Reading the details of the second trial which has finally concluded at Woolwich Crown Court, four lessons strike me – four myths are exposed as utterly wrong. In the writing that follows, I am referring to the eight men who were tried. Of these, Donald Stewart-Whyte was found not guilty. Some of the others were found not guilty of some of the more serious charges, and the jury was unable to reach a verdict on many of the charges. Although the innocence of some of them, particularly Stewart-Whyte, is conceivable, the fact that all were involved in jihadist groups means my observations about the jihadist ideology and milieu based on their examples would stand even if they were innocent of this specific plot. However, it seems clear that the jury’s verdict had to do with the technical quality of evidence, an issue that relates to one of the points I make below, and that the overwhelmingly likelihood is that they were all involved in a bomb plot. Note: Slight edit 10 Sept to put quote marks around the section titles, to make it clear to casual readers that these are the myths I am questioning, and not my own views.
1. "Terrorism as the voice of the voiceless". There is a common view, especially on the left, that terrorism is a cry of despair, the voice of the utterly dispossessed, born out of grievance and poverty. Terrorism, the argument goes, will go away when we remove the grievances, grievances for which the West is largely to blame. However, looking at the biographies of the plotters, it is clear that most of them were from reasonably well off backgrounds, and reasonable life chances, were well educated and articulate, and had other opportunities to express their grievances. Wahid Zaman was a biomedical student at a top university, and, in his “martyrdom video”, said “I have not been brainwashed, I am educated to a very high standard.” He was articulate; he spoke at rallies and had articles published in his university's student magazine. Donald Stewart-Whyte was an art student, a white boy, who went to the “prestigious” Dr Challoner’s Grammar School in Chesham. His father was a Conservative Party agent, his mother a teacher. Tanvir Hussein was also highly educated. In fact, terrorism, far from being the voice of the voiceless, seems to be a weapon of the relatively privileged, of intellectuals.
2. "Londonistan, Eurabia". A familiar argument, particularly in North America and particularly on the right, is that Europe, with its official policies of multiculturalism, has sleep-walked into segregation, has created Islamified ghettos or no-go areas which breed terrorists. This is the Britain and Europe portrayed by Melanie Phillips, Geert Wilders, Robert Spencer, Daniel Pipes and their ilk. The details of the plotters reveal this to be a myth. The plotters were in fact extremely westernised, assimilated even. Waheed Zaman’s favourite TV programme was Only Fools and Horses. Tanvir Hussein experimented with drink, drugs and girls at college. Stewart-Whyte, Umar Islam (from a Christian Caribbean background) and Ibrahim Savant (of Indian and English parentage) were all converts. It is true that one of the July 2005 bomb attempts was perpetrated mainly by young men from one of the areas (Beeston in Yorkshire) which is predominantly Pakistani Muslim. But it is also true that the Beeston bombers turned to radical Wahhabi Islamism as part of a rebellion against the traditionalist Sufi Islam of their parents; becoming Wahhabi meant they could, for example, marry white girls rather than the Mirpuri village girls chosen by their parents. In other words, jihadi violence is not something anachronistic imported to the West through immigration and breeding in multiculturalism’s ethnic enclaves; it is modern, Western and appealing to converts and the apparently most integrated of Muslims.
3. "The war on terror". There seem to have been two approaches to the investigation and foiling of the plot. British intelligence and security services, reporting regularly to Tony Blair on the case, carefully infiltrated and watched the plotters, building up a slowly expanding picture of their networks, and gathering robust trial evidence. They let it run its course, confident they would know when they needed to act. American intelligence and security services, reporting regularly to George W Bush, seemed to want to make quick arrests to shut the network down. British stubbornness, resisting the pressure to swoop, seems to have enabled them to catch the High Wycombe branch of the conspiracy, which was not visible at first. It also seems that the Americans were obsessed with what they called "al Qaeda central", rather than seeing the terrorists as an extremely dispersed and loose net. It seems that America pressured Pakistan into arresting Rashid Rauf, who connected the conspiracy to Al-Qaeda networks. This in turn forced the British to “scramble”, cracking down on the conspiracy earlier than they meant to. This scrambling, seems to have been a major factor in the poor quality of the evidence the prosecution has been able to present at trial, leading to an embarrassing failure to convict some of the plotters. In this instance, the American approach was mistaken, and the culture around the war on terror under Bush – conceived as a military war rather than as a strategy of investigation and prevention, and staged as a high profile public spectacle – proved counterproductive.
4. "The terrorists have already won". There is a certain civil libertarian line – whose vulgar, common-sense, non-dogmatic version you often hear at airports when passengers are irked about having to hand over the over-sized perfume bottles they have in their carry-on – which says that defending us against terror is not worth the price of the curtailment of our “rights”. Our privacy, our freedom of movement, even our right to carry hair gel in our hand bags, are precious, and if we create a draconian security state which abrogates these, then the terrorists have effectively already won. This argument, which we can currently hear most loudly and articulately from those civil libertarians who are calling for an end to control orders, is disingenuous. If the 2006 bomb plot had succeeded, some dozen big long haul planes would have been downed over the sea, with few if any of the passengers surviving. The threat is real, and, as the old saying goes, the bombers only have to be lucky once, while the rest of us have to be lucky all the time. We have managed to be lucky now in Britain since July 2005, but it has not just been luck, and we should be grateful to the security services for the protection we have had.