Britain: terror and security

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
2 May 2007

On 30 April 2007, five people were jailed and two acquitted at the Old Bailey in London on charges relating to conspiracy to cause explosions. This ended what had become known as the "fertiliser-bomb" plot, which had unfolded over 2003-04 until arrests were made in March 2004. This trial related to one of the four major such incidents in Britain in this period: the others are the 7/7 bombings in London in July 2005, the abortive bombing attempts two weeks later on 21 July, and an apparent plot to target transatlantic airliners flying out of London (which in August 2006 was the subject of arrests of suspects yet to come to trial).

Much of the press coverage of the verdict has focused on possible failings in the security service (MI5) in that early investigations into the fertiliser bomb plot apparently showed a direct link with two of the people responsible for the 7/7 attacks over a year later. As a result of this emphasis, MI5 has come under political pressure to provide explanations for its professional role in the affair at a time when it is receiving substantial increases in resources. As well as a major expansion in staffing - from 2,000 in 2004 to a planned 3,500 in 2008 - the organisation has established a series of regional offices and is working closely with three newly-established regional police counter-terrorism organisations.

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 size of these resources means that questions are being asked about the efficiency of the organisation. Eliza Manningham-Buller, MI5's recently retired director-general, sought to address some of these concerns by placing its operations in the context of a wider challenge from a substantial number of radical groups evolving within British society. In a lecture on 9 November 2006, she spoke of up to 200 networks with as many as 1,600 people said to be involved in those groups. The implication was that even an expanded organisation cooperating with other branches of the police and intelligence forces faced a massive task, and that there must be a realistic expectation of further attacks in Britain. This bleak assessment is reflected in indications from MI5 sources in the aftermath of the "fertiliser-bomb" verdict that it had now identified 2,000 people in Britain with al-Qaida or jihadist sympathies.

The international context

The United States state department, meanwhile, has reported a 40% increase in deaths in what it characterised as terror incidents worldwide; its report includes an acknowledgment that much of this increase is due to the chaos in Iraq. In other respects, US sources claim recent successes in the pursuit of their war on terror. These include the detention of over a hundred suspects in a major clampdown in Saudi Arabia; the reported death of a leading al-Qaida operative in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri; and the detention of another al-Qaida link person, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi.

At the same time, a detailed poll of public opinion in four key countries in the Arab and Muslim worlds - Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan and Indonesia - shows a pervasive suspicion of the United States. The study, conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org with support from the Start consortium at the University of Maryland, found that an average of more than three-quarters of those polled professed belief "that dividing and weakening the Islamic world and maintaining control over Middle East oil were key goals of US foreign policy" (see Jim Lobe, "Suspicion of U.S. Found Pervasive in Islamic world", Inter Press Service, 25 April 2007). Furthermore: "Nearly three out of four respondents said they agreed with al-Qaeda's objectives - if not the means - to force Washington to remove its bases and military forces from all Islamic countries and stop favouring Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians".

What is the role and responsibility of Britain in this bigger picture? Britain's policy in the context of George W Bush's war on terror since 9/11 has been one of consistent, close cooperation with the robust American pursuit of military action, including the termination of the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq; the government has also pursued the more usual forms of counter-terrorism and police activities involving protection, detection and mitigation of the effects of attacks, backed by a series of new laws whose cumulative effect has been to grant greater powers of surveillance and arrest to the leading agents of policy.

During this period, far less attention has been paid to the factors that are aiding the radicalisation of a small minority of intelligent and often well-educated young Muslims in Britain. In particular, there has been a flat refusal to countenance any suggestion of a link between British foreign and security policy on one side, and domestic radicalisation on the other (see Tom Porteous, "Anti-terrorism: new leadership, new strategy", 28 November 2006).

This is not to say that the conduct of the war over the past five years is the root cause of this radicalisation. All those involved in the "fertiliser-bomb" plot developed their extreme paramilitary outlook as a result of propaganda over events that preceded 9/11; this related mainly to events in Kashmir, but also drew on the wars in Chechnya and Bosnia. The al-Qaida movement and other radical jihadist groups were attracting some support in Britain and Muslim communities elsewhere in Europe before 9/11 - much of it connected too to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the US military presence in Saudi Arabia, as well as Kashmir and elsewhere.

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 most recent book is Into the Long War: Oxford Research Group, International Security Report 2006 (Pluto Press, 2006)

A cure for alienation

Yet one of the issues that emerges strongly from the recent trial is the manner in which Britain's involvement in Iraq came to have an even greater impact than the earlier triggers of radicalisation. A strong motivation for the intended attacks - evident too in pre-recorded videos of the London bombers - might be described as "responding in kind". The sentiment here is also part of a much wider antipathy among Muslims across the world to the United States and, to a lesser extent, Britain.

The Economist, hardly a voice of radical critique of Anglo-American policy, comments in its current edition: "there is little sign that the reach of al-Qaeda is diminishing, nor is its determination, nor the size of the pool of recruits on which it must rely. On the contrary, trials of terrorists - such as the one just ended in Britain - demonstrate the range of the Islamist diaspora and the large number of plots being simultaneously concocted...There is no real sign that Islamist terrorism is on the defensive" (see "Who is winning?", Economist, 2 May 2007).

There is deep and widespread evidence that the conduct of the war on terror, especially in Iraq, has caused and is causing great anger among very many Muslims, and radicalisation of a substantial minority. Yet the government of Tony Blair is absolutely insistent that there remains no connection between Iraq and the threat of attacks in Britain. There is no recognition at the top that the many tens of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq have any kind of impact. It is as though the highest reaches of government and the rest of the country occupy two watertight compartments (see "Tony Blair's long war", 18 January 2007).

In the absence of open discussion or public acknowledgment by government ministers of the issue, it is left to senior security officers - such as Eliza Manningham-Buller in her November speech - to hint at a link. As Iraq is Blair's war and he believes implicitly that it is a just cause, no other view can be expressed within government (see "Britain's war: evasion and reality", 16 November 2006).

The imminent departure of Tony Blair after ten years in office, almost certainly to be replaced by his chancellor Gordon Brown, raises a vital question about the durability of this mindset. In the long transition process, various think-tanks and interest groups allied to Brown have been canvassing views among specialists on the way ahead for British foreign and security policy. Indeed, over the next weeks London will be more crowded than usual as the pace of such gatherings increases. Views which counter the prevailing orthodoxy may get a hearing. It is (just) possible that a change of policy will result. If it does not, then we will continue with the charade that home-grown terrorism in Britain is totally unconnected with our policies abroad, a charade that may cost many more lives in the years to come.

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