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An effective response to the terrorists

27 September 2013

THE attacks on All Saints', Peshawar, and the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi tell us nothing new about terrorism. The murderous targeting of non-Muslims in Nairobi, and Christians, in particular, in Peshawar are depressingly similar in type, if not in scale, to a series of attacks in other parts of the world, such as Egypt, Syria, and northern Nigeria. Indeed, there is seldom anything new in terror, merely new victims. The Westgate attack captured the public's imagination, appalled by the macabre game of hide-and-seek played by those caught in the shopping centre, or, in some instances, a life-or-death quiz about the tenets of Islam. But the suggestion of mercy for co-religionists was a sham. Muslims and Christians, adults and children, were mown down in the attack.

The bombing of All Saints' was briefer, and thus of less interest to the Western reader or viewer, perhaps, but more deadly. On this occasion, there was no need for a quiz, either for the attackers or for those interpreting the bombing afterwards. This was an attack on a congregation of Christians, whose presence in Pakistan is being challenged by radical Islamists, although the two communities have rubbed along together successfully for so long in the past.

Just as the attacks contained nothing novel, so the authorities can draw on the experience of the past in their response. In the short term, the police and the military need better intelligence to thwart future plots; but the Hydra-like nature of al-Qaeda means that this tactic has limited scope. For the long term, it is essential to separate the terrorists from their support base, the penumbra who disapprove of the tactics but back the aim. It was this process of isolating the terrorists that paid such dividends in Northern Ireland. When the Omagh bomb went off in 1998, for example, killing 29 bystanders with the same sort of catholicity as the Westgate shootings, revulsion for the act was expressed by people on both sides of the sectarian divide.

By this measure, reactions in both Kenya and Pakistan have been greatly encouraging. Both governments announced a three-day period of mourning. The new Pakistani President, Mamnoon Hussain, and the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, denounced the bombing. The Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, spoke of the loss undergone by the "national family". Islamic leaders have condemned both attacks, and Muslims have joined Christians and others in queues to give blood. Efforts of this kind are the best hope for denying the terrorists the divisions that they wish to foster. In the light of them, Western commentators must beware the trap of seeing the Islamic world in the same two-dimensional, confrontational way as the terrorists.

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