LONDON, UK — It was the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack on London's transport system, and the memorial in Hyde Park was awash in flowers. Fifty-two metal plinths — one for each person killed on London Tube trains and buses on July 7, 2005 — rose against the sunny summer sky. Cameras snapped while luminaries including Prime Minister David Cameron and Prince William laid wreaths throughout the day in honor of the victims of four Islamist suicide bombers.
Not far away lay another plaque: a tribute to four soldiers killed in the Irish Republican Army's 1982 bombing of a passing regiment in the London park.
There were no flowers or visitors there. The monument looked half-forgotten, a relic of an old war on terror replaced by a new one.
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The UK's current war on terror shares superficial parallels with its 30-year battle against violent Irish nationalists during the sectarian interlude known as the Troubles.
The horrors from that time echo in today’s headlines about terror: Bombs ripping through public places. Savage murders exploited to inflict maximum public trauma. Perpetrators portrayed as madmen and barbarians.
But do the similarities run deeper?
In March of this year, nearly two decades after the end of the Troubles, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York compared the Islamic State’s “perverted form of Islam” to the professed Catholicism of many IRA members.
“The IRA claimed to be Catholic. They were baptized. They had a Catholic identity. What they were doing was a perversion of everything the church stood for,” Dolan told CNN’s Chris Cuomo.
Former Irish fighters interviewed by GlobalPost scoffed at the analogy.
“We were not fighting for totalitarianism,” said former IRA gunman Joe Doherty, in response to what he termed “this idiot cardinal in New York.”
“It was totally demeaning and sullying and stupid,” he said of Dolan’s remark.
Former militant republicans maintain that their violence was a legitimate response to Britain’s anti-Catholic policies and continued presence in Ireland. They described Al Qaeda and the Islamic State as indiscriminate attackers of civilians, whereas their targets were chosen to harm the state. (Still, about 650 of the IRA’s victims were innocent bystanders, not members of the security forces.)
Likewise, counterterror experts stress that the threat posed by Islamist extremist terror is a different ballgame from the Northern Ireland conflict. The ideology is different, far more extreme. The threat is different. The geographic spread is wider. Recruitment is on a whole different level. Social media allows today’s terrorist organizations to appeal to fighters globally, and to encourage them to wage attacks at home if they can’t join battlefields abroad.
But across the two conflicts there are key parallels in how governments and communities have reacted to the violence. In some cases, the same mistakes are being made all over again.
Misunderstanding the enemy
Then and now, politicians and the public have portrayed terrorists as sociopaths, monsters, something other than human.
But explaining away terrorism as the actions of madmen isn't helpful, said Tom Parker, Amnesty International's former policy director on terrorism. As abhorrent as random acts of violence are, the perpetrators are often convinced that they are, in fact, necessary steps toward a better and more just society — in their own definition, at least.
"These are not psychopaths," said Parker. "It's not a facile choice to become a terrorist and most of them are very well motivated [by] altruistic reasons, for lack of a better term, which most people can recognize, even if you don’t approve of the reasons why they go off and do it."
Most ex-IRA fighters eschew the term “terrorist,” preferring the “freedom fighter” appellation. But they understand what might motivate a young person to join a violent movement.
Many volunteered for the IRA after experiencing harsh treatment at the hands of the state — searches in the street, violent crackdowns on peaceful protests. Former IRA gunman Rory O’Connor pointed to similarities in the early days of Syria’s uprising, when peaceful demonstrations were brutally suppressed.
“Do that, and you’re going to get young ones who are going to turn away from peaceful demonstrations. And you’re gonna get Al Qaeda, ISIS to jump in and grab ‘em,” he said. “Violence will be reacted to with violence.”
Different conflict, same response
Britain has deployed some of the same tactics to deal with Islamist extremists in the post 9/11 world that London used against the IRA in the 1970s — measures that were deeply controversial from the start.
When the UK passed anti-terror legislation decades ago in the days after a shocking homeland attack, the laws were considered so Draconian they were designed to be valid for only six months, or for as long as Parliament deemed them necessary.
“I do not think that anyone would wish these exceptional powers to remain in force a moment longer than is necessary,” said Roy Jenkins, who was home secretary at the time.
That was Nov. 28, 1974, a week after the Provisional Irish Republican Army killed 21 people in pub bombings in northern England.
The rules have remained in force ever since.
The British Parliament continuously renewed and strengthened the temporary Prevention of Terrorism Act until 2000, when a new bill enshrined all of its powers — and more — into permanent law.
The act’s provisions form the bedrock of current counterterror legislation: outlawing terrorist organizations, allowing terror suspects to be held without charge, and banning certain people from the country.
The IRA and other Northern Ireland paramilitary groups are still named alongside Al Qaeda and the Islamic State on the UK’s list of banned organizations.
Counterterror officials say these laws are essential tools for limiting attacks on civilians. More recently, they’ve also facilitated cooperation with other governments in the fight against global terror networks.
But civil liberty campaigners and others charge that they’ve done so at the cost of personal freedoms, with citizens handing over an ever-greater share of privacy — sometimes without their knowledge.
Since the introduction of those first anti-terror laws in the 1970s, the state has only added to its powers. There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.
“One of the tragedies of the work of terrorists in the modern world is that civilized societies seeking to defend themselves are obliged ... to limit the very liberties which are the most precious fruit of civilization,” said Percy Grieve, a member of Parliament from Solihull.
While he accepted the UK’s terror laws as a “cruel necessity,” he added, “I hope that it will not be too long before we are able to do away with it. But such is the force of the work of the terrorists and so strong are they in the world today that I suspect that we shall have to bear with this measure for a very long time.”
He spoke these words, on the floor of the House of Commons, in 1974.
Guilty by association
Just as the official language on terrorism echoes from one conflict to the next, there are similarities in the experiences of members of Britain’s large Irish and Muslim communities. Both have suffered from being associated with the extremism of a minuscule few.
Innocent civilians describe feeling shunned, or looked at with suspicion, based on their appearance, ethnicity or accent. They report getting hassled at airports and being on the receiving end of jokes and barbed comments about bombs and terror.
An Irish woman living in London in the 1980s told researcher Mary J. Hickman of London Metropolitan University that a neighbor once demanded that she stop and put her hands up upon leaving her apartment.
For both groups, prejudice has taken deadly forms. Paramilitary gangs loyal to the British crown assassinated innocent civilians simply because they believed them to be Catholic. In 2013, days after Islamists murdered British soldier Lee Rigby in a London street, a man fatally stabbed Mohammed Saleem, 82, as Saleem walked home from his Birmingham mosque.
“Racism,” Pavlo Lapshyn said bluntly when police asked his motives for killing Saleem and planting three bombs at mosques.
While crimes like these are often portrayed as the doing of lone lunatics, Irish and Muslim communities have frequently found themselves held collectively responsible.
“It is the moral responsibility of all in this country, and especially the Irish community, who have any information whatever which could be of use to the authorities to give it, and to do so absolutely unquestioningly,” MP Brian Walden said in 1974.
Appeals for information have become a regular part of counterterror law. The Terrorism Act of 2000 made it a crime not to report someone who has committed or is considering a terrorist offense.
Many experts say this kind of official suspicion serves only to alienate the very people officials are trying to reach, making some of them even more receptive to extremist ideas. It also sows mistrust among communities, encouraging friction between groups.
“Because they’ve been labeled so much, Muslims, as being these terrorists ... there is a group, a minority of people I should say, who have actually decided that, you know, I am going to be what you are labeling me to be,” a young Muslim man told Hickman’s team.
As the atrocities mounted during the Troubles, negotiating with the IRA was not only politically unpalatable, it was almost inconceivable. On the surface, a peaceful solution seemed impossible.
“We do not negotiate with terrorists and have no intention of negotiating with the IRA or their political wing,” a spokesperson for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in 1990.
Yet the UK government and the IRA were in secret peace talks as early as the 1980s, culminating in the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which freed people imprisoned for crimes associated with the Troubles.
Today, former IRA men and women who spent time in prison for terrorist activity serve in the highest levels of Northern Ireland’s government. The pervasive sense of fear and prejudice toward Irish people in the UK has largely dissipated.
“Some people in the Muslim community may feel very marginalized, and may feel that the rest of society is suspicious of them,” the chair of a Catholic organization told the London Metropolitan University team.
“They may find it very interesting and a bit of support to hear in some detail that another community … who are now thought of as being part of the main, the majority society, actually went through a period of a hundred years or so when they went through something very, very similar.”
But if there is a similarly peaceful path to quelling violent Islamism, no one has found it yet.
Islamist terror “is a far more complex issue to get to grips with, and it’s not to say it couldn’t become a more deadly conflict,” said Lindsay Clutterbuck, senior research leader at RAND Europe and a former Scotland Yard counterterror detective.
The IRA had a specific goal: to end British rule, an objective that American colonialists, Indians and many other British subjects around the world had sought and achieved. They wanted to live in a democratic state governed from Dublin instead of London. The peace process worked in part because it allowed republicans to continue to pursue their goals peacefully through politics, instead of abandoning them altogether.
The aims of the current generation of Islamist extremists are far more nebulous, their ambitions more global in scale. From the Islamic State’s violent, intolerant and repressive actions and ideology — the enslavement of women, decapitation of captives, slaughter of Yazidis in Iraq and Christians in Libya — their objectives seem unlikely to be easily resolved through a peaceful, democratic process.
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will almost certainly not be sitting down at the negotiating table with Britain or any other Western power any time soon.