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Don't mention Islamic Terrorists

Anyone who has watched the television series Fawlty Towers will remember how Basil tied himself in knots when German guests visited his dysfunctional hotel. Since that episode was aired, the phrase "Don't mention the war" has become synonymous with the expedient of ignoring reality and avoiding embarrassment.

So it was when bombs tore at the throat of London earlier this month. The two words that were on everyone's lips – "Islamic" and "terrorists" – were excised from the public discourse as effectively as Stalin airbrushed fallen comrades from group photographs. In the case of the London attacks, it would have been funny were the loss of more than 50 lives not so tragic.
Letter from London: 'Don't mention the war'

Within hours of the multiple, coordinated attacks, police spokesman Andy Paddick fired a preemptive broadside when confronted with a journalist's question: Were the attacks perpetrated by Islamic terrorists? Islam, the outraged policeman shot back, is a moderate, peace-loving religion, and the bombings, therefore, could not possibly have been the acts of true Muslims.

The BBC was even more sensitive to the "ethnic" issue. The head of BBC news programs, Helen Boaden, rushed out a memo to declare that "we are dancing on the head of a pin" to avoid offending World Service listeners.

The bombings could be described as "terror attacks," she decreed, but the perpetrators could not be described as "terrorists" – a term which "can be a barrier rather than aid to understanding."

But fret not for the politically perfect BBC reporters. There was a rich diet of culturally acceptable alternatives, from militants and activists, through bombers, attackers and insurgents. Such tofu substitutes happily avoid what the BBC considers to be "emotional or value judgments."

So important was the issue that the tekkies were dispatched to sanitize the BBC Web site and edit out the word "terrorist" from its pre-memo reports. And so anxious was the BBC to protect the sensibilities of its audience, both domestic and foreign, that it edited out the T-word from Tony Blair's statement to parliament.

Even the unexpurgated Blair himself can be seen to be "dancing on the head of a pin," carefully separating out the issue of Islam and terrorism: "I say to our Muslim community... We were proud of your contribution to Britain before last Thursday. We remain proud of it today. Fanaticism is not a state of religion but a state of mind. We will work with you to make the moderate and true voice of Islam heard as it should be.

"Together, we will ensure that though terrorists can kill, they will never destroy the way of life we share and which we value, and which we will defend with the strength of belief and conviction so that it is to us and not to the terrorists, that victory will belong."

Finally, though, he joined the dots and gave up the charade, listing sites that "Islamic-extremist terrorists" had targeted in the past: Madrid, Bali, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Kenya, Tanzania, Pakistan, Yemen, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco and New York. The notable omission was, of course, the state that dare not speak its name for fear of upsetting Muslim sensibilities.

Almost as great as the shock of the slaughter on the public transport system was news that all the terrorists were born in Britain of Pakistani parents. Guests were rushed into BBC studios to discuss where "we" had gone wrong, how "we" could have allowed the British-born militants to become so alienated, and what "we" should be doing to prevent others from, er... militating on the Tube trains and buses in the future.

In fact, very little can be done. For all the technology, cash and human resources that have been poured down the throats of the intelligence services, the front line in the war against terrorism, there was no prior warning of the attack. Indeed, the general alert level in Britain was actually lowered last month for the first time since 9/11.

Nor, apparently, was there any intelligence about the terrorists, even after the attacks. The vital tip-off came, ironically, in a call to the nationwide help line that had been set up so the public could report missing family and friends. One of the callers was the mother of the bus bomber.

Little is known about the men. All lived in or near the Yorkshire town of Leeds within 15 kilometers of each other, which would have limited the need for telephone or Internet communication. All were well educated and, apparently, from middle-class homes.

Still unknown is the complex cast of characters that produced the highly organized, synchronized attack – the recruiters, the bomb-makers, the spiritual guides, the logistics experts, the money men, and, of course, the mastermind. The complete al-Qaida package.

The four terrorists are believed to have traveled to Luton, just north of London, in a rental car early on the morning of the attack and to have taken the train to King's Cross, one of London's busiest rail stations, from where they fanned on their journeys to Paradise. Security services say they have identified the four together – each carrying a rucksack – from closed-circuit television images.

The man who hired the car – and blew open the double-decker bus – appears typical of the group. Shehzad ("Shazzy") Tanweer was the 22-year-old son of a local businessman. He had a university degree in sports sciences and is said by friends to have been more interested in tae kwon do than the local mosque.

He was, say the friends, non-political and preferred T-shirts and jeans to traditional Muslim dress.

Azzy Mohamed still speaks of his friend in the present tense: "Shazzy is the best lad I have ever met. He's a top guy. We play cricket together. He wouldn't do anything like this."

Tanweer and his cohorts are not Britain's first suicide bombers. That distinction belongs Asif Hanif and Omar Sharif, who launched suicide attacks that took three lives at Mike's Place in Tel Aviv. But Tanweer et al can take credit for having perpetrated the first suicide attacks in Britain.

News that terrorists were British-born did not come as a surprise to Lord John Stevens, who recently retired as commissioner of police. Two days before the terrorists were identified, he accurately predicted that the they would be "apparently ordinary British citizens, young men conservatively and cleanly dressed and probably with some higher education."

The only certainty about the future, say the experts, is that there will be more such attacks. The challenge now is how to crack the support infrastructure and attempt to stop the next batch of apparently normal, middle-class kids – loved by their families and respected by their communities – who are ready to take that one-way ride to Paradise.

Posted by zorkmidden on Jul 17, 2005 2:00 pm

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