Violence was the only right path

Peter Knoope, an expert on terrorism, talks about his time with the ANC

Until 1990, South Africa had a segregation system called Apartheid. The African National Congres fought against it, sometimes with violent means

By Petra Meijer

“Actually, I never talk about it”, says Peter Knoope but the director of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism once worked for the ANC, which is regarded as a terrorist organisation by various countries. “Once or twice, I considered carrying out an attack.”

“My life is divided in two: life before and life after the camp. That’s where I came of age. I was 24 and had been travelling the world with a rucksack for three years. When I arrived in Mozambique, I saw the devastating effect Renamo, the resistance group supported by the apartheid regime, had. The population was working hard to rebuild the country but Renamo did everything they could to frustrate their efforts. They attacked schools and destroyed the infrastructure. That’s what when the seed of my anger was sown. This can’t be happening, I thought. I have to do something.

“The African National Congress placed a job advertisement in de Volkskrant. At the time, the ANC was a political group that opposed Apartheid. Although three hundred people applied for the job, somehow I was convinced that they would choose me. It wasn’t a big deal that the organisation was not averse to violence. The anti-apartheid movement was considered a good cause: people were inclined to view me as a hero.
“In hindsight, I’m amazed my parents let me go without a fight but of course I had already done lots of travelling and was quite headstrong. Maybe they just gave up.

“I went to Tanzania in 1983 to learn Xhosa and get some political training. Tanzania needed highly qualified people to lead the country after the apartheid regime. I ended up in an academic camp, Mazimbu, where those people received education and where I taught biology.”

“However, it was also a transition camp for people from Angola, etc. who needed to disappear for a while, and where they recruited people for armed combat. We were out in the bush, so there wasn’t much to do. In the evening, we all got together in the large hall where people read to us or where we played music or sang battle songs. That’s where we were given pep talks and persuaded that the path of violence was the right one.

“Could I still remain sceptical of things I was told all day and every day? That’s a tough one. I was always swaying to one side or the other. A lot depended on my mood.

“Besides, any opposing views would brand you as a spy. I was a stranger in an organisation at war; they didn’t trust me at all. The fear-induced system of control was defendable because there really were infiltrators in the organisation. Every trick in the book was used there by spies, such as male-female relationships: Miss X turns up out of nowhere, absolutely besotted with you. You don’t know who you can trust so you don’t trust anyone anymore.

“When I was very lonely, I sometimes thought about carrying out an attack. ‘Let me die in South Africa, at least my life will have had a reason.’ I teetered in the edge, but if I had really decided to carry out an attack, I don’t really know whether I could have actually gone through with it.

“Everyone was always on edge. No questions were asked. We lived in units of eight and suddenly two of them would disappear. They would have been sent on a mission to South Africa and we didn’t know whether they would ever return. I used to feel incredibly lonely ...”

(After a short break, clearly emotional) “Excuse me, I actually never talk about it, in the same way our parents never mention the war, I suppose.

“The mistrust that permeated everything and the lack of reflection were not the organisation’s only weaknesses. The aspect of violence attracted certain people. They didn’t care about the cause; they just wanted a fight – even in the highest echelon of the organisation.

“It was extremely dangerous, but in the Netherlands, the anti-apartheid movement just did not want to hear it. The bad parts were glossed over and excused: ‘They are suffering because of Apartheid’.

“I finally reached the limits of what I personally could stand. I was worn out. Solidarity had been my reason to help but I was confronted by the limitations and weaknesses of the organisation. I needed to take stock. Was I still helping? I thought I had become too sceptical and too troublesome to make a worthwhile contribution. Was I disillusioned? No, but I had learned a lot.

“Terrorist organisations often use ploys that are constructed on similar lines: violence is the only way. Nobody listens to us. We make fair and justifiable demands but our children are killed on protest marches. They made us suffer, why shouldn’t we do the same? Violence is the only language they understand. You can only fight these narratives once you understand their appeal and how they are used.

“Because I spent time at the camp, it’s easier for me to comprehend how these groups operate. It is important to listen to their grievances because then you can take the sting out of them. Be prepared to see what’s wrong. And then it’s important to realise how difficult it is to leave: I felt bereaved. I experienced a sort of institutionalisation. The camp offered me structure and when I left suddenly, I felt detached. I went through six months of hell after leaving the camp and moving to Cameroon.

“Between 2001 and 2007, it was taboo to try and attempt to understand terrorists. The events of 9/11 had left too great an impression. I remember Wim Kok saying: ‘I hope that the United States will respond with dignity to the harm they have suffered’ – a sensible reaction, but it merely provoked anger.

“It was in exact opposition to Bush’s tough stance: ‘We will hunt them down, we will smoke them out, you’re either with us or against us.’

“People only started to consider the dangers of radicalization when they realised that this stance was not working, following our experiences in Afghanistan and so on. From the very first, I’ve always said: if you’re not prepared to understand why people do these things, you’ll never find the answer.

“As far as that goes, the Netherlands has had a leading role, partly because our previous dealings with counterterrorism have been successful. Take the Hofstad group, for instance: there’s almost nothing left of it. A few former members are now helping out with de-radicalization programmes.

“Until 1994, my name was included on the list of people who were not allowed to enter South Africa but later on, it was all right. However, the thought has always made me a bit nervous. When I was at the camp, South Africa was the enemy, but now I’m moving there for four years because my wife has been appointed as the Dutch ambassador. In a special way, the circle is complete.”

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