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Fear (Part IV)… June 22, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Iraq.

According to various news reports today Al-Quaida had multiple plots during 2003 to hijack aircraft in Britain, the US, Italy and Australia. Targets included Canary Wharf and Heathrow (here). Savvy to the new security measures introduced on domestic flights A-Q decided that international flights presented less of a challenge, and had various gimmickry including stun guns and bombs that they hoped to use to storm cockpits.
According to the report, in words which will no doubt send an icy chill down the spine of aviation industry executives worldwide:

"The Department of Homeland Security continues to receive information on terrorist threats to the US aviation industry and to the western aviation industry worldwide.
"But there is no recent information to suggest near-term operational planning for an aviation attack within the United States."
So that's alright then. Or is it?
After all, the thrust of the report makes clear that the threat is likely to come "less effective security screening at some foreign airports".
In some respects it's hard to know what to make of all this. The information relates to events three years ago. There has been no significant Al-Qaida attack in Europe since the Madrid train bombings (depending no what one's view of the London underground bombings and their provenance), and none in the US since 9/11. The information was garnered from a computer hard drive, as I understand it, yet in some respects it appears like back of an envelope musings, although it will be interesting to see the detail, should it be forthcoming. And what's the purpose of the exercise? There can be few people who board an international flight these days who aren't aware of the necessity to be vigilant.

The big problem here is that Al-Qaida as an international terrorist organisation has gone remarkably, and thankfully, quiescent in the past two years. That's not to say it doesn't exist, but so far no sleeper cells have manifested themselves in violent acts.

And this is puzzling, if only because as an organisation it appears to thrive on symbolic and murderous acts. Which makes one wonder just how many A-Q terrorist cells exist out there? Perhaps many, but perhaps more likely few, and with relatively little capability to act in concert at the level we saw on September 11. Perhaps the Afghanistan war by denying A-Q a logistics base (excuse the pun) undermined many possible actions it sought to take. But it's possible that the Iraq war, in a fairly ghastly irony, turned the focus of those who might well be motivated to join or imitate A-Q away from Europe and the US and towards Baghdad and environs.

A further thought. So far, and I'm aware that tomorrow or the next day's headlines might bring news that would undercut the ideas I'm expressing here, the 'imitation effect' of A-Q within Europe and the US appears to be limited.
And this leads to another problem. I can entirely accept the concept of 'asymmetric warfare', but the asymmetry appears to be such that, although a real and pressing danger exists from Islamist terror and Al-Qaida in particular, it is on a level which is – at this point – relatively containable. Those carrying out actions on behalf of A-Q or those imitating it have none of the nous or expertise of the indigenous terrorist organisations previously seen in Europe. That could change, but probably not rapidly.
This has ramifications which those in power in the US and Europe might do well to reflect upon.
I've criticised Madeleine Bunting for an overly rosy view of religion (not that she's noticed), but in one respect she's absolutely correct. Crucial to societal security in the near to medium term is a serious political engagement with the broad moderate Muslim community in both Europe and the US – which arguably has remained steadfastly moderate in the past five years or so.

Superheated talk about hi-jackings arguably detracts from the much more insidious threat from home-made explosives and suchlike, potentially alienates the very community one wishes to reach out to, and serves to exaggerate fears of acts that while possible remain unlikely.


1. stringjack - June 24, 2006

In a vaguely-related kind of way, you might find this article interesting:



2. WorldbyStorm - June 25, 2006

Very interesting. A book I’d like to read.

Eric Hobsbawm wrote after 9/11 that the US could, theoretically endure multiple such attacks without significant economic damage, although with clear political and social damage, probably to the point of destroying it as a democratic state. But it’s hard to envisage A-Q, or any terror group, being in a position to mount multiple attacks of that sort. And even were one to propose that they somehow acquired certain specialised weaponry, that too would only have a relatively (if appalling) limited impact. That’s not to say they don’t have an impact. Madrid clearly had a very specific political effect – although not perhaps the one that was anticipated by the instigators of that particular crime…


3. smiffy - June 25, 2006

There’s a bit of a danger when looking at this subject as viewing ‘Al Qaeda’ as a kind of international terrorist organisation when it’s really more like a kind of shared ideology. It’s closer in form – but not, of course, in content – to the anti-globalisation movement than it would be to a multinational corporation with Bin Laden at the head.

Certainly a few years ago (from the late 1990s to around 2002) there was an existing international entity which could be described as ‘Al Qaeda’ but might be better understood as the Bin Laden network. But that’s been pretty much deciminated.

At this point what you have are various Islamist/jihadist groups and individuals around the world with varying levels of contact with each other and often with widely differing aims and ideologies. This has particular implications for an understanding of what the ‘drop-off’ in terrorist activities in the West.

It’s important not to make the mistake that many who watched Adam Curtis’ ‘Power of Nightmares’ programme did – they mistake the statement that ‘there is no such thing as ‘Al Qaeda” to mean that there is no threat from Islamist terrorism. In fact, the very opposite is the case. The fact there are so few links between various radical groups, and that so many are springing up almost self-formed (remember that the 7/7 bombers were effectively self-radicalised, and weren’t in contact with some wider terrorist network) means that it’s much harder to defeat the phenomenon.

I think the Iraq issue is a big one. It’s likely that many of those who would otherwise be involved in terrorist activities in their home countries (be they Muslim countries or European ones) may well be either attempting to travel to Iraq or by other means supporting the jihadists who are currently there. On the other hand, this will present a very serious security problem if and when the conflict in Iraq is resolved, as Iraq may well be proving to be a training ground for a new generation of radicals, just as Soviet-occupied Afghanistan was previously.

That said, the latest issue of Prospect magazine does give some cause for hope, as it contains an article suggesting that young Muslims in Europe (contrary to the stereotype) are moving away from fundamentalist, Salafist-inspired Islam and are looking at how the Muslim faith can be compatible with living in a Western secular democracy. There’s also an interesting interview with Tariq Ramadan on the same subject (which, of course, is his big thing).

Oh, two books worth reading on the whole Al Qaeda phenomenon and on radical Islam more generally are Jason’s Burke’s ‘Al Qaeda’ and his more recent ‘On the Road to Kandahar’.


4. WorldbyStorm - June 25, 2006

I think your point regarding a future increase in violence following the current drop-off is, unfortunately, very possible. I’d also agree that A-Q has no specific significant existence at this point. Or if it does, it’s one of being harried along the Afghan/Pakistan border…


5. smiffy - June 25, 2006

It’s possible but, again, it’s contingent on how the societies involved deal with the issue of alienation among young Muslim men and tackle those factors which contribute to recruitment to terrorism.

Without a receptive audience, there’ll be very little returning jihadists can actually achieve.


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