Patrick Cockburn: We must avoid the terrorist trap

The IRA nudged the British Army into acting as their recruiting sergeants

Saturday 17 September 2011 13:13

Just before 9am yesterday in central Baghdad, a man detonated explosives strapped to his body in the middle of a crowd. He killed 25 people and wounded 47. Elsewhere in Iraq, five suicide bombers killed at least 23 other people.

If the purpose of the bombers is to frighten people, then they are succeeding. The streets of Baghdad are eerily empty. A sick friend seeking medical attention began to despair at the weekend as he found doctor after doctor whom he tried to contact had left Iraq.

The bombing of Baghdad far exceeds anything seen in London in terms of the number of attacks (120 suicide bombs since the beginning of May) and the weight of explosives used. Nevertheless, the American response in Iraq is worth looking at as an example of how not to respond to "terror".

From the beginning of the suicide bombing campaign almost two years ago, the US military in Iraq has played into the hands of their attackers. American and Iraqi officials have retreated into headquarters so heavily fortified that they have turned into prisons from which their inhabitants seldom emerge.

US troops view anybody approaching their checkpoints as potential bombers. Every Iraqi I know has had a relative or friend shot dead or wounded because he or she made what was deemed a suspicious movement.

The suicide bombing campaign in Iraq started in August 2003 with an attack on the Jordanian embassy. Within a few months, I got used to visiting devastated buildings with a sinister blackened crater just in front of them.Again and again, I have visited hospitals filled with survivors, their bodies mangled and burnt by the blasts.

But it was the US reaction to suicide bombers and insurgent attacks in general which gave the resistance their greatest victory. The American army's use of its massive fire-power is so unrestrained that all US military operations are in reality the collective punishment of whole districts, towns and cities. Mass arrests of young men may eliminate a few insurgent fighters, but they ensure that plenty of recruits will take their places.

The use of terror, and this applies to London as much as Baghdad, is partly to publicise a cause and to intimidate. It is common to call terrorism "mindless", though this is seldom the case. But to be truly effective, "terror" needs to provoke a government into over-reaction.

The Provisional IRA are past masters of this. I was in Belfast in the early Seventies. At the start of the Northern Ireland Troubles, the Provisionals had few supporters. By a carefully planned bombing or assassination they repeatedly nudged the British Army into the invasion of nationalist areas, and thereby acted as the IRA's recruiting sergeants. It took over a decade for the British government to learn better. When the Provisionals blew up the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984, it was part of their plan to provoke an anti-Irish reaction; possibly even the reintroduction of internment and measures which could only act in their favour. For once, the government did not fall into their trap.

To achieve its aims, terror needs to tempt the government of the country targeted to play its game. All governments are strengthened if they can say their country is at war with terrorists and only those in power can defend it. This was true of Russia where Vladimir Putin rose from obscurity in 1999 in the weeks after four apartment buildings were mysteriously bombed in Moscow and 300 people killed. He has presented himself ever since as Russia's no-nonsense defender against terrorism. He has used this threat to justify the demolition of the free press and balanced television coverage.

George Bush behaved in exactly the same way two years later after 11 September. Civil liberties were curtailed. The same authoritarian rhetoric was employed. War was declared on terrorism. Typically, Putin and Bush, though neither were ever soldiers, started to walk with the same jaunty military swagger.

The strategy worked in both the former Cold War rivals. Putin and Bush won re-election. In Russia and the US, the patriotic card was played with a vengeance. Opponents were denounced as soft on terrorism, the media was intimidated. Russia could have resolved the crisis in Chechnya and the US could have handled the aftermath of 9/11 without any real damage to their countries if their governments had not exploited terrorist attacks to reinforce their grip on power.

I hope that there is enough substance in the belief in the phlegmatic British temperament, commended by the media with almost hysterical zeal over the past three days, for the Government not to go down the same road.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments