London: The Iraq Connection

by , July 01, 2007

By the time this sees cyberprint more is likely to be known. Beyond the certainty that it was much too early on Friday to draw many of the conclusions some talking heads on television were speculating about, it’s prudent to wait for more facts before taking hard-and-fast lessons. At the least, however, the apparent thwarted car bomb discovered outside a nightclub near London’s Piccadilly Circus reminds us about what dangerous times we live in.

Perhaps the most significant fact is that this incident, which now seems to have involved two cars with potentially explosive material and thousands of nails obviously intended to do damage more to people than to buildings, serves as yet another warning that the threats we face come not from a nation-state setting plans in operation through some kind of Terrorism Central that could be disrupted by conventional military means, but a diffuse, stateless network that sometimes operates more through indirect inspiration than by direct orders.

In some ways that is more frightening than a conventional military threat, but perhaps we can learn from the "carry on" attitude the British – who lived through decades of terrorist activity during the recent Northern Ireland "troubles" – are displaying.

Mandie Russell, our Register summer intern, spent the last year in England as part of her year abroad at Pepperdine. Friday morning she got in touch with acquaintances in London and offered this report on the Register blog:

"I spoke with a few contacts who live in the greater London area about their reaction to the latest in a series of terrorist attacks which have become all too present in London in recent years.

"Though some Brits seem to be concerned about the terrorist threat, those we spoke with said most are taking it in stride. ‘Today, there have been more discussions about football [soccer] than this,’ says Ross Park, 27, of Bushey, greater London, of his co-workers’ reaction to the news.

"Jenny Craven, 24, of King’s Langley, greater London, has similar sentiments. Though she admits it’s quite scary, she says people have been treating it as a normal day, with the attitude of ‘here it goes again,’ though both Park and Craven agree it would have had more impact had the bomb actually gone off. Park adds that it is ‘expected that this will occasionally happen, and as long as it gets stopped, it’s fine.’"

Herewith a few other observations: Those who early on noted some similarities between this incident and car bombings in Iraq might have missed a few differences. In fact, the only similarity might have been that a car was used, which is hardly unique. Most of the car bombings in Iraq have involved explosives, whereas this one, if early news reports are correct, consisted of gasoline, propane, and nails, items readily available at a petrol station or hardware store. Thus the perpetrator(s) reduced the risk that could have been involved in trying to buy explosives or chemicals used to make explosives, the purchase of which authorities are likely to be monitoring.

While this attempt does not seem to have been done by somebody trained or "blooded" in Iraq, however, U.S. authorities now admit that Iraq has become the major training ground for terrorists worldwide. People with experience in Iraq will surely perpetrate outrages in Britain and other countries, probably for years to come

Although the policeman who reportedly defused the device by disconnecting a cell phone that might have been there as a detonation device acted bravely, it is uncertain whether the device would have worked. It might be that the perpetrator tried to detonate it that way and the attempt failed.

There’s a difference between following instructions on the Internet or in a book and having actual experience. Jihadists and insurgents in Iraq are gaining concrete experience, and Irish rebels became quite expert at assembling and detonating bombs. But it is possible – not certain until we learn more, but possible – that those who assembled this device had little hands-on experience.

It is certainly not out of line to assume the nightclub was the real target. Al-Qaeda-connected or al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists bombed a nightclub in Bali in 2002, and for some Islamists nightclubs are not only a symbol of Western decadence but places where the body count of a successful bombing is likely to be high. It is also possible, however, that the driver was on the way to somewhere else and stopped there because the fumes were becoming troubling or he lost control of the car for reasons unknown.

It is possible that some of the speculation about timing – a new British prime minister and government, Salman Rushdie’s impending knighthood, a week before the 7/7/05 subway bombing anniversary – has validity, but that could be viewed as over-analysis. The British authorities are aware of numerous terrorist or would-be-terrorist cells among Britain’s large and largely poorly understood Muslim population and have thwarted dozens of plots since 2001. An incident like this could happen any time.

This prompts what is admittedly speculation. It appears that this has the earmarks of an al-Qaeda-inspired but amateurish attempt rather than something ordered from al-Qaeda Central after extensive training. It is worth remembering, however, that it took several months to discover that one of the perpetrators of the 7/7/05 subway bombing had been to Pakistan and had received training. And it could have been made to look amateurish to throw off authorities.

It is hardly encouraging that authorities say they had no obvious warning – with the possible exception of a non-specific "London will be bombed" message in a jihadist chat room the night before – of this attempted bombing. But it is encouraging that London’s firemen and policemen responded so bravely and intelligently.

It is possible to be reasonably sure of one thing. As long as Western countries are deeply involved in Muslim countries – and for some time after direct military involvement ends, if it ever does – such anti-American and anti-Western actions are likely. So vigilance and a kind of suspicion we might prefer not to entertain in better times will likely be part of our lives for a long time to come.

The notion that jihadists hate us because of our freedom or because of our wicked, decadent ways might carry some truth, but it is utterly inadequate as an explanation of the kind of hatred that impels such attacks, often attacks in which the perpetrators are willing to lose their own lives (though that may well not be the case here). Radical imams, al-Qaeda, and other disturbers of the peace are able to recruit disaffected young men and women because of outrage that the U.S. and Great Britain invaded and are occupying a Muslim country. Without that factor in play, Muslims sympathetic to jihad might still have resentments, and we might get occasional anti-Western actions, but they would almost certainly be less frequent and less lethal.

It doesn’t matter that most Americans and most Brits have no interest in running Iraq or any other country in the Middle East. It doesn’t matter if the intentions of our leaders are purely benevolent, desiring only to help those in Iraq and elsewhere to find their way into democracy and a more peaceful integration into the modern world. As long as U.S. and other Western troops are in Iraq and running things, it can be and will be interpreted as yet another chapter in Western colonialism and domination.

That isn’t to say that pulling out of Iraq would end all such attacks. It’s even possible that it would be interpreted as a sign of weakness and would be followed by an intensification of violent actions, at least for a while. But without the spur of occupation, eventually some steam would go out of the indignation, and it would become increasingly difficult to recruit people to sacrifice themselves. So leaving has some risks, but staying means the attacks are unlikely ever to end.

Read more by Alan Bock