The CIA calls it ‘blowback’, when the unintended consequences of what seemed like a good policy at the time come back to bite you.
The classic example is Western sponsorship of radical Islamist fighters against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
That covert war against the Kremlin was a significant factor in crippling Communism in Russia which was a good thing, surely? It certainly seemed cost-free for America — until that bright morning of September 11, 2001, when Afghan-based terrorism struck New York and Washington on a grand scale.
Today our own nation is reeling from yet another savage consequence of our own ‘blowback’, after three people were randomly and fatally stabbed and three others wounded, as they sat enjoying a warm evening in a local park.
The alleged perpetrator, 25-year-old Khairi Saadallah, is a Libyan refugee. And in the initial aftermath, as the horror sank in and claims of a possible ‘terror’ link filtered through, the people of Reading found themselves confronting the same grim question as did the people of Manchester in May 2017 after a 22-year-old Libyan refugee, Salman Abedi, detonated a bomb killing 22 at a pop concert.
Why us? Why here?
To understand the Libyan link, think back to 2011. David Cameron’s government was confident the Libyan dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, would be the latest domino to fall in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ of popular uprisings.
Gaddafi, who had funded the IRA and was key to Lockerbie, had plenty of domestic enemies. All they needed to get him out was some aerial support from the RAF and other Nato allies.
The alleged perpetrator, 25-year-old Khairi Saadallah, is a Libyan refugee
Then democracy and human rights would flourish in the oil-rich country and it would no longer be the maverick and threatening nation it was under Gaddafi’s aggressively eccentric 40-year rule. So after six months of bombing, Gaddafi met the grisly fate of tyrants throughout history.
But there was no new dawn for Libya. The armed groups who had been the West’s allies immediately quarrelled over the spoils, especially the oil.
Civil war, violent faction-fighting and social disruption have prevailed ever since, with Libya also becoming the gateway for African migrants heading to Europe.
This chaos has given militant Islamic terrorists an ideal breeding ground for spreading their anti-Western ideology, and a place to train terrorists and practise bomb-making.
Our fly-by-night intervention has turned into a nightmare that continues to haunt us as well as Libya. The litany of terrorist atrocities committed by Libyans or by people trained in Islamist camps there has been growing.
Just as Afghanistan became a safe haven for terrorists in the 1990s, though a hell-hole for its people, Libya has gone the same way.
Indeed, it has become the perfect laboratory — and one located close to Europe — for indoctrination and terrorist training. With so many Libyans engaged in fighting each other, the terror groups can hole up in camps far from any police or state control.
Gaddafi, who had funded the IRA and was key to Lockerbie, had plenty of domestic enemies
This is why commentators who talk about ‘home-grown’ terrorism and imply that the murderous impulse is somehow the fault of British society miss the point.
If we look at the background and training of the majority of terrorists who have gone on the rampage here and in Europe, it is clear that without a Libyan base for indoctrination and bomb-making lessons, the carnage wouldn’t have been possible.
At one desert base in Sabratha, the terrorist masterminds taught Salman Abedi how to construct the rucksack bomb that killed the concert goers at Manchester Arena. They had also trained Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the chief organiser of the Paris attacks which killed 89 at the Bataclan rock concert in 2015.
Seifeddine Rezgui Yacoubi, who murdered 30 British tourists on a Tunisian beach in 2015, trained at Sabratha, too.
(We cannot know for sure what links the alleged Reading killer had or had not, but he is reported to have travelled between the UK and Libya many times and to have claimed that he had fought both for and against Isis.)
What these attacks and so many others in recent years have in common is that they target ordinary people.
When Western leaders intervene against rogue leaders such as Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi, they emphasise they are attacking the regime not the people. But Islamist terrorist masterminds choose soft targets deliberately.
They play on the twisted mixture of distorted religious ideals and resentments that make a handful of asylum-seekers in Britain and Europe vulnerable to their message of hate, and then send them to seek out the unsuspecting and the undefended.
We should not exaggerate the threat and nor should we tar all Libyans — there are some 20,000 in the UK, many of whom fled Gaddafi’s regime or, more recently the civil war — with the terrorist brush.
That’s what the masterminds of murder want.
In 2017, the 10,000 Libyans in Manchester were as appalled as everyone else by the terror attack and afraid it could lead to them being targeted in reprisals. Thank God, the local people had the good sense not to rise to the bait.
It only takes a handful of people to concoct a terrorist atrocity — or one lone wolf. But nor should we dismiss these outrages as random and rare. The situation in Libya worsens by the day and that feeds the possibility of more terrorism swirling out of the chaos there.
Civil war, violent faction-fighting and social disruption have prevailed ever since, with Libya also becoming the gateway for African migrants heading to Europe
Our Government may have lost interest in Libya since 2011, but several of our Nato allies have troops, mercenaries and agents on the ground backing rival warlords.
Turkey, France, Italy and Greece in particular are squaring off behind different factions. They are after Libya’s oil but their support with arms and money for different warring factions has helped to make Libya ungovernable.
They have been unwitting allies of the radical Islamist terror groups wanting to base themselves there.
That brutal civil war is why UK officials say they can’t send Libyan refugees who break the law back. Even if MI5 confidently identifies someone as a security risk, here they must stay.
For the same reason, more than 90 per cent of Libyans applying to remain here get a positive answer because of the dangers back home — the alleged Reading killer is thought to have been granted asylum in 2018, six years after fleeing the war which he claimed traumatised him.
On the surface that is a reasonable enough policy — except that it ignores how the Islamic State group is resurgent as it exploits Libya’s chaos and continues to infiltrate its terrorists among the refugees.
Nine years after the West smashed Gaddafi’s dictatorship, we must face up to what has been festering under the rubble, the threat it poses and how we might counter it.
But with our allies at each others’ throats over who to back in Libya, Britain faces a dangerous future.
The politicians play with fire, but it is ordinary people who get burned — here and in Libya.
- Mark Almond is the Director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford.