The threads of war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
5 July 2006

A year since the London bombings of 7 July 2005, the British government remains resolute in its insistence that the country's foreign policy had no connection with the motivation of the bombers. This judgment was reflected in the content of two reports published within days of each other in May 2006: the home office's "narrative" of the sequence of events leading up to the bombings, and the report of parliament's select committee on intelligence and security (see "London's intelligence failure", 18 May 2006).

The home-office document's reference to the bombers' motivations concentrated on their leader Mohammed Sidique Khan's videotaped declaration of "war", describing it as expressing the "perceived injustices carried out by the West against Muslims justifying violence through his own twisted interpretation of Islam" (emphasis added). Iraq did not enter the picture.

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 October 2001.

Among Paul Rogers's columns is one written in the aftermath of 7/7:

"The London bombs in the wider war"
(8 July 2005):

"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 don't succeed, then the suffering in London will be just one more part of a widening human disaster."

The intelligence and security committee too had very little to say about Iraq. This indifference to the foreign-policy dimension was reflected in Tony Blair's weekly press conference on 4 July when he emphasised the need for moderate Muslims in Britain to be more assertive in countering radicalisation. The common element in all these official statements is the lack of recognition of any affinity between events in Iraq and Afghanistan and the way the "war on terror" affected Britain on 7/7, and may well do again.

The contrast with the United States remains striking. There, the Iraq war and 9/11 are repeatedly associated, not least in the extraordinary publicity given to the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on 7 June. The official line is that the United States's huge military presence in Iraq is primarily a direct response to the 9/11 atrocities, because Iraq is the centre of the war on terror. The positions are reversed in official Britain, where Iraq and the London bombings are seen as being independent of each other.

It is primarily a matter of timing. The Iraq war is becoming increasingly unpopular in the United States, but the 9/11 attacks preceded it by over eighteen months. The war can therefore be claimed as a direct and powerful response. In Britain, the war was already deeply unpopular before the London bombings, so any link must be denied.

This line of argument is becoming more difficult month by month to sustain, as elements of the British political establishment prove to be less amenable to accepting the government line. The report from the House of Commons's foreign-affairs select committee is a case in point, notably its press release carefully structured to emphasise the committee's unease on this issue.

The committee concludes that "…the situation in Iraq has provided both a powerful source of propaganda for Islamist extremists and also a crucial training ground for international terrorists associated with al Qaeda", and that "…progress towards resolving key international conflicts would go some way to removing widespread feelings of injustice in the Muslim world that feed into the causes of and the support for terrorism."

There is every reason to say that Blair is right in highlighting the need for "moderate Islam" to be more forthright, but he faces a key problem in making the argument: his personal ownership of Britain's Iraq policy ensures that appeals of this kind are met with scepticism by the Muslim community. Even now, and in spite of repeated warnings from many analysts in and out of government service, the blunt refusal to acknowledge a chain of binding events persists.

The other truth

The London bombings were horrific – for those killed, injured or directly traumatised, for their families and friends, and for many people in the wider community. It may also be remembered that for each person who died on the bus and underground trains that day, 900 civilians have been killed in Iraq since March 2003. Each month, the death toll in Iraq is equivalent to twenty London attacks.

June's carnage was appalling; Baghdad's central morgue received 1,595 bodies, even in the face of a military operation after al-Zarqawi's death that brought thousands of troops into the city to set up roadblocks and mount patrols (see Sabrina Tavernise & Sahar Nageeb, "Body count escalates at morgue in Baghdad", International Herald Tribune, 5 July 2006).

In Afghanistan, too, the violence is escalating – it is still less violent than in Iraq, yet the United States military response includes air raids by B-52 and B-1 strategic bombers. Some of this is covered in the British media, but mainly when British soldiers are killed in Afghanistan or when there are particularly devastating car bombs in Iraq.

In the wider media, especially the satellite TV news channels such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, the coverage is much more extensive. These reputable channels are widely watched across the middle east, and in Muslim communities across Europe and beyond. They are supplemented by more polemical sources: videos, webcasts and DVDs which feature gruesome accounts and images of torture, prisoner abuse, the sufferings at Guantánamo and incidents such as the Haditha massacre.

These propagandistic efforts come together in a worldview that labels the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the Israeli punishment of a million Palestinians in Gaza in response to a kidnapping, as part of a neo-Christian-Zionist plot whose primary objective is the control of Arab oil. Such an interpretation pays no attention to Israeli insecurity or the brutality of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet it strikes a chord with millions of people.

It does so for numerous reasons, but one is that partial truths are embedded in so much of it. The situation in Gaza really is dire; US planes do bomb Afghan villages; the massive use of airpower and artillery in Iraq is causing huge numbers of casualties; rendition, torture, prisoner abuse and tens of thousands of detentions without trial are the order of the day in George W Bush's global war on terror.

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

A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris
(October 2005)

The cost of denial

The British government's insular refusal to register the impact of these events on the radicalisation of many young Muslims contrasts with numerous leaks from security sources and policy specialists within its ranks confirming the reality. An example is the substantial home office/foreign office study, Young Muslims and Extremism, published in April 2004:

"It seems that a particularly strong cause of disillusionment amongst Muslims including young Muslims is a perceived 'double standard' in the foreign policy of western governments (and often those of Muslim governments), in particular Britain and the US…

"Perceived western bias in Israel's favour over the Israel/Palestinian conflict is a key long-term grievance of the international Muslim community which probably influences British Muslims.

"This perception seems to have become more acute post-9/11. The perception is that passive 'oppression', as demonstrated in British foreign policy, eg non-action on Kashmir and Chechnya, has given way to 'active oppression' – the war on terror, and in Iraq and Afghanistan are all seen by a section of British Muslims as having been acts against Islam" (see FCO/home office paper published in the Sunday Times, available here.)

The author and activist Milan Rai documents this and many other instances of warnings from official sources of the effects of the Iraq war on the attitude of young Muslims in Britain (see 7/7: The London Bombings, Islam and the Iraq War [Pluto Press, 2006]). The problem with the mentality of denial is that it is part of a double-standard that condemns the London or Madrid bombings but sees more than 43,000 civilian deaths in Iraq as the necessary price to pay in pursuit of that war.

The first anniversary of the London attacks is rightly a time for reflection and sympathy, but the memories of those killed might be much better served if there was at last some awareness at the top of the British government of the connection between its policies and the costs to its own citizens.

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