Matthew Carr has produced a very interesting, thought provoking, and in some eyes controversial book about the long, and usually not very elegant history of terrorism. I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew recently. I have interviewed many authors, but this one has a twist in the tail that I certainly did not expect. The Infernal Machine is the second book in as many months that I have reviewed and has been banned from being sold in the United Kingdom. One wonders what has happened to ‘free speech’ over there?
Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m 52 years old. I was born in London, but I spent my childhood in the West Indies. I returned to England and spent my teenage years in Cambridge.  Since then I’ve lived in various countries. My resume reads as if I never had a clear goal, over the years I have worked dozens of jobs, building laborer, postman, signwriter, English teacher, bookshop assistant, house painter, and bike messenger.  I’ve lived and traveled in various countries.  A year in Holland.  Three and a half years in New York in the 80s, where I did various dead end jobs and played guitar in a rock n’roll band.  I spent the 90s living in Spain.  I’m currently living in a small town in Derbyshire that few people have ever heard of with my partner and 11-year-old daughter, where I attempt to eke out a living writing books.    

I believe you are a Journalist and Broadcaster, can you tell us a little about that?

I’ve worked as a freelance journalist for a number of publications, beginning in the 80s when I wrote about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Gaza strip and covered the Sicilian Mafia trial for The Observer.   I’ve also done pieces on human rights issues and the state terror in Central America, on the Spanish government’s use of death squads against ETA, in addition to numerous disparate assignments that freelancers get used to doing.  When I lived in Spain I did a lot of radio work for the BBC, from short packages to longer documentaries.   Nowadays the only regular journalist work I do is for the First Post online magazine.
Where did you get the idea for Infernal Machine from?

Violence has been part of the backdrop of my life ever since childhood.  I grew up in a violent era, with the Vietnam war, apartheid, Northern Ireland, revolution and counterrevolution in the Third World.   So I’ve always been concerned with issues of war and peace and the role of violence in human affairs.  Politically, my background is on the left, and I have supported many movements that have been described as terrorist by their enemies.  So I’m not a pacifist, but I’ve always been conscious of the devastating impact that violence can have on its victims and its perpetrators.   I lived in the States, at a time when the Reagan administration was stridently denouncing terrorism even as it supported the homicidal governments of El Salvador and Guatemala, so the hypocrisy and cant that surrounds the subject of terrorism is not new to men.   All this finally made me think that it would be useful to write a book about it.

Maybe this is just my personal interpretation, but I found this quite a controversial book, but given the subject matter that is probably unavoidable. What sort of feed back have you been receiving?

My aim was not to pursue controversy for the sake of it – a fairly puerile exercise, I feel.  Nevertheless I wanted to critique some of the basic assumptions that surround the subject of terrorism, to break it into its component parts and see how it has been understood and created both its actual protagonists and its different audiences.  In today’s hysterical climate, anyone who writes about terrorism with anything less than absolute horror and condemnation is bound to generate controversy from certain quarters.   So a few rightwing reviews have leveled the ‘moral equivalence’ charge at me – a charge that I regard as ludicrous.   But the general reaction has been positive on both sides of the Atlantic. There have been some excellent reviews. As far as sales are concerned, they haven’t been good over here for the simple reason that my book was sued by an extremely rich Saudi plutocrat within six weeks of being published.  It was therefore pulped and has yet to reappear in the UK.  
Because of the nature of the subject matter, was it hard to find a publisher? I must say that I have always held The New Press in high esteem for their willingness to run with controversy, this is certainly not the way that most of the larger houses work.

It was a little difficult.  There are a lot of books written on terrorism by ‘terrorism experts’ or media pundits. I don’t fall into either category and I tend to wary of the terrorist expert as a type, so some publishers clearly wondered what my credentials were for writing a book like this. My position has always been that terrorism is not some arcane, mysterious subject whose inner workings are only available to the terrorism expert and the counterinsurgency specialist. It’s a subject that affects us all and that we all have the right to think about.  Fortunately, I found a publisher over here that took the same view. And in The New Press I have been particularly fortunate.  Not only have they supported the book from the outset, but they have given it a terrific cover and I’m proud to be published by them.
Several months ago I interviewed an author who had written a book about the JFK assassination, and before you ask, no it was not particularly conspiratorial, but it certainly pointed out some inconsistencies. And even though the events happened over 40 years ago, there are still special interest groups involved. I asked him if ‘shaking the trees had caused him any problems’. His answer was ‘I was at no time personally threatened, but I was very aware that I was under scrutiny. However I was working from documentation in the public domain, I was not poking at the ants nest, that could be a completely different story’. The ‘ants nest’ that you have decided to explore is one that is very much alive and well. Did you have concerns that you were ‘boldly going where maybe you should not’?

I didn’t expect to be threatened, since all the material I was using was in the public domain. Perhaps I should have been more wary, given the nature of the subject. The Saudi lawsuit came completely out of the blue, since the allegations were only a marginal aspect of the book and were based entirely on material from the public domain. Unfortunately in this country, British libel laws do not allow public domain to be used as a defense, which is why the rich and powerful so often make use of them.  I’ve learned that lesson and I am still choking on it.

What resources did you use in your research?

There was no great mystery.   I didn’t want to write ‘talking to terrorists’ reportage, but to trace the historical origins of ‘terrorism’. So I ordered a lot of books.  I visited libraries, particularly the fabulous British Library. I surfed the Internet relentlessly.  I watched movies and documentaries.  I read novels, both good ones and bad.  For three and a half years I steeped myself in terrorism till I was dreaming about it.   In the process I probably fried much of my brain, but I think it’s beginning to recover.

Reading this book I came to the conclusion that regardless of the country or the cause, the ‘war’ inevitably reaches a climax. Just like two opposing bacteria on an agar plate, eventually one overwhelms the other. I realize that this process varies from months, to years, to decades. In the west our concern (or at least the governments concern/excuse) is Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, has this peaked? Or are we still in the formative stage?

Your ‘bacteria’ analogy is a good one, except that what sometimes happens is that the two bacteria feed each other and mutate into a new form.  There is no possibility whatsoever that the al Qaeda/Jihadist networks can defeat ‘the West’ militarily, however many atrocities they carry out.  But the United States can lose this confrontation politically and also morally by entering into a futile and un-winnable ‘war’ that exhausts its resources and fatally undermines the democratic values it claims to represent.   This is not a possibility that seems to concern the ‘full spectrum dominance’ wing of the US foreign policy establishment. They need Al Qaeda and they need terrorism to justify a global projection of military power. Al Qaeda of course needs them to continue to engage in military ‘interventions’ in the Muslim world in order to justify its Zionist/Crusader thesis. So unfortunately I think this current mayhem has some time to run yet.
I have to ask the obvious question, sorry that it is not more unique, what is your next project going to be?

I’m currently writing a book about the expulsion of the Muslims from seventeenth century Spain.  It seems a very distant period of history, but after the events of the last few years, it’s a lot more contemporary than you might think.
Postscript: This is a fascinating book, and as long as you do not live in the UK you can get it here.

Simon Barrett


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