The Woolwich murder and foreign policy

There are many cogent and valid arguments against using drones to assassinate terrorist suspects in other peoples’ countries, invading Muslim or other countries on false pretexts, and keeping our troops in Afghanistan a day longer.  But, contrary to a mass of media comment,  fear of providing a motive or excuse for terrorist attacks in Britain can’t be one of them.  We can’t allow terrorist blackmail to determine or influence foreign policy.  Anyway, Islamic extremists will never be satisfied by our abstention from invading “their” countries: they object equally strongly to, for example, our practice of educating girls, the way western women dress, pop music, and failure to adapt our laws to Sharia.

The outrage in Woolwich could never have been prevented by modifying our foreign policies in the way the perpetrators demanded. It was a straightforward murder, a matter for the police, not for politicians fatuously portraying it as a threat to our way of life and calling for national unity in sub-Churchillian rhetoric.  The prime minister makes a nonsense of his call on everyone to ‘keep calm and carry on’ by cutting short his official talks in Paris and rushing home to chair Cobra meetings, as if a single gruesome murder with a political motive constituted a national emergency.

Any article, letter, tweet or statement which says that nothing can excuse or condone the murder of an innocent soldier on a London street, and continues with the word ‘but’, betrays a hopelessly muddled mind.  Predictably, today’s Guardian is full of them.

(Apologies for the long absence of political or other commentaries on this blog.  The reason is spelled out at length at   It will be some time before normal service can be resumed, I fear.)


4 Responses

  1. Julian says:

    I entirely agree with you about this being a straightforward murder and a matter for the police. However, I’m not so sure when you say “Islamic extremists will never be satisfied by our abstention from invading their countries”. 
    The Woolwich murderer was quite clear about why he did what he did, and it wasn’t because of pop music or educating girls. Before we were in Iraq and Afghanistan, we didn’t suffer Islamic terrorism. It would not be unreasonable, therefore, to assume that if we got out of those countries, the terrorism would stop. It might be worth a try.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Julian. Please see my response to Oliver Miles, below. I should add that (as I said in my post) there are numerous compelling reasons for us to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan; but withdrawal on the off-chance that it might end terrorism in Britain isn’t one of them.

  2. Oliver Miles says:

    I agree with Julian.I also agree that foreign policy should not be dictated by terrorists. But to say that “fear of providing a motive for terrorist attacks” is not an argument for or against continuing the war in Afghanistan is to bury your head in the sand. We have been repeatedly told by ministers of this government and the last one that we are in Afghanistan, and were in Iraq, to protect our own security. Yet both the FCO and MI5 have been advising for about 10 years that the war in Iraq and now in Afghanistan are key drivers of extremism in this country. Those who live by the sword may perish by the sword, and those who argue that we are in Afghanistan to make ourselves safe have a duty to explain what they mean when a soldier is killed in a British street.

    Brian writes: I’m grateful for your and Julian’s comments. But I haven’t questioned the obvious fact that our military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan act as both pretexts and triggers for Islamic extremist atrocities in western countries, including the one committed in Woolwich. Nor am I endorsing our ministers’ asinine assertion that “we are in Afghanistan to make ourselves safe”, as you seem to think I am. My two points are very simple. (1) If there is a valid case on general foreign policy and security grounds for us to intervene militarily in Afghanistan and then to keep our troops there for years on end (and I don’t think there is, but if there were to be such a case), then the fact that our actions will be used as a pretext for terorist acts in Britain, or will genuinely drive terrorists to commit such acts, is not a reason in itself to remove our troops from Afghanistan. To do so for that reason alone would be to surrender our freedom of action to terrorist blackmail. I have said very clearly in my post that there are numerous strong and valid reasons for withdrawing immediately from Afghanistan. But the fact that not doing so may well prompt, or encourage, or be used as a pretext for encouraging, terrorism in Britain is not an acceptable reason in itself for withdrawing. The case for that must be made on straightforward foreign policy grounds, which is not difficult. (2) We should not deceive ourselves into believing that if we were to comply with the demand of Islamic extremists for western military withdrawal from Muslim countries, there would be no further basis for conflict with fundamentalist Islam. Its adherents place their main emphasis on this issue, because it rings a bell with many western liberals and is an effective tool for incentivising young radical Muslims in the west to use violence against their host societies. But their real objections to our culture and way of life — to our secularism, women’s equality, sexualisation of advertising and entertainment and behaviour, replacement of deference to authority by egalitarianism, attitudes to gay, lesbian, trans-sexual and other transgressive relations, and so on — can never be satisfied by western concessions to Islamic sensibilities, uncomfortable though that reality might be. Of course that generalisation will not be true of every Muslim extremist: I doubt very much whether the two Nigerian[*] converts to Islam in Woolwich have any particular objection to mini-skirts.

    * Correction: The two ‘suspects’ in Woolwich were, and presumably are, native-born Britons, but with parents of Nigerian — presumably Yoruba — origin.

  3. Dave says:

    I largely agree with you.  There might be some reduction in terrorist violence if we changed our foreign policy in response to terrorist pressure but that is not in itself a justification for doing so.  Indeed it might embolden the minority of Muslims who march under the “To hell with freedom of speech” banner.
    The threat of death to Salmaan Rushdie had nothing to do with our foreign policy so far as I know, though it had a great deal to do with Iran’s.  A more recent example occurred in the East End of London when a young RE teacher, Gary Smith received life changing injuries for giving classes in comparative religion to a class attended by Muslim girls,ie simply doing his job – see .
    These were not examples of main stream terrorism but the latter could take place within our borders even following a change of foreign policy.  Spain had no troops in Muslim countries in 1985 but the bombing of the El Descanso Restaurant in Madrid, where the main target was American soldiers, took place in that year.  Israeli tourists were the target of the bus bombing in Bulgaria in 2012, attributed to Hizbullah.  Perhaps the terrorist groups would expect us to keep out citizens of any country they were in conflict with.
    I acknowlege that the extremist element are not representative of the majority of Muslims in the UK but some of the rhetoric we read suggests that they are not even Muslim.  In fact they are as much Muslim as the crusaders were Christian.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Dave. I think your first paragraph summarises the argument very neatly. The threat or commission of terrorist violence designed to force a country to change some controversial aspect of its foreign policy is a naked attempt at blackmail, and those who capitulate to the demands of a blackmailer generally find that he simply comes back for more.

    Those on the left in Britain who have reacted to the Woolwich murder by claiming that it confirms the rightness of their opposition to the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan need to ask themselves whether a similar murder of a Muslim immigrant by white far-right extremists (cf. Anders Behring Breivik) as a mark of their disapproval of non-white immigration would confirm the rightness of the racist campaign against immigration.

    Another knee-jerk reaction to the Woolwich murder has been a revival of the demand for the infamous Snoopers’ Charter (the Communications Data Bill) that would give much increased powers of surveillance of private electronic and other communications to a huge range of public authorities from the security services to the Charities Commission. Sadly, the vocal advocates of reviving this objectionable measure have emerged from the woodwork in all three major parties, including Theresa May, the home secretary, and other Tories, Lord Carlile (LibDem) and, predictably, Lord (John) Reed, reactionary and authoritarian New Labour former home secretary. So far Nick Clegg’s objections to it have prevented it from being adopted as coalition policy. Simon Hughes, LibDem President, among others, has pointed out that even if the security services and police had had all the snooping powers proposed in the Snoopers’ Charter, it would have had no effect whatever on their ability to predict and prevent the Woolwich horror. It’s pathetic that the toxic New Labour legacy bequeathed by the likes of Reed, Blunkett and Straw has so far prevented the current Labour front bench from coming out loud and clear against increased snooping powers for the security authorities.

  4. Bob says:

    Brian, I entirely endorse your scorn for Cameron rushing back from Paris as though to staunch a severed national artery, for the media storm about ‘Britain under threat’, and for politicians demanding instant withdrawal from Afghanistan because of the Woolwich incident. But hang on a bit. The ‘straightforward murder’ you refer to was of an obviously targeted soldier, and I think I’m right in saying there are currently something like 180 British soldiers under arrest / detention for committing atrocities to civilians in Iraq, some of which we have already learned the gruesome details of from Channel 4 documentaries. Maybe just a possible connection in the angry terrorist minds of the two Michaels? (And did they wait around after the event to ensure recognition and capture – and then martydom with its promised allocation of celestial and fleshly pleasures?)
    However, as Julian asks, were Muslims doing this sort of thing before we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan? The fact is they weren’t, and even if they’d always  disapproved of mini-skirts, womens’ education, pop music, etc, they never before had (successful) cells of fanatical would-be martyrs in Leeds or Woolwich plotting to teach us a lesson by killing us,  en masse by the indiscriminate bombing of buses and trains, or by murdering targetted individuals.
    Goodness knows who or what the organ -grinders are behind such attacks – extremist mullahs, the agents of various governments, the ‘trainers’ in the notorious jihad training-camps, or whatever –  but it seems obvious to me that those who actually commit or attempt to commit such attacks are just the dispensable monkeys. Most will fail or be caught, but every now and then one or two will get through. And when they do, as has just happened, we should sadly accept it as inevitable – but then, as you say, get on with our foreign policy as normal. But as Oliver Miles says, if that foreign policy sees us occupying Iraq and then Afghanistan in order to ‘keep us safe at home’ – as we used to hear ad nauseam whenever a British soldier was killed out there – then the killing of Drummer Rigby needs a better explanation than being just a ‘straightforward murder’. It was obviously a reaction – however isolated, demented, random or ‘authorised’ – to some aspect of western policy. It was also apparently preventable, since the perpetrators were already known to the police, if not to MI5.
    So – no change of foreign policy, but let’s see possible connections, however tenuous, where they might exist. And quietly sharpen up police and MI5 operations appropriately. 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Bob. I don’t find anything in what you say to disagree with. ‘Straightforward murders’ are not altogether uncommon in many parts of London; this one was apparently provoked in the warped minds of the two murderers by their objections to British troops being stationed in Muslim countries (I don’t think either of them mentioned in their post-murder rants to onlookers’ mobile phones allegations of atrocities committed by individual British soldiers against Muslim civilians) but we evidently agree that that doesn’t make it any more a legitimate factor in foreign policy decisions than the racist murder of a black or brown immigrant would call for a tightening of our immigration policy. It’s a matter for the police, not really for politicians or indeed newspaper or television political commentators.

    The only word in your comment that I would query is “preventable” (“It was also apparently preventable, since the perpetrators were already known to the police, if not to MI5”). We know that the police and security services have identified several thousand people in the UK who hold extreme Islamicist views, who condone violence in the Islamic cause, and a few of whom may well be capable of committing terrorist acts in the future. It also seems that these included the two ‘suspects’ in the Woolwich case. But neither could previously have been charged with any criminal offence, since there was apparently no evidence that they had committed any; and it’s plainly impossible for the security people to keep every single one of these thousands of potential terrorists under hourly and daily surveillance just in case one or two of them suddenly decide to go out and kill someone. If it emerges that this murder was the culmination of a plot involving several other people besides the two ‘suspects’, then of course the issue of possible prevention will need to be looked at. But if these two just took it into their heads to do what they did without anyone having specifically ordered or persuaded them to do it and without any particular preparation beforehand, I think we’d have to accept that no conceivable “sharpening up” of police or Security Service activity could have foreseen or prevented it, and that it will almost inevitably happen again, sooner or later, in some form or another. Murders are prompted by all sorts of warped motives and obsessions, and we can’t, and shouldn’t, attempt to shape public policy in such a way as to avoid them.

    Special care needs to be taken to avoid any possible suggestion that this or any similar murder may be partially excused or condoned by its proclaimed motivation. Emphasising the aspects of western policy that the murderers, or one of them, claimed had motivated their crime risks doing the murderers’ work for them, and further inflaming the minds of impressionable extremists looking around for an excuse to commit violent crime. By all means let us assemble the numerous good reasons for the immediate withdrawal of all British troops from Afghanistan and the punishment of any of them who have abused (or worse) Afghan civilians, but not in the context of the Woolwich murder.