The multiple bombings in London on 7 July were almost certainly perpetrated by a group allied to the al-Qaida movement. They were intended to kill and maim many people and to do so on the opening day of the G8 summit in Scotland for maximum international impact; in taking more than 50 lives and injuring 700 they have succeeded in this aim. The bombings come at a time when there were few if any indications of an attack indeed the alert status in the United Kingdom had recently been downgraded from severe general to substantial.
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They also came after a pause in such attacks outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. The most recent major incidents were in late 2004 the attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta in September (killing 11 people and injuring 161), followed by the bombing of the Taba Hilton in Sinai in October (killing 27 and injuring 122).
The London bombs were hugely destructive, and had many similarities to the larger Madrid attacks of March 2004. That carefully coordinated operation involved months of planning by people with access to finance, technical abilities and safe houses. The perpetrators planted ten bombs on four commuter trains, and set other bombs timed to kill people in the vicinity. 191 people died and 1,800 were injured in what became known as Spains 11M.
At the time, Spanish security and police forces were regarded as highly competent, and thought to have considerable knowledge of radical jihadist groups operating in the country; yet they were still unable to detect in advance the large contingent responsible for the Madrid attacks. British security organisations have been making similar intense efforts to uncover such networks, and the police have arrested dozens of suspects very few of whom have come to trial. There has evidently been a failure to identify or track the group preparing the London explosions.
But this is less a reflection on the UK agencies than an indication of the viability, vigour and persistence of the range of groups linked under the al-Qaida banner. Since 9/11, such affiliates have conducted far more actions than in a similar period beforehand. They have ranged across the world: Islamabad, Casablanca, Mombasa, Djerba, Karachi (twice), Istanbul (twice), Bali, Riyadh, Yemen, Tashkent, Madrid and now London, as well as failed attempts in Paris, Rome and Singapore.
The war of perception
All these actions have taken place despite George W Bushs equally wide-ranging war on terror. United States-led forces have terminated regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and over 200,000 foreign troops are now deployed there fighting the insurgencies that have since developed. At least 40,000 people have been killed in the two countries, most of them civilians, up to 20,000 people are in detention without trial, and rigorous new anti-terror laws have been brought in by many countries.
The war on terror has not curbed al-Qaida and its associated groups. Instead, they have received an influx of new recruits. There has also been a marked rise in anti-Americanism, especially in the middle east, much of it focused on the impact of coalition actions in Iraq. In the wake of the London bombings, western political leaders instantly denied that the attacks could have anything to do with their actions in Iraq; in reality, the conduct of this war on terror is proving deeply counterproductive. The London atrocity, following Madrid, is the latest example of this in Europe.
From a United States perspective, the different military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan are essential parts of a vigorous military campaign to defeat extremists. But many sectors of society across the middle east perceive the US (in coalition with Britain and a few other states) as an occupying power that uses massive force to maintain control.
In Fallujah in November 2004, a sustained assault employed extraordinary firepower to leave a city the size of Englands Hull, Frances Lille, Italys Imola or Polands Wroclaw with a good deal more than 1,000 people killed or injured, half the dwellings wrecked, almost every school, mosque or public building destroyed or damaged, and most of the population fleeing the city as refugees.
The images of Fallujah, and of other degraded towns and cities in Iraq from Baghdad to Najaf, from Baquba to Ramadi are as familiar in the middle east as are those of the London bombings in the British press today. A real tragedy of the London bombings, to put alongside all the raw human losses and wounds, is that very few people in Britain will make the connection between the two realities; yet, as with Madrid, the war on terror has come to those of us living in Europe.
Retrospect and prospect
After the Madrid bombing, a column in this series (The Madrid bombings: the war on terror comes to Europe) commented:
Madrid forms part of a much greater pattern of human loss. On 11 September 2001, 3,000 people died in New York and Washington. Within four months, about 3,000 civilians had died in Afghanistan in the first phase of George W. Bushs war on terror. Until last week, another 400 people had died in further paramilitary attacks across the world, and more than 8,000 civilians had died in the initial three-week phase of the Iraq war in March-April 2003.
Almost all of the loss of life after 9/11 was outside the countries of the Atlantic community. That is now no longer the case.
In the past sixteen months, many more thousands of people have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, London has become a target. For now, everyone mourns the loss of life and expresses sympathy with the injured and bereaved, but the greater tragedy would be to avoid then starting the serious and difficult process of rethinking the conduct of this war on terror.
If we do not, the prospect is of a potentially endless war, involving thousands more deaths and tens of thousands maimed, in a bitter cycle of violence. Breaking that vicious cycle will be immensely difficult but it has to be done. If we dont succeed, then the suffering in London will be just one more part of a widening human disaster.