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The wrongs of counter-violence

In the event of a major ISIS-inspired action in Britain, what principles do far-sighted – and brave – politicians need to observe?

Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved."A few months before the 7/7 attacks in London in July 2005, and in the wake of the Madrid bombings, I went to a meeting that the Bishop of Bradford had convened to try and think through how a multi-confessional city like Bradford might respond if there was a similar attack in the UK. He brought together representatives from the local mosques, the police, the Council, the youth service and community groups, and I think this might have been one of the factors that helped maintain a degree of calm and resilience in the city when the 7/7 attacks came. Remembering this was part of what prompted me to write the following piece for openDemocracy earlier this year, and in the light of yesterday’s attack I hope it might be of some use."
Paul Rogers  23 March 2017

Another 7/7-type attack in the United Kingdom is likely. In the aftermath, it will be essential to respond carefully with responses that seek to explain the wider context.

In London, the inquest has opened into the deaths of thirty British beach tourists in Sousse, Tunisia in June 2015. Eight others were killed in the ISIS-facilitated attack. Many questions remain over the warnings given and the levels of security offered.

The assault, as well as causing great grief to family and friends, had a substantial national impact. Yet this was less than the bombings of London's transport network on 7 July 2007, when fifty-two people were killed on a bus and three underground trains. (The four perpetrators also died). It remains the defining event for Britain in relation to political violence, closely connected to the Iraq war although this was strenuously denied by the Blair government at the time.

This “disconnect” has remained a feature of British attitudes to al-Qaida, ISIS and other extreme Islamist groups, even if some people pointed out at the time that the loss of life on "7/7" was no higher than the daily loss of life in Iraq.

Now, nearly twelve years later, the war goes on with a similar disconnect – there is simply no appreciation that Britain is an integral part of a major war that started thirty months ago, in August 2014. It may take the form of a sustained air-assault using strike-aircraft and armed-drones, but its intensity is simply unrecorded in the establishment media. This is a straightforward example of “remote warfare” conducted outside of public debate.

Thus, when another attack within Britain on the scale of 7/7 happens, there will be little understanding of the general motivations of those responsible. People will naturally react with horror, asking – why us? Politicians and analysts will find it very difficult even to try and explain the connection between what is happening "there" and "here".

The straightforward yet uncomfortable answer is that Britain is at war – so what else can be expected? It may be a war that gets little attention, there may be virtually no parliamentary debate on its conduct, but it is a war nonetheless.

There are several factors which underpin this approach.

The post-9/11 western-led wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have left three countries as failed or failing states, killed several hundred thousand people and displaced millions. This causes persistent anger and bitterness right across the Middle East and beyond. While the Syrian civil war started as the repression of dissent by an insecure and repressive regime, it has evolved into a much more complex "double proxy war" which regional rulers and the wider international community have failed to address. This adds to the animosity.

The situation in Iraq is particularly grievous, given that it was the United States and its coalition partners that started the conflict and also gave rise directly to the evolution of ISIS. The Iraq Body Count project estimates the direct civilian death-toll since 2003 at more than 169,000. After a relative decline over 2009-13, an upsurge in the past three years has seen 53,000 lose their lives through violence.

Since the air-war started in August 2014 the Pentagon calculates that over 30,000 targets have been attacked with more than 60,000 missiles and bombs, and 50,000 ISIS supporters have been killed. But there is abundant evidence that western forces have directly killed many civilians. AirWars reports that:

"As ISIL was forced to retreat in both Iraq and Syria, the year [2016] saw a dramatic jump in reported civilian deaths from Coalition airstrikes. A total of between 2,932 and 4,041 non-combatant fatalities are alleged for 2016, stemming from 445 separate claimed Coalition-caused incidents in both Iraq and Syria."

ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), and other groups have no air-defence capabilities yet are determined to continue the war, seeing themselves as guardians of Islam under attack by the “crusader” forces of the west. At a time of retreat they will be even more determined than ever to take the war to the enemy, whether by the sustained encouragement and even facilitation of individual attacks such as Berlin or Nice, or more organised attacks such as in Paris and Brussels.

The aims of these groups are threefold:

* Retribution via straightforward paramilitary actions, responding especially to the current reversals in Iraq.

* Demonstrating to the wider world, especially across the Middle East, that they remain a force to be reckoned with.

* Inciting as much anti-Muslim bigotry and hatred as possible in the target countries.

In the last of these they are greatly aided by the attitudes of Trump, Le Pen, Wilders, UKIP and other western political phenomena, especially the incitement of fear of refugees which reached its height in Britain in the closing days of the Brexit campaign.

A repeat 7/7–level attack in Britain is probable, although when and how is impossible to say.  Again, it will not be easy to respond. But in trying to do so, two factors need to be born in mind.

First, the aim of ISIS and others will be to incite hatred. Any tendency to encourage that is doing the work of ISIS. This can and should be said repeatedly.

Second, the links between the attack and the ongoing war in Iraq and Syria must be made. That Britain is still at war after fifteen years suggests that some rethinking is required.

Politicians who make these points will face immediate accusations of appeasement, not least in the media. But however difficult the case, it needs to be made if the tide of war is to be turned.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security adviser, 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 latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows 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

A lecture by Paul Rogers, delivered to the Food Systems Academy in late 2014, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. The lecture - "The crucial century, 1945-2045: transforming food systems in a global context" - focuses on the central place of food systems in human security worldwide. Paul argues that food is the pivot of humanity's next great transition. It can be accessed here


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