Terror in the UK: A response to the recent terrorist plots in London and Glasgow

9.7.07

To date, I have not written about the recent –- and recently foiled –- terrorist attacks in the UK, largely because I was struggling to comprehend how it was possible that doctors and medical students –- people dedicated to saving lives –- could embark upon plans to slaughter civilians in the mistaken belief that it would please their God. When doctors and medical staff in Guantánamo were revealed as complicit in torture and abuse, they faced the undiluted condemnation of their peers, and of all right-minded people, and this, surely, is how it should be.

Like many Britons who opposed the Iraq war –- and who are opposed to the lingering, and very real colonialism at the heart of British foreign policy –- I find it hard to stand in solidarity with those who led this country into the Iraq war (or who were complicit in it), as I don’t believe that it’s possible to take the high moral ground without first changing our policies –- with all the economic disadvantage and geopolitical “weakness” that this would entail. To be fair, Gordon Brown has at least begun to distance himself from his predecessor’s rhetoric, instructing his officials no longer to refer to the “War on Terror,” and refusing specifically to mention Muslims when referring to terrorists. In a BBC interview, he described al-Qaeda as “a terrorist cause that is totally unacceptable to mainstream people in every faith in every part of the world,” and wisely presented the challenge facing Britain as a police action against criminals, rather than a clash of civilizations. As Seamus Milne pointed out in the Guardian, however, the government’s continued denial that Britain’s foreign policy has anything to do with the UK’s status as a prominent terrorist target is both “delusional and dangerous.” Milne explained that, like Tony Blair before him, Gordon Brown had called the terror plot an attack on “our British way of life” and the “values that we represent,” which was “unrelated” to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or any other conflict.

Nevertheless, there is a profound difference between expressing anger about British foreign policy and attempting to kill British citizens as a result, and I am reminded, as are many British people who lived through this period, of the conflict between the British government and the IRA from the 1970s to the 1990s. Whilst it’s perfectly comprehensible to me that Guantánamo, and the secret prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are the modern-day equivalent of the Maze, and that these prisons, and the control orders imposed by the British government on “terror suspects” in the UK, are the modern-day equivalent of internment, the corollary –- that these policies are a breeding ground for the massively increased recruitment of “soldiers” dedicated to the overthrow of the hateful enemy –- should also not blind us to the fact that, as in the 1970s and 1980s, many of these recruits, while legitimately angry, demonstrate through their actions neither a brave piety nor the noble cause of the “freedom fighter,” but rather a callous disregard for human life and a fanaticism that actually marks them out as psychopaths and criminals. There is no God in a car bomb, just as there is no God in carpet-bombing or caging men for five and a half years in Guantánamo.

If there is to be an effective response in the UK to the growth of homicidal criminals masquerading as religious martyrs, then it must come through dialogue rather than confrontation; through sincere attempts by decent people within all the UK’s communities to overcome Manichean suspicions of the “other,” and to confront individuals who represent their countries or their religions as weapons of vengeance or “justice” rather than as advocates of peace, whether these are false politicians defending mass murder in the name of freedom and democracy, or false imams defending mass murder in the name of Allah. As noted above, Gordon Brown has at least begun to make moves towards breaking with the style of his predecessor –- although much more remains to be done –- and representatives of Britain’s many and varied Muslim communities have also spoken out loudly against the latest plots, taking out full-page newspaper advertisements –- as they did after the 7/7 bombings –- condemning the perpetrators, rejecting any attempts to link criminal activities to the teachings of Islam, and calling for society to remain united. Speaking to al-Jazeera, Ihtisham Hibatullah, a spokesman for the British Muslim Initiative, one of the organizers of the campaign, said, “The overwhelming response has come from the medical profession. People in the profession want to be heard saying, ‘not in their name.’”

The need to react to the recent terror plots with a measured response has been highlighted over the last week in the reports of racist attacks on Muslim-owned properties in Scotland –- in particular an attack on an Asian-owned newsagent in Riddrie, in Glasgow’s East End, which was destroyed by what press reports described as a “massive fire and explosion” after being rammed by a car, an attack on an estate agent next to a mosque in Bathgate, in West Lothian, and damage inflicted on a shop in Alva, near Stirling, that is owned by the family of Mohammed Atif Siddique, a student facing trial for alleged terrorist offences, whose arrest in April 2006 has been criticized by the campaigning group Scotland Against Criminalising Communities and other organizations.

Another unfortunate side-effect of the fear and paranoia that follows terrorist attacks is a tendency to blur the distinctions between, on the one hand, the legitimate criminal investigation of suspects, and, on the other, excessive responses that make a mockery of the law, curtail civil liberties and lead to shocking miscarriages of justice. While Gordon Brown avoided a knee-jerk reaction to the recent plots, refusing to call immediately for an increase in the time that suspects can be held without charge from 28 to 90 days, he has already signalled his willingness to campaign for just such a move, pressing for an extension of the 28-day limit on detention without charge just a month ago, a move which, as the Observer described it, sent “a powerful signal that he will take a harder line on terrorism than Tony Blair.”

With this in mind, it remains to be seen whether the heightened tension caused by this summer’s terror plots will, eventually, see Brown push for three months’ imprisonment without charge, and whether it will also prevent him from addressing three other issues related to counter-terror operations in the wake of 9/11, which he has inherited from Tony Blair, and which urgently need addressing: the plight of the wrongly imprisoned British residents in Guantánamo Bay, the continuing, and illegal campaign by the Home Office to hold terror suspects without charge or trial, under the widely-reviled control orders that keep them under virtual house arrest, and the attempt to circumvent international safeguards preventing the return of non-citizens to countries where they face the risk of torture, imprisonment and even death.

All three of these issues –- which in many crucial ways are related to each other –- question the state’s ability to respond appropriately –- and with justice –- to the threats posed to the UK by terrorists, and Gordon Brown’s response to them will be as much an indicator of his desire to distance himself from his predecessor as his calm response to the recent terror plots. In an article to follow shortly, I will look in depth at these issues, examining the government’s motivations for its actions, highlighting the egregious human rights abuses for which it is responsible, and explaining why it is imperative that Gordon Brown returns to the rule of law.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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