We should demand honest accounting when it comes to links between domestic terrorism and overseas military intervention, writes Lindsey German
It is absolutely right for all of us to say that there should be no playing of politics out of the disaster which took place on Monday night. In particular, we do not want the far right to blame Muslims for this attack. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't discuss the politics surrounding terrorism or the role of governments. After all, Theresa May has been Home Secretary and prime minister for the past seven years, and it is legitimate to raise a number of points. The first is that the bomber was known to the security forces, but this did not prevent the attack. A number of people in the Libyan community in South Manchester apparently warned about Salman Abedi, fearing that he was radicalised. It does seem strange, given the levels of surveillance of mosques, the Prevent programme and so on, that more was not done. But whatever the reason for that was, calls for more surveillance or more state powers are wide of the mark. They had already identified this man.
The second is that as more information emerges about the events in Manchester on Monday, there is more evidence that the tragedy has it roots in the appalling situation which exists in Libya, and which has existed since 2011. Abedi's family returned to Libya then. An article in Middle East Eye by Amandla Thomas-Johnson argues that British government and intelligence turned a blind eye to those returning, since their desire to overthrow Gadaffi coincided with the aims of the British government. One guy Thomas Johnson interviewed, who has previously been subject to a control order, said that he was surprised how easy it was to travel to Libya in 2011. We know that Abedi's father worked as security chief for the UN-backed Tripoli government, one of at times three governments in Libya, all locked in a civil war which has seen the growth of Islamic terrorist groups such as IS, particularly in Sirte, the site of many oil fields. The father was briefly detained for questioning. Did British government money go towards training or supporting these people? That is a big question which even the Daily Mail is now asking.
This is important, not just because of the terrible act carried out by Abedi, but because Britain has not been a bystander in the wars in the Middle East. It has backed various opposition groups fighting against Gadaffi and Assad in Syria knowing full well the nature of some of the politics involved. Once again it raises the whole question of foreign policy and the very dangerous covert and overt interventions in the Middle East. There is some talk of Abedi having been involved in the fighting. Frankly, he didn't need to: the situation in Libya gives plenty of scope for people to become terrorists and if, as seems likely, there is a wider network, then its roots are probably there.
We hear a lot about Syria in the British media because Assad is still in power, much less about Libya where the situation has an obvious connection to the dangerous policy of Cameron and French President Sarkozy six years ago. Western governments think that they can back people who are at least temporarily on the same side, without any thoughts to the consequences. We should remember Bin Laden was funded by the U.S. back in the day when he was fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. We should never forget these histories or the role of governments in them.
We should also never forget that many people - including Jeremy Corbyn - have long predicted some of these outcomes, or warned of the dangers of them. The whole anti-war movement argued strongly that the wars would lead to more terrorism. We were denounced by ministers and media alike but these words have proved more accurate than those of our opponents. I listened aghast at Col. Richard Kemp, former head of British armed forces in Afghanistan, who was demanding internment for suspected British citizens and deportations for the rest. When the female breakfast TV presenter raised some sensible but mild objections to this, his arrogant reply was that he had thought about this issue. His record? Supporting all these wars and continuing to justify them long after the event. Whether he thought about them or not is hard to say, but maybe his thinking isn't too rigorous.
Jeremy Corbyn standing on his record
It is heartening that Jeremy Corbyn's speech today will be a critique of British foreign policy and its connection with terrorism. This is the right thing to do but if is also a brave thing to do. We know in times like this that it is often very hard to try to put rational arguments which go against the stream. There is already the predictable outrage from certain quarters, I think universally from people who supported the wars in the first place and who now argue that they are totally unconnected to any consequence. But wars which destroy a society or which overthrow regimes always have consequences. In this case, governments have been warned that interventions will increase the threat of terrorism. This was most famously the case with Eliza Manningham-Buller, head of MI5, who told Chilcot that she told Blair that the war in Iraq would increase the threat of terrorism.
Governments had also been warned about supporting various groups such as the mujahideen in Afghanistan or some of the opposition in Libya. It is unsurprising that, having ignored this warning, they now want to deny a connection.
These wars haven't gone away
I have lost count of the number of commentators who say you can't explain Islamist terrorism as being about the wars in the Middle East and South Asia. Blairite Charles Clark is one example, stating that the terrorism predated the war on terror. Yes, but it followed the first Gulf War, sanctions on Iraq and so on. Another yesterday argued falsely that there are no troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Well yes, there are actually, not in the numbers of a decade ago but still advising, fighting and bombing. More importantly, does anyone seriously think that you can invade, bomb and occupy countries and when you withdraw your troops everyone forgets about it? They don't because of the damage that has been done and continues to be done - from depleted uranium and its effects, through to displacements, injury and death which still continues.
The idea that handing over the barracks to local troops or lowering the flag begins to deal with these problems is fanciful. These countries are riven by civil wars and catastrophe for their peoples. Why do we think the largest numbers of refugees are from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya? People really need to wake up to this, not least this government, which spouts about needing to be strong and stable but which follows foreign policy which leads to more of the same.
Who benefits from a backlash?
As so many people have remarked, the response of the people of Manchester has been remarkable. There can, of course, be changes in mood, but so far it has been a combination of brave, collective, united and determined to prevent the issues from damaging relationships between different communities. This isn't because people don't feel deeply about it. How could they not, when so many people have been affected, and so many stories of individual courage and humanity are enough to move anyone to tears? It is in stark contrast to the response in Birmingham in 1974, when a similar number of young people were killed in two pub bombs planted by the IRA in the city centre on a Friday evening. Then there was a huge backlash against Irish people in the city, and socialists and trade unionists had a big job to stop it spiralling out of control.
Today, I think credit for this not happening must go partly to various community leaders including Mayor Andy Burnham and Bishop David Walker, who chose to confront anti-Muslim racism head on. It also goes to the ordinary people of Manchester who responded in such a great fashion. I think it's also the sense that if a backlash is allowed to take hold then things can get very nasty indeed, and that isn't in anyone's interests, apart from the terrorists themselves and the far right who want to exploit such a situation.
Worth remembering too, that hours after the Birmingham bombing, six Irishmen were arrested on a train to Ireland. The Birmingham Six were imprisoned for many years before being released as innocent. The glycerine on their hands was from playing cards, not bombs. The Prevention of Terrorism Act was rushed through after the bombing. It didn't prevent terrorism but led to lots of miscarriages of justice.
What if the economy doesn't grow?
Theresa May said on Monday night, when interviewed by Andrew Neill, that money for spending would come from growth in the economy. Except the economy isn't growing but is slowing down rather more quickly than most economists expected. In addition to that, productivity is getting even worse from its already low level. Does anyone know what the Tories' plan B is?
A dog's breakfast?
The Tory manifesto scraps free school dinners for all primary children, to be replaced with breakfasts. That was supposed to be much cheaper, but it has now been announced that it won't save much money after all. So mean and stupid at the same time. I suppose we should be grateful that the Tories are financially responsible, unlike that awful Labour Party that keeps getting its sums wrong.
Every failure is an orphan
I see that right-wing election guru Lynton Crosby has let it be known that he is not that involved in this campaign. You can see why. Even Tory supporters are calling it anything from lacklustre to disastrous. And Jeremy Corbyn is closing the gap in the polls. None of this was predicted and we have nearly two weeks to go.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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