I have lived in the British capital for more than 40 years, going to work every day on the tube, along with eight million fellow Londoners. When I heard about the suicide bombings on three tube trains and a double decker bus on July 7, 2005, I was numb with horror. As a journalist, my day began a couple of hours later than those who were travelling shortly before 9am when the carnage began, otherwise I could have been among the 52 dead and more than 700 injured. It was not hard to imagine the terror and panic those poor people must have felt in the claustrophobic confines of crippled underground carriages.
As soon as I heard about the attack I knew it was Al Qaida-linked. Osama Bin Laden’s group had made it their trademark to commit simultaneous suicide bombings — whether through trucks, planes, or, as now, in rucksacks. I was equally convinced that these horrific attacks were linked to the ongoing occupation of Iraq which Britain and the US were enthusiastically pursuing.
I spent the whole day being interviewed by television, radio and print media journalists. Even though I had yet to publish my first book on Al Qaida, I was recognised as something of an expert on extremist groups and had the dubious honour of being the only journalist to have spent three days with Osama Bin Laden and his men in the caves of Tora Bora back in 1996.
I was surprised when some of my interviewers vigorously rejected my interpretation of events. The Prime Minister’s office, it transpired, were stating that it was definitely not Al Qaida but home-grown fanatics.
Why was Tony Blair so certain? What did he know that I didn’t? It soon became clear that those at Number 10 were eager for the public not to make the link between these attacks on their freedom and liberty and the war in Iraq. In other words, Blair did not want to be blamed for the catastrophic events in London on that fateful day.
A deeply sceptical public had not forgotten the ‘dodgy dossier’ scandal despite the Hutton enquiry’s whitewash a year earlier.
It is tragic indeed, that the tenth anniversary of 7/7 (as it became known, linking it in history with America’s 9/11) has coincided with another massacre of innocent British people — this time in Sousse, Tunisia, by a gunman associated with Al Qaida’s evolutionary descendant, Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), which has claimed the attack.
I am afraid that it, too, is linked to Britain’s military engagement in Muslim lands, in this case its participation in the coalition which is bombing Daesh targets in Iraq and Syria.
Seifeddine Rezgui Yacoubi, the Tunisian perpetrator of this atrocity, apparently chose his targets carefully, shooting only Europeans — and British people in particular. He had been spotted scouting the beach only two days previously and must have taken stock of the nationalities of his potential victims. Tunisia has become a hotbed of radicalisation with at least 5,000 nationals reportedly in Syria fighting in Daesh’s ranks.
Like Blair, the current British Prime Minister, David Cameron, is preoccupied with ‘spin’; the main debate exercising the British establishment at the moment is whether or not the media should call Daesh the ‘Islamic State’ or by its Arabic acronym, Daesh. With this extremist entity continuing to expand across Iraq and Syria, and with outposts and branches in numerous Muslim countries, not to mention its ability to strike in three continents simultaneously — as it did last week when operatives or followers attacked a Shiite mosque in Kuwait, a beach in Tunisia and a gas installation in Lyon — one would have thought that the name the group goes by would be of the very least concern. Especially when four surveys last week concluded that 42 million people in the Muslim world actively approve of Daesh.
As in 2005, British (and most Western countries’) foreign policy is largely self-interested and no lessons appear to have been learnt. It is impossible to root out extremism by military means — as ten years in Iraq and longer in Afghanistan have surely demonstrated.
Indeed, these interventions have exacerbated — rather than helped solve — the problem, by feeding into the paradigm whereby the extremists are champions of the Muslim Ummah — confronting the ‘crusaders’ who are intent on pillaging resource-rich Muslim lands, maintaining control in territories of great strategic importance and protecting their own ‘homeland security’ even if it means thousands of wasted lives due to drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.
Daesh understands this and, by digital means, is convincingly spreading its message of hate. Just as much as there is a war involving bullets, tanks and explosives, there is a war of ideas in the Middle East in which the West is failing to convince.
Regardless of what David Cameron decides it can be called, Daesh is, to all intents and purposes, an actual state entity according to International Law and the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States. It currently rules contiguous sovereign territory the size of Great Britain in Syria and Iraq, with a population of approximately 10 million people, its own paid army, police force and judicial system, and a budget of at least $2 billion (Dh7.34 billion) per annum.
Pretending something isn’t there doesn’t remove the danger it poses.
It is a worrying thought that, in the future, we might consider Al Qaida and the terrible atrocities it perpetrated in Paris, New York, Washington, Madrid and in London ten years ago today, as a minor threat to our safety and security compared with Daesh and what it may become.
As David Cameron mulls further military involvement, I would urge him to look carefully at recent history. I do not believe that foreign interference of any kind will help counteract Daesh unless it is in the form of passive diplomacy designed to broker peaceful outcomes. A sustained, concerted effort by the region’s policymakers and influencers to introduce and nurture values of tolerance, unity, mutual cooperation and peace would have more chance of ousting Daesh... because hatred, anger and resentment are the oxygen it needs to flourish.
Abdel Bari Atwan is the editor-in-chief of digital newspaper Rai alYoum: http://www.raialyoum.com. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@abdelbariatwan.