Excerpt from 'Talking to Terrorists' by Anne Speckhard

11:14 PM, Apr. 13, 2013  |  Comments
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From the book's introduction:

"Excuse me, Mr. Ambassador, but do you know where your wife is?"

It was seven a.m., and my husband of twenty-four years, Daniel Speckhard, a diplomat posted to NATO's International Staff in Belgium, was standing at the door of our home in Brussels, barely awake. One of the plainclothes agents handed him an FBI calling card.

Daniel rubbed his eyes and asked, "Excuse me, what?"

"We're sorry, Ambassador Speckhard, to disturb you like this, but your wife has been running around in Gaza meeting with terrorists. Is she pulling a Patty Hearst or something?"

My husband, now wide-awake, said, "No. Wait a minute."

He invited them to come in and take a seat while he ran up to my office and returned with papers in hand. "My wife is a university professor, a psychologist. She's an expert on terrorism. She studies this type of thing, does interviews. Here's her latest paper? and her business card," he said handing them a thick document.

"She's a professor?"

"Yes," Daniel said.

"Well, Sir, we received a very angry phone call from the Israelis last night, accusing us of running an undisclosed CIA agent in Gaza. They thought your wife was undercover."

At this, Daniel laughed. "She's got nothing to do with CIA! At least not that I know of!"

"Okay, sorry for disturbing you. But could you please ask her to come in and talk to us when she gets back. It might be a good idea to discuss security issues with her, how to stay safe?"

He nodded. Yes, he thought. That would be a good idea.

* * *

A couple of months earlier in January 2006, I am seated on a cold metal office chair in a sparsely furnished safe house, facing Zakaria Zubeidi, leader of the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Jenin, Palestine. Zubeidi has sent dozens of suicide operatives to date into Israeli settlements and checkpoints; their mission: to kill Israeli soldiers as well as many hundreds of unarmed civilians. Now, dressed in casual western clothes, he leans back in his chair, his legs sprawled out in from of him and an M-16 assault rifle in his lap, and brazenly regards me. Fifteen of his young cadres, also armed with assault rifles, dressed guerilla style, mill about the room. One of them peers through the blinds to the street outside. I hear vehicles rumbling by and know at any point there could be an Israeli raid. The Mossad, Israel's equivalent of the CIA, has Zubeidi on their "hit list." If they know he's here, they won't hesitate to kill him.

The Israeli army uses cell phones to help capture and kill enemies; they zone in on the whereabouts of a killer, phone him to confirm his voice and location by GPS signal, and then fire missiles that can destroy the target within seconds of the call. And they have gotten so good at minimizing collateral damage, they can aim their hits within fourteen centimeters of accuracy.

The guard looks out the window again and quickly lets the blinds slap shut. I try not to get caught up in their fear. The Israelis may know he's here, but my cell phone also has GPS. While I am unsure if the Israeli army is tracking my movements and I want them to know I'm here too, I also know my phone can be used as a listening device and that doesn't seem fair, so I reach into my bag to switch it off.

Zubeidi immediately challenges me, his tone rough. "What are you doing?"

"If the Mossad wants your interview, they can come get it themselves," I say. "My telephone won't be acting in their service."

He laughs derisively and tosses his phone on a small coffee table between us, leaving it switched on - a theatrically bold move on his part. I wonder again if the IDF will strike knowing that Westerners are with him.

I'm here to learn Zubeidi's thoughts about the young men and women that he sends into Israel to bomb themselves. The Palestinians have just declared a "hudna," a temporary laying down of arms while they assess the situation with Israel and look for avenues to peace. But prior to this he has been actively sending suicide bombers under the banner of the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

Looking at his rifle and his armed cadres I say, "It must be hard to suddenly lay down arms, to stop the struggle."

Zubeidi jerks up in his chair and looks at me angrily.

"It's not hard at all," he answers, a cold edge to his voice. "We do what the people want us to do. If they want us to struggle, we struggle; if they want us to lay down arms, we lay down arms."

I feel badly that I've started with a wrong assumption about him, so I ask, "How do you know what the people want?"

He spits out his answer definitively, "They tell me."

I can tell that the interview is about to falter and that my opportunity to build rapport is waning.

I soften my voice so that he knows I don't mean to offend him. "How do they tell you? How can you know what they really want? Do you have some way of talking to them, to get a good indication of what they want from you?"

He softens a bit in turn and answers more thoughtfully, "I sleep in a different house each night. I stay with many families and every night we talk about the situation so I have a pretty good idea of how they feel."

"Can you tell me what the feelings are right now?" I ask, hoping that we are starting to make that essential connection.

He leans forward tapping his rifle hard as he talks, "Right now the people are tired. There has been too much fighting, too many deaths. They are fatigued. They need peace right now."

I can see his growing frustration with my questions, and I struggle to recover, struggle with how to proceed to regain my footing. And then his phone rings.

Zubeidi answers, "Hello?" He's silent, waiting, but there is no reply.

"Hello?" he says once more.

I eye the table between us, mentally measuring the distance. Fourteen centimeters. It can't be much more than that. I feel a strong urge to back my chair away from him, panicked that a missile may be coming any second now.

"Hello?" he says once more.

The room is completely silent, bodies tense. There is no answer. It seems it can mean only one thing. I resolve to stay in place. I don't move my chair. If a missile is coming, we will be killed together. Curiously, I feel ready, unafraid.

Zubeidi repeats again, this time angrily, "Hello?"

Silence. He switches off his phone and slams it down on the table, cursing. At once he looks up, his flashing black eyes lock with mine. I don't move - just hold his gaze. The moments tick by. No missile. Zubeidi has noticed that I haven't flinched, haven't backed away, that I am still here with him. I see the sudden respect in his eyes. He curses at the phone and at the Israelis, and then I proceed.

"What is it like to be a hunted animal?"

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