There Was More to Corbyn's Anti-Terror Speech Than Foreign Policy
But that hasn't stopped his critics from ignoring it entirely.
A soldier on patrol with an armed policeman in Westminster (Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images)
On Friday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made a speech that linked terrorism to foreign policy in the wake of the Manchester attack, and got immediate criticism for trying to make a "crass" political point in the wake of tragedy.
"Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home," he said.
Security Minister Ben Wallace responded angrily, telling BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We have to be unequivocal that no amount of excuses, no amount of twisted reasoning about a foreign policy here, a foreign policy there, can be an excuse. The reality is, these people hate our values."
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson added that Corbyn's comments are "absolutely monstrous". Defence Secretary Michael Fallon called it "very muddled and dangerous thinking".
And on Saturday, Theresa May attacked the Labour leader. "Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault," she said. "I want to make something clear to Jeremy Corbyn and to you: there can never be an excuse for terrorism, there can be no excuse for what happened in Manchester."
All of these critics might want to have a word with their colleagues on the cross-party Home Affairs Committee, whose inquiry into Islamic extremism mentions "Perceived grievances about UK foreign policy" as one of many complex reasons people turn to radicalisation. Young Muslims I spoke to in Manchester on Wednesday – before Corbyn's speech was announced – mentioned foreign policy when I asked them why young people might become radicalised.
Listen: The British Dream – Voices from Manchester
Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, the bomber's sister, Jomana Abedi, 18, speculated on the motives: "I think he saw children – Muslim children – dying everywhere, and wanted revenge… He saw the explosives America drops on children in Syria, and he wanted revenge. Whether he got that is between him and God." A family friend has also alleged that it was the gang-related murder of Abedi's teenage friend in 2016 that caused him to kill.
The idea that people, including kids, at a pop concert could be targets for "revenge" – revenge for other dead children – is horrific. You can see why people have a problem with accepting that this could have anything to do with foreign policy – or any policy at all. It should never have happened full-stop, so trying to account for it can feel grim. As Corbyn said: "No rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week's massacre."
The government's squeamishness in talking about any foreign policy dimension – except to loudly repeat that we mustn't talk about it – is telling nonetheless. Abedi's "Libya connection" is a key focus of police enquiry. Members of Abedi's family have been arrested in Libya. His father is believed to have fought against Gaddafi with an organisation that is proscribed as terrorists by the US.
In September of 2011 David Cameron was given a hero's welcome in Benghazi after Nato war planes tipped the balance against the Gaddafi regime. "Just as your courage has written the last chapter of Libyan history, so it must write the next one, and your friends in Britain and in France will stand with you as you build your democracy and build your country for the future," he said at the time. When he visited Libya again in 2013, Cameron said: "In building the new Libya you have no greater friend than the UK. We will stand with you every step of the way."
Since then, the country has descended into a chaos that has made it a recruiting ground for extremists. A parliamentary committee blamed the "ill conceived" intervention for the spread of Isis in the region.
Middle East Eye has revealed how security services had allowed rebel fighters to travel to Libya "no questions asked" to fight against Gaddafi in 2011, even though some had been subject to counter-terrorism control orders. Abedi is understood to have spent time in Libya in 2011. Prime Minster Theresa May was Home Secretary at the time, so she should probably answer a few questions about that. It's also been reported that two people who knew Abedi at college called the anti-terrorism hotline in 2012 to voice concerns about him – at a time Theresa May was Home Secretary – but it was never followed up.
The parliamentary Home Affairs Committee has noted that "Even the government's Independent Reviewer of Terrorist Legislation has recommended a review of Prevent, because of it becoming such a huge source of grievance."
Corbyn's speech had more to say than the "foreign policy" headlines will allow. He came about as close to accurately summarising the problem as any politician when he said: "Over the past 15 years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform."
The scrutiny over the foreign policy remarks mean the rest of his speech has been ignored. Remarkably, for all the fine words about "freedom", Corbyn's anti-extremism speech made no reference to the government's McCarthyite anti-extremism programme, which has been widely criticised for treating terrorism as a Muslim problem. The parliamentary Home Affairs Committee has noted that "Even the government's Independent Reviewer of Terrorist Legislation has recommended a review of Prevent, because of it becoming such a huge source of grievance."
Corbyn was full of praise for the response of the police, and promised more police on the streets and more resources for the police and security services. It's very Corbyn-ish to talk simply of having more of a public service, even policing, against the Tories' less. Last year, the Greater Manchester Police circulated a "Terrorism Edition" of the board game "Guess Who?" in a presentation for children intended to challenge perceptions of "what a terrorist looks like", under the Prevent ant-extremism strategy. It was criticised as being "based on a very superficial and inadequate understanding of the factors that lead to someone committing the kinds of crime that are collectively known as 'terrorism'". (Credit again to Middle East Eye.) There's a systemic problem that was left unaddressed.
These kind of critiques are needed. For a while, the Conservatives have been euphemistically talking about a "refresh" of the Prevent programme, which the Home Office is planning to expand rather than scale back after an internal review. The "refresh" is expected to contain action to address the fact that it is a "toxic brand" among Muslim communities. So far, that involves a literal rebrand from "Prevent" to "Engage". Theresa May has also promised to "drive extremism out" of the public sector – rehashing a not-at-all-totalitarian-sounding "full spectrum" programme that failed to get anywhere in 2015 because it was difficult to find a legally workable definition for "extremism".
The Conservatives' manifesto has suggested that this is analogous with civil society and the state's fight against racism in the 20th Century. None of that is crass or offensive, of course.