Thursday, July 02, 2015 

Let's call the whole thing off.

Have you heard about the debate that's been electrifying Westminster the past few days?  No, it's not the Labour leadership contest, or the government's plan to abolish child poverty by deciding it henceforth doesn't exist.  And no, it's not the one about the Kim Kardashian flag at Glastonbury either.

Yep, the big fight in parliament this week has been over what the BBC calls Islamic StateThe fiends in charge of news at Auntie have been calling Islamic State Islamic State, with the reasoning that's what Islamic State is called.  Apparently though this name is deeply discomforting, not to Muslims who know full well they're not being tarred with the same brush by a broadcaster referring to a terrorist group by its actual name, but to politicians who instead insist on calling Islamic State Isil.  Which is an acronym of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  Or there's others who insist on referring to Islamic State by the acronym Daesh, which is arrived at via Islamic State's literal Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraq wa’al Sham.  Only this was mainly adopted in the first place because it sounds like the Arabic term Dahes, which means to sow discord, and so is meant pejoratively.

The debate is, all but needless to say, unbelievably fucking stupid.  All of the names have problems: calling the group by what it calls itself should be the obvious thing to do, but then the media have almost never done so previously.  IS originates from the group started by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which fairly swiftly pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, and so became known as al-Qaida in Iraq, the name it was almost always referred to as by the media up until last year.  It in fact went through two more name changes, becoming the Mujahideen Shura Council for a time, before changing to the simple Islamic State of Iraq at the height of its (then) control of Iraqi territory.  The Guardian, for instance, tends to split the difference and call it Isis, which makes something approaching sense as referring to Syria as either the Levant or Sham, both archaic terms, is exceptionally daft.

According to David Cameron, calling Islamic State Islamic State is misleading and potentially damaging as it is neither Islamic nor a state.  To which one response should be: how about you go and tell Mr al-Baghdadi to his face that his group isn't Islamic and the territory it holds doesn't amount to a state, Dave?  I envision a scene akin to the one from Mars Attacks, where President Jack Nicholson delivers a why can't we all be friends speech with such passion it brings tears to the Martian leader's eyes.  They shake hands, then a contraption pierces Nicholson straight through the heart and a little Martin flag pops out the end.  Even if you agree with Cameron, that doesn't alter the fact that if you use Isil or Daesh you're still calling it Islamic State, you're just not spelling the damn thing out.  If we're going to be precious about it, we might as well just call them Those Murderous Jihadist Cunts and be done with it.

Part of the reason our leaders have been squabbling about what the BBC is doing is, predictably, because they haven't gone the first clue about what to do to respond to the attack in Tunisia.  If you start claiming there's going to be a full spectrum response against a group that poses an "existential threat" while not actually doing anything new you are rather asking for it.  Hence the feelers put out today about extending airstrikes into Syria itself, which to give the government its due, isn't as cretinous an idea as it once was.  It's fairly pointless being opposed to ourselves chucking bombs at IS in Syria when the Americans have been doing it for nigh on 10 months now, especially when it's long been obvious they have been informing the Syrians of where they're going to be targeting.

It's also fairly pointless to be opposed because just chucking bombs at IS has been shown to be fairly pointless.  IS controls more territory in the two countries now than they did when the airstrikes began: the only times they've had an effect has been in Kobane, where the Kurds were effectively allied with the US and calling in strikes themselves, in breaking the siege on Mount Sinjar, and in softening up the IS forces on the ground ahead of advances by the Iraqi "army", i.e. the Shia militias that are now the de facto army.  As the new chair of the foreign affairs committee Crispin Blunt said this morning, joining in the strikes now adds up to nothing more than sharing the burden of attacks with the Americans, while putting the country into a legally grey area.  IS cannot be defeated from the air: the gains against it have only been won in partnership with ground forces.  Without a stronger ally in both Iraq and Syria, and neither the Kurdish militias or the Shia equivalent can be that ally, IS isn't going anywhere.

The Americans have been complaining for a while there is no strategy for defeating IS, and that's because the current stalemate seems preferable, terrible as it is to the alternatives.  If we swallow our pride and ally with Assad now despite everything, we risk driving the jihadis fighting IS back into their arms.  Even if IS was pushed back into Iraq solely, that won't change the fact the country's Sunnis in the main welcomed the jihadis because of the discrimination and contempt they faced under Maliki, which hasn't gone away.  Nor do they rate their chances of survival when faced with the militias that previously acted as death squads at the time of the all out civil conflict.  The only realistic solutions are federalism or complete partition, with three separate states, something that would be opposed by all sides (excepting the Kurds), all of whom still believe everything can return to how things stood this time last year without explaining how.  Faced with these options, it's not surprising politicians would rather chide the BBC than explain how desperate the situation is for the people in the region, if not in truth for us.  That Iraq war, eh?

P.S. 


Staying with that thought, here's some number crunching:

187 - number of Syrian refugees so far granted asylum in the UK under the Vulnerable Person Relocation scheme


664 - number of children Nicholas Winton, who died yesterday, helped to escape the Nazis in 1939

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Monday, June 29, 2015 

Terrorism and victimhood.

The family of Dr Sarandev Bhambra had a point last week.  If the murder of Lee Rigby was a terrorist attack, despite it failing to terrorise anyone other than those who wanted to be, then surely the attempted murder of Bhambra by Zackery Davies, which he claimed to be an attempt to avenge Rigby's death, was also.  Davies was almost your stereotype white supremacist: a loner who had the obligatory copy of the Turner Diaries alongside all the usual Nazi paraphernalia, that masturbatory genocidal fantasy which concludes with a suicide attack on the Pentagon, he also as now tends to be the custom admired the barbarism of Islamic State, despite the obvious contradictions.  He may though also be mentally ill, and the judge has requested psychiatric reports before he sentences him.  One of the killers of Lee Rigby, Michael Adebowale, has also since been transferred to Broadmoor for treatment, and is appealing against the length of his 45-year sentence on those grounds.

Branding the murderous actions of individuals without any links to specific terrorist groups, and in some instances even those who do have such links is to give in to precisely the self-aggrandisement and narcissism that motivated them in the first place.  Davies posing in front of swastikas and the flag of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement is of a piece with the suspected Charleston church murderer Dylann Roof burning the Star and Stripes, waving the Confederate flag and as with so many previous mass killers leaving behind a "manifesto" attempting to justify the unjustifiable.  One line, and one line only is worth dignifying: "We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet," he wrote. "Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me."  The exact same line of thinking is now espoused by the successors to the mantle of al-Qaida, the same one grasped by Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo.

Murder/suicide rarely excites any more.  How could it when the TV news in recent years has often seemed to be one long parade of atrocities?  If you're going to go down in a blaze of ignominy, the thinking seems to be, you might as well make it look good for the 24 hour news networks.  A case in point was the first of Friday's reported terrorist attacks, the apparent attempt by Yassin Salhi to cause a major incident at the Air Products chemical factory in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier.  The French president Francois Hollande instantly branded it a terrorist incident only for the situation to become more confused once it emerged that despite beheading his boss and the use of a flag with the Islamic profession of faith on it, Salhi told the police his motivations were personal more than political.  He might have been or still be a fundamentalist, having previously been on the police's radar, but the use of jihadi iconography and methods seems the excuse rather than the reason.  Nor have foreign connections been discovered as yet, pouring scorn on the media's grasping for a link between France, Tunisia and Kuwait.

Last week at times this country seemed to have descended into a self-pitying wreck, feeling sorry for itself as all around it burned.  The strike at Calais which gave hundreds of desperate migrants a better chance than usual of stowing away for the journey across the channel once again electrified the media at large, with the same old why-oh-whying about why do they come here rather than stay on the continent rearing its head for the umpteenth time.  I waited and waited in vain for someone to point out that the numbers in Calais wanting to come to Britain are tiny compared to the over 100,000 that have made it to Europe so far this year, most of whom have either stayed in Italy or Greece or tried to get to Germany or Sweden, the two main destinations for Syrian refugees in particular.  There was however no shortage of people convinced it was all down to how generous our benefit system is, the myth that refuses to die and never will so long as broadcasters and the press either push it themselves or don't bother to challenge it.

And there right in the centre was David Cameron.  While the big boys round the EU summit table tried and failed to agree on both sharing out said number of migrants more fairly and keeping Greece in the Euro, there he was pushing his pathetic little renegotiation agenda, to much sighing and eye-rolling from everyone else.  Britain has often stood out on its own, sometimes by choice, sometimes not, but rarely has it looked so self-absorbed and obtuse as of late.

This complete lack of apparent wider awareness has manifested itself just as it has in the past in the reaction to the massacre in Sousse.  Cameron promises a "full spectrum" response to the "existentialist" threat posed by Islamic State.  No one has the slightest idea what a full spectrum response entails, and Cameron apparently doesn't know what existentialist means or otherwise he wouldn't make such an utterly ridiculous statement, but that's the least of our worries.  How much of a role Islamic State truly played in the attack doesn't really matter; that they claimed it whereas they didn't the incident in France is evidence enough they pulled the strings.  Nor does it matter that there's very little you can do to prevent one fanatic from gunning down Western tourists on the beach when north Africa has been thrown into flux by the absence of effective government in Libya.  If anything, that's it taken this long for jihadists to realise that far too much can go wrong with bombings when a trained lone attacker armed with an automatic weapon and grenades can kill just as many if not more people is proof in itself of just how non-existentialist the threat is.

The point is our foreign policy, such as it is, seems deliberately designed to increase rather than decrease the threat.  Cameron isn't wrong when he says there would be a threat regardless of whether or not we were personally involved in bombing Islamic State in Iraq.  Theresa May was almost certainly right in saying Brits weren't deliberately targeted in Sousse; westerners as a whole were.  Nor does Islamic State care one jot about the effect the massacre will have on tourism in Tunisia.  All its cadres are interested in is the number of decadent westerners slaughtered for daring to feel safe in an Arab country.  Indeed, little is more likely to excite the always priapic IS devotees than white women in bikinis lying dead in pools of blood, as potent a mixture of the paradoxical motivations of your average teenage jihadi as it's possible to imagine.

I apologise for making this argument for what seems the thousandth time, as even I'm tired of it.  IS nevertheless only exists in its current form because of Syria, and owes some of its success to our refusal to, as the Times put it when demanding that we pal up with Sisi in Egypt "work with the political order as it exists in the Arab world and not as [we] wish it to be".  Regardless of how and why, the west as a whole came to the conclusion that Assad was doomed, that it was only a matter of time before he fell or fled.  It hasn't happened.  Rather than reassess the situation four years down the line, accept that regardless of his being a chemical weapon using killer of his own people that he's not going anywhere and that his army is the only reliable force on the ground other than the Kurdish militias, we'd still rather pretend to be achieving something by attacking IS from the air even as more westerners travel to join them and others launch attacks in their name.  IS exploited the vacuum in Syria, as well as the support from both the west and the other Arab countries that flowed to the "opposition" to undermine Iraq and make its comeback there.

Here in short is just how fucked western policy in the Middle East currently is.  In Yemen we're supporting Saudi Arabia's brutal and ineffective air war against the Houthis, backed indirectly by the Iranians.  In Iraq we're in effective league with Shia militias backed by Iran against IS, which is backed by the Sunnis who prefer the brutal regime of the caliphate to the discrimination they faced under the Shia-dominated Baghdad government.  In Syria we are variously backing the remnants of the Free Syrian Army, assorted other "moderates" and the Kurdish militias against both the Assad regime and Islamic State.  In reality this means we are in alliance with the Sunni states of Saudia Arabia and Qatar, who have gone back and forth between funding and supporting outright jihadi and very slightly more moderate Islamic opposition groups, against Assad, supported by Iran and helped by Hezbollah, also backed by Iran.  Despite claims of both IS and Assad being pushed back and so on, in truth we're in pretty much the same position as this time last year.  Libya meanwhile remains in turmoil and has turned into the conduit through which the refugees from these conflicts, along also with others from Eritrea and Somalia and your common garden economic migrants are making the trip across the Mediterranean.  We don't need to reiterate what went on in Libya, do we?  Good.

Cameron is thus reduced to the platitude of a "full-spectrum response" and the ludicrous claim that a rag-tag army of nihilist throwbacks threaten our very existence because he either can't do anything or won't do anything.  Further western intervention is precisely what IS wants and the Americans failed in any case to destroy al-Qaida in Iraq when boots were on the ground.  We refuse to accept that IS is more of a threat to regional stability than Assad, and so won't ally with the only army in either Iraq or Syria that somewhat functions.  We continue to ignore how Saudi Arabia funds the mosques and preachers that spread the Wahhabi precursor to Islamic State's takfiri jihadism.  Cameron talks of the struggle of our generation when western policy up to now has either targeted individuals rather than the ideology itself and where it springs from, or has made things worse through either incompetence, as in Iraq, or by choice, as in Libya.  We are apparently to be intolerant of intolerance, only without a countervailing narrative to rival that which appeals to a distinct minority, some of whom might as Roof put it "take it to the real world".  The vast majority won't.  That won't however stop ministers from reaching to the law, further restricting free speech in the name of protecting British values.  Anything other than admit our mistakes and change course, and think of ourselves as anything other than victims.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015 

Syrian trilogy in Yorkshire pottery.

All American trilogy, the future's dead fundamentally / It's so fucking funny, it's absurd

Did you see the statement put out by the family of Tahla Asmal, the 17-year-old who now carries the distinction of being the youngest Britisher to become a suicide bomber?  “Talha was a loving, kind, caring and affable teenager,” it begins, before going on to firmly place the blame for his decision elsewhere.  "Talha’s tender years and naivety were, it seems however, exploited by persons unknown, who, hiding behind the anonymity of the worldwide web, targeted and befriended Talha and engaged in a process of deliberate and calculated grooming of him."

Perhaps Talha was all of these things.  Perhaps his tender years and naivety were indeed exploited.  Plenty of 17-year-olds think about killing themselves, if not necessarily other people at the same time; I certainly did.  Perhaps he was targeted and befriended, even groomed, although frankly this transferral of the terminology of sexual exploitation and abuse to that of comprehensively changing someone's outlook on life as a whole in a very short space of time doesn't really cut it.
  The insistence that Asmal's decision to not only go and join Islamic State, but also take part in a "martyrdom operation", as they're called by jihadists, was all down to faceless individuals on the internet does though take a knock when you learn his best friend, next-door neighbour and and fellow emigree to IS was Hassan Munshi, brother of Hammad Munshi, convicted back in 2008 at the age of 18 for possessing documents useful to terrorists.  Munshi's defence at the time was, uncannily, that he was groomed by the two older men involved in the plot.

Again, perhaps he was.  You might though have thought it would have alerted his parents, and especially his grandfather, Yakub Munshi, president of the Islamic Research Institute of Great Britain at the Markazi Mosque in Dewsbury to the potential for Hammad's younger brother to become subject to the same pressures.  Perhaps they were and it made no difference.  Surely though Asmal's family, devastated and heartbroken, must have been aware of all this.  Could it really be that not one, but two Munshis, as well as Amsal were targeted by these calculated and cunning groomers, without anyone becoming aware as to what was going on?

One thing is for sure: we seem to be stuck in the same old groove when it comes to radicalisation.  It's still about foreign policy, Islamophobia, alienation, cries one section; it's about an austere and intolerant interpretation of Islam that either doesn't condemn the likes of IS enough or is outright sympathetic to their purity says another; no, it's actually to do with identity and belonging, insists someone else.  To which the obvious response is: doesn't all of the above play a role?

To start with, you have to see what Islamic State for what it is, which is the answer to all things.  It's a fundamentally teenage organisation in every sense; just look at the old jihadi grey beards Abu Qatada and Abu ­Muhammad al-Maqdisi bemoaning how what they helped bring into being has grown into.  Who knew that if you gave religious backing to one group allowing them to kill whoever they feel like that eventually another group would used it to kill whoever they feel like?  Islamic State's response to al-Maqdisi's attempts to free the captured Jordanian pilot was the equivalent of a step-child telling their mother's new partner you're not my real dad, only with the added son of a whore insult just to rub it in.

IS then not only appeals to those who no longer accept that establishing the caliphate now is illegitimate, as al-Qaida does, to those who see it as their religious duty to fight against the kuffar, whether they be Alawites, the Shia or anyone else they don't agree with, but also to to the most base desires.  IS not only promises fighting, but fucking as well, to male and female alike, so long as the woman is perfectly happy with playing the role of the dutiful wife to someone with a potentially short life expectancy.  While you'd think this would appeal more to the recruits from other Arab countries, never underestimate the pressures on young Muslim men as well as women in the west to follow the strictures set down by their parents.

This doesn't of course begin to explain the appeal of IS to the women from Bradford, assumed to have made the journey to Syria.  It's not many happily married women with young families who would decide to up sticks to a war zone leaving their husbands behind.  Something on that level doesn't ring true.  That said, why Syria rather than attempt to stay in Saudi Arabia, unless their very brand of Islam is compatible with that of IS?  Their brother having gone to fight doesn't on its own lead to them fleeing to join him, not least taking their children with them to a place of such danger.

The entire case of the Dawoods raises those questions of belonging, identity and integration.  It also though makes clear that even among those who adhere to a highly conservative brand of Sunni Islam, the numbers who are so taken with the IS vision of life and the world that they'll join it are tiny.  When you then have the government's utterly cack-handed overreaction, first to the Trojan Horse plot, which was nothing of the sort, and where there was no evidence that unpleasant, oppressive and wrong as it was, the conservative Islamic ethos adopted by those Birmingham schools was breeding extremists, combined with the continuing stupidity of the Prevent programme, which has never prevented anything, there is the potential to push those on the edge over into doing something they otherwise wouldn't have.  Shiraz Maher is right on almost everything in his piece except for his bizarre invocation of how the colonies fought for Britain in WW1 and WW2 means instilling "British values" is the answer today.  The Conservatives don't have the slightest idea what British values are, but they do know how to make more work for schools, or indeed nurseries, lest there be any 5-year-old terrorists already being groomed for action.

The rise of IS and eclipse of al-Qaida also highlights the way the nature of the threat from terrorism is changing, and just how little recognition there has been from all concerned to that effect.  The big, major plots of the past have not entirely gone away, but have been superseded by the danger of the lone or working in pairs attacks we've seen.  More difficult as these are to prevent, they are just as likely to result in failure, or rather than indiscriminately targeting the public, they focus on the police or specific groups.  Spectacular attacks on multiple targets have fallen from favour.  With the focus on the jihad in Syria and Iraq, it also means those who do choose to fight are as likely to be disillusioned by the experience and the reality of the situation as they are enthused by it.  For all the fear about jihadis coming back from Syria to launch attacks, there has as yet not been a single returnee charged who has been found to have such designs. 

Here also is the stupidity of the double game being played in Syria: rather than approach those coming back with the intention of trying to persuade others not to make the journey, the prosecutions continue regardless of the groups being fought with.  This is despite Patrick Cockburn reporting how one of the major reasons the non-IS rebels have made such advances since the turn of the year has been a influx of support for the al-Nusra Front, aka al-Qaida's official affiliate in Syria and a direct split from IS, and which Qatar is all but openly supporting.  One day, the way policy on Syria has ebbed and flowed will be rued in the same as the war on Iraq now is.  Till then, we'll hear more families make their children out to be victims without examining themselves, while the efforts to tackle what extremism there is will continue to fail.

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Thursday, June 04, 2015 

Helping jihadists in Syria while still prosecuting those who come back? No, we wouldn't do that.

Speaking as we were of the deficiencies of the Crown Prosecution Service, it would be remiss not to mention the collapse on Monday of the about to start terrorism trial of Swedish national Bherlin Gildo.  Precisely what circumstances were behind the arrest of Gildo, who was only in the country to get a connecting flight to Manila, are opaque to begin with.  Stopped at Heathrow under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, he was charged with attending a terrorist training camp in Syria, as well as having in his possession information likely to be useful for terrorism.  And indeed, Gildo made no attempt to deny he had been in Syria, fighting alongside the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaida's affiliate in the country.  He hardly could when like so many other jihadis he was keen on posing for the camera, including with dead bodies.

Surely then another open and shut case.  Except Gildo's defence had the bright idea of bothering to put some work in for their client, and presented evidence mainly in the form of news reports on how the intelligence agencies had been secretly training and supplying weapons to armed groups in Syria.  The government has also recogised the Syrian opposition "as the sole legitimate representative" of the Syrian people, despite how the Syrian opposition mainly consists of a tiny and ever dwindling number of so-called moderates and a complete mess of Islamists of various hues, from the more radical than Hamas variety to our pals in Islamic State.

You might then have expected the prosecution to dismiss the notion the UK government had been in any way helping out a group affiliated to al-Qaida, or even the non-moderate opposition as a whole.  If they refused to, or didn't disclose the information requested by the defence, that would be a tacit admission that we haven't the foggiest idea where the "non-lethal" materiel we do know has been provided has gone, let alone the alleged shipments of weapons, wouldn't it?  It would seem so, and yet rather than dispel such an absurd notion, the prosecution instead dropped the case.

Fairly apparent is that the arrest of Gildo was a result of dealings between the authorities and the Swedish intelligence agencies.  Gildo returned home with the apparent help of the Swedes, where there have been no prosecutions of those who have gone to fight in the country.  Whether he broke an agreement he had with them, or terminated the mutual relationship they believed to have developed, it's difficult to see precisely why he would have been stop and arrested here, various jihadist propaganda found on his laptop or not, unless it was as a favour on the part of MI5.  They clearly didn't expect Gildo to end up being represented by the ever tenacious Gareth Peirce, nor that something done for reasons we'll never know could have potentially exposed the activities of MI6 in providing support to the Syrian rebels.<

The surprise is that in none of the previous prosecutions of those who've travelled to Syria to fight was a similar defence attempted.  The vast majority have involved Islamic State, which the West has never directly backed, although our allies in the Middle East may well have done, but this wasn't the case at the trial of the Nawaz brothers.  Not only did neither of the brothers actually take part in fighting, staying only at a training camp for a month, they joined a group that became part of the Islamic Front, a jihadist but opposed to Islamic State coalition of various factions.  


Despite the Crown Prosecution Service saying the dropping of the Gildo case will have no bearing on other prosecutions relating to Syria, it surely provides the Nawaz brothers with a line of appeal: if the government cannot guarantee it is not providing support to groups like the Islamic Front, then surely their conviction is unsafe.  Considering it refused to do so in a case involving al-Nusra, which is a specifically proscribed organisation, it hardly seems likely to be able to do with Junud al-Sham.  As with policy on Syria as a whole, what an utter mess, and one entirely of our own making.

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Monday, April 20, 2015 

Foreign policy: not on the campaign agenda.


You hardly need me to tell you the election campaign has not exactly caught fire thus far.  It has briefly threatened to, with Labour's unexpected pledge to abolish non-dom status and the Tory response of Ed Miliband being so ruthless he'd stab his mother in the back to get her independent seafood deterrent or something along those lines, but otherwise it's been three weeks of increasingly hysterical warnings about what the other side will do.

Indeed, it's all wearingly familiar to 5 years ago, with personal attacks on an unpopular leader and scaremongering about the economy the defining characteristics.  The major difference is the Tory emphasis on the "chaos" that would result from any sort of SNP involvement in government, despite the indications up to now this is having precisely zero impact on the polls, unless part of the aim is to do the equivalent of jumping up and down on Scottish Labour's corpse.  The polls as a whole suggest an effective dead heat between Labour and the Conservatives, with slight leads for both from different companies cancelling out each other.  As we head ever closer towards Thursday the 7th, the chance of the fabled "crossover" for the Tories surely becomes less and less likely, with all that implies for how the final week will pan out in terms of last minute attacks and stunts, not least from the never knowingly underbiased media we all know and loathe.

Nearly entirely absent has been any discussion of foreign policy.  Whereas in 2010 debate didn't go much beyond how Labour had clearly breached the military covenant by failing to give the Ministry of Defence exactly what it wanted in Afghanistan, with Gordon Brown criticised for bothering to write a personal letter of condolence, this time it's been limited even further to the 0.7% overseas aid target and the potential in or out EU referendum.

Considering just how disastrous the coalition's foreign policy has been with the exception of the aid target, it's more than slightly incongruous.  It's only when you realise that with the single exception of Miliband stopping the attack on Assad by mistake, which might be a slightly unkind verdict on what happened back in 2013, there has not been a single substantial difference between the main three parties on bombing the fuck out of Islamic State, bombing the fuck out of Libya and supporting the good rebels in Syria while opposing the bad ones that the reason becomes clearer.  When it's left to Private Eye to sum up the ever more bizarre contortions of whom we're supporting and where in the Middle East (see above, obv.), from the satire pages no less, something has gone spectacularly wrong.

The situation in the Mediterranean is not wholly the result of European foreign policy but on it most certainly rests a very heavy burden of responsibility.  Both David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy saw the crackdown by Gaddafi in Libya not just as demanding the invocation of the responsibility to protect in order to save the citizens of Benghazi, but as an unbridled opportunity for European companies to take full advantage of the possibilities created by the dictator's removal.  The UN resolution meant to protect civilians was used to justify changing the regime.  It wasn't inevitable that the end result would be another civil war, but the complete lack of interest from Europe once Gaddafi was dead and his government gone was palpable.  Only now when the country has become the key transit point for migrants looking to escape from the wars and oppressive governments across the region has anyone began to take notice.

Our foreign policy is not so much coherent as asinine.  In Libya we overthrew a secular dictator, just as we did in Iraq; the result has been the same, if so far less bloody.  In Egypt we initially welcomed the overthrow of a secular dictator, only to get cold feet over the Islamism of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, democratically elected or not, and so we now support the restoration of the secular dictatorship in the shape of President Sisi.  In Syria we support the downfall of the Assad regime, but obviously we don't want the Islamic State to take power instead.  What we do want isn't on offer, as the non-Islamic State supporting rebels nonetheless aren't interested in democracy and instead would like an Islamic state.  We're supposedly training "moderate" rebel forces, but whether they actually exist is still up for debate.  In truth what we seem to have settled for is a bloody stalemate, with neither Assad or the rebels able to win an outright victory, and as a result what's been described as the biggest refuge crisis since WW2 carries on regardless.

In Iraq we naturally support the central government in its fight against Islamic State, but the central government has almost no control whatsoever over the army the Americans supposedly trained at vast expense.  Instead most of the fighting is being done by the same Iranian-backed Shia militias that previously were behind much of the insurgency in the south of Iraq.  The perceived sectarianism of the central government was what drove many Sunnis into once again supporting the Islamic State; now the militias, accused of looting and summary executions are completing the job.   


In Yemen things are even crazier: Houthi rebels, linked with but not under the control of Iran have succeeded in exiling the useless president installed after the protests in the country following the Arab spring.  In a further example of the proxy war being fought between the Saudis and Iran, the Saudi response has been to bomb the fuck out of one of the poorest countries in the world, and we, naturally, are fully behind it, in part because of their negligible help against Islamic State in Syria.  So far the bombing it better approach has amazingly failed to work, with the Houthis continuing their advance.  That no one is the slightest bit interested in yet another bloodbath in the Middle East when there are so many others to pay attention to isn't surprising; when it leads to a further exodus to European shores, as it will, it might just increase in importance.

For while there are some among those making the crossing from Libya to Italy, Greece or Malta, with thousands drowning in the process that are simply looking for a better life or fleeing oppressive governments we have little traction or trade with, like Eritrea, many are there because of conflicts we have either been responsible for or made far worse.  Only Germany and Sweden have made an effort to take in Syrian refugees, with the rest of Europe declaring itself to be full or saying one thing and doing another, as we have.  The decision was effectively made to let migrants drown this spring on the basis that to rescue those put to sea in dangerously overcrowded or inadequate vessels was a "pull" factor.  The numbers have increased regardless of any such thing.  The belated response now has obviously not been to admit that the foreign policy of most EU member states has directly led to the thousands attempting such a perilous voyage, but to target the smugglers themselves, as though they're comparable to the Somalian pirates.

This narrowness between the main parties is an invitation to the bigots and the opportunists to say what they like or claim they somehow offer an alternative.  The Libyan war was a choice; allying with the "moderate" rebels in Syria was a choice; allying with the Saudis in Yemen was a choice; the Iraq war, more than 12 years after it began, remains a choice of almost unparalleled stupidity.  The drowning of thousands of those desperate to escape from the nightmare of their lives is being described as a failure of compassion.  While true, it's more damningly a failure of policy.  That despite 5 years of utter lunacy on the foreign policy front none of the parties want to suggest a better way forward, and in fact two of them want to stir the pot even further goes to show just how limited our politics has become and is likely to remain.

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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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