3 June 2006
The International Terrorist Conspiracy
By Gwynne Dyer
They arrested seventeen alleged Islamist terrorists in and around Toronto on Saturday, most of them young and Canadian-born. They had bought three tonnes of ammonium nitrate, and are accused of planning to bomb targets in southern Ontario. Shock! Horror! How could this happen here?
Canada refused to take part in the US invasion of Iraq, so most people assumed that it was therefore an unlikely target for terrorist attacks. Relatively speaking, it probably still is — but it does have several thousand troops in Afghanistan, and the new government in Ottawa is actively seeking closer ties to the Bush administration in Washington. Enough, perhaps, to motivate a bunch of radicalised young Muslim-Canadians who couldn’t reach non-Canadian targets anyway.
Any terrorist attack on Canada is bound to be home-grown, because there is no shadowy but powerful network of international Islamist terrorists waging a war against the West. There are isolated small groups of extremists who blow things up once in a while, and there are web-sites and other media through which they can exchange ideas and techniques, but there is no headquarters, no chain of command, no organisation that can be defeated, dismantled and destroyed.
There have been Islamist terrorist groups in the Arab world for decades, but there never was much of an international Islamist “terrorist network.” Even in al-Qaeda’s heyday, before the US invasion of Afghanistan effectively beheaded it in 2001, there were only a few hundred core members.
According to US intelligence estimates, between 30,000 and 70,000 volunteers passed through al-Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan in 1996-2001, but their long-term impact on the world has been very small. For most people who went to those camps, it was more a rite of passage than the start of a lifelong career as a terrorist. The average annual number of Islamist terrorist attacks in Arab and other Muslim countries has been no greater in the past five years than in the previous ten or twenty.
The West has been even less affected. The 9/11 attacks on the United States were a spectacularly successful fluke, killing almost three thousand people, but there have been no further Islamist attacks in the US. The two subsequent attacks that did occur in the West, in Madrid in 2004 and in London last year, cost the lives of 245 people. And those attacks were both carried out by local people with no links to any “international terrorist network.”
The contrast between the received wisdom — that the world, or at least the West, is engaged in a titanic, unending struggle against a terrorist organisation of global reach — and the not very impressive reality is so great that most people in the West believe the official narrative rather than the evidence of their own eyes. There must be a major terrorist threat; otherwise, the government is wrong or lying, the intelligence agencies are wrong or self-serving, the media are fools or cowards, and the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with fighting terrorism.
There isn’t a major terrorist threat; just a little one. The massive over-reaction called “the war on terror” is due to the fact that 9/11 hit a very big and powerful country that had the military resources to strike anywhere in the world, and strategic interests that might be advanced by a war or two fought under the cover of a crusade against terrorism. If 9/11 had happened in Canada, it would all have been very different.
A kind of 9/11 did happen in Canada. The largest casualty toll of any terrorist attack in the West before 2001 was the 329 people who were killed in the terrorist bombing of Air India Flight 182, en route from Toronto to London, in 1985. Two hundred and eighty of the dead were Canadian citizens. Since Canada has only one-tenth the population of the United States, it was almost exactly the same proportionate loss that the United States suffered in 9/11.
It was immediately clear that the terrorists were Sikhs seeking independence from India, but here’s what Canada didn’t do: it didn’t send troops into India to “stamp out the roots of the terrorism” and it didn’t declared a “global war on terror.” Partly because it lacked the resources for that sort of adventure, of course, but also because it would have been stupid. Instead, it tightened up security at airports, and launched a police investigation of the attack.
The investigation was not very successful, and twenty-one years later most of the culprits have still not been punished. But Sikh terrorism eventually died down even though nobody invaded the Punjab, and nobody else got hurt in Canada. Sometimes not doing much is the right thing to do.
Not doing too much would have been the right response in 2001, too. It was legal for Washington to invade Afghanistan after 9/11, and public outrage in the US made it almost unavoidable politically, but it was bound to end in tears. If the Afghan regime could have been forced to shut the al-Qaeda camps down without an invasion, that would have been the wiser course of action. The right goal was NOT to fall into Osama bin Laden’s trap, and NOT to act in ways that spread suspicion and hostility in Muslim communities at home and abroad.
But it would probably still have been all right if they hadn’t invaded Iraq….