After 21/7: still hiding behind the terrorists

By continuing to link the attacks in London with the war in Iraq, anti-war activists are conferring authority on the bombers.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

The alleged mutterings of an alleged failed suicide bomber have been cited as proof that the terror attacks in London on 7/7 and 21/7 were motivated by Iraq. Osman Hussain, also known as Hamdi Issac and currently cooped up in a Roman cell after fleeing London for Italy in the wake of the botched bombings of 21/7, has apparently said that he and his gang were driven by a ‘political conviction’, not a religious one: they had watched ‘films and videos of the war in Iraq’ and felt they had to do ‘something big’ in response (1).

Players on both sides of the war debate now quote Hussain as if this pathetic wannabe bomber (allegedly) were an authority on international affairs. Michael Clarke, a professor of defence studies at King’s College London no less, reckons Hussain’s comments ‘highlight more graphically than ever the linkage between Iraq and terrorism’; the Daily Mail went so far as to describe Hussain’s words as a ‘serious blow to Tony Blair, who has sought desperately to keep the issue of Iraq separate from the London bombing campaign’ (2). Anti-war activists say Hussain proves what they knew all along: that the bombs in London were payback for Iraq (3).

As one who was implacably opposed to the war in Iraq, I have a question about Hussain’s claims: so what? So what if these five young men (21/7’s four failed bombers plus the other one who bottled it and dumped his rucksack in a park in Wormwood Scrubs) had Iraq on their minds when they tried and failed to execute their dirty deed? Why are their claims of a ‘political conviction’ being treated so seriously? That these isolated terrorists may have been motivated by Iraq is no more an argument against the war in Iraq than the nail-bombings of 1999 carried out by racist homophobe David Copeland were an argument for closing down gay pubs or repatriating blacks.

By all but lining up behind Hussain, and pointing to the bombings and failed bombings in London as the inevitable consequence of invading Iraq, sections of the political establishment and the anti-war movement are effectively using moral blackmail in an attempt to win the argument about the war. They are cynically stoking up fears of future terror attacks as a way of demanding a British withdrawal from Iraq. Those of us opposed both to terrorism and the war in Iraq should have no truck with them whatsoever.

Although no one will say it out loud, to suggest that the bombings in London are a direct response to the war in Iraq is to imbue these acts of terror with a progressive bent. The link was first made by left-wing loudmouth George Galloway after 7/7, but it now rolls off the tongues of various Labour MPs, military-linked think tanks and right-wing commentators – as well as, latterly and perhaps opportunistically, Osman Hussain. They always preface their attempts to link 7/7, 21/7 and Iraq by saying ‘Of course, terrorism is terrible’ or ‘The bombs in London were unjustifiable’; yet at some level they do, implicitly and perhaps inadvertently, justify the bombings, by implying that there was something progressive, something anti-imperialistic, about them. They effectively confer authority on the bombers, talking about them as if they were selflessly fighting on behalf of Iraqis – without giving a second thought to what Iraqis might think of their apparent representatives in London.

Not only does this give the terrorists far more credence than they deserve, it misses what is surely the central point about the Iraq-as-motivation claims. If the bombers were ‘motivated by Iraq’, it is likely to have been less an anti-imperialist gesture – less about responding politically to America and Britain’s invasion of a sovereign state and taking a stand against Western intervention – than about a general sense of alienation and disgruntlement with life in contemporary Britain. Iraq is the issue through which many have experienced a sense of dislocation from public and political life, and the same is likely to have been true for the 7/7 and 21/7 bombers.

You could argue that the bombers’ script was pretty much written for them by a political and media elite that has been squabbling over Iraq, and fretting about the potential for Iraq-related terrorism, for the past two years. Osman Hussain claims that he and the other four failed bombers of 21/7 watched gruesome films and videos of the war in Iraq that made them angry and vengeful. Perhaps they tuned in to primetime news programmes, which have shown horrible footage from clashes in Fallujah and elsewhere, including a film showing a US soldier allegedly shooting dead an unarmed injured Iraqi, and images of body parts and badly injured kids (4).

If they read the papers they will doubtless have seen photos of US troops torturing Iraqis in Abu Ghraib and British squaddies standing on naked Iraqis in Basra; such pictures were salaciously plastered on every front page under headlines such as ‘The destruction of morality’ and ‘The photos that lost the war’ (5). Some commentators explicitly linked this degradation in Iraq with rot at the heart of British and American society. One asked: ‘Why are we surprised at their racism, their brutality, their sheer callousness towards Arabs? Those American soldiers in Saddam’s old prison at Abu Ghraib, those young British squaddies in Basra came – as soldiers often come – from towns and cities where race hatred has a home: Tennessee and Lancashire.’ Then there is the ‘poisonous, racial dribble of a hundred Hollywood movies that depict Arabs as dirty’, and of course ‘soldiers are addicted to movies’ (6). In short, we’re scum – and that’s why we do scummy things in Iraq.

You do not have be part of a cranky terror cell to have heard the message – loud and clear – that ‘we’ are doing terribly perverse and disgusting things in Iraq and that we probably deserve to be punished for it. Indeed, security experts and political commentators have been anticipating such punishment for the past 18 months. Prestigious think-tanks, and even the Intelligence and Security Committee, have said that staying in Iraq will ‘increase the risk of terror attacks’ at home (7). Now that there have been suicidal terror attacks at home, these think-tanks and commentators congratulate themselves on their wonderful prescience. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that their dire warnings of a terrorist payback for the terrible deeds we committed in Iraq have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To the extent that Iraq was a likely factor in the events of 7/7 and 21/7, it is not that the bombers were making a political strike against the heart of the imperialist beast that attacked Iraq. Rather, it seems more likely that they were influenced by a self-loathing about Iraq that has its roots firmly in British society. That would explain why this apparently ‘anti-imperialist’ strike involved British citizens planting bombs in the British capital: these acts have their origins, it would seem, in deep moral and political uncertainty and severe self-doubt here at home, rather than in wars of intervention abroad. The upper echelons of British society have partaken in some serious self-flagellation over Iraq, while continuously fretting that some nutter would attack us for our awful deeds. And then we got 7/7 and 21/7.

But more to the point, and to repeat: Even if one of the failed 21/7 bombers now claims that he was politically motivated by the war in Iraq, and even if it transpires that all of the other 7/7 and 21/7 bombers were similarly motivated, so what? Why should that become the focus of the argument for those who want British forces to withdraw from Iraq? Writing in yesterday’s London Evening Standard, professor of defence studies Michael Clarke said, ‘one of the suspected Tube bombers claims he acted because of Iraq….is it time to pull out?’ (8) Why, because some failed bomber whose nickname is ‘Bambi’ and his mates didn’t like the war? On that basis you could argue that a reasonable response to the Charles Manson murders in late-1960s America would have been to allow Manson to join the Beach Boys – apparently, one of his many murderous motivations was that he didn’t make it into that band.

Pointing to the bombings and failed bombings in London as an argument against the war in Iraq is a way of avoiding having the hard debate we need. In place of an argument against Western interventionism, and against the right of powerful states to override the sovereign rights of less powerful states, we get this alternative: ‘If we don’t stop launching wars, they’re gonna come over here and bomb us!’ Rather than challenging the politics of fear – which both Bush and Blair deployed to win support for the war on Iraq, with their fantastic tales of Saddam’s WMD that threatened civilisation as we know it – anti-war activists and writers embrace it and try to turn it to their advantage. They are, in effect, morally blackmailing us into being anti-war, trying to scare us into opposing the war in Iraq: when the left-leaning New Statesman published a picture of a ticking rucksack on its front cover next to the words ‘BLAIR’S BOMBS’, it was almost a threat: Oppose this war, or else….

Here, the anti-war movement plays the same game as Bush and Blair, in an unsavoury competition to see who can terrify us the most. Worse, they seem to think that the actions of a handful of deluded bombers will do their dirty work for them and convince the British public that the war in Iraq was a disaster. I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to let a loser like Osman Hussain represent the cutting edge of opposition to Western intervention in Iraq.

Read on:

spiked-issue: London bombs

(1) Suspect says London attack aimed to scare but not kill, Washington Post, 31 July 2005

(2) Bombing suspects watched Iraq war videos, Daily Mail, 31 July 2005

(3) ‘Is it time to pull out of Iraq’?, Michael Clarke, London Evening Standard, 1 August 2005

(4) US probes shooting at Fallujah mosque, NBC News, 16 November 2004

(5) See Leaking self-doubt, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) The good guys who can do no wrong, Robert Fisk, Independent, 2 May 2004

(7) See Pre-emptive inaction, by Brendan O’Neill

(8) ‘Is it time to pull out of Iraq’?, Michael Clarke, London Evening Standard, 1 August 2005

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Topics Politics


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