The day that nobody would take charge

Terror in America - In the hours after the hijackings, the Bush administration seemed to de

Perhaps it was the devilish cleverness of Tuesday's concerted attacks which so took America by surprise. A couple of miles across the river from me, palls of smoke rose all day from the wreckage left after American Airlines flight 77 sliced through the Pentagon; instead of the skies above being full of commercial planes and helicopters, the stillness was broken only by the occasional clattering military helicopter or F-16 thundering overhead. The birds, apparently surprised by unaccustomed freedom, were in full song; walk down leafy 31st Street and there, at its corner with M, you would see a US army armoured personnel carrier dramatically waiting for some unknown, unspecified enemy. America was at war - but it did not yet quite know why, or with whom.

But by the end of that first day, America had lost its innocence; its inner insouciance that its lands were inviolate from foreign attack gone for ever. More than 30,000 died in one day's battle in the civil war, and 2,400 were killed in the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941. But that was all in faraway Hawaii, and half a century before America became the world's unchallenged superpower. Throughout Tuesday, there was a slow, steady moan of stunned surprise that gradually metamorphosed into roars of outrage and anger. Twelve hours after flights UA175 and AA11 were steered into the two 110-story World Trade Center buildings in Manhattan, the nation began to realise that thousands of Americans lay dead beneath rubble in New York and Washington, and that a) they were impotent to do anything about it, and b) the weapons of living people used so diabolically might just as well have been missiles launched from overseas.

Thus the impossible had happened. America had become like other countries Americans watched on the news. The 43rd president, facing his first real test after eight months in office, seemed like a rabbit caught in headlights, such was his fear and incomprehension over what had happened: some dusty cold war manual over what to do in a national emergency was brought out, and Bush was whisked on Air Force One (flanked by two close-escort F-15s and one F-16) from Sarasota, Florida (where he had been reading books to schoolchildren), to a US air force base in Shreveport, Louisiana, to an underground nuclear bunker command post at Offutt in Nebraska, before doing what he should have done immediately: head straight back to Washington to address the nation. Only then, after a day in which the Bush administration seemed to have deserted the country, did the people hear what they so desperately wanted to hear from their president: "Our military's powerful, and it's prepared." And the US, he said, "will make no distinction between the terrorists who commit these acts and those who harbour them".

In the meantime, the television stations had moved the country up several gears of hysteria as they always do; their job is to create a sense of threat, but this time they needed no manufactured ingredients. Weeping parents were summoned to bring frightened children home from school; one usually sane mother I know announced that as Washington clearly faced imminent nuclear attack, she would drive her family to Rehoboth Beach on the eastern seashore. A DC radio station announced that it had just seen a passenger plane roaring out on an unauthorised take-off at Washington's Reagan National Airport. And still the birds kept singing, less than a mile from the White House where the US military had been ordered to go on full-scale "Delta" alert.

What makes an attack of this kind so incomprehensible and unbearable to Americans is an unwavering belief that, in the words of Bush on Tuesday night, the country "was targeted because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world". The US is a force only for good in the world; Americans simply can't make a connection between their country's Middle East policies, say, and ardent, even murderous, opposition to those policies in other parts of the world. Few here can grasp that suicide bombers genuinely believe in the rightness of a jihad, and are willing to martyr themselves to subvert America's burgeoning domination.

Thus - until last Tuesday - America was a place dreamily set apart, a mighty fortress of strength unsullied by the grubby realities other countries in the rest of the world have to face. Geographically, it was protected on either side by two of the worlds' great oceans; militarily, it was unchallengeable. And yet all that went by the board when four fuel-laden passenger planes were hijacked on Tuesday, and no number of trillion-dollar Star Wars policies would have made the slightest difference. Mighty America was foiled by a small number of determined martyrs, careless even to leave flight-training manuals in Arabic behind in Boston.

By Tuesday night the anger and the demand for bloodlust was palpable. A teenage boy visiting my home announced he was willing to go down to hunt and kill those behind the strikes; by Wednesday morning, polls showed that 80 per cent of the country was willing to go to war. But with whom? And at whom would those waiting $1m-a-time Cruise missiles be aimed? The country's media collectively decided that Osama Bin Laden was responsible, and Bush's declared willingness to pursue "those who harbour" the terrorists seemed to give the green light for US - and "allied" forces (we can bet our bottom dollar that Britain will play a symbolic role, magnified beyond all reality by the British media) - to pound the already wretchedly deprived people of Afghanistan.

Inside Washington power circles, the finger-pointing, too, had already begun. The unimpressive performance of the Bush administration was the first subject of whispers that were only sotto voce in the circumstances; not a single representative of the government appeared live before the people on television until the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, materialised, more than nine hours after the first plane struck.

Bush made it known at least three times that he had been in consultation with Dick Cheney - as though he was the man in charge - but Cheney never appeared. Only the secretary of state, Colin Powell, stranded in Latin America, looked sufficiently unfazed and in control of himself to take charge. It took Karen Hughes, perhaps Bush's closest adviser, to appear before the cameras in the middle of the afternoon; compared with a president apparently taking orders from his manual-reading secret service men, she looked positively presidential. By contrast, meanwhile, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki were constantly willing to put their heads above the parapets and before the cameras amid the rubble of New York.

That initial stunned grief seemed almost palpably to deepen as the monstrousness of such deliberate violence sunk in, gradually giving way to anger and outrage; the next stage, and Bush's great test, will inevitably come when rampant aggression takes over. It will be days, if not weeks, before all the bodies are cleared and the funerals held - and, during that period, demands for Bush to take decisive action will only intensify. The problem for US intelligence is that it knows next to nothing about Osama Bin Laden's whereabouts; it once had the capacity to eavesdrop on his sophisticated network of communications, but has now totally lost that.

In the intelligence community, this failure in itself is already becoming a subject of furious (again, sotte voce) finger-pointing. Bin Laden may well be being sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan; he equally well may not be. US intelligence still has little idea who Ramzi Yousef, the man convicted of attempting to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 and now spending the rest of his life in a maximum-security prison in Colorado, actually is: he may be a disciple of Osama Bin Laden, but not even his nationality or real name are actually known despite lots of probing. Whether US intelligence is actually able to supply the Bush administration with the kind of information it now needs, therefore, is - at the very least - an open question.

It will certainly assuage the mounting American bloodlust if Kabul and "suspected mountain hideaways" of Osama Bin Laden are now subjected to unprecedented aerial poundings from the US (and, yes, its "allies") - but without good and sure-footed intelligence, the result will only be to inflict more terrible agony on one of the world's poorest countries by its richest. The real test of George W Bush's character therefore now comes: will he take the easy path by ordering dramatic military action without the intelligence needed to plan or justify it, or will he be able to restrain himself in the face of increasingly insistent demands just to make fearsome retaliatory strikes against someone, somewhere? It has all been bad enough so far, but it could yet become even worse.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?

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Inside the minds of the Isis murderers

As pressure on the terror group who claimed responsiblity for the Manchester attack intensifies, the threat to Britain will only become more acute.

The police and security services had consistently warned that a significant terrorist attack in Britain was inevitable. Yet no warning could have prepared us for the horror of the suicide attack on the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Twenty-two people were killed and at least 60 were wounded as they were leaving a concert by Ariana Grande in what was the most deadly attack in Britain since the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 56 people died.

Like the London bombers, the Manchester suicide attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was British. He was 22, lived in Manchester and studied business management at Salford University before dropping out. He worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. The son of Libyans, Abedi is said to have returned recently from a visit to the North African country, where Islamic State has a foothold.

Ariana Grande is a former children’s TV star who made her name on channels such as Nickelodeon. Her fan base is overwhelmingly young and female, and many of those killed or wounded were children, including Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old girl from Leyland, Lancashire.

Islamic State inevitably claimed responsibility for the massacre, dismissing the victims as “crusaders”, “polytheists” and “worshippers of the cross”. This is not the first time Islamist terrorists have targeted children.

A Chechen jihadist group calling itself ­Riyad-us Saliheen (meaning “Gardens of the Righteous”) took more than 1,100 hostages, including 777 children, in a school siege in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004. In the event, more than 330 were massacred, including 186 children. Gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban also stormed a school in 2014, killing 148.

For terrorist actors, these are neither whimsical nor irrational acts. Contemporary jihadist movements have curated a broad and expansive intellectual ecosystem that rationalises and directs their actions. What they want is to create an asymmetry of fear by employing indiscriminate barbarism to intimidate and subdue their opponents into submission.

We have grown accustomed to a wave of terrorist attacks being carried out in the name of the self-styled Islamic State ever since the group’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began prioritising them in 2014. (He was killed in an American air strike on Aleppo province in Syria in August last year.)

The US-led coalition against Islamic State has weakened the terror group in its former strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In response, IS has been forced to concentrate more on what it calls “external operations” – by which it means inspiring its sympathisers and operatives to carry out attacks on Western countries. Indeed, al-Adnani encouraged the group’s supporters not to migrate towards IS-held territory but rather to focus their efforts on attacks in their home countries.

“The tiniest action you do in the heart of their [Western] land is dearer to us than the biggest action by us,” he said in an audio statement released last year. “There are no innocents in the heart of the lands of the crusaders.”

Islamic State refers to its strategy as “just terror”. Its framing places culpability for attacks on Western states on these nations themselves by claiming that IS actions are a response to aggression or assault. That much has been outlined in the group’s literature. “When will the crusaders end their hostilities towards Islam and the Muslims? . . . When will they recognise that the solution to their pathetic turmoil is right before their blinded eyes?” the militants ask in the IS magazine Dabiq. “Until then, the just terror will continue to strike them to the core of their deadened hearts.”

IS offered a rationale of this sort as justification for its bombing of a Russian commercial aircraft – Metrojet Flight 9268, travelling from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to St Petersburg. That attack in October 2015 killed 224. Similar reasoning was offered for the attacks in Paris the following month in which 137 people were killed, in a series of co-ordinated, commando-style gun and bomb outrages across the city.

“Revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe,” IS declared in Dabiq. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken . . . The [caliphate] will take revenge for any aggression against its religion and people, sooner rather than later. Let the ­arrogant know that the skies and the lands are Allah’s.”

***

Through my academic research at King’s College London, I have ­interviewed scores of Westerners who became foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq to quiz them about their motives. Last year, one man from High Wycombe who had joined IS told me that it wanted to attack British targets in response to the vote in the House of Commons to extend British air strikes against IS targets to include sites in Syria (the British had only been targeting the group in Iraq until that point). “Do they [the British government] expect us to sit back and do nothing? ­Idiots,” he said.

In this respect, IS frames its attacks as acts of “revenge” and predicates its response on the Islamic principle of qisas, which is comparable to lex talionis or the doctrine of “an eye for an eye”. Qisas was always intended to be a tool of private redress for an individual or his/her family to seek justice in matters relating to bodily harm. Typically, it relates to cases of murder and manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation (say, leading to loss of limbs). The principle creates a framework for retributive justice.

The contemporary Salafi-jihadi movement has adopted a particularly innovative approach to the concept of qisas in two ways. First, groups such as IS have taken the idea and construed it in a way that justifies indiscriminate terrorism, such as the attack in Manchester. They argue that qisas has a political dimension and that it can be applied to international affairs in a way that holds civilians responsible for the perceived crimes of their governments.

Second, qisas is normally applied only in cases where the aggressor is known. IS, by contrast, holds every citizen-stranger of an enemy state responsible for the actions of his or her government. Thus, when it released its statement claiming responsibility for the Manchester attack, it said that it had struck against a “gathering of the crusaders . . . in response to their transgressions against the lands of the Muslims”.

It is this militaristic construction of qisas that allows IS to rationalise the bombing of a venue where large numbers of young girls had gathered to watch a pop concert, dismissing them as “crusaders”.

This is not new. In 1997, Osama Bin Laden told CBS News that “all Americans are our enemies, not just the ones who fight us directly, but also the ones who pay their ­taxes”. His rationale was that all Americans, by virtue of citizenship alone, are vicariously liable for the actions of their government.

Just a few years later, Bin Laden used the same idea to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks and also invoked it in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged,” he wrote. “You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.”

IS used the concept most dramatically in January 2015, when it burned alive a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, whose plane had crashed in its territory. A video of the killing was circulated on the internet and social media. The group claimed his bombing raids had killed civilians and that it wanted to punish him with “equal retaliation”, in keeping with qisas.

What is well known about al-Kasasbeh’s murder is that he was burned alive inside a cage – but that is not the whole story. To understand how IS tethered this to the principle of qisas, it is the end of the gruesome video that is invested with most significance. After al-Kasasbeh has died, a truck emerges and dumps rubble over the cage. It was claimed this was debris from a site he had bombed, thus completing the “equal retaliation” of returning like for like. The idea was that IS had retaliated using the two principal forms in which a missile attack kills – by fire or debris.

***

The Manchester attack came on the fourth anniversary of the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. Rigby was killed by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the middle of the afternoon on a street outside a military barracks. That attack was in keeping with a pattern we have become increasingly accustomed to in Europe: an unsophisticated plot that employs ordinary, everyday items – a car, say, or a knife.

The consequences of such attacks have been seen across Europe, most notably in Nice on 14 July 2016, when 86 people were killed during Bastille Day celebrations after a jihadist drove a truck into crowds on the promenade. Similar attacks followed in Berlin, Westminster and Stockholm.

The security services find that these murderous attacks are extremely hard to disrupt because they typically involve lone actors who can mobilise quickly and with discretion. The Manchester attack was different. Explosives were used, which means the plot was inherently more sophisticated, requiring careful planning and preparation.

We know that two of the 7/7 bombers had previously trained in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, where they honed their skills. In other plots, such as the connected attacks in London and Glasgow Airport of 2007, the explosive devices failed mainly because the bomb-makers had found it difficult to travel abroad and develop their skills in safe environments. Whatever Abedi’s connections, the long war in Syria and Iraq has once again created a permissive environment for terrorist training and attack planning.

The devastating impact of this has already been felt across Europe. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, more than 800 Britons are believed to have travelled there to fight. From Europe as a whole, the figure is over 5,000, of which a significant number are believed to have joined IS. Of the British contingent, the security services estimate that about half have returned or become disengaged from the conflict. Of those who remained, a hundred are believed to be active, the rest having been killed.

It is improbable that Abedi acted alone in Manchester or that this plot had no international component. Indeed, he was already known to the authorities (and had returned recently from Libya). As pressure on IS intensifies across Syria and Iraq, the threat to Britain will only become more acute as the group’s sympathisers prepare for what they consider to be a fightback.

This speaks to the scale of the threat facing Britain, and Europe more generally. Our police and security services have been stretched and continuously tested in recent years. Just recently, in March, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley told Radio 4’s Today programme that 13 plots had been thwarted since Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. Put another way, the police have disrupted terrorist plots every four months for the past four years.

Naturally, Islamic State is not the only threat. On 13 May, one of Osama Bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, released a video, titled “Advice for martyrdom-seekers in the West”, on behalf of al-Qaeda. Hamza, 27, who was his father’s favoured successor to lead the group, called on its supporters to concentrate on attacks in the West rather than migrating to conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond. Scenes of previous ­terrorist attacks in Britain played throughout the video.

The central leadership of al-Qaeda is increasingly looking for opportunities to reassert itself after being eclipsed by Islamic State and losing control of its affiliates in Syria. It needs attacks and a cause in the West with which to revive itself. Hamza therefore cited the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris as a critical example, calling for the assassination of anyone deemed to have “insulted” Islam.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was especially important for al-Qaeda because it enabled the group to transcend the fratricidal conflicts that frequently define relations between the various jihadist groups. In Syria, for instance, al-Qaeda’s affiliates (when it had better control over them) and Islamic State have been in open war with each other.

Yet, the Charlie Hebdo attack brought warm praise from the group’s Islamist rivals because none of them wanted to appear ­unsupportive of an atrocity that had, as the terrorists proclaimed, “avenged” the Prophet Muhammad’s honour.

The British man from High Wycombe who joined IS told me the group had welcomed the attack for precisely those reasons. It was something that, in his view, had confirmed the “nobility” of the attackers, even if they had not been members of IS.

Is it too late for the West to save itself, I asked him. What if the West simply accepted all of Islamic State’s demands: would that provide respite?

The answer was as emphatic as it was stark: “We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue.”

He went on: “Their kufr [disbelief] against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.”

In other words, we are all guilty, and we are all legitimate targets.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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