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2006-08-11

Britain Names Suspects in Alleged Airline Bomb Plot; British Muslims Skeptical, Fear Backlash

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Britain has named 19 of the 24 people arrested yesterday on suspicion of plotting to blow up passenger jets flying to the United States and has frozen their assets. We go to Britain to look why many British Muslims are skeptical of the plot and fear a backlash on their communities. [includes rush transcript]

Britain has named 19 of the 24 people arrested yesterday on suspicion of plotting to blow up passenger jets flying to the United States and has frozen their assets. Police said the plan was to take liquid explosives disguised as drinks on up to 10 planes with detonators hidden in electronic devices.

All of those arrested are British citizens, aged seventeen to thirty-five, and lived in areas of east London, High Wycombe and Birmingham. Most are believed to be of Pakistani descent. One of the suspects was said to be a young mother, though Scotland Yard has not officially confirmed this. British authorities say that they have been investigating the group for "about a year."

Under new anti-terror laws, police have up to twenty-eight days to question the suspects before deciding whether to charge or release them.

Pakistan said it played a role in thwarting the suspected plot. A senior Pakistani government official said that two British nationals arrested in Pakistan last week provided key information. While British authorities said all the main figures had been caught, ABC News quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying five suspects were still on the loose.

Authorities said the airlines to be targeted were United, American and Continental, bound for New York, Washington and California. Hours after news of the arrests broke, President Bush spoke about the alleged plot.

  • President Bush: "The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation."

The suspected plot sparked chaos at Britain’s airports at the height of the summer holiday season with hundreds of flights canceled as airlines imposed strict security measures. Armed police have been deployed in many airports and passengers are no longer allowed to take their hand luggage into the cabin.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Hours after news of the arrests broke, President Bush spoke about the alleged plot.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: The suspects’ plot sparked chaos at Britain’s airports at the height of the summer holiday season, with hundreds of flights canceled as airlines imposed strict security measures. Armed police have been deployed in many airports, and passengers are no longer allowed to take their hand luggage into the plane.

Salma Yaqoob is joining us now on the line from Britain. She is the head of the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition, founder of RESPECT The Unity Coalition in England. This year, she won a seat on the Birmingham City Council and became the first elected hijab-wearing councilor in the city. We’re also joined by Milan Rai, co-founder of the groups Justice Not Vengeance and Voices in the Wilderness. His latest book is called 7/7: The London Bombings, Islam and the Iraq War. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

MILAN RAI: Thank you.

SALMA YAQOOB: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you both with us, and I know, Salma, you’re on the road with a cell phone, so we appreciate you pulling over to the side to talk with us. Let’s begin with you, Milan. If you could talk about the climate in Britain right now and the response to what the British government says was a plot — they say they have arrested about two dozen people. It looks like they’re of Pakistani descent. They’re British citizens.

MILAN RAI: I think that there is a bit of hesitancy, even in the mainstream media, in mainstream political opinion, because of the massive blunders, which there have been with British intelligence. So, the Forest Gate incident two months ago, when 200 armed police dressed in chemical and biological warfare suits raided a house in East London and shot one of the men inside it, only to discovery that there wasn’t anything there and no terrorism-related charges were laid on anyone connected to that house. So there’s a real sense of hesitancy about fully accepting what the government is saying. However, obviously, as details emerge, then that will change.

I think that there is a certain stiff upper lip attitude in Britain, which is partly to do with the way in which Britain has dealt with the long-running IRA campaign, which was running up until a few years ago, and so that has kind of conditioned people’s response to these kinds of incidents also.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Salma Yaqoob, some of those arrested were from Birmingham, and the names have been released by the British government today. Any of those names familiar to you at all? Or what’s the reaction in Birmingham?

SALMA YAQOOB: No, none of the names are familiar to me personally. But the reaction in Birmingham is one of shock, you know, people gearing up for their holidays, and this has just come out of the blue for many people; and also a real feeling of cynicism, as well, as Milan pointed out, because there have been so many blunders. I mean, he mentioned the Forest Gate incident, which was a recent one. We’ve had the ricin plot, which in the end turned out not to be a ricin plot. Manchester football stadium, we were told, there was a huge terrorist plot there. Then it turned out there wasn’t anything. The Brazilian young man was shot last year, and we were told at that time, "No, we’re 100% confident we’ve got a terrorist here."

And so, because of this, there’s a major caution in the general public in accepting what is going on, and also because the timing of this, with Prime Minister Blair coming under so much pressure. Just last weekend, we had 100,000 people demonstrating against his support for Israel and America with what’s happening in Lebanon at the moment. And so, people are a bit skeptical. And people are saying, "You know, we don’t know whether these men are innocent or not. They may well be guilty, but why are we hearing about these arrests before even charges have been made upon them? And why don’t we find out at the end of a process, at the end of a trial, when all the evidence is there, and then let’s bring this out in the public?"

JUAN GONZALEZ: You mentioned some of these other alleged plots. Maybe some Americans here are not familiar with some of them. The Manchester club plot, I think there were about ten people originally arrested on that. Can you talk a little bit about that and what happened?

SALMA YAQOOB: Well, basically we had the headline news that people going to this football match, which obviously people love going to — you know, it’s our national sport — that there was a terror plot and that people would be blown up. And yet, it then emerged later on that there was no such plot. We heard about ricin, you know, this dangerous element, biological warfare in our streets, and after a trial actually emerged that the evidence just did not stand up, and the men were released.

But the fear, the panic, the feeling of being under siege, of course, that you don’t erase, and we do have a climate of fear. Just last night, we’ve had a mosque attacked in Chester using flammable liquid. And so we’re already seeing the backlash start. And this is also what people here fear, with our different communities here, that whole communities come under that suspicion, whole communities come under demonization. So people are saying, "We want to see hard, cold facts." Already, we’re seeing the politicization of this information. We have President Bush coming out, saying, "See? We told you so. It’s all about Islamofascists." You can see how the judicial process itself becomes corrupted, and one has to question who is gaining by the use of this information at this stage in an investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: Milan Rai, what about this use of the term — and we’re seeing it here more and more in the United States — of "Islamofascists"?

MILAN RAI: Well, I think that here in Britain, and I guess in the U.S., as well, there has been a bit of a split personality as far as the government’s attitude towards the Muslim community is concerned, where on the one hand there’s lots of warm words, there’s lots of ennobling of particular favored leaders within the Muslim community and so on, and on the other hand, there’s a way of speaking about Muslims, and also there’s a way of treating Muslims through the police and intelligence operations and so on, which merely increase alienation, and, in fact, that was explicitly stated by the most senior Muslim police officer in Britain, who said the way that counterterrorism is being pursued is deepening alienation.

"Islamofascism" is a kind of handy term for demonizing one particular strand of the militant forms of Islamic — violent forms of Islamic fundamentalism. And what the Bush administration has always been trying do is it’s always been trying to draw on the moral legitimacy of the Second World War and trying to refer to the Axis powers and trying to raise what they are doing to the level of the fight against fascism and Nazism in the Second World War. And it’s nothing of the kind.

Al-Qaeda is not a single unitary military-style organization. It’s a network of networks. It’s a loose association of people who are inspired by Osama bin Laden and what he calls for, but who are not commanded by him or any small leadership group around him. And I think we’re seeing even now in the mainstream media cautionary words from within the security and intelligence services, saying we don’t know whether this has any connection to Osama bin Laden and the core al-Qaeda leadership. This may be completely unconnected, just as the 7th of July attacks appear to have been very nearly completely unconnected to the al-Qaeda leadership and only connected by the passing of a video statement to the al-Qaeda leadership without them having any command over the operation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Milan, in England, as here in the United States, there have been many people picked up and detained on suspicion of connection to or involvement with terrorism. Could you talk a little bit about the numbers there in Britain and how many have actually been successfully prosecuted?

MILAN RAI: I don’t have those figures at hand, to be honest. There is something of a dispute going on between the police and Muslim leaders about exactly how many of those detentions under counter-terror powers have led to any charges being proffered or any kind of terrorist-related prosecutions of any kind. The overall profile of it is exactly the same as we saw with the Irish community with the Prevention of Terrorism Act during the 1970s and ’80s, where we had a huge arrest rate and a very tiny prosecution rate, in terms of actually taking forward terrorism-related charges.

And all of this harassment, which is what it amounts to, is contributing towards alienation, and that’s something that the government itself has acknowledged, as we know, through the leaked "Young Muslims and Extremism" report, which came out just a few days after the 7th of July attacks. And that report also said that the primary motive creating alienation amongst young Muslims and a drive towards extremism was British foreign policy and the way that it affected Muslims around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: The fact that raids — I don’t know if they’re still going on, but have been through the last day in Wickham Place, where some of those from the 7/7 bombings last year, the train bombings happened. Milan?

MILAN RAI: Well, three of the bombers were from a suburb of Leeds, and one of them was from the high Wickham sort of area. So what we’re hearing now is that several — most of these people who have been arrested are British-born. What we’re hearing is that most of them come out of the Pakistani community. What we’re hearing is that quite a few of them are middle class and well-educated and so on, which is, if it turns out to be well-founded and if turns out these people actually have anything to do with a terrorist plot, which we don’t know right now, but if all of that is the case, then that would fit in with pretty much the global picture of the kind of people who are involved in this kind of a thing, which is, it is better-educated people, it is people who have possibly a stake in society, possibly could have a better kind of a life than the average Muslim in the world or Muslim in any Western country, and it’s some of those kinds of people who feel apparently drawn to, in their eyes, defend Muslims around the world from Western assault.

And when we look at what British suicide bombers have said in the past, and we know about ones before the 7th of July, as well — the pair who struck in Israel; Richard Reid, the shoe bomber; and so on — when we look at what they say, what they keep saying over and over again is that they conceive of their actions as a form of self-defense by the global Muslim community against Western foreign policy and its brutal impact. That’s how they see it. That doesn’t mean it’s justified, but that means that if we want to reduce their motivation to carry out these attacks, then we have to do something about these foreign policies, which are objected to by the majority of people in Britain and the United States, Muslim and non-Muslim.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Salma Yaqoob, you are an elected city councilor, recently won the election in Birmingham, but you’re also at the same time an antiwar activist. How are this alleged plot and these arrests, do you think, going to affect the antiwar movement and how are you counseling Muslims in Birmingham now to react to this situation?

SALMA YAQOOB: Well, as far as a response, obviously we have to be dignified and just in our response. The fact is our country is under a great terror threat now. We can see the political reasons for that. I mean, the Security Services themselves said that with Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan, in Iraq, that our country would be more at risk. This isn’t about religion. It’s about people taking what they call revenge. Their logic is, if you use violence, we can also use violence. We’re seeing it around the world. So what people in the antiwar movement have been saying from the beginning is, "Address the root causes." This is not appeasement. This is saying, if you really want to stop terrorism, stop this state terrorism.

We have a double standard. We have states with an army of airplanes — already what we’re seeing in Lebanon, for example, is 30,000 sorties a day. 1,000 civilians have already been killed, and yet we’re not hearing the talk about state terrorism at all. We’re hearing about Hezbollah. Yes, Hezbollah also has a role to play in this, but they all say that we’re defending our country against an invasion. Lebanon did not invade Israel. That’s the fact. When we hear these kind of discourses in an unequal way, some people then become very enraged, and they don’t address that politically.

In the antiwar movement, what we’re saying is we want to do things peacefully. We want to address things politically, and that’s why people are frustrated with their own leaders, with Prime Minister Blair, saying, "We can’t talk peace. We can’t talk politics. If you are determined to use bombs and violence yourself, you are then helping to instigate a cycle of violence, and innocent people will bear the brunt of that."

AMY GOODMAN: Salma Yaqoob and Milan Rai, I want to thank you both very much for joining us. Salma Yaqoob is head of the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition, founder and vice-chair of the RESPECT The Unity Coalition in England, the political party, and is a city councilor in Birmingham. Milan Rai, co-founder of the group Justice Not Vengeance, and is author of the book, 7/7: The London Bombings, Islam and the Iraq War.

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