Tuesday, July 08, 2014 

Condemned to repeat.

Yesterday was the 9th anniversary of the 7/7 attacks.  Survivors, relatives of the 52 people murdered by 4 British men once again paid quiet, dignified tribute at the memorial in Hyde Park.  The graffiti sprayed by an idiot truther on the memorial the night before was removed long before they arrived.

Despite making a number of attempts since, 7/7 was al-Qaida central's last "success".  While other western cities have been attacked post-2005, none of those responsible have been definitively linked back to al-Qaida in Pakistan.  Indeed, if we're to believe the documents captured in the raid on Osama bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, the hermit leader of the network was having doubts about the wisdom of indiscriminate, high casualty attacks, not surprising considering the damage caused to the image of al-Qaida's brand of jihad by the takfiri sectarianism of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq.


Not for a second though has the level of threat posed by Islamic terrorists diminished, oh no.  Just because they aren't as focused as much now on simultaneous suicide attacks doesn't mean we should relax or suggest things aren't as bad. On the contrary, to do so would be truly irresponsible.  It doesn't seem to matter how increasingly ridiculous the plots we're meant to be afraid of are, or how insane the security measures imposed on air passengers have become, we can't question the people who've seen the intelligence and know best.  They have our best interests at heart.


Finally then the two other main threats to our security have melded together. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's master bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri is feared to have passed his knowledge on to the al-Nusra front in Syria, although it's not clear whether this is in the form of devices or training. Intelligence, we're told, suggests foreign fighters returning from the battlefield may have been persuaded to take the fight to the West rather than Assad, with fiendish undetectable bombs hidden in their luggage.  This weekend the Americans started introducing checks on electronic devices, requiring airline passengers to demonstrate smartphones, tablets, etc could be powered on, with those found to have uncharged gadgets either not allowed to board or forced to leave their possessions behind.  As we simply have to follow our former colonial cousins, the same restrictions have since been put in place here.

If all this sounds eerily familiar, it might be because we've been through this just a few times before.  Al-Asiri is a master bomb maker in the sense that so far, not a single one of his devilish, ingenious devices has had the desired effect of killing infidels.  On the contrary, the only person killed by his forays into experimental chemistry has been his own brother, who died attempting to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Nayef of Saudi Arabia.  The attempt was notable for how the bomb was supposedly hidden in Abdullah al-Asiri's rectum, although it's never been properly established whether it was implanted, shoved up there or was rather the first use of an "underwear" bomb, a tactic further refined and then used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, again without the desired effect.  Also intercepted were his printer bombs, while another device was given to the Saudi intelligence services by a double agent.

Since then we've had a scare approximately every six months, and each time nothing has come of it.  3 years ago almost to the day the US warned of implanted bombs, although without being able to pinpoint exactly which part of the body would house the explosives.  At the end of last year Frank Gardner, ever the willing conduit for the spooks' whispers, insisted Al-Asiri was once again refining his methods.  Now apparently we're meant to worry about smartphones, especially iPhones and Samsung Galaxy devices, handily the two most popular models on the market.  To get technical for just a second, I bothered to weigh my Galaxy S3.  The battery weighs 80 grams, while the phone with battery weighs 140.  Abdulmutallab's bomb we're told contained 80 grams of PETN, the explosive Al-Asiri's devices have used.  80 grams is almost certainly not enough to pierce a plane's fuselage, that is if the bomb successfully detonated, unlike Abdulmutallab's.  Unless these bombs are sophisticated to the point of concealing more explosive in weight than the phone would ever normally be able to without raising suspicions, the chances of one blowing a plane out of the sky are fairly low.

It isn't clear why, having upped the amount of PETN in the printer bombs to the point where they certainly would endanger a plane, Al-Asiri or those he's trained would then turn back to lesser quantities and risk the possibility of yet more failures.  Nor does this tale properly add up when it comes to what we know about al-Nusra.  Regardless of the affiliation with al-Qaida, it has shown absolutely no sign of being interested in attacks outside of Syria.  Why would it when it has a life or death struggle on its hands, against both ISIS and Assad?  Charlie Cooper of Quilliam insists we should be worried precisely because of the rivalry between ISIS and al-Qaida, with one group or the other likely to try an attack on the West respectively either to establish itself once and for all as al-Qaida's successor, or to regain the initiative.  This doesn't instantly translate into why al-Nusra would be the group chosen to carry out the legwork, when surely it ought to be al-Qaida central itself handling the fightback.  It seems more than a little convenient it all works back into the other current scare, that of Western citizens who've gone to fight with either al-Nusra or ISIS returning home and continuing the battle here.

Today saw another 2 men convicted of terrorism offences for fighting in Syria, despite there being no evidence whatsoever to suggest they posed a threat to the UK.  It also comes after, of all people, former head of MI6 Richard Dearlove gave a speech arguing the terrorist threat has been exaggerated by both politicians and the media.  As head of MI6 post 9/11 he was up to his neck in both rendition and the dissemination of intelligence on Iraq, likely to be criticised by the Chilcot inquiry.  His message is, despite what others have been insisting, the rise of ISIS (or the Islamic State, as it is now pretentiously insisting it be called in its umpteenth name change) is related to the Arab spring and the on-going proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia/Qatar and Shia Iran more than anything else.  Those going to fight in Syria are doing so not as a first step towards targeting the West, but due to a sense of religious duty as much an adherence to takfirist ideology.  This doesn't make them pleasant, liberal people by any stretch of the imagination, but it also hardly means they'll be coming back to bomb tube trains.

In more sensible times, Dearlove would be listened to.  These are not sensible times, as is all too apparent.  Instead it's a time when the security services' demands for more power are never-ending, and organisations such as Quilliam have to justify their existence by forever looking for fresh bogeymen.  Despite dire predictions, the sky did not fall when the threat was considered its most serious.  Nor will it now.  You can but hope that by the 10th anniversary of 7/7, we might just have finally got some perspective.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014 

Exaggeration and British jihadis in Syria.

Much excitement, and it has to be described as excitement at how one of our very own has succeeded in blowing himself sky high (literally, in the whole "martyrdom operation" means instant entry to paradise belief of jihadists) in Syria, going where others have previously feared to tread.  It's difficult to know exactly whether it is the intelligence agencies that are so concerned at the potential for those who have gone to Syria to fight, the majority of whom it has to be presumed have gone to join up with the jihadis, to then come back here and plot attacks, or whether it's the media exaggerating those fears in line with how Michael Adebolajo had gone to Kenya looking to join al-Shabaab before returning here.

Whichever it is, and considering how proactive Theresa May has been in removing British citizenship from those of dual nationality who've travelled to Syria the former is just as plausible, it seems a little strange that much of the coverage has been on how those who do go out are likely to be further radicalised.  The obvious historical parallel most have reached for is the Spanish civil war, which I don't think is exactly analogous for the reason that whatever Syria is, it's not a fight about ideology.  The very reason those who joined the International Brigades went to fight was they saw the war as being about putting a halt to the march of fascism across Europe.  Although not universal, many of those who went to fight in Spain returned disullisoned, most notably George Orwell.

It's difficult not to think many will experience the same in Syria, especially as the infighting among the rebel groups has intensified.  Moreover, to have made the decision to travel to Syria in the first place suggests almost all will have been what we'd describe as radical in the first place.  Again, as most seem to be ending up with either al-Nusra or ISIS, the two most hardline jihadist groups rather than with the more "moderate" FSA battalions is indicative of that.  One fact that mitigates against the potential for those who have specifically gone to Syria to fight the Assad government to return and plot is that this is the first time in a decade that a British citizen has carried out a suicide attack in a foreign country.  There have been no such examples of a Brit going to Iraq and becoming a suicide bomber, or in Afghanistan or Pakistan for that matter.  Indeed, there is only one disputed case of someone linked with a group other than al-Shabaab or al-Qaida central returning and carrying out an attack, that of Bilal Abdullah, who had at the least a tenuous connection with the aforementioned Islamic State of Iraq.

The reason for this is obvious: ISIS and other groups, including the Taliban, are far more focused on their own internal conflicts than on attacking the West, unlike al-Qaida central.  ISI did notoriously carry out an attack in Jordan, and it resulted in a backlash.  Those who are more inclined towards the belief that the whole world is a battlefield understandably gravitate towards the likes of al-Qaida, or the increasingly ambitious al-Shabaab.  This isn't a universal rule, as we know that the ringleader of the 7/7 attackers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, travelled to Pakistan with the intention of training and fighting either there or in Afghanistan, only for his plans to change.

Without wanting to say the threat is being completely overblown, you can't help but feel the only reason the the head of counter-terrorism at the CPS is saying those who do travel will be charged on their return is precisely because they are Muslims, and likely to have fought alongside those we consider to be terrorists.  Fighting for a cause you believe in is despite Sue Hemming's reading of the 2006 Terrorism Act not illegal, nor should it be.  Some of those who have gone out to Syria have done so with the very best of intentions; the majority perhaps not so much.  They don't however deserve to be stripped of their citizenship without recourse, nor treated as criminals or terrorists universally.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013 

All going to according to plan.

Everything is going exactly according to plan in MaliIn have swept the French, and out have swept the Islamist rebels. Of course, that means things are going exactly according to a classic guerrilla warfare plan, where a weaker force withdraws from territory it knows it could never hold only to return later with hit and run attacks designed to wear down both support from the local population and the morale of the conventional forces, but let's not split hairs.  The rebels have retreated, ordinary Malians are delighted, if some are now taking revenge on the Tuaregs, and only a few irreplaceable antiquities have been destroyed in the process.

It's therefore perfectly understandable that the government wants to send 330 troops to the region, principally to train Ecowas soldiers in how to keep the peace and how not to act like the UN forces in the Congo, for instance. Considering the claims being brought by 200 Iraqis today at the High Court that might seem a bit rum, but let's not be cynical about this. After all, that we've gone in the space of a couple of weeks from saying there would be no boots on the ground to planting them firmly in north Africa doesn't mean we should be worried about small things like mission creep.  It's not as though this is how many other counter-insurgency campaigns have begun in the past.

To drop the annoying sarcastic tone, there's a clear disparity here between Cameron's rhetoric of a decades long campaign against extremism in the region and our sending only of training forces. It would certainly be lovely if we could just train the Ecowas forces and then leave, but all these things take time. The French intervened as they felt the rebels would have overrun the country if left to their own devices until September, the planned schedule for the Ecowas' deployment, and only now have some of those forces began to arrive in the country.  Supposedly those sent out to train the soldiers won't be combat troops, yet if a full-blown insurgency does break out, as the Islamists are reported to have fled to the mountainous region in the north east, isn't there always the possibility they'll be forced into helping out, especially as the French want to quickly draw down their own combat forces?

Certainly, we don't seem to be offering much else other than a small amount of funding.  We can't apparently spare any drones, as they're all still needed in Afghanistan, despite the continued stories of how wonderfully things are going there now and how we're meant to be out in any case by the end of the next, and so yet again it seems as though it'll be down to the Americans to take out any targets from the comfort of bases back home.  Already there's news of a deal through which a drone base will be set-up in Niger, and one has to presume it will involve the same fundamental lack of accountability that has defined the drone wars so far.  There is also as yet no discussion of anything approaching a political solution, of an attempt to at last deal with the Tuareg grievances that have fuelled their repeated rebellions, this time with international consequences.

All this said, Mali could yet turn out to be relative success story, at least by the standards of past interventions.  The rebels are relatively weak, and have split further since the French mission began; the territory still held by the rebels is if anything even less hospitable than that in Afghanistan; and they also don't have support from state actors, as the Taliban have allegedly long enjoyed.  With help, AFISMA could quickly be up to speed and ensuring that the Islamists are kept on the run.

The problem is that all these things are very big ifs, and we could equally quickly found ourselves drawn into another seemingly unending conflict against a foe that is highly mobile and determined.  The coalition should be deciding which approach it's going to take: either that suggested by Cameron's first response after the In Amenas attack, or the one suggested by Philip Hammond in the Commons today, of a relaxed role in which we contribute but don't do much else regardless of what happens.  It's obvious which one would make the most sense, but then as the past decade has shown, sense has very rarely entered into our response to the post 9/11 world.

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Monday, January 21, 2013 

Deja vu.

The first duty of any government should be to protect their own citizens.  With this in mind, don't you feel safer knowing that we have such fine, rational beings as David Cameron and William Hague in charge of our foreign policy?  Who could possibly demur from Cameron's conclusion that the threat from Islamists in north Africa is so severe that it could continue for decades, and that a global response is absolutely necessary?  How could anyone disagree with Hague when he says that rather than our intervention in Libya exacerbating the conflict in Mali, had we not "saved lives" through our enforcing of a no-fly zone it's likely the insurgency there could have made things even worse?  After all, just because the French dropped weapons into the country from the air, who knows where the rebels would have obtained arms from if they hadn't?  And in any case, Somalia clearly shows what we have to avoid in Mali as well as suggesting a model for the future.

It's really rather staggering how little we've learned, the only consolation being that Cameron has slight overall influence.  The most obvious lesson from both Afghanistan and Iraq is that when you start talking about decades long conflicts, put foreign troops on the ground and talk of "conquest", as the French have been, you're inviting a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Western intervention is the equivalent of a red rag to a bull to jihadists: the insurgency in Iraq could not have been sustained for so long if it hadn't been for foreign fighters and funding, the chief attraction being the opportunity to try to kill Western soldiers.  With the draw down in Afghanistan fast approaching, Mali could well turn out to be the most attractive place for those suitably inclined to travel to.

As Jason Burke explains, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is a tiny section of the franchise, estimated to have only several hundred fighters.  It has shown no inclination to attack the West, unlike al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, even if the death of Anwar al-Awlaki has had an impact on that section.  Similarly, despite having previously been involved with AQIM, Mohktar Belmohktar is more of a bandit than an out and out ideologue, and the chief aim of the attack was likely to have been monetary, as it has been in the past.  Whether they bargained on the Algerians launching such a deadly assault or not, their managing to hold out for three days is bound to excite opinion on the jihadi forums.

As for the Islamist groupings involved directly in Mali, it seems dubious as to whether they had or have any international ambitions, although we were right to be concerned of the potential for a safe haven to have been established for jihadis had they took full control of the country.  This said, despite all the warnings about the Somalia and the initial success of al-Shabaab there, there's little to suggest that any Westerners who travelled there to train and fight have since returned with designs on attacks here (although the group did claim responsibility for an attack in Uganda).  After years of exaggeration, we have reached a point where even the most hysterical of terror "experts" admit that threat has been significantly lowered.

Why Cameron then wants us to think that we've got to start over again only this time in north Africa is perplexing.  He has no intention of doing anything in Mali beyond giving the French moral support and the odd supply plane, and yet he seems to be implying that the threat posed by these disparate groupings, almost all driven by nationalist rather than internationalist motives, are an "existential" threat.  It may well damage British business in the region, which seems to be the only thing that Cameron and the Tories truly care about, as his frequent fluffing trips with arms companies suggest, but the attack on In Amenas will be difficult to replicate, such will be the increase in security at similar operations.  It's certainly nothing that the oil and gas companies' balance sheets can't handle.

All of which leads one to suspect that Cameron's finally discovered his inner Tony Blair.  Having started out ridiculing Blair's doctrine, he's come to the conclusion that things are so grim on the home front that he has to radiate leadership abroad instead.  Never mind that Blair came to be loathed precisely for this reason and it increased Gordon Brown's control over policy on home affairs, by projecting an image as a strong figure on the world stage, especially when Brits are caught up in things they know little of, Cameron hopes to shrug off his otherwise falling ratings.  After all, it can't be that he really believes what he's saying, can it?

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013 

The latest stop on our world tour.

And so to Mali.  One of the wonderful things about commentating, and indeed blogging is that everyone's an expert.  I know precisely jack about Mali, the Tuareg people and their repeated rebellions aimed at gaining an independent state in the north of the country, and yet here I am typing out a post on a country I have never visited and almost certainly never will.

At least I'm setting out in advance that my knowledge on the country as a whole is limited in the extreme, as have some of the other more honest people.  The same sadly can't be said universally, with some naturally turning straight to their usual positions when it came to the French intervention.  Not that this necessarily means they don't have a point: there is something in Glenn Greenwald's instant jump to conclusions that this will be seen once again through the prism of the war on terror and as an attack on Muslims.  How can it not be when those the French are fighting are an alliance of Islamists, the more secular Tuaregs of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad having been themselves driven out by Ansar Dine and an offshoot of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb?

It's also absolutely true that this is a conflict affected massively by our own intervention in Libya.  How much blame, if any can be assigned to our leaders and their decision to back the rebels against Gaddafi is however very difficult to ascertain.  The Tuareg leadership was indeed involved with Gaddafi, and they made up a significant percentage of his army.  Also apparent though is that the smuggling of arms to the fighters in Mali has not all been the work of the Tuaregs: some weaponry has been provided by the rebels in Libya themselves, who have also been (allegedly) supplying the likes of Hamas and the FSA in Syria.  As we saw in Benghazi, there are plenty in Libya of an Islamist bent who would have no qualms in helping out the likes of AQIM with supplies from seized Gaddafi stockpiles.  The French also have to take some responsibility: they apparently simply dropped weapons into the west of Libya during the intervention, an act of utter stupidity bound to lead to a free for all.

Paul Cotterill is therefore completely right to say this is a situation we should have seen coming months ago, and which could have been planned for.  Of course, we don't know properly what's been going on behind the scenes, but it's dubious whether much in the way of contingency planning for a march on the Malian capital of Bamako by the Islamists took place.  The French were apparently spurred into action by the threat to the town of Sevare, and the nearby military airport, which if taken would have left the only usable airstrip for heavy aircraft in the capital.  It must also be noted that there have been successive UN security council resolutions authorising intervention by the Economic Community of West African States; whether it covers active intervention by the French is dubious in the extreme, just as UNSC 1973 most certainly didn't authorise regime change, which is what we imposed in Libya.

This made clear, there is no reason whatsoever to doubt that at least for now the French intervention is wildly popular with the Malians in the south of the country, and why wouldn't it be?  When the majority follow Sufi Islam it's little surprise they loathe with a passion the brand of sharia imposed by the Salafist rebels, with the banning of music and desecration of holy sites, both reminiscent of the era of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.  They also prefer their former colonial masters to the likes of the soldiers from the other West African states, again hardly irrational considering the past record of meddling by neighbouring nations, as well as the tendency of some peacekeepers to flee at the first opportunity when deployed previously.

Nonetheless, the current goodwill could turn out to be shortlived, especially if the belief spreads that there are ulterior motives at work.  Should the Islamists have continued southwards, the threat to Niger and France's access to uranium would have been further exacerbated.  It's also the case that Algerian fears of a strengthening of AQIM may well have come to the fore: despite their colonial history, France has good relations with the country, and the Algerians favoured the election of Francois Hollande over Sarkozy.  It also follows the pattern of only those nations that have something to offer ending up enjoying a Western military presence: Iraq and Libya with their copious natural resources, while Syria, Iran and North Korea have all for now avoided the fate of the former, if for very different reasons.

The dangers are also manifold.  As Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, it's easy to go in only for it to turn out to be very difficult to get out.  Even in the case of Libya, the intervention took months longer than was first thought, while in Syria the downfall of Assad has been continuously prophesied only for the Ba'ath regime to hold firm.  It's difficult to make any real judgement based on the first few days, but it seems as though more resistance has been encountered than was anticipated.  Any intervention by the West where jihadists are involved also acts as a rallying call: while there might be plenty of places at the moment for those suitably inclined to go (they can choose from Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia to name but three), the opportunity to attack foreign troops usually takes precedence.  As the kidnapping today in Algeria has also made clear, and it's difficult to believe it isn't connected with Mali, there's plenty the groups involved can do in the region to strike back, even if they haven't the capacity to launch attacks here.

It may well be as Mark Malloch-Brown just said on Newsnight that the intervention by the French is the least worst option.  It could also be that the danger of a march on Bamako was overstated, and there was still time for a vastly preferable joint effort by African states to try to push back the rebels to be put together.  Whichever way it turns out, it's undeniable that our intervention in Libya had knock-on effects that we did little to counteract, and that we find ourselves yet again supporting a mission in which we'll attempt to bomb a country better.  We may still know little of Mali, but the people there will soon know plenty about us.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012 

The point of no return.

Have we at long last reached the point of no return on Afghanistan? It's a question worth asking, not because of the decision made by the Americans to put an immediate stop to joint patrols and training in the country as a result of the ever increasing number of "green on blue" attacks, or to put it in English, Afghans in uniform we're meant to be handing control over to killing their trainers, but due to how at long last a substantial number of our own MPs have been prepared to say what was previously confined only to comment pieces. Yesterday Denis MacShane, Paul Flynn, David Winnick and John Redwood all called either for a withdrawal from the country by Christmas, or as soon as humanly possible after that. While the latter three have been making similar arguments for some time, Denis MacShane is most certainly not one of the usual suspects, and was among the strongest supporters and then defenders of the Iraq war. Indeed, he was previously a supporter of the Henry Jackson Society, a think-tank that has long supported the (forced) democratisation of the Middle East.

This isn't to ignore the fact that during yesterday's debate there were just as many MPs pushing the same old unbelievably out of date argument that our presence in Afghanistan is in some way protecting our national security, or that alternatively to leave now would somehow mean all those who have given their lives would have done so in vain, but it's clearly progress of a sort. Certainly, if that incessantly repeated two word answer given to the question of why we are still in the country has always been a nonsense, it never sounded quite as hollow as it did when Philip Hammond stated it yet again on Newsnight yesterday. How can our mission possibly be about national security when al-Qaida was cleared out of Afghanistan years ago, as even Hammond himself has admitted? As John Baron asked yesterday of the defence secretary, either our continuing presence is about nation building and the training up of Afghan forces, a mission which he himself said we shouldn't be putting lives at risk for, or it isn't. If it isn't about that, then we're expending blood and treasure for seemingly little other reason than our continuing obsession with riding on the coattails of America, a decision made for reasons of prestige rather than pragmatism.

The sad fact is that our contribution to America's post 9/11 wars are increasingly resented rather than welcomed. US commanders have long been dismissive about our role in Helmand, and the US military in general now tends to regard our unwarranted boasting and pride as exactly that, unwarranted. They've never really cared whether or not decisions made at the top have been relayed to all of their allies swiftly, yet it's surely come to something when our defence secretary, completely unaware of the change in strategy made we're told on Sunday stood up in parliament and told everyone that nothing had been altered. Recalled to the Commons today to alter his comments, Hammond was left claiming that in fact everything was just as it had been, only that now we would have to apply to the Americans for permission to carry on joint patrols below company level. Last week in an interview with the Graun Hammond was claiming that we could draw down our forces quicker, despite the "green on blue" "problems" as the work had been progressing so swimmingly; now they can't even go out together without asking the Americans first.

According to Richard Norton-Taylor, the military has long wanted to get out of Afghanistan and it's been the politicians holding them back. Alternatively, according to MacShane, the problem has been the "unelected military-Ministry of Defence nexus" which has been in control of policy. The reality is that both the military and the politicians have wanted to stay in Afghanistan; it was after all the military which while desperate to get out of Iraq wanted to do more in Helmand, and John "without a single shot" Reid was happy to oblige. Nothing has changed since then, regardless of the coming to power of the coalition. What else explains the second deployment of "Harry Wales" to the country, other than an attempt on behalf of the MoD to conjure up some good news and easily sellable propaganda? Harry's at relatively little risk in an Apache, but clearly you can never be too careful, as reports of Harry's bundling to a safe place in Camp Bastion when the Taliban carried out their most devastating attack in terms of destroyed equipment and buildings of the entire war on the base testifies. Hammond didn't even deny this was the case last night, merely that such treatment was given to all "VIPs" when at the camp. Not many VIPs are actually serving soldiers though, are they? Either Harry's a squaddie like all the rest and therefore should face the same risks as them, or he's the equivalent of a regimental goat. That the MoD can't decide which it is speaks volumes.

Clearly then, something has to break. Not a single politician can possibly claim with a straight face that our remaining in Afghanistan is achieving anything. It isn't improving our relationship with the United States, it isn't stopping al-Qaida from returning as al-Qaida central has effectively ceased to exist, it's helping to prop up a hideously corrupt government that is widely loathed by Afghans themselves, and those we're training are so mistrustful and bitter at how we see them that they're prepared to kill us, as not every recruit who's turned their gun on foreign forces can possibly be a Taliban infiltrator. If anything, the only thing we're providing is continuing target practice for the Taliban, and while they might not be as strong as they were in previous years, they're clearly capable of the odd spectacular assault when they feel like it. What we should be doing now is pushing ever more fiercely for some kind of accord between the Karzai government and the sections of the Taliban prepared to negotiate, even if that means making really unpleasant decisions about the carving out of autonomous regions within the country. Afghanistan has been at war now since 1978; just as the Russians admitted defeat, so must we.

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Thursday, March 08, 2012 

A reappraisal of the Power of Nightmares.

Not to keep banging on about Adam Curtis or anything, but it's about time that the Power of Nightmares was reappraised. Broadcast on BBC2 in 2004, it was broadly welcomed (as his films in general are) on the left and criticised by the right. As set out in his introduction to the first film, his thesis was that the threat posed by al-Qaida had been massively exaggerated by both politicians and the media, turning what was a dysfunctional and small organisation that had nonetheless pulled off a massive coup into a vast network that was close to threatening our very existence. In reality, this was a fiction: the really dangerous thing about al-Qaida was not the network itself, but the ideology. Politicians in turn had discovered that by promising to protect their voters from this existential threat, it invested them with the power they had lost as a result of the turn to neoliberalism in the 80s.

Then 7/7 happened. The Power of Nightmares, with its title apparently suggesting that jihadists were nothing but bad dreams and that the politicians, police and security services were just imagining the threats they were talking about, was ridiculed and derided and still is now. Just recently over on Liberal Conspiracy Flowerpower responded to one of my cross-posted blogs on Abu Qatada to take issue with my use of the word phantom. It was perhaps a bit careless to use phantom instead of spectre in the context of us being unconcerned about Islamic extremism in the 90s, but it was obvious I wasn't saying there isn't a threat. To quote him:

The last time some idiot lefty (Adam Curtis) started peddling that line of nonsense, Muslims soon start exploding on the London Underground.

This might be slightly unfair to Flowerpower, but his remark in itself is a caricature of most of the criticism of Curtis. Curtis most certainly didn't suggest there weren't any suicide bombers, just that politicians were abusing the threat there was, most of which was only tenuously linked with al-Qaida in Pakistan, for their own ends. If anything, as John B wrote at the time on his recently resurrected blog from back then, 7/7 proved him right. The bombers were not foreigners, but born and raised here; they were trained in Pakistan in making explosives, and filmed a couple of martyrdom videos which were subsequently released by al-Qaida's media arm, and that's pretty much the extent of their connections. It was the ideology which had brought them together. As the security services claimed in the immediate aftermath, they were not a sleeper cell waiting for the moment to attack; they were "clean skins", with few or no links to those they expected to launch an assault.

As it turned out, this was wrong. The 7/7 group were connected to those who had been arrested under Operation Crevice, although whether the attack could have prevented is doubtful. This pattern of British citizens or residents being the ones behind planned attacks continued, right up to the supposed disrupted 2009 plot, where it was Pakistani students here on visas who were arrested and later released. By that point al-Qaida central's influence, as discussed yesterday, was heavily on the wane. Instead, the very idea of al-Qaida as a brand had spread globally. Jihadist groups with nationalist motives started to pledge allegiance to al-Qaida, although this has often meant little other than a change in name. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has continued to focus on North Africa, just as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat as they were formally known had. There have been some attacks linked back to al-Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq/Islamic State of Iraq outside of that country, but apart from the bomb in Jordan these have been minor or failed. The same will almost certainly be the case with al-Shabaab, which pledged allegiance earlier in the year.

The one exception is Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, whose de facto leader had taken note of the foiled or failed spectaculars linked back to al-Qaida central and started to push for a change in tactics. AQAP still clearly felt there was a place for major attacks with the potential for debilitating effects, as seen in the antics of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and 2010's cargo bomb attempt, but at the same time Anwar al-Awlaki started pushing for those who had become radicalised online to do what they could for the cause of global jihad on their own. His suggestion wasn't that they become suicide bombers in foreign countries, or form cells with like-minded individuals which could be more easily monitored and disrupted, it was for them to launch what have become known as "lone wolf" attacks. Al-Awlaki had allegedly been in direct contact with the Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan. Similarly, his sermons have been said to have inspired Roshonara Choudhry in this country, although her true reasoning for stabbing Stephen Timms might never be fully known, while the magazines AQAP has published also promote the same notion of individual action.

Anwar al-Awlaki's message has been so successful and influential in changing the minds of those who might have previously sought refuge for their ideas with others that the security services now regard those completely off their radar as posing the biggest threat to the Olympics. Whereas al-Qaida had felt that multiple attacks at the same time would have the most impact, their adherents now think that the best way to emphasise that their ideology isn't going anywhere is to do it alone, regardless of how this will make it much harder to achieve multiple casualties. In spite of how this makes it likely an attack, should it come, will be far less devastating than 7/7 (Anders Breivik not withstanding, and few have the resources that were available to Tim McVeigh, who was helped in any case), ever larger amounts of money are being spent to prevent it. An astonishing £1bn is going on security at the Olympics.

Adam Curtis has then essentially been proven right. Al-Qaida as a cohesive organisation directing groups of those trained in the camps in Afghanistan to attack at a precise moment was a fiction. It took the credit for the attacks that were successful mainly because those who carrying them out believed in the Salafist vision of a global caliphate, with bin Laden and al-Zawahiri in the vanguard, even if the real role those back in Pakistan had in them was slight. As consecutive plots failed, its influence began to wane. The triumph of the ideology though has been such that it can motivate individuals who have never been to a training camp to do what they are told will be their bit for the cause. At the same time, our politicians have locked us into a perpetual war against people who pose no real threat whatsoever to our way of life. It has come at an immense cost in terms of money and lives, and reality shows no sign of entering the picture any time soon.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2012 

Lying about Afghanistan.

Politics and lies go hand in hand, always have, always will. On rare occasions we are lied to for "good" reasons, with the media voluntarily going along with it: see the role of the D-Notice committee. More often the lies are simply to avoid embarrassment, such as David Cameron (or his office) denying that he had ever gone horse riding with Rebekah Brooks as was claimed by Peter Oborne, only for him to have to admit that he had at the very least gone hacking with his old Eton pal Charlie Brooks, and on the horse loaned to Brooks by the Met no less.

Occasionally though the lies are so blatant and yet so repeated that they become accepted by almost everyone, to the point where it's only those on the outer fringes of politics who challenge them. One such lie has been repeated multiple times today, and by spokespeople for all three of the main political parties in this country. According to David Cameron, Philip Hammond, Jim Murphy (on Newsnight) and countless others, our continuing military presence in Afghanistan is essential to our own national security, even to the point where we are fighting there to ensure that we don't have to do so in our own cities.

This is a lie so outrageous as to rival the ones that led us into the Iraq war. At least those were somewhat believed by the politicians, even if that was because they had personally convinced themselves that they were true and that to back down would have done irreparable damage to their credibility; with Afghanistan this has long since ceased to be the case. Back in 2009 David Petraeus, the then head of the ISAF, made known that al-Qaida was barely operating in Afghanistan, having moved into Pakistan. This was reiterated by an official in the Obama administration last year.

More to the point, "al-Qaida central" has been weakened to the point where its role in the planning of attacks against the West (always overstated in any case, as cells have acted on their own initiative as well) is very slight. The last foiled plot in this country that was linked directly back to al-Qaida in Pakistan was the liquid bombs one; Operation Pathway supposedly disrupted a plot to carry out attacks in Manchester but no one was charged, even if the investigation eventually lead to arrests in America. Far more active has been the offshoot al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, responsible for the infamous "underpants" bomber and the bombs hidden in printers placed on flights to the US. Also worried about is al-Shabaab in Somalia, yet no one is suggesting we invade either country to guarantee our national security back here.

Ah, some will say, the fear is not al-Qaida is currently a threat in Afghanistan, but they would quickly return should we leave. Except we are of course planning to leave, as are the Americans, by the end of 2014. There is no chance whatsoever that by that point the situation in Afghanistan will be comparable to the one in Iraq at the end of the last year, with the insurgency mostly defeated and the army and police trained to an acceptable standard. There is an incredibly remote possibility that somehow the Taliban, the Americans and Hamid Karzai could reach something approaching a peace accord, but that would almost certainly mean the break-up of the country, or at the very least the setting up of autonomous zones within it. Unless the Taliban severs all links with al-Qaida, something that it has shown no inclination of doing even if the Taliban is fundamentally nationalist while al-Qaida is internationalist, then this leaves wide open the chance that al-Qaida could still return even then.

Why then are we still in Afghanistan? For the simple reason that we continue to regard our alliance with the US as being so important that the "sacrifice" of men and exorbitant cost of operations there is worth it overall. It's also why we will almost certainly be involved in an attack on Iran should the US decide it has to act against their nuclear programme. It doesn't matter that the US could easily do all of these things itself; by giving our support we ensure America isn't left on its own, improving its global image, and in return we receive both American intelligence and military technology, as well as being able to project an image of ourselves as remaining a global power on the world stage. While some American politicians are genuinely grateful for how this gives them extra leeway, others regard it as bordering on the pathetic, as Obama almost certainly does, even if he feels he has to continue to regard the alliance as the "special relationship" for appearances.

Present this in its stark reality and the war in Afghanistan would be even more unpopular. Far better to lie and continue to pretend that al-Qaida remains just as much a threat as it always has been. And why change the message when it's worked for the past decade?

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Tuesday, March 06, 2012 

Wading knee-deep through the jihadist media sewer.

I don't pay anywhere near as much attention as I once did to jihadist media. This is for a number of reasons: English sources for it have almost completely dried up, with the main site I used to find it on long gone; the insurgency in Iraq, similarly, essentially no longer exists, and so the insight the propaganda of the groups there provided into how the occupation was going and into jihadist strategy and thinking in general has likewise disappeared; the law has been tightened to such a ridiculous extent that the simple possession of one issue of Inspire magazine, the unintentionally hilarious in-house journal of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula can result in a 16-month prison sentence; and also, there are only so many videos of fireworks going off under vehicles supposedly occupied either by the Americans, the CIA or the collaborators while the person filming shouts "ALLAH AKBAR!" over and over you can watch.

From the very meagre access I now have to the videos emanating from these various groups, not all of whom are necessarily Salafist, I've noticed something rather curious. While the Arab spring has thoroughly discombobulated al-Qaida central, with both bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri imagining that it would be their victories against the Americans that would inspire the Arabs to rise up against their Western-backed rulers, rather than liberal and leftist campaigners who would quickly be joined by those across class, religious and political boundaries, other Salafists have turned to the ballot box where previously they eschewed it, most notably in Egypt.

In Libya and Syria it's a different story entirely. Despite the claims of many that some of the Libyan militias were either veterans of Iraq or had at the very least jihadi sympathies, something backed up by the prominent role of Abdel Hakim Belhaj, formerly of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, it now looks as though some jihadis are fighting back against the NTC under the Gaddafi green banner, however bizarre that might sound. Difficult as it is to verify exactly what their reasoning is, or whether this might be to assign Salafi influence to tribal infighting, that such videos are being posted on the same forums mainly used by jihadis is instructive in itself.

In Syria, more predictable is that the Free Syrian Army, a misnomer if there ever was one as it has nothing approaching a central command, has "brigades" that are quite openly veterans of Iraq. As Angry Arab has noted, they even have a tendency to name themselves after either Qatari or Saudi politicians, or alternatively historical Islamic figures, including ones that are regarded with open disdain by Shia Muslims. Already there are groups releasing long videos with decent production values, including this one that claims to show a suicide bombing in Damascus. The Assad regime has of course been squealing since the uprising began that they're fighting back against terrorists, and so accordingly it's right to be suspicious of such videos, it hardly being beyond the remit of the Syrian security services to produce such material; it does though give some credence to the view of the US military that at least some of the bombings have been carried out by jihadists.

What's so odd is that there doesn't seem to be any reason as to why jihadists would want to ally themselves, however briefly, with those yearning for the bad old days under Gaddafi rather than give the NTC a try. In Syria, the reasoning is obvious: Sunni Muslims being persecuted by a relatively small sect for demanding their rights, even if the situation has since changed fundamentally. The potential involvement of al-Qaida in Syria is worrying precisely because of the record of al-Qaida in Iraq, which quickly turned to sectarian bloodshed as a tactic, the ultimate aim being to drive the Americans out. In Syria this might hasten the fall of Assad, but at a massive cost for all involved. There is still then something to be learned from keeping an eye on jihadi propaganda, however bleak the world it promotes would be.

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Friday, September 30, 2011 

Glenn Greenwald on the extrajudicial execution of Anwar al-Awlaki.


What's most striking about this is not that the U.S. Government has seized and exercised exactly the power the Fifth Amendment was designed to bar ("No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law"), and did so in a way that almost certainly violates core First Amendment protections (questions that will now never be decided in a court of law). What's most amazing is that its citizens will not merely refrain from objecting, but will stand and cheer the U.S. Government's new power to assassinate their fellow citizens, far from any battlefield, literally without a shred of due process from the U.S. Government. Many will celebrate the strong, decisive, Tough President's ability to eradicate the life of Anwar al-Awlaki -- including many who just so righteously condemned those Republican audience members as so terribly barbaric and crass for cheering Governor Perry's execution of scores of serial murderers and rapists -- criminals who were at least given a trial and appeals and the other trappings of due process before being killed.

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Friday, June 24, 2011 

Unfunny short post.

Osama bin Laden was apparently considering changing the name of al-Qaida. He was pondering altering it to the frankly dull Monotheism and Jihad Group, or failing that, the Restoration of the Caliphate Group. Personally, I think he ought to have had a look at the average British high street and take inspiration from there: how about Jihads R Us, or even better, Caliphate-U-Like? If not, he could have followed in the footsteps of Simon Cowell, his equivalent in the music business, although sadly not yet deceased: calling his terrorist group The Jihad Factor simply couldn't have failed to attract the kids to the cause.Link

Or not.

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Thursday, May 05, 2011 

Scum-watch: A sting in the tail.

There's a piece in the Sun today touchingly described as a "sting" on the Yemen-based associate of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula Anwar al-Awlaki. It's a strange sting, not only because there is no evidence whatsoever that Anwar al-Awlaki was involved with it, despite the Sun's claims, but also because it imagines the paper's own readers are stupid enough to confuse the group with Awlaki.

As the Sun's "chief investigative reporter" Simon Hughes explains:

FIRST, we obtained an email address for Awlaki's Yemen-based "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" network hidden in material on an extremist website.

THEN our investigator, posing as a UK-based fanatic named "Q. Khan," sent an email addressed personally to Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki. FINALLY, we received a reply from the terror chief - convinced he was in contact with the leader of a British cell eager to obey his commands.





I too have managed to obtain the email address the Sun used, cunningly hidden as it was on the penultimate page of the latest edition of Inspire magazine, a periodical published by the propaganda wing of AQAP, al-Malahem media. While the magazine does indeed print two articles by Awlaki, along with translations of communiques from other al-Qaida high-ups, the magazine itself claims to be edited by someone called Yahya Ibrahim; others have said the magazine's actual editor is Samir Khan, a former blogger who moved to Yemen a few years back, and who also contributes a comment piece.

Is it then even slightly realistic to imagine that by emailing an address in a jihadi publication you're likely to be straight in touch with someone as senior as al-Awlaki? Hardly. While Awlaki previously managed to maintain a blog, this was shut down shortly after the Fort Hood shootings. More recently, a judge in Yemen has called for him to be captured dead or alive, and Barack Obama has also authorised his targeted killing. As was shown with the death of bin Laden at the weekend, when you're in such a position, having direct contact to the internet or even a phone line is potential suicide. jihadica.com has also been sceptical about the magazine's actual links to AQAP, even though it claims to be produced by their media arm.

It's possible that those the Sun did contact may have asked al-Awlaki as to his response to their "sting", but if they did then they hardly make this clear: they simply signed their message as "your brothers at al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula". Their advice also was hardly specific, apart from how they should conduct their operation, and as they say, they shouldn't really contact them again as it might well result in their plot coming to the attention of the authorities. This isn't to play down the fact that the Sun has at least got in contact with someone connected with the Inspire magazine and that they've suggested what their next step could be in launching an attack: that's still a serious thing. That though isn't a good enough story, or worth clearing the front page for; it had to be al-Awlaki himself, even when it's instantly apparent they almost certainly weren't talking to him.

And just in case you have your doubts, who should pop up at the end of the article than a former acquittance of ours:

Tory MP Patrick Mercer said of our probe: "I have no doubt the Home Office will want to investigate how simple it is to get in touch with Awlaki and his people.

"He is a leading contender to fill the power vacuum left by Osama Bin Laden."


Yes, that would be the same Patrick Mercer who previously contributed to such investigative triumphs in the Sun as the "TERROR TARGET SUGAR" masterpiece, and also told the paper that the Taliban were making "HIV bombs". The ISAF response when asked about these deadly devices was "no reports, no intel, nothing". Sums up the Sun and Mercer's critical faculties fairly well.

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Monday, May 02, 2011 

The American way of death.

(Yep, this is long.)

When they finally came for him, you'd imagine it was exactly as Osama himself would have expected and feared. Two helicopter gunships suddenly swooping in, one of which swiftly crashed, continuing the image of marines as being capable of both great moments of farce and swift acts of terrifying retribution, delivering between 20 and 25 Navy Seals into what proved to a short battle. Without confirmation of how many were in the compound and whether bin Laden had much more defence than a few bodyguards and members of his own family, forty minutes seems about right for what was an operation which would have planned for little overall resistance. Most of that time was probably spent breaching the buildings themselves; if otherwise, those defending bin Laden must have held their own for at least a few minutes against overwhelming odds.

As the news came through last night that Obama was to make an unexpected announcement so late in the evening, my initial thought was it would be to tell the world that the other current thorn in the side of the West, Colonel Gaddafi, had been killed. Certainly, that bin Laden's life was ended in such close proximity to the missile strike in Tripoli that that killed Gaddafi's second-youngest son and some of his grandchildren is no mere coincidence. Instead, it's the ultimate expression of American geopolitical power, something that even Israel with its permissive attitude towards the assassination of those that threaten her can't match: the willingness to kill foreign leaders or terrorists without even the merest nod to international law, or extended justification as to why other means could not have been taken first.

For it's clear that just as the mission on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad was to kill rather than even attempt to capture, so was the strike in Libya designed to cut off the head of the Gaddafi regime. What the US decides to do about bin Laden on their own is up to them and their consciences, and for the rest of us to muse about; killing children, even those with the misfortune to be born into the Gaddafi clan under the dubious terms of a UN resolution which calls for a ceasefire is something quite different. It's worth noting that this came after a new call for just that had come from the Libyan government, immediately rejected by the rebels and the NATO alliance without so much as a glance at the details. For now, small reversals in fortune have once again emboldened the opposition, while that members of Gaddafi's clan have been killed suggests there may well be an intelligence leak from within his inner circle. Stalemate nonetheless still looks the most likely outcome.

Passing judgement both on the operation to kill bin Laden and on the notable, if small-scale celebrations which followed last night in Washington and New York is doubly difficult when sitting across the ocean from where the 9/11 attacks took place. This country may well have faced down the IRA and dealt with the 7/7 bombings, yet we can't properly understand just what feelings the events of that day stirred up and which are still playing out now. As such, as distasteful as it seemed for someone's death to be celebrated in such a way as it was outside the White House, even someone with as much blood on their hands as bin Laden, you can't really condemn it and are instead left to tolerate such a reaction.

Indeed, if there's anyone to blame for the manner in which bin Laden was to be "brought to justice", which we'll come to, then it's the Bush administration. While Obama became president promising to kill the al-Qaida leader, he was pushed into such a position by his predecessors and their policy on "enemy combatants". With Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the most senior al-Qaida operative in US custody unlikely to face any sort of trial in the near future, trying to take bin Laden alive should it even have been achievable would have left the US with an unsolvable conundrum as to what to do with him. It seems almost certain that he too would have been left to rot in Guantanamo, indefinitely held with little prospect of judicial proceedings. Virtually no one in the States has criticised Obama for killing rather than attempting to seize bin Laden, with those on the right predictably congratulating the president for "pulling the trigger" rather than bringing him back alive.

Obama, it should be said, has mainly struck exactly the right tone. Getting the balance right between triumphalism, which it would have so easy to slip into, without underplaying just how significant bin Laden's death would be to those with relatives who lost their lives on 9/11 and so many others affected by the wars that followed was going to be difficult. If anything, he managed it better today than last night. While no one can claim with a straight face that this isn't a victory, even if a very belated one, there was still something troubling about how the violent death of one man was presented by Obama as a "testament to the greatness of our country" and how it was a reminder that "America can do whatever we set our mind to". From the outside, it looks like the opposite: that the greatest and most powerful superpower to have ever bestrode the planet took almost ten years to find one man and then blow his brains out looks like weakness, of a hollowness at its very centre.

Similarly, quite how the killing of bin Laden is synonymous with bringing him to justice, as opposed to being an act of vengeance, something which politicians on both sides of the US divide have said has happened, is difficult to see. Even taking into account the difficulties there would have been with trying him had he been captured alive, his death and quick disposal at sea is the sort of operation which leaves behind a bitter taste. Justice following both wars and crimes against humanity has been variable, it must be said, yet it will always be preferable to the bullet to the head. More than this, bin Laden simply didn't deserve to go down in what will be so easily be presented by jihadists as heroic circumstances. Along with Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's spiritual leader, bin Laden barely took part in any actual fighting, save for a disastrous battle after the Russians had already left Afghanistan. It was the hundreds, if not thousands of others who were inspired by him who were willing to take part in the "martyrdom operations" that made his brand of takfirist jihadism so virulent and feared. Like with KSM, he wanted to die a shaheed without being prepared to practice what he preached, and he's been given his wish.

This was all part of the bin Laden myth, relentlessly stoked and mined by al-Qaida's exceptional propaganda. His image was honed until he was the equivalent of an Islamist Che Guevara, and those dedicated to the jihadist cause looked to bin Laden not just for guidance but saw him and his messages as being close to unquestionable. This was all the more remarkable for the fact that he had no religious training whatsoever, yet he issued fatwas and took on the title of sheikh regardless. His relative absence which has increased over the last few years dulled nothing of the respect in which he was held, and repeatedly underlined just how much of a second in command al-Zawahiri was, even as he answered questions posed to him on the jihadist forums in official releases from as-Sahab. The only real rival he had was the even more brutal Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, whom was given the "franchise" in the country despite the differences over tactics between the groups.

All the same, and as others have pointed out, al-Qaida's influence has been waning ever since the Islamic State of Iraq's back was broken by the awakening groups in the country, and there have been no major attacks in the West linked to the original base, as opposed to the "franchises" set up in its image for a number of years. This isn't to diminish bin Laden's ultimate success: he knew there was never any possibility that his tiny group on its own could defeat America. His plan was instead to draw a response from the West through attacks like 9/11, which he believed would ultimately result in Muslims across the Middle East rising up against their rulers through their complicity with attacks on the Ummah. He got his first wish, as the continuing war in Afghanistan demonstrates; what didn't happen is any great rallying to the jihadist cause. Rather than fighting for the caliphate, the battles being waged by the Taliban and other Islamic groups are nationalist rather than internationalist. Moreover, the nascent Arab spring and the revolution in Egypt especially have shown as never before that rather than wanting the medieval, fundamentalist vision of society which al-Qaida wishes to impose, the vast majority favour democracy, even if it eventually takes on a distinct Islamist-influenced flavour.

Osama bin Laden's death is then a major setback for al-Qaida, if not for jihadism itself. His ultimate legacy could well be the inspiring of a second generation of even more brutal ideologues, ready to carry on the mantle of spectacular attacks against soft targets. For now, his closest successor is likely to be Anwar al-Awlaki, the spiritual leader of al-Qaida in Yemen, already linked to multiple attacks. The first phase in what will almost certainly be a long conflict against the ideology of takfirist jihadism may now be over, but there are many others already fighting just waiting for the opportunity to carry on what al-Qaida and bin Laden began.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011 

Guantanamo, new realities and crumbling empires.

The release of the Guantanamo files ought to serve as a timely reminder of just how out of control the United States government briefly was in the aftermath of the September the 11th attacks, something which has already sadly been cast to the back of our minds, even as the war in Afghanistan inexorably continues and US troops remain in Iraq. As brief as the talk of a Pax Americana was, no one ever managed to articulate the vision of how the Bush administration was operating better than Turd Blossom himself, Karl Rove, who told Ron Suskind of how

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

Rove wasn't exaggerating. The rendition program and Guantanamo are monumental examples of how a new reality was created, a reality in which a nation's historic values were temporarily turned on their head. In the environment 9/11 put in place, almost anything was permissible, whether it was indefinite detention without charge, the rejection of the Geneva conventions, the outsourcing of torture or the active promotion of cruel and unusual punishment, to the extent that government lawyers gave the go ahead for specific acts of "enhanced interrogation". Even in the new reality there had to be some euphemisms.

You have to understand this in order to be able to put the documents released by Wikileaks in their proper context. The files on the detainees now being put fully into the public domain were not written by dispassionate, independent observers who carefully considered the evidence for and against their role in terrorism; they were instead collated by the military themselves, by officers who were all too aware of the pressure on them to get "results", and who repeatedly decided that even the weakest intelligence or easily disproved details were the ocular proof of the threat these individuals would pose should they be released. Joint Task Force Guantanamo weren't the only ones doing the evaluating: also at the camp were the Criminal Investigation Task Force, which mainly drew on those who had formerly working in law enforcement and often reached quite different conclusions but who were almost always overruled by the military, and the Behavioural Science Consultation Team, which actively collaborated with the intelligence officials in suggesting new interrogation techniques.

In addition, the files also make clear just how reliant the camp authorities were on those who either chose to talk, a tiny overall number and whose credibility is incredibly dubious, and those who were tortured, whom predictably told their interrogators whatever they wanted to hear. For the most part their evidence has now been struck out as being worthless as a result, even as those at the highest levels of the Bush administration continue to claim that waterboarding produced intelligence that stopped attacks and saved lives. Abu Zubayadah, who the US now accepts was never a member of al-Qaida, was subjected to "simulated" drowning 83 times, and is referenced in the records of 104 other detainees, while Mohamed al-Qahtani's treatment was so severe that it was even recognised as torture by Bush appointee Susan Crawford. Mohammed Basardah meanwhile willingly provided information on an astonishing 131 of his fellow prisoners, which almost needless to say has since come to be acknowledged as unreliable.

Why then so much of the media relied on just these documents, carrying as much disinformation and baggage as they do, to claim once again that London was a veritable hub of takfirist activism without providing anything even approaching a disclaimer is astonishing. Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza are fingered as indoctrinating asylum seekers at an alarming rate, while the Telegraph, Wikileaks' new newspaper of choice after Julian Assange's fallout with the Guardian, even manages to find something to smear the BBC with. Also revived are the most imaginative and laughable of the plots supposedly aimed against the West: given much attention was the claim that al-Qaida had a nuclear weapon assembled and primed to detonate in Europe in the event of the death of Osama bin Laden. Not given quite the same prominence was that this was from the mind of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, one of the ghost detainees subject to repeated mistreatment, nor did the fact that he was sent back to Libya and subsequently died in prison there manage to put a dampener on such a sensational detail.

The very fact that the US has not complained anywhere near as much about the leaking of these documents ought to tip you off as to the nature of their providence, as should how Obama established a new, untainted review system after he became president, as a precursor to shutting Guantanamo down, a promise he's been unable to fulfil. We shouldn't have expected much in the week of a certain state ceremony, admittedly, and especially when Andrew Marr admitted he shouldn't have stopped the media from reporting on him shagging another journalist, yet these documents also showcase in an unrelenting light that other aspect of newly created realities: the imperial arrogance and incompetence of those given such bewildering powers to detain and capture with a view gaining intelligence.

Little attention has then been given to how these documents show that over 150 of those detained at Guantanamo were completely innocent of any offence, recognised as such even by the JTFG. They show just how wide the signs of being a member of al-Qaida were drawn by the JTFG, determined as they were to find anything which with to incriminate the poor souls who had found themselves in Cuba, stretching to having been detained with a $100 US bill in their possession, while those captured without any identification documentation were likewise found to be instantly suspicious. About the only other detail which did manage to get some attention was how those captured with a F91-W Casio watch were considered to be al-Qaida, as this mass manufactured cheap digital watch had been used in training camps as an IED detonator. Then there are just the simple outrages, like Sami al-Hajj, the al-Jazeera cameraman held at the prison for six years before finally being released. His file explains that one of the reasons for his transfer to Guantanamo, indeed, perhaps the key reason, was so that he could provide details on the station's training programme and news gathering operation. If that's not enough, then even more bewilderingly there's Haji Faiz Mohammed, the 70-year-old with senile dementia who was transferred to the prison as his file shamefacedly admits for no discernible reason whatsoever.

Whether or not these files would have eventually been declassified, they provide the kind of record of a superpower at the zenith of its overreach more normally associated with fallen dictatorships and autocracies. The difficulty as we have already seen is in getting people to care, or rather come to a view other than that Guantanamo was an acceptable construct at a time of asymmetric warfare. When Obama can't even convince a congress under Democratic control of that, blocking his attempt to transfer those remaining there to the mainland, it's not surprising that the files on a scandal have been met with an almost universal shrug. The Bush administration's new realities have been accepted with the minimum of protest, even as their attempt at constructing an empire continues to crumble.

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