By Charles Townshend
When the ‘global war on terror’ was launched by George W. Bush — closely followed by Tony Blair — after the 9/11 attacks, many people no doubt felt reassured by these leaders’ confidence that they knew the best way to retaliate. Some, though, found the global war concept alarming for several reasons. The notion of a ‘war’ seemed to indicate a wrong-headed belief that overt military action, rather than secret intelligence methods, was an effective response. More seriously, perhaps, this seemed to be a ‘war’ which couldn’t be won. Since it is all but inconceivable that terrorism per se can ever be eliminated by any method, the Bush-Blair crusade looked dangerously like a declaration of permanent war of an Orwellian kind.If by chance Bush and Blair had misread the threat posed by terrorism, they might be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut which would be not just financially wasteful but politically damaging if (as was inevitable) force was sometimes used against the wrong targets. The collateral damage of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq showed such apprehensions to be well founded. Incredibly — from the Bush-Blair standpoint — some security experts would come to the conclusion ten years on that the military interventions had increased rather than diminished the threat of terrorism.
So how was that threat read? In almost apocalyptic terms, the terrorists were said to be driven by mortal hatred of the West and to represent a deadly threat to ‘our way of life’. The first assertion was true as far as it went, the second a patent exaggeration but one which went largely unchallenged and unexamined. British journalists showed remarkably little inclination to press ministers to explain its logic. (As, for instance, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer allocated £3 billion in the 2003 budget to cover the cost of Britain’s part in the invasion of Iraq — a figure that even then was clearly a wildly optimistic estimate.) It took the passage of nearly a decade, including two fearsomely expensive, destructive, and ineffective ‘real wars’, to undermine it. And it was not a politician but a judge who first pointed out the absurdity of trying to set the threat posed to ‘our way of life’ by terrorist groups on the same level as that posed by the Wehrmacht in 1940.
At last, four years ago, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband broke ranks and accepted that the concept of the war on terror was ‘misleading and mistaken’. Worryingly late in the day, perhaps, but better late than never. The spectre of an unending war seemed to be laid to rest. Miliband specifically criticised the notion of a ‘unified transnational enemy’ that had been evoked in the global war on terror. He had grasped that al-Qaida had not lived up to its billing.
So it came as something of a surprise when David Cameron, who had seemed unconcerned to take up this element of the Blair legacy, reacted to the January attack on the Amenas gas plant in southern Algeria by pronouncing it part of a ‘global threat’. This grim event in the deepest Sahara desert was the work of an extremist Islamist terrorist group linked, like those in Pakistan and Afghanistan, to al-Qaida, whose aim, the prime minister held, was ‘to destroy our way of life’.
If his intention was to counter the risk that the public might dismiss the attack as too distant to be worth serious consideration, fair enough. But the terms he used surely went beyond what was needed for that. He went as far as to label the threat represented by the terrorists ‘existential’. This striking echo of 2001 did not go entirely unchallenged, as it had done a decade previously. This time, journalists with real experience like Jason Burke are around to point out that al-Qaida, reeling from ‘blow after blow’ over the last five years, is only a shadow of the organisation that once did perhaps represent a threat on a global scale. And that, however deadly the Amenas attack, ‘a gas refinery in southern Algeria is not the Pentagon’.
But clearly such perspectives (shared, as Burke pointed out, by the PM’s security experts) do not meet the rhetorical needs of the moment. David Miliband’s key argument was that the more we lump terrorist groups together and draw the battle lines as a simple binary struggle between moderates and extremists, ‘the more we play into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common.’ What seemed by 2009 to have become no more than common sense has now been peremptorily abandoned again.
Jason Burke, maybe too charitably, described Cameron’s rhetoric as ‘dated’. That would in itself not be reassuring, but there seems to be something more going on. Though he specifically rejected the idea of a purely military solution, the prime minister’s emphasis on the ‘ungoverned spaces’ in which terrorists thrive opens up an agenda at least as indefinite as the original war on terror. His undertaking to ‘close down’ such spaces, and acceptance that this would take decades, has revived the spectre of a protracted conflict without proposing any plausible method of ending it. The function of these ‘ungoverned spaces’ is in fact highly doubtful. If such spaces exist — and the concept is highly dispuatble — they may well be useful to terrorist groups, but to suggest that they are crucial is seriously misleading. The fact that the deadliest Islamist attack in Britain was carried out by people from Leeds, Huddersfield, and Aylesbury might of course indicate that Yorkshire and Buckinghamshire are also ‘ungoverned spaces’, but the implications of that would be alarming indeed.
Charles Townshend is Professor of International History at Keele University. He has held fellowships at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina and the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, DC. Amongst his previous publications are Political Violence in Ireland (1983), Making the Peace: public order and public security in modern Britain (1993), and Ireland: the twentieth century (1999). His most recent books are Easter 1916: the Irish rebellion (2005) and When God Made Hell: the British Invasion of Mesopotamia and the Creation of Iraq, 1914-1921 (2010). The second edition of Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction published in 2011.
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Image credit: White House photo by Eric Draper [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons