While America prepares for the next wave of terrorist attacks, Britain is sleepwalking. Yet it is not too late to avert disaster
I have recently spent time talking with senior Pentagon officials and others involved in counter-terrorism. Their intellectual seriousness, and the global scope of their concerns, are strikingly different from those of their British counterparts, who are obsessed with “community cohesion” and the “radicalisation” of young Muslims. On these issues, the views of the non-Muslim majority population are largely ignored — except as potential “Islamophobes” with little or no say in the matter.
In the United States, by contrast, the Senate committee on homeland security heard evidence in April about the likely effects of a terrorist nuclear attack on Washington DC. The chairman, Senator Joe Lieberman, said, “The scenarios we discuss today are very hard for us to contemplate, and so emotionally traumatic and unsettling that it is tempting to push them aside.”
What was Lieberman talking about? A 10-kiloton bomb left in a truck by the White House would kill about 100,000 people and erase a two-mile radius of mainly federal buildings downtown. Most casualties would be burn victims, the majority of them African-Americans who work for the federal government. About 95 per cent of them would die an agonising death, because current capacity to treat such cases is limited to about 1,500. Since the winds blow west to east, the ensuing radioactive plume would drift towards the poor black neighbourhoods of the capital’s South East where there is only one hospital. Lieberman concluded, “Now is the time to have this difficult conversation, to ask the tough questions, and then to get answers as best we can.” One wonders what preparations for such a nightmare scenario are being made here in Britain. Are our parliamentarians asking these questions and enabling us to have this conversation?
As the main target of jihadist violence, the US has a sober estimation of the threat we face, and a polyvalent strategy for dealing with it. David Kilcullen, a leading Australian strategist attached to the US State Department, has dubbed the threat “the global jihadist insurgency”. This seems as good a term as any of the alternatives to the “war on terror”, use of which has been officially proscribed by the Brown government, even as local representatives of this insurgency process through British courts in startling numbers. The list is long: the mastermind Dhiren Barot; the men convicted in the wake of “Operation Crevice”; Younis Tsouli, the cyber-jihadist; Parviz Khan, who sought to film the decapitation of a Muslim soldier in a Birmingham garage; trials related to both the 7/7 and 21/7 bomb attacks in London; the eight alleged Heathrow planes plotters; and such fund-raisers and rabble-rousers as Abu Hamza and Trevor Brooks, alias Abu Izzadeen. A recent Europol report pointed out that in 2007 the British arrested 203 terrorist suspects; the figure for the rest of Europe is 201.
By contrast the US is fighting a global war against an al-Qa’eda-inspired nebula of extremists, with both arms and ideas. A vast array of analytic intelligence, is devoted to the threat. Leading figures regard this war as akin to competition between brands. They want al-Qa’eda to go the way of Ford’s Edsel, a notorious failure in the automobile market, rather than to strengthen like Audi, Coca-Cola or Nike. Part of this drive is to depict al-Qa’eda and its affiliates as “architects of chaos”, a term coined by the British general Graeme Lamb. Assistant defense secretary Michael Doran, head of counter-terrorism in the Pentagon, says, “al-Qa’eda builds nothing; it only destroys.” Doran’s object is to sow doubt in the minds of Muslims regarding the grimly narcissistic vision of universal Islamic victimhood propagated by the jihadists. Doran claims that we are “at the end of the beginning”, although any signs of al-Qa’eda’s decline in one region— say South East Asia— have to be balanced against its resilience elsewhere.
One strategy is to highlight the moral squalor of people who claim the moral high ground vis-à-vis the “decadent” West and its regional “clients”. The bin Laden family construction firm was chiefly responsible for the vulgar architectural modernisation of Saudi Arabia and made money from the deployment of US troops there in the 1990s. More effort should be put into exposing the criminal underpinnings of jihadism, including reliance on conflict diamonds, counterfeiting, drug-trafficking, fraud, robbery and so forth, not to speak of the prior records of fugitive British jihadist Rashid Rauf in an “honour killing” of his own uncle. The British government has still done virtually nothing to undermine the noble self-image of the jihadists in the eyes of those who are drawn to bin Laden as though to a fashionable anti-hero.
Puncturing myths is part of a broader US effort to break up terrorist organisations. The multi-ethnic composition of al-Qa’eda is one weak point, since rewards and risks seem to run along ethnic lines. The risks undertaken by Lebanese money-launderers handling conflict diamonds from West Africa are of a different order to those of a Moroccan suicide bomber. Interrogations of detainees reveal much bad blood between ethnic Chechens, Tajiks or Uzbeks and their Arab masters, who despise them. Al-Qa’eda’s bid for supremacy extends to its own cohorts. The organisation’s attempts to subsume local and regional jihadists are another strategic vulnerability, for there is little affection between Algerian and Libyan Islamists, whom al-Qa’eda seeks to co-opt with talk of a “unified Maghreb”. Algerian Islamism is itself riven with factional disputes about whether to focus on fighting the regime of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, or whether to pursue al-Qa’eda’s anti-Western agenda, thereby incurring the wrath of America, which already has a huge CIA station in Algiers. Franchising leads to loss of central control of how the brand is used by franchisees — most notably by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi in Iraq with his penchant for decapitation videos, a strategy that al-Qa’eda belatedly recognised as a PR disaster.
A modest freelance version of this approach is being essayed here in Britain by the newly-minted Quilliam Foundation, launched in April, which seeks to use former extremists to deradicalise young Anglo-Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Its prescriptions are far tougher than anything the British government has yet tried — including interdicting all Saudi funding of mosques and Islamic studies programmes.
Giving “hope” to potential jihadist recruits in foreign countries should assume tangible forms: installing fresh water systems or building schools, as well as substantial practical assistance for the victims of such natural disasters as earthquakes or the Asian tsunami, which the leading Islamist cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi claimed was God’s punishment of materialistic Indonesians and Malaysians. The combination of aid from the West, rehabilitation schemes and more aggressive counter-terrorism forces explains why South East Asian jihadism is in disarray. A positive message from the West is far more important than insistence that other peoples should precisely replicate our democratic systems — in the virtual absence, certainly in the Arab Middle East, of the wider civic society that took several centuries to evolve in the West itself.
The application of military force and diligent police work is indispensable to defeating the insurgency. It resembles the game of “whack a mole”, not least in requiring resilience from the participants. Capturing or killing the leadership of al-Qa’eda is essential to stalling its momentum. Readers will recall that after a bloody military conflict that resulted in the deaths of 70,000 Peruvian peasants, a small team of detectives in 1992 captured the Sendero Luminoso leader, Abimael Guzman, after they tracked couriers bearing an ointment he needed to treat his psoriasis. The movement further fractured when his successor Oscar Ramirez was picked up in 1999.
So where is Osama bin Laden? He is believed to be sheltering in the Pashtun-dominated Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. According to the expert Steve Coll, he is in or around the Taleban stronghold of Miram Shah. Al-Qa’eda is seeking to establish a territorial base akin to the one it enjoyed under the Afghan Taleban. The August 2006 Waziristan Accords between Pervez Musharraf and the local tribal elders disastrously facilitated this regrouping. Some claim that the fractiousness of these tribes means that al-Qa’eda has to constantly focus on squaring some of them rather than mounting major international terrorist operations. The central organisation is also running short of money, judging by its reported dependence on robbing European banks to replenish its coffers, or jihadists who launder money through online gaming sites with the aid of stolen credit cards.
The war in Afghanistan is an “economy of force” operation, partly because of US commitments in Iraq, partly because of Nato “national caveats”, such as a Luftwaffe that refuses to fly at night, or Turkish troops which Ankara refuses to deploy in the south. With a light footprint, because of local political constraints, the US is using cross-border Predator drone missile attacks to complement the activities of thousands of Pakistani Frontier Corps in eliminating key al-Qa’eda figures. Fatalities have included Abu Laith al-Libi, hit by a US missile in January this year in north Waziristan, which checked his efforts to synchronise the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group with al-Qa’eda in the Maghreb. Unfortunately, billion-dollar aid packages, designed to win over Pashtun tribesmen, have stuck to the fingers of the Pakistani armed forces, who regard it as their reward for the sacrifice of some 700 dead. There has been more success across the Afghan border with the grassroots National Solidarity Programme, involving micro-reconstruction schemes that rely upon 80 per cent indigenous labour, and in building a national army that is now about 70,000 strong. Even so, in April the Taleban were still capable of mounting an assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai at a parade in Kabul.
Because of the multiple pressures jihadists have experienced in Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, al-Qa’eda has been consolidating its affiliates in Iraq or the Islamic Maghreb, while extending its operations to some of the vast sub-Saharan Sahel states from Mali and Mauritania eastwards to Somalia and Yemen. The pro-Islamist Yemeni government has been releasing al-Qa’eda operatives, including those who killed 17 US sailors on the USS Cole in 2000, and who then went on to launch further attacks on US interests, as well as Belgian and Spanish tourists. More tourists have been killed in Mauritania, which became unstable enough to warrant the cancellation of the Paris-Dakar rally. Two sets of police raids in Turkey, in January and April, which netted about 50 suspects, have shed light on al-Qa’eda’s attempts to build a parallel society there, reminiscent of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere. The police discovered a network of underground mosques and a separate education system. As in Britain, potential terrorists went abroad for training.
One “jihadi region” where people receive training is, of course, Iraq. The occupation may have exacerbated the global insurgency, but it did not inaugurate activities that go back to the 1970s. They included Noor Mohammed’s jihadist revolt in Waziristan, and such apparently bizarre events as Juhaiman al-Otaibi’s invasion of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, before Islamism erupted in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, the Middle East and South Asia.
After three years of horrendous death tolls in Iraq, the US has succeeded in turning the “Sunni Awakening Movement” against the foreign al-Qa’eda-inspired jihadists, many of them from Libya or Saudi Arabia. Local people balked at such Islamist customs as breaking the fingers of smokers or shooting anyone selling alcohol. The Sunni counter-insurgents may not relish US occupation, but they like the jihadist reign of terror even less. Despite Britain’s embarrassing cession of control of Basra to rival militias, a similar Shiite tribal backlash has occurred against the Iranian-backed forces of Muqtada al-Sadr.
These developments reflect the success of the surge led by Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, who deployed five extra combat brigades to deny al-Qa’eda the outlying and suburban bases from which to mount attacks in city centres, before pursuing them in follow-up operations such as “Phantom Strike”. This set the conditions for a Shia-dominated government deploying its own troops to fight Shia militias. A measure of the surge’s success, apart from dramatically reduced monthly death tolls, is the evidence from captured correspondence to the effect that recruitment of foreign jihadis has significantly fallen. Senior al-Qa’eda leaders have urged jihadists to curb the sectarian violence that has alienated so many ordinary Iraqis. A recent poll by ABC news reported that 59 per cent of Iraqis say their lives are “going well” while a striking 49 per cent say that the US was “right to invade Iraq”.
No European country faces the global challenges confronting the US, which partly explains why only the US has developed the coherent range of responses outlined above. Because of its success in integrating Arab immigrants (many of whom are Christian refugees) the US largely faces an external threat. Europeans face one hatching among second or third generation North Africans, Bangladeshis or Pakistanis, not to speak of the indigenous converts whom al-Qa’eda is actively recruiting. They have included the Sauerland cell detained in Germany in 2007, as well as those rounded up in late April 2008 from the purlieus of the Multicultural House mosque in Ulm — an appropriately named monument to that disgraced ideology.
Little can be said to fault combined European counter-terrorist and intelligence efforts against jihadi terrorists. Each service brings different strengths to the table: for example, the Dutch AIVD is strong in understanding jihadist use of Internet chatrooms, while the French have been conspicuously robust in monitoring clerical subversion inside a fraction of France’s mosques. Despite the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” rhetoric, US intelligence fully recognises the achievements of French juges d’instruction — one of the reasons that the European headquarters of CIA (and Mossad) counterterrorism efforts is in Paris. None of this has prevented the French from pursuing a highly nuanced diplomacy in the Middle East.
Weakness commences at a political level, largely because of the institutionalised effects of officially-decreed multiculturalism, and a failure to do much about the impact of population movements on the host culture and economy. The failure of European governments to get a grip on what are still relatively small Muslim minorities provokes exasperation in America.
Many of the 1.6 million Muslims living in Britain, for example, still do not seem to fully appreciate the outrage that a finger-jabbing minority causes at home and abroad with each escalating demand for Islamist enclaves. Like perennial students, New Labour favours debate and dialogue, except when it involves matters of overriding concern to ordinary people, in which case Trevor Phillips is left to stick his head above the parapet. In dealing with the Muslim Council of Britain, the British Government unwittingly accepted as “community” interlocutors men who, in line with salafi-jihadi propaganda, blamed Islamist terrorism primarily on British foreign policy, while failing to condemn unequivocally suicide bombing outside the UK. Virtually nothing is being done to stem the flow of Wahabist money (and the attendant intolerant ideology) not only into mosques but university “Islamic studies” programmes, whose ideologically-slanted nature has been exposed in a report published last month by the Centre for Social Cohesion. The author, Anthony Glees, argues that pro-free speech arguments (and there is little free speech at all when it comes to Israel) are being used by the authorities to slip out of public responsibility towards taxpayers.
But others with far greater power than academia are also complicit in this process. Did major banks think about the cultural implications of sharia-compliant finance, which is conspicuously absent in Egypt? This was allowed by Gordon Brown without triggering the public outrage that attended the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sly unclarities about sharia law. The police — in their capacity as the paramilitary wing of the Guardian — seem to be turning a blind eye to “honour crimes” and to the informal resort to sharia law, even when this involves manifestly criminal offences.
A robust response to the jihadist threat is also stymied by ideologue lawyers who have made a decent living out of defending terrorists; and by judges who, with honourable exceptions, seem to have greater allegiance to abstract notions of human rights than they do to the primary right of people in Britain not to be blown to pieces. Attempts to free the alleged al-Qa’eda leader in Europe, Abu Qatada, on the grounds that he might be tortured or convicted by torture-tainted testimony in Jordan, are a national disgrace. Judges have also recently undermined the government’s attempts to interdict terrorist financing — even in the case of a dangerous al-Qa’eda operative known for legal reasons as “G”— after having subverted the regime of control orders that was introduced at their behest after they themselves had released detainees from long-term custody in Belmarsh. Even the Royal Navy is reluctant to detain Somali pirates lest they claim asylum (and benefits) because their “human rights” might be infringed in Saudi Arabia, Somalia or Yemen.
Government attempts to sponsor British citizenship and values to counteract the multiculturalism propagated by a previous wave of state patronage seem tired and unconvincing. There seems little credibility behind requesting Muslims to “become us” when that evidently implies to them a culture of considerable coarseness: binge-drinking, crime, drugs and chronic family breakdown. Why not try to insulate yourself within the various ghettos that Britain has complacently allowed to form, and which Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali says are becoming no-go areas for non-Muslims?
Politicians throughout Europe nowadays remind us that, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently remarked, “Germany’s frontiers begin on the Hindu Kush”. The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has also confirmed that 70 per cent of British terrorist plots have some link to Pakistan. But one has yet to hear a British politician of any stripe talk about what changes they wish to see in the Muslim world — for example in Saudi Arabia, to whom we sell arms in return for passively accepting their citizens’ funding of subversive religious activities here in Britain. By contrast, Nicolas Sarkozy’s imaginative plan to give North Africa (and Israel) EU associate status suggests that he has expanded his horizons since 9/11 and is not transposing the Cold War on to our relations with global Islam.
Anything that serves to strengthen more liberal Muslim voices in Indonesia or Turkey, vis-à-vis a Gulf world which many Arabs and North Africans themselves abominate, is worth encouraging. The Turkish ministry of religious affairs has boldly sought to conform the Hadith — the sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed on which so much of Islam depends — to life in the 21st century.
It may be that the dictators — the Assads, Bouteflikas, Mubaraks, Gaddafis and others — will cling on to power much longer than optimists may imagine. However, should that not happen, how will the West help those moderates who will find themselves in temporary oppositional coalitions with reformist elements of these regimes and the Islamists? For it is useful to remember that in 1992 some 300,000 people demonstrated in Algiers under the slogan “no to a police state, and no to rule by clerics”. How do we ensure such a coalition does not go the way of the one that toppled the Shah of Iran, after which Khomeinites imprisoned or murdered their secular allies? If such forces fail to coalesce, how will the West persuade regimes which restrict oil and gas profits to narrow elites to reinvest them in developments that might benefit the unemployed young of these countries? The alternative of turning a blind eye to rampant corruption, while such regimes exploit the war on terror to crush democratic opponents as well as fundamentalist protest voters, is morally untenable.
We began with a US Senate committee confronting unthinkable horrors. Our policy-makers apparently prefer to focus on the conceit of exporting Northern Ireland’s idiosyncratic model of “conflict resolution” as far away as Sri Lanka. This smacks of a last spasm of self-congratulatory post-imperial hubris, or “punching above our weight”. How strange for Des Browne or Jonathan Powell to be talking about dialogue with Hamas, Hezbollah — with whom the British are not at war — and the Taleban (or in Powell’s case even al-Qa’eda) when we can’t even get on top of a local difficulty with Anglo-Pakistanis that threatens the lives of passengers flying to or from British airports.
The one British politician who grasps the need to be as frank as our American (or Australian) cousins about the threat from terrorists “who are actively plotting indiscriminate slaughter on a massive scale” is not the Prime Minister, who appears to be nostalgic for the globalising vapidities that thrill Davos seminars, but the Leader of the Opposition. David Cameron has a strong team behind him: David Davis, Paul Goodman, Michael Gove, Gerald Howarth and Baroness Neville-Jones.
David Cameron both understands the existential threat from jihadism and has comprehensive ideas about how to combat it which will link foreign, defence and security policies. He is fully conscious of the need to balance ancient liberties with the right to stay alive. Like the US, Britain needs a dedicated border police and defences against terrorism that commence at the stage when someone purchases an air ticket. His plans also include dismantling the bureaucratic residue of state multiculturalism so that councils do not end up funding fronts of the Muslim Brotherhood. The banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir which, as renegade members have amply testified, functions as a conveyor-belt to extremism, and the deportation of foreign agitators also figure on Cameron’s programme. Any appeal they might mount should take place after they have already been deported. They can pay for their own human rights lawyers. Cameron plans to replace the European Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights.
What we await are his ideas for a new set of relationships with those populous parts of the wider Muslim world that do not suffer from the same grim pathologies as Arabia. During King Abdullah’s recent visit to Britain, Cameron reminded the Saudis of their obligations to our security. Cosy chats about horses and oil with a handful of Gulf oil sheikhs, while neglecting Egypt, Indonesia or Turkey, are no longer enough in the post-9/11 world. A more imaginative approach to the wider Muslim world should go together with a much clearer statement of what the domestic majority are or are not prepared to tolerate and with an implacable determination to defeat terrorism. That is the difference between a proper strategy and the present government’s alternation of appeasement with knee-jerk authoritarianism.