Blowback – Manchester and the Libya Connection

In the wake of yet another horrendous atrocity, this time in Manchester claiming 23 lives, ‘respectable’ media once again refused to seriously discuss the extent to which violent attacks against ‘us’ are linked to ‘our’ violent attacks against ‘them’. Instead, howls of disgust typically arise when anyone mentions terms like ‘blowback’ and ‘reaping the whirlwind’.

In a headline comment piece in the Guardian, Rafael Behr warned of ‘the hazard of moral relativism’:

‘A well-trodden analytical approach follows the twisted trail of jihadi logic back to political grievance, Middle Eastern wars and blaming the west.’

Presumably, then, Eliza Manningham-Buller, former Director General of MI5, was adopting ‘jihadi logic’ when she commented in a 2011 Reith lecture:

‘whatever the merits of putting an end to Saddam Hussein, the war was also a distraction from the pursuit of al-Qaeda. It increased the terrorist threat by convincing more people that Osama Bin Laden’s claim that Islam was under attack was correct… our involvement in Iraq spurred some young British Muslims to turn to terror.’ (Our emphasis)

Likewise, former MI5 chief, Stella Rimington, who discussed the impact of the Iraq war on these threats:

‘Well, I think all one can do is look at what those people who’ve been arrested or have left suicide videos say about their motivation. And most of them, as far as I’m aware, say that the war in Iraq played a significant part in persuading them that this is the right course of action to take… I think to ignore the effect of the war in Iraq is misleading.’ (Our emphasis)

At their worst, references to ‘jihadi logic’ descend to accusations of outright apologetics. Guardian columnist Owen Jones accurately observed on Twitter:

‘If you say the Versailles Treaty and the Great Depression contributed to the rise of the Nazis, does that make you a Nazi apologist? (No.)’

But a key difference, often forgotten, is that while governments in countries like Iraq, Libya and Syria are often portrayed as bitter enemies, none of them have threatened, much less attacked, Britain.

In the Guardian, Paul Mason commented:

‘The “blowback theory”, which blames Islamist terrorism directly on western expeditionary warfare, is both facile and irrelevant in this case. By bombing Libya we did not enrage or radicalise young Muslims such as Abedi: we simply gave them space to operate in.’

Professor Jake Lynch of the University of Sydney responded on the Guardian’s letters page:

‘Blowback theory is most definitely relevant. It is not confined to “blam[ing] Islamist terrorism directly on western expeditionary warfare”, as Mason incorrectly states. Islamic State germinated in the scorched earth left behind when we removed the regime of Saddam Hussein. If we had not invaded Iraq, the organisation that is now attacking us would not exist. That is blowback.’

Remarkably, Mason also wrote:

‘David Cameron was right to take military action to stop Gaddafi massacring his own people during the Libyan uprising of 2011: the action was sanctioned by the UN, proportionate, had no chance of escalating into an occupation.’

A September 9, 2016 report into the war by the foreign affairs committee of the House of Commons commented on Cameron’s policy:

‘The result was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.’

As for the alleged justification for war:

‘Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence… Gaddafi regime forces targeted male combatants in a civil war and did not indiscriminately attack civilians. More widely, Muammar Gaddafi’s 40-year record of appalling human rights abuses did not include large-scale attacks on Libyan civilians.’ (Our emphasis. See our alert)

And while Cameron’s Libyan no-fly zone was sanctioned by the UN, regime change certainly was not.

Inventing A Blame Game

In a speech in 2003, Jeremy Corbyn said:

‘Thousands more deaths in Iraq will not make things right.

‘It will set off a spiral of conflict, of hate, of misery, of desperation that will fuel the wars, the conflict, the terrorism, the depression and the misery of future generations.’

Corbyn was exactly right. By contrast, Theresa May voted for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

Responding to Corbyn’s speech on terrorism and foreign policy last week, made in the aftermath of Manchester, Janet Daley wrote in the Sunday Telegraph:

‘The Corbyn view is that all crimes perpetrated on Western populations by alienated groups must ultimately be attributable to past offences by those Western countries .’

This was a crude, straw man version of what Corbyn had argued:

‘Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.

‘That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions… The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.’ (Our emphasis)

A Guardian editorial discussed the speech and insisted that ‘Rebuttals are available’, including: ‘radical Islamists do not discriminate carefully between intervening nations and others’.

No serious analyst doubts that taking a lead role in the West’s war crimes makes ‘intervening nations’ far more likely to suffer attacks. It says everything about the current state of the Guardian that it could opine:

‘It should be possible to hold two ideas in parallel: one is that ill-executed foreign policy has failed to bring the security dividend that was promised. The other is that criticism of western policy is inadequate as an explanation for the rise of violent jihadism.’

The ‘ill-executed foreign policy’ was a reference to crimes that have destroyed whole countries killing around 1.3 million people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan alone (according to a report by an international group of physicians), injuring and displacing many millions more. And again, no one is suggesting that these crimes provide a complete ‘explanation’ for the attacks – they are though, very obviously, a key factor.

In an impressive fit of righteous indignation, foreign secretary Boris Johnson denounced Corbyn’s argument as ‘absolutely monstrous’: ‘now is not the time to do anything to subtract from the fundamental responsibility of those individuals, that individual in particular, who committed this atrocity…’.

We noted on Twitter how, in 2005, Johnson had said of the 7/7 attacks in London:

‘In groping to understand, the pundits and the politicians have clutched first at Iraq, and the idea that this is “blowback”, the inevitable punishment for Britain’s part in the Pentagon’s fiasco. George Galloway began it in Parliament; he was followed by Sir Max Hastings, with the Lib Dems limping in the rear. It is difficult to deny that they have a point, the Told-You-So brigade. As the Butler report revealed, the Joint Intelligence Committee assessment in 2003 was that a war in Iraq would increase the terror threat to Britain…’. (Our emphasis)

To add to the Wodehousian farce, in a recent Channel 4 News interview, defence secretary Michael Fallon condemned Johnson’s comments, imagining they had been made by Corbyn.

An editorial in the Evening Standard, now edited by former Conservative chancellor George Osborne, actually called for an intensification of the ‘war on terror’:

‘Finally, we must be prepared to take this battle to terrorist havens around the world. We reject the idea that it was the West’s involvement in the Middle East that gave rise to Islamist extremism. It was the failure by the West, Britain included, to bring stability to Libya after Gaddafi’s fall that allowed the Abedis of this world to thrive there. We need to get more involved in these countries, not less…’

This reheated the unsavoury excuse deployed in the wake of the Iraq catastrophe – the problem was not that Britain and the US had illegally invaded, occupied and wrecked a sovereign nation offering no threat. Rather, the problem was that ‘we’ had failed to impose our will on the rubble. The editorial continued:

‘This paper believes that the time has come to intensify the fight against the Islamists and to give our police, and those who help them, the tools they need to keep us safe.’

In the Guardian, Gaby Hinsliff patronised from the corporate moral high ground in an article titled, ‘Manchester conspiracy theories reflect the price we pay for social media’. She commented:

‘Social media is littered with amateur “truthers” who once watched a YouTube video about Noam Chomsky’s theory of false flags, and now see conspiracies lurking under every bed.’

In reality, Chomsky is a relentless enemy of evidence-free conspiracy theories that abounded in public discourse long before YouTube ever existed. Hinsliff noted that, thanks to Twitter, Rufus Hound, a comedian, has ‘more than double the circulation of a national broadsheet newspaper – although, crucially, minus the journalistic and regulatory processes that might stop a broadsheet idly speculating that Theresa May allowed 22 people to be murdered in Manchester this week just to stop her poll lead sliding’.

We pointed out to Hinsliff that ‘journalistic and regulatory processes’ had failed to prevent disastrous claims appearing in her own broadsheet. For example:

‘Among those knowledgeable about Iraq there are few, if any, who believe he [Saddam Hussein] is not hiding such weapons. It is a given.’ (Martin Woollacott, ‘This drive to war is one of the mysteries of our time – We know Saddam is hiding weapons. That isn’t the argument,’ The Guardian, January 24, 2003)


‘If those nations with the power to stop these pre-announced killings had stood aside, they would have been morally culpable. Benghazi was set to become another Srebrenica – and those that did nothing would share the same shame.’ (Jonathan Freedland, ‘Though the risks are very real, the case for intervention remains strong,’ The Guardian, March 22, 2011)

Paul Mason’s views on Libya, described above, are a further salient example.

Hinsliff did not deign to reply. A world-weary warrior for Truth, she concluded:

‘What lies ahead is probably years of doggedly nailing jelly to the wall, knowing you can’t reason with delusion… [which] seems an inordinately high price to pay for a convenient means of swapping gossip and cat videos.’

From outside Hinsliff’s ‘reality-based community’, the view is rather different. We see social media facilitating a dramatic rise in support for the more rational and compassionate policies of the likes of Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Podemos. We see evidence of vast numbers of people waking up to the ‘necessary illusions’ of state-corporate propaganda driving us to Perpetual War and climate disaster. Certainly, we see no hope at all in a profit-driven, billionaire-owned, advertiser-funded corporate media system guaranteeing disastrous business-as-usual.

We asked John Pilger to comment on the media response:

‘There is much about the coverage of the Manchester atrocity that is profane. Unctuous platitudes that offend the self-effacing dignity and grieving of people emit from windbags who police the political boundaries. They ensure that Britain’s bloody adventures in the Middle East and 60-year partnership with so-called radical Islam are never mentioned. They ensure that Britain’s major role in the destruction of Libya in 2011 – the biggest single cause of jihadism after the invasion of Iraq – is of no interest. Leaving out the obvious is a common variety of anti-journalism.’ (Email to Media Lens, May 25, 2017)


Joining the Dots

Writing for Middle East Eye, Amandla Thomas-Johnson and Simon Hooper reported:

‘The British government operated an “open door” policy that allowed Libyan exiles and British-Libyan citizens to join the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi even though some had been subject to counter-terrorism control orders…

‘[Manchester bomber] Salman Abedi, 22, the British-born son of exiled dissidents who returned to Libya as the revolution against Gaddafi gathered momentum, is also understood to have spent time in the North African country in 2011 and to have returned there on several subsequent occasions.

‘British police have said they believe the bomber, who returned to Manchester just a few days before the attack, was part of a network and have arrested six people including Abedi’s older brother since Monday.’

In an utterly damning article in the Daily Mail, investigative journalist Peter Oborne commented:

‘Often with the connivance of MI6, during the early years of the Syrian War, hundreds of British citizens were allowed to travel abroad to join jihadist organisations.

‘The reason MI6 certainly approved such involvement was because spy chiefs had taken it upon themselves to meddle in the internal affairs of Middle East countries.

‘In the case of Syria, they wanted to get as much help as possible in their mission to topple the Syrian president Bashir al-Assad.

‘There was a similar policy towards Libya. British citizens — it has been reported this week that among them was the father of the Manchester suicide-bomber — were undoubtedly encouraged to travel to the north African country to fight in the civil war there to get rid of Gaddafi.’

Oborne continued:

‘Along with his father and brother, Salman Abedi fought as a 16-year-old in the Libyan civil war. There have been reports, too, that he received military training in Syria.

‘There is every reason to speculate that his evil handiwork at the Manchester Arena on Monday night was in part a direct consequence of MI6’s meddling.’

As political analyst Nafeez Ahmed wrote:

‘Our children in Manchester paid the price of business as usual.’

Jon Snow of Channel 4 News managed some rare dissent in challenging Michael Fallon:

‘At the end of the day, Sir Michael, it was a Conservative-led government that overthrew Gaddafi without knowing anything about what might follow him. And this [the Manchester bombing] is what has followed. It is your fault; specifically, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government that did this thing.’

Fallon spluttered random waffle, rejecting the accuracy of the charge outright, of course. But the truth is that overthrowing Gaddafi in Libya, removing Saddam from Iraq, supporting ‘rebels’ in Syria, and endless kowtowing to the Saudis, while they support and massively fund terrorist networks, are part of the same package of disastrous foreign policy so enthusiastically embraced by May, David Cameron and Tony Blair.

Put simply, the highly profitable Western war machine reduces countries to ruins, while Western civilians – and many more victims in target countries – pay the price. This, we are to understand, is ‘strong and stable’ governance defending national security.

Less than a week after the Manchester attack, former BBC ‘rottweiler’ Jeremy Paxman interviewed both Corbyn and May in a Channel 4 debate. Paxman repeatedly challenged Corbyn on foreign policy issues – Trident, the IRA and Hamas – but put no questions at all to May on foreign policy, about her voting for wars on Iraq, Libya and Syria, or about her deep complicity in the devastating war on Yemen. May was not asked about Manchester, and no mention was made of the links to her actions on Libya as home secretary. As Pilger said, this ‘profane’ silence really did seem to ‘offend the self-effacing dignity and grieving’ of the people of Manchester. There is no doubt that, had Corbyn been in May’s position, the corporate media would have used the story to trash his election chances.

It is outrageous that a long-standing tradition of a corporate media system that beats the drums of war so hard, year in, year out, is to ignore foreign policy issues at election time. The reason, of course, is that the consequences of their warmongering typically shame the warmongers. To his very great credit, Corbyn obliged journalists to break with this tradition.

The bias in reporting on foreign policy was matched by reaction to news that Corbyn had narrowed the Conservatives’ lead from 22 points four weeks ago to 5 points, according to a YouGov survey.

Former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook noted of the Guardian that the story was ‘buried in the paper’s lead story’, with the dramatic poll mentioned 12 paragraphs into the report:

‘It is almost as though the Guardian does not want you to know that Corbyn and his policies are proving far more sucessful in the election campaign than the Guardian predicted or ever wanted.’

Cook put the significance for our ‘free press’ in context:

‘It sounds almost as though the Guardian, which has been denigrating Corbyn since his election as Labour leader nearly two years ago (along with the rest of the British media), does not want him to win. Let’s put that another way. It’s almost as though Britain’s only supposedly left-liberal newspaper would prefer that May and the Conservatives won. This, let us remind ourselves, is the same Conservative party that has made the once-surging, far-right UKIP party largely redundant by adopting many of its ugliest policies.’

Ironically, the same viewspaper reported a rare breaking of ranks when veteran broadcaster David Dimbleby, host of the BBC’s infamously biased Question Time programme, commented:

‘I don’t think anyone could say that Corbyn has had a fair deal at the hands of the press, in a way that the Labour party did when it was more to the centre [sic], but then we generally have a rightwing press.’

Again, ironies abound – like the Guardian, the BBC buried news of Corbyn’s surge in the opinion polls. The BBC’s initial report was titled: ‘Newspaper headlines: May and Corbyn unveil anti-terror strategies.’ News that Corbyn had reduced the Conservatives’ lead by a huge margin in just four weeks was mentioned in two sentences half-way down the page. At no time, was the poll given a fraction of the merited attention on the BBC website.

The concern, surely, is that voters, notably the young, might develop a dangerous sense of optimism and hope.

DE and DC