On 9 August, a Saudi Arabian air strike on a school bus in Yemen killed 40 children aged betweeen six and eleven, along with eleven adults, wounding a further 79. The 500-pound bomb had been supplied by the US. It might just as easily have come from the UK. Around half the Saudi air force consists of British-built planes, which have played a significant role in the war.
The multi-billion pound contracts under which London sells military jets to Riyadh also cover the ongoing supply of munitions, components, training and maintenance, including assistance from British personnel on the ground. ‘We have a significant infrastructure supporting the Saudi air force,’ the then foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said in March 2015, at the start of the Saudi-led war on Yemen’s Houthi rebels. ‘We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat.’
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former CIA analyst, said in 2016 that ‘if the United States of America and the United Kingdom tonight told King Salman that this war has to end, it would end tomorrow, because the Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support.’
In 2016, a UN Security Council report described a pattern of ‘widespread and systematic’ attacks on civilian targets by the Saudi-led coalition; the latest report finds ‘no evidence’ that appropriate measures have since been taken to mitigate the war’s impact on civilians. Coalition air strikes are responsible for most of the thousands of civilian deaths, and the humanitarian catastrophe into which Yemen has descended is caused in large part by a coalition blockade. Amnesty International has argued that the tightening of restrictions on imports ‘could amount to collective punishment of Yemen’s civilian population, which would constitute a war crime’.
It seems reasonably clear, despite official claims to the contrary, that the coalition is attempting to terrorise and collectively punish Yemeni civilians into turning on the Houthis. It’s difficult to think of another plausible explanation for this pattern of conduct, which is now well established and has been sustained throughout by the British state.
As details of the school bus atrocity emerged, the attention of the British political class was firmly fixed elsewhere, on the question of whether Jeremy Corbyn had honoured those responsible for the 1972 Munich massacre carried out by the Palestinian group Black September (a claim he strongly denies).
In the discourse of British foreign relations, the terrorist is assigned the role of the evil Other, in contrast to a virtuous and decent Britain. This externalisation of terrorism obscures the fact that indiscriminate violence against civilians, including violence calculated to terrorise them into specific behaviours, has long been a significant feature of British power in the world.
Throughout the formative centuries of British capitalism, the Atlantic slave system was dependent on an intimate, daily terror. For decades after Britain’s now much celebrated abolition of slavery, the textile industry at the heart of the industrial revolution continued to be fed by cotton produced by a sadistic regime of white supremacy in the US Deep South. From India in the 1850s to Kenya in the 1950s, uprisings against British rule were met by indiscriminate violence designed to intimidate whole populations into submission. In the Kenyan case, testimony from civilians subjected to mass incarceration by the British bears comparison with some of the worst horrors of 20th-century totalitarianism.
Since the end of formal empire, the direct use of terror to maintain the global system that British economic and state power benefits from is more likely to be outsourced to allies. The Arab uprisings at the start of this decade were the most serious recent challenge to that system, and local elites responded with particular viciousness. The violent crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain in 2011 targeted doctors and nurses who were treating injured protesters. The 2013 military coup in Egypt was followed by the massacre of hundreds of people. In accordance with London’s historic commitment to the conservative regional order, the heads of state ultimately responsible for these atrocities are fêted on the steps of Downing Street, praised as reformers, and continue to benefit from UK arms sales and military co-operation.
Systems of power rest on a combination of coercion and consent. Among our political class, consent is freely given, based on a shared belief that the British state is a benign and enlightened force for good in the world, although it occasionally makes regrettable errors. For those at the rougher end of the system in the global south, the rawest forms of coercion have long been required to uphold the status quo. If our opposition to terrorism is principled rather than performative, we might usefully focus our energies on exposing and ending our own complicity in these disciplinary forms of violence.