30 May 2017
That the Manchester bombing was carried by
a British-Libyan has once again highlighted the sharp divide in the debate on
counterterrorism. Four days after the bombing, Labour party leader Jeremy
Corbyn made a speech clearly linking British foreign policy and terrorism
attacks in the UK.
He stressed that the war on terror is not
working, while making clear that this “in no way reduces the guilt of those who
attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and held to
account for their actions.”
Conservative opponents claimed he was
making excuses for terrorism and providing false pretexts. A Conservative
security minister said: “These people hate our values, not our foreign policy.”
The criticism that Corbyn leapt on this issue too early after the bombing
carried weight, but this does not mean his points, and those of many experts
who have stated likewise, should be cast aside.
A pro-forma debate littered with well-worn
clichés has always engulfed this issue, with the media encouraging a binary
approach. Politicians and pundits sit in front of cameras, sound bites primed.
Nuance and thoughtful discussion are abandoned. You could replay the same
debates after every terrorist atrocity over the last decade and barely notice a
The first obvious point is that direct
responsibility for an attack like the one in Manchester lies solely with the
perpetrators and those who helped inspire, plan and execute the atrocity. The
second point is that there is no excuse or acceptable rationale for killing
innocent civilians. But you cannot leave the argument there, as some do
effectively to shut down further discussion.
Responding to those who cite foreign policy
as an issue, opponents claim, as Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon did, that
the Sept. 11 attacks occurred before Iraq, so “there is no correlation” between
foreign policy and this appalling attack.
The threat from Islamist extremism predated
the 2003 Iraq war, but so too did anger against British foreign policy. Both
have their roots going back decades, and trying play a puerile game of what
came first proves nothing. There is deep hatred of certain values, but hatred of
Western foreign policy and its harmful effects exists too.
A toxic cocktail of background elements
creates the environment in which such extremism flourishes. Let us not
perpetuate the fiction that there is a one-size-fits-all reason why such
horrors are committed. In that mix, foreign policy cannot be left out in some
vain hope that the actions of the UK or its allies have not had consequences or
blowback. It is irresponsible and intellectually vacuous to pretend this is the
In the case of the US, the linkage is
clear; support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s had consequences.
That Daesh has flourished in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, countries in which
Britain had disastrous interventions, cannot be brushed away. Such extremism
flourishes in the horror of conflict and weak states, and Britain contributed
to bringing this about. Moreover, did the UK do enough to end conflicts such as
In the case of Manchester suicide bomber
Salman Abedi, events in Libya and the British role there were clearly a factor
in his radicalization. How can any Libyan view that role positively when
historically Britain backed King Idris, supported the US bombing of Libya in
1986, sanctioned the country, then lifted them in shady deals with dictator
Muammar Qaddafi, before participating in a military intervention to remove him?
Iraqis know that Britain both propped up
Saddam Hussein and removed him. Brutal tyrants such as Saddam, Qaddafi and the
Assads have contributed hugely to advance this extremism, often deliberately
for their own ends.
At the same time, like so many who succumb
to this extremism, Abedi was a second-generation immigrant who struggled to
connect to his country of origin and the one he was born in. Identity issues
and alienation are factors, as are gang culture, criminality, drug use and
mental health issues.
A similar synthetic debate shrouds the role
of Islam. Many point to the religion as the ideological evil involved. Yet many
of these young Muslims attracted to Daesh, Al-Qaeda and such groups have little
to no understanding of the religion. Some who joined Daesh bought “Islam for
Ending this threat will not be solved by a
different approach to British foreign policy, but it would help. Acknowledging
that British foreign policy has not always been right or successful is not
caving in to terrorism but owning up to a problematic past.
But it will not work without extensive and
prolonged efforts to address social inequalities and exclusion in the UK that
have nothing to do with the international scene. This applies to countries such
as France and Belgium too. Tackling increasing anti-Muslim behaviour must also
be part of the mix.
As Manchester has come together to tackle
the aftermath of the bombing last week, emotions are too raw for this debate
now, but it must develop beyond the point-scoring that elections inevitably
bring. Understanding the backdrop to such extremist attacks is key to finding a
solution to the threat that seems a distant prospect. Above all, we must stop
pushing the case that there is one reason and one magical answer.
Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British
Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after
graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at
Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British
parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.