If we are indeed “at war with Islamic fascists”, as George W. Bush claimed last week, then it’s not going too well right now. The mighty Israeli army has been halted in the Lebanon by a handful of Shi’ite militia. America has effectively lost the war in Iraq, sacrificing as many servicemen’s lives as civilians who died in the 9/11 to create a dysfunctional state heavily influenced by Shi-ite Iran. The same Iran has defied America by continuing to declare its intention to build nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the British in Afghanistan have been stunned by the fighting capacity of Islamic militants who were supposed to have been defeated four years ago. In Helmand, we are told, British soldiers have been involved in their most sustained military engagement since the Korean war half a century ago. And now, of course, the civil air services of the west are paralysed after the bottle bomb plot. The shadow of al Qaeda is again darkening the skies nearly five years after Bush promised to get him “dead or alive”.
People often wonder why Islamic extremists continue to target civil airliners, when the security is now so tight that it must be almost impossible to succeed. Why not softer targets, like nuclear power stations, shopping centres. The answer is that air-terror is a no-lose option for the terrorists. If they get through, then there is a “spectacular” which will dominate the attention of the world, and likely provoke America and Britain into ill-judged and counterproductive retaliation. But equally, if they fail, they still dominate the world’s media, spreading anxiety among the civilian population and blocking the arteries of global capitalism.
Terrorists measure their success, not in body count, but column inches. Unable to mount a conventional war, they rely on the media to magnify minor acts of violence into national emergencies, and targeting air travel is the surest way to do this. Striking at the height of the holiday season ensures maximum media attention. Politicians overreact by declaring world war three, thus elevating a cowardly mass murder into an act of war.
Such atrocities also leave a wake of conspiracy theories. Look on the web and you’ll find no shortage claims that the latest plot was an invention. We’ve been here before, they say, with anthrax, Ricin, Menezes, Forest Gate, those tanks at Heathrow. Some Islamic websites seem convinced that the scare is merely the latest attempt by the “Jewish American” world conspiracy - aided by Pakistan - to justify new anti-terror laws and a crack down on anyone with brown face and a beard.
Well, of course, I don’t know whether last week’s plot was genuine or not - though all the evidence suggests that there was indeed a conspiracy to blow up several civil airliners. We know from the London bombings that there are many young British muslims prepared to martyr themselves by killing civilians, and we know they have the means. Britain is a prime target because of Tony Blair’s involvement in the Iraq in vasion and his support for Israel’s assault in Lebanon. It all fits. There’s no need to make it up.
But there is one other semi-plausible conspiracy theory. That America instructed British intelligence to move against a network they had been monitoring for over a year in order to distract world attention from the bloody Israeli action in Lebanon. They needed a breathing space so that the IDF could establish those “facts on the ground” prior to a UN-brokered ceasefire. It also serves as a justification for Israel’s actions. ‘See - Hezbollah types are trying to blow us up too’. It’s all part of one big war against terror and we should be grateful to the Israelis for taking them on.
Well, I’m as parnoid as the next man , but I still don’t buy the conspiracy . The pretence would have been too hard to sustain, and the consequences of being found out too great. Moreover, I don’t believe that, after the Forest Gate debacle and the accidental death of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Metropolitan Police would play along with such a ludicrous deception.
No, in my view, this near miss simply confirms that the proper answer to terrorism is good policing and intelligence work - not launching wars against countries you don’t like in the Middle East. However, thewave of suspicion that followed last week's abortive bombing confirms the gulf of trust that is opening between the government and he people - especially Muslim people. It is therefore imperative that we learn exactly what those twenty four individuals have been arrested for, and that proper charges are levelled against them. No doubt the White House would like the would-be plane bombers to be sent post-haste to Guantanamo Bay - but this must be resisted, if only to prevent the paranoid conspiracy theories from gaining traction.
The British press, of course, has already condemned them. Individuals like Don Stewart-Whyte, aka Abdul Waheed, the first double-barrelled terrorist, who, we learn, came from a suburban Tory-voting family. He had drifted into a world of drugs and drink until he discovered Islam. Within six months he had grown a beard and become a terrorist. Allegedly.
But for the sake of good relations with the two million British Muslims, Stewart-Whyte’s trial must be handled fairly, or else his place will be taken by ten misguided young men deluded into thinking that they are at war with the West.
Trouble is, our political leaders are as guilty of the Muslim fanatics of promoting war fever. When Tony Blair talks of the “arc of extremism” and a “war against civilisation”. When his Home Secretary, John Reid - who seems to have replaced John Prescott as Deputy Prime Minister - says the current threat is the “worst since World War 11” and compares bin Laden to Hitler. When George Bush declares “war” against “Islamic Fascism which will stop at nothing”, they are simply following the terrorist script. Bin Laden is laughing all the way to the West Bank.
Terrorism is a localised problem, which causes great inconvenience, but relatively little loss of life. Even the deaths in 9/11 - appalling thought that atrocity was - do not compare with the losses in a real war, which are counted in millions. Adolf Hitler commanded the greatest mechanised army in history, a force capable of seizing mainland Europe in a matter of months. He was only halted by the combined power of America and Russia and after the deaths of twenty million people on the Eastern Front alone. To compare Osama Bin Laden to Hitler is not only ludicrous, it flatters a relatively isolated fanatic who happened to own a building firm with access to explosives.
This overreaction is the mirror image of the Islamic websites and bookshops which claim there is a “Jewish-Christian crusade against Islam” and show images of women and children killed in the Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir. There has been much comment in the press and in TV programmes like Channell 4 “Dispatches” documentary about how these websites distort and misrepresent the situation in the Middle East. How they pollute young minds with hate. Use emotive images to convey simplistic messages. They surely do that.
But while the messages are distorted, the images are not. We have indeed killed tens of thousands of innocent women and children in Iraq and in Lebanon and we have seen some of the pictures of the Lebanese dead recently in the last few days. We have not seen similar images of the tens of thousands dead from our invasion of Iraq because the press was so tightly controlled, and the British press “embedded” with the occupying forces.
Hardly surprising, then, if lost young men, looking for a meaning in life, are seduced by the recruiting sergeants of Jihad, the Mullahs who greet them as they leave the Mosque. “Your faith needs you” - they cry, “Defend Muslim women and children. Death on the infidel”. These are were sentiments that converted London bombers like Shehzad Tanwer and Sidique Khan to extremism. According to British security sources, there are now at least 1,000 home-grown Muslims prepared to die in order to kill
Of course, America is not to blame for Islamic extremism. The fundamentalists were around before 9/11 and Bin Laden was hatching his plots long before the invasion of Iraq. But what Britain and America stand accused of is monumental incompetence and irresponsibility in their response to it. The ill-judged occupation of Iraq, the suspension of human rights in Guantanamo Bay, the abuse in Abu Ghraib. And now, the apparent willingness to endorse any action taken by Israel in Gaza or Lebanon, were exactly what Bin Laden and his crew wanted. A disproportionate response, preparing the ground for a regional war and a possible clash of civilisations.
By playing into Bin Laden’s hands, we have now turned thousands of British Muslims into converts to the cause of martyrdom. Even those moderate Muslims, like the ultra-loyal Labour MP for Govan Mohammed Sarwar, have been forced to criticise British foreign policy in the wake of this latest crisis."US foreign policy”, he said last week, supported by Tony Blair has weakened moderate, enlightened and liberal Muslims and has strengthened extremists". An NOP Poll for the Dispatches programme “What Muslims Want” suggests that 23% felt the London bombings were justified because ofBritish support for the US war on terror, and he figure rose to 31% among under-25’s. How many were privately cheering the plane bombers last week?
There are signs that the Labour Party in Scotland is beginning to get the message. Jim Sheridan’s resignation from his post as parliamentary private secretary to the Defence Secretary, Des Browne, suggests there is life on the Labour backbenches. There is even a suggestion that the MP for Paisley had the tacit endorsement of his boss. The Scottish Secretary, Douglas Alexander, had already made a stand against Prestwick being used as a stopover in munitions flights.
This belated dissent is to be welcomed, but it has come far too late. Britain has been dragged into the front-line of an unnecessary conflict by leaders who seem unable or unwilling to understand the magnitude of their failure. The invasion and occupation of a Muslim nation, under the bogus pretext of defusing weapons of mass destruction, as seen by many in the Muslim world as a war crime. The chaos in Iraq and the daily death toll testifies to the folly of the policy, as does the continuing threat from terrorist bombing in the West which the invasion of Iraq was supposed to eradicate. And still, in their uncritical support of Israel, Tony Blair and George W. Bush are alienating the entire Muslim world, from Birmingham to Baghdad.
We are led by fools, global agents provocateur who exploited our fears of terrorism to justify a show of force in the Middle East that has only demonstrated their weakness. Who pretend they are Churchills and Rooseveldts defending western civilisation, but who have, by their own stupidity and ignorance of history, undermined the very foundation of that civilisation by flouting international law and the human rights conventions established by the victors of WW11. Who lecture the world on liberty and freedom while dismantling civil liberties at home.
And now, after the abortive bottle bombs, comes another raft of security measures from a hard-man Home Secretary, John Reid, who is clearly revelling in this “super critical” terror alert. A Spinal Tap statesman turning his level up to eleven. Who says that”traditional concepts of individual rights and freedom are outmoded in the face of the 21st century terror threat”, insulting the memory of the millions who died in the last century to defend those rights and freedoms.
Oh yes, Mr Reid. We get it all right. Your “war” is possibly the greatest policy disaster ever perpetrated by democratically elected leaders. And it was lost even before it began.