Extremists manipulate grievances. Can this all be blamed on Tony Blair?
The British public do not need any more than the 2.6 million words Sir John Chilcot published this morning to judge Tony Blair and his administration for the decision and manner in which the UK joined the allied invasion of Iraq to depose the Baathist dictator Saddam Hussain on 19 March 2003.
But it is worth reflecting on two significant assumptions that have dominated the public debate in the last 13 years in light of the inquiry’s findings, and the challenging of which were not part of Chilcot’s remit: namely that ‘The Iraq War created ISIS’ and that ‘The Iraq War radicalised thousands of British Muslims’.
According to the report, Blair’s failure to draft a strategy for post-Saddam Iraq resulted in confusion within the coalition, a significant lack of Iraqi civilian support, as well as widespread lawlessness and violence in major cities like Baghdad and Basra.
In times of societal anarchy and violence, the British and American forces became unable to guarantee the security of Iraqi citizens, which in turn increased public hostility.
More importantly, the lack of a counter-insurgency strategy to deal with the amorphous jihadist threat provided these extremists with the space in which to radicalise local citizens. Iraqi civilians’ anti-occupation grievances and lack of a functioning state found themselves in an environment highly prone to terrorist recruitment.
Indeed, grassroots grievance, sentiments of victimhood against the increasingly incompetent state-builders, in combination with increasing Islamist resistance, left many Iraqis feeling that their best chance of ensuring survival, representation, or identification, may indeed lie with the extremists.
This is something that continues to be exploited by extremist warlords to recruit and mobilize cannon fodder for the current Caliphate of Islamic State.
As such, jihadists were able to leverage nationalism, perceived victimhood, support for Islamism, and things as simple as the lack of state functions and present their promises of a caliphal utopia as a possible alternative, and use takfiri ideology to justify violence against perceived illegal occupiers.
But beyond the lack of planning for reconstruction, counter-insurgency, and counter-extremism in post-Saddam Iraq, there are many other factors that contributed to the rise of ISIS.
The military response against jihadists led to a franchising of Al Qaeda and more autonomy for its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the localisation of jihadist strategy to incorporate a more sectarian flavour.
The Snowden revelations led to a hasty withdrawal from Iraq, arguably freeing up a further vacuum in which jihadists could operate. The technology revolution has been taken advantage of more successfully by extremists to engage followers to their global movement than by those who oppose them.
The ability of ISIS to engage millennials and tap into broader anti-establishment sentiment around the world has certainly boosted their numbers.
This cannot all be blamed on Tony Blair and his part in the decision to invade Iraq.
So too must we counter the claim that the Iraq War radicalised thousands of British Muslims. The Iraq War was undoubtedly a significant grievance for many of those who have gone to commit acts of terrorism, but we know that grievance alone is insufficient – and gratefully so, or the million who turned out to oppose the war would be in Raqqa by now.
Grievances must be manipulated and placed within an extremist worldview in order to prompt action.
That groups like Al Muhajiroun were able to say that the Iraq War was indicative of the West’s war on Islam, and that hundreds believed them, is the real problem here.
The Iraq War might not have been a mobilising issue by itself. But, when combined with Al Muhajiroun’s rhetoric and media skills that appealed specifically to second and third generation British Pakistanis, they achieved considerable success that has been replicated by other groups.
They exploited the victimhood, anti-establishment sentiment and identity crises of their target audience and offered a substitute identity: membership of the vanguard of international jihadists who fight the global superpower and the international system.
Sir John Chilcot is right: we must learn the lessons of history and be more accountable and transparent with all aspects of public policy. But we must not be blind to the fact that there are those who seek to exaggerate, amplify and manipulate grievances for their own political means.
So let’s not remove agency from theocratic, bloody-minded deathcults, their non-violent British counterparts providing covering fire, nor fellow travellers who would rather pursue piteous introspection instead of clear-minded strategies for cauterising this pernicious trend.
It is in all of our interests to ensure that the lessons from the Iraq War lead to more accountability and transparency within our foreign policy, and to ensure that we always consider how easy it is for the malign and the machiavellian to manipulate grievances.
Let’s do what we can to minimise and mitigate these grievances, but also to prevent their exploitation in radicalisation alongside all efforts to rebuild trust between society and our elected leaders. A comprehensive and independent inquiry was a great first step.
Jonathan Russell is Head of Policy at Quilliam.
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