Chasing the Wrong Terrorist Shadows


Universe Column for 9th June

By David Alton

There have always been two ways people have looked at the use of terror. It can be the brutal killing of people for political ends or vaunted as part of an armed struggle against an unjust established order. Either way, innocent people invariably get hurt.

During his visit to Europe George Bush was keen to strengthen the alliance against terrorism but when it comes to countries like Iran, not everyone sees its regime for what it is.

When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister the dilemma of how one man’s terrorist can be another man’s freedom fighter led a woman renowned for her love of clear principles into an absurdly pragmatic position.

The Foreign Office had been trying to get her to meet Yasser Arafat. She refused but did meet with the Israeli leader, Menachem Begin – who had been complicit in acts of terror: I will only see terrorists when they are heads of government, she declared. This rather odd convention no doubt cleared the way for Nelson Mandela but closed the door to Gerry Adams.

When the IRA decided to abandon terror and sent a telegram to the British Cabinet saying “the war is over, what next?” they surely posed the question that everyone involved in armed struggle needs to ask themselves.

Terrorism always links ends to means and turns the innocent into victims. Too often other concerns – such as Britain’s commercial interests – determine the attitude we strike when dealing with its perpetrators.

Like Margaret Thatcher, Mr. Blair’s Government has got itself into an equally muddled position. Whether it is because of huge petroleum interests or straight forward wrong-headedness in dealing with Iran and Iraq, Britain has been chasing the wrong shadows.

It is completely irrational for our country to court and woo the Iranian regime while Iraq has been reviled, starved and bombed.  Throughout the 1980s the West backed Saddam Hussein. In building him up we undoubtedly turned him into a threat to the region. Like many other players in the Middle East he has access to powerful weapons which we helped him develop.

Yet unlike Libya – who brought down Flight 103 over Lockerbie some 13 years ago and killed 270 people  – British and US intelligence have no conclusive evidence linking Saddam to al-Qaeda or the events of September 11th.

Simultaneously, evidence abounds of the links between Islamic militants in Iran and the al-Qaeda network (including links with the Lockerbie bombing).  Donald Rumsfeld, the American defence secretary, has accused Iran of providing an underground route for al-Qaeda men fleeing Afghanistan.

In the past four months the Iranian regime has executed more than 300 people – and there have been the usual litany of  public hangings, amputations of limbs and the flogging of  dissenters.  More than 600,000 Iranians languish in prison.

Why then has Britain aligned itself with this regime while proscribing the resistance movement that works to replace it?  Either Iran is part of what President Bush has described as “an axis of evil” or it is not.  If it is not, Britain needs to explain why.