The truth about 7/7: it was meaningless

The UK government's 'narrative' on the London bombings shows how empty and pointless the attacks were. So why do so many try to read meaning into them?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics UK

Why did four British citizens blow up themselves and 52 others on a Thursday morning in July 2005?

From what we’ve read over the past 10 months – the reams of analysis, commentary and speculation – you might think they did it as part of some Islamist conspiracy, or to register their opposition to the war in Iraq, or because they were evil and wished to topple British, even Western civilisation. In fact, as the UK government’s narrative on 7/7 now reveals, there is little hard evidence that they did it for any of those reasons. The truth appears to be that 7/7 was meaningless; it was a nihilistic attack carried out by four fairly ordinary blokes for no easily discernible aim or agenda. And tragically, those who died in it may as well have been killed by an earthquake or in a train crash. It is time to stop trying to read meaning into 7/7, and get over it.

The very fact that the government has published a ‘narrative’, as opposed to, say, a political analysis, shows there is little of substance in the attacks to examine or explain. So instead we’re given the story of what happened – not why it happened (who knows?), but where, when and how it happened. We’re told that ‘July 2005 in the UK started with a strongly positive feel’, following the Live 8 concerts and the revelation that London would host the 2012 Olympic Games, and that 7 July itself began ‘unsettled, with heavy showers in places’ (1). Then we are treated to a minute-by-minute breakdown of what happened on the morning of 7/7, and an hour-by-hour breakdown of what happened in the days following, as the police discovered who the bombers were and how they transported their bombs from Leeds to London. Unable to provide an explanation for why four Brits turned themselves into human bombs, the government provides meticulous detail about how they did it and to what timescale.

The narrative shatters some of the earlier myths about 7/7, including those propagated by the government itself. The four bombers were not al-Qaeda-indoctrinated fanatics but young men whose ‘backgrounds appear largely unexceptional’. ‘Little distinguishes their formative experiences from those of many others of the same generation, ethnic origin and social background’, the narrative says (2). There was constant speculation after 7/7 that the bombers were directed by evil men from overseas. Remember those media reports that said Shehzad Tanweer, the 22-year-old who killed himself and seven others at Liverpool Street, had met senior Islamic militants in Pakistan prior to 7/7 – and that Mohammad Siddique Khan, the 30-year-old ringleader who killed himself and six commuters at Edgware Road, had visited Malaysia to meet al-Qaeda operatives? Well, it turns out ‘there is no reliable intelligence or corroborative information to support [these claims]’ (3). Khan and Tanweer did visit Pakistan, but it is still unclear whom they met there and why.

Indeed, for all the headlines in July 2005 claiming that ‘Bin Laden attacks London’, the narrative points out that ‘there is as yet no firm evidence to corroborate…the nature of al-Qaeda support, if there was any’ (4). Government ministers and terrorism experts insisted after 7/7 that the bombers must have been instructed by a Mr Big from abroad about how to make the bombs. ‘People like that aren’t generally capable of building bombs’, said one expert in August 2005. ‘There is definitely someone who has catalysed them, who has given them advice on materials, provided technical expertise and maybe paid for all this.’ (5) In fact, the four Brits did make their own bombs, in the living room of an ordinary flat on Alexandra Grove in Leeds, which they rented from an Egyptian chemistry student (who, by the way, was not the ‘mastermind’ of the attacks or the ‘fifth bomber’, as numerous media reports claimed post-7/7). ‘[T]he bombs were homemade’, says the narrative, ‘and…the ingredients used were all readily commercially available and not particularly expensive. No great expertise is required to assemble a device of this kind.’ (6)

And they paid for it themselves. ‘There is no evidence of external sources of income’, says the narrative. It is estimated that the operation cost the four men a total of £8,000, most of which was provided by Mohammad Siddique Khan, who had ‘a reasonable credit rating’, credit cards and a £10,000 personal loan (7). Even the initial reports about the four men possibly being warped by some British imam, perhaps in one of the mosques around Beeston, Leeds, don’t add up. The narrative says that the four bombers attended three different mosques irregularly, and that most of their personal bonding took place in a local gym or during outdoor activities. ‘Camping, canoeing, white-water rafting, paintballing and other outward bound-type activities are of particular interest because they appear common factors for the 7 July bombers and other cells disrupted previously and since’, the narrative states (8). Perhaps intelligence agents (and journalists) should spend less time sniffing around apparently dodgy mosques and more time investigating boy-scout outings or the extreme sports network.

The narrative exposes the gaping chasm between the myth and the reality of al-Qaeda-style terrorism. The myth about 7/7 was that it must have been an al-Qaeda-designed attack on Britain, for its foreign policy or for its close relationship with the US, facilitated and financed by fanatics in Pakistan or the Middle or Far East; the reality is that a self-financed group of four Britons, three from Leeds and one from Huddersfield, decided over a rowing machine or during a white-water rafting trip to commit suicide by bomb on the London Underground. The myth of contemporary terrorism is that it is a new and ruthless war against Western values by a network of radical Islamists; the reality is something more akin to the Columbine school massacre, where usually respectable young men either born or educated in the West decide for various different reasons, or none that we can work out, to kill themselves and scores of civilians. (Where the Columbine killers calmly played that all-American sport ten-pin bowling before killing their fellow students, the 7/7 bombers played the quintessential English sport, cricket, the night before blowing up London.)

Reading the government’s narrative, you can sense its palpable shock to have discovered that contemporary terrorism tends to be homegrown. Its earlier script – about terrorism being a threat from afar, requiring a war in Afghanistan, no less, to defeat it – counts for little in the face of the facts about 7/7. The narrative wrings its hands over ‘the real difficulty…in identifying potential terrorists’. Khan was a ‘role model’ to young people; Tanweer was ‘mature, modest and balanced’. There were reports that the youngest bomber Hasib Hussain – the 18-year-old who killed himself and 13 others on the bus in Tavistock Square – wrote ‘Al-Qaeda No Limits’ on his RE schoolbook. Yet as the narrative points out, ‘extremist doodling on his schoolbook was picked up but it is a long jump from this to identifying a potential suicide bomber’ (9). If every kid who did ‘extremist doodling’ had his or her collar felt by the law, the nation’s schools would pretty much be emptied.

In essence, the government has come to realise what we have argued many times on spiked since 9/11, and which we reiterated in an article titled ‘British-born bombers: not so shocking’ published five days after 7/7 – that al-Qaeda is ‘not a bunch of foreigners brought up on the dusty backstreets of Cairo or Ramallah and hell-bent on launching war against a faraway West; they tend to be young, respectable, often middle-class and sometimes naive men, many of whom were born or educated – and even radicalised – in the West. For all the talk of a “clash of civilisations”, al-Qaeda is a largely Western phenomenon.’ (See British-born bombers: not so shocking, by Brendan O’Neill.)

And yet, people still try to project meaning on to 7/7. The government tried it initially with its claims that the bombings represented an evil foreign threat to the fabric of British society, though it now realises that the bombers were cut from the fabric of British society. Understandably, perhaps, the families of those who died on 7/7 and the survivors of the attack try to give some rationale to the bombings by looking for someone to blame for them: Should intelligence have picked the bombers up? Were the authorities prepared for suicide bombings in the capital? The family campaigns for a public inquiry are also an attempt to render meaningful what were meaningless bombings, a way of saying ‘my loved one died because intelligence official A and government minister B failed to do their jobs properly’. They cannot accept the fact that, actually, there was no point to the bombings that killed or injured their loved ones, as that would no doubt make their grieving more painful. As the mother of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker murdered by a radical Islamist, said: ‘What is so regrettable…is that Theo has been murdered by such a loser, such an incoherent person. Murder or manslaughter is always a terrible thing but to be killed by such a figure makes it especially hard.’ (10)

Then there is the anti-war movement and commentators, who for the past 10 months have insisted that the 7/7 bombers were motivated by Iraq. This is still little more than speculation. There is little in the narrative – the most thorough account yet of what happened in the run-up to and on 7/7 – to suggest that the four young men had heated debates about foreign policy or were involved in political discussion groups. Mostly they seem to have been motivated by a burning desire to become martyrs (11), which is effectively the radical Islamist equivalent of becoming an overnight celebrity. Even Khan’s video statement saying why he bombed London, shown on al-Jazeera a few months after 7/7, does not directly mention Iraq. Media reports said the video proves Khan was driven by ‘Iraq and Palestine’, but in fact he spoke in vague terms about how ‘your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world’ (12).

Maybe they were pissed off about Iraq; maybe they weren’t. But even if they were, so what? Surely we can make better arguments against that disastrous war than saying, ‘Oh no, a former classroom assistant from Leeds hated the war so much that he led a small group to commit a random act of violence in London’. Certain anti-war activists and commentators are effectively doing the bombers’ thinking for them, by attaching a political rationale to their murderous assault. This has become a common feature of al-Qaeda-style attacks in recent years: some small group of people crashes a jet or plants a bomb for no immediately discernible reason, and then various commentators rush to explain why they did it. The bombers do the dirty work, and commentators do the intellectual work. What in fact appear as random and indiscriminate acts of violence against innocent civilians are dressed up as anti-imperialist gestures against an uncaring or out-of-touch West. It seems that al-Qaeda-style groups don’t need a political agenda, or to claim responsibility for their attacks; both of these things are graciously provided by commentators in the West in the aftermath of every bombing.

It is striking that in the rush to find someone or something to blame for the attacks – whether it be a foreign Mr Big, hapless intelligence officials, or the war in Iraq – we seem decidedly reluctant to blame the four young men who carried out the attacks. In all of the post-7/7 scenarios, the bombers are presented either as automatons or even victims who were driven to act by a religious or political conviction or by brainwashing. This was summed up by John Tulloch, a media studies lecturer injured on 7/7, who said: ‘I see the bombers as victims of greater forces.’ (13) The truth is that these four young men are responsible for what happened in London on 7 July; the bloodshed was caused, not, it seems, by an al-Qaeda conspiracy or by British foreign policy, but by the decisions and actions taken by Khan and his cohorts. And we still don’t know why they did it.

The current debate about 7/7 tends to overestimate and underestimate the problem of contemporary terrorism at the same time. The role of an evil foreign network in making political strikes against the West is vastly overstated, and the potential for any young British Muslim to become a suicide bomber is exaggerated – yet the problems in British society itself, where four seemingly alienated young men could take it upon themselves to kill themselves and scores of civilians, are underestimated and unexplored. We would do better to focus on what it is in mainstream British society that means four of its citizens can commit such an act, rather than searching for someone to blame or for a foreign conspiracy.

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Topics UK


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