It is difficult to say anything original about the terrorist bombings carried out in London last week. The atrocity has all the hallmarks of Islamist extremism - in particular, a close similarity in pattern to the Madrid attacks a couple of years ago - but it now seems that the perpetrators were British-born or at least long-term residents. This shows that the poisonous influence of this kind of extremism is putting down roots in long-established immigrant communities in the UK, and probably elsewhere in the West as well.
One thing which does need to be said is that London was both fortunate and well-prepared. Fortunate, in that only conventional chemical explosives appear to have been used. There was no use, for instance, of chemical weapons such as sarin, which was used in Tokyo’s underground by the Supreme Truth sect a decade ago, or of “dirty” radiological materials. Either of these could have made the impact of the London attack far worse - particularly in the psychological sense - because people have a particular horror of “poison gas” and radioactivity. Indeed, the impact could have been more than psychological if these fears caused people to avoid using the London underground on a long-term basis. The effect on the daily logistics of a great city of such an aversion would be very significant. However, London has been spared that.
Though there was an inevitable initial onset of chaos, rumour and uncertainty, Britain’s incident response planning was very effective in dealing with the effects of the attack. The authorities responded in a well co-ordinated manner, dealing as quickly as could be expected with the injuries and damage. It would be an overstatement to say that Britain took the attack in its stride, but it certainly did not succumb to serious disorder or respond in a disorganised way.
This shows that the impact of attacks such as this can be limited by good contingency planning. It must be frustrating to the surviving perpetrators of this outrage to realise that all they achieved was a modest number of casualties and a couple of days of disruption to the public transport system. Politically, they have only hardened the anti-terrorist resolve of civilised people everywhere, and tactically made their organisation the target of a massive investigation which will make it even more difficult to execute future attacks.
The law of diminishing marginal returns is now beginning to operate against this sort of terrorism. It must have taken a long time to prepare the London operation, bearing in mind that this had to be done in an environment very hostile to the perpetrators - indeed, one in which we are told several previous attempts had been blocked by effective intelligence work. The “gain” for the terrorists after London has, as I have suggested, been relatively modest given the costs they must now face.
One obvious response for future terror operations is to up the ante - to execute much more substantial attacks, on the scale of 11 September 2001 or even worse. But such attacks require significant resources and lengthy preparation and are accordingly more difficult to bring to fruition; the risk of discovery increases rapidly as preparation time drags out. Another is to commit London, Madrid or Bali-style attacks with increasing frequency, but this also poses a number of problems for those planning such operations.
On the other side of the divide, prevention remains the top counter-terrorist priority. Intelligence work, in particular, is crucial to this effort. One can only hope that the damage done to western intelligence agencies and procedures, including Australia’s, by the weapons of mass destruction “intelligence” fiasco prior to the Iraq war has been repaired. Without good intelligence collection and assessment capabilities, uninfluenced by cheap political manipulation, counter-terrorism will too often become a matter of a criminal investigation after an atrocity.
The second priority is cutting terrorists off from their bases of support, especially from sources of funds and of replacement “soldiers” for those who are apprehended or die carrying out operations. In the context of Islamist-based terrorism, this means the destruction of the terrorist infrastructure still surviving in Afghanistan. That unhappy country is still home to significant Taliban and Al Qaida elements, who finance their activities through the opium trade.
For this reason I support the decision to return Australian forces to Afghanistan. Indeed, they should never have left, and would not have but for the Howard Government’s ill-considered adventurism in the invasion of Iraq. The resulting Iraqi morass continues to suck up Australian military resources and, more important, huge US resources. The US military has been unable to seriously attempt the destruction of terrorist bases in remote parts of Afghanistan because it is trapped in Iraq. So the Iraq war is revealed as a strategic blunder of the highest order. In a very real sense, London has paid a price for George W. Bush’s ideological hang-ups about Iraq.
For Australia, which faces a terrorist threat similar to that confronting the US and Britain, the choice should be simple, and would be if we had a less ideologically driven government ourselves. It is to get out of Iraq and commit on a larger scale to Afghanistan.
This is not to suggest that “sorting out” Afghanistan is going to be easy. Far from it. In a future column I will address this aspect in more detail, but suffice it to say for now that a redeployment of resources makes eminent sense, both for us and, indeed, for the United States. London only underlines this truth.