There is nothing a government in a remotely free country can do to stop a suicide bomber in a crowded space. As a weapon, he has the precision of a drone missile. The only preventive task open to the police and security service is to penetrate and destroy a terrorist cell in advance. This means assiduous intelligence. It has clearly held the key to disarming some 50 ‘terror plots’ known to the police over the past decade.
Every lesson in counter-terrorism warns against overreaction. But David Cameron seems oblivious to this truth. He appears to have no faith in the police to protect British citizens from terrorism. His reaction to the recent bombings in Brussels was to dive into his Cobra ‘bunker’ and emerge declaring that London was ‘under real threat… from appalling terrorists’. An attack on London, he said, was now ‘highly likely’. He has duly put 10,000 troops on standby. The SAS are ready with Osprey V-22 helicopters to race to an incident. London will have another 1,000 armed police and £143 million more for counter-terrorism. This is to be supported by the most draconian internet surveillance in the free world. For good measure, Donald Trump offered a descant, claiming that ‘Belgium and France are literally disintegrating’. He let Britain off for once.
I wonder what terrorist commanders back in Iraq made of this. Did they quake in their boots and cry woe? Or did they, as I suspect, gather round their television sets and cheer? They must have echoed Lenin in calling Cameron their useful idiot.
After an act of terror is committed, the murderer is usually dead. But this is merely the start of his programme. His purpose requires that the horror of his deed be magnified a thousand times to engineer his political goal. Bruce Hoffman, in his classic Inside Terrorism, stresses the role of ‘psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target’. Terrorism’s objective is not just to kill but ‘to create power where there is none, through the publicity generated by their violence’. As Isis has shown, publicity is terror’s ‘second wave’. It is the megaphone. Without publicity, terrorism is just dead bodies.
That is why the media is counter-terrorism’s Achilles heel. It knows no restraint. These days it is one long 24/7 scream of horror and fear, attended by no protocol of caution or self-censorship. I could not believe that the BBC after Brussels would take us on a tour of vulnerable London Tube stations. Small wonder that any democratic leader, faced with such a mass outrage, feels obliged to offer exaggerated reassurance. These two responses — from the media and politics — are like whirling dervishes, dancing to terrorism’s beat, with Isis gleefully orchestrating them from afar.
During the IRA terrorism in the 1980s — more lethal than anything experienced today — Thatcher was emphatic that the perpetrators be treated as common criminals. They should be denied ‘the oxygen of publicity’ or the status of a political cause. She understood that honouring them as warriors played into their hands.
Cameron seems oblivious to this precedent. He must know there is nothing that 10,000 soldiers or SAS helicopters can do to stop a London bomb, any more than anti-aircraft missiles on tower blocks could protect the Olympics. It is pure bravado. When Tony Blair sent tanks to Heathrow in 2002 ‘as a deterrent’ he won headlines, but cost the tourist industry 15 per cent in cancelled foreign bookings. That a suicide bomber might be deterred by a tank was ludicrous.
Treating atrocities as acts of war is what the terrorist craves. He wants to be seen as a jihadist taking the struggle to the infidel. He wants acres of coverage. He wants statesmen and soldiers to snap to attention at the mention of his name. He wants to frighten the enemies of Islam into curbing liberties and oppressing Muslims. Osama bin Laden’s ambition was explicitly political, to exasperate America so as to drive its influence from the lands of Islam.
After 9/11, the West responded to bin Laden by doing the opposite. Armies were dispatched round the globe. But their objectives were chaotic, variously declared to be punitive, humanitarian, anti-terrorist and nation-building. Suspects were rounded up, interned, tortured and imprisoned. Liberties were infringed. A quarter of a million Muslims were killed, at a cost of a staggering trillion dollars. The 2004 American bombing of Fallujah was surely a war crime. The antagonism generated among Iraq’s Sunnis yielded an anarchy that handed Isis a caliphate on a plate. Nothing so awful has been seen in the region for a hundred years.
Through it all, the perpetrators of terror seem to have grown bolder, the lines of recruits longer, the massacres bloodier. As Professor Richard English of Belfast said in Terrorism: How To Respond, despite vast resources, ‘The reality is that attacks and threats of attacks have not diminished.’ An entire region has joined a conflict that has ‘deepened the very disaffection from which terrorist atrocity is generated’. Terror has been constantly goaded on by ‘ill-judged, extravagant and counter-productive state responses’.
A terrorist incident is not an act of war, not the conquest of territory. It deploys extreme violence to turn military weakness into political strength. It does this not by the tally of death and destruction but through the multiplier effect of the response. The sensible strategy concentrates on minimising that response. In theory this should be easy, since response is the one thing the terrorist cannot order. He is gone. His success or failure depends on the responders, the host governments, doing his will. They become accessories after the fact.
The obvious reaction to terror is not to be terrorised. It is, as New York’s mayor, Rudy Giuliani, told his citizens after 9/11, to ‘buy a pizza, take the kids to the park, see a show’. They must not run for cover or let the terrorists change their lives.
No one paid attention. To the media, terrorism is meat and drink. To politicians, it is an opportunity to flex muscles, brandish guns, boast revenge. Talk of war adds ten points to an approval rating. It saved George Bush as it is now saving France’s François Hollande. Counter-terror theory may advise caution and an emphasis on normality. Political necessity counsels the opposite; the trumpets and drums of battle. It requires the terrorist’s deeds to be amplified, headlined, exaggerated to justify a warlike response.
Joseph Conrad’s thesis that ‘the terrorist and the policeman come from the same basket’ still haunts this debate. The reckless crusade against militant Islam proclaimed by Bush and Blair, like their wars on poverty and drugs, began as rhetoric. It was soon captured by the military-industrial complex. Anyone who witnessed the Afghan and Iraq wars at close quarters was mesmerised at how uncontrolled soldiers became when confronted by a civilian population. Each war acquires a logic independent of its cause. As the former defence chief Lord Guthrie has remarked, ‘since 9/11 America has spent a thousand times more on hard power than on soft’.
A genuinely ‘tough’ response to terror should be severely to downplay its impact. It bids us to calmly police the domestic soil in which terror takes shallow root. It pleads with Muslim leaders to look to their own, and with the media not to play terror’s game. It avoids the political machismo of soldiers and gunships. It does not curb liberties or wage wars.
Such restraint may not be in the culture of today’s politics. But Thatcher was right. Terrorism is best regarded as a criminal abomination. Only a careless democracy gives it power.
Simon Jenkins is a columnist for the Guardian and former editor of the Times. His books include Mission Accomplished? The Crisis of International Interventionism.