Will Baldét, a fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right and Prevent coordinator
Yesterday was the fifteenth anniversary of the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, what we call 7/7. This is an appropriate time to reflect upon the atrocities committed against commuters in the nation’s capital city. On this day, our fellow citizens were targeted by terrorists who saw the slaughter of the unarmed as their ticket to martyrdom and glory. In total, 52 people — all residents of the United Kingdom, of 18 different nationalities — were killed and more than 700 injured in the bombings, an attack directed by one of the world’s most vicious Islamist terrorist organisations: Al-Qaeda.
I was recently privileged to meet Dan Biddle, the most seriously injured survivor of the 7/7 attacks. Dan was standing just three feet from the mastermind of the suicide attacks when the bomb went off, and the explosion tore through both of his legs and destroyed one of his eyes. Doctors fished his car keys and eight pounds in loose change from his intestines.
As he lay there in the aftermath of the atrocity, he screamed to be heard above the chaos. “I needed someone to find me. Not for help,” he explains, “but because I wanted people to know who I was and that I had a family and I needed my family to know I was thinking of them.”
Dan’s story of the attacks and his subsequent rehabilitation is both inspirational and harrowing.
It is important to recognise that, fifteen years later, the Islamist threat has not abated. While we’re still reeling from the grotesque, genocidal violence of the Islamic State (ISIS), it would be foolish to ignore the persistent influence of Al-Qaeda, which is even now gaining fresh momentum, ably assisted by their allies among British Islamist groups and the political bedfellows that they exploit to give them cover.
It is particularly important that the rationale that motivates Islamist terrorism is not lost through wilful obfuscation of the issues. As we look back at more than a decade of terrorist attacks and thwarted plots, now is a good time to reflect on the genesis of the UK threat.
In 1998, Osama bin Laden published his fatwa, declaring “Jihad (Holy War) Against Jews and Crusaders”. It provided religious justification for the murder, not only of military personnel, but also civilians. That same year, Amir Mirza, a member of a then little-known group called Al-Muhajiroun, which would later become ISIS’s presence in the UK, launched a petrol bomb attack on a Territorial Army base. This failed attack became the very first Islamist-related offence to be prosecuted in a British court.
Two years later Moinul Abedin and Faisal Mostafa were arrested in Birmingham for stockpiling 100kg of precursor chemicals used in the production of HMTD, a popular explosive in terrorist attacks. Abedin was convicted in what is now recognised as the first Al-Qaeda related conviction in the UK. His co-defendant was cleared. It is interesting to note that in 1996 Mostafa had previously been on trial for conspiring to cause explosions when chemicals, timers, and detonators were found in his house. Cleared of conspiracy, he was sentenced to four years for illegal possession of a pistol with intent to endanger life.
Note that both these cases pre-date the Iraq invasion of 2003. While foreign policy certainly features in some cases of radicalisation, it should be regarded as a grievance and not a cause. All terrorist recruiters exploit grievances; that is how they weaponise emotions. It is, however, a mistake to focus on individual grievances if the purpose of doing so is to divert attention from the violent political ideologies that reinforce and justify terrorism.
Islamist ideology is resilient and underpinned by groups who will not openly condone violence but prefer to present terrorism as a reflexive reaction to certain Government policies. To do so is a mischievous misreading of the facts that removes agency from the terrorists, in effect saying, ‘They had no choice but to kill people’. We would not take such an approach with Brenton Tarrant, the far-Right terrorist who murdered 50 people in a New Zealand mosque in March 2019, and then sought to justify his massacre by arguing that Government immigration policies had forced his hand.
It’s important to distinguish the diverse religion of Islam from the political ideology ‘Islamism’, which advocates a privileged social and political role for Islamic belief in public life and seeks to determine how people, including non-Muslims, should conduct themselves morally. Islamist terrorists such ISIS and Al-Qaeda go further and regard the creation and defence of an Islamic state a religious obligation that falls upon all Muslims and teaches that violence is a legitimate tactic to achieve that goal.
Situated in between the two camps are certain groups who support the aims of Al-Qaeda, give platforms to its ideologues, and who equivocate over or tacitly support its violence, including suicide bombing. Predictably, it is they who are the most vocal opponents of counter terrorism efforts and while they are small in number, they shout the loudest. That means police, policymakers and the media often hear the distorted deliberations of groups that claim to represent the wider population, but don’t hear the views of the silent majority who don’t clamour for a seat at the table and therefore go largely unheard, even ignored.
As we look ahead to the next fifteen years of counter terrorism let us hear more from the wider public we serve. In particular, we must hear from the survivors of terrorism and their families. Their stories of horror and heroism should be the loudest voices because we failed them once. Shame on us if we fail them again.
I will leave the last, sobering words to Dan Biddle: “There’s not a day goes by I don’t think about what happened. I’ve never heard screaming like I did that day. And when the screaming stopped it wasn’t because they had escaped the carnage; it was because they had died. You have to make the decision that we won’t let these people win. Every day is still a struggle, but when I go to bed at night, I know I’ve won another day.”