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One of Crooke’s first postings was to Ireland, in the chaos of the early 1970s, where he cultivated a range of contacts in and around the IRA. One former high-ranking MI6 agent told me that the Secret Intelligence Service strategy was to build discreet long-term relationships with reasonable people within radical movements and then, over a long period, use those relationships to separate moderates from extremists and thus “influence the situation”. Crooke confirmed that this was indeed the general approach, though he feared that patience was increasingly being sacrificed for expediency. “You can lose a relationship in a day and it might take you 20 years to repair it,” he said. In postings to Pakistan during the Afghan war and to South Africa in the years leading to the end of apartheid, it was a lesson that Crooke took to heart. “The point is to understand the people who it is hardest to understand,” he said. “It is easy to talk to people who you might want to have around your dinner table.”
Could he imagine negotiating with al-Qaeda, I wondered? “Never say never,” he replied, though he couldn’t really see the point. Groups such as al-Qaeda only get a hearing, he said, because of the failure of more mainstream political Islamism to speak to the Muslim world.
Though proud of his work for the British government, Crooke admits to a period of reassessment after he was sacked. His views appear to have undergone something of a sea-change. Unusually for a former British spy, Crooke sprinkles his lectures with references, for example, to the work of Marxist postcolonial thinker Frantz Fanon. He believes that Hizbollah is a key factor in the renaissance of Islam – particularly its Shia variant – in the Middle East. The fact he remained in Beirut throughout the Israeli bombing might have stoked his sympathetic approach to Israel’s enemies. From his balcony he pointed out where some bombs fell, even criticising the Israeli Air Force for poor targeting and outdated intelligence.
His sympathy for Islamism extends beyond the political. Islam, he believes, has a valuable “imaginative, intuitive” approach to the individual that has been lost in the west. He views the 1979 Iranian revolution as progressive and enthusiastically explained obscure theological differences between its main Islamic protagonists. In the past two years he has visited Iran regularly – at one point he said “our view”, before correcting himself: “the Iranian view, I mean”.
At the end of the conference Crooke held a dinner at a restaurant for a few friends. He was on playful form, pretending to feed Amistis, his daughter, some alcohol. Sitting opposite me was Tom Clark, a gruff, bearish man who seemed dissatisfied with the seminar’s direction. There was, he felt, too much talk of theology and “the other”, and not enough about the politics of who should meet whom and what could be done. Clark is a financial supporter of Conflicts Forum’s work, and so his opinion matters. (He is a member of the extended family that owns the bulk of the shoemaker Clarks.) Long sympathetic to the Palestinians, his peace activism got him thrown out of Israel a few years ago. Shortly afterwards, he heard Crooke talking on the BBC’s Newsnight about the Middle East peace process. The first time he met Crooke, he said: “He was wearing a plaid shirt, a jacket with arm-patches and a stringy tie. He looked like a geography teacher from Chipping Norton.” It wasn’t long before Crooke invited him to Beirut. The first Hamas officials he met told him, “Any friend of Alastair is a friend of ours.” And that was it, he said. “I became one of his groupies.”
The question dangling in the air, of course, is whether Crooke is still a Bristish spy playing a version of ‘The Great Game’, or has he just become an Islamist shill?