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July 10, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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London Bombings: One Year On

The London bombings will most likely go down in history as a footnote to 9/11, but despite the smaller scale, what happened on the 7th of July last year is no less tragic and affecting for the people involved. One year on, as many in the media gear up to look back on the day amidst clouds of sentiment and ‘us versus them’ rhetoric, SALIENT brings you a look at the bombings a year later, from volunteer Tania Mead – who lived literally just down the street from one of the three blasts.

London bombing press picAmidst the slow moving traffic of central London there was nothing particularly special about July 6th, 2005. The city perhaps felt more jubilant than usual, owing to its recent win of the 2012 Olympic bid and a particularly sunny afternoon. I took the bus home that day from lower Oxford Street, unwilling to brave the stifling heat of the underground during peak hour. The flat I shared with a friend and her significant other was in NW8, near Maida Vale, and on the border of one of the major hubs of Muslim London, Edgeware Road. My bus ride home took me past various Internet cafes, mezze restaurants, Arabic bookstores, and twenty or so oft-bearded men outside every Starbucks, smoking sweetened tobacco out of long pipes and shooting the breeze. I had been living here for about two months and was relatively comfortable with my adopted city – nothing I saw that day could ever hint at the disruptive events that were on the brink of unfolding. Only the seriously unhinged, or perhaps those working for British intelligence, would ponder the daily possibility of a suicide bomber in the middle of London. Nevertheless, the extreme contrast of City corporates rubbing their symbolic win in the faces of Parisians against the anguish of 7/7 was remarkable.

THIS IS what we now know. At 8.50am on the 7th of July three young men, Mohammed Sidique Khan, Shehzad Tanweer, and Jermaine Lindsay systematically set off powerful bombs at Edgware Road, Aldgate and Russell Square Underground stations. Hasib Hussain killed 14 people when he set off another bomb on the top level of a double-decker #30 bus at Tavistock Square, approximately an hour later, at 9.47am. They had all entered London by train that morning into Kings Cross Station and in CCTV (surveillance) footage appear “euphoric”, according to a Home Office report. All were British citizens – three from Yorkshire, the other from Buckinghamshire – and together had concocted the bombs in a house in Leeds, following Internet instructions. British Intelligence uncovered that two of the group had visited Pakistan a year ago and are suspected to have visited an Al Qaeda training camp, but a leaked Home Office report suggests that meetings in Pakistan were ideological, not practical. A 200-word statement on an internet site known to be operated by Al Qaeda on the 7th of July claimed responsibility for the attacks, citing Britain’s involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the main incitement. This has largely been dismissed, and it is generally held that the bombers were acting alone and on a shoestring budget. In the chaos that followed the bombings, 56 people were killed (including the bombers) and 700 injured, some horrifically.

Of course, none of this was apparent at the time. I woke up that morning at 9am to hear my flatmate Brian talking on the phone about a cancelled work meeting. He mentioned some talk of an underground power surge, I rolled my eyes at British ineptitude and went back to sleep. An hour later, I got up to make tea, flicked the television on and the panic unfolded in front of us as everyone began to come to grips with what really happened. Our local tube station, just a two minute walk from our flat, had been bombed, which certainly hammered it home – the very station Brian would have used that morning had his meeting not been cancelled. Initial reports suggested eight, possibly ten, bombing sites and “hundreds feared dead”. Constant warnings in a red banner at the bottom of the screen reminded us not to use the Tube under any circumstance, and to cut back on all but the most necessary transport. Gradually the real facts emerged, although worryingly the suicide-bombing nature of the attacks was denied even up until a week afterwards. The attacks occurred just in time to be reported as “breaking news” at home in Wellington, and once the cellphone networks were back up (after having been shut down in an attempt to thwart any further communication between bombers) I received numerous tearful calls from my family, anxious to be reassured that we were all safe. My flat’s proximity to the Edgeware Road attack had not gone unnoticed, and I think it was only then that I was aware of how close to danger I had, technically, been.

It is easy to slip into cliché when attempting to describe the feeling of watching the “terror attack” unfold. Most television stations fell into a pattern of superlatives in an attempt to convey the magnitude of what had happened, describing their ‘horror’ at the ‘carnage’ created by those who wished to ‘destroy the British way of life’. No doubt to the families of those affected, it was indeed a day of unimaginable horror. And to be fair, watching scenes of violence and confusion that one normally associates with the Middle East adds a sense of disorientation that complicates anyone’s ability to report coherently. We watched the news reports with a growing sense of disbelief, more than anything else, and possibly with sneaking thought that perhaps for America’s number one ally it was somewhat inevitable. Knowing only a few friends and family members within London only added to my sense of confused disassociation, in that although I was shocked and scared by the thought of suicide bombers two minutes walk away, I felt somewhat removed. No-one walking down Edgeware Road seemed unduly fazed either, which I recall finding disquieting at the time – was this Londoner solidarity in the face of danger, I wondered? Or like me, were these people having trouble equating the images of destruction on the TV with their day-to-day lives?

Veitch: “all these changes have put the Muslim community under pressure. It is a very diverse community . . under tremendous suspicion. . . It’s pretty difficult being Muslim in Britain today”.

While the Islam and Muslim community seem to have taken a large percentage of the blame for the 7/7 attacks, it has been highlighted that there are large and various inconsistencies in official reports of that day. Should the government and intelligence services perhaps be analysing their role a little more thoroughly? Many civilian and media commentators have called for a public inquiry, but Prime Minister Tony Blair has refused, saying it will divert resources away from anti-terrorism units and is not necessary. Hundreds of conspiracy theorists beg to differ. Whether some of the more extreme versions of the story have any basis in fact is debatable. One disbeliever at www. whatreallyhappened.com is convinced that the attacks were in fact a private company’s training exercise – a company that lured the bombers into to carrying ‘fake’ bombs around London and then detonated them. Others believe that the whole incident was set up by the CIA to ferment anti-Muslim feeling. Such relatively unsubstantiated claims are not widely believed, but they are among the clamour of voices from both in and outside of the Muslim community demanding that an independent investigation is in the best interests of all Britons.

What is known fact, highlighted by a London Assembly report, is the grave failings of the emergency services to cope with the underground attacks, in that they rely almost solely on cellphone communication which doesn’t work underground. Furthermore, the three most imporant emergency services – fire brigade, ambulances and police – all operate on different radio networks, which makes communication impossible. What is even more worrying is that this was noted after the Kings Cross fire in 1987, and has as yet still not been remedied. Also noted in the report was the failure to notify nearby hospitals of the bombings, even as they were treating victims.

Promoting even more unrest and squabble between various government and intelligence factions was a FBI report issued recently that claimed Mohammed Sidique Khan, the leader of the bombers, was in fact known to the US as a terrorist suspect. But have they got the wrong Khan? Mohammed Ajmal Khan is a known terrorist and was jailed in the UK 6 months ago under the new Terrorism laws, and fits various descriptions that the author cited. Various media outlets jumped on this story, with condemning headlines such as ‘Mohammed Sidique Khan – known to MI5’ and ‘MP’s blame lack of resources for letting fanatics bring terror to heart of London’.

The 7/7 attacks had serious implications for anti-terrorism forces within the police, with new terrorism laws allowing for a beefing up of numbers, resources and training. There has also been a persistent effort to recruit members from all ethnicity’s and communities within Britain at large, to refute the stereotype of white, male police versus Muslims, Afro-Caribbeans and anyone wearing a robe. Nevertheless, 67% of Muslims in a recent poll say they feel that more people are suspicious of them since the 7/7 attacks. 54% believe that Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan police commissioner, should resign over the Forest Gate raids. As James Veitch, Religious and Islamic studies lecturer, reiterates, “all these changes have put the Muslim community under pressure. It is a very diverse community . . under tremendous suspicion. . . It’s pretty difficult being Muslim in Britain today”.

Some four months after the attacks, I met a young guy called Sal in an art gallery in Manchester, at the exhibition of one Benjamin Zephaniah – a Rastafarian human rights defender, rapper and poet. We chatted about the state of Britain since the attacks they had taken place. He told me about how his relaxed shaving routine had got increasingly shifty looks on public transport, more and more noticeably since he let the three day stubble take hold. It seemed perverse to me at the time, considering he was one of the most eloquent and articulate Brits I had met, that he would be under suspicion for harboring extremist views on Western decadence. But such is the nature of the fear that terrorism, and Western government’s response to it, produces. Anyone ‘foreign looking’ is a suspect, especially a bearded one.

It seemed perverse to me at the time, considering he was one of the most eloquent and articulate Brits I had met, that he would be under suspicion for harboring extremist views on Western decadence. But such is the nature of the fear that terrorism, and Western government’s response to it, produces. Anyone ‘foreign looking’ is a suspect, especially a bearded one.

Efforts have been made to repair this ever-growing rift between the Muslim community, and a government seeking to allay its citizen’s fears of continuing imminent attacks from terrorists born in the UK. Seven working groups created in the wake of the bombings released a report in December last year, highlighting various concerns, including their finding that there were “inherent injustices” in British foreign policy. This, they believe, plays a part in triggering “radical impulses” amongst British Muslims. A practical plan of action was also revealed, most of which the government pledged to act upon, but has thus fair failed to do so, inciting a “huge amount of frustration” from the groups, according to Labour Tooting MP, Sadiq Khan. Only three of the recommendations have been acted on, recommendations which would have done a lot to improve soured relations in the wake of Tony Blair’s “disappointed” speech to Muslim religious leaders. There have been other efforts to establish some form of rapport between the Muslim community, religious figureheads and the police/government, with LaMonica: it is one such conference held in a community close to Beeston in late June this year. These open forums have provided a chance so frustrated at for an open discourse between having very few civilians, leaders and police in order to clear up policies and aims, and to reassure Muslim and so they turn groups that they are not beingto these radical unfairly targeted. But as Veitch highlights, “Yes, it’s great and important to have open channels between the religious community and the police, but discussions and dialogue don’t influence what happens further down the pecking order on the street”.

Five days before the attacks, I had been standing in a rubbish-strewn field in the middle of Hyde Park singing hoarsely along to ‘Hey Jude’ with thousands of other Londoners at what had been touted as the ‘biggest musical event since Live Aid’. Hypothetically we were all there to Make Poverty History, and to tell the leaders of the eight most powerful countries in the world (all preparing for the G8 Summit four days later) that we were all united in our aim to see third world debt cancelled. The fact that the cheers for phrases such as ‘down with poverty’ were far overshadowed by women yelling at Brad Pitt to ‘get yer jocks off’ was somewhat illuminating. Bob Geldof and Live 8 wanted to end poverty in Africa, but what about poverty in Britain?

Beeston, where both Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer came from, is a 5,000 strong suburb on the outskirts of Leeds, Yorkshire. It is a relatively deprived area; 47 percent of households have people on some form of benefit and 93 percent of homes are in the poorest council tax band. In Britain, society is still much more heavily stratified in terms of wealth than perhaps the US or Australia, and a large percentage of the influx of Muslim immigrants from Pakistan or Bangladesh tend to fall into the lower socio-economic brackets. Social mobility is impeded by lack of English language skills, and the fact that fewer British Muslim women work, compared to British Hindus and Sikhs, or even French Muslim women. British society is not inherently racist, if anything it’s moving stridently in the opposite direction. An oft-quoted statistic claims that 1 in every 2 couples in London are mixed-race. But the fact that so many of Britain’s Muslims remain at the bottom of the economic pile only serves to inflame the pre-existing tension between 22 Islam followers and ‘the rest’. As Christopher La Monica, a Politics lecturer at Victoria believes, the London attacks were “not necessarily about poverty. I think that more of it has to do with racial attitudes that marginalise people than with economic opportunities”.

“It’s a complete dismissal in society, it’s also being marginalised in every way in society. Some people think this through, and they think ‘this is wrong’. And they want to fight back.”

…was this Londoner solidarity in the face of danger, I wondered? Or like me, were these people having trouble equating the images of destruction on the TV with their day-to-day lives?

Back in Beeston, the Asha centre, three doors down from the local mosque, provides classes and projects for women. With only 25 percent of people in the area achieving grades A-C at GCSE (compared with 44 percent in Leeds as a whole), these are invaluable in enabling young women and men in the area with vital skills. Education, says Veitch, plays a huge part in the frustration that many young, second generation Muslims feel. “It’s true of any group that has come to Britain, it’s the second generation that has the major problems. The accommodation they have to make in order to be accepted in the job community, that’s a very difficult situation. Many young Muslims have lost all hope of getting jobs and higher academic levels. That’s where the frustration and anger come from.” Regarding economic opportunities, Veitch believes that it is “a big ask” for families to move in order to find employment for women. “Social mobility is not always on the agenda, Britain is an expensive country, relatively fewer Muslims come through the education system compared with the rest of Britain as a whole. Even for the men who are employed, it is often labouring work, exceedingly hard, backbreaking work”. These are the circumstances under which the disillusionment begins, and not just in Britain. Paris too, had the violent reality of unemployment and racism within the banlieues (immigrant-heavy suburbs that ring the city centre) brought to light during the rioting and car burnings that took place late last year. La Monica sees it as a “product of kids just being so frustrated at having very few chances in life, and so they turn to these radical alternatives, if you want to call them that”.

The first anniversary of the London attacks provides a timely milestone from which to reflect back on the changes within British community at large, since Western Europe’s first instance of suicide bombing. NGOs, media commentators and the police all emphasised at the time how important the existing ties between the Muslim community and British society at large were. I remember seeing, about two days after the attacks, a large tabloid front page screaming: “Two beautiful women. One Muslim, One Christian. Both killed in 7/7 attacks. Why?” Various Muslim organisations condemned the attacks as barbaric, and again brought attention to the need to keep the Muslim community from feeling alienated in the inevitable backlash as security services began to investigate. Nevertheless, reports continue to plague the British media about ill-conceived dawn raids on Muslim households, most of which seem to prove nothing and rarely result in any convictions. The most recent debacle was a raid on a house in Forest Gate, where a supposed chemical bomb plot was taking place. One man was shot, and two others detained, then later released without any charges. The family later released this statement “Brothers and sisters of our community, on the morning of Friday June 2 2006 myself and my family were awakened by what can only be described as barbaric and horrific actions taken against an innocent family”. They warned fellow Muslims not to attend the protest after Friday’s prayers, saying it would only serve to “provide another opportunity for our community to be portrayed in a negative light”. Similar ‘crackdowns’ in East London have continued to undermine the Muslim communities’ faith in the police and government authorities.

It seems more and more vital for the British government to have strong and mutually respectful ties with organisations that speak for Muslims in Britain, especially in the wake of ‘homegrown terror’. But how is any productive dialogue possible when various organisations are vying for the position of being the mouthpiece of British Muslims? Traditionally, it seems that the Muslim Council of Britain was the first port of call when Downing Street needed to gauge the sentiment of the Islamic population. They are now seen to have not done enough to combat extremism, and various other umbrella groups such as the Muslim Association of Britain and the British Muslim Forum have come forward. But can any one group claim to represent the diversity of Islam in the United Kingdom? Of course not, says Veitch. “White people forget that Islam is large and diverse, there are not only divisions along the Shia/Sunni line, but within those groups also. Nothing is monolithic; culture and race have vast impact on how religion is passed on from generation to generation.”

Throughout its history, London has endured various bouts of bombing, from the Blitz, to the IRA, to this day, and I seem to have unwittingly continued in a strange family tradition of living in the big smoke during some kind of attacks. But whether it’s Germans, Irish Catholics or British-born Muslims as the ‘evil perpetrators’, commentaries around anniversary time often fall back on the well-used rhetoric of ‘London United’ against the conspiring forces of the world. “London is just getting on with the business of being London” one columnist proclaimed. “British is something I feel proud to be at this moment” commented another. Various commemorative events mourning those killed in the attacks will be taking place on Friday 7th all around London. Speakers at these events will undoubtedly talk of the need to work together to combat those who would threaten the British way of life, who cannot see the inherent goodness of British values. But what are ‘British values’ exactly? The values of Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard, who gladly swapped her newborn for a Westlife CD? Or the brutal colonialist values of a nation that is responsible for a large portion of strife in the developing world, itself a major reason for many peoples need to immigrate to the UK? Of course not. They are the values of a country that now prides itself on diversity, freedom and the democratic process. But like the Mohammed cartoons, the bombing of London seems to have thrown into sharp relief the strong divides within the British community, a community that on 7/7 is ‘proud to be British’ but is still fighting for a clear definition of what ‘British’ is.

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