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Car Bomb Jihad By: Dr. Walid Phares
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, July 02, 2007

British authorities are to be commended for successfully averting two (maybe more) car bomb attacks in London last week. At the same time, much of the reaction of Britain’s counter-terrorism community reveals that the country is not wholly prepared to deal with the terrorism threat.

Let's begin with the contradictory statements made by British authorities after the car bombs had been identified. On one hand, Britain’s new home secretary, Jacqui Smith, said after an emergency meeting of top officials that “we are currently facing the most serious and sustained threat to our security from international terrorism.” But other British authorities claimed that “they found no link between the defused car bomb and any terrorist group.” This sharp contradiction is indicative of the tough political background to the UK’s counter-terrorism efforts.

The problem is this: Since the “7/7” attacks, authorities have hesitated to define the enemy. For London’s political establishment, any reference to the religious or ideological motivations of the terrorists is to be avoided. Examined closely, this attitude is the result of layers of “expertise” provided by academic “specialists” who advise against any statements that, as they see it, would exacerbate domestic tensions with the domestic Muslim community.

Hence, British authorities have preemptively dropped any reference to the cause of the terrorists’ war -- namely, Islamic jihadism -- while failing to outline its global scope. By default, then, the government has conceded to the Islamists a political victory in the "battle of ideas."

A second series of questions accompanying the immediate debate about last week’s plot centered on the alleged link to al-Qaeda. The media went back and forth on the theory of Bin Laden’s responsibility -- as if this single factor would shape the strategy to respond. To be successful, British investigators must bypass the dead-ended guessing about al-Qaeda’s formal role and spend their energies and time on the more important issue: Islamist penetration of British society.

Bin Laden and Zawahiri may or may not have ordered this specific operation; al-Qaeda’s central apparatus may or may not be in charge of its execution; and the perpetrators may or not be professional terrorists. Of greater consequence for counterterrorism efforts is finding out who indoctrinated those who planted last week’s bombs and procuring detailed information about jihadist cells in the UK. Bin Laden will one day pass from the scene. But unless confronted, Britain’s jihadist network will live on.

The question of whether the terrorists were “homegrown” or “international” circulated with dizzying frequency last week. Neither explanation is reassuring for the authorities. If the terrorists are “homegrown,” it reopens the debate about the radicalization of the British Muslim community. Obviously, officials want to avoid the matter. If, on the other hand, the terrorists are said to be “international,” with links to outside terrorist networks, officials would have to grapple with an equally unappealing fact: The followers of jihad, whether “homegrown” or “international,” operate without boundaries.

Failure to consider the underlying cause of jihadist terrorism has stunted Britain’s intellectual debate. Consider that in the most recent plot, the two cars were declared as “linked” because the bombs they contained were made of the same material. But what if the two car bombs were filled with different types of explosives? Would they then have belonged to two different conflicts? It would have been odd in the extreme for police during the London Blitz of 1940 to wonder whether the bombs falling on the city were “linked” because they were made of the same material. But because many in Britain still refuse to acknowledge that they are at war with Islamic terrorism, we get the kind of official analysis that we saw last week.

Surveying the situation from a distance, it seems that even the successes that British authorities have had can be exaggerated. For instance, the government prides itself for having installed more cameras in London than in all other European cities combined, a fact acknowledged by commentators who noted that the manhunt launched for the suspects last week was made possible by the release of film from London’s surveillance cameras. But the reason that this surveillance is so extensive is that for years the authorities were on the defensive, having caved in to those lobbies who insisted that the government should not target terrorists before they strike. Resources were diverted to spy on the terrorists, but little was done to preempt their attacks. The United States is under similar pressure by its own internal critics to follow the same path and stop monitoring the terrorists.

Fortunately, British officials are becoming more clear-sighted. Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, former head of Britain’s joint intelligence committee, was among the first to conclude that the two car bombs were related to the attack on Glasgow Airport. It is the first step to understanding that what the UK is facing is not dispersed acts of violence but a war that is grounded in the expansion of Wahabism, Salafism and other forms of radical ideologies. There is a standing order by al-Qaeda and fatwas by Salafi asking their allies, local and international, to "strike into the heart of infidels, including the British."

Other strategic considerations are also in play. There is little doubt that the Islamists want to test the new cabinet of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and to drag him into an “engagement.” This in turn would provide extremists in Britain’s Muslim community the occasion to demonize Brown and weaken his resolve to confront both domestic and international terrorism. The jihadists’ move is clear, but the question remains: Is Britain seeing clearly?

Dr Walid Phares is the author of the newly released book Future Jihad. He is also a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington DC.

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