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A blog on terrorism, democracy and international politics

Friday, July 08, 2005

The London Terror Attack Failed 

Yesterday morning, terrorists committed a cowardly, repugnant and evil attack against the citizens of London.

It seems highly probable that this was timed to coincide with the opening of the G8 Summit - which means that it is also a symbolic attack against the governments of the world's most advanced countries.

The key questions are:
  • Who did this?
  • Why did they do it?
  • What action should we take?

    Who Did This?

    Very soon after the attack, an Internet posting claimed responsibility for the attacks, using the name:
    Jamaat Tanzim Al-SiriSecret Organisation Group
    Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad fi EuropaOrganisation of the Base (Qaeda) of Jihad in Europe


    The media have been quick to say that this organisation was previously unknown, and some have begun to speculate that this means there is a new, completely independent organisation operating in Britain. There is no reason to jump to these conclusions.

    During the late 1990s, both Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Usama bin Laden's al-Qaeda independently developed parallel terrorist networks in Europe. Al-Qaeda's statements at that time differentiated between "Al-Qaeda in Europe", "Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" (Saudi branch) and so on.

    When Zarqawi's Jama'at Tawhid wal-Jihad (Group of Monotheism and Holy War) merged with al-Qaeda last year, it followed this system of nomenclature, except that it retained the word "Jihad" in its name. Since then, Zarqawi's messages have called the organisation Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad fi Balad al-Rafidin (Organisation of the Base of Jihad in Iraq/Land of the (two) rivers).


    The banner used in an April 2005 statement by Al-Qaeda in Iraq.


    Close-up: The text reads Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad fi Balad al-Rafidin. (Organisation of the Base (Qaeda) of Jihad in Iraq).

    The statement of responsibility for the London bombings is essentially signed "Secret Cell of Zarqawi's European Al-Qaeda network."

    I am assuming the message is genuine and the attack was carried out by Zarqawi's wing of al-Qaeda. It is highly unlikely that a new group would have the dedicated personnel, logistical expertise, technical expertise (such as knowledge of explosives) and resources to carry out such a sophisticated attack.

    Why Was London Attacked?

    This question can be approached in several ways. Why London? Why now? Why are al-Qaeda Attacking the West at all? And so on.

    The purpose of this attack, like most such attacks, can be summed up in a word: Division.

    Broadly, al-Qaeda seeks to divide the Western world from Muslim countries, to isolate Western countries from each other, and to divide individual countries internally. In this sense, the 11 March 2004 Madrid bombings were a success for the terrorists. Since they are, in form, so similar to yesterday's London Bombings, they serve as an ideal benchmark against which to measure the success of the attacks.

    In Madrid, serious division over the country's foreign policy already existed; between the two major parties, between the government and the population, and between Spain and some of its neighbours. Coming at the end of an election that had been largely fought over these faultlines, the attacks had a seismic impact on Spain. The populace turned against the Government. Spain changed from one Western camp to the other. Most importantly, Spain withdrew from Iraq.

    If that is the benchmark of a successful terrorist attack, then this attack has failed. The British people did not panic as the terrorists' statement predicted, and nor did they turn inwards, blaming each other.

    "Britain is now burning with fear, terror and panic in its northern, southern, eastern, and western quarters." - Al-Qaeda statement

    Britain has a culture of stoic defiance in the face of adversity. Moreover, it has the most efficient and professional terrorist emergency response system in the world, with the possible exception of Israel. Britain was already taking serious legislative steps against the threat of Islamic terrorism before the 'wake up call' of 11 September 2001. Obviously, Britain's experiences with IRA terrorism contribute to this stoic attitude to terror attacks, but it should be remembered that Spain has a similar history of terrorist attacks initiated by ETA.

    Furthermore, since Madrid, Western leaders have learnt to live with their differences over foreign policy. Attacking Britain while the leaders of the free world were present was a mistake, because it was a symbolic threat directed at these leaders en bloc. Chirac, Blair, Schröder, Bush and Putin stood together to denounce the terrorist attacks and publicly commit to a newly invigorated, unified fight against global terrorism. Al-Qaeda has unintentionally encouraged a unity of purpose that has not existed since 2003.

    Why Now?

    Al-Qaeda suffered serious setbacks between 2001 and 2004. However, its merger with Zarqawi's network has given it new 'synergistic' strength. The insurgency will ebb and flow in Iraq, but while the group is strong it is making a powerful statement that it can still strike with devastating effect in Europe.

    However, because there was no election campaign or moment of division, the attacks were poorly timed. Rather than being thrown into bitter division, Britain and her allies were given an opportunity resolutely to face al-Qaeda down. The attacks were, in a sense, simply too random.

    Why This Form of Attack?

    The tube system was an obvious target. Labyrinthine, claustrophobic and archaic, hard to guard but easy to hit. The attacks had the potential to be even more shocking than the strikes in Madrid.

    Concentrating on the central eastern part of London, the financial district, the attacks brought one of the world's greatest cities to a standstill. Yet this did not bring about the sort of decisive financial difficulties that 11 September brought about. The world's stock markets have experienced several terrorist events now, and traders correctly assessed that little permanent damage had been done to business infrastructure.

    However, with the same resources the terrorists could have done greater real financial damage. In addition to the transportation of commuters during the day, the London Tube system also carries nuclear waste from reactors at night. A bomb placed on the track would have led to a very lengthy clean up process that could lock up a section of the Tube for months. This would impact Londoners financially but would not kill many and would not cause the same degree of trauma. The deliberate targeting of commuter trains and buses demonstrates that a psychological impact was intended. The attacks were calculated to personally touch as many people as possible, and to resonate emotionally with a much wider audience - hence the deliberate mention of other countries in the statement of responsibility.

    "We continue to warn the governments of Denmark and Italy and all the Crusader governments that they will be punished in the same way if they do not withdraw their troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. He who warns is excused." - Al-Qaeda statement

    What Next?

    In searching for the reason for the attack, it is tempting to seize on the terrorists' statement:

    Rejoice for it is time to take revenge against the British Zionist Crusader government in retaliation for the massacres Britain is committing in Iraq and Afghanistan. - Al-Qaeda statement

    Al-Qaeda's propaganda insists that the ultimate cause of terrorist attacks lies with the victims of those attacks. "You caused this", they imply, "so you can prevent it." But Britain could not have safeguarded itself from terrorism by backing out of Iraq - or Afghanistan.

    Al-Qaeda is a professional terrorist organisation - it is not motivated by revenge, but rather its attacks are of a purely utilitarian nature. They are designed to secure the withdrawal of all Western support - military, financial and otherwise - from nominally Muslim countries, including financial support. (Again, to cause division). Al-Qaeda sees this as a prerequisite for the subversion of governments in the Muslim world. It wants the West out of Iraq and Afghanistan because we are standing in the way of its game plan.

    Those who subscribe to the "give the bully your lunch and he might not beat you up" school of international relations should think carefully about the implications of appeasing al-Qaeda. Aside from seriously risking the establishment of a terrorist state in Iraq, this argument also implies that we should withdraw from Afghanistan, terminating our hunt for al-Qaeda remnants. (Indeed, a withdrawal from Iraq would also be a retreat in a front of the war on terror).

    Al-Qaeda repeatedly attacked Western targets before the invasion of Iraq - Bali in October 2002, Washington and New York in September 2001, the African Embassy Bombings in Tanzania and Dar as-Salam in August 1998, the Khobar Towers bombing, and on and on. To appease Jamaah Islamiyyah, Australia would have to cease tourism and trade with its closest neighbour.

    Despite France's stance against the War in Iraq, the French-flagged oil tanker Limburgher was bombed as it left Yemen. To appease al-Qaeda, the West would presumably have to stop purchasing oil from and docking ships with, Middle Eastern countries. If al-Qaeda was given what it wanted, every country would be financially, diplomatically and militarily divided from every other country. It would be a world not of international cooperation but of fear.

    In the face of the deaths in London and in Iraq, it is difficult not to flinch. But to continue to follow the correct course is not callousness - rather it means these sacrifices were not in vain. Unfortunately, there will be more deaths in this war, which has been declared against us by a nihilistic foe. Obviously all efforts should be made to prevent such attacks, but when they do happen the appropriate response is to ameliorate the effects and hold firm to the right course.

    By continuing a united and steady course, Blair and the other G8 leaders have shown true leadership.

    But it is the British people who, by their quiet resolve, have rendered this attack a failure.
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