THE BIG QUESTION
There had been British Muslims who have fought for al-Qaeda before, and there had been British Muslims who have carried out, or attempted to carry out, suicide bombings before. But Thursday 7 July was the first suicide bombing in Britain itself – ‘suicide bombing’ in its modern sense of the indiscriminate killing of civilians by a terrorist willing to kill herself or himself in the act of destruction.
The four suicide terrorist attacks were followed by four more attempted attacks on 21 July. All the indications are that there will be further al-Qaeda atrocities, perhaps even more serious in their severity, unless some solution is found. Given that the 7/7 bombers had almost no history which could have been used by the security services to detect them before their mission took place, the ‘solution’ is unlikely to be a purely police or intelligence affair.
The burning question of our time, then, is how Britain as a society can prevent more people deciding to become suicide bombers. Given the nature of the crime, no penalty is going to dissuade a potential bomber. There is going to have to be some other solution if the risk is to be successfully reduced.
What we need to know is how and why someone comes to decide to carry out such an appalling act. Only then can we attempt to find a set of measures that will reduce the chances of such decisions being made in the future.
BRAINWASHING AND REALITY
The most common, and in a sense comforting, explanation is that the bombers have been ‘brainwashed’ by al-Qaeda masterminds into carrying out evil acts foreign to their true natures. For the family of a suicide bomber, this protects the memory of the core of the person who they still love and respect. For society, matters are simplified: find the “preachers of hatred” and stop them from doing what they are doing. For Government, this “explanation” shifts attention conveniently from the realities of British foreign policy to the evils of al-Qaeda manipulation.
Because the problem we are confronting is not the web of fabrications and distortions peddled by al-Qaeda, noxious though that is. The problem we are confronting is not the lies that al-Qaeda tells, but the truths that it tells.
The problem we are faced with is that it is not, at root, distortion of reality that lies at the root of the al-Qaeda insurgency, but reality, the reality of Britain’s role in the world.
THE BOMBERS THEMSELVES
What do we know about the 7/7 bombers? That, according to one friend of theirs, the roots of the plot lie in long sessions they held together watching videos of anti-Muslim atrocities, and armed Muslim resistance, around the world. (Media Review, 17 July)
That the first, and most plausible, statement of responsibility describes the bombings as revenge for British participation in massacres in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Media Review, 8 July) That the man identified as the lead bomber left behind a video in which he explained his motivation as defence of Muslims around the world suffering at the hands of British foreign policy. (Media Review, 2 September)
What do we know about the 21/7 bombers? That they engaged in just the same kinds of video watching sessions:
‘One of the men accused of taking part in the failed terror attacks in London on 21 July has claimed the bomb plot was directly inspired by Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war. In a remarkable insight into the motives behind the alleged would-be bombers, Hussain Osman, arrested in Rome on Friday, has revealed how the suspects watched hours of TV footage showing grief-stricken Iraqi widows and children alongside images of civilians killed in the conflict. He is alleged to have told prosecutors that after watching the footage: “There was a feeling of hatred and a conviction that it was necessary to give a signal – to do something.” ‘
‘ “Religion had nothing to do with this. We watched films. We were shown videos with images of the war in Iraq. We were told we must do something big. Thatâ€™s why we met,” he said.’ (Media Review, 31 July)
REALISM AND DENIAL
After the bombings, Tony Blair appointed certain Muslim ‘leaders’ to report back on measures to prevent future atrocities. The Muslim taskforce came back with recommendations he has done his best to erase from the record. The central recommendation was for a Royal Commission inquiry into the July bombings.
The seven taskforce subgroups (made up of Muslim MPs, peers, academics and community leaders) ‘all feel that British foreign policy, especially Mr Blair’s support for the Iraq war, has fuelled resentment.’ They suggest that a Royal Commission should proceed in two stages. The first being an examination of the bombings themselves. The second being ‘an exploration of wider issues, such as the role of foreign policy in radicalising the terrorists, and whether victims of the bombings received speedy and adequate financial compensation and support.’ (Media Review, 17 September)
The Government has stuck doggedly to its line that the risk of terrorism has not been affected materially by British foreign policy in general, or by the war in Iraq in particular. This denial of the obvious has had great success with the British media, but has signally failed to convince the public at large, who remain entirely realistic about the national security impact of the war in Iraq.
A CHRONOLOGY OF REALISM
07 July: First suicide bombings in London. 52 people die, as well as the four bombers. A statement from al-Qaeda claims revenge for massacres in Iraq and Afghanistan.
10 July: Sunday Times publishes a joint Home Office/Foreign Office report ‘Young Muslims and Extremism’, which identifies British foreign policy as a major contributor to Muslim extremism in Britain.
18 July: The Chatham House Report blames British participation in the “war on terrorism”, and the war in Iraq in particular, for the failure to diminish the terrorist threat in Britain.
19 July: The Guardian discovers that 64 per cent of Britons place at least some of the responsibility for the London bombs on Tony Blair.
20 July: It is reported that British intelligence warned in June 2005, weeks before the attack, that Iraq provided ‘motivation’ and ‘focus’ for would-be terrorists in Britain.
21 July: Second suicide bombings attempted in London. No casualties.
24 July: The first sign of Government wavering on the link to Iraq. Jack Straw says: “It is impossible to say for certain” whether the war in Iraq is putting Britain at greater risk of terrorism.
25 July: The Daily Mirror finds that 85 per cent of Britons think that the war in Iraq was to some degree a cause of the July bombings. (We didn’t report this until 1 September.)
26 July: Tony Blair shifts his position, saying of the war in Iraq: ‘I can see how these people use these issues to recruit people’, but still denying that the war has increased the risk.
28 July: MI5 website links Iraq to the threat of terrorism.
31 July: Hussain Osman, a 21/7 bomber is reported in the British media to have confessed that Iraq was a major motivation for the bombings.
5 August: Tony Blair announces new terror laws – to distract attention from the link with Iraq, in our view.
28 August: The Observer publishes another part of the correspondence around the ‘Young Muslims and Extremism’ Report, where Foreign Office permanent under-secretary Michael Jay acknowledges the central importance of British foreign policy in driving ‘Muslim extremism’ in Britain.
1 September: Al-Jazeera broadcasts an al-Qaeda video featuring Mohammed Sidique Khan, believed to be the leader of the 7/7 cell, in which he blames British foreign policy for the actions he is about to undertake.
1 September: Ken Clarke, former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, opens his bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party with a speech on Iraq and terrorism, arguing that the war in Iraq is making Britain less safe. (We didn’t discuss this until 6 September.)
5 September: Former Tory health secretary Stephen Dorrell and former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont support Ken Clarke’s argument that the war in Iraq is making Britain less safe.
14 September: Tony Blair’s Muslim taskforce reports back, asking for a Royal Commission into the 7/7 bombings, and blaming British foreign policy.
27 September. The FT publishes a poll of British businesses taken in June, before the bombings, which found that 83 per cent of respondents felt the war with Iraq had increased the terrorist threat.
30 September: A poll of the capital by the Greater London Authority finds that only 8 per cent of Londoners believe there was no connection between the war in Iraq and the July bombings.
ONE HUNDRED DAYS
During the last 100 days, we have seen enormous tragedies in Pakistan and in the United States. In both cases, the events themselves could not have been averted, but the human cost could have been reduced with properly organised and funded action before and after disaster struck.
In the case of al-Qaeda-type terrorism, it is not merely a matter of preparing to cope with the aftermath. It is insufficient to rely on the police and security services to detect and prevent 7/7-type conspiracies, which require virtually no funds, few recruits, and no observable suspicious behaviour.
We must try to prevent the hurricane and the earthquake.
During the last 100 days, we have seen an extraordinary sequence of atrocities and human-engineered disasters in Iraq. While not all of these attacks have been aimed at the occupation forces and their Iraqi proxies, it is difficult to deny that the level of rage in Iraq would be much less if the US and British forces were withdrawn and replaced by neutral troops working under the UN mandate.
Withdrawal of British and US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan would have beneficial effects for the peoples of these countries, and would also benefit national security at home.
Doing the right thing also makes us safer.
If we persist in doing the wrong thing, who is to say what will happen in the next 100 days?