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Terror: if we don’t understand it, we can’t stop it

If we want a safer country, we need a less violent foreign policy, argues Milan Rai

As the world reflects on the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks in Washington DC and New York, we face a choice. We can try to understand what motivates people to carry out jihadist attacks, which might give us a chance of preventing them from happening again. Alternatively, we can close our eyes and refuse to discuss possible causes, which rules out the possibility of effective preventive action – which means more people will die.

Here in Britain, there is a sort of secret national consensus. Britain’s wars abroad increase the risk of terror attacks at home. The public knows it. Boris Johnson knows it. The police and security services know it. (Evidence of all this is given below.)

The problem is that this common sense truth can’t be said in respectable company. It is largely excluded from the mainstream media.

There is a source of evidence that is also generally excluded from the media: the terrorists themselves. We don’t always know what motivated al-Qa’eda/ISIS-type attackers to carry out their atrocities, but there are many attacks in the UK where we do know something.

The point of this painful list is not to suggest that there is any justification for these brutal acts of homegrown terrorism. There is no justification.

"Here in Britain, there is a sort of secret national consensus."

The point of turning our eyes in this direction is to counter the self-censorship and denial that gets in the way of preventing further terrorism and saving lives.

2005: Four men – three born and all raised in Yorkshire – carried out four separate suicide bombings in Central London on 7 July. They killed 52 people.

Two of the bombers left behind video statements. Shehzad Tanweer said: ‘You will never experience peace until our children in Palestine, our mothers and sisters in Kashmir, our brothers in Afghanistan and Iraq feel peace.’

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.’

2013: On 22 May, two British-born men killed an off-duty British soldier Lee Rigby, 25, in Woolwich, South London, by driving a car at him and then knifing him.

One of the killers, Ismail Ibn Abdullah, formerly Michael Adebowale, explained himself to a passerby moments after the murder. Ingrid Loyau-Kennett described the conversation later: ‘He told me he was a British soldier, and he killed him. So I said, “Why?” “Because they drop bombs, the British army purposely drop bombs on civilians in Islamic countries. So it was to avenge all these victims, female and children.”’

The other attacker, Mujahid Abu Hamza, formerly Michael Adebolajo, told the jury in his murder trial: ‘It was the Iraq war that affected me the most. I saw Operation Shock and Awe and it disgusted me. The way it was reported was as if it was praiseworthy, saying. “Look at the might and awe of the West and America.” Every one of those bombs was killing people.’

2017: On 22 March, British-born Khalid Masood drove a car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in London. He inflicted lethal injuries on four people: Kurt Cochran, 54; Andreea Cristea, 31; Aysha Frade, 44; and Leslie Rhodes, 75. Masood then ran into the grounds of the Westminster parliament and stabbed an unarmed police officer, Keith Palmer, 48, to death.

The security services later recovered a message sent by Masood through WhatsApp just before the attack: ‘the 52-year-old Muslim convert had declared that he was waging jihad in revenge against Western military action in Muslim countries in the Middle East.’ (Independent, 27 April 2017)

2017: On 22 May, Manchester-born suicide bomber Salman Abedi killed 22 people with a rucksack bomb in the Manchester Arena after an Ariana Grande concert. Over 1,000 people were injured, many seriously. Ten of the dead were 19 or younger.

A few days after the attack, Abedi’s sister, Jomana Abedi, told the Wall Street Journal: ‘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.’

2017: On 3 June, three terrorists led by Pakistani-born Khuram Butt drove a van into pedestrians on London Bridge in Central London and then began stabbing people. They killed eight people.

Butt’s brother, Saad Butt, was involved in countering terrorist ideas as a member of the Young Muslims Advisory Group. Saad Butt was also part of the government’s Prevent counter-radicalisation programme. ‘Questioned as to why he thought his brother had carried out the atrocity, [Saad] Butt answered: “Foreign policy,” adding: “We were from the same womb but we were different brothers.”’ (Guardian, 7 June 2019)

2019: On 29 November, British-born Usman Khan, released after serving a sentence for terror offences, stabbed two people to death in Fishmongers’ Hall, Central London, at a conference on prisoner rehabilitation he had been invited to attend.

"If we want a safer country, we need a less violent foreign policy."

It’s not known what motivated Khan to murder Saskia Jones, 23, and Jack Merritt, 25. However, according to prosecutors in his 2012 trial, Khan was motivated to join a jihadist conspiracy in 2010 by online propaganda, especially ‘the teachings of the American-born ideologue, Anwar al-Awlaki’.

In 44 Ways to Support Jihad, al-Awlaki wrote: ‘In times like these, when Muslim lands are occupied by the kuffar [non-believers in Islam], when the jails of tyrants are full of Muslim POWs, when the rule of the law of Allah is absent from this world and when Islam is being attacked in order to uproot it, Jihad becomes obligatory on every Muslim.’

The writings of al-Awlaki are likely to have influenced all of the attackers on this very painful list.

What we see, time and again, is that British foreign policy has been a major cause of jihadist terrorism. Recognising this doesn’t justify the terror attacks, just as understanding the roots of white nationalism doesn’t justify racist attacks.

National consensus

Just after the 7 July 2005 attacks in London, three opinion polls found large majorities of people in the UK believed that the Iraq war was one of the causes of 7/7: 64 percent (Guardian, July); 85 percent (Daily Mirror, July); 73 percent (BBC Newsnight, October)

More recently, in May 2017, YouGov found that 53 per cent of people in Britain supported Jeremy Corbyn’s view that foreign policy is a cause of terrorism in the UK. Only 24 percent thought foreign policy played no role.

Several Conservative politicians showed some foreign policy realism in 2005 about the causes of jihadi terror: former home secretary Ken Clarke, former health secretary Stephen Dorrell, former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd and former chancellor of the exchequer Norman Lamont.

Just 10 days after the 7/7 attacks, on 17 July 2005, Boris Johnson MP wrote in the Spectator: ‘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.’ (The Oxford Dictionary says ‘to potentiate’ means to ‘increase the power, effect, or likelihood of something’.)

Johnson, and several other Tory politicians just mentioned, quoted British intelligence. Before the invasion of Iraq, on 10 February 2003, the top body in British intelligence, the joint intelligence committee (JIC), reported to the then prime minister, 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.’

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’.

A ‘foreign policy realism’ 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 and by major Conservative party figures (including the current prime minister) – and it is borne out by the statements of many of the terrorists themselves.

If we want a safer country, we need a less violent foreign policy.

Milan Rai is the author of 7/7: The London Bombings, Islam and the Iraq War (Pluto, 2006) and Chomsky’s Politics (Verso, 1995).

Topics: Terrorism | 9/11