Credit for the horrific bombings of the London Underground and a double-decker bus on Thursday morning was immediately taken on a radical Muslim Web site by a “secret group” of Qaida al-Jihad in Europe. By Thursday afternoon, as the casualty toll rose above 40 dead and 700 wounded, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw was saying, “It has the hallmarks of an al-Qaida-related attack.” Although U.S. President George W. Bush maintains that al-Qaida strikes out at the industrialized democracies because of hatred for Western values, the statement said nothing of the sort. The attack, the terrorists proclaimed, was an act of sacred revenge for British “massacres” in “Afghanistan and Iraq,” and a punishment of the United Kingdom for its “Zionism” (i.e., support of Israel). If they really are responsible, who is this group and what do they want?
The phrase “Qaida al-Jihad” refers to the 2001 decision made by Ayman al-Zawahiri, a leader of the Egyptian terrorist group al-Jihad al-Islami, to merge his organization into bin Laden’s al-Qaida (“the Base”). The joint organization was thus renamed Qaida al-Jihad, the “Base for Holy War.” (Zawahiri and bin Laden had allied in 1998.) The group claiming responsibility for the London bombings represents itself as a secret, organized grouping or cell of “Qaida al-Jihad in Europe.” It is significant that they identify themselves as “in Europe,” suggesting that they are based on the continent and have struck from there into London. This conclusion is bolstered by their description of the attack as a “blessed raid.” One raids a neighboring territory, not one’s own. Whether this group carried out the attack or not, the sentiments they express do exist among the radical fringe and form a continued danger. Jihadi internet bulletin boards expressed skepticism about the group, and pointed to an inaccuracy in the quotation from the Quran. But al-Qaida wannabes are often engineers without good Arabic or Islamics training.
Most probably, then, this group consists of a small (and previously obscure) expatriate Muslim network somewhere in continental Europe, which has decided to announce its allegiance to Qaida al-Jihad. It is highly unlikely that al-Qaida itself retains enough command and control to plan or order such operations. They could have found many cues in al-Qaida literature, however, that London should be attacked.
The United Kingdom had not been a target for al-Qaida in the late 1990s. But in October 2001, bin Laden threatened the United Kingdom with suicide aircraft attacks if it joined in the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. In November of 2002, bin Laden said in an audiotape, “What do your governments want from their alliance with America in attacking us in Afghanistan? I mention in particular Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Germany and Australia.” In February of 2003, as Bush and Blair marched to war in Iraq, bin Laden warned that the U.K. as well as the U.S. would be made to pay. In October of 2003, bin Laden said of the Iraq war, “Let it be known to you that this war is a new campaign against the Muslim world,” and named Britain as a target for reprisals. A month later, an al-Qaida-linked group detonated bombs in Istanbul, targeting British sites and killing the British vice-consul. Although bin Laden offered several European countries, including Britain, a truce in April of 2004 if they would withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq, the deadline for the end of the truce ended in mid-July of that year.
Ayman al-Zawahiri recently issued a videotape, excerpts of which appeared on al-Jazeera on June 17, which stressed the need for violent action as opposed to participation in political reform. True reform, he said, must be based on three premises: The rule of Islamic law, liberating the lands of Islam from the Occupier, and the freedom of the Islamic community in managing its own affairs. He thundered that “expelling the marauder Crusader and Jewish forces cannot be done through demonstrations and hoarse voices.” Al-Zawahiri’s videotapes have often been issued just before major terrorist actions, and some analysts believe that they are intended as cues for when they should be undertaken. Abdel Bari Atwan, the London editor of the Arab newspaper al-Quds, warned that the appearance of the tape signaled an imminent attack.
The communiqué on the London bombing is unusual in appealing both to the Muslim community and to the “community of Arabism.” “Urubah,” or Arabism, is a secular nationalist ideal. The diction suggests that the bombers are from a younger generation of activists who have not lived in non-Arab Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, and think of Arabism and Islam as overlapping rather than alternatives to one another. The text makes relatively few references to religion, reading more as a statement of Muslim nationalism than of piety.
In accordance with al-Zawahiri’s focus on violence as the answer to the “marauding” of occupying non-Muslim armies in Muslim lands, the statement condemns what it calls “massacres” by “Zionist” British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of them Muslim lands under Western military occupation (and, it is implied, similar in this regard to Gaza and the West Bank under Israeli control). These bombings, it says, are a form of revenge for these alleged predations. The language of revenge recalls tribal feuds rather than Islamic values.
The terrorists refer to the bombings, which they say they carefully planned over a long period, as a “blessed raid.” They are recalling the struggle between the wealthy, pagan trading entrepot, Mecca, and the beleaguered, persecuted Muslim community in Medina in early seventh century west Arabia. The Muslims around the Prophet Mohammed responded to the Meccan determination to wipe them out by raiding the caravans of their wealthy rivals, depriving them of their profits and gradually strangling them. The victorious Muslims, having cut the idol-worshipping Meccan merchants off, marched into the city in 630. Al-Qaida teaches its acolytes that great Western metropolises such as New York and London are the Meccas of this age, centers of paganism, immorality and massive wealth, from which plundering expeditions are launched against hapless, pious Muslims. This symbology helps explain why the City of London subway stops were especially targeted, since it is the economic center of London. A “raid” such as the Muslim bombings is considered not just a military action but also a religious ritual.
If the communiqué of Qaida al-Jihad in Europe proves authentic, the London bombings are the second major instance of terrorism in Europe directly related to the Iraq war. In March of 2004, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (French acronym: GICM) launched a massive attack on trains in Madrid in order to punish Spain for its participation in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, following on their bombing of Casablanca the previous year.
From the point of view of a serious counterinsurgency campaign against al-Qaida, Bush has made exactly the wrong decisions all along the line. He decided to “unleash” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rather than pressing for Israeli-Palestinian peace and an end to Israeli occupation of the territories it captured in 1967. Rather than extinguishing this most incendiary issue for Arabs and Muslims, he poured gasoline on it. His strategy in response to Sept. 11 was to fight the Afghanistan War on the cheap. By failing to commit American ground troops in Tora Bora, he allowed bin Laden and al-Zawahiri to escape. He reneged on promises to rebuild Afghanistan and prevent the reemergence of the Taliban and al-Qaida there, thus prolonging the U.S. and NATO military presence indefinitely. He then diverted most American military and reconstruction resources into an illegal war on Iraq. That war may have been doomed from the beginning, but Bush’s refusal to line up international support, and his administration’s criminal lack of planning for the postwar period, made failure inevitable.
Conservative commentators argue that Iraq is a “fly trap” for Muslim terrorists. It makes much more sense to think of it as bin Laden’s fly trap for Western troops. There, jihadis can kill them (making the point that they are not invulnerable), and can provoke reprisals against Iraqi civilians that defame the West in the Muslim world. After Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, many Muslims felt that Bin Laden’s dire warnings to them that the United States wanted to occupy their countries, rape their women, humiliate their men, and steal their assets had been vindicated.
These claims were not credited by most of the world’s Muslims before the Iraq war. Opinion polls show that most of the world’s Muslims have great admiration for democracy and many other Western values. They object to the U.S. and the U.K. because of their policies, not their values. Before Bush, for instance, the vast majority of Indonesians felt favorably toward the United States. Even after a recent bounce from U.S. help with tsunami relief, only about a third now do.
The global anti-insurgency battle against al-Qaida must be fought smarter if the West is to win. To criminal investigations and surveillance must be added a wiser set of foreign policies. Long-term Western military occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq is simply not going to be acceptable to many in the Muslim world. U.S. actions at Abu Ghraib and Fallujah created powerful new symbols of Muslim humiliation that the jihadis who sympathize with al-Qaida can use to recruit a new generation of terrorists. The U.S. must act as an honest broker in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And Bush and Blair must urgently find a credible exit strategy from Iraq that can extricate the West from bin Laden’s fly trap.
Chicago political scientist Robert Pape argues in his new book, “Dying to Win,” that the vast majority of suicide bombers are protesting foreign military occupation undertaken by democratic societies where public opinion matters. He points out that there is no recorded instance of a suicide attack in Iraq in all of history until the Anglo-American conquest of that country in 2003. He might have added that neither had any bombings been undertaken elsewhere in the name of Iraq.
George Bush is sure to try to use the London bombings to rally the American people to support his policies. If Americans look closer, however, they will realize that Bush’s incompetent crusade has made the world more dangerous, not less.