Tighter security measures will not help to tackle a homegrown terror threat that has grown out of Britain's military misadventures abroad and failed policies at home.
al-Qaeda is working to set up a cell in Britain to target attacks against certain politicians, such as Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, and to carry out other operations, according to revelations made on Monday's Newsnight.
The programme reported that British intelligence services were investigating the claims, but no one yet knows whether the call to arms posted on a password-protected website popular with “jihadists” is genuine.
“You don't ignore this sort of thing,” Pauline Neville-Jones, the former head of the British joint intelligence committee, told Jeremy Paxman. “It may not be a threat from an existing cell … but it does represent a move in the propaganda game.”
And we most certainly mustn't. Whether or not this is real or simply a dose of psychological warfare, the best way to eliminate the threat on British soil is not to tighten security, which could be futile since any possible attackers are likely to be homegrown, but to strike at the root causes.
The biggest single and most spectacular act Britain can undertake to mitigate the terror threat would be to pull its troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Hawks would dismiss such a move as a sign of moral cowardice and “giving in to the terrorists”. The less ideological will see it for what it is: an expression of moral courage, an admission of a monumental error, and the yielding to justice and reason.
I am constantly astounded by those who claim that there is no causal link between the terror meted out by the Anglo-American war machine and anti-western terrorist activity. Even normally enlightened circles can be prone to viewing terrorism in an existential and historical vacuum; it is far easier on the conscience to deny any culpability in making the world more dangerous.
But al-Qaeda has no hesitation making the link. It uses western military action and hegemony in Muslim countries as a rallying cry to recruit the young and disillusioned.
“In the case of the United Kingdom, the level of the threat in this country owes a lot to the government's support for American wars,” security expert Crispin Black writes.
Last June, Prospect magazine ran an interesting but rather shallow investigation into what motivated the young British bombers who took part in the July 2005 London attacks which left some 50 dead.
In his editorial to the edition, Prospect's editor, David Goodhart, claimed that the investigation “decisively refutes the claim, often heard in the weeks after 7/7, that [one of the attackers, Mohammad Sidique] Khan had been a well-integrated British-Pakistani Muslim driven to angry despair by the war in Iraq.”
Instead, Goodhart conveniently blames the tension between first and second-generation British Muslims for Khan's decision to kill himself and other innocent civilians. Meanwhile, Britain can rest its conscience because “the rest of us are largely bystanders in this generational conflict”.
While intergenerational conflict almost certainly plays a role in the radicalisation of a small minority of British Muslims, so does socio-economic marginalisation. But these are only contributing factors when it comes to the few driven to violent action.
Few people give themselves to a cause for purely abstract or political reasons – scratch below the surface and there is invariably a personal motivation. From the suicide bomber who blows himself up because he can't bear the indignity of unemployment and the daily humiliation of living under occupation, to the shunted lover who runs off and joins the French foreign legion, to the passionate anti-AIDS campaigner who lost a loved one to that killer disease – in the right circumstances, the personal sublimates itself to the universal.
If Britain had not invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, then Khan – and the other attackers – would have found no clear channel for their disaffection and he would have continued to teach and be a conservative Wahhabi fundamentalist in private.
Crispin Black suggests it is American culture that makes American Muslims not desire to be disloyal, as opposed to the case in Britain. I very much doubt that that is the primary reason why small groups of disaffected European Muslims radicalise.
I would say it has more to do with the differences in the circumstances of the two communities. A large proportion of disaffected European Muslims are descendants of the manual and semi-skilled workers who came to Europe to fill the labour shortages during the postwar boom years. As unemployment soared, their children and grandchildren were largely unable to pluck themselves from poverty, partly due to neglect in education and partly discrimination. And society did not give them much in the way of support to empower and integrate them.
In America, a large percentage of Muslim and Arab immigrants are successful and well-to-do professionals whose relative wealth and education enables them to get on better in society and shields them against discrimination and the harshness of being at the bottom of the ladder, distrusted and feared.
Some find it hard to accept that anti-western terrorism is “blowback”, but those people are deceiving themselves. In physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In politics, this law of nature is distorted – either magnified or diminished – by relative might.
Thus, a small and weak country like Cuba can suffer half a century of isolation for crossing a superpower, while the same superpower can bomb and intimidate smaller countries with relative impunity, and even blame them for it, cushioned by its military might and its geography.
Since it's easier and less emotionally challenging to grasp something when it occurs to others, perhaps it would be worth considering “blowback” in a non-western context. In Egypt, President Gamal Abdel-Nasser so distrusted the Muslim Brotherhood that he allowed his security apparatus to persecute them mercilessly.
One Islamist intellectual became so bitter and hate-filled at the torture he endured that he penned polemic works in prison which declared that all Muslim societies were “infidels” and living in “Jahiliyyah“, paving the way for the violent jihadist movement that threatened to tip Egypt over the edge in the 1990s.
Nasser's successor, Anwar al-Sadat, courted the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups to neutralise the power of the leftists and Nasserists who believed he was not a worthy successor to Nasser. When the Islamists started to oppose him, he cracked down hard on them, rounding up thousands, and eventually a radical splinter group assassinated him.
It's not too late for Britain to take the wind out of the “blowback” of its military misadventures, but it needs to act soon. Wisdom is far more effective than unreliable intelligence.
This year is the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue and it is a golden opportunity for the European mainstream and the Muslim minority to soul search and have an honest and sober debate that goes beyond the symptoms and diagnoses the cause of the disease.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 16 January 2008.