It happens after every major terrorist attack by Islamist terrorists in a Western country: the familiar debate about who is really to blame for this phenomenon. One side trots out the weary old trope that the terrorists simply “hate our values,” and other side claims that it’s really the fault of Western governments for sending their troops into Muslim countries.
There’s a national election campaign underway in Britain, so the ghastly Manchester bombing last week has revived this argument. It started when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (who voted against the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the seven-month bombing campaign that overthrew Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011) made a speech in London on Friday.
“Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home,” he said.
In a later clarification, Corbyn added: “A number of people since the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have drawn attention to the links with foreign policy, including (British foreign secretary) Boris Johnson in 2005, two former heads of MI5 (the Security Service), and of course the (parliamentary) Foreign Affairs Select Committee.”
With Labour catching up with the Conservatives in the polls, Prime Minister Teresa May leapt at the chance to twist Corbyn’s words and all but accused him of treason. “Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault….and I want to make something clear to Jeremy Corbyn and to you: there can never be an excuse for terrorism, there can be no excuse for what happened in Manchester.”
Boris Johnson chimed in: “Whatever we do, we can’t follow the logic of the terrorists and start blaming ourselves or our society or our foreign policy. This has been caused not by us – as Jeremy Corbyn would have us believe – it’s been caused by a sick ideology, a perverted version of Islam that hates us and hates our way of life.” It’s the old political trick of deliberately mistaking explanation for justification.
But both sides in this argument are wrong. The”Salafi” extremists who are called “Islamists” in the West (all of them Sunnis, and most of them Arabs) do hate Western values, but that’s not why they go to the trouble of making terrorist attacks on the West. And it’s not because of Western foreign policies either: there were no major Western attacks on the Arab world in the years before the 9/11 atrocity in 2001.
There had been plenty of attacks in the past: the Western conquest of almost all the Arab countries between 1830 and 1918, Western military support for carving a Zionist state out of the Arab world as the European imperial powers were pulling out after 1945, Western military backing for Arab dictators and absolute monarchs ever since.
The West turned against one of those dictators, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, after he invaded Kuwait, but it had the support of most Arab countries when it drove him out of Kuwait in the first Gulf War in 1990-91. And between then and 9/11 the West did nothing much to enrage the Arab world. Indeed, it was even backing the Palestinian-Israeli “peace process”, which looked quite promising at that time.
But there was violence in many Arab countries as Islamist revolutionaries, using terrorist tactics, tried to overthrow the local kings and dictators. Up to 200,000 Arabs were killed in these bloody struggles between 1979 and 2000, but not one of the repressive regimes was overthrown. By the turn of the century it was clear that terrorism against Arab regimes was not working. To win power, the Islamists needed a new strategy.
The man who supplied it was Osama bin Laden. He had missed out on the long terrorist war in the Arab countries because he went to Afghanistan to fight a Soviet invasion in 1979. But in Afghanistan he fought in a war that Islamists actually won: having lost 14,000 dead, the Russians gave up and went home in 1989. The Afghan Islamists (the Taliban) came to power as a result.
Bin Laden realised that this could be a route to power for the Islamists of the Arab world as well: provoke the West to invade Muslim countries, lead the struggle against the Western occupation forces – and when the Western armies finally give up and go home (as they always do in the end) the Islamists will come to power.
That was why he founded al-Qaeda, and 9/11 was intended to sucker the United States into playing the role of infidel invader. Western governments have never recognised this obvious fact because they are too arrogant ever to see themelves as simply the dupes in somebody else’s strategy. Their foreign policy error was to fall for bin Laden’s provocation hook, line and sinker – and they are still falling for it sixteen years later.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.