That the Manchester bombing was carried by a British-Libyan has once again highlighted the sharp divide in the debate on counterterrorism. Four days after the bombing, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn made a speech clearly linking British foreign policy and terrorism attacks in the UK.
He stressed that the war on terror is not working, while making clear that this “in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and held to account for their actions.”
Conservative opponents claimed he was making excuses for terrorism and providing false pretexts. A Conservative security minister said: “These people hate our values, not our foreign policy.” The criticism that Corbyn leapt on this issue too early after the bombing carried weight, but this does not mean his points, and those of many experts who have stated likewise, should be cast aside.
A pro-forma debate littered with well-worn cliches has always engulfed this issue, with the media encouraging a binary approach. Politicians and pundits sit in front of cameras, soundbites primed. Nuance and thoughtful discussion are abandoned. You could replay the same debates after every terrorist atrocity over the last decade and barely notice a difference.
The first obvious point is that direct responsibility for an attack like the one in Manchester lies solely with the perpetrators and those who helped inspire, plan and execute the atrocity. The second point is that there is no excuse or acceptable rationale for killing innocent civilians. But you cannot leave the argument there, as some do effectively to shut down further discussion.
Responding to those who cite foreign policy as an issue, opponents claim, as Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon did, that the Sept. 11 attacks occurred before Iraq, so “there is no correlation” between foreign policy and this appalling attack.
The threat from Islamist extremism predated the 2003 Iraq war, but so too did anger against British foreign policy. Both have their roots going back decades, and trying play a puerile game of what came first proves nothing. There is deep hatred of certain values, but hatred of Western foreign policy and its harmful effects exists too.
A toxic cocktail of background elements creates the environment in which such extremism flourishes. Let us not perpetuate the fiction that there is a one-size-fits-all reason why such horrors are committed. In that mix, foreign policy cannot be left out in some vain hope that the actions of the UK or its allies have not had consequences or blowback. It is irresponsible and intellectually vacuous to pretend this is the case.
In the case of Manchester suicide bomber Salman Abedi, events in Libya and the British role there were clearly a factor in his radicalization.
In the case of the US, the linkage is clear; support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s had consequences. That Daesh has flourished in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, countries in which Britain had disastrous interventions, cannot be brushed away. Such extremism flourishes in the horror of conflict and weak states, and Britain contributed to bringing this about. Moreover, did the UK do enough to end conflicts such as Syria’s?
In the case of Manchester suicide bomber Salman Abedi, events in Libya and the British role there were clearly a factor in his radicalization. How can any Libyan view that role positively when historically Britain backed King Idris, supported the US bombing of Libya in 1986, sanctioned the country, then lifted them in shady deals with dictator Muammar Qaddafi, before participating in a military intervention to remove him?
Iraqis know that Britain both propped up Saddam Hussein and removed him. Brutal tyrants such as Saddam, Qaddafi and the Assads have contributed hugely to advance this extremism, often deliberately for their own ends.
At the same time, like so many who succumb to this extremism, Abedi was a second-generation immigrant who struggled to connect to his country of origin and the one he was born in. Identity issues and alienation are factors, as are gang culture, criminality, drug use and mental health issues.
A similar synthetic debate shrouds the role of Islam. Many point to the religion as the ideological evil involved. Yet many of these young Muslims attracted to Daesh, Al-Qaeda and such groups have little to no understanding of the religion. Some who joined Daesh bought “Islam for Dummies.”
Ending this threat will not be solved by a different approach to British foreign policy, but it would help. Acknowledging that British foreign policy has not always been right or successful is not caving in to terrorism but owning up to a problematic past.
But it will not work without extensive and prolonged efforts to address social inequalities and exclusion in the UK that have nothing to do with the international scene. This applies to countries such as France and Belgium too. Tackling increasing anti-Muslim behavior must also be part of the mix.
As Manchester has come together to tackle the aftermath of the bombing last week, emotions are too raw for this debate now, but it must develop beyond the point-scoring that elections inevitably bring. Understanding the backdrop to such extremist attacks is key to finding a solution to the threat that seems a distant prospect. Above all, we must stop pushing the case that there is one reason and one magical answer.
• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.