The last time I saw Marwan was as I opened the door to help him as he struggled with rather too many bags. Picking one up I followed him to the car waiting nearby. I exchanged a few friendly words with the driver, his friend, who I'd seen several times before. I hugged my friend. As they drove off I waved. I was sad. Over the following weeks I often thought of him.
Marwan had been my neighbour for 8 months; we'd chatted in the corridor, drunk coffee and played pool, and I was enjoying getting to know him better. Just a week before he left he'd begun to tell me about his early life, growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp. It'd all come out as I made a rather thoughtless remark about Israel. He stood up from preparing to pot a ball, put down his cue and gently started to speak. His response was gracious considering how offensive my question must have been to him. We'd never really finished the conversation, he had to go and my role as duty manager of the international student hostel called me away. Now he’d left at short notice, it seemed I'd never learn more from him.
I couldn't have been more wrong. I did learn more of Marwan. It happened about six weeks later as I answered questions about him to a police officer. The next day I discovered more as I read the front page of the newspaper, illustrated by a picture of Marwan and his friend in the same car he'd left in. They'd been arrested for the attempted assassination of Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador in London. It was 3rd June 1982.
The day after their failed attempt to kill Argov, the first shots rang out as Israel invaded southern Lebanon. They pushed north to Beirut in order to deal with the perceived threat from among the many Palestinian refugees in the nation. Israel would effectively occupy the southern part of Lebanon for the next eighteen years, and the impact of that would profoundly impact the nation and region.
Marwan it turned out was Marwan al-Banna, and he was a member of Abu Nidal, one of the major terror groups active in the 1970-80s, run by his cousin Sabri al-Banna. Marwan was a signed up member, his life committed to fighting for the Palestinian cause.
I'd drunk coffee, played pool, and lived right next door to a terrorist.
For several weeks I had a lot of thinking to do. In the end I decided thinking about it didn't really help. I pushed it to the back of my mind. To be honest it was actually twenty years before I made sense of this, and came after time spent in a refugee camp in Gaza. My conclusion then was different. I'd drunk coffee, played pool, lived next door to Marwan, a friend, my neighbour.
It's very easy to totally “other” the terrorist. To categorise them in a way that is so different to us, where their evil actions bear no relationship to our own lives and choices. To dehumanise them. To demonise them. They are evil and that's it. It's a very understandable process, but I’m not sure it helps us move forward.
How many terrorists have you known, or simply crossed paths with? You'll probably never know, because most of the time they're ordinary folk doing ordinary things like you and me. Until last Friday I thought that in the ordinary run of every day life I'd known one terrorist. Now I know I came close to another a few years before I met Marwan. Khalid Masood, the Westminster terrorist, grew up in my home town went to school near me, very possibly went to my church. He was called Adrian Elms, or Adrian Ajao back then. I told that story here. (A violent man. Just that.)
I said I've known one and come close to one in every day life – growing up, doing the ordinary things people do. Actually I've met more, but that's because doing the work I do I've intentionally put myself in the place where I meet extremists. But in this piece I’ll leave that aside and focus on the ordinary. One I likely crossed paths with as a teenager. One was my neighbour in my early 20’s.
My response to learning about Marwan was to dwell in his awful actions. And wonder how close I'd come to danger. Did they plan the attack sitting in the flat next door? Did he keep a gun in his flat? What if I'd upset him? What if ….?
There is another sort of “What if …” question I could have asked. What if I'd befriended him earlier? What if I'd had a meal with him? What if I'd been able to sit and listen more fully to his painful stories, maybe wept with him, expressed deep regret? What if my friendship had been the thing that gradually began to break down years of anger that led to his terrorist act?
What if I'd crossed paths with Adrian? Reached out to him when he'd received a discriminatory remark? Challenged the bullies who made his life hell? Walked with him through town on his way home? Been able to be a big brother to him in his need?
I'm convinced that terrorists are not just a result of reading and embracing extremist ideology. In many cases their life has prepared them for their action. Their story is one of personal, family, group or national pain and anger. That pain then finds an ideology that explains it, gives it meaning and purpose. Their story set in the context of a bigger story is what empowers their actions.
When you make the choice to have a casual chat with an acquaintance over coffee, help someone when they're struggling or simply say Hi! or smile as they pass, what are your actions saying them? I'd suggest that very simply you are sending out a message that human beings are ok, that the day might be worth living, that their life is valuable. Your action might not be remembered past the next bend in the road, but you are reinforcing self worth and civility.
By contrast when you pass those opportunities by and merely grunt when greeted, you could well be reinforcing the idea that English people are not interested, that white “Christians” are hypocrites, that human beings are overrated, and that life sucks.
You never know who the person you have coffee with tomorrow might go on to be.