By Paul Goodman
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There has been no mass terror attack in Britain for over five years – since the bombing of Glasgow airport in 2007. Osama Bin Laden is dead, and the reach of his Afghanistan-and-Pakistan-based Al Qaeda network reduced. British troops have returned from Iraq and will, before too long, come back from Afghanistan. It might therefore be assumed that the threat of bombs on the tube – or elsewhere – carried by Islamist fanatics has faded away altogether.
However, yesterday's conviction of three would-be suicide bombers from Birmingham is a reminder that Al Qaeda, as Gerry Adams once said of the IRA, "hasn't gone away, you know". It never had: for example, innocents in Exeter's Giraffe Cafe were lucky not to die or be maimed in 2008, when Nicky Reilly's exploding bomb injured only himself. Reilly was a convert to an extremist variant of Islam – a distortion of the classical, traditional form.
That many of those involved in British terror attacks are such converts is a reminder that the Islamist threat – one that poses particular problems for British Muslims themselves – isn't driven by foreign affairs or policy alone, or inter-generational tensions within Muslim families, or anti-Muslim hatred and prejudice (though this certainly exists), but by ideology. In short, the extreme form, is in conflict not only with those of other religions and none, but with the classical tradition itself.
If you doubt it, note the persistent attacks on Sufi shrines and holy places wherever this extremism takes root. When I was the party's communities spokesman in the Commons, we gave the Government's Prevent programme a fair wind. But it became increasingly clear that taxpayer-funded programmes can make only a limited impact, if any, against ideology of this kind. Some of the money was well spent; some badly; most made no difference – a net loss for the taxpayer.
It's worth noting that, however fragmented Bin Laden's original network may be, that the convicted men travelled to Pakistan/Afghanistan and were trained there. The best response Government can make to the continuing threat is threefold. First, not to deal with, let alone fund, those Islamist organisations tainted by extremism. Second, to shift defence money into countering the domestic threat. The Government is doing both.
Third, Britain should not to intervene militarily in countries if it hasn't thought through what the consequences will be. I am thinking, in the recent past, of Iraq and – perhaps in the near future – of Syria. (David Cameron is clearly mulling over such intervention: his remarks in India about shifting aid money to defence may be a sign of this.) Otherwise, there is little that government can do intervene in struggles within a religion that it struggles itself to undestand.