From a strategic point of view terrorism has a dismal predictability. Whatever its context or motivation its central objectives are usually the same: a) to provoke a militarily more powerful opponent into an overreaction that will strain its opponent’s resources and draw it into a debilitating confrontation from which the terrorist hopes to gain in the long run b) to re-engineer society so that there are no spaces for moderation or neutrality – only two sides locked into all-out war c) to undermine the political authority of the state by demonstrating that it cannot protect its own people.
Around these central aims other factors may also come into play: simple vengeance for a real or imagined grievance; the desire to demonstrate the power and reach of the terrorist organisation or cause; rage at the real or imagined indifference of the targeted society towards acts of violence and repression for which its government may be responsible.
These components have been replayed again and again in different ways in one terrorist emergency after another, so on one level the horrors that are now unfolding globally are not entirely unprecedented. What is new is the sustained and calculated barbarity of the attacks that are now unfolding. In country after country we are witnessing what are essentially crimes against humanity carried out by a variety of ‘jihadist’ groups who have clearly abandoned even paying lip service to rules and customs of war established over thousands of years.
These groups are not constrained by any moral or ethical limits. Children, women, the elderly, teenage girls at a concert, pregnant women, gays, lesbians, nightclubbers, booksellers, shoppers in markets – no targets are off-limits.
They call themselves soldiers and walk around in military fatigues but they are more like einsatzgruppen – petty exterminators drifting out of a druggy haze into the fervor of overnight ‘conversions’ that only seem to have one aim: to give them permission to perpetrate more horrors that disgrace the name of humanity. They call themselves Muslims, but the only thing that seems to interest them about Islam is its usefulness as a license for violence and killing.
Historically there is nothing uniquely Islamic about such barbarity. A cursory look back at the conquistadores; the French Wars of Religion; the Thirty Years War; World War II or more recently the wars of the former Yugoslavia should quickly dispel such illusions. Anders Breivik; the killing of Jo Cox; last month’s murders in Portland – let no one imagine that violence of this kind is due to the special proclivity of any particular race, faith or culture towards cruelty.
But in recent years there has been – and we should not dodge this issue – a proliferation of reactionary, tyrannical and misogynistic groups acting in the name of Islam that are trying to implement the historic strategies of revolutionary terrorism at a global level with exceptional ferocity. Their essential philosophy was once defined in an epigram in the so-called ‘al-Qaeda training manual’ used by the Afghan mujahideen as they prepared to wage war on the secular tyrannies of the Middle East, which declared:
‘The confrontation that Islam calls for with these godless and apostate regimes does not know Socratic dialogues, Platonic ideals, nor Aristotelean diplomacy. But it knows the dialogue of bullets, the ideals of assassination, bombing and destruction, and the diplomacy of the cannon and machine-gun.’
This is morally-speaking, the language of cavemen coupled with the exaltation of violence that you might once have found in Italian futurism or fascism. In the last two weeks British society has been subjected to two utterly horrendous attacks by groups and individuals that subscribe to this philosophy.
There are many reasons why this has happened: the corruption, violence and tyranny of post-colonial regimes in the Middle East (sometimes with Western support and sometimes not); the wars in which successive British governments have recklessly involved themselves for more than fifteen years; the dirty games that elements of the British state have played with some of the same jihadists who are now carrying out attacks here; problems of identity, integration and alienation amongst second and third generation Muslim immigrants that have led some young Muslims to seek some kind of meaning and purpose in wars that have clearly brutalised them and annihilated any capacity for mercy, decency or empathy they may once have had.
Whatever the individual motivations of their perpetrators, the atrocities and crimes that they have carried out have a clear strategic purpose. They are a form of social engineering, designed to be as disgusting and cruel as possible, in the hope of paving the way for a future of endless violence and heroic war.
The individuals and groups that carry out such attacks want no spectators or bystanders, particularly amongst Muslims. They want all Muslims to join in the great confrontation that ‘Islam’ calls for – their version of it anyway – and they are prepared to bring down hell on entire communities in order to ensure this result. Contrary to the endless rhetoric that they simply hate us because of our ‘values’ or are continuing some ancestral war against the ‘West’, they are also prepared to kill Muslims, and have in fact done so in huge numbers.
Despite the anathema that our government pronounces on such groups, Western governments including our own have sometimes used them for their own ends, for example in Afghanistan and Libya, and sometimes they have been used by them. No government will ever admit to this of course, and so tragically, the public is rarely aware of the ‘blowback’ that can sometimes occur as a result of such linkages.
Instead governments prefer to use ill-defined and nebulous notions of ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalisation’ that end up targeting people who may not have done anything wrong or have any intention of carrying a violent act, and which too easily cast suspicion across entire communities. Or else they invent new legal categories that justify ‘extraordinary rendition’ and indefinite detention that merely bring new recruits driven by bitterness, rancour and revenge.
So we are facing an incredibly dangerous, and in fact critical threat to our ‘way of life’, in terms of its potential longterm political and social consequences. Not only are these groups a real threat to the ‘soft targets’ who they are using to pursue their objectives, but they have a very real possibility of getting precisely the outcome they are seeking.
However last night’s unholy trio drifted into the moral wasteland in which they found themselves, their actions were ultimately strategic: they were designed to reach into the fascist underbelly of British society, and promote division, rage and hatred. These attacks may have been planned long before an election was decided, but it is difficult to believe that two high-profile atrocities were carried out during an election campaign by mere coincidence.
These men know what kind of government they’re dealing with. They know that UK society is coursing with fear and hatred towards immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. They want more of it, because hatred and repression to them is the ‘true face’ of the British state and of British society that they want to reveal to their would-be constituency.
And there is no shortage of hatred about. Before the blood had even dried last night, social media fora were gushing with hate towards Muslims, Islam, ‘Liberals’, migrants, Jeremy Corbyn, Sadiq Khan, ‘political correctness’ or whatever else was supposed to have been responsible for the attacks at London Bridge. The murderers are dead now, as they no doubt intended to be, but were they alive they would surely have been satisfied to hear the talk of deportations, internment and above all – war, because if there is any one point in which the terrorists and the far-right coincide, it’s in the belief that ‘war’ is some kind of solution or morally-bracing antidote to the flaccid mundanity of peace.
All of which means that we are required once again, to show real resilience in the face of this latest savage provocation. We should resist talk of internment – a measure which has always acted like pouring oil onto a fire in any previous terrorist emergency – and would certainly have the same effect if it was implemented for this one. We should not cancel the election.
We should concentrate instead on patient carefully-targeted counterterrorism and law enforcement – a difficult challenge to be sure. We should expect more attacks, and do what we can to stop them, while knowing that some of them will get through. We should not allow ourselves to be railroaded or panicked into emergency measures that contradict our best ideals. We should, as Jeremy Corbyn courageously suggested, look at what there is in our foreign policy that has created the context in which these monstrosities continue to replicate themselves and seek legitimacy, however spurious.
We should mourn together and find ways of working together, with men and women of all faiths and of no faith at all, to face down and marginalise these threats.
Contrary to what some – you know who – have said, that is not weakness, cowardice, surrender or moral decadence, it is simply the only way to avoid giving last night’s murderers what they want, and prevent these dark times from becoming even more catastrophic.
And as bad as things look right now, we should believe that we can get through. And we should never allow ourselves to descend into the sewer that those who carried out last night’s attacks would like us to sink into.