One year on from the bombing of Baghdad, is the world a safer place?

Madrid was not a first, it was merely closer to home, argues Josh Mandel, for terrorism attracts extremists worldwide
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Indy Politics

"Al-Qa'ida has an interest in Iraq for a reason, and that interest is, they realise this is a front in the war on terror." This was President George Bush on Wednesday, maintaining his administration's consistent linkage between the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime and the campaign against international Islamist terrorism.

There is little convincing evidence that Saddam's regime had any practical relationship with the acolytes of Osama bin Laden, but the Bush administration, in addition to its other motivations for removing Saddam, argued that the potential for Iraqi state support for the global Islamist movement was not a risk worth taking. Regime change in Iraq, it was said, would constitute a victory against the terrorists, and make the world a safer place.

One year on, and terrorism is still very much with us. Iraq itself has seen more than 20 major car bomb attacks since August, and has acted as a magnet for radical Islamists from across the Middle East. In the wider world, there have been major attacks in Riyadh, Casablanca, Jakarta, Istanbul, and most recently Madrid, the motivation for which was almost certainly Spain's military involvement in Iraq.

Many critics of the war contend that this demonstrates that Bush's strategy has backfired: that far from reducing the terrorist threat, the invasion of Iraq has galvanised the terrorists. However, it would be naive to draw the conclusion that the world is a more dangerous place as a result of the war. The terrorist recruiters may have an additional grievance to add to their propaganda campaigns, but the continued threat of Islamist extremism has little to do with Iraq. If we are to address the threat constructively, we must detach it from recriminations over the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war.

The terrorist atrocities that struck the people of Madrid on 11 March served as a reminder, to anyone who might have forgotten, that the terrorist threat from radical Islamists is truly global, and that our developed Western societies - our daily commuter lives - are a principal target. The focus of the terrorist threat since those epochal attacks in New York and Washington has been in Muslim countries in the developing world of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. This geographical and psychological distance from our own lives might have allowed a sense of complacency to creep in. Now, the loss of Spanish lives has brought the threat nearer to home.

That's not to say that Europe is a more dangerous place after Madrid. The threat has always been present, and while we might feel outrage at the killing of 200 innocent commuters, we shouldn't feel surprise. There have been several credible plots to attack targets in Europe over the past few years, some of which could have caused carnage on a similar scale to Madrid had they not been thwarted. It is not just al-Qa'ida: the sarin attack in the Tokyo underground and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 show there are also dangers from other quarters, including religious cults and political extremists.

What can we do? The Bush administration believes that re-making the Middle East will play an important role in addressing the underlying causes of Islamist extremism: regime change in Iraq is partly a manifestation of this philosophy.

Addressing the root causes is certainly an essential element of the fight against terrorism, but alongside this long-term strategy, immediate tactical moves are needed to combat the existing threat.

Intelligence and surveillance are crucial elements in pre-empting attacks and, ultimately, defeating terrorist movements. The emergence of Islamist extremism has forced the major intelligence agencies to reassess their capabilities and strategies. Law enforcement strategies have had mixed results: although some significant arrests have been made, prosecutions have not always been successful, and many states are reviewing the balance between civil liberties and security.

This is not just an issue for governments, however. In an increasingly privatised world, the private sector also has a role to play in guarding against attacks. Business has routinely been in the front line of the recent terrorist assault (at the World Trade Center, for example, and in Istanbul), and companies cannot rely solely on government authorities to protect them. They must review their exposure and implement their own security strategies. The vigilance of individual citizens, too, has a part to play.

Ultimately, terrorism, by its very nature, is something that threatens not just governments or special interests, but the entire fabric of society. The phenomenon of terrorism is not going to go away any time soon, and it will force us all to make significant adjustments in the way we live our lives and view the world. It is not inconceivable that future historians will see it as the defining feature of 21st-century life.

Josh Mandel is a senior analyst at Control Risks, the international business risk consultancy