‘War on terror’ games

While acts of international terrorism are on the decline, fantasy terrorism is booming in the West.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

Ten people arrested in dawn raids in Manchester on 19 April were reported to be planning a ‘spectacular’ attack on a Manchester United game – apparently based on the fact that tickets for the game had been discovered in their homes. It now turns out that the men were United fans who had kept the tickets for old games, and all 10 have now been released (1).

Meanwhile, three bombs have exploded outside a police station in Athens. Although only one person was slightly injured, and an anonymous warning was phoned into a local newspaper, the attacks made headlines worldwide, and prompted speculation that US and UK athletes may withdraw from the upcoming Olympics.

These recent events show how the ‘war on terror’ plays out more in fantasy than in reality. Reports of the Manchester arrests shot around the world, with headlines declaring that ‘Raid averts stadium terror attack’, and ‘Soccer suicide carnage averted’. The raids were a spectacular in themselves, involving 400 police officers from four different police departments, swooping in at addresses across the north-west (2).

According to reports, the terrorists’ target was said to be United’s sell-out game with Liverpool, which would be packed with nearly 70,000 people. A police source was quoted as saying: ‘If successful, any such attack would have caused absolute carnage. Thousands of people could have been killed.’ (3)

All this bore little relationship to the arrest of the stunned Iraqi Kurds, some of whom had simply kept their old football tickets as souvenirs. According to a report in the Observer, at an early stage in the investigation it was thought unlikely that the suspects would be charged (4). One man says that he wasn’t informed of any charges against him – instead, the police asked only general questions, such as what he thought about the war in Iraq.

It seems that the war on terror has become a state of mind, where any shred of evidence sparks off fantastic speculation about the terrible things that might happen to us. Every arrest is seen as a foiled catastrophe; every old football ticket as part of a plot (just imagine if the police had discovered plane or train tickets). Small-scale attacks – such as the bomb attacks in Athens, which seem to be the work of local anarchists – are received with panic, as if the security of the whole world was under threat.

Sometimes such speculation occurs when there is no evidence at all of a terrorist threat. Concrete blocks have been placed in front of the Houses of Parliament in London to prevent a suicide bomber from crashing an explosives-laden vehicle into it – although no terrorist has ever threatened or attempted such an attack. We’ve seen an official rehearsal for a terrorist gas attack on the London Tube, involving hundreds of police, fire, and ambulance crews, with police cadets playing the role of victims. Meanwhile, a new report by Dr Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at St Andrews University in Scotland, considered all the different ways in which suicide bombers could attack Britain – from the lone suicide bomber in a crowded bar to a group of bombers taking over a building (5).

Behind these constant rehearsals for doomsday lies a deep paranoia. The terrorists don’t have to lift a finger, or even bother releasing one of their audio cassettes, for Western cities to imagine themselves being attacked.

High-profile counter-terrorism exercises also serve to demonstrate that officials are looking out for the public’s security – which covers their backs, in case anything does happen. Similarly, many of the security checks that came in after 9/11 – from the bag searches in official buildings, to the checking of passengers’ shoes and confiscating of nail-files in airports – are more about the ritual of security than the practicality.

We’re told that we all have a role to play in the fight against terror. Scotland Yard has launched a campaign called ‘Life Savers’, asking the public to report suspicious behaviour of anyone they meet – for example, landlords watching out for suspicious tenants, or motor traders noting anyone who pays over the odds in cash for a car (6). And plane spotters will now be given an ID card that comes with a code of conduct pledging to report anything suspicious. The chairman of one aviation enthusiasts club said, ‘genuine aviation enthusiasts can actually play a valuable part in the battle against crime and terrorism’, adding that the card would help to ‘identify the real, responsible enthusiasts’ (7).

It is difficult to see what good all this terrorism awareness could do, except for flooding the hotlines with useless information and increasing public anxiety. But the point isn’t really practical – if anything, it is more about people showing that they are responsible citizens.

While fantasy terrorism booms, real terrorism seems to be on the decline. After Madrid, Europe’s capitals were all expecting that they would be next – but it is more likely that Madrid was the exception rather than the rule. A recent US State Department report into patterns of global terrorism found that terrorist attacks are at their lowest ebb for years. There were 190 in 2003, compared to 440 in 1995 and 665 in 1987. Moreover, the bulk of the attacks over the past five years occurred in Latin America and Asia, rather than North America or Western Europe. In the main, terrorist attacks tend to be sporadic, and are carried out by small isolated groups to varying degrees of success (8).

And in spite of all the hype about al-Qaeda in Britain, there is little sign of terrorists queuing up to attack. Although Dr Magnus Ranstorp’s report won headlines such as ‘Britain will be target of terrorism attack “sooner or later”’, the report actually concluded that the danger from Islamic suicide bombers was small, and arguably little different to that posed by the IRA.

Suspected terrorists are arrested in a blaze of publicity; their release tends to happen quietly not long after. While 572 people have been arrested in Britain in anti-terror raids since 9/11, the Home Office believes that only six were convicted for terror-related offences – the same number as were sectioned under the Mental Health Act. More than half of those arrested were released without charge, while 99 were charged with offences not related to terrorism, and 54 were handed over to the immigration services (9).

The gap between the fantasy and reality of terrorism becomes more glaring by the day. It seems that Western elites are generating the terrorist threat for themselves – if terrorism stopped altogether, the alerts and arrests could happily rumble on. After all, why should a few facts get in the way of a good war?

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

Creating the enemy, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Man U bomb plot probe ends in farce, Observer, 2 May 2004

(2) Ten arrested in anti-terror raids, BBC News, 20 April

(3) Soccer suicide carnage averted, 20 April 2004

(4) Man U bomb plot probe ends in farce, Observer, 2 May 2004

(5) Britain will be target of terrorism attack ‘sooner or later’, claims professor, Scotsman, 4 May 2004

(6) Met urges public to use new terror hotline, Guardian, 22 March 2004

(7) Plane-spotters join terror fight, BBC News, 4 May 2004

(8) Patterns of Global Terrorism 2003

(9) ‘Majority of terror suspects freed’,, 30 April 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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