Britain at crossroads in war on terror

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2007, 12:00am

If a reminder were needed that the world cannot relax its vigilance against the threat of global terrorism, the foiled car-bomb attacks in London's theatre district and at Glasgow airport have provided it. The possible loss of life in the co-ordinated operation, had it even partly succeeded, does not bear thinking about. It would have cast a heavy shadow over the commemoration later this week of the 52 victims of the July 7 London transport bombings two years ago.

Arrests of at least seven people under anti-terrorism laws followed quickly. A hunt continues for a number of others. It is a worry that two of those arrested are reported to be doctors, one of them on the staff of a hospital. That would suggest it is not only disaffected Muslim youth in Britain who are involved in terror cells. And if the attacks are linked to al-Qaeda, as has been suggested, it shows that the organisation is still posing a significant threat almost six years after the 'war on terror' began after the September 11 attacks on the United States.

The quick arrests attest to the effectiveness of the high security alert and rapid response stance Britain has adopted since the July 7 attacks. It is hoped that security measures that have been stepped up across Britain to head off the 'imminent' possibility of another attack will be effective.

New British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has emerged from a baptism of fire days after taking office with his ratings enhanced by a resolute affirmation of Britain's refusal to be intimidated by extremist attacks on its values and way of life. His inclusion of two terrorism experts in his new government - as minister for terrorism and adviser on terror - has been vindicated.

A vigilant public and diligent security measures remain the frontline tactics in combating terrorism. But the long-term strategy must be to isolate the extremists from the overwhelming majority of moderate Muslims. Therefore it was good to hear Mr Brown talk of action to win hearts and minds as well as security and military measures, although his comparison with the west's ideological battle against communism is overly simplistic. As a first step towards addressing the failure to fully integrate 1.6 million Muslims in mainstream society, he needs to adopt inclusive domestic policies to reach out to the moderate majority.

The task will be made no easier by Britain's involvement in the Iraq war. In rejecting claims that Britain's role in the invasion and occupation has contributed to terrorist attacks at home, Mr Brown is following the line of his predecessor, Tony Blair. It is true that al-Qaeda operatives were active around the world well before the 2003 invasion. But Mr Brown is fooling only himself if he believes that daily news of the toll of Iraq's religious strife and insurgency does not touch Muslim sensibilities, especially among the disaffected. It makes it easier for extremists to recruit followers and portray Britain as an enemy of Islam. Indeed, the terror tactics being used in Britain - car bombs and gas canisters - mirror those deployed in Iraq.

The Iraq war was a turning point in Mr Blair's prime ministership. Without it, Mr Brown might not be where he is today. At this early stage in his term as leader, he has a chance to improve Britain's international image. At the same time, there is no excuse for some moderate Muslim leaders to hedge their condemnation of atrocities with qualifications about Britain's Mideast policies. While Britain needs to do more to win the battle for hearts and minds, moderate Muslims also have a vital role to play in helping prevent violence.