Richard Jackson*, Confessions of a Terrorist: a Novel.
London: Zed Books, Ltd. 2014, 330 pp; ISBN: 9781783600021
(Reviewed by Zubair Qamar, April 2014)
A once abandoned storeroom in the former Royal Transport Warehouse in the UK is being used in mid-March, 2011. Professor Youssef Said (alias Samir Hamoodi) is nicknamed “The Professor,” a name chosen by his comrades in Iraq that harks back to his former teaching position at Cairo University. He is the “terrorist” having a face-to-face conversation with Captain Michael, an MI5 Agent.
Captain Michael, true to “Operation Moriarty,” attempts to ascertain why The Professor, who was recently apprehended, is a terrorist, and his purpose for being in the UK. His highly prestigious standing as “Captain” earned Michael this title, making him the prime interrogator to make sense of the apparently senseless. The Professor is just as eager to make his confession to Michael: “I can honestly say that I have been looking forward to this moment for a very long time.”
Richard Jackson’s debut novel, Confessions of a Terrorist: a Novel, appears as a transcribed fourth version of a draft report from the audio discussion of The Professor and Michael. Hand written notes and blackened text fill the pages by MI5 reviewers. They discuss how the manuscript can be manipulated to sustain the conventional Western narrative of terrorism before final submission to the Public Hearings Section for the Lord Savage Inquiry of the Leeds Terrorist Plot. Jackson offers the reader a rare glimpse of the redacted report, normally privy to only select intelligence and other government officials.
The Professor’s frustration and invectives throughout the novel are directed at US and European foreign policy. He rails against the UK government’s imposition of fear “on millions of innocent people” in “Iraq,” “Afghanistan,” “Pakistan,” “Libya,” “Yemen,” “Somalia,” and “all other countries” where the UK government drops “five hundred pound-laser guided bombs or send guided missiles down the chimneys of people’s houses like Christmas presents…” The Professor denounces the fear generated in “every Muslim man, innocent or not,” of “being tortured in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo…or being picked up and beheaded by one of those death squads” trained in Iraq by “your people.”
This illuminating discussion on grievances expressed against Western foreign policy is to be understood against the backdrop of The Professor’s unexpected persona: A pedantic intellectual with a doctorate from the University of Chicago. His acute perceptiveness and searing intelligence are revealed while peppering his heartfelt grievances with utterances of “Joseph Conrad” in “The Secret Agent,” “Che Guevara,” “Kipling,” and other bits of knowledge mostly arcane to the layperson, including Captain Michael. Could other terrorists like The Professor really be that human, immensely profound, and highly sensible when given a chance to express themselves transparently – and be heard?
The human side of terrorists, says Jackson, is often concealed in the name of “national security” by authorities who have the power to produce a half-baked, selectively packaged transcript for public consumption via mainstream media. This sleight-of-hand allows the projection of a narrative that Western officials and the wider public are used to hearing: All terrorists are evil, inhuman, and spiteful who murder and maim. While terrorists are shunned, repudiated, and killed, propagating this traditional narrative allows governments to prohibit “[t]alking to them, listening to their voices, hearing their arguments,” and “trying to understand their point of view” because, says Jackson, “it might lead to sympathy, understanding or even justification for the heinous behaviour.” This “taboo” against talking to terrorists, says Jackson, is “designed to protect society from certain culturally determined dangers.” The “dangers” of transparent interaction with terrorists assumingly leads to “infection or contamination,” and causes the “cancerous evil of terrorism to spread.”
Reality, however, can be different. Contrary to orthodox wisdom, The Professor is not religious, ideological, or even Muslim. He is a sane, conscience-driven, Arab Christian who lived a normal life as an intellectual in the UK, US, and Egypt until he was disgruntled with and outraged about the destructive impact of Western foreign policy on innocent civilians. His grievances were not limited to the Arab region, and, as stated, transcended any particular religion. The Professor’s animosity towards Western foreign policy also did not translate to loathing of Western people and values. The Professor’s grievances are more reminiscent of twentieth century leftist-movements than of thoughtless, violent criminals.
Indeed, The Professor’s views clash with commonly accepted culturally determined definitions of terrorism – personified by Michael who represents the Western perspective – that are normally limited to non-state actors. The Professor mirrors the views of Jackson himself, as well as other terrorism scholars, who adopt a more critical approach to most mainstream definitions of terrorism. Echoing The Professor’s concerns, Jackson says the
“acceptance that states are not exempted from employing terrorism raises serious questions about the broader focus of the field.”
While Western officials should not shy away from considering the state’s involvement in terrorism, says Jackson, the expression of grievances is not synonymous with terrorism, as mainstream media would have us believe. “The key point,” says Jackson, “is that understanding – or even sympathizing – with the goals of the terrorist is not the same as condoning and legitimising their violent actions.” This is why such concerns resonate widely among peaceful Arabs, Muslims, and large segments of Western populations. Shibley Telhami, the Arab Israeli author of The World Through Arab Eyes, commented on the results of a poll of six Arab countries taken from 2004 to 2008:
“It should not be surprising that every time I asked a question about the primary source of anger and disappointment with the United States, the overwhelming majority of Arab respondents specified U.S. policies, not U.S. values.”
Many polls and studies illustrate similar results, while many terrorists besides The Professor voice the same. The lesson to learn is that foreign policy actions of states matter as they are the primary source of grievance against Western powers. Such actions of states are to be incorporated in any objective, serious effort to understand and alleviate terrorism. Conformist Western counter-terrorism narratives and approaches, as well as unrealistic perceptions of the “terrorist” by Western officials, are self-defeating as they worsen the problem they presumably set out to resolve.
In the end of the novel, the reader – absorbed with the reality of The Professor’s narrative – is faced with the critical task of figuring out where the boundaries of terrorism begin and end. Could The Professor be just as worthy, if not more, of the title of “Captain”? This novel will not only surprise scholar and layperson, but confront them with important and uncomfortable truths that call for a new paradigm in terrorism studies.
Jackson’s novel provides a rigorously critical and courageous view of terrorism that shakes the foundations of conventional thinking on the subject.
Confessions of a Terrorist: a Novel is another welcome addition to the growing field of critical terrorism studies by Jackson that government officials, academia, and students ignore at their own peril. It is time to make our confessions and understand the mind of a terrorist as eagerly and objectively as The Professor was to tell us his views. Not doing so will only lead to “our terrified imagination as the foundation on which to construct a counter-terrorism policy,” and distance accountability from leaders who continue to promote such counterproductive policies to the detriment of humanity and peace.
About the author: Zubair Qamar is an independent counter-terrorism analyst and contractor for economic development efforts in Washington, DC. Two recent book reviews of his include a review on “The Myth of Martyrdom, What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers,” by Adam Lankford (Available: http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/249/html), and “Fighting the Ideological War: Winning Strategies from Communism to Islamism,” edited by Katharine C. Gorka and Patrick Sookhdeo (Available: https://zubairqamar.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/critical-review_fighting-the-ideological-war_zubair-qamar3.pdf).
 Jackson, R. An Argument for Terrorism. Perspectives on Terrorism, North America, 2, nov. 2010. Available at: <http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/27>. Date accessed: 01 Mar. 2014.
 Shibley Telhami. The World Through Arab Eyes Arab Public Opinion and the Reshaping of the Middle East. New York: Basic Books, 2013. pp. 113-114.
* Author Richard Jackson’s personal blog, including additional publications and notable achievements, can be read at: http://richardjacksonterrorismblog.wordpress.com