Times) The bombs in Riyadh show that the threat of
September 11 is not over. That much is clear. Equally
clear is that the present danger is not from rogue states
or weapons of mass destruction, but from murderous gangs
with dynamite and cars. As Afghanistan was followed by
Bali, so Iraq is followed by Riyadh. After waiting out the
razzmatazz of war, reality terrorism is back in business.
These killers cannot be eradicated. Though they pose a
threat to human lives they do not threaten Western values.
They may stir dictatorial tendencies in paranoid
politicians. But to imply that such incidents undermine
freedom is to lose all faith in democracy. Whatever the
motives, these are criminal acts. They should be met by
the art of intelligence and the science of security, not
by the crass hand of “regime change”.
I must have read a million words over the past year
about the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Tony
Blair believed this threat so awesome and so urgent that
last month he sent the British Army to war. The casus
belli was bogus and was all but abandoned within days
of the “war” ending. Two of Mr Blair’s once trusted
colleagues, Robin Cook and Clare Short, have resigned from
his Cabinet in protest, accusing him of lying to appease
Washington and to secure “his place in history”.
The 29 or more deaths and 200 or so injured in Riyadh
are a reminder that the present danger comes not from the
fantasies of right-wing presidents and prime ministers. It
is not from an “axis of evil” or some Doctor No
plotting global holocaust in a secret desert laboratory.
Nor should we honour these killers with such exaggerated
status. There is no evidence that they are backed by a
ruthless dictator, nor that toppling another hapless
regime will do anything to stop them.
The Riyadh bombs, like last October’s Bali bombs, are
technically no advance on the weapons used in the last
rash of such attacks in the 1970s and 1980s. The
terrorist’s purpose, we should remember, is not to kill
as such but to create high-profile mayhem. For that
purpose nothing beats high explosive. The bomb in a
crowded space was the preferred weapon of the Zionist
Stern gang, the IRA, Eta, the PLO, the Red Brigades and of
separatists everywhere. A suicide bomb is near impossible
to defend against. It needs only a stick of dynamite and
the deranged anarchist of Joseph Conrad’s Secret
Agent, moving “unsuspecting and deadly, like a pest
in a street full of men”.
If no vigilance can guard against the bomb, vigilance
is essential against the bomber. It is the deployment of
human intelligence. A congressional inquiry is now under
way into the failures that appear to have preceded
September 11. This inquiry, conducted during an election
run-up, is likely to be ruthless and bloody. Present
British critics of America should note that such an
inquiry is inconceivable in London. Ministers such as Jack
Straw and Geoff Hoon would assert “reasons of state
security” for silence and secrecy. The Franks Report
into the original Falklands debacle was hopelessly nobbled.
Yet only through public investigation of failure can
future disaster be averted.
The Saudi bombs are being attributed to the al-Qaeda
network of Osama bin Laden. If so, we might reasonably ask
for an inquiry into why two colossally expensive and
destructive wars were fought by the West yet left
unscathed the architect of all this woe. Mr Blair
explicitly declared that bin Laden’s capture was the
purpose of the invasion of Afghanistan. He then alleged a
“clear” link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda as
one of the pillars justifying the invasion of Iraq. I can
see that the people of Afghanistan and Iraq may feel more
free, for the moment, but that was not the point. The
point is lying smothered in blood and rubble in Riyadh.
The British Government may argue lamely that more
substantial weapons might have been unleashed had it not
been for its bellicosity. According to this argument,
presumably, the Riyadh bombs are the last gasp of a group
running out of ammunition, money and state sponsors. I
doubt it. The latest assessment of al-Qaeda by the
International Institute of Strategic Studies is published
today. It concludes that changes in the organisation since
Afghanistan “could make it even more difficult to combat
. . . more insidious and just as dangerous”. It’s now
dispersed and thus more impregnable to infiltration.
A respectable school of analysts — not wimps,
appeasers or “surrender monkeys” — thought the best
way to spring bin Laden was not by bombing the hell out of
Kabul but by bribery, corruption and possibly murder.
Above all, it was important to keep him in the West’s
sights. An equally respectable school, indeed most of the
intelligence community, could find no link between Baghdad
and international terrorism, however ghastly Saddam might
have been to his own people. The fear was rather that
unstable anarchy might follow invasion, a fear now close
to being fulfilled.
As long as al-Qaeda is on the loose — with half the
Islamic world regarding bin Laden as a liberation hero —
the West is at risk of continued attack. All the bombs and
missiles in the world have not lifted that threat, and
apparently not even diminished it. If the money and energy
devoted to waging war had gone into diplomacy, espionage
and policing, it is at least arguable that whoever in
Saudi Arabia knew about the Riyadh conspiracy might have
What the latest bombs suggest is that the wars changed
nothing. They were a sideshow, a diversion of effort,
probably choking the intelligence networks that might have
kept tabs on the perpetrators of these crimes. The Iraq
invasion certainly worsened transatlantic links crucial to
monitoring terrorists in Europe and the Mediterranean.
That said, I refuse to be panicked. The Government
tried before and during the war to scare the nation
witless with weekly threats of imminent chemical and
biological attack. The scares evaporated even as the
Riyadh bombers were selecting their targets. Yet I cannot
claim to feel less safe today than I did, say, 20 years
ago. Threats have receded rather than advanced, be they
from the Soviet Union, nuclear accidents, the IRA,
state-sponsored gangsters such as Carlos the Jackal or
such freelancers as Baader, Meinhof and the Red Brigades.
We forget how terror-prone Europe was in the 1970s and
Today a strand of Muslim fundamentalism is plainly
capable of inducing young people to acts of extreme
violence. In Saudi Arabia on Monday night the result was
devastating. Yet against this threat there is only one
realistic defence, from the police and security services.
Since September 11 they appear to have been successful.
Britain has not been attacked and I take comfort from the
fact that most of the suspects closest to September 11
have been seized not by soldiers in war but by police in
There will be no let-up in attacks without peace in the
Middle East and an American and British withdrawal. That
is a truism. But the job of security is not to solve the
problems of the world. That is for politics. A policeman
cannot end the grievances that foster violence. As Andrew
Sinclair graphically remarks in his new book, An
Anatomy of Terror, “a little learning is the nipple
of the militant, when the mother’s milk is hatred and
revenge”. The capacity of the West to generate hatred
and revenge in the Middle East is at present
Policing can offer protection only of last resort. It
can claim no spectacular victories, only spectacular
defeats. As Conrad said, “the terrorist and the
policemen come from the same basket” — and they often
return to it. Hatred festers in the bedsits of North
London as much as in the squatter camps of Arabia.
Somewhere in a dirty souk or beneath a railway arch there
will always be a maniac ready to pack a car with dynamite
and drive it down the road to his — and my — death.
I want that maniac in the souk stopped before, not
after, he does me harm. Against him a billion pounds of
bomber circling overhead and proclaiming regime change and
freedom is no protection. He will be stopped only by
another man in that souk, with a radio and a gun. Such
protection offers politicians no glamour and contractors
no profit. It wins no elections.
I do not care. We have had the razzmatazz of war. Now
let us have the reality of protection.