The death of Osama bin Laden will have important consequences for the security of our people at home and abroad and for our foreign policy, including our partnership with Pakistan, our military action in Afghanistan and the wider fight against terrorism across the world. Last night, I chaired a meeting of Cobra to begin to address some of these issues, the National Security Council has met this morning and I wanted to come to the House this afternoon to take the first opportunity to address these consequences directly and to answer hon. Members’ questions.
At 3 am yesterday I received a call from President Obama. He informed me that US special forces had successfully mounted a targeted operation against a compound in Abbottabad, in Pakistan. Osama bin Laden had been killed along with four others—bin Laden’s son, two others linked to him and a female member of his family entourage. There was a ferocious firefight and a US helicopter had to be destroyed but there was no loss of American life. I am sure the whole House will join me in congratulating President Obama and in praising the courage and skill of the American special forces who carried out this operation. It is a strike at the heart of international terrorism and a great achievement for America and for all who have joined in the long struggle to defeat al-Qaeda.
We should remember today in particular the brave British servicemen and women who have given their lives in the fight against terrorism across the world, and we should pay tribute especially to those British forces who played their part over the past decade in the hunt for bin Laden. He was the man who was responsible for 9/11, which was not only an horrific killing of Americans, but remains to this day the largest loss of British life in any terrorist attack. He was a man who inspired further atrocities, including those in Bali, Madrid, Istanbul and, of course, here in London on 7/7. He was, let us remember, a man who posed as a leader of Muslims, but was actually a mass murderer of Muslims all over the world. Indeed, he killed more Muslims than people of any other faith.
Nothing will bring back the loved ones who have been lost, and of course there is no punishment at our disposal that can remotely fit the many appalling crimes for which bin Laden was responsible, but I hope that at least for the victims’ families there is now some sense of justice being served, as a long dark chapter in their lives is finally closed. As the head of a family group for United Airlines flight 93, put it, we are
“raised, obviously, never to hope for someone’s death”,
but we are
“willing to make an exception in this case...He was evil personified, and our world is a better place without him.”
Britain was with America from the first day of the struggle to defeat al-Qaeda. Our resolve today should be as strong as it was then. There can be no impunity and no safe refuge for those who kill in the name of this poisonous ideology.
Our first focus should be our own security. Although bin Laden is gone, the threat of al-Qaeda remains. Clearly there is a risk that al-Qaeda and its affiliates in places such as Yemen and the Maghreb will want to demonstrate that they are able to operate effectively, and of course there is always the risk of a radicalised individual acting alone—a so-called lone-wolf attack. So we must be more vigilant than ever, and we must maintain that vigilance for some time to come.
The terrorist threat level in the UK is already at severe, which is as high as it can go without intelligence of a specific threat. We will keep that threat level under review, working closely with the intelligence agencies and the police. In terms of people travelling overseas, we have updated our advice and encourage British nationals to monitor the media carefully for local reactions, to remain vigilant, to exercise caution in public places and to avoid demonstrations. We have ordered our embassies across the world to review their security.
Let me turn next to Pakistan. The fact that bin Laden was living in a large house in a populated area suggests that he must have had an extensive support network in Pakistan. We do not currently know the extent of that network, so it is right that we ask searching questions about it, and we will. But let us start with what we do know. Pakistan has suffered more from terrorism than any other country in the world. As both President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani said to me when I spoke to them yesterday, as many as 30,000 innocent civilians have been killed in Pakistan, and more Pakistani soldiers and security forces have died fighting extremism than international forces killed in Afghanistan.
Osama bin Laden was an enemy of Pakistan. He had declared war against the Pakistani people and he had ordered attacks against them. President Obama said in his statement that
“counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.”
Continued co-operation will be just as important in the days ahead.
I believe it is in Britain’s national interest to recognise that with Pakistan we share the same struggle against terrorism. That is why we will continue to work with our Pakistani counterparts on intelligence gathering, tracing plots and taking action to stop them. It is why we will continue to honour our aid promises, including our support for education as a critical way of helping the next generation of Pakistanis to turn their back on extremism. Above all, it is why we were one of the founder members of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan, because I believe it is by working with the democrats in that country that we can make sure the whole country shares the same determination to fight terror and terrorism.
I also spoke yesterday to President Karzai in Afghanistan. We both agreed that the death of bin Laden provides a new opportunity for Afghanistan and Pakistan to work together in order to achieve stability on both sides of the border. Our strategy towards Afghanistan is straightforward and has not changed. We want an Afghanistan capable of looking after its own security without the help of foreign forces. We should take this opportunity to send a clear message to the Taliban: now is the time to separate themselves from al-Qaeda and participate in a peaceful political process.
The myth of bin Laden was that of a freedom fighter, living in austerity and risking his life for the cause as he moved around in the hills and mountainous caverns of the tribal areas. The reality of Bin Laden was very different: a man who encouraged others to make the ultimate sacrifice while he himself hid in the comfort of a large, expensive villa in Pakistan, experiencing none of the hardship he expected his supporters to endure.
Finally, let me briefly update the House on Libya. In recent weeks we have stepped up our air campaign to protect the civilian population. Every element of Gaddafi’s war machine has been degraded. Over the last few days alone, NATO aircraft have struck 35 targets, including tanks and armoured personnel carriers, as well as bunkers and ammunition storage facilities. We have also made strikes against his command and control centres, which direct his operations against civilians. Over the weekend, there were reports that in one of those strikes Colonel Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Arab Gaddafi, was killed. Let me be clear that all the targets chosen were clearly within the boundaries set by UN resolutions 1970 and 1973. These resolutions permit all necessary measures to protect civilian life, including attacks on command and control bases.
This weekend also saw attacks on the British and Italian embassies. We utterly deplore this. The Gaddafi regime is in clear breach of the Vienna convention to protect diplomatic missions, and we will hold it fully to account. We have already expelled the Libyan ambassador from London. The British embassy was looted as well as destroyed and the world war two memorial was desecrated. The UN has felt obliged to pull its people out for fear of attack.
Gaddafi made much of his call for a ceasefire, but at the very moment he claimed he wanted to talk, he had in fact been laying mines in Misrata harbour to stop humanitarian aid getting in. That is the regime—that is the man—we are dealing with. We will continue to enforce the UN resolutions until such time as they are fully in place, and that means continuing to turn up the pressure—sanctions pressure, diplomatic pressure and military pressure.
Bin Laden and Gaddafi were said to have hated each other, but there was a common thread running between them: they both feared the idea that democracy and civil rights could take hold in the Arab world. While we should continue to degrade, dismantle and defeat the terrorist networks, a big part of the long-term answer is the success of democracy in the middle east and, of course, the conclusion of the Arab-Israeli peace process. For 20 years, bin Laden claimed that the future of the Muslim world would be his, but Libya has shown, as Egypt and Tunisia did before it, that people are rejecting everything bin Laden stood for. Instead of replacing dictatorship with his extremist totalitarianism, they are choosing democracy.
Ten years on from the terrible tragedy of 9/11, with the end of bin Laden and the democratic awakening across the Arab world, we must seize this unique opportunity to deliver a decisive break with the forces of al-Qaeda and its poisonous ideology, which has caused so much suffering to so many across so many years. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and join him in strongly endorsing the sentiments expressed yesterday by President Obama. The Opposition wholeheartedly support the action taken by the United States to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. We are grateful to President Obama for taking the decision and to the US special forces who carried it out.
At this time we remember the harrowing scenes of death and destruction of 9/11, and we remember, too, all the other atrocities carried out by al-Qaeda before 9/11 and since, including in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Bali, Istanbul, Madrid, Amman and, of course, the 7/7 bombings here in London. The world is a better and safer place without bin Laden commanding or inciting acts of terror. We should never fall for the idea that he somehow stood for a particular community or faith. In each case the objective was the same: to kill and maim as many innocent men, women and children as possible, of all faiths and all backgrounds.
Our response now must be to seek to use this moment, not to claim premature victory in the fight against terrorists, but to heal the divisions he sought to create. We should do that by rooting out the perpetrators of terror, by reaching out to all those willing to accept the path of peace and, at the same time, by ensuring continued vigilance here at home.
All parts of the House will welcome the co-operative and calm response of the Pakistani Government over the past 48 hours, but there remains a great deal of uncertainty about who was aware of bin Laden’s presence and location in Pakistan, especially given his proximity to Pakistani military bases. Pakistan’s leaders continue to take a brave stance against terrorism, but when the Prime Minister talked to President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani, what discussions did he have about ensuring that the security apparatus in Pakistan fully supports their anti-terrorist efforts?
The developments of this weekend remind us why we took military action in Afghanistan, which under the Taliban gave shelter to bin Laden and to al-Qaeda, but those developments should also, as the Prime Minister said, reinforce the need for a lasting political settlement in Afghanistan as the only long-term guarantee of peace and security. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need greater urgency in the search for a political solution and to engage with those parts of the Taliban that are ready to renounce violence? Does he think that there are ways in which we can sharpen the choice facing the Taliban, including by deepening the political process in Afghanistan?
On Yemen and al-Qaeda’s remaining strongholds, we must do everything to combat terrorism and to increase pressure on their supporters, and we must also support movements that make it less likely that terrorism will take root, for is it not clear that the most effective long-term answer to al-Qaeda’s ideology of hatred is being provided by the peoples of north Africa and the middle east? During the Arab spring they have not been turning to an ideology of hate; they are demanding the right to control their own destinies with democratic reform and economic progress.
In that context, will the Prime Minister update the House on progress that has been made in consolidating the democratic gains in Egypt and Tunisia? What is being done not only to ensure that those Arab leaders who have promised reform stick to their commitments, but to force those still resorting to violence and repression, as in Syria, to stop doing so?
On Libya, it is clear that we cannot abandon the Libyan people to Colonel Gaddafi’s revenge, but will the Prime Minister also take this opportunity to reassure the House that, in all our words as well as actions, it will be clear that all the steps we take are in the terms of UN Security Council resolution 1973? Does he further agree that doing so is right in principle and essential to maintaining regional support for action to enforce the will of the Security Council?
On Israel-Palestine, does the Prime Minister agree that the reaction of Hamas, calling the killing of bin Laden an example of American oppression, is deeply regrettable? Does he agree that we should continue to make efforts to restart the middle east peace process? What discussions has he had with President Obama and the other leaders on that important area?
Finally, I support the Prime Minister’s call for UK citizens to show increased vigilance at this time. Al-Qaeda has suffered a serious blow, but it remains a threat. Can I also take this opportunity to offer my thanks and the thanks of the Opposition to the police and security services, which work tirelessly in public and behind the scenes to keep us safe, as well as to British forces throughout the world?
Above all, let me say this: 9/11 was one of the most horrific events of our generation, and for the victims and their families, including in this country, nothing can remove the pain that they feel, but the death of Osama bin Laden sends out a clear message that, in the face of terrorist acts, the world will not rest until justice is done.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement and for the way he has made it. He is absolutely right to praise the police and security services, particularly those in the security services who never get public recognition for the work that they do to keep people in our country safe.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to talk as strongly as he has about 9/11 and the memories people have of it. I am sure that everyone in the House remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing on that day, and how they felt, and he is right that we should use this moment to try to heal many of the divisions in our world.
On the specific questions, the right hon. Gentleman asks about Pakistan and the question, which I think will come up a lot, about who knew what and what we will do to find out who knew what. What matters most of all, as I said, is to back the democratic leaders of Pakistan, to work with them and those involved in security and military matters and to try to hold discussions with them together, which is what I did on my last visit to Pakistan.
On Afghanistan, the right hon. Gentleman asks how we can increase the urgency of a political settlement. That is absolutely the right thing to do, and again part of the answer lies in Pakistan and the discussions we can have with it to encourage all those involved to give up violence, to accept the basic tenets of the Afghan constitution and, critically, to renounce any link with al-Qaeda.
The right hon. Gentleman asks what more can be done to deepen the democratic process in Egypt and Tunisia. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was in Egypt yesterday. One of the key ways of doing this is through the European Union, and Britain, along with others, is pushing very hard for a total update of Europe’s relations with its neighbourhood to make them more attractive and something that has proper conditions attached to them.
On Syria, the right hon. Gentleman asked what more can be done to step up the pressure. I agree that what is happening in Syria is unacceptable. We are leading a process in Europe of setting about applying proper pressure—an arms embargo and taking the association agreement off the table—and we are looking at further steps, including travel bans and asset freezes, and other things we can do to show that what is happening in Syria is unacceptable.
On Libya, the right hon. Gentleman asks whether we will stick to UN resolution 1973. Yes, we will. What I would say, though, is that this does not mean just sticking with the existing set of things we are doing. All the time, we should be asking what more we can do to raise the diplomatic, military and sanctions pressure; and within all necessary measures to protect civilian life, I believe that there are many more things we can do and should do to keep the pressure up.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that Hamas’s reaction is very regrettable. I do believe, though, that the middle east peace process is, if you like, the third leg of the strategy to fundamentally defeat al-Qaeda. The first leg is the attack on the terrorist network—the blow so successfully dealt yesterday—and the second leg is democracy and progress in the middle east, in north Africa and in Muslim countries, but the third leg is a middle east peace process that works. I am seeing Prime Minister Netanyahu tomorrow evening, and we will do everything we can in our power to encourage both sides to recognise the historic times that we are living in and the historic chance there is to forge a deal that will last.
The Prime Minister has rightly paid tribute to the United States special forces who carried out yesterday’s remarkable operation. Will he make a similar tribute to the United States intelligence agencies, without whose patience and professionalism the actual location of bin Laden would never have been achieved?
My right hon. and learned Friend is entirely right. Clearly, this was a painstaking operation—if you like, a painstaking piece of detective work—that went on for many, many months. I can tell from speaking to President Obama that this was not some chance opportunity that came up but a piece of very careful work put in place over months and an operation clearly carried out with great professionalism and skill.
The Prime Minister rightly talks about three strands of a strategy to deal with the continuing problem of al-Qaeda. May I suggest that there is an additional strand, to pick up his point about the pernicious ideology of al-Qaeda, which in many ways remains the most enduring threat posed by al-Qaeda, notwithstanding the demise of its leader? Although there is no silver bullet, so far as here at home is concerned we need to continue programmes to deal with underachievement by some—not all—Asian heritage groups in schools and underemployment of them at work in order to reduce the opportunities for their minds to be taken over by this ideology.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, although I would say that there are two additional strands. One is dealing with problems of poverty, inequality and underachievement, which absolutely must be done, but separate from that is the whole bin Laden/al-Qaeda/extremist Islamist thread of painting Muslims and Muslim communities as somehow being in perpetual victimhood and saying that they can never successfully co-exist in western democratic societies. It is absolutely key that we target that ideology and challenge it, because in the end it is only by challenging the ideology that we will win this battle.
While understanding the satisfaction, and even elation, of those who lost family members in the inferno of 9/11, does my right hon. Friend agree that the sober reality is that some things are unchanged by the death of Osama bin Laden? The threat remains, jihadism must be confronted, and adequate resources, effective international co-operation and good intelligence remain essential.
My right hon. and learned Friend is right. There is still a severe terrorist threat—there is still an al-Qaeda threat—and we should not overestimate what has happened, but clearly the end of bin Laden, who was the leader and inspiration of this movement, is a massive setback for al-Qaeda and for its terrorist affiliates, and I think it is worth putting that on the record. Clearly, we now have to go further and deal with the remaining senior leadership of al-Qaeda who are in the tribal lands in Pakistan. We then have to address the affiliates in places like the Arabian peninsula and in the Maghreb. But as my right hon. and learned Friend and the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) said, dealing with the pernicious ideology will be just as important as defeating the terrorists themselves.
I endorse everything that has been said this afternoon. In the light of the agreed short-term risk, does the Prime Minister agree that the resources of the security and policing services in Britain should be focused entirely on this issue? In the light of the words of the Deputy Prime Minister this morning that the proposed changes to the police service are not set in stone, will the Prime Minister consider a pause in the Government’s changes to the police service so that it can concentrate on what really matters to the British people?
The right hon. Gentleman is obviously going a bit wider in his questioning. To me, it does not seem right to say that all the police’s attention should be on this issue; we have a serious situation in Northern Ireland as well. At all times, we are balancing the risks. On the police reforms, I say to Opposition Members that we have seen a successful model in London with the Mayor, which the previous Government put in place. That is a system in which the police feel more accountable to an elected individual, and I look forward to extending that across the country.
Pakistan is a divided and complex country, and the death of Osama bin Laden will only exacerbate tensions there. Does the Prime Minister agree that our priority should be to assist Pakistan to remain a stable state, if only because first, it is a nuclear power, and, secondly, it will have a crucial role in any settlement in Afghanistan?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. Of course there are frustrations, and questions will be asked about who knew what in Pakistan and about how this man could have lived in such a large house in such a comfortable-looking community so close to military installations. I am absolutely clear that the British interest is in working with the democratic politicians of Pakistan to deal with the shared issues of combating extremism; ensuring that we are dealing with a safe, rather than a dangerous, nuclear power; and, as my hon. Friend says, reaching a settlement in Afghanistan so that we can bring Britain’s brave troops home.
The brave and incredibly skilled individuals who carried out this operation deserve our profound gratitude, as do all those who put their lives on the line to protect us, including our own armed forces. In tackling the wider ideology of al-Qaeda, does the Prime Minister think that there are actions that we need to take abroad, as well as those that we need to take at home? The reconciliation track in Afghanistan is enormously important, and surely this operation gives us the opportunity to step up that activity. Did he talk to the President of the United States about that, and if he did not, will he do so?
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is an opportunity, particularly in Afghanistan. Having discussed this matter with President Obama on many occasions, it is clear that there are two tracks that we should be pursuing. There is the military track, where we are building up the Afghan army and police, and having success against the insurgency in Afghanistan, where our troops are performing magnificently. At the same time, there is a political track, where we are saying to the Taliban that it is time for them to give up violence, break the link with al-Qaeda and enter a political process. Both tracks can continue simultaneously, but the death of bin Laden and the work with Pakistan present a greater opportunity for the second track to yield success.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the remarks by Hamas were as repugnant as they were wrong, the moves by the new masters of Egypt towards opening the border with Hamas-controlled Gaza are nevertheless the clearest possible illustration of just how important is the third corner of the triangle that he outlined? There will be no support from moderate Arab opinion without a long-term solution that offers justice for the Palestinians.
My hon. Friend is clearly right. We have to take the positive, optimistic view that although there will be all sorts of difficulties in the days ahead, Palestinian unity between Fatah and Hamas should be a step forward, and we must make sure that it is. What follows is trying to persuade the Israelis and others that although there are all sorts of uncertainties in the world today, this is an opportunity to take steps towards peace, as they will be dealing with more democratic neighbours.
The Prime Minister will know that the vast majority of Muslims in this country entirely reject the violent ideology of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Will he therefore confirm that in the review of the Prevent programme, he will ensure that he puts in place a series of practical programmes to build the resilience of our young people to messages of hatred and extremism? Will he also confirm that he takes really seriously, as I know he does, the challenge to that ideology, on which I believe we have to do far more work to ensure that we really make an impact?
The words the right hon. Lady has uttered have been ringing through our review of Prevent. The problem has been not so much that a minority of British Muslims actually back al-Qaeda as that there has been a pernicious ideology among a minority of some communities that has given some comfort to the stories that al-Qaeda provides about victimhood and the rest of it. We have to address that issue in order to drain the swamp in which al-Qaeda has been swimming, if I can say so without mixing my metaphors.
Although it is clear that Osama bin Laden was deeply malign and it is good that that influence has ended, does the Prime Minister agree that the rule of law is very important and it is a great shame that we were not able to bring him before a court?
I listened very carefully to John Brennan’s briefing, and he made it clear that the forces were prepared to take bin Laden alive and capture him, but only if they were not actually in a firefight and at risk themselves. I think the Americans were completely justified in what they did and I think the world is much better off without bin Laden.
In the context of counter-terrorism, if our allies can take out bin Laden in Pakistan and we can hit targets in Libya, why cannot we arrest a balaclava-clad terrorist who stands in a graveyard in Londonderry, in the United Kingdom, and threatens to kill police officers and destroy the political process in Northern Ireland?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I take a very strong view that what we saw in Londonderry is not acceptable and is an offence that the police should pursue. The Police Service of Northern Ireland is now well funded, well backed and an excellent police service, and I would encourage it in its work.
Not withstanding the huge military sacrifices of the Pakistani army and the Pakistani people, in the Prime Minister’s conversations with President Zardari, did the President give him an assurance that should an evidence trail emerge from any subsequent investigation into the bin Laden compound that links some elements of the Pakistani state with the possible protection of bin Laden, the individuals involved will be brought before the courts in Pakistan?
In the conversation that I had with President Zardari, and then separately with Prime Minister Gillani, they first gave me their assurance that they did not know that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad and that they did not have such an understanding. I clearly made the point that the Pakistanis were going to be asked a lot of very searching questions by friends and foes alike over the coming days and needed to be prepared to answer them, but I come back to this basic point: what is in our national interest? Is it in our interest to have an enormous bust-up and argument with Pakistan over this, or is it in our interest to say, “Right, we’re going to work with the forces of democracy in Pakistan that want to fight terror and terrorism”? That must be in our interest, and it is what we should adhere to.
Earlier, the Foreign Secretary tried to reassure the House that the future of the World Service was secure, but it is undeniably a diminished World Service whose future is secure. Given what has been said about counter-terrorism ideas in emerging democracies, will the Prime Minister strategically review the role and budget of the World Service?
Lots of Government Departments had very difficult settlements because, I am afraid, of the financial situation that we inherited. I think the deal with the World Service involving the BBC provided secure funding for its future. Of course it is having to make some economies, but I think it is perfectly possible to make economies and provide a good service at the same time.
Although I welcome the Prime Minister’s emphasis on the battle of ideas, does he share my concern that all too many people in all too many Muslim communities do not even accept that bin Laden was responsible for 9/11? What does that say about the failure of the west to get the counter-narrative and the counter-propaganda out worldwide and effectively?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and that is very much what I was discussing with the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears). Many in that minority of the Muslim community take the view that bin Laden was not responsible for 9/11. That does not mean that they actively back bin Laden; it just means that they have bought in to a narrative of Israeli plots and the rest of it. We must challenge that narrative. We cannot have young people growing up in our country believing that nonsense, and it is incumbent on all of us in the work we do in our constituencies—in mosques, community centres and so on—to challenge that thinking whenever it comes up. We should not believe that we are challenging cultural sensitivities in doing so—we are not. We are making a very clear point about what it means to be part of a modern democracy.
A lot of the coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death has referred to him as “evil”, and although we all hate the man, may I congratulate the Prime Minister on, I think, deliberately avoiding that sort of religious language? Osama bin Laden was not engaged in a holy war or crusade, and do we not need to hear a lot more Muslim clerics make that absolutely clear?
I think we do. I am not sure that I avoided the word “evil”—I will always take religious advice from the hon. Gentleman, who has more experience in that—but his point is a good one. We must remember that al-Qaeda’s narrative is not Muslims against the rest of the world, but Muslims against Muslims, before moving on to the clash of civilisations with the rest of the world. It is hopeful that we are seeing Arab and Muslim states saying that what they want is not that sort of sharia law society, but to move towards the building blocks of democracy, which will make for a better and more peaceful world.
I visited the UK Bali memorial today—a tribute to the innocent victims of just one of the many terrorist bombings that defined the past decade. News of bin Laden’s death did not fill me with any sense of victory, for the world is no safer, but I did feel that we are starting a new chapter and that the world is a better place. Bin Laden’s removal is long overdue. Is it not telling that the Arab spring is calling not for a seventh-century caliphate, but for a change towards a non-violent, democratic and secular society?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I know that he suffered a loss in that Bali bomb. We can never bring back someone who has been lost, but he is right that the best tribute we can pay to the people who were lost in the murderous attacks in New York, London, Istanbul or Bali is not only to roll up the terrorist network that has created so much hatred, poison and death, but to see the Arab and Muslim world move towards democracy and freedom. That would be the most fitting tribute of all.
Bin Laden is dead, but the ideology he represented is not, even though al-Qaeda has been a follower rather than a leader of the Arab spring. Does the Prime Minister accept that parts of that ideology—the perverted use of victimhood and the warped sense of faith—are often used as justification to kill others of the same faith? Is he aware that that ideology is sometimes shared by those who are not active supporters of terrorism? Does he therefore accept that even though bin Laden is gone, the struggle against the ideology he represented must continue at a political, an ideological and a security level?
I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman and I hope there can be cross-party consensus on that. It would really help if we recognise in the review of Prevent and in what we do to deal with that ideology that it is not enough to say that we will prevent violent extremism, because we need to prevent extremism as well. Sometimes in the past, we have made a mistake in thinking, “Let’s talk to the extremists in order to stop the really violent ones,” but that is like trying to get the British National party to help to deal with a violent fascist. That would not be sensible in that context, and it is not sensible in dealing with extremist Islamism either.
I want Pakistan to be a prosperous, peaceful and successful country, free of corruption. It is in our interests to support that, but lots of people in this country know that something stinks about where bin Laden was found and where he has apparently been living for the past five years. If this country is to continue to support and encourage Pakistan financially and morally, the Pakistani Government need to come clean about what has happened.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Just because we are long-term friends and partners with Pakistan, as we should be, it does not mean that we cannot deliver a fairly tough message every now and again. When I went to Pakistan recently, one message I delivered was that it was unacceptable that so many people in Pakistan did not pay their taxes. It is not easy for us in the west to take money off our taxpayers to give to Pakistani education—vital though that is—if Pakistan is not collecting taxes from its own people. Dealing with corruption, making the country more transparent and ensuring that wealthy people in Pakistan pay their taxes should all be part of our bilateral agenda.
When the Prime Minister visited Pakistan recently, he announced various lines of co-operation, including technical co-operation on roadside improvised explosive devices. In the light of very recent events, will the Prime Minister review that co-operative agreement, lest technical knowledge gained could be passed rather quickly into the hands of terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere, with consequent threats to British and other lives?
Of course we consider all those things very carefully, but Pakistan has lost thousands of soldiers fighting extremists in south Waziristan and the Swat valley, where they are trying to root out a similar sort of Taliban to the one we are fighting in Afghanistan. We have to understand when we are talking to President Zardari that he lost his wife to extremist terrorists. Of course we must be careful in all that we do, but working with the Pakistanis so that they can combat extremism in their own country is clearly in our national interest.
May I commend my right hon. Friend’s tone towards Pakistan and his saying that we should deal with that country constructively and co-operatively? Should we not bear in mind what President Zardari himself has pointed out—that only 11% of the population of Pakistan has ever voted for radical Islamic parties, and that 85% is explicitly opposed to al-Qaeda? On that basis, there should be common interest and common cause between our two countries.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. Indeed, we need to co-operate not just on combating terrorism, but on the other matter we have been discussing today—combating the narrative of extremism. The same problem as the one we have been dealing with in our country exists in parts of Pakistan, albeit in a larger and different way.
The problem with that philosophical view of British foreign policy is that we live in too much of an interconnected world. The idea that we can just put the barrier up and say, “What happens in Pakistan or Afghanistan does not affect us” is wrong. The fact is that 1.4 million people of Pakistani origin live in Britain and travel between here and Pakistan. The fact is that we were threatened by terrorism sourced from Afghanistan and the tribal lands of Pakistan. I am afraid that that sort of “stop the world, I want to get off” foreign policy option no longer exists in this interconnected world.
Wellingborough is a fully integrated, interfaith community—in fact, this week we have Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and Christian candidates standing for the Conservative party at the local elections. [Interruption.] Does the Prime Minister agree that in my community of Wellingborough, yesterday’s events will be wholly welcomed?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I think someone shouted, “What’s that got to do with it?” but it is important that all parties try to ensure that they are fully representative of all parts of the community. As we have learned in the Conservative party, it is not enough just to open the doors and invite people in; we have to go out and ask people in, so that we can say to people in every community that they are represented in whatever party they would like to support for whatever reason they would like to support it.
Bin Laden may have gone, but other members and supporters of al-Qaeda continue to live openly in the United Kingdom, protected by the European Human Rights Act 1998. Does the Prime Minister agree that we can put a lot more faith in US special forces to protect us than the bureaucrats of Brussels?
I have some sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. We are trying to deal with the problem in a number of ways. First, we are trying to sign a treaty with Pakistan on deportation with assurances, so that we can deport people of Pakistani citizenship and origin who may threaten this country back to Pakistan to be dealt with there. I discussed that with Prime Minister Gilani and President Zardari when I was there recently. However, we are also trying to reform the European Court of Human Rights from within, and my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that our right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary had a very productive set of meetings with other Council members and there was widespread support for reforming the Court, so that it pays more attention to decisions taken by national courts.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and for early sight of it. The conclusion was that what Libya demonstrated, as Egypt and Tunisia did before it, is that people are completely rejecting everything that bin Laden stood for. My hon. Friends and I fervently hope that that is true. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the concrete steps being taken to foster democracy and respect for human rights in north Africa and throughout the middle east?
I think there are bilateral actions that Britain, as an old and successful democracy, should take and links that we should make, such as updating the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, as we have discussed in this House before. However, the biggest step would be for the European Union radically to overhaul its programme of help and assistance to north African and middle eastern neighbours and countries. Frankly, its programme up to now has been quite expensive—there is no shortage of money being spent—but it has not been successful in putting in place those building blocks of democracy. That is what we should be working on.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is imperative to provide every possible military, diplomatic and development assistance to Pakistan, not only to build democracy in the longer term, but to help to improve security in the shorter term, which is inextricably linked with a successful exit strategy from Afghanistan?
I agree that we need to build those links. Clearly there has to be a two-way relationship: we must not be too transactional about it, but we need to be clear with the Pakistanis about what we hope to gain from the partnership that we enter into. Clearly, work on counter-terrorism is vital to Britain’s national interest, but we are prepared to do a huge amount with Pakistan to help with matters such as the education of children. There are 17 million children in Pakistan not at school today. If we want to keep them away from extremism and, indeed, if we want to deal with problems of migration as well, it makes sense for us to continue our aid programme.
Every terrorist attack is a disaster; every resulting war is a tragedy. Does the Prime Minister not agree that we should now think quite seriously about the whole strategy adopted over the past 30 years? Bin Laden was financed by the west in the war in Afghanistan in 1979; he had relations with US oil interests after that, and later he became the terrorist threat that he remained for the rest of his life. Do we not need to think seriously about where the west is putting money, who it supports and what eventually comes round to bite us in the back because we have not analysed what is happening in those countries and those societies?
Of course the hon. Gentleman is right that we have to learn the lessons of successes and failures of the past and try to apply them for the future, but it seems to me that there are some constants in all this, one of which is that the promotion of democracy and freedom, along with what I call the building blocks of democracy, is almost always and everywhere a good thing to do. In as much as we learn the lessons of interventions of the past, I hope that we hold on to that.
It is entirely right that the Taliban should heed the calls from the Prime Minister to separate themselves from al-Qaeda and participate in a peaceful political process. What practical mechanisms exist whereby, in doing so, the Taliban can pursue a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. There are practical steps in place through the reconciliation and reintegration procedure that is available in Afghanistan through the President’s peace council. That enables Taliban fighters effectively to put down their weapons and join the political process, as long as they accept the basic tenets of the Afghan constitution. However, as well as that low-level reintegration, we need higher-level reconciliation, where we say to the Taliban, “If you accept the tenets of the constitution, give up violence and cut your links with al-Qaeda, there is a political path open to you,” because ultimately, insurgencies tend to end through a combination of force of arms and a simultaneous political process.
Do not the six years of treachery by powerful people in Pakistan prove that the links of blood, religion, language and ethnicity between Pakistan and Afghanistan are far, far more powerful than the friendship of convenience between us and those countries, which depends on a continuing sacrifice of blood and treasure by us? Have not our excessive optimism and trust delayed the day when we can do a deal and bring our brave boys home?
I do not accept that analysis, because it can lead us to believe that the best option for Britain, and indeed America, is to cut ourselves off entirely from friendships, partnerships and co-operation with those countries and leave them to their own devices. That has been a mistake in the past. The lesson to learn is that long-term partnerships to help those countries are actually in our interests.
The Prime Minister spoke about the myth of Osama bin Laden. One of the most powerful recruiting sergeants for al-Qaeda was the idea that he had moved away from a decadent western lifestyle to that of a penitent holy warrior. Is the Prime Minister heartened, as I am, by the truth that he was a hypocrite and that that hypocrisy runs through the core of the ideology of al-Qaeda?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The idea that bin Laden was a hermit bravely living in a cave directing the insurgency has been given the lie completely, as we see now that he was living in a luxury million-dollar villa in a fairly suburban part of Pakistan. I hope that people who have somehow revered this man will now see the true picture of someone who was hypocritically living pretty high on the hog while expecting others to suffer hardship.
I warmly commend the remarks that the Prime Minister has made about Pakistan consistently throughout his statement. He is right that questions will have to be asked about who knew what, but the central tenet of what he says is that our relationship with Pakistan is not a friendship of convenience, as some of my hon. Friends believe. In fact, Britain and Pakistan have an unbreakable common interest in combating terrorism, and in many other areas. What more can be done to ensure that that is understood here in Britain and, importantly, in Pakistan?
It is about the hard work of building a strong partnership that is for the long term and not concentrating too much on the short-term transactions that two countries might want to undertake. The fact is that we have a shared interest in fighting terrorism, expanding trade, combating poverty, improving education and ensuring that the people-to-people links between our countries are strong. The more we discuss those matters with democratically elected politicians in Pakistan, the more the common interests will grow. I do not think that that is an impossible dream, as the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) suggested; it is practical politics and completely in our national interest.
May I turn the Prime Minister’s attention to Libya? He mentioned that he was seeking to tighten up the sanctions. What does he think about those countries that are not exactly signed up to the United Nations resolutions and that have been allowing Gaddafi to get hold of assets and funding by letting them slip through their countries and into Tripoli?
We think that that is unacceptable, and that, as well as implementing resolutions 1970 and 1973, there are opportunities to tighten sanctions—on oil and oil products, for example—to ensure that the regime comes to its senses and realises that it cannot go on terrorising its own people. In the coming days, we will look at ways of stepping up the action that we are taking, as well as encourage others to enforce measures already in place.
The Prime Minister has referred several times to the need to combat the global jihadist Islamist ideology. In that context, will he have urgent discussions with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and ask it not only to reverse the reductions in the BBC’s Arabic language services, but to implement an idea that has been talked about for quite a while—namely, to introduce a BBC Urdu channel to broadcast in Pakistan?
I heard the Foreign Secretary dealing with that matter extensively during questions. Many of the budget reductions being made are regrettable, but they are all part of ensuring that government is affordable and that we deal with the deficit that we inherited. I am quite clear that the settlement for the BBC is fair and that the BBC has to ensure that that money goes further in providing many of the excellent services that it does.
We are getting good support from members of the Arab League: both the Qataris and the United Arab Emirates are providing planes, and logistic support is coming from some other members of the Arab League. The key is that the contact group, which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary helped to set up, has already had a number of meetings and further ones are forthcoming. In those meetings, the support of the Arab League and Arab countries for what is happening in Libya is still extremely strong—
No, it is not declining. It is still strong because Arab League countries know what they are dealing with in Gaddafi. When they watch what he is doing now—mining the port in Misrata, shelling and killing his own citizens—they know that is completely unacceptable and they are right to back the coalition.
The whole point of the Cobra meeting last night was to review the evidence and concerns about potential retaliatory attacks. Clearly, we have to be on our guard across the world against attacks, whether they be here in the UK or on British assets or embassies in any other part of the world. We keep the threat picture permanently updated and keep permanently under review the advice we give to our embassies and the stance we take here. Certainty is never possible in these matters, but we try to be as vigilant as we can be.
My right hon. Friend said that our objectives in Afghanistan remain unchanged. Does he believe that the death of bin Laden might allow us to achieve those objectives more quickly and hasten the day when our servicemen and women can come home?
I do not think it should automatically change our timetable; I think we should stick to that timetable. As I said, however, as well as the military track we are pursuing, there is also the political track of encouraging the Taliban into a political process. I would think that that will be helped by the fact that bin Laden is no more, as the futility of maintaining the link with al-Qaeda is seen. If the Taliban sever that link, there is every prospect of a political settlement, which prospect can clearly lead to British forces coming home. I do not think we should imagine that the timetable will be different, but we should work hard to take every opportunity brought about by the end of bin Laden.
The Prime Minister famously once accused the Pakistani Government of facing both ways. Is it not now clear that, whichever way they were facing, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence was clearly focused on Abbottabad and the security compound there, and that the co-operation of which he spoke must now have as part of its condition the root and branch reform of the ISI? If not, the fight against terror will be doomed from the beginning.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As I said in my statement, it is clear that bin Laden had a “support network” in Pakistan. Those are the words that John Brennan used, and they are absolutely right. We do not know the full extent of that support network or exactly where it reached; what we do know is that we should do everything we can to support the democrats in Pakistan who want the entire country to face the same way and work hard to combat terrorism in every way possible. That is what we should do.
I welcome the content and particularly the promptness of the Prime Minister’s statement. The Foreign Secretary confirmed earlier that military action against individuals such as Colonel Gaddafi should take place only within the confines of proper legal authority. Does the Prime Minister expect it to be confirmed that that was also the case for the undoubtedly courageous action against Osama bin Laden?
The legal position and the legal advice are a matter for the United States. It was a US operation with US troops, so it is entirely a matter for that country. I think we should focus today on the fact that the world is undoubtedly better off without that man still being at large.
I think the Prime Minister for his statement. Will he inform us whether intelligence sources confirm that Colonel Gaddafi is planning to use chemical weapons against the people of Libya? What further steps can be taken against the tyrant Gaddafi?
The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point. I believe that there have been press reports of gas masks being distributed by some in the Libyan regime, but we have no information about whether those reports are reliable or are linked with anything else. Obviously, however, we keep a close eye on everything that is happening in Libya, and on any threat that the regime could use such weapons in any way.
Of course we reject the al-Qaeda characterisation of western policy as an attempt to impose our views on the Muslim world, but in order to win hearts and minds—particularly in the Arab world—will my right hon. Friend make it clear that it is no part of our long-term policy to impose or get rid of a particular regime in Libya, and that our aim is to secure a ceasefire, a settlement and, ultimately, peace, even at the cost of a divided country? I suspect that what most Libyans want is peace.
My hon. Friend has made a good point, which is linked to the point made at Question Time by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). We are not there to pick a Government for Libya—to say, “You can have this sort of Government but not that sort of Government.” We are there, basically, to put in place United Nations resolutions 1970 and 1973, and to allow the Libyan people to choose their own Government in their own way. It may well be, in the end, a Government with whom we do not have 100% agreement, but one of the lessons that we have learnt in recent years is that that is how to make progress, rather than our trying—as I have put it in the past—to impose such things from above.
I think that the United States made a sensible decision on the basis that this was in line with all the correct Muslim practices for burial—a luxury, incidentally, that bin Laden never allowed any of his victims. This was done in an appropriate way, at sea, and I think that the Americans are to be commended for doing it in that way.
In the context of the rumours of conspiracy theorists, does the Prime Minister agree that it would be inappropriate and potentially unhelpful if the United States authorities released detailed and possibly gory footage of the operation in Pakistan?
I think that it is, in the end, for the United States to decide exactly what to release about the operation. All that I would say, on the basis of my limited experience, is that there are some conspiracy theorists who will never be satisfied. Some people still believe that Elvis will be found riding Shergar. You will never satisfy some people. I think that what the Americans have done so far is pretty sufficient in explaining to all reasonable people that bin Laden is no more.
On that bright September morning in New York, no one really seemed to give a fuss about anyone else’s religion, but over 20 years Osama bin Laden was responsible not only for the murder of innocents but for a raising of disadvantage for Muslims in many parts of the world. Does the Prime Minister agree that terrorists like Mr bin Laden abandon their faith the moment they determine to slaughter innocent people, and will he recommit himself to an open, inclusive society in this country, which includes our Muslim citizens?
My hon. Friend has put it extremely well. The fact is that there is no place in Islam for this sort of murderous ideology. It is against what Islam is meant to be all about. I hope that the argument that we can get across to people now is that that was an entirely blind alley for so many young people to go down, and that there is an alternative to the repression and frustration that they felt about regimes in north Africa and elsewhere: the democratic awakening that is taking place, which—as I said earlier—is one of the ways in which we will defeat al-Qaeda in the long run.
Does the Prime Minister agree that, having suffered such a grievous loss—that of his wife—the President of Pakistan is totally on side in the battle against international terrorism, and that somehow or other we must help him to rid his governmental structure of people who are sympathetic to al-Qaeda, or indeed the Taliban? I do not know how we can do that, but perhaps the Prime Minister does.
My hon. Friend has put his question in the right way. A long-term commitment on the part of this country and, crucially, the United States to Pakistan is what is needed to help to convince Pakistan that together we will defeat this menace and give the country some prospect of peaceful progress. I have no doubt that that is President Zardari’s view. As my hon. Friend has said, the President has suffered from terrorism himself, and has shown considerable courage in sending Pakistani troops into the Swat valley and south Waziristan to defeat terrorism. So yes, Pakistan does need our help and long-term commitment so that we can deal with this issue together.
That is a good point, and how the Americans have behaved over the burial—the fact that it was done in a proper Muslim way, and so forth—will help in that regard. Frankly, I do not think there is any magic button we can push or any magic campaign we can run. It is for all of us to make sure that people understand the evil this man did, the pernicious ideology he was pushing, and the fact that it led to a complete dead end for a generation of young Muslim men. If we make that argument, we can win that argument.
Bin Laden’s death will be a severe setback for al-Qaeda, but as the Prime Minister knows, there are relatively few al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and there are real differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which could be worth exploring to provide a way forward. Will the Prime Minister therefore do more to urge the Americans to have open, meaningful, non-conditional talks with the Taliban? As we showed in Northern Ireland, it is possible to fight and talk at the same time.
The point I would make to my hon. Friend is that while there are clearly differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, there are at the moment still links between them. The Taliban are not currently willing to break the link with al-Qaeda, but that is a key step that needs to be taken in making sure that they can enter some sort of political dialogue and settlement in Afghanistan. It is not acceptable to ask Afghan democrats, and President Karzai and others, to have conversations with people who, even at the end of those conversations, are still going to be committed to violence and overthrowing all of the Afghan constitution, and who are going to be linked to a group of terrorists—al-Qaeda—which has done so much damage not just to Pakistan, but to Afghanistan itself.
I am not going to row away from points I have made in the past, but the point I would repeat today is that it is in our interests to work with democrats in Pakistan so that all of that country, and everyone within it, is facing in the same direction in combating extremism, as their democratically elected politicians so clearly want to do.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the overwhelmingly vast majority of Muslims, both here in the UK and around the world, will welcome the fact that this evil criminal has been brought to justice? We must remind ourselves of that, to avoid stigmatising one particular group in society.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it should ring out from this Chamber today that one of the groups of people who should be most relieved at the passing of bin Laden is Muslims all over the world, because he killed more Muslims than people belonging to any other faith. The point has been made right across the House today that only a minority of a minority of a minority, as it were, backed al-Qaeda, and another small group of people bought into some of the pernicious ideology it was peddling. We have to deal with both those problems, and it is remarkable how much common ground there has been on that on both sides of the House today.
From one Essex man to another! Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will take strong action against any conveyor-belt Islamist groups or individuals that use what has happened to bin Laden to promote jihad or other forms of violence?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and as we have discussed today, we must combat not just violent extremism, but extremism itself. I think there has in the past been a sense of a conveyer belt, with some extremist groups and organisations taking people into a career of jihadism, and we will never deal with that unless we deal with the conveyor belt itself.