MCR: Living in the real world - terrorism is connected to foreign policy

Blog by Milan Rai
Image: Haditha by Emily Johns

After dozens of civilians are killed by suicide bombing in a large British city, a major opposition politician speaks up linking the atrocity to British foreign policy. There is a short-lived storm of controversy.

This sequence describes not only the aftermath of the Manchester Arena atrocity on 22 May 2017, but also events after the four suicide bombings that killed 52 people in London on 7 July 2005 (an attack also referred to as '7/7').

The major opposition figure who spoke up in 2005 was not Jeremy Corbyn, now leader of the Labour party, but former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer and former home secretary Ken Clarke, as he began his bid to become leader of the Conservative party. In a bold move, Clarke devoted his leadership campaign launch speech on 1 September 2005 to a long and thoughtful consideration of terrorism and what could be done about it. He began by making the connection between the threat of al-Qa'eda-style terrorism in the UK and British foreign policy:

'The disastrous decision to invade Iraq has made Britain a more dangerous place. The war did not create the danger of Islamic terrorism in this country, which had been growing internationally even before the tragedy of the attacks on 9/11. However the decision by the UK government to become the leading ally of president Bush in the Iraq debacle has made Britain one of the foremost targets for Islamic extremists.'

This insight, that aggressive British foreign policy has increased the risk of terror attacks in the UK, could be called 'foreign policy realism'. Realism in this sense does not justify or excuse the use of violence, or the targeting of civilians. It's about understanding, not condoning. Realism is a recognition of a risk factor that affects how vulnerable some young Muslims are to jihadist propaganda and recruitment.

Realism has been expressed, as we shall see below, by top British counter-terror police and intelligence experts, by the home office and foreign office in a joint secret report on the subject, and by official government advisers. Foreign policy realism is also the view of most British people, as polls have repeatedly shown - seven are given below, from 2005, 2006 and 2017. The link with foreign policy has also been stated clearly by two of the suicide attackers who have killed civilians in Britain.

Given that it is the view of most ordinary people, it's been claimed by terrorists themselves, and it is something of a consensus among those responsible for counter-terror policies, it is extraordinary that foreign policy realism has been excluded so firmly from the mainstream mass media, and generally from mainstream party politics as well. This is more evidence confirming Noam Chomsky's Propaganda Model of the mainstream media.

Clarke's speech

It may be worth reproducing some extracts from Ken Clarke's 1 September 2005 speech to show what British politicians can be capable of, including leading Conservatives. Clarke said in his long speech to the Foreign Press Association:

'The problem of our relationship with the Muslim community both internationally and domestically is now one of the major political problems that British governments are going to have to face for many years to come. There will be more terrorist outrages and more international crises before anyone can hope to resolve it. Having made one catastrophic error in putting our troops into Iraq we must seek to avoid further mistakes at home and abroad....

'If the prime minister really believes it, he must be the only person left who thinks that the recent bombs in London had no connection at all with his policy in Iraq....

'The government is also now seeking to blame our problems on the behaviour of extremist preachers in our midst. I support the expulsion of some of these vile propagandists from this country so long as the courts can be satisfied of their guilt of the crimes they are charged with.... But the public and the media should not be persuaded by the spin from No 10 that "mad mullahs" are the most important creators of the dangers we face. They are one of the symptoms of the problem rather than the cause of it. No amount of preaching in itself ever made any person turn to the barbaric practice of suicide bombing. They foment and support an extreme and fanatic sense of injustice and a crazed drive for revenge that takes root in the minds of a small number of young people for other reasons....

'You cannot defeat terrorism just through security. It is a priority issue for our foreign policy and it is wrong to pretend that our foreign policy is a completely separate subject, unrelated to terrorism in Britain. The roots of our present terrorism lie in the Middle East and in a series of conflicts around the world. We cannot solve these problems on our own but Britain does have a role to play in seeking peaceful resolutions to them.....

'The problem is made worse by the government's claims about the links between our involvement in Iraq and the events of July this year. Sensible members of the public know perfectly well that misjudgements over Iraq have made the UK a more dangerous place for its citizens. The public knows it; politicians should have the courage to say so. After all, the government was warned by the joint intelligence committee before British troops invaded Iraq that the threat from al-Qaida and its associated groups would be heightened by military action against Iraq.'

We will turn to the JIC warning below. This speech by Clarke, which warned against knee-jerk changes in legislation (he had been home secretary), remains a landmark in British foreign policy realism.

2005: an outbreak of realism

Clarke's speech was not the first by a British politician to make the foreign policy link after the London bombings. George Galloway, then a left-wing Labour MP, connected the 7/7 attacks to British foreign policy on the very day of the suicide bombings, speaking in the house of commons.

Right-wing journalist and former editor of the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings followed suit on the day after the attacks, writing in the Daily Mail:

'We knew it was coming. In our hearts, every thinking person in Britain has known that Al Qaeda would launch a terrorist attack in this country. The price for being America's foremost ally, for joining President Bush's Iraq adventure, was always likely to be paid in London, in innocent blood.'

The leader of the Lib Dems, Charles Kennedy, didn't go quite so far four days later, on 12 July, but he came close to a realist position:

'... the terrorist certainly will not shrink from using Iraq to increase resentment and as fodder for recruitment.... The way we went to war in the first place, as well as the mismanagement of the aftermath, have fuelled the conditions in which terrorism flourishes.... I am not here implying some causal link between Britain's involvement in Iraq and the terrible terrorist attacks in London last week. Not at all.'

Tories say it

In 2005, five leading figures in the Conservative party, almost all former ministers, publicly and unequivocally signed up to a realist interpretation linking terrorism with British foreign policy. In chronological order, they were: Boris Johnson, Douglas Hurd, Ken Clarke, Stephen Dorrell, and Norman Lamont.

On 17 July 2005, Boris Johnson (then just a Tory MP, now Conservative foreign secretary) wrote five days after Kennedy's speech, and just 10 days after the 7/7 attacks:

'It is difficult to deny that they have a point, the Told-You-So brigade.... In other words, the Iraq war did not create the problem of murderous Islamic fundamentalists, though the war has unquestionably sharpened the resentments felt by such people in this country, and given them a new pretext. The Iraq war did not introduce the poison into our bloodstream but, yes, the war did help to potentiate that poison.'

Recently, Johnson pretended to be outraged by Jeremy Corbyn's remarks about terrorism and British foreign policy: 'now is not the time.... I find it absolutely extraordinary and inexplicable in this week of all weeks that there should be any attempt to justify or to legitimate the actions of terrorists in this way'. Corbyn's mistake was that he did not wait until the week after the terrorist attack.

Following Johnson, on 27 July 2005, Douglas Hurd, former foreign secretary, became the next major Conservative figure to speak up:

'For a couple of days after the bombings in London, it was thought bad taste to mention Iraq. Then, first Charles Kennedy and then the Chatham House think tank [see below] broke the unnatural taboo. Now the subject is out of the box and the Prime Minister [Labour's Tony Blair], despite his efforts this week, cannot put it back in again.

'No sane person is making excuses for the London bombers. No one is saying that the al-Qa'ida brand of terrorism started because of the invasion of Iraq. No one is saying we could make ourselves safe by pulling our troops out of Iraq. The point being made is obvious and true, however unwelcome to ministers. The likelihood of young Muslims, whether in Britain or elsewhere, being attracted to terrorism was increased by our action in Iraq.

'We attacked a Muslim country on grounds which turned out to be empty. We broke international law. We faced no serious threat from Saddam Hussein and received no authority from the Security Council. We brought about the deaths of thousands of innocent Iraqis.'

Hurd declared: 'the urgent need is to negotiate an end to the violence, not with the suicide bombers, but with those on whom the bombers rely for support.'

After Ken Clarke's realist leadership launch speech on 1 September, former Tory health secretary Stephen Dorrell agreed that it was absurd to deny that the Iraq war had made Britain more vulnerable to terrorist attack: 'Of course that is true. Who do they think they are kidding?'

In The Times, on 5 September 2005, Norman Lamont, former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, expressed his support for Clarke's stand, and took it further:

'Mr Clarke was right to call the war “a disastrous decision”. It is remarkable that this needs to be said at all. Iraq has been this country’s biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez, has made Britain and the world a more dangerous place, and yet has hardly been criticised at all by the Conservative Party.'

Lamont wasn't content to join Clarke in connecting the invasion of Iraq with the 7/7 attacks, he called on Clarke to press for British withdrawal from Iraq:

'On one point however, Mr Clarke may be wrong, and may find himself outflanked even by the Americans. He believes it would be “immoral to walk away”, and that we should not pull the troops out. Much the same was said about Vietnam.... Without a stated intention to withdraw, Iraqis may never be ready or willing to take control of their country.'

The police say it

After the 7/7 London bombings, British police involved in counter-terrorism made an intense effort to understand why some Muslims were turning to violence.

They drew up a report, leaked to the Guardian (7 July 2006), which contained this headline over a crucial section:

'Foreign policy and Iraq; Iraq HAS had a huge impact.'

The report went on:

'What will change them [the jihadists] - gradually - is argument, the removal of justifying causes (Palestine, Iraq), the erosion of perverted beliefs and day-to-day frustrations.'

Intelligence says it

Before the invasion of Iraq, on 10 February 2003, the top body in British intelligence, the joint intelligence committee (JIC), reported to Tony Blair:

'The JIC assessed that al-Qaida and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq.'

This report was quoted by Boris Johnson and many of the other politicians who expressed a realist position in 2005.

Just weeks before the 7/7 attacks, Britain's co-ordinating body for counter-terrorism, the joint terrorism analysis centre (JTAC) noted:

'events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist-related activity in the UK'.

In July 2005, MI5 said on its website:

'Though they have a range of aspirations and "causes", Iraq is a dominant issue for a range of extremist groups and individuals in the UK and Europe.'

The civil service says it

Earlier, a secret high-level Whitehall review produced a report entitled 'Young Muslims and Extremism'. (The report was published in the Sunday Times on 10 July 2005, it is available on

This joint home office/foreign office investigation with intelligence input identified British foreign policy as a key motive for involvement in terrorism:

'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.'

As part of the process of writing 'Young Muslims and Extremism', Michael Jay (the top civil servant at the foreign office or FCO) wrote to Andrew Turnbull (the prime minister's cabinet secretary, the most senior civil servant in the UK) on 18 May 2004. Here is a three-paragraph excerpt from Jay's letter:

'Other colleagues have flagged up some of the potential underlying causes of extremism that can affect the Muslim community, such as discrimination, disadvantage and exclusion. But another recurring theme is the issue of British foreign policy, especially in the context of the Middle East Peace Process and Iraq.

'Experience of both Ministers and officials working in this area suggests that the issue of British foreign policy and the perception of its negative effect on Muslims globally plays a significant role in creating feelings of anger and impotence amongst especially the younger generation of British Muslims. The concept of the "Ummah", i.e. that the Believers are one "nation", has led to HMG's policies towards the Muslim world having a very personal resonance for young British Muslims, many of whom are taking on the burden both of the perceived injustices and of the responsibility of putting them right, but without the legitimate tools to do so.

'This seems to be a key driver behind recruitment by extremist organisations (e.g. recruitment drives by groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and al Muhajiroon). The FCO has a relevant and crucial role to play in the wider context of engagement with British Muslims on policy issues, and more broadly, in convincing young Muslims that they have a legitimate and credible voice, including on foreign policy issues, through an active participation in the democratic process.'

The bombers say it

Two of the 7/7 bombers left behind video statements. Mohammed Sidique Khan said:

'Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight.'

Shehzad Tanweer said:

'What you have witnessed now is only the beginning of a series of attacks, which by the Grace of Allah, will intensify and continue until you pull all of your troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq... You will never experience peace until our children in Palestine, our mothers and sisters in Kashmir, our brothers in Afghanistan and Iraq feel peace.'

Official advisers say it

In September 2005, the government's own Muslim task force identified British foreign policy as a cause of terrorism in the UK, and asked for a public inquiry into 7/7 which would examine 'the role of foreign policy in radicalising the terrorists.'

The respected Chatham House thinktank reported on 18 July 2005:

'The UK is at particular risk [from al Qa'eda] because it is the closest ally of the United States, has deployed armed forces in the military campaigns to topple the Taleban regime in Afghanistan and in Iraq.... There is no doubt that the situation over Iraq has imposed particular difficulties for the UK.... Riding pillion with a powerful ally has proved costly in terms of British and US military lives, Iraqi lives, military expenditure, and the damage caused to the counter-terrorism campaign.'

The British people say it

On 30 May 2017, polling organisation YouGov found 53 per cent of people in Britain supported Corbyn's view that foreign policy is a cause of terrorism in the UK - more than twice the proportion who think foreign policy plays no role (24 per cent).

YouGov also found 55 per cent of Britons also thought it was wrong to intervene in Iraq in 2003, while 44 per cent and 43 per cent thought it was wrong to enter Libya and Afghanistan respectively.

Survation on 30 May 2017 found a plurality for realism; three times more people were realistic about foreign policy than were in denial:

The UK’s military involvements abroad increase the risk of terror incidents in this country Agree: 46 percent
The UK’s military involvements abroad decrease the risk of terror incidents in this country Agree: 14 percent
The UK’s military involvements abroad make no difference Agree: 30 percent
Don't know 10 percent

Here are some polls from 2005, just after the 7/7 attacks, giving the proportion of British people who believed that the Iraq war was one of the causes of 7/7: 

Guardian poll (July 2005): 64 percent

BBC Newsnight poll (October 2005): 73 percent

Daily Mirror poll (July 2005): 85 percent

Here's a poll conducted for the Times in September 2006:

'The British government's foreign policy - especially its support for the invasion of Iraq and refusal to demand an immediate ceasefire by Israel in the recent war against Hezbollah in Lebanon - has significantly increased the risk of terrorist attacks on Britain.' Agree: 73 percent

'In order to reduce the risk of future terrorist attacks on Britain the government should change its foreign policy - in particular by distancing itself from America, being more critical of Israel and declaring a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq.' Agree: 62 percent

'Even though there is no justification for terrorism, the British government's foreign policy, especially towards Iraq and the recent attacks on Lebanon by Israel, is anti-Muslim and it is understandable that many Muslims are offended by it.' Agree: 52 percent

A poll of 64 large businesses by the Financial Times in September 2005 found '83% of respondents felt the war with Iraq had increased the terrorist threat'.

Experts say it

The latest terrorism expert quoted on this subject in the British press is 'Michael Dantinne, a Belgian criminologist, [who] said that Britain was being hit because of its "involvement in a whole series of military and diplomatic operations which have made it a choice target'. (Times, 6 June 2017, p15)

Richard Barrett, formerly director of MI6's global counter-terrorism operations, wrote on 24 May:

'There are millions who object to Western foreign policies but will never become terrorists. We need to understand what drives some into violence.'

Barrett was quoted elsewhere the same day:

'One of the things about violent extremism today is that although the actors are local the broader community and the grievances that are drawn on have no borders.'

Michael Scheuer, 22 years in the CIA, headed the CIA's bin Laden task force from 1996-1999:

'We in the United States and the West make a mistake when we argue... that bin Laden's attacks are "not aimed at reversing any specific US foreign policy," or... that bin Laden has "no discrete set of negotiable political demands".' (Through Our Enemies' Eyes, p256)

Scheuer argued that Osama bin Laden had 'clear, focused, limited and widely popular foreign policy goals'. These included:

'the end of US aid to Israel and the ultimate elimination of that state; the removal of US and Western forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim lands; the end of US support for the oppression of Muslims by Russia, China, and India; the end of US protection for repressive, apostate regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, et cetera; and the conservation of the Muslim world's energy resources and their sale at higher prices.' (Imperial Hubris, pxviii)

'None of the reasons have anything to do with our freedom, liberty and democracy, but have everything to do with US policies and actions in the Muslim world.' (Imperial Hubris, px)

We can't assume that the motivations that drove bin Laden and al-Qa'eda are exactly the same as those that drive Islamic State or other jihadist groups attacking the west, but the indications are that they are very similar.

This includes the testimony of the Manchester bomber's sister, who suggested on 25 May:

'I think he saw children - Muslim children - dying everywhere, and wanted revenge. He saw the explosives America drops on children in Syria, and he wanted revenge.'

As we have seen, a realist view of British policies and actions in the Muslim world is shared by the British public, by counter-terror experts in the police and intelligence services, by government advisers, by the home office and foreign office and by major Conservative party figures - and it has been stated by some of the terrorists themselves. Once again, it is extraordinary that foreign policy realism has been excluded so rigorously from the mainstream mass media, yet more confirmation of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman's Propaganda Model of the mainstream media.