Monday, March 16, 2015 

On not understanding the call of duty.

Call me an old softy, but I find it difficult not to recoil from war and conflict regardless of the circumstances.  It's not that I'm a pacifist, as I fervently take the position that armed struggle is permissible when every other method of getting rid of a tyrannical government has failed.  Likewise, sometimes a country operating an openly imperialist foreign policy has to be stopped from going any further.  I'm even prepared to accept there will be occasions when countries should intervene to prevent an imminent or already under way genocide from taking place or going any further.  There haven't been any past cases where it's been shown an intervention would have succeeded, but there's always the possibility.

Flying Rodent called it his "Mark-Off-Peep-Show Shame", and yep, I've read those same books, despite thinking it's reaching the time when rather than putting up new memorials to those involved in War I and War II (as Philomena Cunk would have it) we should instead begin dialling it down.  As the inestimable rodent said, "a world in which fewer people are willing to get bayonetted to death for God and country is likely to be a nicer place to live in than one with more", and it's a sentiment I can't demur from.

It does then fairly bewilder me when those who ought to know better start rhapsodising about how everyone should get behind this particular group fighting in this particular war, nearly always because they share their political outlook, or rather, think they do.  Without doubt, as I've written before, the Kurds fighting against Islamic State in Syria are taking part in a noble cause, and when compared with almost everyone else battling in that benighted country, they are probably closest in values to "us".  They are not quite though the revolutionaries Owen Jones wants to paint them as, claiming the still-banned as a terrorist group PKK (aka the Kurdistan Workers' Party) has moved from Stalinism to "the libertarian socialism of the US theoretician Murray Bookchin".  And the three bears etc.  All the same, he's probably right that if the Kurds were fighting against our good selves rather than Islamic State, they'd be hailed universally by the left rather than just the fringes.

Looking for a new angle now the "shock" of Westerners going to battle alongside Islamic State has began to fade, attention has instead moved to those fighting against IS, with the death of Konstandinos Erik Scurfield prompting tributes from his family and others.  Last week the news broke of the death of Ivana Hoffman, leading to the eulogy from Jones, ignoring the obvious similarities between someone who posed in front of a communist flag fighting for what she believed in with those who can't pose often enough with the IS flag, also fighting for what they believe in, their war or otherwise.  Before we get into the sterility of a debate centering on moral relativism, it's apparent that despite fighting for such very different things, and that the Kurds' battle is foremost a defensive rather than an offensive one, the idealism and naivety of both sides is not unrelated if still very different.

No surprise then at the anger over the charging of Shilan Ozcelik, accused of wanting to fight against IS with the PKK rather than it being the other way round.  As the PKK is still a listed terrorist group, in law the charge might well be justified.  Whether it should be enforced, however, is a different question entirely.  As we saw last week, the Met confirming the three schoolgirls from Bethnal Green would not be charged with terrorism offences if they managed to return from Syria, and with three other teenagers released today on bail after being returned from Turkey, there still doesn't appear to be anything remotely like a coherent approach to just who is and isn't likely to be charged if they decide to come back.  This is the umpteenth time I've mentioned Mashudur Choudary, and I'm going to keep on doing so until it's explained why someone who couldn't hack it in Syria was prosecuted on his return.  The same goes for the Nawaz brothers, who trained not with Islamic State but an unrelated jihadist group, the kind some felt, like the PKK, were fighting the good fight up until recently.  We're told hundreds of Brits have gone to Syria, and yet the number of cases brought numbers in the tens, if that.  As we're also told repeatedly of what a massive security risk these people are, either there's a lot of resources being used to monitor them, or else the gap year jihadis are only going to be boring everyone to death with their stories.

The other reason for my reticence is what we know about professional soldiers, some of whom fail to adjust to civilian life, some of whom just find out they enjoy killing.  Yes, they might genuinely share the Kurds' wider aims and loathe IS, but that doesn't alter their wider motivations.  There are perfectly good reasons to be suspicious of those who decide to fight in wars that don't, or shouldn't on the surface concern them.  A better approach, from the authorities at least, would be to either prosecute everyone who goes to fight in Syria, regardless of whom they join up with; or no one, excepting those where there's evidence they took part in attacks against civilians.  A better approach from ourselves might to be admit that however much we hate what those going to fight for IS believe in, in death those left behind always make the same claims for what it was they believed they were doing.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015 

Yes, Islamic State is Islamic. No, it isn't representative, and here's one way to counteract its propaganda.

This has been the daft and besides the point debate of the past week: is the Islamic State like, Islamic? The clue is there in the name people, and if you needed a fatuous piece in the Atlantic which quotes Anjem Choudary as though he's an authority on such matters to bring that home then you might not have been paying attention.
 

Yes, the Islamic State is Islamic.  It's Islamic in a similar way to how Pat Robertson, Stephen Green and Jehovah's Witnesses are Christians, only with less door knocking in the case of the latter and a slightly more intense hatred of gays.  The people saying IS are not Muslims are nonetheless right in the sense they couldn't be more removed from your average Sunni Muslim, let alone from the Shia or Sufi traditions.  IS frankly take all the fun out of fundamentalism, as it's difficult to laugh at them in the same way as the cretins in Northern Ireland desperately trying to cling on to discrimination, when they're enslaving women and so insistent on slicing off the heads of anyone looking at them askance.

You can understand the reticence: if we accept Islamic State is Islamic, doesn't that make this a war on Islam?  Won't it encourage idiots to see Muslims in general as the problem rather than the 0.01% who adhere to this particular brand of Islam, the violently intolerant and hateful variety of the Salafi Wahhabi strand?  And doesn't this make a mockery of the whole Islam is peace stuff we hear so often?  Well, no; they were anyway; and no, not really.  The first two questions sort of meld into one, as jihadists depict everything as a war against Islam, everyone against them as crusaders and so on, the same way as people who just hate Muslims because they're brown and not white and over here are delighted by the likes of Choudary doing their work for them.  As for Islam being the religion of peace, every religion has its violent past, its extremists and fundamentalists, its martyrs and heretics.  Even a Buddhist sect in Burma is currently doing its level best to persecute the tiny number of Muslims there.  Yes, an extreme minority of Muslims with the veneer of theological backing would really quite like to bring about the apocalypse and they currently control a fair swath of Iraq and Syria.  This is though to give the fighters rather than the ideologues more credit than they deserve; they're just there for the killing, to imagine themselves as historical warriors and treat the people they're living among like dirt.

How then do we react when three London school girls decide they want to join up with such people?  To call some of the reaction shallow is to do injustice to paddling pools, and not just from those who instantly wrote the girls offHumaira Patel in the Graun suggests "something beyond religion is also playing a part" and she's undoubtedly right.  Almost certainly not right is her claim of it being down to everything being against these girls, being female, being Muslim, being victims of Islamophobia, living in the east end, and so on and so forth.  There's being alienated, getting angry about discrimination and then deciding joining up with an essentially supremacist group in a war-torn country provides the answers to those problems.

Nikita Malik from the Quill.i.am Foundation (as only I call it) meanwhile takes to Left Foot Forward and refers to push and pull factors.  More convincing are the push factors, the belief of not fitting in, of an interpretation of religion not shared by parents or friends.  Far less are the pull factors, when Islamic State's propaganda is relatively clear about what is expected of women: hardly any will be fighters, and they instead are to be wives to fighter husbands.  Aqsa Mohammed and others alleged to have played a role in recruiting other women have made no bones about their lives in Syria and the mundane, behold to men reality.  If this can really be considered a pull factor, as pointed out on Monday, there are serious questions to be asked concerning just what sort of expectations of life these girls had to begin with.

Nosheen Iqbal for her part makes a worthy intervention somewhat undermined by making it all about sex.  The comparison with grooming is legitimate up to a point, only it falls down again on the whole propaganda hiding the reality front.  There's not many 16-year-old girls who in their heart of hearts are yearning to get married for a start, let alone to someone they've never met and might find they have nothing in common with other than a world view.  This said, the emphasis she places on their age and the stupidity that so often goes hand in hand with being a teenager deserves repeating, and it's also the case they are undoubtedly being judged more harshly precisely because of their sex.  We expect teenage boys to get into trouble, and Islamic State is nothing if not teenage in so many ways: the belief of everything being against you, the ridiculous level of self-importance, the absurd claims of the next stop being Europe that only those both amazingly ignorant and arrogant could make with a straight face.  Girls though should be more sensible, regardless of being susceptible to the exact same pressures and influences.  They could well be already regretting their decision, we just have no way of knowing.

Which brings us finally to Shiraz Maher, who makes an important point but probably not in the way he intended.  Repeating an argument he's made previously about the callousness of allowing jihadis to go out to Syria, without explaining how we're meant to stop the most determined when as we've seen three schoolgirls can manage it, he refers to recently imprisoned Imran Khawaja, who faked his own death in Syria in an effort to return home without being picked up.  Khawaja it seems "couldn't hack it" in Syria any longer, just as Mashudur Choudary couldn't.  The policy of prosecuting some of those who return and not others, which has to be a policy considering the numbers we're told have been and since returned without facing court, doesn't make a lot of sense.  If there's one point of the Atlantic piece worth dwelling on, it's that those who have returned are considered "dropouts", and the vast majority are not likely to pose any sort of threat.  Prosecution then achieves precisely nothing. It certainly doesn't act as a deterrent when it will just encourage those who do go to stay if they know a prison sentence awaits should they decide they've made a mistake.  At the same time, as argued before, not letting those who want to go amplifies the risk at home.

If anything, those who do return could play the exact role needed to discourage others from making the trip: as much as Islamic State doesn't hide the reality of life under it, there's nothing like the testimony of someone who believed they were acting out of their duty as a Muslim to dispel the wider fantasies those disposed to such thinking may have.  Little can be done for Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum now, but it may well take a change in thinking on the part of us "kuffar" to prevent others from following their path.

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Monday, February 23, 2015 

Don't pity them? I can't even begin to understand them.

Too much can at times be drawn from something depicting the ordinary which subsequently becomes extraordinary in the light of subsequent events.  The CCTV grabs of Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum at Gatwick airport on their way to board a flight to Turkey show three young and fashionable women.  The clothes they're wearing give absolutely nothing away, or perhaps they do; maybe the entire point was not to look overtly religious.  Sultana is not so much as wearing the hijab, and yet she's apparently on her way to a place where she'll be required to wear the full veil most, if not all of the time.  To judge entirely by the two grainy images given to the media, only Begum looks even vaguely anxious, pensive at the journey they're setting out on.

There is, all but needless to say, little to add to what's been reported so far on the apparent decision by the three teenagers to go to Syria, seemingly to join Islamic State, other than speculation.  Everyone is assuming they've gone to become "jihadi brides", as the Mail tastelessly but at the same time probably accurately has put it.  It certainly seems doubtful in the extreme they really would have gone in an attempt to persuade their friend who left back in December to return home, not least because of everything that could go wrong.  At the same time, I at least cannot even begin to understand what possible attraction there could be for a 16-year-old girl to want to go and live in Syria at all, let alone in Raqqa, Islamic State's self-proclaimed capital and their most likely destination.

You can at least begin to fathom why a young man of about that age might want to do so, radicalised or not.  Islamic State has done its utmost to mostly presently the conflict as one not just of religious duty where the rewards outweigh the sacrifices, some of whom are travelling with the exact intention of making the biggest one possible, but of fun and excitement, with spiritual discovery thrown in.  Brought up on a diet of braindead action flicks, superhero movies and vacuous yet satisfying video games, why not go where the real action is and live your life, away from the kuffar?  Hell, IS will even do their best to get you a wife, and if there aren't fellow Western girls available, you can have your pick from any number of Syrian or Iraqi women, so long as you can get over how they're probably just making themselves available to keep their family alive, if they're not an outright slave.  Then again, such recruits might not even be shaving yet, so such thoughts are probably not high on their list.

All of which just brings us back to what possible kind of mindset these very young women are in.  It's not as though Islamic State hides what it expects of women under their yoke: if they must be seen, it's concealed by the veil, and a male guardian has to be present should they want to go much further than beyond their doorstep.  Western recruits are to be wives to their fighting husbands, do everyday household chores, look after children, make themselves available to their husband should he be home and not away fighting, and that's about it.  To most 16-year-old girls, even pious, dare it be said slightly repressed ones, bearing in mind most 16-year-old girls tend to be 20x more mature than their male counterparts, it would come across as a vision of hell.  And yet not only are some deciding this is the life for them, they go out of their way to encourage others to come and join them.

Reading the words of Aqsa Mahmood, aka Umm Layth, fingered by some as being potentially responsible for convincing the girls to make the journey is to be transported into her fantasy world.  To join Islamic State is comparable to the journey made by Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina, and indeed, those who have gone call themselves hijrah in the same fashion.  Her last post on her Tumblr blog, from the 22nd of last month, explicitly counsels women to know their rights in the event of their husband being killed, or "martyred".  She reassures anyone reading that parents of some of the women have despite everything come to accept what they've done, have even visited themselves, and not to take any notice of those calling it a "sexual jihad".

Making assumptions is a mug's game, and yet it's all we have in cases like this.  You can explain it as brainwashing, as some have, as though you can take a 16-year-old from London and in the space of two months convince them to go and live in a war zone.  You can blame the security services, as if they're meant to put every single person who contacts a known Islamic State propagandist on a no fly list.  You can point at the airport authorities, for not looking down the flight lists and treating young women flying to Turkey with suspicion.  You can wonder exactly what their home lives were like, and how the idea of becoming wives at 16 could possibly appeal unless their aspirations were that low, or the alternative so apparently bleak, achievements at school aside.  You can try and imagine the brand of Islam they ascribed to and were brought up in, and how it could have influenced them.  You look at the words of Abase's father, who said "she [wouldn't] dare discuss something like this with us, she knows what the answer would be", the kind of statement you could easily read too much into.

The Mail on Saturday described the girls as "naive", complete with scare quotes, while the Torygraph's women's editor says they shouldn't be pitied.  In a way, again, you can't really object: no one can say they don't know what Islamic State does or stands for when they set it out for all in their videos, when their atrocities and idiosyncrasies have been so well documented and reported.  To decide to go and join them is to abandon your life to that point, to make yourself complicit in the actions of a movement that has an ideology without a single positive aspect, completely incomparable with those few who've previously gone to live in the Soviet Union or even Nazi Germany, being far more akin to those who've been won over by cults.

All the same, you also can't for a moment imagine they know what they've let themselves in for.  Something has blinded them to the reality of their decision, whether it be religion, contact with their friend or others, a belief they're doing something for the greater good, however absurd or ridiculous that looks to us on the outside looking in.  Having made that decision, it's now going to be next to impossible to reverse it, whether unable to escape if they so wanted to or treated as potential terrorists on their return, regardless of what the police currently say.  Letting immature morons go and blow themselves up on their gap year is one thing; knowing how to stop those you would have thought had more sense, should have more sense, whom apparently defy everything we think we know about young people, is quite another.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015 

By their works they shall be judged.

The motives behind Fox News's decision to embed on their website the full 22-minute Islamic State video featuring the murder of Muadh al-Kasasbeh are obvious.  Not only will it drive traffic to a site which is read far less than its channel is watched, nothing more epitomises just how depraved and evil these Muslims are.  Fox would of course never dream of showing the agonising death of an American citizen at the hands of terrorists, or probably anyone other than a fellow Muslim, a fellow brown-skinned Arab.  It's also a safe bet that had it been an American or British pilot shot down, Piers Morgan wouldn't have written quite such an abominable piece for Mail Online on watching it and how it means all Muslims MUST stand up against IS as this is THEIR war.  It would have rather undermined that completely specious argument for a start.

If there's one thing more distasteful than people watching the video and then boasting about doing so, it's those who say to watch it is to be complicit, to play into Islamic State's hands.  It's the exact same point as was made after the hacking of celebrities' cloud accounts, only slightly modified.  Not only is the message delivered invariably in a sanctimonious, holier than thou style, it also jars precisely because they're talking about something they don't want you to see, which in psychology terms rather defeats the object.  Suzanne Moore also wrote during last year's Gaza war that sharing graphic images of the conflict "devalued the currency of shared humanity".  Rather, it gave the lie to Israeli claims of only targeting Hamas.  The real hypocrisy is how sanitised the reporting of war is in the West, at least when our servicemen are involved.  The same injuries from bombing have been inflicted by British and American pilots in Afghanistan and Iraq, but only when journalists are directly caught up in it, as John Simpson was, do we see the true horror.

The fact is the media has an increasingly bizarre and idiosyncratic attitude to just what the public can and can't handle on their front pages or news channels.  The denouement of hostage crises, as we saw on a Friday last month, can be shown in real time and no one bats an eye-lid as long as there isn't any viscera in the frame.  Crazed killers who reacted badly to sensationalist media coverage will have their last moments recorded and played back as soon as possible for your delectation, and hardly anyone will speak up and say this is a new low.  Show the real, immediate aftermath of an airstrike though, and I don't mean the gray from the air footage released by the military, a raid carried out not by terrorists or murderers but a democratic state, and many will begin to squirm and come up with reasons as to why it shouldn't be viewed.

There is a line to be drawn, obviously, and on the whole the right decisions are usually made.  As yesterday's post likely made clear, I've watched a lot of jihadist video releases down the years, mostly from Iraq.  I could say I did so in order to be better informed, to know your enemy, and that would certainly be part of the truth.  Was part of it also curiosity though?  Well, yes, and I defy anyone to say they haven't sought out material that challenged them in some way at some point, whatever it may have been.  I'm not a gorehound by any means, and watching such things hasn't desensitised me in any way, shape or form.  If anything, it's furthered my loathing of cruelty, my suspicion of getting involved in wars where the realities are cloaked behind a curtain.  Often the attitude of dedicated researchers or experts, as voiced in the Graun's piece, appears to be only we are capable of analysing such videos and statements in a clinical manner, and to allow the hoi polloi to see them is unthinkable.  Indeed, anyone in this country who watches videos by Islamic State is likely to be committing a criminal offence.  To merely have in your possession a digital copy of Inspire magazine is to risk jail.

Without doubt, some of the reaction is down to the very fact you're capable of making the choice to click, rather than it being in the control of those judged to know better.  Whether such a video should be as easily available as Fox News has decided to make it is dubious, if only because the more clicks or searches needed to find something, the more likely those who in their heart of hearts don't want to see it will step back.  There have been times when I've thought long and hard about describing certain things on this blog, but often the decision I've reached is they need to be confronted and talked about, precisely because we all too often blanch from doing so.  Many seem to prefer not to remain ignorant, but to just not know.  My aim yesterday was to describe Muadh al-Kasasbeh's suffering as respectfully, accurately and calmly as I could, for anyone who did want to know but didn't want to see for themselves.  The very last thing I would say is anyone should watch it; as others who have done said, including the likes of Jeremy Bowen, it is without exaggeration among the most horrific things I have ever seen, if not the most horrific.
 

That's why it's not enough to just write Muadh al-Kasasbeh was burned alive and leave it at that.  To view what Islamic State did (as an aside, calling groups what they call themselves, regardless of their delusions of grandeur, is not to confer legitimacy on them) is not to be complicit in it.  I didn't feel rage, as I did watching the previous video of the mass beheading of Syrians, which was precisely what they wanted me to feel but was at their disgusting arrogance, how it distilled the sickening narcissism of all murderers.  No, I rather felt horror, sorrow and pity for their victim and all their victims.  This is why it is nonsensical to say videos of their crimes are "superfluous and risk distracting us".  No, they are documenting their own downfall.  By such chronicling they will be known and judged.  No one who doesn't want to see it has to, and no one should be judged for doing so.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2015 

The Islamic State will fall.

(Please take your trigger warnings and do one.  That said, this post discusses and describes some fairly distressing stuff, so you probably shouldn't read it.)

When the news came through Islamic State had captured a Jordanian pilot, my immediate thought was he was going to suffer.  Whatever indignities or torture both mental and physical IS's western prisoners have undergone, and if they were beaten, the group was careful not to leave injuries that would be seen on video, they have been nothing as to how the group treats other Muslims or groups deemed heretical.  The Yazidi women taken as slaves; the men crucified in the centre of Raqqa; the relatives of an Iraqi army commander made to dig their own graves before they were beheaded; Islamic State's brutality, much as it often appears an end in itself, is also meted out as a warning, just as other regimes have prospered in the short term through establishing a monopoly on violence.

For all the words expelled on why beheading and decapitation especially horrify, the most immediate reasons being our heads make us who we are, and to separate the head from the body is to dehumanise someone utterly, with the entire history of decapitation as a form of execution playing in the background as atavism, the main reason it became the favoured method of execution for jihadis is more prosaic.  Other than a bullet in the back of the head, it's relatively simple to carry out, and done "properly" it kills quickly, in a matter of seconds.  It also obviously provides an instant "trophy" that can be held aloft and displayed.  How soon brain death occurs is a matter of scientific debate, and how much pain the victim experiences can only be speculated upon, further depending on specific circumstances.  If the executioner isn't a sadist, or doesn't intend to make it as painful an end as imaginable, whether through using a blunt knife, not fully severing the windpipe or wrenching at the head when the neck has only been half cut, all things jihadis have done in executions they have filmed, there are worse ways to die.  Not many, but there are.

One such way is to be burned.  If beheading reminds of the guillotine, of masked executioners wielding axes, of seppuku, burning alive is even more primeval, archaic.  You think witches, Joan of Arc, women convicted of treason.  It's also more instantly associated with Christianity than Islam.

The murder of Muadh al-Kasasbeh has, all but needless to say, nothing whatsoever in common with Islam and instead everything to do with politics.  The cynicism of Islamic State is not so much over the method of execution, and instead the emotional torture of his relatives.  If the Jordanian government is correct, al-Kasasbeh was put to death exactly a month ago, yet his murderers spent the past week raising hopes in both Jordan and Japan that men they may well have already killed could be released in a prisoner swap.  It also means that IS has had the best part of a month to put together their most despicable and elaborate murder set piece yet, which is exactly what their 22-minute release is.

Back in December Will Self was correct in pointing out none of the videos of the western hostages the media said depicted their execution actually did, in as much as showing the act itself.  They all faded to black as the knife was put to their neck and the cutting motion appeared to begin; when the image came back in, the now severed head of the victim had been placed upright on the back of their now prone body.  This raised the question of whether the British jihadi who addressed the camera in each video was the person carrying out the murder, or whether someone else did once the camera stopped filming.  If there were any doubts, these were answered by the release of a video showing the execution of a group of Syrian officers which gloried in showing the act in full, the British man staring at the camera as he sliced open his victim's throat.

There is no cutting away either from al-Kasabeh's terrible ordeal.  Before the accelerant which trails from the cage he has been placed in is lit, and such is the ferocity of the fire it could well be jet fuel rather than mere petrol, he's led through bombed buildings.  Indeed, destruction surrounds the place chosen for the execution.  It's presented as pure revenge, as being eminently justifiable to IS's supporters, as well as for maximum impact.  Boris Johnson was rightly criticised for his idiotic remarks about jihadis all being porn obsessed wankers, but there are jihadis who do fit that description, only they have a bloodlust equal to that others have for naked flesh.  IS more than any previous jihadist group caters to this market, and it does so in the style of the most vacuous and disposable Hollywood action flick, al-Kasabeh's pained, terrified expressions as he awaits his fate sliced together in a montage over in less than 5 seconds.

What happens to al-Kasabeh isn't only as the broadcasters will say, too graphic to show, it's almost too horrific to describe.  If we have any knowledge of images of death by burning, it's probably of Thích Quảng Đức, or Buddhists in Tibet, either filmed at a distance or in poor quality.  Al-Kasabeh dies in agony, up close, and in high definition.  His screams seem to go on long after he stops moving, after his body has reached the stage at which it constricts, only ending not long before it topples backwards.  Almost immediately, but probably cleverly edited to look that way, a digger moves in and dumps rubble on to the cage, crushing it, al-Kasabeh's blackened hand left visible through the debris.  This is what you've done to us; if we capture you, it's what you can expect in return.

Some on previous occasions claimed Islamic State's releases have been meant to distract from their problems on the ground, not always with much credibility.  This time, it's far more apposite.  To be crude, and not entirely accurate, the butch men of Islamic State have just had their arses handed to them by a militia led by a woman.  Yes, they were helped massively by the airstrikes and backed up by other Syrian rebels and Iraqi Kurds, but let's not ignore that symbolism.  Islamic State seemed at one point unstoppable, or overexcitable media gave that impression.  They are now being pushed back in both Syria and Iraq, and the battle to retake Mosul is being planned.

The ever more elaborate and gruesome Islamic State's base propaganda becomes, the more it becomes clear it's fighting a battle for survival in its current form.  Exactly what shouldn't happen now is for Jordan to engage in tat for tat executions, rather to rise above such instant acts of vengeance.  Justice will be achieved for al-Kasabeh in other ways, just as it will for the western and Japanese hostages murdered, and the ordinary citizens of Iraq and Syria currently under their vicious yoke.  The real challenge, though, will be in ensuring the same mistakes that led to the rise of IS aren't repeated once they have been defeated.

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Monday, January 26, 2015 

TV review (of sorts): Bitter Lake.

It's perhaps something of an exaggeration to say there's been a critical backlash against Adam Curtis of late, but no longer have his films been almost universally applauded by those vaguely on the left.  Certainly, his five-minute slot in Charlie Brooker's 2014 Wipe was met by just as much befuddlement as it was adulation by those who see Curtis as something of a prophet, just as Chris Morris once was.  Morris of course responded to this unwanted status with Nathan Barley, co-written with Brooker, with it being difficult not to see the character Dan Ashcroft, a writer admired by idiots who declares he's not a "preacher man" as partly formed by Morris's own anxieties.

In truth, much of this backlash has been due to the decline in quality of Curtis's work.  He without doubt peaked with Century of the Self, which as an introduction into how the work of Freud, Jung and Laing among others was appropriated by business and politics is hard to beat.  Power of Nightmares, despite the brickbats thrown at it continues to stand up, but with The Trap, despite remaining a work of the kind you simply don't get on TV, the rot set in.  All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace followed, and while by no means bad, it just didn't hold up against what had come before.

The main criticisms of Curtis's style of documentary, that he covers up a lack of original ideas and content with inspired music choices and use of stock footage unlikely to have been seen before has been somewhat answered by his irregularly updated blog.  While the questions remain over his answers or lack of them, what can't be complained about is the way he draws you in through his prose, without there being any need to watch the clips accompanying the text.  With the apparent full BBC archive at his disposal, with all the oddities and forgotten shows contained therein, one post resurrects a 70s documentary on the Hells Angels while the next might be about vegetables.  Yes, really.

The announcement that Bitter Lake would only be available on the iPlayer then, and would clock in at just over 2 hours 15 minutes, allowing Curtis to create something not "restrained by the rigid formats and schedules of network television" set alarm bells ringing.  Curtis's past work hasn't shown any indication of being restrained by exactly those forces, which is precisely why so many of us boring gits loved them: long-form documentaries, set to ambient/electronic music, dealing with ideas rarely so much as broached on mainstream television, let alone in depth or with the allowed space to make up your own mind.  One word instantly came to mind: indulgence.  Much as we might delight in TV that plays out a story over 6 or 10 weeks, there's also nothing quite like a 90 minute nuts and bolts film that does the job and then gets its coat.  Editors are often there for very good reasons (ahem).

Sadly, those suspicions were very much confirmed by Bitter Lake.  This isn't to say that in spots it's very, very good: it draws heavily on a number of posts Curtis has made on his blog on Afghanistan, and coming the week the Saudi king finally did the decent thing, prompting our freedom loving leaders to go and pay their respects, the emphasis on how the kingdom has spread the Wahhabist doctrine which so underpins jihadism is very welcome.  Curtis makes extensive use of the footage shot by BBC cameramen in Afghanistan that has never previously been seen, the rushes normally consigned to the cutting room floor.  If nothing else, this does a service to the men and women behind the equipment who rarely get any credit, something now rectified when they journey alongside TV hacks into warzones at least.  As you'll no doubt expect from a Curtis film, some of this footage is extremely banal while other clips are little short of breath-taking: we see Afghan soldiers dancing to a lone, virtuoso trumpeter; a British soldier coaxes a tame pigeon, probably an escaped pet, first off his gun onto his hand, stroking its breast, before it jumps onto his helmeted head, to the absolute wonder and delight of the infantryman; American and British troops whoop up airstrikes on the enemy; and the attempted assassination of Hamid Karzai is witnessed by a cameraman just feet away from the former president, his security team all but abandoning him as he lays on the seat of his SUV.

The problem is this footage takes up far more of the running time than would ever be allowed on TV for good reason.  As beguiling as it often is, it doesn't add anything to the narrative, which is extremely sparse for the first 90 minutes.  The question then is whether it adds anything to a documentary you have to make an active choice to watch, and even on that score much of it doesn't.  For every one piece that does push it forward, such as the remarkable archive of a British student teaching a class of Afghans about Duchamp's urinal, something that came about as part of the post-invasion this is wot Western education is about like initiative, to their bewilderment and the student's own realisation she's wasting her time, the assumptions of all being challenged and judged, there's 5 clips that just drag.  It all feels disjointed, and seeing as Curtis's thesis is that Western politicians responded to the crises of the 70s, caused in part by the empowerment of Saudi Arabia, with a simplification of everything down to good and evil, often his narration of how this came to be is guilty of precisely the same thing.

It's especially a shame as within the running time there's a couple of hour-long documentaries that ought to be made.  The first on how the West's relationship with Saudi Arabia has and continues to shape policy; and the second on how the British presence in Afghanistan descended into such ignominy, with the army gamed into attacking anyone they were told were Taliban, such was the incompetence of those in charge.

Bitter Lake does nonetheless succeed in showing the way history has repeated in that benighted country.  The Afghan king first sought out American help to develop his nation, before then playing off the Americans and Russians against each other.  As drop-out Westerners journeyed to the country in the 70s in search of something different, Afghans educated in the West brought left-wing radicalism back with them.  Neither their idea of what freedom was, nor that of the Russians when they intervened or ourselves has taken root.  Western ideals of human rights and equality rubbed up against the fundamentalism of the madrasas funded by the Saudis, regardless of whether the West supported the mujahideen in the 80s, or opposed its spawn in the 2000s.

This doesn't however prove Curtis's point: regardless of the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the mere dropping of demanding the immediate removal of President Assad from power in Syria doesn't mean this dilution of everything into absolutes has been abandoned.  Policy on Syria continues to make not the slightest bit of sense when the "good" rebels are set to be trained to fight the "bad" ones.  Indeed, the only possible outcome would appear to be that which befell Kabul in the 90s: the destruction of everything with the eventual victors likely to be the most ruthless of all.  We continue to oppose the enemies of the Saudis whether it's in our interests or not, for which see the way the oil price is being used against Iran as we're trying desperately to reach a deal over their nuclear programme.  Whether this makes either Iran or Russia more belligerent or more inclined to reach a compromise we don't and can't possibly know.

In the meantime we'll go on telling ourselves we're on the side of the good regardless of our actions, we'll make idols out of schoolgirls to make ourselves feel better, and we'll do as little as possible to examine the mistakes we've made.  For all the criticisms of Curtis and the failings of Bitter Lake, his work continues to take viewers places others fear to go, and few pose the questions he does to such a wide audience.  His answers and conclusions may be faulty, but whose aren't?

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014 

Syria: morals, and the lack thereof.

It's testament both to the scale of the disaster that has befallen Syria and the perseverance of the rebels' supporters in the West that even now, when by (conservative) estimate over 100,000 people have been killed and 2 million have fled, we're still getting fed stylised propaganda about the heroism of those on the ground.  Martin Chulov's piece in the Graun on Umm Abdu, the doctor who has a "steel pistol she holsters to her back", and who has used weapons and then "treated the people who were injured", is a great story, as the best propaganda always is.  It could be utter piffle, and it presents just the one side of the conflict, but that doesn't alter how compelling her bravery is, nor her determination to help those around her who are suffering.

Syria appears a unique case where all of the antagonists have failed in their aims, and where all bear some responsibility for the unending nightmare the civil war has cast so many into.  That is until you remember Iraq, where imperial hubris combined with the most base incompetence conspired to in part bring us here.  Had the Iraq war never taken place we can't say Syria would have been spared the full horror it has descended into, yet it's arguable there wouldn't have been quite so many on the rebel side completely opposed to any kind of accommodation with the Assad government, or indeed quite so brutal in their methods.  Ironically or more accurately, tragically, Assad for a long time played a role akin to Turkey's, allowing jihadis and foreign fighters to cross the border with impunity.  Some of those same muhajids have undoubtedly returned and made use of their acquired knowledge against their one time facilitator.

With the sole exception of Tunisia, where the Arab spring begun and was the most "free" society to begin with, all the various revolutions or uprisings have either been countered or collapsed into repression or worse.  Egypt has the worst of all worlds: the Mubarak state is back without the economic growth that underpinned it; Libya's own civil war continues while Benghazi, the city we sent the bombers in to "save" is under the control of a group allied with Islamic State; Bahrain's opposition movement has been comprehensively smashed without so much as a peep from ourselves; and when it comes to Syria, hell doesn't properly describe a country where beheadings, crucifixions and barrel bombings are the new normal.

Sadly, as has always been the case and will always remain, while money can be found to kill people whatever the circumstances, finding it to feed people never has quite the same priority.  You might have thought politicians would feel a certain sense of shame at how the UN reports it will have to suspend the voucher scheme it operates for Syrian refugees should the funding promised not materialise, considering how some of them have spent three years either providing "non-lethal" or very much lethal aid to the rebels, oddly in the case of ourselves and most of the coalition put together against Islamic State also without accepting our fair share of asylum seekers.  If they do, and some of them surely must have some compunction over how their policies on Syria have contributed to the situation, then so far they're hiding it.

Then again, to return to those still hankering after yet more war, the hypocrisy or sheer pigheadedness still has the power to shock.  For months the "moderate" rebels and some of the normally more credulous journalists have insisted there was either agreement between the Assad government and Islamic State or an unofficial pact whereby one side didn't attack the other.  It was always nonsense, Assad paying IS for oil as the Kurds also have aside.  When Assad does then bomb Islamic State targets, as the regime has over the past week in Raqqa, the exact same people cry over the "collateral damage", as the US would call it.  According to sources on the ground, we're meant to believe that while the US airstrikes against IS have been pinpoint, rarely killing civilians, the attacks by the regime have been anything but.  Indeed, last week State Department spokesman Jen Psaki declared the administration "horrified" at the "continued slaughter", in comments that frankly take the breath away.  Meanwhile over at Left Foot Forward, where anyone can seemingly get their bizarre opinions hosted so long as they're pro-bombing, Kellie Strom believes the failure to impose a no-fly zone at the same time as "degrading" IS is all down to appeasing Iran, and the potential deal on their nuclear programme.

This would of course be the same Iran it's rumoured the US is pressuring over the nuclear programme via Saudia Arabia and the collapse in the price of oil.  While some of the fall can be put down to the shale oil boom in the US, the continuing instability in the region would normally have the effect of pushing the price up, not down.  Equally strange is the other stated reason, that the US fears the Iranian-backed militias could attack US forces in Iraq, despite the numbers of US forces in the country remaining negligible and those militias keeping themselves busy wreaking much the same havoc IS has been.

Far more sensible is the explanation that, just as we've done from the beginning, ourselves and the Americans are still making it up as we go along.  This non-alliance with Assad is happening because of realpolitik: we spent the best part of 2 years sort-of and sort-of not arming the rebels, imagining they would quickly do away with the regime.  Instead what happened is the extremists quickly took over, thanks mainly to our pals in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and a terrifyingly violent stalemate is the result.  As the "moderate" rebels either don't exist or are next to non-existent in the militarily capable sense, not doing anything to rile Assad when his forces will be the ones fighting IS on the ground is the best option; whether it is morally is a different question.  But then, as we've noted, morals have never exactly been at the forefront of our concerns for a very long time now.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014 

Project Mayhem urges you to stay safe.

Blame it on the ultimately superficial, shallow and obvious nature of my mind, but my first thought after seeing ACPO's "STAY SAFE" leaflets was blimey, have we really now reached the point where the police are taking pointers from Project Mayhem, aka Tyler Durden's psy-ops campaign in Fight Club?  Is the next step billboards telling everyone the best way of warding off a terrorist attack is dousing yourself in oil?

Yep, counter-terrorism awareness week is clearly in full effect.  Chiefly this seems to consist of urging Londoners to be suspicious of absolutely everyone and everything at all times, which, let's be honest, isn't exactly the most alien concept to most.  See a dog hanging around Euston without its owner?  Best report it, could be a bomb dog.  Spy a bearded gentleman with a rucksack fiddling around with its contents?  First check he isn't a hipster by looking to see if he has the obligatory tattoos peaking out from under his sleeves, and if he doesn't, kick the ever living shit out of him.  Or alternatively, duck and cover.  Err, run, hide and tell?

Quite what the point of such leaflets is always escapes me.  How else are most going to react should they be caught up in a Mumbai-style attack?  They're not going to be like me and walk towards the AK-47 wielding fanatic, thankful at last for a stroke of luck, they're going to be, err, running, hiding and phoning up our friends in CO19, who hopefully won't shoot the first Brazilian they come across.  Nor has there been the slightest indication a Mumbai in this country is a real possibility, despite Theresa May saying one had been disrupted without, naturally, giving further details.  The most recent intelligence, again, if we're to believe it, was the police themselves were the most likely target.  You don't have to be a natural cynic to wonder if the point in fact isn't to scare people, coming the same week as the rest of the hype over the jihadi threat.

It'd be easier to take also if there wasn't the all too familiar sight of otherwise intelligent people acting like dunderheads.  Malcolm Rifkind was beyond certain last night that Facebook could report every single instance of wannabe terrorists colluding if they wanted to, as they do it when it comes to child abuse.  Except of course they don't, and even if it was possible to review every single instance of an account being flagged when eleventy billion status updates are posted every day, there's no guarantee whatsoever the police or the intelligence agencies would then act upon it, as Rifkind's own report made clear.  Blaming the social networks is though a surefire win, as demonstrated by this morning's front pages, especially when so many don't realise how the systems they have in place work and when it's always easier to point the finger at the service provider rather than the individual, as we've seen in similar instances.

As for how it distracts from the other problems with the government's proposed legislation, that's a bonus.  The example today of the brothers convicted of attending a training camp in Syria indicates just how often the system of "managed return" is likely to be used in practice, unless we see a policy change from the police.

By any measure, the Nawaz brothers would have been perfect candidates for such a scheme: they joined not Islamic State but Junud al-Sham, a group which according to Shiraz Maher has since allied with Ahrar al-Sham, part of the Islamic Front, a jihadist but until recently supported by Saudi Arabia section of the rebels.  When you add how they travelled back in August of last year, when both government and media agreed how wonderful such allies of the Free Syrian Army were, it strikes as more than a trifle rich they're now starting prison terms of 4 and a half years and 3 years respectively.  The judge accepted there was no evidence they intended to do anything in this country, and the fact they returned after a month of training without fighting, albeit with trophies, also suggests they weren't cut out for the war.  If others like them are to be prosecuted, then "managed return" with its agreeing to be interviewed by the police, and possible compulsory attendance of deradicalisation programmes seems like a gesture rather than anything practical.

Instead the emphasis seems to be on confiscating passports, without it being clear whether those denied the chance to fight in Syria or Iraq will then be properly monitored.  It leaves those who do support Islamic State, such as Siddhartha Dhar, arrested with Anjem Choudary's mob of blowhards, easily able to skip bail and laugh at the intelligence agencies from afar.   As previously argued, the best policy could be to let those who want to go to do so, and then deal with them if and when they seek to return, otherwise we risk increasing the chance those desperate to be martyrs will resort to launching their own plans here.

At the moment the coalition seems to want the worst of all worlds.  Whether it be in restricting free speech on campus, promoting the frankly hopeless Prevent scheme which targets completely the wrong people, closing down the last avenue through which families might try to save their kidnapped loved ones, blaming internet companies as part of a vendetta or allowing the police to run a frankly ridiculous "awareness" week, the plans seem designed to embitter, alienate and scare without doing anything that actually might help prevent radicalisation in the first place.  Is it worth mentioning at this point how until very recently successive governments claimed our presence in Afghanistan was about stopping terrorist attacks on British streets?  Can anyone remind me how that's working out?  Or indeed whether the insane contortions of our Syria policy which saw us first lionise the Syrian opposition only to then all but side with Assad to battle Islamic State might have contributed to the current mess?  No, probably not.

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Monday, November 17, 2014 

Islamic State and the "glamour" of war.

If there's one thing war most certainly isn't, it's glamorous.  Only the truly chuckleheaded try and make it look that way, most of whom are by coincidence looking for fresh recruits.  All too often accounts of soldiers, defenders, even those on the offensive, fall into adulation and hero worship, any qualms about the hideousness of what those being chronicled are doing, for the greater good or not, forgotten amid the need to create a myth.  Those defending Kobani against Islamic State for instance are without a doubt fighting a noble cause, against an enemy whose inhumanity, barbarity and bloodlust is most certainly not mythical.  They are not however uniquely heroic, the best of humanity against the worst or any other hyperbole; they're still a militia, a people's militia or not, and turning your back on any militia isn't advisable.

Islamic State is hardly likely then to document how their fighters around Kobani will be shitting in dug pits, if of course they have enough food to be able to think about shitting, desperate for water or any liquid, constantly watching the skies terrified of a drone or US warplane getting too close for comfort.  No, instead they ramp up how a tiny minority when not on the front line are housed in seized properties where it's not all that different to back home, chilling with their Muslim brothers, truly living rather than merely existing, as they would have been had they stayed in Jeddah, Tunis or err, Portsmouth.

As Shiraz Maher says, the stuff IS does make available to the world is of "exceptional quality", at least in comparison to a decade ago when IS's predecessors were uploading videos depicting much the same thing, only it appeared to have been filmed with a potato.  It's also revealing in how it mixes the utterly banal with the unbelievably narcissistic, the most vapid and disposable of Western culture appropriated to promote a creed and cause antithetical to everything Hollywood holds dear.  Under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's glorious caliphate, the message seems to be, even the executions will be choreographed and directed by someone with much the same talent as Michael Bay or McG.  Not for these poor bastards a bullet in the back of the head; whereas before IS eschewed all out gore, the screen fading to black as a Western hostage's neck began to be slashed, the camera on this occasion delights in the blood spilled onto sand, the vivid red deliberately set against the dull yellow for maximum impact.

It's not meant for me, of course.  This is your fate, it says to those in Syria and Iraq fighting against IS, whether it be government forces, the Kurds, Shia militias or rebel factions they might have once battled alongside.  This is what you could be doing, it says to the disaffected radically inclined Sunni youth of everywhere, whether they be psychopaths, the sexually frustrated or those with notions of doing good, all are invited and welcome.  Sure, our masked friend with the London accent is once again centre stage, promising to bring the slaughter he's about to lead to "our streets", but it's an empty threat.  After cutting the neck of the man who a second ago was kneeling before him, he then pulls his victim's head back, slow motion is deployed, and he fixes the camera with what is meant to be a stare of defiance.  All I see in those eyes is fear.  A supposed terrorist not at his most powerful but his most bestial, with the man he's just mortally wounded helpless, and still he's terrified.  The victims by contrast go to their deaths with a courage the killers are incapable of emulating.

The video also distracted, intentionally or otherwise, from how things suddenly aren't going the way of IS.  Whether al-Baghdadi was injured or not in the missile strike near Mosul, the group still hasn't taken Kobani and doesn't look as though it can.  It's also losing territory in Iraq, mainly thanks to the involvement of the aforementioned Shia militias backed by Iran, and it's not beyond the realms of possibility the Syrian government might soon win back control of Aleppo, with the obvious next target for Assad the IS capital of Raqqa.  A movement that previously looked unstoppable isn't going to attract the same numbers of recruits, especially those who aren't looking for martyrdom and instead have treated their journey to Syria as little more than a gap year.

Enter then David Cameron, who somehow confused parliaments, announcing new anti-terror legislation in Canberra rather than at Westminster.  A compromise has been reached between stripping citizenship altogether from those who go to fight and instead excluding them for two years, unless they accept they could be prosecuted, as well as subject to stringent monitoring.  Except in reality statelessness was never an option as it's illegal, and nor has it been explained whether someone who decides to wait out the two years will then be treated in the same way on return anyway, as you expect they would.  This rather ignores how the main threat comes usually from those who are stopped from travelling in the first place, as both of the recent attacks in Canada were carried out by men whose passports were confiscated, or from those chosen specifically for a plot, as the 7/7 jihadis were.  Most who head for Syria will end up dead extremely quickly, or left embittered and/or damaged by their experience rather than further radicalised.  It might seem blasé or irresponsible to let those set on jihad go to Syria, but it could be the least worst option, so long as combined with a policy of prosecution and heightened surveillance for those who do choose to come back.

Hyperbole is admittedly tempting when it comes to IS.  Their aim is to instil fear and hatred, and when you really could be next the effect is always going to be palpable.  The best way to respond here though is not to ramp up the panic or to scaremonger, it's to fight back against the narrative of their propaganda, to not give them almost pet nicknames but regard them as what they are: the lowest of the low.  They're not revolutionaries or religious fundamentalists (although they are) so much as murderers and rapists of fellow Muslims, and that is what they will remain.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014 

On recognising Palestine.

In general, the principles for recognising a state outlined by Malcolm "Rockets" Rifkind in yesterday's parliamentary debate on Palestine are good ones.  A state needs "a government, an army, a military capability", the second of which is conspicuous by its absence in Gaza and the West Bank, although Hamas if no longer Fatah most certainly has a military capability.  It also has two governments rather than one, he argued, which while ignoring the recent second unity deal between Hamas and Fatah is probably strictly true.  None of this is the fault of the Palestinians themselves, Rifkind said, and it's also the case that Israel has not previously accepted an eventual Palestinian state having a military at all.

Worth remembering then is how the government acted shortly after the vote at the UN giving Palestine observer status, the first step towards being recognised as a state.  William Hague in his inimitable half-pompous half-bluff style addressed parliament beforehand on how the government needed "assurances" from the Palestinians they wouldn't do anything silly with their new status, like try and pursue Israel at the International Criminal Court, as only Africans and ethnic cleansers can be prosecuted there.  Assurances weren't received, so the government despite fully supporting a two-state solution abstained.

No such assurances were demanded in contrast from the successor organisation to the Syrian National Council, when the government deemed it was the "sole legitimate representative" of the Syrian peopleThe Syrian National Coalition wasn't a government, didn't have anything like full control of the Free Syrian Army which even then was not an army in a real sense, only having a military capability of sorts, most of which it had but a tenuous connection with.  This hasn't exactly worked out, as we've seen.  Close to irrelevant from the moment it was born, it's now completely irrelevant, with hardly anyone continuing to pretend it has the support of almost any of the groups still fighting.  Except that is for US senators, who've been gullible from the outset.

There are nonetheless problems with recognising Palestine as a state when there is nothing to suggest there will be a peace deal any time soon.  With Hamas still refusing to recognise Israel, and the Netanyahu government now insisting on the Palestinians accepting Israel as the "nation-state of the Jewish people", it's difficult to know whether, even if against all the odds a future Israeli government reached a deal with Fatah it would resolve anything.  John Kerry's Herculean effort to break the impasse foundered principally over the Israeli refusal to release a final tranche of 26 prisoners.  As Mahmoud Abbas or sources close him briefed New Republic, if he couldn't get the Americans to persuade the Israelis to release 26 prisoners, how were they ever going to give him East Jerusalem?  Tzipi Livni, now presented as the member of Netanyahu's coalition most dedicated to reaching a peace deal openly told the Palestinians during the previous round of talks they were right to believe the continued annexation of land in the West Bank and expansion of settlements was designed to make a Palestinian state impossible.  It wasn't official government policy, but it was of some of the Israeli parties.

Perverse as it would be to claim there was never any intention on the part of Netanyahu and his ministers to try and reach a deal, it was on a plan that would have been rejected both by Hamas and the Palestinian street.  As Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat argued with Kerry, the 1967 borders which Israel has done so much to erase were not up for discussion.  Susan Rice, exasperated with the Palestinians quibbling over such minor details, remarked they "could never see the fucking bigger picture", apparently oblivious to how that was precisely what they were thinking about.

Recognising a Palestine not worthy of the name would not be a solution.  In a completely backwards way, the wrecking amendment tabled by the Labour Friends of Israel emphasising recognition should only come after a peace deal almost had it right: difficult as it will be for many to accept, only a deal which includes Hamas is likely to last.  Nor is there much point in engaging in gestures that don't lead anywhere; yesterday's vote was symbolic, as everyone stressed.  Would it however make clear to the Israeli government just how far opinion is turning against it?  To judge by the coverage in Israel itself, as well as the New York Times, the answer on this score at least was yes.

Solidarity is after all next to pointless when you're the one staring down the bullet of a gun, as the Kurds have been discovering the last few weeks.  Palestine is a cause that while always popular, ebbs and flows in the public conciousness: the efforts of apologists for the almost biennial slaughter in Gaza to paint all those who protested as anti-Semites have continued unabated while attention has turned elsewhere.  Nor has public opinion shifted because of Operation Protective Edge; the mood has been heading in this direction for a long time now.  If yesterday's vote further makes clear that "fucking Europe" means what it says, with all the consequences it has for Israeli trade, we might be heading towards the point where the Israeli political class realises it can't go on creating "reality" on the ground and getting away with it.  That will ultimately require American pressure of the kind we've yet to see or are likely to any time soon.  It is however coming.  Whether it will be too late by then for the two state solution remains to be seen.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2014 

The war against IS: going just swell.

Compared to the previous execution videos released by Islamic State, their fourth "message to America and its allies" was almost apologetic in tone, as though even they realised the murder of Alan Henning was a step too far.  Gone was the more obscene bombast that had accompanied the killings of James Foley, Stephen Sotloff and David Haines, the lengthier forced testimonies from the men blaming their deaths on Western leaders, with Henning made to say just a couple of lines on the parliamentary vote that authorised British attacks on IS in Iraq.  He also looked calmer, not terrified as he obviously was in the Haines video.  Perhaps he was resigned to his fate, or perhaps this wasn't the first time IS had made him give a statement to camera, on the previous occasions not following through.

Lasting not so much as 90 seconds, the video gave every indication of being hurriedly produced.  The location clearly wasn't the same as it had been in all the previous videos, it wasn't as well lit, the British jihadi (I'm refusing from now on to refer to him in the same way as the rest of the UK media have decided to) was neither as menacing, coherent or arrogant in his speech.  The only things remaining much the same were the execution, the quick fading out, displaying of Henning's lifeless body and then parading of the next likely victim.  Jihadis have and always will invent specious, quasi-religious justifications for the murder of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but even the hardcore will have struggled internally to convince themselves killing Henning was necessary: a man who travelled to Syria purely to help the very people IS claims to be defending, his life and compassion will be remembered long after his killer's banal hatred is consigned to history.

If there are crumbs of comfort to be taken from such an act of unconscionable cruelty, it's that even prior to the murder itself there had been an outpouring of condemnation from all sides, and the video itself suggests the airstrikes on the IS capital of Raqqa have already had an effect.  Elsewhere the war on IS doesn't appear to be going as planned, not that it's ever been apparent there is something resembling a plan.  In northern Iraq airstrikes, combined with the aiding/arming of the peshmerga, have stopped IS from advancing further.  This though seems to have been at the price of IS turning its attention both further south, with reports of IS consolidating its hold on territory in Anbar province, while more attention is being paid to the siege of Kobani on the Syria/Turkey border.

The same doom-laden predictions of an imminent massacre, of betrayal at the hands of the Americans and Turks, of demands for heavy weaponry to match that which IS took from the Iraqi army, all have been heard before and are now being aired yet again.  There is some truth in these latter complaints: the War Nerd points out IS took the small border crossing of Jarabulus (and in the usual grandiose fashion, declared it an emirate), 25km from Kobani in June 2013, long enough ago for all sides to have acted or prepared for just this eventuality.  It also speaks of the relative weakness of IS that it's taken over a year for the group to move the short distance from Jarabulus and try capturing the next obvious large settlement.  At work are the divided loyalties of President Erodgan's Turkish state: it doesn't especially want Kobani to fall to IS, but it doesn't want to empower the Kurds either, not least when the militias fighting IS are either allied with or directly connected with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), still designated as a terrorist group despite the long-term ceasefire agreed last year.  Until recently the Turkish border with Syria was all but wide open, allowing foreigners to join up with the rebel grouping of their choosing with relative impunity; now it's closed, especially to those wanting to reinforce the Kurdish militias.

Turkey's role in the Syrian civil war has long been opaque, as demonstrated by leaked recordings which suggested the military could have been preparing a so-called "false flag" attack on the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, in a bid to justify intervening in the country.  Erodgan today continued to demand a two-pronged strategy, to defeat both IS and Assad simultaneously, without explaining how this could possibly be achieved, only that air power alone couldn't do it.  Many Kurds for their part believe IS has received support directly from Turkey, while the Americans are understandably fuming at how a NATO member state has done little beyond place heavy weaponry along the border, despite Turkey's parliament at the weekend voting to support intervention.

For all the insults thrown at IS, including from the esteemed likes of the War Nerd, it's adapted quickly to the forces now ranged against it.  Partly this is down to how many of its fighters are relative veterans, either from Iraq or battling Assad, and so aren't strangers to being attacked from the air.  They've learned to dig in, scatter when they hear jets or blend in with the population.  The airstrikes have disrupted their ability to operate completely in the open for sure, but not to the point where it means they can't still take new ground.  Already we have the likes of Jonathan Powell urging everyone not to rule out talking to our new enemy, and he makes quite a few salient points.  Strangely, Powell doesn't so much as mention talking to Assad, something that would make far more sense and which even his former boss suggested was inevitable earlier in the year.  Powell it seems is more Blairite now than ever: not prepared to jaw-jaw with dictators when we could war-war instead, but perfectly happy to talk with the most brutal of armed groups.  One could bring up how Powell and Blair's war effectively created IS, but that would be frightfully rude.

Everyone knows IS can't be defeated through just air power.  At the same time, no one wants to admit they're wrong, and have been for the past few years.  For either Obama or Cameron to send ground forces (as opposed to special forces or military "advisers", both of whom are and have been operating in Syria and Iraq for some time now) in would be to go against their twin strategies of drawing down and back from prolonged, costly deployments in the Middle East.  To even reach a temporary accommodation with Assad would be a propaganda coup for the "illegitimate" gasser of women and children, and outrage the Saudis and Qataris whom are still keen on their proxy war against Iran.  To admit the Free Syrian Army doesn't exist and probably couldn't be trained in 8 years, let alone 8 months to a standard where it could take on IS would remove the one remaining illusion of influence we have on the ground. 

We could, of course, have chosen not to intervene; we could have told the Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis and all the other funders of IS and al-Nusra in no uncertain terms how they were risking the seeming advances made in Iraq; we could have pushed far harder for a peace settlement before the power of the Islamists became too great; we could have done almost everything over the past decade connected with Syria and Iraq differently.  In the same way, "boots on the ground" intervention is just a matter of time.  It's not that we haven't learned anything, it's not that we haven't had a choice, it's just that not repeating the same mistakes over and over is too difficult by half.

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Thursday, October 02, 2014 

Moazzam Begg and the incompetence of MI5.

The release of former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, 5 days before he was due to stand trial on terrorism charges, once again raises questions about the relationship between the police, Crown Prosecution Service and the intelligence agencies.  It also makes clear how political pressure is being put on banks to close the accounts of charities which have links, however tenuous, with those active on the ground in Syria.

Worth setting out from the start is Begg and Cage, the group he represents, were not completely honest about what he was doing in Syria.  In a lengthy piece for Cage prior to his arrest but after his passport had been confiscated, he maintained his visits were mainly aimed at gathering further evidence of US/UK complicity in torture, "accumulating testimony and information for a report on the situation of the current prisoners as well as the accounts of those who had been detained and tortured in the past."  There's no reason to doubt Begg on this count.  He did also however, as he was going to argue in his defence had the case proceeded to trial, train young men in how to "defend civilians against war crimes by the Assad regime", something apparently made clear by the titles of "electronic documents" he was also charged with being in possession of.

Begg's defence was set to argue that just as the UK government was providing non-lethal aid to the rebels, he was doing much the same only in a personal capacity.  Whether this would have won over a jury is open to question: it certainly didn't save Mashudur Choudhury, who was found guilty of preparing acts of terrorism in Syria despite his failure to so much as join up with a rebel group once out there.

Quite where the involvement of MI5 began is similarly indefinable.  Begg writes of a meeting with an officer where both sides had lawyers present, at the end of which it was made clear MI5 did not object to his travelling to Syria and would not stand in his way.  It seems difficult to believe the investigation by West Midlands police into Begg didn't involve collaboration with MI5 in some way, even if they didn't instigate it.  If as seems likely it was this meeting with Begg that belatedly led to his being released, why was it not communicated to the police and CPS sooner?  Why also did it then take a further two months before the case was dropped after the intelligence was communicated?

Predictably, this has seen claims made that Begg's release is more about behind the scenes efforts to free Alan Henning than it is the undermining of the evidence against Begg.  Quite how dropping the charges against Begg will make Islamic State more amenable isn't explained; far more likely is the Times' story has been planted to spare MI5's blushes.

As for whether Cage itself will receive an apology now that its outreach director has been freed remains to be seen.  Barclays closed Cage's bank account earlier in the year due to its association with Begg, as did the Co-op Bank.  At the heart of the issue remains the government's contradictory approach to Syria, still not cleared up by the joining of the attacks on Islamic State: it supports the rebels, but considers anyone who travels to the country a potential terrorist.  Little wonder the police and CPS themselves appear to be confused.

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Friday, September 26, 2014 

That justification for a third war in Iraq in full.

We have a slightly different missile in our arsenal to the ones used by the Americans.

Well, I'm convinced.

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