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July 3, 2006

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Jodi Bart, UT Law Communications, (512) 232-1408 or Jennifer Lamar, Assistant to Professor Bobbitt, (512) 232-1090.

The London bombings: one year on

We haven't absorbed the lessons

By Philip Bobbitt
Published Sat., July 1, 2006, in The Spectator Magazine.
Reprinted with the author's permission.

Photo of Professor Philip Bobbitt
Professor Philip Bobbitt
Photo Credit: Rick Patrick

With terror, the murderous act itself is always nihilistic; it is the reaction that gives the atrocity political meaning. The meaning of the London transport bombings is that a society accustomed to the predations of the IRA and, within living memory, the terror bombing of the second world war will not be easily shaken. This stoic reaction masks, however, several troubling, less reassuring reactions here in London and in the ethereal network that connects al-Qa’eda.

While experience of the IRA may have helped cauterise the wounds inflicted on 7 July, it also misleads us into thinking we understand the forces arrayed against us. It is a popular European retort to American policy since 11 September to say that the only thing new about the attacks that day is that US citizens were the victims. Societies that have endured attacks by the IRA, Eta, the FLN and other groups are sceptical about American perceptions of the terrorist threat posed by al-Qa’eda. It is only natural, it is said, that the Americans, being unused to such attacks, should exaggerate their importance and their novelty.

In the 20th century, national liberation and ethnic secessionist groups used terror to gain the power exercised by nation states. Indeed, terrorism in the period immediately past typically represented nationalist ambitions — the PLO, PKK, Tamil Tigers and the Stern Gang are all examples — pitting established powers against embryonic ones in a struggle to control or create states.

Terrorism in the 21st century will present an entirely different face. It will be global; it will be decentralised and networked much like a multinational corporation; it will outsource many of its operations. This terrorism, of which al-Qa’eda is only the first exemplar, does not resemble or seek to become a nation state. Terrorism in its new guise has no national focus or nationalist agenda; it operates in the globalised marketplace of weapons, targets, personnel, information and media influence. Neither Europeans nor anyone else can claim familiarity with this phenomenon.

Second, the analogy to 20th-century, nation-state terrorism has led some to conclude that there is no more to fear from al-Qa’eda than there was from the IRA. When we realistically compare the apocalyptic visions of Osama bin Laden and the practices of the Taleban when they were in power, however, we ought to realise that we are not dealing with Michael Collins. Yet there are quite a few commentators who, still pressing the IRA analogy they think they understand, have simply concluded that there is no al-Qa’eda. It is a myth, concocted by the government to instil fear in order to increase the power of the state. The killers of 7 July are, in this view, a few self-generated sympathisers who identify with a distant struggle. Because they are not structured along the hierarchical lines of 20th-century terrorist groups, it is thought that angry Muslim bands spontaneously appear, and then manage to carry out complex, synchronised atrocities. In reality, as Peter Neumann concludes in the current issue of Survival, ‘this is a ridiculous distortion’. We can see that when we compare the 7 July conspiracy with the terrorist plot recently interrupted in Miami, where a true group of amateurish misfits tried to link up with al-Qa’eda and connected only with an FBI agent. Simply because the al-Qa’eda networks are less structured and are based on personal relationships rather than corresponding to military hierarchies — because, that is, they organisationally resemble Visa or Mastercard more than the IRA — does not mean that al-Qa’eda is an imaginary enterprise.

In fact we can trace the relationship between the complexity of an attack and the extent to which the terrorists had access to the financing, weapons and training by al-Qa’eda, even if this occurs through outsourcing to local groups. Marc Sageman’s extensive research of al-Qa’eda’s global networks has shown that unless groups of potential terrorists were able to get access to the jihadist network, typically through someone who had gone through one of bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan, terrorist plots simply fizzled out. ‘Without such access,’ Sageman concluded, ‘wannabe terrorists remain just that.’

Also, as so often happens with notably conscientious and optimistic societies, there is a good deal of victim blaming. The rhetorical barrage follows this sequence: 1. Illegal US/UK interventions abroad (i.e., without the authorisation of the UN Security Council) have reaped a violent Muslim counter reaction; 2. This irresponsible action of Tony Blair, which put the British public in the cross hairs, was in defiance of public sentiment against an invasion of Iraq, and won Parliamentary approval only by deceit; 3. Every new beheading or successful attack on Coalition forces in Iraq or Nato forces in Afghanistan is fresh proof that Muslims hate the Coalition forces, and yet our leaders do not listen; 4. If we simply left Iraq and Afghanistan, we would not be attacked. For these four reasons, we — or at least our leaders, perhaps — are said to be responsible, to some degree, for the 7/7 attacks.

One heard all these four elements in the videotaped statement of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7 July bombers, when it was released by al-Qa’eda with a commentary by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s second-in-command:

1. Until we feel security, you will be our target. Until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people, we will not stop this fight.

2. This is how our ethical stances are dictated. Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetrate atrocities against my people and your support of them makes you directly responsible.

3. Our words have no impact upon you therefore I’m going to talk to you in a language that you understand. Our words are dead until we give them life with our blood.

4. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.

Little in this chilling suicide note sets it apart from the views of editorialists at the leading British newspapers and TV channels or, for that matter, of most American academics. (I am sorry to have to add the obvious: that these opinions, which I deplore, are not disloyal or in any respect dishonourable; on the contrary, the diversity of the debate on this issue is one of our greatest strengths and the motives of the advocates with whom I disagree are not in question.) Many of these persons believe that it is the US and her principal allies who are responsible for the violence in Iraq and Afghanistan (point 1); that the terrorist attacks on the democracies that refuse to withdraw from these countries are to that extent justified or at least excusable (point 2); that these governments out of stupidity and relentless folly refuse to listen to them and must someday relent in the face of even further violence (point 3) and that the warfare we initiated has brought warfare home to us (point 4).

This critique has the most profound consequences for democracy. This is obvious with respect to Afghanistan or Iraq, where democracy is fighting for its life and where the implications of this approach — a precipitate withdrawal of Nato and Coalition forces — would abandon the nascent democratic regimes in these countries to the killers. It is less obvious, but also true, that this is the case with regard to established democracies. That is because this argument legitimises the attack on these societies by terrorists, and withdraws legitimacy from the democratically elected regimes that continue to sustain their interventions despite heated protests. It robs us of our solidarity — with each other, with the government, with Muslims in Britain, with allies across the world.

We also hear a paradoxical combination of complacency — owing to the modest scale of terrorist attacks thus far — and desperate fatalism, owing to their unpredictability. We hear this complacency in this statement by Lord Hoffman:

I do not underestimate the ability of fanatical groups of terrorists to kill and destroy, but they do not threaten the life of the nation. Whether we would survive Hitler hung in the balance, but there is no doubt that we shall survive al-Qa’eda. The Spanish people have not said that what happened in Madrid, hideous crime as it was, threatened the life of their nation. Their legendary pride would not allow it. Terrorist violence, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a civil community.

Of course al-Qa’eda is not Germany, and the bombs on the bus and trains were not equivalent to those of the Blitz. But one couldn’t be more wrong about the threat that terrorist violence poses once it gets weapons of mass destruction. Nor could one be less right in pointing to the Atocha bombings as a vindication of one’s opinions. It is precisely because the Madrid attacks reversed an election that terrorism succeeded. Terrorism is the extension of al-Qa’eda’s diplomacy. ‘Legendary pride’ hasn’t got much to do with it.

Yet the fatalistic reaction of the security sources quoted in the Sunday Telegraph isn’t quite right either. The newspaper disclosed the belief among most intelligence agencies that a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack is now inevitable. It is true that we should take little comfort in the relative modesty of the number of fatalities on 7 July. The objectives of these attacks were political and economic, and their point has been made. That should not lead us to conclude that the maximum lethality of this organisation has been reached. The means available to terrorists are unlikely to diminish in lethality and their use will be calibrated to the political objectives sought by terror networks. But neither do we have any warrant for concluding that the worst is inevitable. I am an optimist, which was once defined as ‘someone who thinks the future is uncertain’.

Finally, there is widespread confusion as to what the attacks are really about. While opponents of US/UK military intervention took the bombing to be a reaction to the Coalition invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, defenders of multiculturalism saw alienated and dispirited youths reacting to the condescending cultural isolation in which they felt imprisoned in Britain. Both these reactions capture something of the reality of the context for the terrorists, but they miss completely the meaning and moment of the terrorist struggle. The attacks were, very simply, about democracy. They were an attempt to impose an answer on this question: will democratically elected governments be able to pursue their policies on the basis of the judgment of their institutions or can their leaders be tempted into ransoming their population when the public is hostage to violence? As al-Zawahiri and al-Zarkawi have openly testified, it is democracy that renders civilians legitimate targets; it is democracy that rejects the demands of a messianic minority; it is democracy that is at stake.

This is a modern, perhaps even post-modern, version of an ancient dilemma. The lesson was written for us long ago: Be sober. Be watchful. Our enemy prowls around us like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.

Philip Bobbitt holds the Walker Chair in Law at the University of Texas; he is the author of the forthcoming Wars against Terror (Knopf/Penguin 2007).

Related Links:
About Professor Bobbitt: http://www.utexas.edu/law/faculty/pbobbitt/
Recent Essays authored by Professor Bobbitt: http://www.utexas.edu/law/faculty/pbobbitt/essays.html