7/7 Attacks and the New Type of Terrorism

Ten years after the 7/7 London bombings, ISIS has once again transformed the terrorist threat to the West.

Ten years ago today, four young British men strapped bombs to their backs and wrought terror and carnage on London’s transport network. This was the worst terrorist attack that Britain had ever witnessed.

As the smoke and debris cleared, the event was quickly and presciently branded 7/7—Britain’s own pivotal 9/11, a foreboding allusion to an event that would change our security landscape forever. Britain was, of course, no stranger to terrorism, having finally put to rest the violence of the Troubles less than a decade earlier. Indeed, more than a hundred years before the 7/7 attacks, the very same London Underground transport network had also suffered a wave of terrorist bombings at the hands of another group of young violent radicals inspired by a heady religo-political cause. They were the infamous Irish Republican Brotherhood who equally shocked and appalled contemporary audiences at the time, with their Fenian dynamite campaign of 1881-85.

However, 7/7, we were told, was different. The men were all British, “homegrown cleanskins,” as the new security language unhelpfully offered. These British men had chosen to immolate themselves, alongside scores of fellow citizens, all for a distant cause. The attackers were educated, well integrated, not particularly devout, family men, and showed no obvious calling to global Jihadism. Consequently, the events confounded us all, leaving security services and policymakers scrambling for answers. However, the only real surprise they should have elicited was that similar attacks had not occurred much earlier.

Back in October 2001, after the tragic events of 9/11, the Global War on Terror had begun in earnest, with Operation Enduring Freedom quickly toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and destroying the sanctuary it had provided to al-Qaeda. Whatever one thinks of the absurdity of declaring war on an abstract noun, the GWOT was instrumental in severely weakening if not destroying al-Qaeda’s command and control abilities, and structural coherence; it debilitated the organization’s operational capabilities; it managed to kill and capture senior leaders; it restricted the organization’s finances; and it crucially destroyed territory and bases used for al-Qaeda’s infamous training camps.

In response, the organization was forced to adapt to the new security environment by adopting the role of instigators, rather than planners and executors, in order to retain some semblance of potency and coherence. Osama bin Laden had been fairly perceptive in understanding very early on that he was largely incidental to the broader Jihadist movement. In a sense, he predicted the devolution of al-Qaeda to this type of autonomous, home-grown, leaderless terrorism. At the end of 2001, following his escape from Tora Bora in Afghanistan, he concluded, “God willing, the end of America is imminent. Its end is not dependent on the survival of this slave to God. Regardless if Usama is killed or survives, the awakening has started.”

This new adaptation of using autonomous, self-directed terrorists in their own countries was such a break from the past that it actually required a whole new mode of speaking about these individuals from the perspective of policymakers and security services. Enter the term radicalization.

The term radicalization is now very much part of the popular lexicon of the 21st century, deployed in a casual offhand way to seemingly explain a whole host of beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and actions, often with little or no critical reflection on the term itself or its origin. But the important point is that the term was created as a result of this seminal event in order to explain the inexplicable. But instead of providing understanding and clarity, it had the opposite effect in many ways, and actually became confusing. Because then the easy glib shorthand answer to why 4 young British men would blow themselves up alongside their fellow citizens, or travel to fight alongside ISIS in Syria, or murder cartoonists in Paris, was, well, they were radicalized. And since 7/7, the term has been used in this very problematic way. Radicalization was presented as being a self-evident, universally understood and accepted process, akin to a conveyor belt. Put in any young Muslim male from Bradford, Brussels or Brooklyn in one end, “hocus pocus radicalizing powers,” and out popped the radical on the other end.