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Failed Terrorist Attacks are Still Terrorist Attacks

Commentary, 2 July 2007
Terrorism
The failed terrorist bombings of London and Glasgow allow a collective sigh of relief. Initial analysis suggests that the bombs were viable and if detonated would have caused massive loss of life, injury and damage.

 

The failed terrorist bombings of London and Glasgow allow a collective sigh of relief. Initial analysis suggests that the bombs were viable and if detonated would have caused massive loss of life, injury and damage. The attacks of July 7 2005 demonstrated the impact that successful terrorist attacks can have: death and destruction indiscriminately targeted at the soft under-belly of innocent society. The 7 July attacks seemed to epitomize the Al-Qa’ida mode of violence; random and deliberate with massive carnage for the purposes of an esoteric end. The putative leaders and shapers of the Al-Qa’ida brand, the ideologues of jihadi violence, have been consistently explicit in calling for the deaths of all infidels, apostates, aliens and non-believers: the complete annihilation of the other. It is genocidal terrorism where killing becomes an expressive end as much as an instrumental pre-requisite of the eschatological struggle. The language and actions are seductively simple and can be portrayed as a ‘new terrorism’ discordant with the hard-earned accommodations of the ‘orthodox Troubles’ and ‘traditional terrorism’.

 

In conventional representations, terrorists want lots of people watching and not a lot dead. Contrary to this popularisation, Al-Qa’ida inspired violence wants lots of people dead; in the culture of 24 hour news scrambles it is inevitable that there will always be lots of people watching. But in the blaze of infamy that accompanies the immediate aftermath of aborted or failed plots, it is easy to obfuscate the continuities of terrorism, the aspects that make it such a particular crime of political violence rather than a new or different phenomenon. The attacks may have been crude, botched and ultimately failures in their attempts to kill and destroy but they have still been successful. The reality of the threat is once again brought to the heart of London and then amplified to the rest of the UK through the mimetic experience in Glasgow. Indeed the target audience is always much larger than the victims or potential victims of the attack. Through the emerging facts, the twists and turns of investigations played out under full media gaze, all society becomes potentially targeted, all are vulnerable to the unknown threat. In such a world the banality of travelling on the M6 becomes a theatre of violent potential and every non-descript cul-de-sac a refuge for intrigue. The plots, whether successful or not, disseminate uncertainty and disruption and, at its very terrorist worst, fear, anxiety and mistrust. The response to even an unsuccessful attack has to be carefully stage-managed to ensure public confidence in the State, to limit the impact on the economy, to reassure the UK’s visitors, and to placate both sides of the civil liberty divide. Terrorism is an act of political communication (and one that is not particularly eloquent); its political reverberations have to be treated with the utmost delicacy to satisfy the demands of our polity and liberal democracy.

 

Luck, timing, incompetence and extreme bravery all played their part in averting this recent series of attacks. Relief and thanks should be given that London and Glasgow are not now responding to a mass casualty attack. But whilst not achieving the familiar Al-Qa’ida aim of carnage, death and mayhem, the attacks have once again exposed the insecurity of the UK and demonstrated the continuing capability and intent of those who would do society harm. The new Prime Minister has urged vigilance from the public in the face of these attacks. This vigilance should not be limited to an alertness for ‘smoking cars’, or unusual shopping behaviours. This vigilance should extend and embrace a critical assessment of ourselves, our communities and our society to ensure that in confronting terror we do so with proportion, perspective and an ambition for a safe, just and fearless society.

 

Neil Ellis, Head of Resilience
July 2007

 

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

 

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