By Seumas Milne
It takes some mastery of spin to turn the litany of intelligence failures over last year’s butchery of the off-duty soldier Lee Rigby into a campaign againstFacebook. But that’s exactly how David Cameron’s government and a pliant media have disposed of the report by Westminster’s committee of intelligence trusties.
You might have expected Whitehall’s security machine to be in the frame for its spectacular incompetence in spying on the two killers: from filling out surveillance applications wrongly and losing one suspect’s house number, to closing down the surveillance of another – just as the pair were preparing the Woolwich attack.
Centre stage might have been the admission that British intelligence could have been “complicit” in Michael Adebolajo’s torture in Kenya, and tried to cover that up. There is evidence that MI5’s attempts to recruit the Muslim convert on his return to Britain played a part in triggering the killing – though the trusties thought better than to inquire too closely into the matter.
Instead it was the US internet giant, Britain’s prime minister insisted, that was really to blame. Facebook had “blood on their hands”, the Sun declared, as the Daily Mail denounced the Mark Zuckerberg corporation’s “twisted libertarian ideology”.
It’s nonsense, of course, but it gets the authorities off the hook. The spooks couldn’t handle the intelligence they had, and the US tech companies already operate in collusion with western governments. As Richard Barrett, MI6’s former counter-terrorism director, points out, the scale of material the internet barons would need to dredge would overwhelm the security services, let alone the companies.
No matter. The Rigby report’s timing was ideal for the government, which is launching the seventh anti-terrorism bill since 2000 – including new measures for the internal exile of suspects, crackdowns on schools and universities that fail to act against “extremists”, and requirements on internet service providers to hand over users’ identities.
Theresa May says Britain is facing the greatest terrorism threat in its history, and that the security services have foiled 40 plots since 2005. Who would know? Even ministers are in no position to judge the claims securocrats make about themselves. For the intelligence agencies the terror threat is good for business – as Cameron made clear this week when he announced another £130m for their already swollen budgets.
That there is a small number of would-be jihadists prepared to carry out acts of carnage in revenge for British and western bloodletting in the Muslim world is not in doubt. But, given the ease of carrying out low-tech atrocities – and the scale of the IRA’s armed campaign of the 70s and 80s – it’s striking how few there have actually been.
But the war on terror has now become a war without end: a permanent state where a politically constructed “national security” trumps the actual security of citizens and feeds a continual ideological campaign to discipline and intimidate the Muslim community.
For politicians, the promotion of customised “British values” has the advantage of putting themselves on the right side of the new culture wars while dogwhistling to racism in the process. But it certainly does nothing for community integration or public safety.
The anti-Muslim drumbeat is relentless. In the wake of the “Trojan horse” onslaught against mainly Muslim state schools in Birmingham, which branded conservative religiosity “extremism”, politically directed Ofsted inspectors have now turned their attention to east London.
Six Muslim schools in Tower Hamlets have been failed and a majority-Muslim state secondary school with good results has been put in special measures because of risks of “extremism”. That followed hard on the heels of Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, sending in commissioners to take over Tower Hamlets council from the twice-elected Muslim mayor, Lutfur Rahman.
Pickles claimed that Rahman had dispensed grants like a “medieval monarch”, though neither the police nor the PwC report Pickles commissioned found evidence of wrongdoing – and Rahman’s progressive record is widely acknowledged. But the undercurrent of accusations of extremism and corruption was clear – as was the message of the politically driven Charities Commission’s decision to put 55 Muslim charities on a watchlist for links to “radicalisation and extremism”.
The chilling impact of this campaign on Muslims in Britain is obvious enough, just as it fosters fear and prejudice in the non-Muslim population. One result is to feed a rising tide of Islamophobic attacks. The Metropolitan police recorded a 65% annual increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in London in the past year alone.
On top of that, as the Rigby report blithely conceded, “the government’s counter-terrorism programmes are not working”. Its Prevent strategy has stopped many Muslims from speaking freely, but prevented little else. Around 500 Britons are now estimated to be fighting in Syria and Iraq.
But why would that be a surprise? The British and US governments first supported the rebels in Syria – as they did in Libya – and then turned against most of them, as the jihadist campaign mushroomed around Isis, intensifying cynicism about the west’s role in the Muslim world.
Which remains the heart of the war on terror 13 years on. It’s not considered seemly to mention it when discussing terrorism and extremism, but western wars and support for dictatorship are what drive jihadist terror in Britain and elsewhere, just as they fuelled it in the region itself.
Every single perpetrator of such violence in Britain has spelled out that it is carried out in response to Britain’s invasions and occupations in the Muslim world. Now British forces are once again carrying out bombing raids alongside US forces in Iraq – driving other rebel groups into the arms of Isis in the process – they are creating the conditions for more violence at home.
No amount of surveillance or oppressive legislation will stop those determined to launch attacks. The war on terror has spawned terror from the start, fomenting community divisions and curtailing freedoms everywhere. That’s true for those states that launched it – as well as those on the receiving end.