More impotent fearmongering
Ten years after the July 7 bombings, our rulers have learned nothing, writes Paul Demarty
It may have gone out of fashion some time in the last century, but when one writes an article about terrorism, it is more necessary than ever to define one’s terms at the outset.
Terrorism is the use of military methods not in order to score direct military victories against one’s enemies, but to influence in one way or another the civilian population at large. The nature of the desired influence varies wildly from case to case; the prima facie uselessness of the immediate military objectives does not. Consider, for instance, the murder of Lee Rigby. It is not an efficient military strategy to kill British soldiers one by one with hand weapons in dense urban areas. But, of course, that is not the point.
We restate the basics because there is an awful lot of hot air going around regarding terrorism, for a number of reasons. Tuesday was the 10th anniversary of the July 7 London bombings; ‘never forget!’ cry the high priests of British national chauvinism, a caste with a singularly selective memory. As if to mark the occasion, the Tunisian jihadist, SeifiddineRezguiYacoubi, ran amok in a tourist resort, murdering 38 people during the course of his rampage, 30 of whom were British. Another such individual conducted an armed assault on a factory in Lyon, leaving a headless corpse in his wake. Meanwhile, it emerged that two missing teenagers from Bethnal Green had married Islamic State fighters in Syria, following a pre-existing pattern.
To this already gruesome coincidence, we should add the unfolding of the new government’s latest sallies in the direction of ‘anti-extremism’ policy. Theresa May wishes to force universities to seek pre-approval of external speakers’ talks, on the grounds of preventing ‘hate-preachers’ from influencing impressionable young adults. The goal is to ram-raid this through parliament before the summer recess, so it can be safely imposed on campus in time for September freshers’ fairs. More generally, the home office is attempting to ban ‘extremist’ groups from public speech, even suggesting a reprise of the moronic 1980s broadcast ban against members of Sinn Féin.
Schoolteachers are, likewise, to have their ‘safeguarding’ duties extended to include monitoring for radicalisation, in legislation already passed. There is also the matter of David Cameron’s proposed ban on secure encryption, which creaks towards the statute books, in spite of everything.
Between these two sevenths of July, there has been a long decade during which counter-terrorism has become the raison d’être for the military and security apparatuses of the British state, along with their counterparts in much of the west. In 2005, we were more than two years into the ‘mission accomplished’ phase of the Iraq war; the poisonous situation that has issued, ultimately, in today’s Middle Eastern chaos was just beginning to simmer.
It was this situation to which Mohammed Sidique Khan and his confrères referred in justification for their bloody assault on London commuters. Indeed, this has been a recurring pattern of such incidences since: the expanding scope and increasing bloodiness of the ‘war on terror’ is cited by young Islamist militants as formative in their development. “This British soldier is an eye for an eye,” declared Michael Adebolajo as he stood over the carcass of Lee Rigby. Even the perpetrators of the Paris shootings earlier this year - whose targets had neither started nor cheer-led any wars - had previously stated in court that it was the murderous chaos inflicted on the Middle East that led them to their own conclusions.
That is the ‘negative’ side of the jihadist decision - the business to which zealous militants object. The ‘positive’ side - the shining examples they seek to emulate, once al Qa’eda and now IS - springs from the same source. Successive military interventions in the region have had not the result predicted by the neoconservatives at the outset - the development of strong states in the model of contemporary liberal constitutionalism - but of wholesale disaggregation and fragmentation.
Iraq has never enjoyed more than very brief periods of uneasy peace since 2003; it, like many other countries in the region, has become a site for proxy warfare between elements of the Saudi and Iranian regimes, which are both fuelled by and exacerbate existing ethnic and sectarian tensions. The US and its immediate allies have found themselves paralysed: continuing to back the Saudi regime makes fighting the likes of IS more or less impossible; aligning with Iran is off the table, given the bases of US power in the region. Western policy, not out of malice so much as this paralysis, has led to the current situation in Iraq, and almost certainly artificially prolonged the Syrian civil war to a point where it is more or less unwinnable for either side (if, indeed, we could talk of ‘two sides’ at this point).
In this situation, groups such as IS and al Qa’eda thrive. The latter was always a terrorist organisation in a very straightforward sense, as defined above - its entire strategy was based around spectacular acts of violence. The chaos in Iraq, Syria and Yemen has allowed it to militarise in a more conventional sense, however - al Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula, Jabbhat al-Nusra in Syria and so on are organisations of not inconsiderable military significance. IS is the culmination of this, exercising some degree of control over substantial territory.
Its masterstroke was to focus not so much on encouraging sympathisers in the imperialist heartlands to travel to warzones, but calling on them to organise ‘actions’ in their own countries. The apparent success of IS, along with its brutally obvious intransigence, makes it an attractive flag of allegiance for certain alienated Muslim youth; but it also legitimates bloody individual initiatives in a way the more closely organised cells of al Qa’eda never did. To ask whether the likes of Adebolajo and Yacoubi are ‘lone wolves’ or organised terrorists is to miss the point: the nature of IS allows them to be both.
None of this can be acknowledged by the ruling class, whose commitment to US military hegemony, even as its ability to construct stable state regimes deserts it, cannot be shaken. There must be something wrong with these people - they cannot simply be making an (unpalatable) political choice based on available information. They must be callous, monstrous, psychopathic; they cannot at all be like us.
This incomprehension has characterised the recent history of counter-terrorist and counter-‘extremist’ policy in Britain. Aside from tabloid-led crackdowns on ‘hate groups’, the best that has been managed is the Tony Blair government’s Prevent strategy, focused at funnelling money into Muslim ‘community organisations’ and mosques, in return for assistance in keeping likely recruits in check, and offering them a ‘moderate’ (or at least ‘non-violent’) version of Islam in place of jihadism. Of course, this has hardly had the desired result: alienated young Muslims are no more likely to listen to a paid-off imam than to Jack Straw, when it comes to Middle East politics. The dubious character of some organisations in receipt of Prevent funds has caused scandals; not so much the obvious stupidity of the whole enterprise.
The striking poverty of Blair’s approach is more than matched by that of Cameron’s government. Theresa May’s university proposals were inspired by the revelation that IS militant Mohamed Emwazi - aka ‘Jihadi John’ - had attended Westminster University; are they suggesting that his path to Syria would have been blocked had he gone to Royal Holloway, or become an apprentice plumber? This is the age of the internet: all the world’s bloodthirsty creeds, from white supremacy to insurrectionary Wahabbism, are a couple of clicks away. Likewise the schools policy, which treats radical Islamism almost as if it was a learning difficulty of some sort, in need of ‘early intervention’, rather than a political choice.
As for bans on extremist organisations, it is worth noting that the home office definition of ‘extremism’ is both tediously familiar and illuminating:
The vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also regard calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist.
A cursory examination reveals not a well-defined concept, but a meaningless grab-bag of things that have incensed legislators. What on earth does hostility to the armed forces have to do with “tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”? How broadly will this law be applied? All are considerations that must be sacrificed to the need to ‘do something’ - and be seen to be doing something.
Of Cameron’s encryption proposals, enough has been said already - by myself included (see ‘Technology and terror’, January 22). It will suffice to repeat, here, that cryptography is merely a branch of mathematics. His policy, consequently, is as ridiculous as the attempt of Indiana legislators to fix the value of Π at 3.2 in 1897. The secure algorithms already uncovered by cryptographers will continue to work, even if ordinary working stiffs like your correspondent are legally barred from using them. Those prepared to engage in mass murder are unlikely to recoil from implementing a well established crypto algorithm. To do so, they need only recruit one competent computer science graduate: perhaps Cameron ought to ban that too, or at least take it off the Westminster syllabus.
The encryption fiasco is probably the best illustration of how utterly desperate our rulers have become in the face of what is, after all, hardly an existential threat to capitalist society. Let us be frank: the numbers of people killed in terrorist attacks, even under the most expansive and meaningless definitions of terrorism, are trivial in the grand scheme of things. Nations have recovered from famines and wars of truly apocalyptic proportions - catastrophes that make 9/11 look like a grazed knee.
As is often the case in the epoch of capitalism’s decline and decrepitude, it is difficult to gauge how much our betters actually believe their own bullshit. The best sense has, bizarrely enough, been talked by current and former counter-terrorist bureaucrats. Richard Quick, formerly head of counter-terrorism at the Metropolitan Police, has suggested that those who wish to leave to fight for IS should simply be allowed to do so - provided they surrender their British passports - so that they do not simply lash out here. MI5 director general Andrew Parker marked the 7/7 anniversary by conceding that “we simply can’t find and stop every terrorist plot. We could not have prevented 7/7.”
Treating such occasional atrocities as simply an operating cost of society is, indeed, the only sensible route - so long as we remain stuck with a social order where some nations prosper and others are, by perverse and inescapable necessity, plunged into bloody disaster. Only those with a vision that goes beyond capitalism can hope to block off the wellsprings of support for repugnant, reactionary worldviews like that of Islamic State. It is plain enough that the fatuous policies of recent British governments can do no such thing.