Forget peacekeepers and nation-building, terrorism is a domestic problem
After the tragedy comes the farce. Three months after the inferno of the World Trade Center, a British chap tries to blow up a plane by setting light to his shoe. It would not have sounded so funny if he had succeeded. Thankfully not everything in the world goes wrong, and the unorganised militia of flight 63 restrained the passenger with belts and sedatives and we can if not laugh at least be relieved about this story. So what lessons can be learned from this?
The first is that Richard Reid's ability to carry out an attack like this was unaffected by the political control of Afghanistan. The existence of the Brixton mosque, its infiltration by hard-liners, the availability of plastic explosives over the internet and poor airport security none of these were down to the Taliban. It seems likely that he was trained in Al Qaeda camps, probably in Afghanistan, however it seems that the networks were formed in England as were all the logistics of the exercise.
This is not an argument for leaving the Al Qaeda camps in peace. Although America's security will benefit from this action (and Britain will probably suffer from its participation) it will only be a short-term benefit. The terrorists are in the West, and not Afghanistan. Their network may be disrupted by this adventure, but this network or something like it will re-form, especially when they were already suspicious of governments and never allowed one to own them.
Terrorism will not be defeated by disrupting the training camps or the leadership of a cell-like terror network it will have to look at defeating the cells on their home ground, and, folks, that's our home ground as well. So what things can be done? Here are a few modest suggestions.
The organisers and the cheerleaders of the terror incidents are in almost every case first-generation immigrants. Richard Reid notwithstanding, so are most of the foot soldiers. This should not be surprising when one is considering international terrorism.
There will be enormous costs, both economic and political, of completely cutting off immigration even if it is only from Muslim or Arab lands. Some marginal changes could really hurt the Islamists. Social security payments seem to sustain an unduly high proportion of these people, as a brilliant piece by Mickey Kaus in Slate chronicled. We can also look at our policy of refusing to extradite those who face the death penalty back home. Britain has had to suspend habeas corpus to keep eight suspected terrorist leaders behind bars. Many of them could not be extradited because they were facing the death penalty in another country. Strange set of priorities.
How many people noticed that passenger action stopped this hijacking? A group of terrorists may not have been stopped by belts and sedatives in the same way that a lone terrorist was. Keeping guns off aircraft is not protecting passengers, just the opposite.
Another lesson is that a country should not feel responsible for its citizens abroad. The idea that Richard Reid is to receive any consular assistance, much less legal assistance, strikes most people as odd. When someone voluntarily leaves Britain, he foregoes the protections of her laws and submits himself to the protection and of the country he visits. Richard Reid did just that. This commonsense rule would also knock out one of the incredibly thin excuses that the British elite has used for going into this war. The 60 British people who died, died under the protection of the American government and it is up to America to avenge them. In the same way, it would be the UK's duty to avenge American merchant bankers killed in the City of London. This, however, had better be the subject of a separate column.
One of the most interesting points to come out of this is the unsophisticated nature of Richard Reid's operation. He was lighting his shoe. Plastic explosives may sound sophisticated, until he plausibly claims that he bought them over the Internet.
Whether or not he had help or training, the fact is that the cells are now here and can plausibly keep operating for years. Terrorist activity can be cut down through domestic police action. However, there is also a political calculation. With Northern Ireland that is quite specific, the IRA see the British as the main obstacle to an ethnically pure Irish state (or Marxist state depending on the faction). It is clear what is at stake here, and the British people know that they are paying a price to keep in Ulster. This is not the case with the Al Qaeda network. No doubt, over time there will be a realisation that Al Qaeda have political goals (that do not involve overturning Western capitalism and democracy). It will then be a question of how much we are prepared to suffer to thwart their goals.
This is not to suggest that giving in to every terrorist threat will bring peace; doing so is impossible when you have differing terrorist groups and attempting it will signal that terrorism is a profitable course of action. What it does suggest is that terrorism will always be with us to some extent, and that an increased risk of terrorism should be factored in as a risk of certain actions for example British involvement in the Afghan adventure.
Too many commentators seem to treat the struggle against militant Islam as merely a rerun on the Cold War. It is not. Islam, even militant Islam, is a far more diffuse phenomena than communism and a far harder plant to nurture in non-Muslim soil, and so it is far less ambitious. The other difference is that its main thrust will be through domestic terrorism, whereas the Soviet Union projected its might through more conventional means. So while foreign adventures worked in containing a conventional rival, they will have a limited and short-term (although real) effect in containing terrorism. In many cases, especially Britain's, the Afghan adventure will dramatically increase the risk of terrorism with no benefits. Terrorism is a domestic problem, and the only long-term solution is through domestic measures.
I am cutting down on my column-writing to concentrate on other projects, particularly on this infernal Euro referendum. Over the next couple of months, I will be doing my columns on a fortnightly basis, and after that they will be done only occasionally.
So could you write one of these columns? The requirements are that you should be British (or living here) and write about foreign affairs from a noninterventionist angle. And that's it. E-mail any columns to me at email@example.com pseudonyms are obviously allowed.
If you wish to keep up with my writing as it appears you can subscribe to my e-mail list, or to my eclectic daily e-mails on British foreign affairs. There are other projects, my web log will still be updated with events and thoughts as they happen and the discussion forum will not indeed cannot stop offering fierce debate on British foreign policy.
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