- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2007


It’s a time of terror plots suspected and real in Britain, following dozens of recent arrests and serious convictions secured. Just last week, five Islamic radicals linked to al Qaeda and the July 7, 2005 suicide bombersweresentenced to lifeimprisonment for plotting a major bomb plot. The intended targets were utilities networks, a shopping center and nightclubs.Other terrorism trials from June 2005 are also still ongoing in British courts; more are in prospect. Meanwhile, the true scale of threat from homegrown Muslim extremists remains a mixture of speculation and troubling fact.

Yet for an unequivocal statement of terrorist intent, consider the power of this cold sentence: “The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy.” An excerpt from wiretap evidence from a current Old Bailey terrorist trial perhaps? Actually, the resonances are much older. The chills shiver down a century.

In his 1907 novel “The Secret Agent,” European novelist Joseph Conrad who was born in Ukraine, formed by Poland and naturalized by Britain plugged into his own era’s rational and irrational fears of terrorism. One hundred years on Conrad’s imagination let’s say it, genius retains visceral contemporary relevance and power. It’s no accident that Conrad (born Josef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski in 1857) set his shadowy tale in late 1880s London. Then, terrorism was expected not from Islamic radicals but from anarchists arriving from continental Europe. Rapid social change, technological development and mass immigration raised real fears of the possibility of “an enemy within.”

In 2007, history and Conrad’s prescience are making a comeback. With the latest trial verdicts, let alone the recent murky poisoning case of Russian Alexander Litvinenko, reality has been imitating Conrad’s art of late. The actions of agents provocateurs continue to haunt discourse in Britain.

In the novel, corrupt Russian diplomat Vladimir instigator of the “gratuitous blasphemy” seeks to provoke a clampdown on critical emigre opponents in London. He orders an anarchist cell to carry out an ingenious new form of terrorism an attack on the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, South London, home of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) measurement. The aim: to damage the British state by attacking the conceptual basis of time itself, ensuring global publicity and a popular backlash.

It is almost as if today’s terrorists Islamic or secular were preparing a viable method to shut down the Internet. But the attack fails. The foot soldier tasked with bombing the observatory blows himself up by mistake. The police flush out the conspirators, helped by turncoat “comrade” and Soho pornographer Verloc. The cell is smashed. Yet, in the background lurks the so-called professor, a fanatical proto-suicide bomber complete with powerful explosive belt ever ready to self-immolate in London’s milling crowds.

The modern resonances are obvious. The novel is cited routinely by senior British intelligence and police officers as a firm favorite. “The Secret Agent” presaged actual terrorist incidents, such as the Siege of Sidney Street of January 1911, when police cornered a Russian-Latvian anarchist cell in East London. A gun battle erupted as the insurgents’ safe house burned down in front of curious crowds. Then-Home Secretary Winston Churchill, dressed in top hat and frock coat, recklessly (but characteristically) directed the operation under fire from a neighboring street corner.

In this centenary year, Joseph Conrad’s work of fiction will deserve all plaudits and more, not merely as a brilliant evocation of the dangers of extremism, but also for its present relevance. It should be essential reading for international security leaders for years to come. After all, they will certainly be held responsible for preventing future “gratuitous blasphemies.”

Ronan Thomas is a London-based correspondent.

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