Friday, 24 May 2013

The Woolwich Murder - Atrocity and Reprisal

On the 21st of November, 1974, the Provisional IRA exploded two bombs in Birmingham. 21 people were killed, and 182 injured - the worst terrorist atrocity in the UK before the 7/7 bombings. There was massive public and media outrage, politicians of all parties on either side of the Irish Sea condemned the bombing and there were calls for action to be taken. It's not remembered now, but at the time, the IRA leadership denied responsibility for the bombings. Understandably, no-one believed them, as the IRA had already carried out other lethal attacks on the mainland. It's now thought that an IRA cell carried out the attack without orders from above, but that unconfirmed belief is not relevant here. The main result of the attacks was a seemingly massive "own goal" for the IRA, as the atrocity led to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and an end to the growth of the long-forgotten "Troops Out" movement in Britain. Only the great Irish journalist, Mary Holland, recognised the bombings as a Provisional IRA success.
Holland said this because of the huge (and also long-forgotten) wave of anti-Irish backlash that swept Britain. This led to many acts of violence against Irish people, especially in Birmingham, where Irish workers in factories were attacked, and even Irish nurses caring for the injured in hospitals faced abuse. Leading politicians, such as Brian Walden and Roy Jenkins, were forced to call for calm. Fortunately, public anger subsided and common sense prevailed, but the IRA, I believe, came to see the benefits of provoking reprisal action from the host population in the UK. Had long-term violence and harassment of innocent Irish people continued, some, at least, would have become more sympathetic towards the IRA. This is why Mary Holland, on the now defunct TV programme "Weekend World", spoke of IRA success.
Well, the IRA failed to re-create the same wave of anger, although they came close to it at the time of the Warrington Bombings. They could not afford to be seen as mass murderers, and, in subsequent attacks, usually gave telephone warnings carefully timed to give insufficient time to evacuate a locality, but long enough to appear anxious to avoid civilian casualties.
I have gone to this length to describe a terror campaign of the past because I believe we are faced with a similar situation today. The murder in Woolwich of the young soldier, Lee Rigby, I believe, was carried out by individuals with a similar strategy to the IRA.( Lee Rigby's attackers declared to onlookers that they" wanted to start a war" in London). The Woolwich attack was every bit as hideous in its way as the Birmingham Bombings, and carried out with a similar end in view - to provoke reprisals, either by the state, or by the non-Muslim public, against the Muslim community. Again, this could well lead to more Muslims becoming involved in the Jihadi struggle, one way or another. The major difference between the Jihadis and the IRA, of course, is that the Jihadis will be bound by none of the restraints that affected IRA strategy. The Provos had to make some concessions to public opinion; Jihadis despise it - as we have seen many times in many countries.
It needs to be said here that this strategy is nothing new. It has been employed by guerrilla movements for centuries. In the last century, it was used by the now venerated (in Ireland) rebels of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, by Soviet partisans in "quiet" sectors behind the German lines in Russia, by Tito's partisans in Yugoslavia and, to a lesser extent, by the French Resistance against the German occupiers. The Nazis, as we know, needed little encouragement to take reprisals. No-one will ever know how many innocent people were massacred by the Nazis in retaliation for acts of resistance in Europe - but their reprisals created many new enemies. Likewise, the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising by the British authorities caused moderate Irish people to sympathise with the rebels, leading to the war for Irish Independence in the 1920s.
Since the end of World War Two, there have been guerrilla movements in many countries, usually as part of anti-colonial struggles. Nearly all have sought to sting their opponents into precipitate actions: the Haganah in Palestine hanged British soldiers; Mau Mau fighters in Kenya murdered civilians; the Viet Cong killed American wounded in Viet-Nam - the list of atrocities is tragically long, as is the list of reprisals by the occupiers.
Nowhere was this process more bitter than during the Algerian War of Liberation, 1954-1962. During this conflict, both the French forces and their FLN enemies engaged in torture and, all too frequently, indiscriminate massacre and counter massacre. One early example of this happened in 1955 at the Algerian town of Philippeville (now Skikda), where FLN zealots butchered 123 civilians, mainly French, including old women and babies. This outrage, ordered by the regional FLN commander, provoked massive French retaliation. According to some reports, French forces massacred 12 000 Algerian civilians. The FLN, presumably, thought this a price well worth the paying.
We will not (hopefully!) reach to anything like this level of violence, but, disturbingly, there have been signs of public anger towards Islam. By this, I do NOT mean the antics of the English Defence League in Woolwich on Wednesday evening, but the statements of ordinary, normally rational people on TV, radio and in social media. After 9/11 and 7/7, people I thought of as models of common sense and rationality were telling me how they were regarding people of Middle Eastern appearance with suspicion. We can only hope it gets no worse. In war, you should never do what your enemy wants you to do. Harassment of innocent Muslims, or worse, to echo what Roy Jenkins said of blameless Irish people after the Birmingham bombing atrocity in 1974, can only play into the hands of the terrorists.
As for the Jihadis themselves, they seem to be going down a road that I predicted back in 2010. As their central command has suffered some serious blows, they appear to be turning towards small scale attacks which are every bit as headline grabbing as 9/11 or 7/7, if numerically less lethal. The Woolwich murder illustrates this point perfectly. The Jihadis will probably see the attack as a success from the publicity angle and be encouraged to try something similar again. Unlike the 7/7 bombers, who spent several thousand pounds preparing their explosives, future Jihadi killers will only have to spend a few quid buying knives in B&Q. This story still has a long way to run.

1 comment:

  1. Regrettably, the internet, and FaceBook in particular, has almost been swamped by an incipient racism that is now coming to the fore. A couple of friends have innocently posted stuff that I looked into (why didn't they do that?) and saw was from the EDL or similar. I put a picture on FB yesterday pointing out that if we British reacted to the c. 100 racist murders that have occurred since Stephen Lawrence was killed with the same anger that the murder of Lee Rigby has - rightly - provoked, the vile messages of the fascists and racists would always fail. They are the invisible murders, but no less a loss to their families as Lee Rigby is to his.

    While we go around invading other people's countries unbidden, killing tens of thousands of their people and creating failing states torn apart by religious and racial strife and dominated by rival warlords, we will make ourselves vulnerable to such attacks. The decision to arm the rebels in Syria, matched immediately by a declaration from Russia they will sell military equipment to the Syria government, will escalate the war by multiplying the amount of military hardware lying around, and result in even more suffering.