The conclusion I previously drew from the London bombings is that the terrorists are weakening.
I will go further than that: the whole of modern Islamist terror is a sign of the weakness, and indeed of the death throes, of what could be called “primitive” Islam.
I leave aside the nationalist struggles that have produced terror – the Algerian conflict, for example, had nothing to do with “primitive” Islam; it was essentially a western-style nationalist movement, and the Palestinian movement also had that character through the 1970s. Today, however there is a mixture of western-style nationalism and primitive Islam involved, and that may be the reason it is proving so intractable.
The truly Islamist terrorist movement, however, that of the Muslim Brotherhood and Osama bin Laden, is, as the leftists tell us, driven by anger.
And the root cause of that anger is that wherever their culture comes into contact with ours, it loses. From Turkey under Kemal Ataturk to modern Pakistan, traditional Islamic society is giving way to an imitation of the West.
This post at Captain’s Quarters — suggesting that the bombers were implementing the plan which had been previously foiled with the arrest of Naeem Noor Khan — reinforces something I had in mind while writing the piece below, but didn’t actually state.
It strikes me that the bombers’ tactics were formulated to be maximally simple and, above all else, to minimise the chances of being interfered with.
Once the explosives had been made and made into bombs, the operation was carried out in as few hours as possible. Drive down from Leeds, dump the car in Luton, get on a train to King’s Cross, spread out a little and blow up. There are many refinements that might have increased the impact or reduced the amount of intelligence available afterwards, — getting on tube trains coming in to King’s Cross rather than away from it, heading for a high-profile target, say Westminster or Canary Wharf, staggering the explosions over hours or even days, or simply hiding the car somewhere rather than leaving it in the station car park, but if one of the four was already suspected by the security services from a year ago, then any delay at all might have provided the opportunity for the authorities to spot what was happening. As it was, they might have been followed by police the whole way, and would quite possibly have still managed to cause as much damage as they did. (Not that I’m suggesting they were followed, but they might have feared they could be under surveillance).
This suggested to me that the plot was very small in terms of personnel (which is somewhat contradicted by this new report), and, along with other things, that the terrorists are weak, only able with the greatest difficulty and after several failed attempts to achieve any kind of successful operation, and that a suicide mission not just for the bombers but for their cell as a whole, which is being rapidly rolled up.
In a lost essay on the Structure of Terrorist Movements, I examined different participants in a terrorist movement and their roles and motivations.
Looking at the information that is coming out about the London bombings, there are striking hypotheses that immediately emerge.
Firstly, there is no coherent visible political leadership to the movement. When dealing with the IRA, or even Hamas, there is an obvious political movement controlling the violence. The leadership may be open, anonymous or pseudonymous, but it clearly exists and makes political statements.
Second, the soldiers did not operate from out of a mass of sympathisers. I might be being naive here, but I think that if a rumour of terrorist activity was going up and down Bury Park road, it would reach the police pretty quickly. What sympathisers there are are probably small groups around particular radical mosques or other organisations. There are of course large areas of sympathy overseas (e.g. the madrassas in Pakistan which the bombers may have visited), but they are remote from the soldiers.
The operation last week looks to me to have been almost entirely the work of five to ten individuals, including the bombers and the bomb-maker. The assistance that may have come from outside organisation would be:
- putting the participants in touch with each other
- providing technical knowledge or materials for the bombs
- directing strategy – timing and targets
- providing money
It seems quite conceivable that no organisation supplied any of these things. The individuals may well have all the knowledge required to make the bombs, the operation was not expensive, and it might not have been part of any wider strategy. The participants may have met each other and carried the whole operation out on their own. That would put it more in the category of the Columbine shootings than the Manhattan attacks or the bombing campaign against Israel.
At the other extreme, it is possible that there was a “chain of command” extending up through several layers to a political strategy group in some James Bond style hideout somewhere, possibly including bin Laden and/or al-Zarqawi.
The motivation of the suicide bombers is likely to be not so much related to the political consequences of their actions, as might be the case for more “conventional” terrorist soldiers, as by their own feelings about the past and about how they expect other people (and God) to feel about them. In other words, it is about self-expression rather than strategy.
Assuming their operation was part of a wider strategy, the nature of that strategy is far from clear. It may mirror, on a larger scale, the inward-looking expressive motivation of the individual bombers. This is the Lee Harris “Fantasy Ideology” theory. Under this theory, the bombings are primarily an expression of the organisers’ feelings about the growth of Western power and the occupation by westerners of traditionally Muslim lands, rather than a practical attempt to stop or change those things.
Another possible strategic aim, which I have not seen suggested, is distraction. The organisers may be primarily concerned with the war against the “near enemy”: moderates or secularists in Muslim lands (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq etc.) Striking against the “far enemy” may be done in order to make the movement seem stronger and more powerful, to attract support in the day-to-day local wars. This form of strategy has been put forward by commentators to explain violent acts by successive US presidents, but it should make at least as much sense for Zarqawi or bin Laden as for Clinton or Bush.
These both seem more probable than the “straightforward” strategy – to effect a change in British policy, primarily towards Iraq but also to Israel and other foreign policy areas of interest. Such a strategy seems destined to fail, and likely to backfire. Indeed, it is more likely that the strategy is to deliberately escalate the conflict (as they see it) between Britain and Islam. If that is the strategy, it has had mixed results so far – the Islamists have lost ground in Afghanistan, but have strengthened their position in Iraq.
Do these speculations lead to any ideas about countermeasures? If Britain is a symbolic target rather than a real enemy, attacks could perhaps be avoided simply by keeping a lower profile, thereby being a less attractive symbol. On the other hand, the symbolic value of appearing to cause a change in policy, as in Spain, is greater than merely causing destruction, so the appearance of weakness should be avoided.
However, a counterstrike might increase the symbolic impact of the original attacks. The way to minimise the impact is to do nothing, neither to hit back abroad, nor make a big fuss, nor show any sign of caving in.
It is slightly suspicious that this is pretty much what I identified as the instinctive British reaction – passive defiance. Am I guilty of going to great lengths to rationalise what I would want to do anyway? Perhaps.
Last week’s bombings were not all about me, and my precise movements are not of that much interest to many people. However, it’s emerged that it was closer to being about me than I would have guessed, so in an attempt to remember, I’m tracing things back. No-one really reads this rubbish anyway, but since I’m writing it down I’ll publish it.
I would probably have got to Luton station at 7.25 as normal, to catch the 7.29 Midland Mainline to St Pancras.
The bombers apparently got the 7.24 Thameslink to Kings Cross Thameslink, which carries on to London Bridge and down towards Brighton.
(Background: St Pancras, Kings Cross, and Kings Cross Thameslink are three separate stations close together in a row. There’s heavy building work going on currently at both St Pancras [for the new Channel Tunnel terminus] and at Kings Cross [new underground ticket hall], so moving between them is slightly awkward at busy times).
I think there were bad delays on the Thameslink that morning. The 7.24 might have been 10 or 15 minutes late coming in. Signalling problems around Elstree or somewhere? All I can remember for sure was that they were announcing delays generally, but from the screens the Mainline seemed less disrupted than the Thameslink and I took my 7.29 as normal, which came into Luton on time.
The 7.29 was however delayed on the way to St Pancras. It normally arrives around 7.50-7.55, but was about 15 or 20 minutes late, I think. I get SMS updates from London Underground at 7.50, and the update that morning said that there were delays on the Northern line due to a failed train between somewhere and Stockwell (south of Central London). The last update time on the message was around 7.35, and as I was already running late I optimistically thought the problems should have been fixed by 8:20 or so when I got to the Northern Line.
I don’t know when the Thameslink with the bombers would have got into Kings Cross Thameslink. By the timetable it should have been 8.00, but my recollection is that it was late coming into Luton, and it might well have been delayed on the line down to Kings Cross as I was. My guess is I would have been slightly ahead of the bombers getting to Kings Cross Underground.
The boards at Kings Cross Underground were reporting “Minor Delays” on the Northern Line. Again, I thought it would be pretty much fixed by this time, so I took the escalator to the Northern Line platform.
When I got there it was ridiculous. It was so packed I couldn’t even get onto the platform. I walked down towards the far end of the concourse, and stood by one of the entrances to the platform. After a few minutes a train came in, people struggled off and on and I was able to get onto the platform, just.
I stood and played with a Rubik’s Cube. I vaguely remember a blonde foreign girl with a large bag getting past me. I then decided the delays were still too bad, so I extricated myself from the platform and headed for the Victoria line (Up the first escalator, turn right).
From there my journey proceeded normally — change at Green Park to the Jubilee line and on to Canary Wharf. At 8.50 I was probably around Green Park. I got to the office around 9.15-9.20, I think.
Writing this down has brought back a few memories, but nothing useful. If suicide bombers were attractive women, I’d be in with a chance, but I never noticed any Pakistani men with rucksacks.
The Northern Line problems are interesting. It’s been suggested that the bus bomber may have intended to hit the Northern Line, but been prevented by the failure, and wandered off in confusion and indecision before detonating on the number 30 at 9.47.
In the early confusion, the Northern Line delays perhaps suggested that there had been an attack there too – my wife was called out of the class she was teaching and told there’d been a bomb on the Northern Line, leading her to leave a very scared message on my mobile’s voicemail, which of course I didn’t get for 15 minutes in the network congestion.
The BBC says they took the suspect cars away at 4:30 this morning.
Don’t know if there’s anything else going on here today, but there’s a helicopter buzzing over my house.
(after 4 hours getting home last night I’m working from home today).
Update: my housekeeper tells me that the helicopter has been going over at this time every morning — escort duty for someone or something going down the M1.
The police are now saying they think the bombers were killed at each of the four sites. I see that as encouraging news, because, most simply, they won’t do it again. I do believe that terrorists ready to blow themselves up and able to merge into British society are very rare. Suicide bombing can be a regular tactic in Israel or Iraq, but not in Luton or Leeds.
Also, suicide bombers can be identified from their bodies, and the operation traced back from them, as seems to be happening currently. If the bombers are long gone, police have a more difficult job.
The police have moved quite quickly – it emerged in September 2001 that some of the US hijackers were already under investigation, but nothing concrete had come up, so they were being left alone. As soon as they struck, the authorities were able to quickly track down their backgrounds. The same may well be the true here, and no blame would neccessarily attach to the police or security services – It could be very difficult to make the jump from vague suspicion to grounds for arrest.
Why suicide bombing? Maybe they are too unsophisticated to produce timer devices of the neccessary reliability (not trivial – the “1996” bus picture in my post below was caused by an unintentional IRA suicide bomber). Maybe it is too difficult to leave a bag on a London train or bus — we really are attentive to them after all these years. Maybe they feel that, other things being equal, it is better to die in the attack than survive it. I don’t 100% believe the “Blood Feud” theory of Islamist terrorism — I do think there is some strategy to it — but it is valid to say that the bombers are very much concerned with themselves and their supporters, not just with their effects on us.
I’ll liveblog the Met. press conference here if there’s anything interesting. I’m not going anywhere – they (the Police, that is) have blown up another car in Luton station car park.
(times in GMT for reasons of insanity)
16:10 GMT – Peter Clark: They thought they knew who the bombers were before identifying their bodies.
16:11 GMT – Peter Clark: One of the suspected bombers was reported missing by his family around 10am Thursday.
Tim Worstall publishes a quick email from a correspondent:
Let us assume that when people such as George Galloway say that Tony Blair is responsible for the London bombings they are correct. This must mean that the bombers were not moral agents for their actions, but simply acting in response to British and American policy. But then, let’s turn that around. For that surely means that, following 9/11, George Bush was not responsible for his actions but was simply reacting in a natural way to the attacks on America. As the scholastics said, reductio ad absurdum.
Fair point as far as it goes, but I consider it worthwhile to ask to what extent it is useful to evaluate the morality of people in other cultures. Within a culture, or perhaps more relevantly a society, there can be a common morality to which it is always useful to hold everyone — morality needs to be reliably applied, and disregarding it in some cases will weaken the society.
It is not normally practical to judge the morality of actions outside your own society, except where they are extraordinarily visible, or impinge on you. But that very selectivity takes away the main reason for applying morality, rather than expediency, as a judge of actions.
The conclusion I come to is that there are concentric spheres of morality — I hold my friends and associates to a very intrusive and detailed (“high”) standard of morality, my countrymen to a slightly lower one, foreigners inside our broader international culture, lower still, and so on.
To me, by the time you get to the alien societies that these terrorists come from (or choose to identify with), morality has become totally irrelevant. It’s not that I consider murders committed by them not to be immoral, it’s that I don’t care whether they’re moral or not — I want to stop them anyway. The level of morality, as far as I can see, that is shared across the whole world, and can be applied across the whole world, is zero. People that remote from my society, I can only influence with cruder tools than by making and setting examples — bribery and deterrence pretty much cover it.
So, from the Arab point of view, Blair in invading Iraq may have just been responding to “root causes” among their own society’s actions, but, as he is part of our society, it is necessary for us to hold his policy to moral scrutiny. And for the terrorists, vice versa.
Therefore, I don’t have a problem with Galloway et al concentrating their moral judgements (whether or not I share them) on Blair. I would be happier if they would echo my sentiments that what matters regarding very foreign cultures is to what actions we manipulate them, rather than how moral they are.
Revealingly, in our society, as well as the error of treating foreigners as moral agents, we also frequently see the error of treating our countrymen as things to manipulate. While I am satisfied at least with the form of the argument “We should not invade Iraq because that will cause Arabs to bomb us”, I reject utterly any argument of the form “We should not allow drinking after 11pm because there will be more crime”. If our countrymen commit vandalism after drinking until 3am, they should be held responsible under our shared moral code, not clumsily appeased or deterred as if they were foreign potential terrorists.
There may one day be a time when Socrates would have been correct — where people everywhere share a moral code, and we should consider an offence in Kirkuk in the same category as one in Kirkcaldy. But that is not yet.
The first hints of Diana-ism are creeping into public view. First, we have the idea of a march in London to say … what? That we’re opposed to being bombed? That we’re not afraid? That we support some specific foreign policy? I don’t think it’s really clear. The most important thing to say is that we’re not afraid, but I think any such demonstration, whatever the actual intention is more likely to suggest to the less-than-stellar intellects attacking us that they are having an effect, and that they are capable of influencing us.
The same, I’m afraid, goes for the idea of a memorial to the victims. Certainly we will have a memorial service, and I should think a discreet plaque or something, as exists for the victims of the Kings Cross fire, but a “National Memorial” to the victims, as suggested by Tessa Jowell, is counter-productive. A permanent reminder for us of the victims is also a permanent reminder for our enemies of their success — a trivial and negligible success which deserves to be forgotten. When the enemy is defeated, then it will be time to build war memorials. Until then, whether it is a year away or a century away, the way to show defiance is to carry on as normal, not to exaggerate our losses.
None of this goes for those elsewhere who choose to show solidarity with us, and involvement with us rather than non-involvement. The people at We’re Not Afraid, for example, have my gratitude, as for them there is the choice of saying “nothing to do with me, mate”. But for those of us that live or work in London, any overreaction is a sign of weakness.
A couple of points:
Firstly that the very definite statements made by Muslim leaders in Britain are significant:
Sir Iqbal Sacranie, head of the Muslim Council of Britain, said he utterly condemned the attacks. He was joined in his condemnation by church leaders who have been preparing a joint position between both faiths in the event of such an attack. “We are simply appalled and want to express our deepest condolences to the families,” said Sir Iqbal. “These terrorists, these evil people, want to demoralise us as a nation and divide us. All of us must unite in helping the police to hunt these murderers down.”
The gap between “We condemn these murders” and “We must help the police” might seem small logically, but it is enormous emotionally. It is a step, for instance, which some church leaders in Northern Ireland were unwilling to make until the 1990s. As I argue in my piece on the structure of terrorist movements it is the crucial step which makes a long-term domestic terrorist campaign unfeasible. If the large majority of British Muslims are prepared to help the police, then any terrorist infrastructure will have to be based overseas.
My second point, which I have not seen mentioned elsewhere, is the odd location of one of the bombs. Edgware Road is very much an Arab area of London. Note the Arab population in Britain is very small, British Muslims being overwhelmingly from the Indian sub-continent, but what there is of it is very concentrated in a small part of London. When I lived on the edge of Kilburn, I tended to feel quite safe from the IRA, and the fact of a presumably Islamist bomb going off at Edgware Road Station is remarkable.
Of course, it may just have been chosen as a point on a main commuter route – from the West London junctions of Paddington and Baker street stations to King’s Cross and Central London, just as Aldgate is on the route in from the East London junction at Liverpool Street, or it may have gone off in the wrong place, but I do find it curious.