The logic of the suicide bomber and the war in Afghanistan.

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Tom Harris has a post in which he rails against left-wingers suggesting that our government’s foreign policy brought Islamist terror, i.e. the 7/7 bombings, to Britain.

He calls it a “dishonest, craven and blindingly stupid argument” supported by people who want “to pin the blame for terrorism on the British government, and not on the murdering psychopaths who actually set off the explosives on London’s transport system”.

He also goes on to say “the war in Afghanistan is sadly necessary and the public’s impatience with the mission’s progress can have no bearing on the rights or wrongs of our presence there”.

Tom is being unfair. Only the tin foil hat brigade suggest that 7/7 was carried out by the government. All sane people have to accept that Hasib Hussain, Mohammad Sidique Khan, Germaine Lindsay and Shehzad Tanweer chose to blow themselves up and murder their fellow British citizens on July 7th 2005.

Of course the terrorists should be condemned for this atrocious act. That’s the easy bit. Understanding why people choose to engage in acts of terrorism is more difficult but ultimately more important if we want to prevent similar attacks in the future. Dismissing suicide bombers as psychopaths motivated only by hate and fanaticism is too simplistic.

Terrorism boffin Robert Pape has written of ‘The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism’. Reviewing the history of terrorists blowing themselves up, a tactic pioneered by Hezbollah but also used extensively by the secular Tamil Tigers throughout the 1990s, Pape argues that suicide terrorists are basically motivated by the down-to-earth desire to compel governments (usually democracies) to withdraw from territory the terrorists consider to be part of their homeland.

In their ‘martyrdom’ video the 7/7 bombers ranted against Western culture and presented themselves as religious nutters (as is tradition for Islamist terrorists) but also included clear criticisms of Britain’s foreign policy: the close alliances with the US and Israel, the decision to go war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the resulting “atrocities” committed against their Muslim “brothers and sisters” across the world.

Counter-terrorism efforts that ignore terrorists’ proclaimed motivations are doomed to fail. In the case of the 7/7 bombers it seems ridiculous to try to insist that British foreign policy had nothing to do with their willingness to launch suicide attacks on London.

Combine Pape’s analysis with the ideological pull of an interpretation of Islam that emphasises violent jihad and obligation to the ummah and it could be said that the 7/7 bombers were indeed motivated by a strategic logic.

As extreme Islamists they had come to consider themselves primarily members of a global Muslim community rather than British citizens. They therefore saw Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, etc, as part of their Muslim homeland that needed defending from non-Muslims. It’s the same logic that has led to British Muslims travelling to fight in Afghanistan on the side of the Taliban.

To me, it all seems very similar to the crude ‘blood and soil’ ethnonationalist politics of the far-right, which is partly why I think Islamism should be included as a target of anti-fascism. However, Marc Sageman’s brilliant book ‘Leaderless Jihad’ also compares Islamist terrorists to the volunteers of the International Brigades who went to fight in Spain during the civil war. It’s an uncomfortable but insightful characterisation.  

It’s not just anti-war lefties who argue that foreign policy plays a part in triggering terrorism. The Home Office’s 2009 revised strategy on countering the terrorist threat (known as Contest 2) admitted that “conflict” is a cause of radicalisation and terrorist violence. It reads:

“Conflict and the failure of states create grievances which can play a key role in the radicalisation process. Many Muslims as well as non-Muslims believe that the West (notably the US and the UK) has either caused conflict, failure and suffering in the Islamic world or done too little to resolve them. Military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan (and consequent civilian casualties), perceived Western inaction in Palestine and alleged support for authoritarian Islamic governments have all created controversy and anger”.

The document also predicts that Islamist terrorism is likely to persist because “many of the conflicts and disputes exploited by contemporary terrorist organisations show no signs of early resolution”.

I accept that allowing Afghanistan to return to the control of the Taliban would in all likelihood be beneficial to terrorist organisations that want to target the UK. However, it’s ludicrous to ignore the evidence that the prosecution of the war can itself radicalise Muslims into becoming terrorists. 

If it looks like the military efforts in Afghanistan are doing more to create terrorism than to hinder it, then from the counter-terrorist perspective the war should be ended.

Of course, that’s not the only perspective that needs to be taken into consideration. Our idealistic wish to encourage governance based on human rights in Afghanistan is an argument in favour of continued military presence, though these efforts seem more and more like a tragic farce. The need to undermine an insurgent force that could destabilise Pakistan and its nuclear weapons also stands in the war’s favour, yet military action may be causing more instability than it addresses.

But as things stand it is not clear what is being achieved in Afghanistan or even what the government wants to achieve. It will take more sophisticated arguments than Tom Harris’ to reassure the public that the war is worthwhile.

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