“Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault,” claimed Theresa May on Friday. “I want to make something clear… there can never be an excuse for terrorism, there can be no excuse for what happened in Manchester.”
It is a measure of the cynicism — and desperation — of the Tories and their press that Corbyn’s speech this week has been attacked in this way. Corbyn did refer to British foreign policy as a factor in any explanation of terrorism, but only in similar terms to many commentators, and indeed some Tories. What Corbyn actually said was: “Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.” He went on: “That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.” And he concluded: “But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.” He summed it up — paraphrasing Blair: “Tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism.”
In truth his speech bent over backwards not to be construed in the way May and the Tory press then deliberately misconstrued it. More — it heaped praise not only the emergency services but on the military. This was a mild, even-handed intervention in the debate, only pointing to foreign policy as one factor in understanding terrorism. What of the argument itself, though? Is there a train of thought in Corbyn’s argument which does, as it is claimed, attempt to excuse the terrorists?
There are different “versions” of the “Blame Western Foreign Policy” argument. At its most primitive it implies that the terrorists act simply from a kind of Pavlovian reflex to various (especially) US-led policies, most obviously the war in Iraq. This, crudest, version plainly fails to explain much at all: most obviously, why the vast majority of Muslims, for instance, don’t, despite these foreign policy outrages, feel motivated to blow up teenagers; why often the terrorists aren’t personally from the countries affected (even in the Manchester case, it’s unclear if Salman Abedi’s action was specifically in reference to events in Libya); why the terrorists’ aims are so unspecific, even apolitical, but rather just an expression of general hatred and a desire to inflame more of it. western failures
But there’s a much more cogent version of the argument, which is more what Corbyn seems to have had in mind. Islamic State/Daesh, for example, was formed in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. There were many aspects to Western policy which fuelled the growth of what was to become IS, principally the utter lack of any sort of plan for what would come after the fall of Saddam, the decision to destroy the bureaucracy of the Iraqi state, driving thousands of Sunni Arabs into the arms of the jihadists, and the decision to back a Shia-sectarian government which made this worse.
Libya, where Salman Abedi was born, was in some ways a repeat of the same thing on a smaller scale. In that case the UK and France (with considerable ambivalence on the part of the US under Obama) decided to overthrow the Gaddafi regime, co-opting some of the Islamist forces who had been in exile (some of whom, indeed, had fought, in the 1980s, against the USSR in Afghanistan), but with scarcely any notion at all of what might replace the dictatorship. The result is more or less a failed state: Libya is divided, battle-torn, and a long way indeed from democracy.
This process took longer than is sometimes implied. Democratic forces did counterbalance the Islamists for a while; and the IS- aligned forces in Libya are now on the retreat. What this suggests is that Western policy played a part in Salman Abedi’s decision to massacre some kids at a concert, but not in the obvious sense. Terrorism is not a knee-jerk reaction to Western wars, but it is something which can breed in the chaos fomented by the failures of Western policy. And of course the jihadi organisations (IS and al-Qaida and their affiliates) demagogically make use of any and every Western failure to recruit vulnerable, confused, or alienated young people.
To explain the growth of Islamism in Europe — either more broadly defined, or specifically the jihadi movements (the decisions by young people to go to Syria to fight, etc), one needs to look at more than “Western policy”. There are many factors at play. But for sure, as part of a wider, nuanced explanation, foreign policy, as Corbyn said, plays its part. To invoke it is not necessarily to relieve the terrorists themselves of responsibility for their own actions (and Corbyn’s speech could hardly have taken greater pains to avoid this error).
It is true that Stop the War, with which Corbyn has been personally associated, has denounced all Western wars in a very un-nuanced way. It is the opinion of this writer, for instance, that though the outcome of military intervention in Libya was predictable up to a point, at the time — March 2011 — the only real alternative was to allow Gaddafi to survive and immediately massacre his opponents. Moreover, the rebel movement was calling for intervention. The proper socialist response was not to march in opposition to military intervention — as Stop the War did, if ineffectually, but to support the revolution against Gaddafi and warn about likely future problems.
Still today, to reduce a critique of Western policy in Libya to the fact of intervention is to miss a lot of the point. Corbyn’s background in the Stop the War milieu will inform what he says now about terrorism and foreign policy. But what he has actually said is right, as far as it goes. And the Tories’ attempts to attack him for it should be denounced for the dishonest, demagogic scandal they are.
The origins of modern suicide bombing
Andy Burnham, now Labour mayor of Manchester, probably wanted to cover for his votes in favour of the invasion of Iraq. But, as it stood, his comment on 28 May was right: “Obviously, the actions of governments can then contribute and help the terrorists to add to their cause, but let’s remember that the appalling atrocity of 9/11 happened before interventions anywhere”.
Modern-era suicide bombing dates from the 1980s, not from 2003. There was an Islamist-terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre in 1993 as well as the one in 2001, and it was equally designed to kill everyone there, only it failed. US-led military actions in the years running up to 2003 — the Bosnia intervention in 1995, Kosova in 1999, or the USA’s aid to Islamist groups in Afghanistan — favoured Muslim forces against non-Muslim rivals or enemies, rather than the other way round. Between 1981 and 2016, 80% of suicide attacks and 73% of victims were in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Pakistan, the Palestinian Occupied Territories, Russia, or Sri Lanka — not in Europe or the USA. The big majority of victims of Islamist-terrorist attacks have been ordinary Muslims. (Source: University of Chicago database).
Analyst Riaz Hassan finds the following common features of suicide attacks: used by weaker groups in high-asymmetry conflicts; used only against (more-or-less) democracies; religion may not be invoked at all, but if it is, it is Islam. Attacks like the Manchester bombing are not inevitable or logical “blowback” from US or UK misdeeds. They have their own dynamic. We can best undercut them by rebuilding movements of social hope.