Why Corbyn is right about terrorism
The only individuals responsible for terrorism are terrorists themselves. The world is not lacking for people with grievances. The vast majority would never contemplate slaughtering innocent people: they would abhor the very idea. That’s exactly what Jeremy Corbyn says in his speech today. Looking at the various causes of terror “in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children,” he says. “Those terrorists will forever be reviled and held to account for their actions.” And he’s absolutely right.
According to Godwin’s Law, all internet discussions eventually end up being about Adolf Hitler. Apologies for violating this sacred law. When we talk about how Nazism was able to seize and cement power in one of the world’s most advanced nations, we look at many causes. One is the punitive conditions imposed on Germany through the Versailles Treaty. Another is the devastating economic consequences of the Great Depression. Does doing so make us Nazi apologists? Are we any way minimising the horror of what Nazism did? Are we in any way suggesting that the Nazis are even a fraction less responsible for what they did? No. We are simply understanding how such an extremist movement was able to exploit certain conditions for its own advancement. And we do so because we want to make sure it never happens again.
Terrorism similarly can not be reduced to any one single cause. That’s what some do. On one extreme, there are those who simply say it’s an evil ideology to blame, the end. On another extreme, there are those who simply say it’s foreign policy to blame, the end. In truth, there are multiple factors. One, yes, is a murderous ideology which twists and perverts Islam, which justifies, rationalises and even fetishes the slaughter of innocent people. Another factor is disturbed young men, often afflicted with mental distress, often notable for their violence against women, and frequently previously (or even currently) involved in gangs, petty theft and alcohol and drug abuse. Another factor is a vast pool of resentment that exists towards Western foreign policy. This pool is populated, overwhelmingly, by people who reject and indeed abhor violence. Other factors have to come into play.
Don’t listen to me or lefties on this. Listen to security experts. A few years ago, Mehdi Hasan wrote an article littered with quotes from them: give it a read. Here are some. From the Joint Intelligence Committee:
The JIC assessed that al-Qaeda and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq.
From the Defence Academy for the Ministry of Defence:
The war in Iraq . . . has acted as a recruiting sergeant for extremists across the Muslim world . . . Iraq has served to radicalise an already disillusioned youth and al-Qaeda has given them the will, intent, purpose and ideology to act.
From Eliza Manningham-Buller, ex-head of MI5:
[W]hatever the merits of putting an end to Saddam Hussein, the war was also a distraction from the pursuit of al-Qaeda. It increased the terrorist threat by convincing more people that Osama Bin Laden’s claim that Islam was under attack was correct. It provided an arena for the jihad for which he had called, so that many of his supporters, including British citizens, travelled to Iraq to attack western forces . . . And our involvement in Iraq spurred some young British Muslims to turn to terror.
From another ex-MI5 boss, Stella Rimmington:
Look at what those people who’ve been arrested or have left suicide videos say about their motivation. And most of them, as far as I’m aware, say that the war in Iraq played a significant part in persuading them that this is the right course of action to take. So I think you can’t write the war in Iraq out of history. If what we’re looking at is groups of disaffected young men born in this country who turn to terrorism, then I think to ignore the effect of the war in Iraq is misleading.
From the consensus view of 16 US intelligence agencies:
We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives . . . The Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.
I could go on (but I won’t) — read the article for more.
The problem is debating this is intentionally made difficult by the prosecutors and cheerleaders of the war on terror. They simply smear anyone who does as apologists for terrorism. And in doing so they shut down a critique of policies which are leaving us considerably less safe.
All of these conflicts — not least Iraq — are justified on the basis that they make us more safe. That argument therefore opens a debate: we must be allowed to contest whether or not it’s true, but we are told it is apologia for terrorism to do so. I would argue that the bloodshed unleashed by these conflicts — and the fact that, in Iraq and Libya, terrorists were gifted large swathes of territory to organise and commit atrocities — is one critical factor.
There are clear counter-arguments here. Why are countries like Sweden, which didn’t invade Iraq, targeted? Let’s leave aside the fact that almost all Western countries are, to some degree, involved in foreign wars: Sweden has deployed troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. But even if it wasn’t, to return to the earlier Nazi example: neutral Norway was still invaded by the Nazis. A firestorm was unleashed, and it consumed Europe. Murderous extremism today is so widespread, and so radicalised, that its potential targets is completely indiscriminate.
The war on terror was launched 16 years ago. 16 years! And at the beginning, we were promised it would make us safer. 16 years is, I would argue, ample time to consider whether an approach is working. Here is a graph of terrorism deaths since 2003:
How can anyone call that a success? How many more years does this have to go on before we can say it isn’t working?
Another counter-argument is this. What about a Nazi terrorist like Anders Breivik, who slaughtered kids because he objected to multiculturalism and Islam. Do we therefore argue that multiculturalism is somehow a contributing cause?
It should be said here that I opposed the Iraq war because it was wrong. If I believed something was the right thing to do, but would risk fuelling extremist ideology, I would still think it’s the right thing to do. The proponents of the Iraq war argued it would make safer. It demonstrably hasn’t. We should be allowed to respond to their central assertion.
But it’s also a false comparison. One is a framework for managing cultural differences which some contest. The other is mass violence which results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of millions. With foreign countries — like Russia — we are more than capable about asking whether, say, the war in Chechnya has heightened the risk of terrorism. It is only with our countries where this is regarded as unpalatable. It is quite reasonable to debate whether violent instability plays a role in other forms of violence.
And again, to return to the initial point. None of this robs terrorists of agency. They are depraved, despicable, sickening individuals who cannot be reasoned with. They are entirely responsible for their own actions. Someone who abuses children may have been abused themselves: that does not make them any less responsible as a child abuser. People who commit crime are themselves most likely to be victims of crime: that does not make them any less responsible. The question is: what are the various factors — and there are many — which fuel terrorism? Has the current approach on terrorism succeeded or failed? And if we can’t debate this — and there appears never to have been a good time to do so in the last 14 years — then we will presumably carry on as we already have. And that’s why this debate only has one starting point: how do we defeat terrorism? And can you look someone in the eye and say, hand on heart, that the war on terror has succeeded? You can’t. Because it hasn’t. Yes, a hateful ideology plays a key role. But to pretend there aren’t other critical factors at play is a dangerous delusion.