Guest Article – How We’ve Lost the War on Terror

March 9, 2014

In December 1994 I was a student with a Saturday job at Liberty – the department store on Regent Street. On the last Saturday before Christmas, one of the biggest shopping days in the West-End’s calendar, the IRA rang their secret telephone number with their secret code and told the Police that they had put a bomb somewhere on either Oxford Street or Regent Street. The Police mobilised immediately and within minutes all the shoppers on those streets, and all the staff, were evacuated from the shops and thrown out into the cold.

And it was cold. We were all in shirtsleeves because we were not given any time to collect coats. All the shops on Oxford Street and Regent Street were closed so the only way my colleagues and I could keep warm was by wandering in and out of the shops on the only street in the area that was open – Carnaby Street. Me and three of four others did that for maybe half an hour before finding a cafe just off Carnaby Street to settle.

Shortly after ordering my cappuccino (this was 1994 – lattes and flat whites hadn’t been invented yet) there was a roar of sirens, military-style vehicles and barked authoritative orders. It turned out that there was a bomb but it wasn’t on Oxford Street or Regent Street, it was on Carnaby Street. The phone call was deliberately designed to herd the public into the bomb’s vicinity and thereby ensure maximum civilian casualties. I had been in the very Carnaby Street shop at the same time that a live bomb was in the changing rooms. I remember shaking convulsively when we were told.

The bomb scare that caused my near-death experience was never widely publicised but that was not an isolated incident. Two years previous the IRA had pulled off a similar stunt with more success. Again, in the run-up to Christmas, on 17 December 1992, they detonated a small bomb on the third floor of John Lewis on Oxford Street. The store had an evacuation procedure that the IRA must have known about because 15 minutes later they detonated a second bomb at the rear of the store near the exit where staff and customers were exiting the building.

Perhaps some of you don’t know what the IRA is. Before the Islamists secured their monopoly on terrorism their brand of Irish Catholic terrorism reigned supreme. By my crude reckoning, in the years between 1970 and 1997 the IRA killed 36 people, seven horses and injured and maimed hundreds more in London alone. In that sense, the IRA was the Al Qaeda of its age. Looking back, what I find quite interesting is how the British public at the time treated Catholics and the Irish as a whole during this period that Irish Catholic terrorists were doing their best to kill as many of us as they could. I compare the way that the Irish community was treated in the 1980s to the way that the Muslim community is treated today and I see very little symmetry.

During those years in the 1970s through to the end of the 1990s I lived in London. Not only did I live in London during that period of intense IRA activity, I also lived in a community made up almost exclusively of Irish Catholics. I attended Catholic West London Schools and Catholic Churches. I even spent a year studying at a Catholic University. I saw up close how the British public reacted to these atrocities and how the British public treated my Irish Catholic friends. And did I see hostility, intolerance and hatred? No. I saw a British public accept that those terrorists were not representative of the wider, and much loved, Irish community. There was certainly no suggestion that Catholicism, having nurtured these terrorists, was a dangerous religion that should be driven out.

Over the last week or so there’s been a lot in the papers about John Downey, the man accused of being behind the IRA’s Hyde Park and Regent’s Park bombings. You have to look very hard to find any reference to Downey’s religion in any of those stories. Contrast that to the murder of Lee Rigby and look at how often words “Muslim” and “Islam” appear in any discussion about his death.

It may surprise you to hear that this is not a rant against Catholicism or Christianity. The point that I’m trying to make, no doubt badly whilst alienating significant proportions of the people reading this, is that until relatively recently the British public was, on the whole, sensible enough to understand that atrocities carried out by people who happen to be of a certain religion or nationality should not reflect on everyone in that religion or nationality. Is that the case today when Catholic Republican terrorism has been usurped by Islamist terrorism? No it is not. Something has changed in our national psyche and it’s my firm belief that what has changed between the 1990s and now is that Osama Bin Laden has won the war on terror.

I have strong memories of the 9/11 atrocity. One of my strong memories is a thought and conversation that I had shortly after it dawned on me that those pictures were not a hoax: what could anyone possibly gain from this? That’s what I asked. It seemed inevitable that America would react and who would be able to withstand an angry, vengeful onslaught from the mighty US war machine? Why wage a war on a nation that cannot be won?

Almost 13 years later you have to accept that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda have out-thought the Western powers every step of the way. In retrospect the invasion of Afghanistan was an inevitable consequence of 9/11 but as it turns out, a US victory was very, very far from inevitable. Did Al Qaeda anticipate the invasion of Iraq too? Possibly not. That might have been a piece of good fortune that Blair and Bush dropped into their lap. What seems obvious now is that when they planned 9/11 Bin Laden and Al Qaeda knew that:

  1. the Western powers would be forced into a face-saving military invasion;
  2. any conflict in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the Middle East would be drawn out over many years;
  3. it was in the nature of the Afghan people that they would never tolerate a “liberation” by any foreign culture, let alone one as alien as that of the Americans;
  4. the Western powers long, expensive and unpopular invasion would invigorate what had, until then, been an unsuccessful and largely apathetic jihadi movement;
  5. the invasion would result in an Islamic diaspora that the Western powers, being ostensibly democratic and liberal, would have to accept onto their shores;
  6. the inevitable influx of Islamic refugees would be feared by the natives in their new homes;
  7. the dispossessed refugees would harbour little goodwill towards their Western liberators; and
  8. this mutual resentment would provoke conflict all over the world.

So 9/11 set in train a sequence of events that has led, as it was always going to, to the world that we live in today where we, like all Western nations, and with some justification, live in constant fear of an attacks not from an invading army, but from terrorist agents that live amongst us. Meanwhile, we, the British, have been encouraged by our politicians and media to abandon our characteristic fairness and tolerance towards other cultures, and replace it with a primitive fear and hatred of foreigners.

In the years that have followed 9/11 the greatest harm that the West has suffered has been self-inflicted. We have let the terrorists win the battle for our “hearts and minds” and we have become increasingly fearful of the mere word “Islam”. Islam, like Catholicism, is not a violent religion and Muslims in 2014, like the Irish in the 1980s, are not hateful people. However, in order to further their warped agenda the Islamic terrorists need the West to fear Islam and they need the West to isolate and vilify Muslims. In that environment their ideas will flourish and the West appears to be doing everything it can to help them achieve this goal.

Crimes like 9/11, the murder of Lee Rigby, Anders Brevik’s slaughter of innocents in Norway and the IRA’s Christmas bombing campaigns, are all horrific. However, isolated acts of violence will always happen. The fact that these crimes were committed is not hard evidence that Muslims, Scandinavian Protestants or Irish Catholics are all all to be feared.Try as we can, we cannot remove from society forever the random acts of madmen and we shouldn’t live in fear that random acts of violence from madmen will befall us. What we can and should be scared of is the public’s reaction to violence.  We must not react to violence with demands for yet more bloodshed, we must not seek recrimination against entire segments of our community or demand that the government dispense with the usual principles of justice, democracy and free speech in order to prevent the unpreventable or, worse, to satisfy our need for vengeance. If we allow these things to happen our society will break down and the war on terror will be irretreviably lost.

The Taliban regime that we once thought so abhorrent relies on tribal allegiance, a brutal pack mentality and arbitrary justice. If you read the Daily Mail, scan chat pages or eavesdrop pub conversations you will hear the British public advocating precisely those ideals in response to a perceived fear of terrorism. If those ideas gain currency then it will be Bin Laden and Al Quaeda’s greatest victory. That is what I live in fear of and that, I think, is the greatest threat to our way of life.

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The question you ask; why is the disposition of the ‘British’ public towards Muslims (due to acts of terrorism performed by radicals in the name of Islam) different to Catholics during the last three decades of the 20th Century in an ostensibly similar situation.

When I first thought about this, it seemed like a pretty straightforward argument, but the more I examine each point, the more I realise the subject is like watching a moving Venn diagram with so many overlapping, but morphing factors that it is hard to compare the two situations directly.

I’ll try and address a few of the ideas, but this is hardly conclusive and could be considered an amuse bouche.

1) The perception of the British public of the Irish Problem was just that; Irish. The differences were National rather than Religious, Geographical rather than Ideological even. It wasn’t Catholics blowing up London, it was Irish Republicans (who also happened to be Catholics, but this wasn’t the defining common denominator). It wasn’t Spanish or Italian or Brazilian Catholics leaving bombs in phone boxes.

Rightly or wrongly, the perception of the modern British public is that the Muslim brand of terrorism is Religious and the antagonists are borderless (unless you count the Global Caliphate we are being told is demand no.1 on the list).

2) The racial factor. This is complex in that until the last couple of decades, your typical Irishman looked pretty much like your typical Englishman. The only way to differentiate the two was by an accent, and even then, an average English person would have had the same prejudices towards an Northern Irish Protestant as they would of a Northern Irish Catholic.

When I talk about race I am talking about the colour of a person’s skin of course, but then we also have to throw in those other helpful cultural stereotypes. Does he have a beard? Is she (or he!) wearing a Niqab? It’s a hell of a lot easier to prejudge someone from a distance when they have a visual differentiator. Ironically, if that person who was born and bred in the UK and has a local accent was on the end of a phone, the EDL member complaining about his gas bill would be none the wiser, as opposed to their Irish example above.

I also think there’s a perception among the British public that the IRA would have happily stopped bombing the UK if Northern Ireland was ceded. I’m not saying that wouldn’t have opened an equal or larger can of worms by the way, but essentially; problem, action, resolution.

I believe there is a perception, or at least the promotion of a perception, that The Muslims are invading! They want to take over our country and install Sharia Law! And they cannot be reasoned with because it says in their holy book to convert by the sword! And they are so fanatical they actually don’t want to survive their attacks themselves! How do you fight someone who kills themselves first? Which leads us to…

3) Throughout history it has been as well understood premise of successful leaders that the proletariat needs a Bogeyman. From Machiavelli, to George Orwell, to Umberto Eco, to your everyday conspiracy internet nut, we all know that to enforce your political will you need to be able to convince the average Joe to let you do things they would in all other situations tell you to get stuffed. The most effective incentive; fear.

During the majority of time when the IRA were active in the UK, we already had a Bogeyman. He was called the Soviet Union. Even as a child of the 70’s and 80’s I was keenly aware that Armageddon was one big red button away from reality. This enemy was everything required to give the mandarins of Whitehall the mandate to act as they wished with the public’s blessing (and terror). The Republican terrorists of Ireland were frankly an irritation the Government would have happily done without.

Unfortunately for those requiring such motivational tools, the good old USSR went and collapsed leaving a void of terror. Not long after though, good old Saddam and his fourth largest army in the world (including the Elite Republican Guard!) invaded poor little Kuwait and gave us all a justifiable excuse for a motivational and easily winnable desert war (no more cities or jungles thank you very much.) The problem was that after ten years of sanctions it all got a bit uninteresting for CNN, but just as people were starting to look inwards a brilliantly cliched villain made himself available. Thank the political Gods for TV, tall buildings and spectacularly overachieving suicide bombers.

Of course his mysterious terror group Al Qaeda, (The Base) terrifying in it’s lack of organised structure and run from a cave somewhere in middle of Asia, had bombed US embassies and warships previously, but this was an attack on the general population on sovereign territory. And of course where a fanatical America leads, the UK follows.

4) The last point I’d make here is probably the most influential in it’s effect; technology. In the 70’s the closest the average British person got to see the effects of terrorism were a black and white picture on the front of the Daily Mirror. Now, we are all constantly bombarded by 24 hour news, we are all smartphone journalists (e.g.Lee Rigby’s murder), we have online videos of public beheadings, we are all tweeting, Facebooking, and even creating our own websites to discuss the issues.

This exposure cannot be underestimated in it’s ability to shape public opinion and it is reinforced by both sides gleefully to engender fear. People are incredibly easily led especially to an opinion that agrees with their own prejudices (does that white English person live in an area that has become a centre for Pakistani immigration?)

While I’m sure they dreamed of it, I don’t think even Bin Laden thought they would have so much success and ongoing international impact. There simply was no precedent for it. I don’t think even he imagined the Americans would be given public mandate to invade secular Iraq under the shadow of an Islamic threat.

I don’t agree with all your bullet points though, even no.1. Remember the Americans had previously supported the Taliban in Afghanistan. I think they most people (even Bin Laden probably!) thought, if we say hand over the culprit or we’ll kill you all, and they have him, they will. I also am sceptical about points 5,6,7. The diaspora you talk of is generally local refugees rather than liberal, educated, political asylum seekers who in any case are happy to get away from the hellholes their homes have been made into.

The one point I find tragically comically true is point 3. I implore anyone who reads this article to go and watch the film Rambo 3. There is a scene where Col. Trautman, Rambo’s mentor is captured and tortured by the evil Russian commander. During his painful interrogation he spouts off all the reasons why the Russians will never defeat the Afghan people; all of which George W Bush would have been wise to listen to rather than Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell!

These are just few thoughts raised by your article and far from conclusive, I’d be interested to hear what people who aren’t from my white middle England demographic think about the matter.

Before I go I’ll ask you one last question. In the War on Terror, who is the enemy? Is it Al Qaeda, Bin laden, Islam or is it our own political parties, corporations and news agencies? There are individuals or groups providing violent actions, but who is providing the terror?

March 11, 2014 2:52 PM

I was in two minds about labouring the IRA point in this article because I knew there was a danger of my real message being lost in what might turn into an argument about the IRA. The only reason I raised the IRA thing was to provide a counterpoint to Al Qaeda that would help show how British attitudes to terrorism and terrorists have changed over the last 40 years. In the past we saw terrorists for what they were: extremists representing minority views; whereas today we have let the terrorists convince us that they speak on behalf of significant proportions of the world’s population. In that, the terrorists have enjoyed a huge victory.

Having said that, the protagonists in “Irish Problem” certainly did attempt to divide Northern Ireland along very clear religious lines with Catholic Republicans on one side and Protestant Loyalists on the other. The IRA had no protestants and the UDA had no Catholics. To that extent IRA terrorism has as much to do with religion as Al Qaeda’s terrorism. But anyway – at your point 1) I think you’re making the same point that I am aren’t you? The IRA was not representative of all Irish or all Catholics – they were just terrorists that all happened to be Irish Catholics. Just as Al Qaeda are not representative of all Muslims – they’re just terrorists who happen to be Muslim.

I think that the key difference between the IRA and Al Qaeda is that Al Qaeda put religion at the heart of its strategy in a way that the IRA never did. Al Qaeda fostered the lie that its war was a battle that pitched Islam against the rest of the world and both sides to the war that has followed have taken that lie and run with it.

I agree with all of 2) to the extent that I agree that Al Qaeda has exploited Islam’s “foreignness” in order to whip the West into a frenzy of fear. I also think that Al Qaeda’s ultimate goal is to impose Sharia law on the West but that is not a reason to suspect all Muslims of world domination.

The collapse of USSR was certainly a factor in all of this. The UK and American economies and politicians benefit from fear and Muslims have filled a space previously occupied by Communists (and before them witches probably).

I like your question: In the War on Terror, who is the enemy? FDR got it right when he said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” but I prefer the way that the Bene Gesserit said it in the Dune books/film: “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” Incidentally, if you spend an afternoon watching Rambo 3 and Dune you’ll learn everything you need to do know about conflict in Afghanistan.

March 12, 2014 10:37 PM

Why don’t the agnostics ever kick off then..? Or the atheists.? I think this probably has more to do with the media and testosterone then it does religion but I’m off to bed soon so I’ll have a think about why that is…

Also, I don’t think everyone was particularly tolerant of the Irish in the 70s and 80s. Maybe we just moved in more liberal circles where we weren’t exposed to that sort of behaviour..?

Anyway, night night!


Its empirically false that religion has been responsible for the majority of killing in the world. The number of people killed involving atheism – the tens of thousands murdered under atheistic communist regimes where militant atheism was the official doctrine of the state in undeniable. It is estimated that in the last 100 years some 260,000,000 human lives have been lost to that atheistic communism. Nobel prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn commented when asked to account for the brutal tragedies suffered under these communist regime, having spent 50 years of his own life working on the history of the revolution succinctly stated ‘Men have forgotten God, that is why this has happened.’ The question must be asked again therefore, on the basis of the above, who actually creates the terror? Signed….a person without god or religion…


260,000,000 lives lost through atheistic doctrine? citation needed – I think “it is estimated” is not very empirical in itself. Also, this is a very one sided argument, what are the estimated numbers of deaths caused by religious beliefs? Maybe then we can have some perspective.

Finally the attacks on Yemen, the USS Cole and 9/11 by al-Qaida were originally claimed to be retaliations against the west for their support of Israel. It was the west that turned it into a war by Islam against us.

March 13, 2014 10:06 PM

There’s some interesting stuff here A. but I’m puzzled as to how you could have read these posts and reached the conclusion that Eamonn, WhatBecameOfSkids..? or I are suggesting that religion has been responsible for the majority of killing in the world. I certainly don’t think that and I never suggested it here. I would also be interested to hear what source you used for your empirical statistical research.


I’d read down the entire thread with interest, however my comment related only and poorly to the comment prior to mine speaking about murder and terror at the hands of atheists and agnostics …. written on the fly..


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