Britain's war: evasion and reality

About the author
Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

The new parliamentary session in Britain opened on 15 November 2006 with a raft of proposals from prime minister Tony Blair to counter terrorism. They include tighter immigration controls (including the requirement of biometric data from foreign nationals), refining the identity-card plan, and the possible extension of the permitted period of detention without charge to ninety days.

Blair's "final security blitz" follows a period of leaks from government sources about the dangers of further paramilitary attacks. It also echoes a blunt speech on 9 November by the head of the security service (MI5), Eliza Manningham-Buller.

The overall impression conveyed by these interventions is that Britain is under serious risk of attack from jihadis, that the danger could last a generation, and that it requires great vigilance, cooperation and tighter laws. At the same time, the prime minister himself (in his own speech on foreign policy at London's Guildhall on 13 November) makes little effort to relate the threat to any aspect of British or United States foreign policy.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

The Manningham-Buller speech was notably more detailed than Blair's familiar sweeping generalisation. The security portrait presented by this normally reticent public official - five major conspiracies thwarted since the July 2005 bombs in London, current investigations into some 200 networks involving 1,600 people and as many as thirty specific ongoing plots - attracted considerable media attention.

This assessment of the scale of the perceived current threat is matched by the massive expansion in Britain's panoply of security forces - from MI5 and the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre to special branch and the police's anti-terror squad. MI5 itself has increased its staff by around 900 to 2,800, well on its way to a planned level of almost 4,000 by 2008. Across the country, major MI5 centres have been established alongside regional police squads, with substantial resources allocated to their development.

These are the ingredients of a domestic response to a threat which, for Tony Blair and his co-thinkers at the government level, is based essentially on irrational religious fundamentalism, and unconnected to government policies at home (tougher security laws and operations themselves) or abroad (the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq).

There are several different reasons why the highest reaches of government generate so little in the way of realistic analysis of these issues; among them career protection, analytical overload, "short-termism" and the controlling hand of Downing Street (see "London without a map", 5 October 2006).

The contrast with the coded, critical messages that have started to appear from recently retired senior armed-forces officers is striking. In this light, Eliza Manningham-Buller's speech represents a more frank engagement with the issue of the political impact of British foreign policy. This alone makes the full text of her speech well worth reading.

The insider's voice

The MI5 head states bluntly that: "The extremists are motivated by a sense of grievance and injustice driven by their interpretation of the history between the West and the Muslim world".

She elaborates: "More and more people are moving from passive sympathy towards active terrorism through being radicalised or indoctrinated by friends, families, in organised training events here and overseas, by images on television, through chat rooms and websites on the Internet".

Furthermore: "The video wills of British suicide bombers make it clear that they are motivated by perceived worldwide and long-standing injustices against Muslims; an extreme and minority interpretation of Islam promoted by some preachers and people of influence; and their interpretation as anti-Muslim of UK foreign policy, in particular the UK's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan."

The speech is couched in tentative terms ("perceived" and "interpretation"), thus retaining a certain distance from a direct interpretative connection with British policy, but the language is unusually strong. As coded messages go, this is about as far as anyone has gone from within the British security establishment.

Eliza Manningham-Buller's speech gets even more perceptive in its consideration of the impact of the Iraq war:

"The Propaganda machine is sophisticated and Al-Qaida itself says that 50% of its war is conducted through the media. In Iraq, attacks are regularly videod and the footage downloaded onto the Internet within 30 minutes. Virtual media teams then edit the result, translate it into English and many other languages, and package it for a worldwide audience. And, chillingly, we see the results here, young teenagers being groomed to be suicide bombers."

This is not a political opponent of the government speaking but the head of MI5 with thirty-two years of experience behind her. Yet even armed with this assessment, the British government at its core is not able or willing to acknowledge the connection between the vigorous conduct of the war on terror and the ensuing radicalisation.

Two worlds

In Afghanistan, the first ten and a half months of 2006 have seen 3,700 deaths, the great majority of them civilians. Nato troops have come under insistent attacks and have routinely used their overwhelming firepower advantage in response. A force deployed to aid reconstruction finds itself frequently engaged in destruction.

To take but one example, a joint Nato/Afghan investigation has found that thirty-one civilians were killed in a single incident at Lakani village in October 2006 when an AC-130 gunship made repeated gun-runs against presumed Taliban fighters, most of whom were actually nomadic pastoralists fleeing an earlier bombing raid (see David Rohde & Taimoor Shah, "Strike killed 31 Afghans, NATO finds", International Herald Tribune, 14 November 2006).

This was one of the few such incidents to be covered in some western media outlets; it is also one of many that go round the world via the net, DVDs and other channels.

In Iraq, the scale of destruction and loss of life is vastly greater even than in Afghanistan. The civilian death toll is currently running at about 3,000 a month, equivalent to the entire loss in the 9/11 atrocities. The Iraqi ministry of health released tentative estimates on 11 November that more than 100,000 civilians have suffered violent deaths since the start of the war in March 2003.

Major tragedies in Iraq may make it through to the BBC and sometimes even to CNN, but the coverage pales in comparison with al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, channels watched by tens of millions of people across the middle east and beyond.

Furthermore, Muslim communities have a massively greater awareness than others of the wider effects of the war on terror. These include the 100,000-plus people who have been detained without trial (sometimes for years at a time) in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the post-9/11 period.

The western media often avoid other relevant topics, such as the intimate, sustained connections between the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and United States counterinsurgency operations in Iraq. An earlier column in this series reported on the links between the IDF and the US army's training and doctrine command (Tradoc), marked by a high-level visit to Israel of the Tradoc commander and senior army colleagues (see "After Saddam, no respite", 19 December 2003).

The defence journal Defense News then reported: "the goals were twofold: to strengthen cooperation among US and Israeli ground forces in future warfighting and military modernization planning, and to evaluate ways in which the US military can benefit from operational lessons that Israel has accrued during the past 38 months in its ongoing urban, low-intensity conflict with Palestinian militants."

In subsequent months, more information came to light about the US purchase of Israeli weapons and reconnaissance systems for use in Iraq (see "Between Fallujah and Palestine", 22 April 2004).

Much of this is common knowledge across the Arab and Muslim worlds - but almost unknown in the west. This mismatch of awareness is disturbing enough; what makes it even more significant is the use which can be made of such accurate information. Briefly, it can be incorporated into and elaborated by more propagandistic narratives and outlets, all serving to present a clear-cut picture of a neo-Christian-Zionist conspiracy to control a key Islamic state and the immense oil riches of the surrounding region.

In this perspective, the way in which the war on terror is conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the harsh anti-terrorism legislation being enacted in many countries, is a quite extraordinary gift to al-Qaida and other jihadi networks and groups.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's new book is Into the Long War: Oxford Research Group, International Security Report 2006 (Pluto Press, November 2006)

Tony Blair's foreign-policy speech contained a partial exception to standard evasion (one echoed a day later in testimony by video-link to the Iraq Study Group inquiry in Washington), in its acknowledgment of the seriousness and relevance of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Even here, however, the insensible attitude towards recent British policy is notable.

The very suggestion that the British government could facilitate a middle-east settlement, after its failure to call a ceasefire during the Lebanon war of July-August 2006, is either dismissed or ridiculed in the region. This stance alone has rendered Britain largely irrelevant, not just among radical Islamist elements but across a very much larger constituency.

The highest reaches of the British government seem unable to move beyond the perception of a radical jihadism that has no linkage with what Britain does to the underlying reality. It is precisely this that highlights the value of Eliza Manningham-Buller's speech, taken as a whole.

MI5 and other security agencies clearly share a real fear that there will be further major attacks in Britain. The currently prevailing government attitudes make further draconian laws and security operations likely in consequence, allied to even more strenuous denials of any link with foreign policy.

Between the lines and behind the curtains, there is some evidence that such an approach is finding increasing disfavour among thoughtful security and intelligence operatives. Even so, the discontent may yet be far from enough to lead to any change in attitude at the core of government, at least until there is a change of personnel in Downing Street.