Britain: terror plots and spin

On the night of 9-10 August, New Labour’s home secretary, John Reid, announced a dramatic terrorist plot

On the night of 9-10 August, New Labour’s home secretary, John Reid, announced a dramatic terrorist plot. Around 50 people, he said, had been involved in a conspiracy to use liquid explosives to bring down 20 planes flying between Britain and the USA. If successful, it would have resulted in "mass murder on an unimaginable scale". Twenty-one alleged conspirators were arrested under anti-terrorism laws, which allow the police to hold suspects for up to 28 days without being charged. Draconian security measures were implemented at all British airports, producing massive disruption for tens of thousands of travellers. Many of those stuck in airports ruefully reflected that Tony Blair and family had flown out of Britain the previous day to start their holiday in Barbados.

As we go to press, twelve have now been charged with conspiracy to murder or to prepare acts of terrorism, while police are still holding eleven other suspects.

Most people are horrified at the prospect of terrorism on such a scale. Yet this unprecedented plot was met with unprecedented scepticism. Polls showed that around 20% of people doubt whether the allegations are genuine. This was especially the view of many Muslims, but much broader sections of the public were equally doubtful. Most people are prepared to wait and hear the evidence. All the same, most people suspect government ‘spin’.

If indeed there was a real plot to blow up airliners we would totally oppose such action, as we opposed the atrocious attacks in the US on 9/11 and the tube and bus bombings in London on 7/7. Bringing down airliners would have claimed the lives of hundreds of people, including Muslims, who bear no responsibility for the murderous policies of US and British imperialism. Terrorist tactics deployed by secret conspiratorial groups neither educate nor mobilise the mass forces necessary to bring about a real change of society. On the contrary, as this latest episode shows, such methods play into the hands of the ruling class, allowing it to further restrict democratic rights and strengthen the repressive powers of the state.

Assuming a plot did exist (at whatever stage of implementation) there is no doubt that the Blair government, particularly Reid, manipulated revelation of the conspiracy to gain the maximum political advantage. The police and security forces say they had been tracking the plotters for a lengthy period. Blair reportedly had at least two long conversations with president Bush in the few days before the plot was revealed. Reid’s announcement and the imposition of drastic new security measures were designed to arouse the maximum fear among the public – and to justify further draconian emergency powers. The threat level was raised to the highest level, ‘critical’ – despite Reid’s announcement that all the main suspects had been arrested.

Moreover, some technical experts raised doubts about the feasibility of the alleged method of producing liquid explosives (crystallised TATP) on a mid-Atlantic flight. (Five key questions, Guardian, 19 August)

Commenting on the ‘moral panic’ whipped up by the British and US governments, one commentator wrote: "What happens in airport security lines has little to do with protecting innocent people against [terrorists]. Since every potential terrorist knows that we are looking for shaving cream, no rational one would try to bring it onto a plane. You do not get much physical security by responding to yesterday’s plot du jour. But you do get considerable psychological security. Because people stand in long lines and subject both themselves and their belongings to the prying eyes of others, they experience, up close and personal, the sense that something is being done". (Alan Wolfe, The Comfort of a Panic, International Herald Tribune, 24 August)

Very soon news emerged of an alleged link between the British plot and al-Qa’ida in Pakistan. Rashid Rauf, a Briton who had been arrested in Pakistan, was said to be a key figure in the plot and to have provided vital information to the police. This news immediately aroused new doubts. Pakistani newspapers reported that Mr Rauf had been ‘broken’ under interrogation. Asn Jehangir, of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said that it was obvious how the information had been obtained: "I don’t deduce I know – torture", she said. "There is simply no doubt about that, no doubt at all". (Guardian, 14 August)

In the US, Bush used the plot to launch another attack on the Democrats, the ‘Defeatocrats’, following the unseating of pro-war Democrat, Senator Joe Lieberman, in the Connecticut senate primary election, defeated by anti-war Democrat Ned Lemont.

At home, Reid, while calling for a sense of ‘common purpose’ against terrorism, was clearly intent on promoting himself as a strongman, a decisive leader who could take charge of a national emergency – promoting himself as a future deputy leader (or even leader) of the party when Blair and Prescott depart.

Widespread scepticism

Most remarkable has been the mood of profound caution, or outright scepticism, over the government’s allegations. Not surprisingly, the scepticism is strongest among the Muslim community. The plot was seen as a diversion from events in Lebanon, with the massacre of hundreds of people, when Blair backed Bush in supporting the Israeli state’s war aims.

Qurban Hussain, deputy leader of Luton borough council, told the Guardian (16 August): "People are definitely sceptical. They are not sure whether these claims are just to clamp down on British Muslims. Is it scaremongering tactics by the government or another reason to harass more innocent people?

"It’s a perception held by a lot of my constituents of all backgrounds. When you look back at the [Iraqi] weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the information was wrong. Then we have the case of Jean Charles de Menezes. We picked up the wrong person altogether. Then the raid in Forest Gate in which a man was shot. There are so many cases people can refer to. It makes them feel they cannot trust the government".

The scepticism is not confined to British Muslims, however. A tourist from Wiltshire standing outside Downing Street said: "There is so much we don’t know. It [the government] is such a secretive organisation. They are all colluding together. Some of it’s for our own protection, but I believe a lot of it is spin".

A woman on holiday from Belfast commented: "This [plot] could be make-believe, so the government can say, ‘Look what we’re doing to fight the terrorists’. There must have been something to arrest 23 people, put plenty of people have done time in Northern Ireland for doing nothing".

Another well informed sceptic is Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan 2002-04, who was sacked for denouncing repression and torture under Karimov’s regime: "I am very sceptical about the story that has been spun. None of the alleged terrorists had made a bomb. None had bought a plane ticket. Many did not have passports. It could be pretty difficult to convince a jury that these individuals were about to go through with suicide bombings, whatever they bragged about on the net…

"Many of those arrested had been under surveillance for more than a year… nothing from that surveillance had indicated the need for early arrests.

"Then an interrogation in Pakistan revealed this amazing plot to blow up multiple planes. Of course, the interrogators of the Pakistan dictator have ways of making people sing like canaries. As I witnessed in Uzbekistan, you can get the most extraordinary information from people desperate to stop or avert torture. What you don’t get is the truth.

"We also have the extraordinary question of Bush and Blair discussing arrests the weekend before they were made. Why? Both in domestic trouble, they long for a chance to change the story. The intelligence from Pakistan, however dodgy, gave them a chance. Comparisons with 9/11 were all over the front pages". (Guardian, 18 August)

Alienation of Muslim youth

Clearly, the blair government (and the ruling class) are alarmed by the deepening alienation of Muslim youth, the growing support for radical Islamic groups, and the turn by a small minority to Islamic groups that support terrorist methods. Ruth Kelly, recently appointed minister for communities, has announced a new commission for ‘integration and social cohesion’ to investigate alienation and initiate an ‘open and honest debate’ on the factors involved – excluding in advance, however, any discussion of the role of faith schools or the government’s foreign policy!

Yet Blair, Kelly & Co seem already to have decided on what the problem is: ‘multiculturalism’. The commission is clearly intended to pave the way for a government-sponsored drive to integrate British Muslims and other minorities into the ‘British way of life’, ‘British culture’, etc. They also aim to co-opt a section of Muslim leaders into policing their communities, as well as strengthening Muslim NGOs on the lines of the ‘race relations industry’ established after the 1981 riots in Brixton, Bristol, Liverpool, etc, with the role of defusing opposition and protest.

There has been no shortage of commissions and taskforces to investigate alienation among Muslim youth. After the riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford in 2001 there were four or five major reports. Clearly there are ideological factors involved in the radicalisation of sections of Muslim youth, who have been influenced by international developments. But a clear picture emerges from all the reports of the social and economic conditions which give rise to alienation and the desperate turn by some sections to radical religious ‘solutions’. There is overwhelming poverty and unemployment, discrimination, racism, and limited access to key public services. Muslim youth have increasingly been victimised by the police using their stop-and-search powers, and have been outraged by the imperialistic policies of the US, backed all the way by Blair.

The impoverished conditions of the inner-city areas have developed over decades, as the manufacturing base of British capitalism has eroded more and more. However, it is the neo-liberal policies of New Labour that have accelerated the decline and at the same time cut back the social expenditure that partially cushioned the worst effects of decline. Kelly and other Labour ministers, of course, would prefer to concentrate on ‘ideological factors’, avoiding their responsibility for the material conditions which underlie the present situation.

Many of the older generation of the Muslim community were involved in trade unions and looked towards the Labour Party for defence of their interests. Many have now turned away from Labour as the Blairite party has turned towards big business. Labour now has no attraction for the present generation of young people.

A recent interview with Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, currently serving a life sentence in the US for his attempt to blow up a transatlantic flight in 2001, gives an insight into the motivation of some of the youth who turn to radical Islam. In Peter Herbert’s account (Guardian G2, 24 August), "Reid is the son of two non-Muslims, a white mother and a Jamaican father, with whom his relationship was poor. Reid had converted to Islam after his spell in Feltham [youth detention centre, for a series of robberies]. He said that in prison Islam had helped him to understand better the world around him. He also said that racism played a large part in the life he had experienced as a young person. For those wanting to understand radicalisation, this is important. Reid’s journey to violent jihad was not just fuelled by radical Islamist propaganda – he talked about the case of Stephen Lawrence and how that exposed discrimination in society".

After his release from Feltham, Reid visited mosques in Brixton and Finsbury Park, and came under the influence of Islamists who advocated jihad. "His motivation for turning to violence", writes Herbert "was the foreign policy of the US government which, he said, had resulted in the murder of thousands of Muslims and oppressed people around the world from Vietnam to southern Africa to Afghanistan and Palestine".

In the absence of any alternative, it is not hard to see why a section of Muslim youth (and converts like Reid) turn to mosques and groups that may offer recreational facilities, social support, and the appearance of solutions through religious ideology and, in some cases, terror tactics. In reality, however, the religious leaders are mostly tied to the most conservative social groups (in Britain and in their mother countries) and their ideology is backward-looking rather than progressive. This points to the crucial role that could be played by a new mass workers’ party with anti-capitalist policies that would address the problems and grievances of the Muslin communities and draw an active layer into united action with broad sections of the working class.

The foreign policy link

Leaders of 38 Muslim organisations, together with three Muslim Labour MPs and three Labour peers sent an open letter to Blair arguing that his foreign policy on Iraq and on Israel offers "ammunition to extremists" and puts British lives "at increased risk". Written under the impact of Israel’s assault on Lebanon, it reflected the fury aroused by Blair’s failure to condemn the Israeli attack on innocent civilians. Labour MP Sadiq Khan said that Blair’s reluctance to criticise Israel over the Lebanon attacks meant the pool of people from which terrorists found their recruits was increasing.

The linking of Labour’s foreign policy with terrorist threats in Britain was furiously denounced by Labour ministers. Kim Howells denounced the accusations as "facile" and "dangerous". The most facile argument came from the government, which argued that "al-Qa’ida started killing innocent civilians in the 1990s" before 9/11 and before the 2003 invasion of Iraq – forgetting the role of imperialism in the first Gulf war (1990-91) and throughout the Israel-Palestine conflict. Ministers accused the supporters of the open letter of excusing terrorism, though they clearly condemned the alleged attacks.

According to foreign minister, Margaret Beckett, drawing a link between government policy and the terror threat would be the "gravest possible error". In May 2004, however, Michael Jay, permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, acknowledged in a letter to the cabinet secretary that the perception of foreign policy was a "key driver behind recruitment by extremist organisations".

The Observer came to the defence of the Blair government in an editorial (13 August): "It is simply not true that the west is waging war on Islam… It is a logical and moral absurdity to imply, as some critics of British policy have, that mass murder is less atrocious when motivated by political grievance". But explaining the basis of the mood and perception of a section of Muslims in Britain and elsewhere is not at all the same as condoning terrorist methods. To deny a link between Blair’s foreign policy and the growth of Islamist jihadism is either utter stupidity or complete mendacity.

An editorial in the Financial Times (12 July) put a much more realistic position. To "isolate the jihadists", it said, "the west needs to gain legitimacy". However, "that legitimacy will not come from Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram, or from renditions and trampling on the Geneva conventions.

"Nor will legitimacy come from indulgencies of Israel’s tactics towards occupied Palestinians, or from the fiasco of the unprovoked invasion of Iraq".

Every day there are television pictures of death and destruction in Gaza, Beirut, Baghdad, Afghanistan, etc – and US imperialism bears the main responsibility for all these conflicts, in which the victims are overwhelmingly Muslims.

Defending democratic rights

The day before the bomb plot was revealed, John Reid made a speech to the think-tank Demos. Hinting at a new round of anti-terror legislation, Reid said: "Sometimes we may have to modify some of our own freedoms in the short term in order to prevent their misuse and abuse by those who oppose our fundamental values…" He also made a sweeping attack on those who "just don’t get it", politicians, European judges, and media commentators who defend human rights. Who can doubt that Reid knew what was going to happen the next day?

New Labour demonstrated its authoritarian proclivities long before 9/11. Once again, Blairite ministers were playing on fear of terrorism to push through more extraordinary measures to strengthen the power of the state and limit the rights of defendants.

Historically, emergency laws have always been open to abuse by the state. This is particularly true when the police are now allowed to detain suspects for up to 28 days (they originally pushed for 90 days), in which they can exert intense pressure on suspects during interrogation. Inevitably, this will lead to new miscarriages of justice, similar to cases in relation to Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s (the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, and many others).

Another lesson of history is that special laws, justified by the need to combat terrorism, are always turned against the workers’ movement, which potentially constitutes an organised, mass opposition to the ruling class.

Blair himself has made it clear that the curtailment of defendants’ rights should not, in his view, apply merely to terror suspects. The legal system, in his view, should be rebalanced from protection of defendants’ rights to enhancement of victims’ rights – in reality, a formula for strengthening the power of the state, the police, etc.

Police chiefs themselves have openly lobbied the government for stronger powers. Ken Jones, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, argues that "our core criminal-justice processes… must continue to evolve to adapt to the very real threat we now face". ‘Evolution’ clearly means an increase of police powers and a further curtailment of the rights of defendants and citizens generally. In fact, Labour ministers are currently considering proposals for more police summary powers, recently proposed by Surrey’s assistant chief constable, Mark Rowley. They include powers to impose on-the-spot fixed penalty fines and exclusion orders on ‘town centre yobs’; to issue three-month banning orders on gangs causing a local nuisance or disorder; powers to seize and crush the vehicles of ‘yob drivers’; and for stop-and-search to be based merely on the existence of previous convictions.

These developments underline the need for the workers’ movement to campaign in defence of democratic, civil and legal rights won through working-class struggles in the past. We must defend trial by jury, freedom from arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention without charges. We have to defend the right to an effective defence, include adequate legal aid funding.

At the same time, we also have to fight for new forms of democratic control of the police, to provide a check over their policies and operations. This should be through police committees composed of elected representatives of the trade unions, community organisations, etc.

The Blair government is the most authoritarian government since the pre-second world war period, a period of sharpened class conflict. Following in the footsteps of Thatcher, Blair has carried out a counter-revolution against the social-market policies of the post-war period, adopting pro-big business economic policies and attacking social provision through privatisation and spending cuts. In the last few years, this offensive has been complemented by an assault to undermine democratic rights achieved in the previous period. This underlines the truth that it is ultimately the strength of the working class and its organisations, especially trade unions, that guarantee the preservation of democratic rights. The weakening of the workers’ movement, particularly through the undermining of trade union rights and the swing to the right by trade union leaders, has opened the door to a more general assault on democratic rights.

Defence of democratic rights are a vital part of a socialist programme for the defence of the economic and social interests of the working class. Democratic rights can be defended and enhanced through mass struggle, but the lesson from the history of the capitalist state is that effective democratic rights for all sections of society will only be guaranteed through the socialist transformation of society.

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September 2006