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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:34 03/09/2007
Commentary (July 29, 2005)

Dealing with the Terror Threat after the London Bombings

Kevin Cooney (Associate Professor of Political Science, Union University) and J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

Kevin Cooney: The recent terrorist attacks in London and in Egypt have delivered grim reminders that the war on terrorism is far from over. Furthermore, the revelation that the 7/7 suicide bombers were "homegrown" in Britain reminds us all that no one is ever truly safe from terrorism. The problem for Britain, and Europe in general, is that they now recognize that they have international terrorists among them carrying EU passports. International terrorism is now a domestic problem with no easy solution.

Sean Curtin: Home grown terrorism is nothing new. It has existed in Britain and Europe for a very long time. Britain has the IRA, Spain has the ETA, France suffered a series of terror attacks on the Paris Metro a decade ago, Italy had the Red Brigade, Germany the Bader-Meinhof gang, the list is lengthy.

I think one of the reasons Londoners have been able take these terrible outrages in their stride is that the city has a long history of terrorist attacks. During a bloody 30-year plus campaign, the IRA and its various splinter groups carried out some truly horrific terror attacks, murdering hundreds of innocent people in London and the rest of mainland Britain.

Our local shopping centre here in Ealing, just a few minutes walk from my house, was devastated by a massive car bomb on 3 August 2001. The huge blast complete demolished buildings, wrecked others, and caused enormous damage. Despite this, and many other attacks, life in London carried on as normal. Today, everything in Ealing has been rebuilt and all the "home grown" bombers, from an IRA splinter group, are behind bars.

Kevin Cooney: One good thing that may have come from the London bombings is that on Thursday the IRA announced that it was laying down its arms and ending its armed campaign as of 15:00 local time.

The IRA being a "domestic" terrorist group may not have wanted further comparisons with Al-Qaeda and the international Islamic "Jihad" so they chose to pursue the diplomatic route. If the IRA keeps its word it should free up UK resources to pursue the domestic Al-Qaeda threat.

France for all its international reluctance in the war on terror is an example of a nation that has so far successfully combated the threat of domestic terrorism through its police and domestic intelligence sources.

US counter-terrorism agencies have the utmost respect for the intelligence provided by France on global terrorism. The problem for Britain is that the French methods are considered to be too draconian for the British public to accept.

Sean Curtin: Security was not tightened up in France until the wave of Islamic militant bombings in 1995 on the Paris Metro and other public transport. It usually takes some kind of massive terror outrage before people are prepared to submit to more stringent security measures.

Also, I think it is unfair to suggest Paris is not a willing partner in the fight against international terrorism. After 9/11, the French speedily committed troops to Afghanistan and pledged their strong support for the US. It was only the deep division over the Iraq War, something Paris claimed had nothing to do with the fight against terrorism, which caused the bitter friction with Washington.

Mark Doughty: Who is at fault for the recent bombings?

Sean Curtin: There is absolutely no justification for the random slaughter of innocent people. The only people to blame for the 7/7 bombings are the evil twisted terrorists who carried out such inhuman acts that indiscriminately took the lives over 50 men, women, and children.

Too many young people had their lives needlessly cut short. There can be no justification for such cold-blooded mass killing. None of the victims ever harmed, or even knew, the bombers.

These inhuman acts have nothing to really do with religious belief, despite the claims of the extremists. No faith justifies such senseless carnage. Evil, twisted individuals are using a perverted interpretation of religion to justify their despicable actions. Just as the mass slaughter of thousands of men and young boys in Srebrenica had nothing to do with what Christianity actually stands for, these evil deeds have nothing to do with real Islam.

Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews were all amongst those randomly butchered just because they got on a train or bus.

Kevin Cooney: Some, like British MP George Galloway and London Mayor Ken Livingstone, are erroneously blaming the policies of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and American President George W. Bush. Mayor Livingstone has been quoted as saying that the attacks were caused by, "those governments which use indiscriminate slaughter to advance their foreign policy," and both the Guardian and BBC report Galloway as saying, "We argued, as did the security services in this country, that the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq would increase the threat of terrorist attack in Britain. Tragically Londoners have now paid the price of the Government ignoring such warnings."

These two politicians are basically saying that if we had stayed out of Iraq and Afghanistan none of this would be happening. I totally reject this naive opinion. Blaming the London bombings on Iraq or Afghanistan is like blaming a woman for a rape because of how she was dressed. It is simply wrong.

Al-Qaeda has been attacking innocent civilians since before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Making the terrorists a target and taking the war to them does not prevent western democracies from being a target.

Others have claimed that these attacks are justified as retribution for the accidental killing of innocents by US and coalition forces during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I reject this argument too because it is one thing to kill an innocent person accidentally in the course of combat operations it is another thing entirely to intentionally target the innocent intentionally.

The bombers on 7/7 and again on 7/21 were targeting the innocent people of London intentionally. The attacks of 7/7 were just plain murder and they were wrong!

Sean Curtin: Obviously, Tony Blair cannot be blamed for these indiscriminate, murderous attacks. If Galloway, Livingstone, or anyone else, has said that the Iraq War can be used as a justification for these barbarous atrocities, they should be condemned. I do not believe that is what these two politicians meant to say.

From the Galloway and Livingstone TV interviews I have seen, my understanding of their position is that they believe the Iraq war has assisted Al-Qaeda in whipping up anti-western hatred and in the recruitment of new members, making the terror grouping deadlier than before. This view is also found amongst some counter-terrorist experts and a number of think tanks.

Tony Blair totally rejects that there is any real or genuine connection between Iraq and the London terror outrages, but he has acknowledged that the terrorists are exploiting the situation in Iraq and using it as an excuse for their butchery and their attempts to recruit people to their twisted cause. He also concedes that Iraq does have an impact on their warped thinking.

Talking about Iraq and the terror attacks, Blair recently said, "They will always have a reason and I am not saying any of these things don't affect their warped reasoning and warped logic as to what they do, or that they don't use these things to try and recruit people. But I do say we shouldn't compromise with it. We shouldn't even allow them the vestige of an excuse for what they do. I do not believe we should give one inch to them."

Opinion polls indicate the majority of British people believe there is some kind of link between Iraq and the increased terror threat from extremists, but absolutely no sane person is arguing that this could ever possibly justify indiscriminate mass murder.

Some people blame Islam for what happened, some blame the Iraq War, both camps are wrong. The issues we are dealing with are far more complex.

Now is not the time to turn on each other. We must unite against our common enemy. The only comment of George Galloway I can actually remember is his strong conviction that the only way to deal with the terror extremists is "to wipe them out completely."

Kevin Cooney: I am in agreement with Australian Prime Minister Howard when he notes that 9/11 predated the war in Iraq along with the Bali bombing and numerous other attacks by Al-Qaeda or those claiming to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The War on Terror has just made it more difficult for Al-Qaeda to go after "hard" targets like the World Trade Center or airliners. Al-Qaeda has had to adapt to an ever changing environment. Organization and any form of central control by Al-Qaeda make easy targets for the militaries and intelligence services fighting the war on terror.

The November 2004 offensive by the US military in Fallujah, Iraq proved this point. The insurgents and terrorists working with them learned that if you centralize and you will be destroyed. The global Al-Qaeda network is now like a headless snake with hundreds of small cell groups acting on their own with little central control. They find targets of opportunity, or soft targets if you will, like mass transit as evidenced by the London bombings on July 7th and the botched attack on July 21st. The attacks will continue to occur, but will lack the overall organization and "professionalism" of past Al-Qaeda operations.

Sean Curtin: There is no doubt that extremists have long harbored hatred towards the US and Europe that goes back decades. Long before the second Iraq war there were twisted people who wanted to bomb our cities. There is no argument here, the real point of debate is has the Iraq War helped or hindered our struggle against these extremists?

You are also right that terror attacks will continue and regrettably it is probably only a matter of time before the US experiences a suicide bombing. It is therefore essential to have an effective long-term global strategy to defeat these extremists.

I believe the "tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism" strategy is the best and most effective way forward. It means that we have to wipe out the extremists and at the same time address the issues they exploit to incite hatred against us.

It is futile to eliminate one lot of terrorists if their places are only taken by a whole new batch of extremists. We must also eradicate their breeding grounds.

This approach means the US will have to realistically examine its Middle East policy. Having regularly visited the region, I can tell you from personal experience that the US is not popular in the Middle East and in the wider Muslim world has a serious image problem. This is something Washington has to address if it is ever going to properly defeat this global menace.

Kevin Cooney: It is interesting that you mention the image of the US in the wider Muslim world, the Pew Global Attitudes Project (co-chaired by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who served under President Bill Clinton) has just released a study of global attitudes toward the US in Islamic nations and among Muslims living in western nations. Positive attitudes toward the US are up across the board within the Islamic world since 2003 when the survey last took place (Indonesia +23%, Lebanon +15%, and Jordan +16%).

At the same time approval of violence against civilian targets is way down (Indonesia -12%, Lebanon -34%, Pakistan -16% and Morocco -27%) and this study was conducted before the London bombings.

It is also notable that the approval ratings for the world's most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, are also down throughout the Islamic world (Indonesia -23%, Lebanon -12%, Morocco -23% and Turkey -12%). The only exception to this overall trend is Pakistan where the approval ratings for the US and the war on terror are up slightly (+2%), but this is not statistically significant.

However, I believe that as long as the Islamic world sees that that the US is truly committed to promoting popular democracy in Islamic nations we will see respect for the US among Muslims continue to rise.

I believe that this is a sign that we are very slowly beginning to win the War on Terror.

Mark Doughty: Can the terrorists ever win?

Sean Curtin: No, but they can murder our loved ones, inflict a great deal of pain, seriously harm our way of life, damage our economy and if we are not careful turn us against each other. Even if it is sometimes uncomfortable, unity is strength. United we stand, divided we fall. One of the terrorists' goals is to turn us against each other, so far they have failed.

Kevin Cooney: Definitively no, the terrorist cannot win. Terrorism by definition is an act of desperation to make one's political voice heard. Suicide terrorism is largely an exercise in futility that maims and kills the innocent but fails to change the policies of the targeted states. The 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda (meaning "the base") only made the eradication of Al-Qaeda a political priority of US foreign policy. It brought about the destruction of the organization's base and training facilities in Afghanistan and the death or capture of up to 75% of the senior leadership to date.

For the terrorist to "win" they must centralize, form an army, and conquer territory, which is something that the US and British armies would love for them to do because the American (or British) army would end the Al-Qaeda threat once and for all.

The history of terrorism dictates that it is largely unsuccessful and merely strengthens the resolve of those attacked like we have witnessed in Britain since 7/7. The only successful examples of terrorism are movements that eventually formed armies and conquered the state that was targeted.

However, the ability of terrorists to inflict terror and suffering on the innocent is unquestioned. Free societies are thus forced to choose between security and freedoms/civil liberties. A choice requires us to choose between what we hold most dear, the safety of our loved ones and our freedoms. The terrorists hope to deny us both.

Mark Doughty: What can governments do to protect their populations from terrorist attacks?

Kevin Cooney: Short of creating a police state there is little western democracies can do to make the public 100% safe. There is the old saying, "where there is a will there is a way;" anyone who wants to can attempt to commit a terrorist act. The odds of success are raised if they make it a suicide attack.

The shock of the 9/11 attacks was that historically most terrorist have wanted to live, a suicide attack by 19 individuals was unthinkable. The only barriers to success by the terrorist are the incompetence of the terrorist themselves and luck (some would call it Divine providence).

The war on terror is making it harder for trained bomb making experts to travel to assemble bombs for would-be suicide bombers. The internet provides some help but not the real world experience needed. Governments can only make it difficult for terrorist they can never truly make it impossible.

Sean Curtin: Governments should do their best to bring all elements of society into the fight against terrorism. Adopt a long-term strategy to eliminate or minimize the causes extremists exploited to justify their twisted ideology and outrages. The aim of this strategy is to isolate the extremists and rob them of sympathizers. Without cover, they cannot hide and are easier to detect and eradicate.

Mark Doughty: What can the Islamic community do?

Kevin Cooney: They need to go beyond just condemning the bombings. Muslims in the UK, Europe, and America need to be at the forefront of the domestic war on terror. They are the ones best suited to finding and rooting out the radical elements within their communities.

The terrorists have an advantage over the security forces in that they can blend into the established law-abiding Islamic communities. This forces the police to regard all Muslims as potential terrorists and thus alienating a potential asset in the war on terror.

Western Muslims need to "police" their own communities for radical elements in order to force the terrorist out into the open where the police and security forces can deal with them before they do their evil deeds.

Rooting out the terrorists requires that they be given no safe refuge or place to hide. Terrorist must live with the fear of being caught 24 hours a day seven days a week. The more scared the terrorists are of getting caught the more paranoid and on edge they will become. People on edge make mistakes and when terrorists make mistakes they can then be caught.

Sean Curtin: Muslims must also integrate more closely with the non-Islamic community. They must also increase their numbers in the law enforcement agencies in order to work more closely with the authorities. This will help to better identify extremist elements in their midst.

For our part, we must listen more carefully to their grievances, defend our position or address any double standards that exist, and actively debate issues where they perceive the West is being hypocritical. This will help us in our broader campaign with the wider Muslim world.

Now is the right time for such a strategy as the majority of people being killed by the extremists are Muslims. Extremism poses a greater threat to the Muslim world than to Europe and North America.

There is no justification in the Koran for the daily atrocities we see in Iraq and the Muslim and non-Muslim world now have a common cause. If we can engage in a real dialogue, we can successful unite to defeat a common evil and create a stronger global community.

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