A state of blindness

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
26 March 2009

The British government published a new version of its national counter-terrorism strategy on 24 March 2009. The 176-page document - Pursue, Prevent, Protect, Prepare: The United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering International Terrorism - declares that the threat from violent extremism is growing. It also says that there is an increasing risk of attacks involving biological, chemical or nuclear material (see "Terror risk for Britons is growing, U.K. warns", International Herald Tribune, 25 March 2009).  This is the situation after six years of the war in Iraq and more than seven years of fighting in Afghanistan.  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 report details a substantial upgrading of the previous (2003) strategy, including the investment of greater resources (at an annual cost of $3.5 billion by 2010) into counter-terrorism preparedness. The security service (MI5) has been doubled in size, and 60,000 people have been trained to deal with incidents and spot potential attackers.

There is a particular emphasis on developments in western Pakistan, and a belief that elements of the Pakistani diaspora in Britain have been radicalised.  The strategy is candid in its assessment of these trends: 

"Violent extremist organisations, including Al Qa'ida and groups affiliated to the Taliban have a very significant presence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Their influence is spreading rapidly in areas of the North West Frontier Province." 

The government statements accompanying the publication of the strategy have placed much emphasis on countering radicalisation. The strategy highlights five causal factors involved in the radicalising process: 

▪ a persuasive ideology...

▪ ideologues and social networks that promote that ideology...

▪ individuals vulnerable to violent extremist messaging...

▪ an absence of resilience (and in some cases tacit support) in vulnerable communities...

▪ real or perceived grievances, some international and some local.

Each of these causes is in turn being addressed, by:

▪ challenging the ideology

▪ disrupting the promoters of violent extremism

▪ supporting vulnerable individuals

▪ increasing community resilience

▪ addressing the grievances which ideologues are exploiting. 

A connection denied

The strategy shows evidence of copious analysis, planning and activity. But it is unable to acknowledge in any direct manner the linkages between British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and radical responses in country itself. In failing to do this, it follows a well-worn path that was particularly evident at the time of the London bombings on 7 July 2005.  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 books include Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcoming.

At the time, the Tony Blair government went to great lengths to deny even the remotest connection between the 7/7 attacks and British involvement in the Iraq war. That war, it was said, was nothing to do with the war on terror and therefore could not in any way be a motive for the attacks. 

It was always a problematic position, given that George W Bush had consistently argued that the Iraq war had become the central focus of the war on terror; and that a video left by one of the bombers and later released made the same connection. 

The reality was that the deaths of thousands of Muslims in Iraq were having profound effects on Muslim communities across the world, not least in Britain.  This was shown graphically on some of the TV news programmes from west Yorkshire, the regional origin of the four London bombers. 

In the wake of the attacks, numerous interviews were conducted with young, articulate Muslims in and around Leeds and Dewsbury (see Max Farrar, "Leeds footsoldiers and London bombs", 21 July 2005). They repeatedly condemned the bombers unequivocally, protesting that these were not the actions of true Muslims and were in no way representative of the local communities; time and again too, they went on to ask "but what about Iraq?" The response is hardly surprising, given that mid-2005 was a time when the death-toll every day in Iraq was on a par with the single day of the London attacks (see Mohammed Sajid, "The gap between us: British Muslims and 7/7", 17 July 2005). 

The strategy indicates that support for the extreme actions of the al-Qaida movement has fallen among most Muslim communities across the world; but deep opposition to British and American policies in the middle east and west Asia remains strong, even if this appears discounted in the strategy. The best it can do is refer to "a perception that UK foreign policy in the Muslim world (notably military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan) is hostile to Islam." 

It is not surprising that the strategy goes no further than this, since to do so would be undermining of Britain's military actions in both countries. Thus the strategy cannot even begin to explore the likely effects of the Iraq war on Muslim sentiment in Britain. This war has cost the lives over 95,000 civilians; maimed at least twice that number; seen around 4 million people displaced; seen 120,000 detained without trial; and involved widespread torture, abuse and rendition (see "A war on three fronts", 19 March 2009). 

The war in Iraq has abated somewhat, although violence continues: 250 civilians were killed in February 2009. The war in Afghanistan grows more deadly by the week: there, the number of foreign military forces has increased from 27,000 to 69,000 since 2005, and the monthly totals of civilian deaths have risen fivefold in the same period (see Jason Campbell et al, "Charting Iraq and Afghanistan", International Herald Tribune, 21 March 2009). 

A third war

Neither conflict is being reported in any detail in the western media, but it does get persistent attention in the middle-east's satellite TV news channels. Further and more propagandistic attention is given (especially to the civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan) through al-Qaida's own media outlets. The strategy acknowledges the power of these; it points to the increase in the use of video-messages from al-Qaida's Al-Sahab media group (from six in 2002 to around 100 in 2008), and to the number of websites supporting a jihadi cause (from around twelve in 1998 to over 4,000 a decade later).  

The impact of a third war, that in Gaza, on Muslim opinion is - astonishingly - almost entirely ignored. It is as though there is simply no connection, nor ever can be. The numerous civilian deaths, the widespread destruction of property and the prison-like environment in Gaza get no mention - even as, in the days around the report's publication, copious evidence of atrocities comes to light in the testimonies of Israeli soldiers themselves (see Amos Harel, "Testimonies on IDF misconduct in Gaza keep rolling in" Ha'aretz, 22 March 2009). 

The new "contest strategy" is clearly the result of a huge amount of work as well as substantial and detailed analysis: yet it ends up being deeply flawed. There seems to be no possibility of engaging with the impact of Britain's wars on a significant part of its own population. Until that happens, the strategy is missing the single most important ingredient in seeking to counter extremism.


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