John Rees takes a look behind the propaganda at the facts about terrorism
The government's ‘Counter-terrorism awareness week’ has just ended. A raft of new laws said to protect us from terror attacks have been announced and institutions and individuals have been encouraged to report to the police any person they think may be involved in terrorism.
This is only the latest round of such measures, part of an ongoing attempt to dragoon the population into seeing the world the government’s way.
There is however one central problem. The government story doesn’t fit the facts. Here’s why:
1Causes: its foreign policy, stupid.
What this graph shows (Fig. 1) is the escalation of terror worldwide in the wake of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003. As Dame Eliza Manningham Buller, the former head of MI5, told the Iraq inquiry, the security services warned Tony Blair launching the war on terror would increase the threat of terrorism. And it has. The threat of terrorism cannot be eradicated until its fundamental causes are removed. No legal crackdown can remove historic drivers of terrorism on the scale of the crisis in the Middle East. Only a change of policy can do that.
2Most terrorism doesn’t happen in the West.
The people most at risk of terrorism are not in the West but often in the areas where the West fights its wars and proxy wars. North America and nearly all of Europe are at low risk (Fig. 2). Only France, a country with a long and colonial past (and one of the most active in and vocal about current conflicts) is at medium risk. Six of the countries most at risk - Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen - are the sites of Western wars, drone wars or proxy wars.
3 More people are killed by the war on terror than by terrorism.
The cure is more deadly than the disease. A moment’s thought will tell us why. Deploying Western military firepower, the most technologically sophisticated and destructive in the world, is always going to end up killing more civilians than a suicide bomber with a back pack - or even the 9/11 bombers in hijacked planes. As this pie chart shows (Fig 3), the civilian deaths in Afghanistan alone are far greater than those caused by the 9/11 attacks. And if we add the civilian deaths caused by the war in Iraq and the terrorism it spawned during the occupation then the enterprise must rank as one of the most counterproductive in military history.
4The extent of the terror threat.
Terrorist attacks are often ineffective, especially when carried out by ‘lone wolf’ extremists rather than military organisations like the IRA. Over half of terror attacks cause no fatalities. Even if we look at the period in which the IRA was involved in bombing and at the global picture (Fig. 4) most terror attacks did not kill anyone. This is not to minimise the loss of life that does take place. But it is to put it in perspective. It is now nearly ten years since the 7/7 bus bombing in London. In that decade there has been one additional killing in the UK as a result of ‘Islamic’ terrorism, that of drummer Lee Rigby. That brings the 10 year death toll to 57 people. Last year alone the number of people killed in ‘normal’ murders in the UK numbered 500. And that was one of the lowest figures for decades.
There is of course no comparison between the level of the IRA campaign and today’s ‘Islamic extremism’. The IRA, after all, blew up a senior Tory inside the Houses of Parliament, killed a member of the Royal family in his yacht off the coast of Ireland, blew up the hotel in which the Cabinet were staying for the Tory party conference and fired a mortar into the back garden of 10 Downing Street. And that is to mention only a few of the more spectacular attacks.
Even in the period since 2000 there have been more actual (as opposed to planned) attacks by the Real IRA and Islamophobe Ukrainian student Pavlo Lapshyn, who conducted a murder and a series of attacks on mosques in the West Midlands, than there have been by ‘Islamic’ extremists.
But don’t take my word for it. Read what Foreign Policy, the house journal of the US diplomatic elite, had to say in a 2010 an article called ‘It’s the Occupation, stupid!’:
‘Each month, there are more suicide terrorists trying to kill Americans and their allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other Muslim countries than in all the years before 2001 combined. From 1980 to 2003, there were 343 suicide attacks around the world, and at most 10 percent were anti-American inspired. Since 2004, there have been more than 2,000, over 91 percent against U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries’.
And a Rand Corporation study concluded:
‘The comprehensive study analyzes 648 terrorist groups that existed between 1968 and 2006, drawing from a terrorism database maintained by RAND and the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. The most common way that terrorist groups end - 43 percent - was via a transition to the political process…Military force was effective in only 7 percent of the cases examined’.
The lesson of all this is clear: the war on terror produces terror. And the government exaggerates the threat in order to win acceptance of an unpopular policy. In doing so it demonises whole communities and ensures that a minority have additional motivation for committing terrorist attacks. This is the very definition of a counter-productive policy.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.