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The London Blasts


The London Blasts: Media Review

DAY THREE: 10 July 2005 Part Two

Back to Part One


The Sunday Times Scoop: British Foreign Policy And The Roots Of Terrorism


Today's biggest news story is about the political basis of al Qaeda, and, as usual, it is disguised and scarcely comprehensible to the average reader. Before we come to the Sunday Times, however, we should not that once again, we have 'experts' denying that the al Qaeda network has any political objectives. For example, in the Independent on Sunday today (page 7), George Kassimeris, a senior research fellow in conflict and terrorism at the University of Wolverhampton, is quoted as describing al Qaeda as 'pure revenge terrorism, with no negotiable demands'.


Alan Watkins, later in the same edition of the Independent on Sunday (page 29 or buy here) is, by contrast, forthright, and accurate: 'Almost certainly the criminal who placed Thursday's bombs are not believers in the separation of Church and State or in the desirability of free speech... It does not follow that the terrorists wish forcibly to transform this society into something even closer to their own ideal theocratic State. They are concerned with what they see as more immediate injustices, in Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq and other unhappy lands: something that Mr Blair is as reluctant to acknowledge as Mr George Bush is.'


The Sunday Times scoop is a leaked report, 'Young Muslims and Extremism', jointly compiled by the Home Office and the Foreign Office, and given to the Prime Minister last year. The newspaper notes that 'The Iraq war is identified by the dossier as a key cause of young Britons turning to terrorism.' (A topic discussed further below.)


Robert Winnett and David Leppard of the Sunday Times quote the report verbatim: 'It seems that a particularly strong cause of disillusionment among Muslims, including young Muslims, is a perceived ‘double standard’ in the foreign policy of western governments, in particular Britain and the US.'


'The perception is that passive "oppression", as demonstrated in British foreign policy, eg non-action on Kashmir and Chechnya, has given way to "active oppression". The war on terror, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, are all seen by a section of British Muslims as having been acts against Islam.'


Here is Tony Blair's own official research into the roots of al Qaeda in Britain, and it states explicitly and emphatically that the problem is British foreign policy. Not British freedom. Not British democracy. Not 'resentment' (despite Roger Scuton's ignorant remarks). The problem is Britain's 'active oppression' of Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere under the rubric of the 'war on terror'.


(Incidentally, the report as a whole - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4, in 2Mb portions - can be downloaded from the Sunday Times site. If it goes down there, we will load it onto the JNV site.)


The Link To Iraq


There is an entirely sensible article by Dilip Hiro in the Independent on Sunday today on this topic (page 30), in which he points out that Tony Blair was explicitly warned by the Joint Intelligence Committee before the war that invading would make Britain more likely to be attacked - as we discussed on Friday (see bottom of page). 'Like it or not, Mr Blair, what people will remember is that you listened to the advice you liked and ignored the rest. That is why London was bombed on Thursday. It isn't very complicated.'


John Rentoul in the Independent on Sunday today (page 27), writes, 'I would have thought it almost certain that last week's bombings were motivated by a desire to punish Britain for Iraq.' He goes on, 'At the very least, it cannot be possible to say categorically that they wree not, and Blair was patently uncomfortable doing precisely that on the Today programme yesterday.' (Listen to the Today programme interview here. John Rentoul's article can be bought here.)


However, Rentoul does not believe that changing policy, and withdrawing from Iraq, would make any difference to British security. He notes that the statement of responsibility issued by the hitherto-unknown 'Secret Organisation of al Qaeda in Europe' says that the attacks are 'in retaliation for the massacres Britain is committing in Iraq and Afghanistan'. Rentoul comments, 'if military action in Afghanistan is a cause of terrorism here, it is not as if we could have made ourselves safe - or make ourselves safe in future - simply by ducking out of Iraq... That is why Blair is on strong ground.'


There are three obvious comments to make. Firstly, no critic of the war in Iraq has suggested that withdrawal from Iraq will 'make Britain safe', merely that it will radically reduce the risk of terrorist attacks in Britain.


Secondly, the logic of Rentoul's argument is that British withdrawal from both Iraq and Afghanistan is needed to make a dramatic change in the risks facing Londoners and others in Britain. Withdrawal from Iraq alone would make some difference, but not as much as a dual withdrawal.


Thirdly, restricting our attention to the al Qaeda statement, Rentoul's analysis ignores the fact that the statement also warns Denmark and Italy in the following fashion: 'We continue to warn the governments of Denmark and Italy and all the Crusader governments that they will be punished in the same way if they do not withdraw their troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.' The statement, if genuine and if it can be interpreted as al Qaeda 'policy', states explicitly that withdrawal from these two countries is a way of avoiding future terrorist attacks. That is why Rentoul and Blair are on weak ground.


Rentoul goes on to dismiss the idea that 'al-Qa'ida is engaged in a military campaign in pursuit of negotiable objectives.' Please see the discussion in Friday's Media Review and the separate discussion of his claim that 'the bombings would have happened anyway'.


The Independent on Sunday editorial today says that despite opposing the invasion of Iraq, 'we acccept that British troops should not have been withdrawn from Iraq after the invasion and should not be withdrawn now,' despite the attacks in London. There is of course a difference between arguing that withdrawal from Iraq would make Britain safer, and arguing that withdrawal from Iraq is justified. The value of withdrawal to the British people and the value of withdrawal to the Iraqi people cannot be assumed to be identical.


However, in this case (as in many others) the safety of the British people is served by doing the right thing. British withdrawal from Iraq is a fundamental building block for creating a safe and vibrant Iraq, free from exploitation and violence. We should withdraw from Iraq because it is the right thing to do, and it so happens that this will also increase the security of the British people. (Having said this, withdrawal is only a necessary condition for Iraq's revival, not a sufficient one. Much, much more than British and US withdrawal will be needed for Iraq to escape a disastrous future.)


Al Qaeda - Not An 'Organization', But A Loose Network


The general impression of al Qaeda given in the mass media is of a mafia-like organization, with vertical lines of command, headed by a council of leaders and the supreme commander, Osama bin Laden. In fact, as Raymond Whitaker and Paul Lashmar report in the Independent today (page 7), this is far from being the case: 'even before it was disrupted by the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the arrest of many members of its inner circle, it was never an organisation with a clear hierarchical structure. It has always been as much an ideology as a tangible group.'


' "Trying to hit al Qa'ida is like trying to hit jelly," said one intelligence source. "One minute you think you know who is running it, and next minute you feel you have no idea." '


'Bin Laden himself, even before the attacks of 11 September 2001 turned him into a fugitive, was as much a figurehead as a strategist. Presumed to be hiding in the tribal borderlands straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan, communicating only by written notes and the occasional hand-delivered cassette or video tape, he is in no position to exert day-to-day control over terrorist attacks.'


Al Qaeda - Motivation, Objectives and Strategy


John Gray, who has written an ignorant and largely pointless book on the al Qaeda phenomenon, picks up on this point, describing the nature of al Qaeda as 'a brand name that covers an amorphous network of groups that are linked together mainly by their adherence to an apocalyptic version of Islamist ideology', rather than a centralized structure of command and control.


Drawing comparisons with US neo-Nazis (Timothy McVeigh and company), the Aum Shirinkyo cult and the 'anarchist practitioners of propaganda by the deed in the late 19th century', Gray argues that al Qaeda also holds the belief shared by all these groups that 'the old world was ending and a new one coming into being, whose arrival could be hastened by the systematic use of violence.'


This is another version of the 'al Qaeda has no demands' analysis. According to Gray, al Qaeda has a millenarian, apocalyptic agenda, concerned with total global transformation through violence.


Those who actually know something about al Qaeda, however, say explicitly that Osama bin Laden 'is a practical warrior, not an apocalyptic terrorist in search of Armageddon.’ According to Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit (1996-1999), the Saudi 'is out to drastically alter U.S. and Western policies toward the Islamic world, not necessarily to destroy America, much less its freedoms and liberties.' (Scheuer, writing as 'Anonymous', Imperial Hubris, p. xviii) (For more, see Briefing 77)


The Observer today has added to the burgeoning literature of commentators alleging that 'al Qaeda has no political demands'. Yahia Said, a Muslim, and a research fellow at the London School of Economics specialising in Iraq, has a piece entitled 'Asking why will dignify criminals', which says that 'These attacks are crimes against humanity perpetrated by psychopaths for whom murder is not a mean to an end but rather the end itself.' The editorial today, 'Why our enemies will fail', says 'What makes Islamic terrorism [sic] so problematic and menacing is that there are no representatives and no programme to deal with, only slogans of hate and death...'


The extremely well-informed foreign correspondent Jason Burke, who has written an excellent book on al Qaeda (of that name), has some rather odd and confused remarks to contribute in the same edition. While Burke has some cogent points to make on the possible future course of the al Qaeda insurgency, his remarks on the current attacks seem less sure footed.


On the one hand, 'With early "al-Qaeda" attacks, such as that on American embassies in 1998 and even 9/11 itself, the broad motivations of those responsible were clear. Bin Laden made his own agenda clear in a series of public statements. The Islamic world was under attack from a belligerent West set on the domination and humiliation of Muslims, he said, and it was every believer's religious duty to fight back. It was not a case of 'hating freedom', he claimed, but of desiring freedom from supposed American-led oppression. He repeatedly listed the various parts of the world - Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, Afghanistan and, latterly, Iraq - where he felt Muslims were oppressed.'


On the other hand, 'as bin Laden's grip has loosened, so the bombings have become more indiscriminate and the motives more difficult to perceive. The propaganda content of the strikes has fallen away. Commuters are symbolic of nothing more than the drudgery of going to work.'


Burke writes: 'Those behind the London attacks have no broader strategy.' In his view, the bombers 'believe there is a war between right and wrong, faith and falsehood, civilisation and barbarity and that all tactics are justified in the last-ditch struggle to defend what they believe in. They do not see London's population as civilians, but as accomplices to acts of murder and violence.'


There is a difference between 'strategy' and 'motivation'. Osama bin Laden and his inner circle do not now, and never have had much of a strategy for achieving their objectives. Hurting the United States and its allies, inciting others to carry out costly attacks, and provoking a backlash that will radicalise Muslims. These are rather 'broad' tactics, to be sure, but they do not amount to a fully-fledged strategy for achieving policy change.


It is true that the Embassy bombings in East Africa, the bombing of the USS Cole, and the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were all quite focussed on symbols of US power, and that more recent attacks from the network have been 'more indiscriminate' (as in Madrid, as in London).


However there is a difference between saying that the London bombers have less 'strategy' than Osama bin Laden's operations, and saying that they have no broader strategy. There is a difference between saying that the 'propaganda content' of the London bombings has fallen away, compared to 11 September, and saying that the 'motives' of al Qaeda attacks are becoming more difficult to perceive.


We know what the basic motivations for al Qaeda volunteers are, and these are precisely to do with US and British foreign policy as they affect Muslims around the world. (Those motivations are present in the case of the London bombings, if the claim of responsibility is to be beleived.) There is no reason to believe that those motivations have disappeared in regard to the London bombers. But this doesn't mean that they have a well-designed strategy.


'Motivation' is something that pushes you to taking a particular step. 'Strategy' is a plan for getting to a certain point along the way. It may be true that those behind the attack on London had no strategy for achieving their aim, but that does not mean that they are not also motivated, as least in part, by their anger and outrage at US policy towards the Palestinians, the Iraqs, and so on.


That motivation to carry out bombings can be removed or reduced. That is the key point Jason Burke obscures with this remarks.




In the past few days there have been arson attacks on mosques in, among other places, Leeds, the Wirral and Wellington, and an arson attack on a Sikh gurdwara in Kent. Justice Not Vengeance is calling on anti-war groups and others concerned with peace and justice to hold silent vigils of solidarity outside mosques and Muslim community organizations on Friday between 1pm and 2pm (the biggest prayers of the week).


The leaked document 'Young Muslims and Extremism', referred to above, also contains substantial government research into the position of Muslims in Britain, which discovered that, 'Muslims are three times more likely to be unemployed than the population as a whole; 52% of them are economically inactive (the highest of any faith group) and 16% have never worked or are long-term unemployed.' This is blamed in the report on a lack of education: 43% of Muslims have no qualifications.


An analysis carried out by an official at the Department for Work and Pensions, and revealed in a related document, said: 'The key to engaging this group (Muslims) in a positive way is, obviously, by reducing discrimination and promoting integration.' Sir John Gieve, permanent secretary at the Home Office, wrote in a secret letter to the Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull, 'We need... to address the roots of the problem which include discrimination, disadvantage and exclusion.'


Instead, we are now facing a police and security service crackdown on precisely the young Muslims who have suffered most from discrimination, disadvantage and exclusion.


For their part, in an unprecedented move, Muslim leaders are to issue a religious ruling that the attack on London was a breach of the fundamental tenets of Islam, reports the Independent today (page 5). 'Signed by dozens of prominent Muslim bodies, mosques, Islamic scholars and community groups, the MCB will also state that Muslims have a moral duty to help the police catch the perpetrators.'


Sir Iqbal Sacranie, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, said, 'Those behind this atrocity aren't just enemies of humanity but enemies of Islam and Muslims... It's important we don't feel we have to apologise for Thursday's attacks. We're not talking about Muslims here. We're talking about a bunch of nutters. The time has come to debunk the idea they are sanctioned by Islam.'


Zaiuddin Sardar has an excellent piece in the Independent on Sunday (page 28) about the position of Muslims after the London bombings, in which he writes,


'After the atrocity in London, Muslims have to try even harder to change how the "war on terror" has been defined and conceived.'

'What Britain has to learn at home will be the best yardstick to how its policy needs to change abroad. Can you on the one hand talk community engagement and inclusion while promoting draconian legislative measures that have caused a 300 per cent increase in stop and search of Muslims in London and while the fear of Belmarsh lurks?'

'Can you on the one hand talk peace negotiations in Palestine (which have not occurred) while on the other participating in a real war in the name of defeating terror that is creating new terrorists? Can Britain be all things to all people or must it decide which route it will follow consistently and purposefully for the future?'


Sardar argues that these questions are at the heart of building 'genuine and viable strategies for fighting terrorism.'



JNV welcomes feedback.

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This page last updated 10 July 2005






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