Since the Manchester atrocity a lifetime ago on Monday night, we can hear echoes of the Troubles every day. The elevation of suicide into martyrdom is a common theme but very differently enacted and very differently received; passively- aggressively by hunger strike thirty five years ago and bitterly dividing opinion to this day: aggressively only by the IED of militant jihad today; generally condemned except by their own but probably secretly admired by more than we care to acknowledge.
The second major difference is the political position of the communities that find themselves hosts to terrorism. Ambivalence and split loyalties are a shared feature of Muslim communities and both sides of our community during the Troubles. But Muslim communities are on the whole non-militant and strive to belong, if on their own terms. There are issues here of managing diversity that on the whole the UK seems to be managing better than France. The worst reactionaries in Britain are on the fringe of politics and are not strong enough to provoke full scale communal confrontation. The essential legitimacy of the state is not at issue. That partly accounts for why – so far, fingers crossed – the unity of peace expressions in Britain may prove more effective and long lasting than our peace initiatives ever were. It would be good hear praise -if praise is due – for the level of cooperation for these massive swoops from Muslim leaderships and Muslim praise for police good conduct. It will be major defeat if both sides end up more alienated.
The old familiar counterpoint of “clamping down” versus “ softly softly” is heard in the land. The authorities seem to be trying to roll up the jihadist cells throughout the country. Did it require an atrocity of such magnitude for informants to come forward? On the face of it, not. Tell tale clues were in plain sight as a few days of journalism has discovered. Alternatively was it the old problem of too much low level intelligence to digest even if resources were adequate, which is disputed?
Rather like the way the army’s hearts and minds campaign in the early days of the Troubles quickly collapsed under pressure of events in the streets, the Prevent agenda (£) is dividing opinion and needs to be recast, as an FT report suggests:
Prevent’s detractors, the failure to take action against genuinely dangerous individuals such as Abedi is the inevitable weakness of a strategy that casts its net too wide. Rizwaan Sabir, an academic specialising in counter-terrorism, says the authorities scrutinise Muslims who are merely choosing to identify with a conservative religious ideology. “The security services are preoccupied with so many different people that they just don’t have the resources to concentrate properly on those who are actually a threat — they can’t possibly do it all,” he says. Reports of misplaced interventions only fuel perceptions that Prevent is little more than a spying initiative. One Muslim student is said to have asked their physics teacher about nuclear fission and been referred to a counter-terrorism team as a result. A parliamentary inquiry also heard that some Muslim parents were afraid of discussing the negative effects of terrorism at home in case their children brought the issue up at school and their conversations were misunderstood..
The amorphous Muslim leadership and local government need to work harder not to allow their communities to become little states within the state cherishing an illusion of self sufficiency, as ours became. While accepting this should lift some of the pressure from Muslim communities, will it encourage them to a speak out more when media attention is not focused on them?
Patrick Cockburn of the Independent is one of clearest sighted analysts of the Middle East since 9/11. He is particularly unsparing of cherished nostrums such as Blairite illusions that Salman Abedi’s attack has “nothing to do with Islam.” For parallels we have to go back to the 16th and 17th century wars of religion in Europe, of which our own situation is a tiny remnant.
Cockburn’s piece in the Independent is a passionate denunciation not of Western imperialism but Western illusions. He insists that terrorism and militant religion are connected. The bombers seem to rely even more on international links than the IRA did on the States and arms buying sprees in Europe and yes! – Gadaffi’s Libya. However the volume, range and quality of the arms of the English jihadists seems smaller and far less sophisticated than the guns the Franco-Belgian cells acquired over the last few years, much less than what the IRA managed over thirty years.
The real causes of “radicalisation” have long been known, but the government, the BBC and others seldom if ever refer to it because they do not want to offend the Saudis or be accused of anti-Islamic bias. It is much easier to say, piously but quite inaccurately, that Isis and al-Qaeda and their murderous foot soldiers “have nothing to do with Islam”. This has been the track record of US and UK governments since 9/11. They will look in any direction except Saudi Arabia when seeking the causes of terrorism.
President Trump has been justly denounced and derided in the US for last Sunday accusing Iran and, in effect, the Shia community of responsibility for the wave of terrorism that has engulfed the region when it ultimately emanates from one small but immensely influential Sunni sect. One of the great cultural changes in the world over the last 50 years is the way in which Wahhabism, once an isolated splinter group, has become an increasingly dominant influence over mainstream Sunni Islam, thanks to Saudi financial support.
The culpability of Western governments for terrorist attacks on their own citizens is glaring but is seldom even referred to. Leaders want to have a political and commercial alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil states. They have never held them to account for supporting a repressive and sectarian ideology which is likely to have inspired Salman Abedi. Details of his motivation may be lacking, but the target of his attack and the method of his death is classic al-Qaeda and Isis in its mode of operating.
The reason these two demonic organisations were able to survive and expand despite the billions – perhaps trillions – of dollars spent on “the war on terror” after 9/11 is that those responsible for stopping them deliberately missed the target and have gone on doing so. After 9/11, President Bush portrayed Iraq not Saudi Arabia as the enemy; in a re-run of history President Trump is ludicrously accusing Iran of being the source of most terrorism in the Middle East. This is the real 9/11 conspiracy, beloved of crackpots worldwide, but there is nothing secret about the deliberate blindness of British and American governments to the source of the beliefs that has inspired the massacres of which Manchester is only the latest – and certainly not the last – horrible example.
Shaky regimes from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan have made their own contradictory accommodations with the jihadist movements they both attack and finance. If the west withdraws support, what happens if they collapse?
Jeremy Corbyn has just told us “ the war on terror is not working.” Hardly a new discovery but what would he do? Get round the table and negotiate? What now, and about what?
The longtime peace campaigner and former chair of the Stop the War coalition also made a direct promise to troops that under a Labour government they would only be sent into combat abroad if they were properly resourced, there was a clear need for military intervention, and a plan for lasting peace afterwards.
Nice talk but it begs a lot of questions. Andrew Neil will play scenarios with him tonight at 7 pm. Should be worth watching
It is mendacious to try to sanitise our overheated and jingoistic response to domestic terrorism by pretending that it is unrelated to British foreign policy. It was we who made the link, and before the terrorists did.
But we used the language of “shock and awe” in bombing Baghdad in 2003. We gave the current era of Islamist terrorism a cause, a reason, an excuse, however perverted. We committed armed aggression against sovereign peoples who had not attacked us.
Politicians who exploit moments of public tragedy play a risky game. Whether Corbyn was tactful to return to the election campaign by citing Manchester is moot: he would have been wise to wait a few days. But Islamist terrorism is related to foreign policy. However hateful it may seem to us, it is a means to a political end. Sometimes it is as well to call a spade a spade.
It is also a reminder that terrorism, however repulsive its growth, has roots in rational complaints and causes. Perhaps the Northern Ireland parallels have not run out altogether.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London