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The days of July: revisiting Tariq Ali's caustic reaction to the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings

Kieran O'Connor 7 July 2015

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It is ten years since the horrifiying 7/7 suicide bombings in central London; that killed 56 people, including the four attackers.  With this in mind, we bring you an extract from Tariq Ali's Rough Music, a corruscating attack on the state of Tony Blair's Britain first published in 2005.

In this extract, Ali admonishes not only the perpretators of the attacks but also those in power who apportioned the blame of these suicide attacks to Muslim communities and the poverty and religious fundamentalism that lurked within.  Ali argued, however, that evidence points to religion used only as a means in which terrorist groups garner support to serve much broader strategic targets, such the urgent withdrawal of Western government's military forces from the countries they consider their homeland.

Ten years on, Britain and its Western allies are culpabie in causing and exacerbating many of the world's current conflicts. The crushing of civil liberties and the deliberate targeting of Muslim communities in Western countries, in order to root out 'extremism', has further marginalised and angered Muslims.  Further afield, the sectarian violence in Iraq, caused by British and American occupation, and endemic corruption in Afghanistan, a country lead for just under ten years by a stanch ally of the West, Hamid Karzai.  There have been extensive arms deals with Saudi Arabia, currently spearheading military attacks in Yemen, and Libya, embroiled in a nasty civil war ever since the Arab Spring and the fall of Gadaffi in 2011.  It doesn't bear thinking about what intervention might do within the sheer complexity of Syria and the relentless march of Islamic State.  

Ali's essay is a timely reminder of lessons that the West have failed to heed time and time again.

British politicians have learnt from their American superiors that there is one continent to which they can always turn to burnish their do-gooding credentials in times of war or scandal. If Africa did not exist, rich-world governments would have to invent it. The need was great in July 2005. The war in Iraq was going badly, the EU Constitution débâcle had been an embarrassingly large-scale defeat for Blairite free-marketism on the continent, and the British economy was starting to splutter. As the leaders of the G8 gathered for their Summit in Scotland, hosted by Blair, Iraq was naturally banished from the public agenda and anti-war marchers were banned from the barricaded Gleneagles Hotel. The Summit was designed as a feel-good-do-nothing affair. Poverty in Africa—in large part the result of vicious IMF and World Bank restructuring programmes, as well as the debt burdens imposed by those institutions—would be magicked away, as if in a rerun of the miracle of loaves and fishes.

Blair’s favourite courtier from the musical world, Bob Geldof, was hired to organize an extravaganza in Edinburgh that would hopefully attract the crowds away from anti-war protests. Geldof is a specialist in make-the-locals-feel-good events. He certainly makes the Prime Minister feel loved. A photograph of Blair and Geldof in the press showed a flirtatious musician resting his head on the Dear Leader’s shoulder. I was pleased to see that the photo opportunities with Gordon Brown were more sober. Geldof, like the G8 leaders, is deeply concerned about poverty in Africa, and organizes a concert to prove it every twelve years. But the razzmatazz would soon be upstaged in London

On 7 July 2005 a deadly quartet of three young Yorkshire Muslims and a Jamaican-born co-religionist from Aylesbury, their rucksacks loaded with explosives, blew themselves up more or less simultaneously, three of them at different points on the London Underground and one on a bus in Russell Square, not far from the British Museum. Fifty-six people died as a result and a hundred or so were wounded. Coming at the height of the rush-hour, the victims of this senseless carnage were mainly young office-workers; statistically, it’s unlikely that more than one in five of them voted for Blair. It was a horrendous act, politically and morally unjustifiable. But there was no mystery as to why it had happened. Before the invasion, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, had warned Blair of the consequences of dragging the country into an unpopular war: ‘An assault on Iraq will inflame world opinion and jeopardize security and peace everywhere. London, as one of the major world cities, has a great deal to lose from war and a lot to gain from peace, international cooperation and global stability.’

This was not, of course, the first time that London and other British cities had been targeted by bombers opposing the British government.  After ‘Bloody Sunday’, the IRA brought the Irish war to mainland Britain for the last phase of ‘the troubles’. They came close to blowing up Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet when they bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton during a Conservative Party conference. Later, IRA members fired a missile from a moving van at 10 Downing Street. London’s financial quarter was also hit, causing immense damage to property. The successive Prevention of Terrorism Acts passed by the House of Commons, the introduction of ‘internment without trial’ and the general massacring of civil liberties both in Northern Ireland and on the mainland did nothing to  prevent these and other attacks. There were lessons to be learnt from this history, as I argued in a short comment for the Guardian the day after the July 7th bombings:

The majority of Londoners (as the rest of the country) were opposed to the war in Iraq. Tragically, it is they who have suffered the blow and paid the price for the re-election of Blair and a continuation of the war. Ever since 9/11, I have been arguing that the ‘war against terror’ is immoral and counterproductive. It sanctions the use of state terror—bombing raids, tortures, countless civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq—against Islamo-anarchists whose numbers are small, but whose reach is deadly. The solution then, as now is political, not military. The British ruling elite understood this perfectly well in the case of Ireland. Security measures, anti-terror laws rushed through Parliament, identity cards, a general curtailment of civil liberties of British citizens will not solve the problem. If anything, they will push young Muslims in the direction of a mindless violence.

The real solution lies in immediately ending the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. Just because these three wars are reported sporadically and  mean little to the everyday life of most of Europe’s citizens, this does not mean that the anger and bitterness they arouse in the Muslim world and its diasporas is insignificant. Establishment politicians have little purchase with the young and this applies especially strongly in the Arab world. As long as Western politicians wage their wars and their colleagues in the Muslim world watch in silence, young people will be attracted to the groups who carry out random acts of revenge. At the beginning of the G8, Tony Blair suggested that ‘poverty was the cause of terrorism’. This is not so. The principal cause of this violence is the violence that is being inflicted on the people of the Muslim world. The bombing of innocent people is equally barbaric in Baghdad, Jenin, Kabul as it is in New York, Madrid or London. And unless this is recognized the horrors will continue.(1)

The following day I was denounced in the Guardian Letters column with an unsurprising degree of illiberal acrimony; what was more surprising was that not a single letter appeared in support of my position, since during the course of the next three days I received an exceptionally large email inbox, some 672 messages. Usually, after a public intervention I receive a maximum of a hundred or so missives and the supporters:critics ratio averages at 80:20. On this occasion it was 95:5. It was obvious that many people had immediately linked the bombings to the outrages committed by the Anglo-American occupiers of Afghanistan and Iraq, and that they did not like the way debate on the subject was being sidelined.

This linkage between the horrific London bombings and the horrors of the Middle East was exactly what the political-media bubble was determined to prevent. Here the propaganda machinery was in full flow. The regime and its apologists united in blocking out any mention of a connection with Iraq. It took the Liberal Democratic leader a whole week to mutter something to the effect that it was possible that there might be some link to the war in Iraq. He was immediately denounced by Downing Street for breaching the consensus agreed inside the bubble.

From Gleneagles, Blair’s immediate response to the bombings had been predictably Bushite. Barbarians were attacking ‘our civilization’. No other explanation would be countenanced. Why were these ‘barbarians’ not targeting Paris or Berlin? Why Madrid and London? Could it be that these appalling acts had something to do with the continuing war in Iraq where the ‘civilized’ conquerors do not even bother to count the Iraqi dead? That these questions were not confined to anti-war activists was confirmed by Alan Cowell, writing in the New York Times on 8 July 2005:

Perhaps the crudest lesson to be drawn was that, in adopting the stance he took after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Blair had finally reaped the bitter harvest of the war on terrorism—so often forecast but never quite seeming real until the explosions boomed across London. The war in Iraq has been increasingly unpopular here, with taunts that Mr. Blair had become President Bush’s poodle. The anger about Iraq led to Mr. Blair’s shaky showing in the May elections: a third term with a severely reduced majority.

Now, as long predicted and feared, his support of the war appears to have cost British lives at home. Thursday was a day of rallying behind the leader, but there were indications that the bombing could take a political toll.

The following week, an opinion poll—unusually, tucked away on an inside page of the newspaper that had commissioned it—revealed that 66 per cent of the population believed there was a link between Blair’s decision to invade Iraq and the terror attacks in London (2). Tame journalists and Labour ministers who had justified the war—Straw, Reid and the rest—still refused to accept there was any connection between the savage chaos in Baghdad and the bombs in London. On 26 July, Blair arrogantly reiterated his position:

We are not having any of this nonsense about [the bombings having anything] to do with what the British are doing in Iraq or Afghanistan, or support for Israel, or support for America, or any of the rest of it. It is nonsense and we have to confront it as that.

Yet Foreign Office officials had warned the government in May 2004, over a year before the the bombs hit London, that the war in Iraq was stoking the fires of extremism in Muslim communities in Britain. In a letter addressed to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office Michael Jay had spelled it out for Downing Street:

Other colleagues have flagged up some of the potential underlying causes of extremism that can affect the Muslim community, such as discrimination, disadvantage and exclusion. But another recurring theme is the issue of British foreign policy, especially in the context of the Middle East Peace Process and Iraq... Experience of both ministers and officials working in this area suggests that the issue of British foreign policy... plays a significant role in creating a feeling of anger and impotence amongst especially the younger generation of British Muslims . . . this seems to be a key driver behind recruitment by extremist organizations (e.g. recruitment drives by groups such as Hizb ut-Tehrir and al Muhajiroon).(3)

The political motives of suicide bombers have been underlined by Robert Pape, a US academic working on a University of Chicago project on suicide terrorism. Pape has analysed such attacks in very great detail and produced a serious and sober study of suicide terrorism over the past 25 years. It should be compulsory reading for members of the British government. Pape analyses 315 suicide terror attacks during this period and concludes that ‘there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism or any of the world’s religions’. Instead:

what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective.(4)

This analysis is confirmed by the stories of the July 7th bombers, and of the pathetic group that apparently attempted further London Transport bombings on July 21st, but whose rucksacks failed to explode. Osman Hussain, suspected of trying to set off an explosion at Warren Street Station on July 21st, fled the country by Eurostar and was arrested in Italy a few weeks later. According to La Repubblica, he told investigators that the would-be bombers of July 21st had psyched themselves for the attacks by watching ‘films on the war in Iraq... Especially those where women and children were being killed and exterminated by British and American soldiers...of widows, mothers and daughters that cry.’

The discrepancy between the price tag the Western media place on their own citizens—the photos of smiiing faces, the intimate details recalled by friends and family—and on the tens of thousands of those nameless, uncounted bodies shot, tortured or blown up from 30,000 feet on the command of Bush and Blair, could hardly be starker. It is this that fuels the anger.

Further direct evidence of the political motives of the terrorists came in the ghoulish video tape left behind by Mohammed Siddique Khan, one of the July 7th suicide terrorists, and later broadcast by al-Jazeera TV. (His friends in Dewsbury, of whom there are many since he was a popular youth worker, claimed the tape was a fake. Perhaps deep down they did not want to believe that their friend had become a terrorist or maybe the denial was a way of protecting themselves from hostile journalists.) Speaking in a strong Yorkshire accent, Siddique Khan stated: ‘Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people and your support of them makes you directly responsible.’ With Blair now off holidaying at Cliff Richard’s luxury villa in Barbados, the British government response was left to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who still refused to accept this, insisting that British support for Bush had not made the country more vulnerable to terrorism.

To explain the cause is not to justify the consequence, but Blair and his toadies should be forced to confront what is now a widely held view across the political divide: the central British role in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and, more broadly, Britain’s unquestioning support for the US–Israeli war drive in the Middle East and across central Eurasia, has blown back in the shape of the London terrorist attacks. The reason the Prime Minister and his close associates in government and the media cannot admit the link is not difficult to understand. To accept that British foreign policy is even partially responsible means to accept that Blair, Straw and the rest of the supine Cabinet and the official Opposition are to blame for what is taking place. If Blair were to do so he would be immediately compelled to resign.


(1) ‘The Price of Occupation’, Guardian, 8 July 2005.
(2) Guardian, 19 July 2005.
(3) Martin Bright, ‘Leak shows Blair told of Iraq war terror link’, Observer, 28 August 2005.
(4) Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, New York 2005.

Rough Music is available to purchase on the Verso website with 40% off the retail price of £5.99.