With just over a couple of weeks to the inauguration, it’s finally sinking in: Barack Obama’s Presidency is going to imply some pretty fundamental changes to the global war on terror. Serious thinking on how to dismantle Guantanamo is well underway – as is discussion about which of America’s allies will be willing to welcome its detainees (Australia and Britain both profess reluctance; Portugal, on the other hand, looks well on course for a special relationship with the new Administration). A sea change on torture and rendition also appears to be a racing certainty.
In Iraq, too, massive changes are underway. As well as the rich symbolism of the sock and awe incident, there’s now also yesterday’s more tangible proof of how far things have moved on: the Iraqi government has assumed control of the Green Zone.
Now, pause to wonder: are these changes likely to have a significant impact on the capacity of radical Islamist groups to recruit and retain committed volunteers – whether in Europe, the Middle East, South Asia or wherever? After all, Guantanamo, torture, rendition and Iraq surely represented four of the principal sources of the sense of grievance so essential to effective radicalisation. Does that mean the outlook on counter-terrorism is finally brightening?
One possible reason why not, of course, has to do with Gaza. Olmert’s rationale for Israel’s attacks is not hard to discern – Hamas ended its ceasefire, there’s an election in February, he wanted to rebuild Israel’s credibility after the 2006 debacle in Lebanon, there was only a brief window of opportunity before Obama’s inauguration. But even so, the fact that Israel’s attacks have so far killed 436 Palestinians (compared to 172 dead in Mumbai) will clearly fuel a sense of outrage among many – including this blogger – and will provide a powerful recruiting sergeant for Islamist groups everywhere.
But another answer to the question of sources of grievance after Bush can be found by taking a stroll down my local high street, in a part of East London that has one of the highest proportions of Muslims in the capital.
Today, the activist posters you see on lamposts and on the walls of the shops selling mobile phone skins and international calling cards have one key message: end the undeclared war on Pakistan. If you visit Hizb ut-Tahrir’s website, meanwhile, you find that just beneath the coverage of Gaza from the last fortnight, it’s Pakistan that’s the focus of attention and grievance – a point made even clearer by this youtube video of theirs from the start of December.
You might think it odd that Islamist opinion in the UK should be focusing on a relatively small number of drone attacks in Pakistan when a major troop surge is about to take place over the border in Afghanistan. But think again, and you realise that of course it makes eminent sense for Hizb ut-Tahrir to focus on the grievance of most direct relevance to Britain’s large diaspora community – and to weave political Islamism into long-standing fears about Pakistan’s territorial integrity.
Barack Obama’s arrival in the White House represents a welcome turning point on many components of the ‘war on terror’. But the evolving situation in Pakistan (on which Obama is hawkish, remember) may well represent another – especially here in the UK. If Obama steps up US attacks on Pakistan’s border areas, then many British Muslims will doubtless listen to what Gordon Brown has to say about it with keen interest…