For most Britons 7th July 2005 will be remembered as the day that al Qaeda terrorists attacked London. But five years on, no link has been established between the 7/7 bombers and al Qaeda. Whilst its possible that two of the bombers, Shehzad Tanweer and Mohammad Sidique Khan, may have visited training camps in Pakistan and met with al Qaeda operatives there is no evidence of this. This week a report from the Centre for Social Cohesion analysing Islamist terrorist offences in Britain over the last decade finds that only 14.5 per cent of terrorism offenders had links with al-Qaeda. And yet despite this a belief persists that most Islamic jihadist attacks, including the 7/7 bombings, are somehow masterminded by al Qaeda.
This is not just the case in Britain. When Faisal Shahzad was arrested for attempting to detonate a car bomb in Times Square earlier this year news sources were quick to suggest that the Pakistani-American was part of an international al Qaeda terrorist network. Four months on and his links to al Qaeda or indeed any other terrorist organisation remain hazy. Whilst Shahzad and the 7/7 bombers were no doubt influenced by radical Islamists and it is unlikely that they were acting alone, viewing al Qaeda as the puppet master behind all Islamic terrorism is not only inaccurate but dangerously misleading.
According to Alain Bauer, professor of criminology and terrorism specialist, al Qaeda does not exist. “It is not like a James Bond movie where they are villains based in a volcano” he explains. “Rather, al Qaeda is more like a mutual organisation or a franchise.” Bauer believes the “invention” of al Qaeda results from a very human desire to put a name and a face to an otherwise unknowable enemy. But “knowing thine enemy” should extend beyond knowing his name and what he looks like. It should also involve a genuine attempt to understand why it is he wants to destroy you. But despite the acres of newsprint written on the subject this type of analysis is rare. Rather than acknowledging the unsettling multitude of radicalised groups living in our midst and scattered across the globe it is more comforting to regard them as a single enemy. Rather than attempting to comprehend the reasons for their murderous rage it is easier to accept line that al Qaeda are “at war with civilisation”. We are being targeted, so the reasoning goes, because we are too civilised.
Despite having given a name to our enemy, Western populations do not feel more secure. Al Qaeda remains an unknown and unquantifiable force. The resultant pervasive sense of fear has allowed us to accept the incursion of the surveillance state, the loss of many hard won freedoms and a foreign policy which now regards as justified pre-emptive attacks on States in breach of international law. In countries with less democratic tendencies, the threat of al Qaeda is used in even more extreme ways, as a smoke screen to suppress dissent or crack-down on internal separatist movements. In Russia, for example the brutal actions against Chechen rebels was excused as part of the global war on terror. In Yemen the government has recently accused Huthi rebels of being linked to al Qaeda. And the Moroccans repeatedly accuse the those fighting to liberate Western Sahara as having links with Islamic terrorists.
Whilst the taking of innocent life can never be justified or excused, understanding the causes of Islamic extremism is clearly essential if we are to stop its rise. It may be comforting to believe that we in the West are being targeted because we are “too civilised” but the reality is more complex. The wealth that we in the West enjoy is intimately linked to the poverty suffered in other parts of the world. But instead of prioritising poverty alleviation our governments choose to spend $1.4 trillion per year on weapons. Five years ago jihadi terrorism came to British streets for the first time. We must do more to tackle the roots of this violence and ensure that it never returns.
Stefan Simanowitz is a London-based journalist and political analyst.