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The wars that fuel the rage behind Woolwich attack

This article is over 8 years, 7 months old
Some commentators claim the attack on a soldier in Woolwich has nothing to do with the “war on terror”. Ken Olende explains how the brutality of Western imperialism feeds bitterness, resentment and violence
Issue 2355
Graphic: Socialist Worker

Graphic: Socialist Worker

Colonel Richard Kemp wrote about the attack on a soldier in Woolwich, south east London, in the Daily Mirror last week. “Whatever they say in their phoney propaganda this is not about Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said.

“They hate our liberal, democratic society and wish to destroy it from within.”

Kemp is the former head of British forces in Afghanistan. He was arguing against the statement by Michael Adebolajo filmed by passers-by after the killing. 

Adebolajo said he had killed the soldier because of British military attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kemp’s words echo those of then US president George Bush in 2001, as he prepared to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, “Americans are asking ‘Why do they hate us?’.

“They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

According to this logic “we” are civilised and respect freedom while “they” are fanatical and violent. 

Governments use Islamophobia to suggest that all Muslims are part of “them”. All Muslims are seen as being in some way responsible for any attack by a Muslim.

Ideologues of imperialism claim that Al Qaida perpetrates all terrorism and violence against the West. Such an overestimation suits not only the leaders of the West, but the leaders of Al Qaida. 

The US had trained and funded its leader, Osama Bin Laden, while he fought as an Arab volunteer against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. 

He turned against his former allies after US troops were deployed in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War in 1990.


Al Qaida has never been the single world-spanning terror network that Bush and Tony Blair presented it as. It is a loose federation of people who share a belief in a particularly conservative brand of Islam and violent resistance to the West.

So it attracted people across the world who wanted to fight against imperialist intervention. 

People turned to Al Qaida when other challengers, from the “Communist” states to the Arab nationalist regimes, had given up any opposition.

Days after the 9/11 attacks Bush said, “This crusade—this war on terrorism—is going to take a while”.

Both Bush and Bin Laden evoke the crusades. These are remembered in the Middle East as a nightmare when European armies massacred Muslims and Jews in an attempt to retake the “holy lands”.

But from this period until the 20th century, the Middle East was not a region known for its violence. 

And Islamic fundamentalism has not always existed. It emerged as a response to imperialism in the 19th century (see right).

Violence got worse with the discovery of oil in the region.

Imperial powers—initially Britain, France and Russia but soon the US too—squabbled to put regimes in place that would be loyal to them.

This is why the US has consistently backed the anti-democratic Saudi royal family. 

 It’s also why it has encouraged Israel’s violence and been so scared of the revolutions across the region.

The launch of the “war on terror” was not just a response to ­anti­?imperialist anger. It was a plan to expand Western influence.

In 1998 a US government report called the Long Range Plan called for the build-up of “war fighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict” to “protect US interests and investment”.

It argued that “Widespread communications will highlight disparities in resources and quality of life—contributing to unrest in developing countries.


“The global economy will continue to become more interdependent. 

“The gap between ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ nations will widen—creating regional unrest. The United States will remain the only nation able to project power globally.”

It was this that led to the invasion of Afghanistan and the uncounted dead there. 

It also saw the invasion of Iraq, a country that had no involvement in 9/11, and the million deaths that followed. In both cases, US and British troops carried out much of the killing. 

The US had helped Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein come to power in Iraq. It armed and backed his regime during its long war with Iran in the 1980s. 

But when Iraq invaded oil-rich Kuwait in 1990, the US decided that it had challenged US power and interests. It unleashed war.

There were no Islamist groups in Iraq before the invasion, despite US claims to the contrary. Now dozens of people die daily in sectarian attacks following US and British intervention.

The brutal experience of imperialism often generates support for any opposition to it.

So in Afghanistan, few moved to support the hated Taliban against the US invasion in 2001. But the Taliban has rebuilt support as a result of the US-led occupation.

In other countries across the Sahara the US has played a much murkier role. Jeremy Keenan argues in The Dying Sahara how the US claimed that the “empty spaces” of North Africa were a terrorist threat.

It argued that terrorists assumed to have been removed from Afghanistan by US forces in 2001 had fled to the Horn of Africa. According to the US, there they linked up with terrorist movements in North Africa’s Magreb.

US allies in North Africa then enthusiastically took up the “war on terror” as an excuse to attack any opposition. In this way local, often ethnic, resistance groups were accused of being part of the Al Qaida network. 

Such moves explain how places like Algeria and Libya, regarded as “pariah” states by the West, became US allies, and colluded with rendition.

Some groups have indentified with the name Al Qaida only because they know it frightens the US. The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat changed its name to Al Qaida in the Islamic Magreb in 2007, for example.

This allowed the West to say that local grievances—killings at an oil refinery in Algeria and fighting in Mali—were both down to Al Qaida. 

Guerilla fighting in the Global South, and attacks in the West, won’t end as long as the West continues to wreak havoc across the world.

We should respond to the anger that imperialism fuels by pointing to the role of imperialism and demanding solidarity with those who are oppressed.

The mass demonstrations organised by the Stop The War Coalition and the mobilisations against racism prove that Muslims and non-Muslims can unite. And the Arab revolutions show how to sweep away the regimes that imperialism props up.

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