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London: Some Preliminary Thoughts

July 9, 2005

Like Rodger, I’ve been reluctant to write anything substantive about the London bombings until we have better information about precisely what happened, and who was involved. Nevertheless, I think some conditional comments are probably in order.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, John Ikenberry posted a terrific email from Mick Cox – a senior international-relations scholar at the London School of Economics – about the bombings.

Rodger’s own post on what the London bombings say about the flypaper rationale for the Iraq War is consistent with what a lot of other bloggers are saying, including Stygius, the Cunning Realist, Matt Yglesias, and even David Adesnik (whose dissertation I really should get around to reading soon). In the same post, David points to some rather over-the-top partisan weirdness engendered by the bombings, as does Anthony at Irregualar Analysis and Marc Schulman at American Future, but I suppose that kind of stuff is pretty much inevitable.

I you haven’t taken a look, the BBC has some heartrending descriptions from eyewitnesses.

RJ Rummel makes some salient points: this is what happens, more or less, every day in Israel and Iraq.

The growing consensus (subject to change at any time) is that the London bombings have, at a minimum, important parallels with the Madrid bombings and, at a maximum, may have come from a cell in the same militant and terrorist network. If this is the case, then the ultimate ringleader may already be based in Britain.

Lots of good roundups are available.

So, the current debate among web pundits involves:

1. Whether or not the bombings reflect the diminished capabilities of Al-Queda.

To which I add: we really don’t know.

What’s my gut instinct? I’ve been leaning for quite some time towards a belief that the original structure of Al-Queda was far more centralized than many realized, and that Al-Queda, as such, was pretty much decapitated by the invasion of Afghanistan. What we have now is the “franchising” of “Al-Queda” – or, more accurately – a more decentralized movement. Some of its members may have direct or indirect ties with the core organization that called itself Al-Queda, but we’re dealing with a qualitatively different “entity” then what existed on September 11th.

In that sense, one could argue that Al-Queda qua Al-Queda’s capabilities are diminished, but the London and Madrid bombings demonstrate significant capacity for murder and terror by a movement linked, in part, through its appeal to the “Al-Queda” as a signifier. While not as spectacular at the 9/11 attacks, the current terrorist activity in Europe suggests that the current incarnation of “Al-Queda” should be the source of a great deal of concern. In some respects, if this kind of analysis is correct, Osama Bin Laden has succeeded in capturing the imagination of many disaffected and angry Muslims – which is one reason Europe is particularly vulnerable to future attacks.

2. How to protect against future attacks.

The short answer is: advanced industrial democracies can make terrorist attacks more difficult, but they can’t prevent them. The British understand this quite well, although I’m not always sure Americans do.

a) Terrorism is a strategy of asymmetric warfare.
b) Vulnerability to terrorism is the cost of an open society.

Advanced industrial democracies are unlikely to turn totalitarian any time soon. Nor are they likely to cease to have an overwhelming traditional military advantage against their foes. You can do the math.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.