Londonistan No More
A new Finest Hour?


As London copes with the aftermath of Thursday morning’s terrorist bombings–and braces for the possibility of fresh attacks–some sobering thoughts on causes and effects come immediately to mind.

After the Madrid bombings in March 2004, London’s senior police official revealed that British security services had thwarted several major terrorist attacks targeted against London. But he grimly acknowledged that “there is an inevitability that some sort of attack will get through.” “This is not just about the railways, the underground,” he added with eerie prescience. “It’s about buses, roads, pubs, nightclubs and the like.”

Target Choice

Britain’s special relationship with the United States–broadened and deepened since the 9/11 attacks and its shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq–certainly makes the British capital a prime target for jihadists. But there are deeper causes at work, beginning with the long-time status of “Londonistan” (see here and here) as the principal mecca for various Middle East exile groups that were allowed to set up shop on condition that their activities remain focused elsewhere. Among their ranks is the extremist Egyptian cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, whose trial for incitement to murder and other terrorist offenses began this week.

A less openly acknowledged cause for concern is deep disaffection among portions of Britain’s Muslim population (about 2 million of 60 million Britons). A 2002 Daily Telegraph poll found that “one in five British Muslims feels little loyalty towards Britain.” As for Osama bin Laden, the same poll found that 13 percent regarded his attacks against Western targets as justified, 11 percent had no opinion one way or the other, and 26 percent denied bin Laden’s responsibility. It is from this particular subgroup that nearly all of Britain’s homegrown terrorist suspects have emerged, including the group arrested last August and charged with plotting attacks in London as well as in New York, Newark, and Washington.

Also relevant is the Labor government’s equivocal and inadequate responses to the patent threat of Islamist terror. To take just one example, the British governing class has tied itself in knots over the fate of eleven foreign nationals detained without charges as “terrorists” engaged in “international terrorism” under the Anti-Terrorist, Crime and Security Act of 2000. It was a classic Catch-22 without any possibility of (a) prosecution under British law (without exposing intelligence sources and methods in open court); (b) deportation to the suspects’ home countries under applicable European and international law (given “substantial grounds” for believing torture might ensue); or (c) deportation to third countries, with none willing to accommodate these individuals.

Britain rightly sought to justify the unsatisfactory expedient of detention without charges for this handful of manifestly dangerous men by opting out of the relevant provisions of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, which the Blair administration unwisely incorporated into domestic law in 1998. That convention expressly permits suspension of certain rights “in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation.”

Last December Britain’s highest court ruled these detentions–which the liberal chattering classes had likened to Guantanamo–incompatible with the ECHR and therefore invalid. According to one of the judges, “Whether we would survive Hitler hung in the balance, but there is no doubt that we shall survive al Qaeda…. The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.”

So far Lord Hoffman, author of these irresponsible and insouciant remarks, has not been heard from in the wake of this morning’s murderous attacks.

How will Britain respond?

Initial commentary has focused on Britain’s Finest Hour, the stalwart response to the Luftwaffe Blitz. But a more relevant precedent may be the reaction to the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings (21 killed, 182 wounded), when the Irish Troubles first spilled over onto the British mainland. Parliament responded almost instantly with the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, which set a modern record for enactment within 48 hours of its initial introduction.

Look for Tony Blair to sever the Gordian knot manufactured by Britain’s Law Lords and to take the fight to the enemy. Britain is not Spain, which responded to the Madrid attacks with surrender and appeasement. Last week Britain celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, which turned the tide against Napoleon’s totalitarian project. It is to be hoped that Blair will rise to level of Nelson’s exhortation that “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

John F. Cullinan formerly served as a senior foreign policy advisor to the U.S. Catholic bishops, focusing on international law, human rights, and the use of force.