell’s landmark 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland and relating it to the many obstacles between the United States and Iran.

“Does America have the will and the patience for that?” he said. “I’m not sure we’re there yet.”

Patience, by all accounts, is something Mr. Crooke possesses. Mark Perry, the co-director of Conflicts Forum, describes an episode in Gaza in 2002 when the two men tried to establish a cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian factions. After weeks of negotiations, Israel dropped a bomb on the Hamas leader whose signature they needed, shattering their efforts.

“We were exhausted,” Mr. Perry recalled. “The next day in the hotel room, I looked at Alastair and said ‘what do we do now?’ He just said, ‘We try again.’ ”

It is not entirely clear where that steadfastness comes from. He is a little evasive about his own life and career, perhaps by training. Born in Ireland, he grew up mostly in Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe, and was educated at a Swiss boarding school and at St. Andrew’s in Scotland, obtaining a degree in economics. Before joining MI6, he worked in finance in London.

“It’s a dangerous area to work in,” he said of his years as a banker, without apparent irony, “because it’s so easy to get caught up in enrichment.”

He is barred by law from discussing his service with MI6, which included years of diplomatic work on the Israel-Palestine issue. As a negotiator in the Palestinian territories, he is said to have traveled alone, by taxi, eschewing the armed security convoys of many Western diplomats. Colleagues who worked with him say Yasir Arafat and the leaders of Hamas trusted Mr. Crooke completely, as did some high-level Israeli officials.

SOME Israelis, however, apparently complained that he was too close to Hamas. In late 2003, he was recalled to London — he had reached retirement age — and quietly ushered out of government service, with a commendation. He says he has no regrets, but some of his colleagues in Conflicts Forum say he retains some bitterness about the way he was treated.

In 2005, he moved to Beirut, where he lives with his partner, Aisling Byrne, and their 1-year-old child, Amistis, in an elegant, old French mandate-era apartment, working out of a home office.

Mr. Crooke smiles at the suggestion that Conflicts Forum may offer him a back-door route back to diplomacy, but does not entirely deny it. “We’re not implementers,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is catalyze and create ideas. The second part is, how do you multiply something done by a small number of people in one room into something larger?”

DA: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/02/world/middleeast/02crooke.html?_r=1&ref=global-home

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