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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Monday, July 08, 2013 

So. Ta ta then.

Abu Qatada is gone.  Not, despite the attempts at further myth making and spin from the Home Office, because he had finally ran out of legal options, but almost certainly down to him realising that even if he had appealed again and delayed his deportation for another couple of years, he was never going to be able to live free (and die hard? Ed.) in this country.  It's worth remembering that with the exception of a short period when he went "missing" after 9/11, Qatada spent the vast majority of the past decade either in Belmarsh or Long Lartin, or during the periods he was released on bail/control order, under the kind of curfew and restrictions that would rid life of pretty much all enjoyment.

Moreover, Qatada never faced a single charge in this country.  If he had appealed, it's possible he could have been charged with some sort of offence over the material allegedly found in his home when he was last arrested which breached his bail conditions, but that's now rather moot.  It might have taken 8 years for Qatada to be deported, longer if you include the time he spent detained without charge between 2002 and 2004, yet it's surely just as unacceptable that someone should spend that period of time under effective detention with charge.  Babar Ahmad suffered a similar fate, despite it being unclear at best whether he had committed any offence whatsoever under UK law.

Qatada then went of his own accord, giving at least as his public justification that he now felt assured he wouldn't face a trial in his home country where the evidence against him would be tainted by torture.  This in itself is an indictment of successive governments, rather than it is of Qatada, or an outrage that human rights laws prevented us getting rid of him at the first opportunity.  For most of that time period ministers were perfectly happy for someone, however unpleasant, dangerous or even murderous, to be deported back to an authoritarian state where torture has long been endemic and trials by the same token are unfair.  We would protest bitterly were a UK citizen subject to such abuses, or we would if it happened in a nation state we aren't friendly with, considering the prevarication over those accused of bombings in Saudia Arabia.  Just look at the campaigns, both successful and unsuccessful, to stop the deportation of the Natwest Three and Gary McKinnion, and that was to the US.

Grudgingly, successive home secretaries were forced to take the legal route.  However it came about, the end result has been for the judicial system in Jordan to be made at the very least fairer, benefiting the population there greatly as a by-product.  Rather than celebrate this as an example of soft power, of the way that diplomacy can result in reform, the government naturally has presented this triumph as exactly why we should consider scrapping the Human Rights Act and even possibly withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights altogether.  They can't explain why this needs to happen now, as there isn't a similar case waiting in the wings, and even if there was, it clearly wouldn't take as many years now that it's apparent that people can't be deported back to countries where the evidence against them was the product of torture.  If you want to get rid of someone in such circumstances, either the evidence has to be dropped, or they can't be sent back.  It isn't difficult.

Indeed, considering some of the wilder estimates and that it took 8 years, the reported bill to the taxpayer of £1.7m seems relatively slight.  Quite why it was deemed necessary that a private jet had to be charted for his journey back to Jordan is unclear, especially when security was so lax that Qatada was not handcuffed at any point.  Considering the way in which asylum seekers who have had their request rejected are dealt with, often travelling on commercial flights, his departure could surely have been arranged in a similar way had it been desired.  That wouldn't however have provided the pictures that politicians clearly wanted, of Qatada not quite being carted off but certainly being sent on his merry way.  Regardless of their supposed anger, it summed up what the Qatada case became: not about the rights and wrongs, but about being "tough". 

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013 

Not quite out of the woods.

Considering the potential there was for serious unrest following the murder of Lee Rigby, such was the immediate reaction to the crime on both old and social media, a week on from the tragedy it seems as though the immediate danger to community relations has passed.  This isn't to understate the number of reported attacks on either mosques or ordinary Muslims, which are clearly unacceptably high, or the vandalising of two war memorials (although it's unclear who was responsible in that instance) but further deaths, serious injuries or significant property damage have thankfully been avoided.

In a way (and bear with me here), it's perhaps helped that the key figures on both sides of the extremist divide are either completely discredited or acted like bulls at the proverbial gate.  Taking into account the long weekend, the numbers the EDL managed to mobilise at their various rallies were pretty pathetic.  The most significant, the protest on Monday outside Downing Street, probably attracted somewhere in the region of 2,000 demonstrators, if we're to account for the usual police under counting and the usual organisers' over counting.  Nor have they helped themselves through the way they set about expressing their anger while trying also to honour Rigby: in Newcastle on Saturday one of their speakers let the mask slip when he said "send the black cunts home" to cheers from the crowd, while there are more than a few shots from Monday of various protesters doing something eerily similar to a salute most closely associated with a party that came to power in Germany in the 1930s.

The EDL's biggest mistake though was to imagine that rampaging through Woolwich last Wednesday night was in any way a good idea.  It would have been one thing to hold a vigil for Rigby; it was quite another to distribute EDL branded balaclavas to a bunch of boozed up hot-heads who then did little more than confront the police who were there to provide reassurance.  Rather than drawing attention to their long-standing campaign against Islamic extremists, as they desperately try to maintain their protests are aimed at, it only made crystal clear that their intention is to incite hatred and cause fear, which is of course precisely what those they claim to be against also set out to achieve.

Which brings us, sadly, to Anjem Choudary. You could say that if he didn't exist the media would have to invent him, except they err, partially did. No one else so thoroughly unrepresentative of those he claims to speak for has been so indulged and coddled down the years, whether by the tabloids who fell every single time for his stunts, or the supposedly more serious broadcasters who kept inviting him onto panel discussions. His appearance on Channel 4 News and Newsnight last week, where he predictably refused to condemn the murder of Rigby, however badly defended by both, at least made clear how loathed he is by other Muslim leaders who have to try and deal with his brand of false consciousness.

This said, it ought to be obvious that attempting to restrict extremists such as Choudary from getting on the airwaves is counter-productive, quite apart from being unworkable. It ought to be the case that the media could exercise common sense and not invite those like him onto our screens the day after an attack, but when images of one of the suspects addressing a camera, his hands soaked in blood, is deemed acceptable then it seems we've moved beyond that.  Rather than going about things backwards, we ought to be asking just how it is that Choudary has managed to stay on the right side of the law all these years.  If he does have some kind of relationship with either the police or the security services, then surely we've now reached the point at which his use as an informant has been completely exhausted.

To try and get things in some sort of perspective, it's worth remembering that up until last week it had been almost two years since we had heard anything from the government about tackling radicalisation.  This wasn't because the problem had gone away, clearly, more that a point had been reached where it seemed as though we had something approaching a handle on it.  With the greatest of respect to BenSix, who's dedicated a number of posts to Islamist ideologues and the invitations they've had to speak on campuses and at conferences, too much can be made of students listening to radicals.  It's true that far right figures clearly wouldn't get such a free pass, and we could do with an organisation on the left that argues and organises against extremists of both stripes, but let's not worry unduly.

The situation is more that we're in transition.  Whereas a decade or more ago radicalisation primarily took place in mosques or meetings where charismatic preachers or leaders were in control, the shift has been to the internet and smaller groups that are self-reinforcing.  Those that previously went through the ranks of Hizb-ut-Tahrir or associated with al-Muhijaroun, as one of the suspects in the murder of Drummer Rigby did are increasingly the minority.  The lone wolf tendency has also probably been exaggerated, yet it's true that the influence of Anwar al-Awlaki and al-Qaida's Arabian franchise has been significant, as in the cases of the Fort Hood shooter and Roshonara Choudhry.  Even if YouTube or Facebook/Twitter were more proactive in taking down content that incites hatred or promotes terrorism, as some MPs have demanded (if we're being extremely creditable to them, considering some as well as the Daily Mail seem to imagine Google essentially is the internet), something that isn't necessarily laudable, then those looking for it would quickly find it elsewhere.  The solution has to be to get smarter, both in our arguments and further empowering those who have spent the past few years successfully challenging and counselling those who've strayed towards the extremes.

It doesn't therefore help when politicians and newspapers continue to push the line that much of the blame can be put on extremist preachers, almost always without naming those apparently responsible.  It just plays into the EDL/BNP line that mosques are hotbeds of hatred, an argument helpfully refuted when protesters were invited inside for tea and biscuits when they gathered outside the Bull Lane mosque in York.  Sadly, that approach clearly isn't going to work when it comes to the planned BNP march in Woolwich on Saturday, which intends to end outside the Lewisham Islamic Centre, which is "said to have had one of the suspected murderers amongst itscongregation".  We aren't quite out of the woods yet.

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Thursday, May 23, 2013 

Falling into their trap.

Considering the way that New Labour under Blair responded to 7/7 and then the foiled "liquid bombs" plot (John Reid was on Newsnight last night once again claiming 2,500 people would have been killed, ignoring the fact the cell had never succeeded in making such a bomb and that the experts themselves had major difficulties in doing so), the coalition's reaction to the murder yesterday of Lee Rigby has so far been relatively measured. David Cameron's statement this morning mostly struck the right tone: carry on as normal, as though we weren't going to anyway, and it was a betrayal of Islam as much as it was anything else.

He did of course repeat yesterday's bromides that this was an attack on our way of life and the UK as a whole, when it only was if you buy completely into the ridiculous sense of self-importance jihadists have.  This was no more an act of war or a warning of what could be coming than the four murders carried out by Dale Cregan were.  He killed two police officers out of the deranged belief that doing so would make him the ultimate big man in prison, where he knew he was inexorably heading; more pertinently however, he did it because he could.  The same was the case in Woolwich yesterday.  Elevating their barbarous act to something more meaningful than an unusually brutal murder is to give them respect they simply don't deserve.  They're not terrorists, they're pathetic, warped, criminal individuals with the most banal knowledge of the creed they claim to belong to.

It's not helpful then when those who claim to be on the left fall into the exact same trap as the politicians and media overwhelmingly have.  Yes, we can acknowledge the impact that foreign policy has had in radicalising some of those who have then gone on to commit violent acts themselves.  What it doesn't do is even begin to explain why someone moved from being against a war to the point at which they then reached the conclusion that killing someone only tenuously connected to that war was justifiable.  That can only be understood by looking beyond foreign policy to the influence of groups such as al-Muhijaroun, as we now know one of the men associated with, and their poisonous perversion of Islam.  This is not to deny that the terrorist threat from jihadists was increased by our involvement in Afghanistan and then Iraq; it wasn't created by it though, nor will it go away when we completely withdraw from the former country.

Just as daft was the comment from the defence secretary Philip Hammond that the murder underlines "how vulnerable we all are".  Well, no, clearly some of us are more vulnerable than others.  If he meant that it shows how quickly a life can be taken, which he almost certainly didn't, then he would have been closer to reality.  These men weren't indiscriminate, although they most certainly could have made a mistake in choosing their target, they were deliberate.  Others won't be, it's true, but then they can be more accurately categorised as terrorists.  The fact is that the threat from extremism of all stripes has been declining rather than increasing, and that threat has been repeatedly and wilfully exaggerated by both the media and politicians.

This hasn't been lost on either the BNP or the EDL.  Both are shadows of their former selves, and not even the attempted attack on an EDL rally had done much to revive a movement that seemed to be petering out.  Yesterday's murder was the perfect excuse for the EDL to do what it does best: descend on an area that wants nothing to do with them, get suitably lagered up and then ponce about shouting nonsensical slogans and generally making arses of themselves.  The threat they pose comes not so much from the marches as it does the idiots inspired by Tommy Robinson (or whatever he's calling himself these days) who then go and vandalise a mosque or abuse someone who looks vaguely like a Muslim.  Nick Griffin for his part, having run his once reasonably effective far-right organisation into the ground, has been tweeting like crazy, while an email has gone out to those on the BNP's message list which reads "once again followers of Islam have shown themselves to be a wicked and cruel enemy within".

Also taking their opportunity have been the securocrats and other hangers-on of the intelligence agencies, ever keen to advance their own interests.  Newsnight gave airtime not just to John Reid but also Lord Carlile, both of whom called for the proposed communications bill, aka the snoopers' charter, to be reintroduced, so vital was it to our safety, regardless of whether or not it would have done anything to prevent yesterday's murder.  For the moment at least it looks as though a "knee-jerk response" isn't on the cards, and it's more than slightly reassuring that rather than Carlile we have a new reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson, who has wrote that terrorism law "gives excessive weight to the idea that terrorism is different, losing sight of the principle that terrorism is above all crime".

It's a message that our politicians and media could do well with taking on board.  When something so shocking is committed by someone with the intention of having the maximum possible impact, it's understandable that in the immediate aftermath they responded in the way they did.  24 hours on and we ought to be scaling things back: letting the family of Lee Rigby grieve in peace without being constantly reminded of how he was so cruelly taken from them.  If we can learn any lessons from his murder, whether in how we can potentially stop others from following a similar path to the two men, or if it could have prevented, although that seems unlikely, then we should.  The vast majority have done their part, whether it be the numerous Muslim organisations that have condemned the attack, those that have took on the EDL or BNP in their attempts to make political capital out of a murder, or those that have simply paid tribute to Rigby.  The rest could do theirs by not turning an act of savagery into exactly what those committed it wanted it to be seen as.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013 


Let's get something straight.  The murder in Woolwich this afternoon was not a terrorist attack.  If it was, then there are somewhere in the region of 500 terrorist incidents a year in this country, more if you include assaults that are intended to kill but fail to do so.  It doesn't matter that reports suggest a serving soldier is the victim, although that is yet to be confirmed, that the killers shouted "allahu akbar" as they were attacking him, or that they gave justifications to camera afterwards which more than imply this was an assault influenced by jihadist ideology, first and foremost this was a murder and it will be treated as any other until the men are convicted.

Treating it as a terrorist attack and not simply as a serious crime is precisely what these two men wanted.  I have no qualms about describing attacks that aim to kill on a wide scale as terrorist, as the Boston bombings clearly were once what had happened became clear, or the previous failed attacks in this country were, however inept.  This was something quite different.  Neither of the men were interested in killing or even attacking anyone else, as they could have done had they so wished.  All they seemingly wanted to do after they were finished was to be filmed, photographed, and then once the police arrived, hopefully killed and presumably "martyred", although suicide by cop would be a far better description of their intentions.

Nor was everyone who witnessed what happened panicked or terrified. Some stopped to remonstrate with the men; others tried to resuscitate their victim while they looked on. Some will undoubtedly be deeply affected by what they saw, and if it does turn out to be a soldier who was murdered, it almost certainly will cause concern that this might not be a one-off, or it might inspire copycats. What it most certainly won't achieve is any change in government policy, if that was the aim. If the hundreds of deaths in Afghanistan haven't made our politicians think twice about our deployment there, then this certainly won't.

The fear among some in the aftermath of 9/11 was that it could have been just the first of a wave of spectacular attacks against the West. While there have been a number of attempts made since, several of which have been successful and killed large numbers of people, there has been no repeat of the events of that day. Instead, what jihadists have increasingly been reduced to is primitive measures that match their primitive ideology: crude pressure cooker bombs, or attacks such as the one today. Where once groups of men conspired, now the threat, such as it is, often comes from so-called "lone wolves". More difficult to prevent, but the threat from one or two is less in the terms of damage they can do than that of a larger, better organised cell.

If anything, more fear and worry will have been caused through the truly unnecessary screening by ITV of the footage of one of the men holding two large knives in his blood soaked hands, pretentiously and contemptibly justifying his crime, than through hearing of the act itself.  In what other circumstances would a broadcaster consider it justifiable to show the immediate, graphic aftermath of an "ordinary" murder?  It's irresponsible enough when broadcasters have in the past screened videos shot by spree killers justifying themselves, let alone when the person in this instance has the blood of his victim on his hands as he does so.  Yes, it's almost certain that the person who sent in the video to ITV would have uploaded it somewhere online himself had ITV chosen not to use it or just used the audio, but that isn't anything approaching a justification.

Equally ridiculous has been the language used by politicians who ought to know better.  No, this was not an attack on everyone in the UK, as Theresa May said; this was targeted, not indiscriminate, even if the target turns out not to be a soldier although that remains the assumption.  The army doesn't represent us as a whole any more than our politicians do.  We also really don't need the "blitz spirit" rhetoric that comes so easily, as was hurled from David Cameron's mouth.  Yes, we have had incidents similar to this before, the vast majority of which were far more serious than this one, but no, our "indomitable British spirit" has nothing to do with the fact that we'll carry on with our lives as normal.

Besides, we don't seem to have any problem with actual acts of terrorism when they're carried out by those we've allied ourselves with.  For all the talk from William Hague and the Foreign Office about "strengthening moderates" and "saving lives" in Syria, we don't have the slightest idea whatsoever about how the aid we've supplied the rebels with is being used, while it's clear that we would dearly love to be arming them (and quite probably are through back channels) at the first possible opportunity.  It's not just the likes of the al-Nusra front that have committed atrocities and carried out car bombings, as was brought home by the gruesome footage posted online last week, the vast majority of the rebels are Islamists, some of whom who are just as eager as the regime to carry out sectarian attacks.  At the same time as we denounce and fight against jihadists at home and most places abroad, we effectively enable them in the places where it suits us, not caring about the possibility of blow back in its most literal sense.

What we desperately don't need is another round of what's happened in the aftermath of attacks previously, especially when this shouldn't be treated as a terrorist incident in the first place.  These men represented only themselves, not a community, not a religion, nothing.  It was just them.  There will obviously be reviews to see whether they were known to police or the security services, but this was the sort of attack that could be carried out with next to no planning, almost on the spur of the moment.  If there isn't any evidence of more to come, then the threat level shouldn't be raised only to be then lowered again within a week.  We also don't need any new measures or laws, not the "snoopers' charter", not an extension to detention without charge, not more armed police.  Nor do we need hysteria, which even the Graun seems to have fallen into.  Let's prosecute these men to the full extent of the law, ensure the murdered man's family and friends are taken care of, and not treat this as anything other than a despicable crime.

And pigs might fly.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013 

Abu who? Never heard of him.

At times, it's an utter joy (read: torment) to see how politics works. Normally the idea behind briefing the media that you're thinking of doing something popular with your backbenchers and the right-wing press, regardless of how reprehensible it is, is that when you don't you've left it long enough that they're let down gently. When instead you dash their hopes within a matter of hours, it tends to ever so slightly agitate them.

You also might have thought that someone unlucky enough to be bestowed with the name Reckless might be used to unfunny gags being made about it. Not our Mark though, who reacted to Theresa May suggesting that to break the law as he suggested would be, err, reckless, by raising a point of order and then going on TV to continue to complain.

Plenty of politicians you see have a blind spot when it comes to everyone's favourite heavily bearded fanatical cleric, the mysterious Mr Abu Qatada. Not for these heirs of Thatcher such piffling things as the rule of law, which she and her cabinet often invoked when it came to the miners, although they rather overlooked it when the police took to kicking the shit out of them. No, we should put Mr Qatada straight on a plane, or failing that temporarily withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights so we won't face any repercussions should we do so.

There isn't of course even the slightest possibility of the Tories doing so, not least because the Liberal Democrats would never go along with it.  It's also completely and utterly ridiculous: the only way to temporarily withdraw from the ECHR is by arguing that there is a severe and direct threat to the very life of the nation, which is exactly what the law lords decided there wasn't when they ruled that Labour's detention without charge of foreign terror suspects was unlawful. Can you imagine the government seriously arguing before even the lowest court in the land that one man is that dangerous?

Quite why the Tories swung so far from one point to the other in such a short space of time is unclear, unless there were still negotiations going on with Jordan right up until May's statement after PMQ's. It doesn't help that as much as you'd like to welcome the continuing attempts to ensure Qatada doesn't face a trial where the main evidence against him was almost certainly obtained through torture, the new treaty still doesn't look as though it's water tight. As Labour have pointed out, it doesn't seem on the surface as though it requires Jordan to actually change the code of criminal procedure SIAC ruled had to be altered for them to be satisfied torture evidence wouldn't be used. After all, the previous changes to the laws in the kingdom were meant to have solved the problem originally. They didn't.

To be fair to May, and as pointed out umpteen times previously, the real damage was done when ministers under Labour decided that Qatada was better off out of sight and out of mind than prosecuted and imprisoned for his preaching here.  The evidence against him in Jordan, including that apparently obtained through torture, is flimsy at best.  This doesn't however excuse either May or her department for crowing last year that Qatada was as good as gone, especially when even the slightest glance at their claims suggested they were being extremely optimistic if not outright disingenuous.  It seems a pretty safe bet that Qatada will still be here come the next election, and that augurs well for what's likely to become a fight between the parties over whether we should repeal the Human Rights Act, a debate simply guaranteed to be conducted in a fact-based and civil manner.  Can't wait, can you?

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013 

The conspiring of outside interests.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports on the on-going tragedy in Syria (via B&T):

We reached a point in the fighting, in spring 2012, when we needed proper support. We needed heavy machine guns, real weapons. Money was never an issue: how much do you want? Fifty million dollars, a hundred million dollars – not a problem. But heavy weapons were becoming hard to find: the Turks – and without them this revolution wouldn’t have started – wanted the Americans to give them the green light before they would allow us to ship the weapons. We had to persuade Saad al-Hariri, Rafic Hariri’s son and a former prime minister, to go to put pressure on the Saudis, to tell them: “You abandoned the Sunnis of Iraq and you lost a country to Iran. If you do the same thing again you won’t only lose Syria, but Lebanon with it.”’ The idea was that the Saudis in turn would pressure the Americans to give the Turks the green light to allow proper weapons into the country.

Now suddenly, while on the ground the revolution was still in the hands of small bands of rebels and activists, a set of outside interests started conspiring to direct events in ways amenable to them. There were the Saudis, who never liked Bashar but were wary of more chaos in the Middle East. The Qataris, who were positioning themselves at the forefront of the revolutions of the Arab Spring, using their formidable TV networks to mobilise support and their vast wealth to fund illicit weapons shipments to the Libyans. And of course there were the French and the Americans.

What's happened since is that the supposedly unifying bodies set-up to to represent the myriad of different battalions and groups fighting Assad's forces in fact speak for next to no one on the ground.  The first attempt, the Syrian National Council, was such a success it's been superseded by the second, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, (just trips off the tongue, doesn't it?) which isn't faring much better.  Whether it's because the Americans know full well that the rebels are united in name only, or as the rebels themselves suspect, the Americans have got cold feet due to the continuing rise of the al-Nusra Front, a mixture of Islamists, Salafis and jihadi veterans (whether or not they are truly connected with the Islamic State of Iraq, let alone al-Qaida central is uncertain), the weapons the rebels thought they were promised still haven't materialised.

Not that it's clear whether anything less than the latest anti-aircraft and heavy ground weaponry would tip the balance in the rebels' favour.  Jonathan Steele isn't always wholly reliable, yet his report from Homs suggests that an area which was last year at the very heart of the uprising is no longer in ferment, even if the resentment for the regime is barely masked.  It's always dangerous to suggest that a stalemate's been reached, as the quick victory for the rebels in Libya showed, but despite all the claims that the collapse of the regime is imminent or weeks away, there's little sign of it, collapsing economy or not.

By the same token, it's equally apparent that despite the noises being made about Moaz al-Khatib (head of the NCSROF) offering to hold talks with the regime, if not Assad, there isn't the first chance of any deal being accepted by those who have lost so much already.  As Abdul-Ahad's report makes clear, setting up a "battalion" is the easy part.  Getting weapons if you're not a jihadi or prepared to record everything, including the deaths of your own friends, is far more difficult.

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Thursday, December 06, 2012 

"Possessing a copy of a terrorist publication is a serious offence."

As we've learned this year, taking trolling too far can net you a prison sentence.  Indeed, even expressing your strong personal views on a controversial subject can result in a 240 hour community order, while those who actually did call for you to be killed aren't so much as arrested.

Less well known is that you can be jailed for even longer simply for having a magazine in your possession.  Last year a German national was jailed for 16 months after he was found with a digital copy of Inspire magazine, the English language house journal of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.  Today Ruksana Begum was jailed for a year for having two separate issues of the magazine.

Inspire is notable for that one reason: it's in English, something that the wider media picked up on.  As Thomas Hegghamer pointed out at the time, this in itself wasn't an innovation, as previous jihadi publications had been translated into English, while newsletters had previously been produced in the 90s.  More to the point, most radicalisation isn't so much linked to the written word as it is to videos, which are now often the starting point for those who find themselves attracted to Islamic extremism.  English translations of the feature-length releases from jihadi groups have been around for years.

Nor is the actual content of Inspire anything special.  Wikipedia has a run down of the all the issues released so far, and most of the articles are either by notable leaders of the assorted franchises, doing the usual jihadi wittering unlikely to have an appeal beyond the already convinced, or actively plagiarised from elsewhere.  What it does have that seems to have worried the authorities is the odd do-it-yourself piece, such as the "build a bomb in the kitchen of your mom" article in the first issue, and the "It is of your freedom to ignite a firebomb" in the latest one.  Even then these articles for the most part are highly unlikely to be of use to anyone set on becoming a lone wolf jihadi, such is the usual quality and accuracy of the advice, and it's not as though there aren't dozens of similar documents available online or even from AmazonOnly rarely has possession of these resulted in prosecutions and convictions.

While it's unclear what the German man and his friend were intending to do on their visit to this country, no such ulterior motives have been found in the cases of Begum and Mohammed Abu Hasnath, who was also sentenced to 14 months for possession of Inspire.  Begum's explanation to the court as to why she had two issues on her mobile phone's SD card, that she wanted to attempt to understand what had motivated her brothers to plot to blow up the Stock Exchange, was accepted by the judge, while the worst Hasnath got up to was some grafitti.

It's true that Inspire can certainly be said to fall under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, in that it contains information of a kind likely to be useful to those involved in acts of terrorism.  The same could be said though of a whole myriad of novels and non-fiction works, let alone old army manuals.  Such information is only ever dangerous if those in possession of it have the resources, ingenuity and motivation to use it.  Begum and Hasnath did not, yet they were sentenced to terms of imprisonment that were out of all proportion to the offence.  Amazing as it might seem, you can still find yourself behind bars in 2012 in the United Kingdom for owning a work of literature, however disreputable.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012 

Yet another post on Abu Qatada.

Well, who could have predicted thatAbu Qatada winning his latest appeal against deportation to Jordan?  This has never happened before!  Oh, except it hasTwice, in fact.  And when even a keyboard monkey like me with no real legal knowledge whatsoever could pick holes in Theresa May's trumping of how this time Qatada really was as good as on a plane, it suggests both she and her predecessors have been receiving incredibly bad advice for quite some time.

The judgment by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (PDF) is essentially a rehash of the ECHR's decision earlier in the year, that Qatada doesn't personally face the prospect of mistreatment or torture, but he does face the prospect of a trial where the main evidence against him is confessions from men who almost certainly were tortured.  Regardless of the change to the Jordanian constitution to explicitly prohibit the use of evidence obtained via torture, Mr Justice Mitting and his team reached the conclusion that, based on expert evidence from Jordanians who gave written and in person testimony, the statements that incriminate Qatada may well be used against him, and that the burden of proof is likely to fall on the witnesses to prove they were tortured, rather than for the prosecution to prove that they weren't.  As the torture happened over a decade ago and the Jordanian courts previously rejected the notion that torture took place, the likelihood of them being able to do so, even in front of three civilian court judges, is dubious in the extreme.  Barring a further change to the Jordanian code of criminal procedure or a definitive ruling from one of two courts on the ambiguities in the code, Qatada is staying here.

Unless that is May manages to convince the Court of Appeal that SIAC is being unreasonable in its demands of the Jordanians, something that seems highly unlikely considering SIAC has come to effectively the same conclusion as the ECHR did.  In the meantime, ol' bird nest face is free for 8 hours a day, if your definition of free is being tagged, followed by security officers the moment you step out of your front door and being denied access to pretty much everything that makes life pleasurable.

If all this seems a bit much for someone whose motivations have often seemed opaque, then SIAC also obtained new information on the nature of the evidence against Qatada.  To say some of it is thin is an understatement: all that links Qatada to the "Reform and Challenge" case is that one of the defendants says he suggested the targets and then congratulated him afterwards; in addition, three of the defendants had copies of a book by Qatada.

The evidence against him for the Millennium plot isn't much thicker: Qatada gave one of the defendants money, although not ostensibly towards the plot, gifting him 800 Jordanian dinars with which he bought a computer, while the defendant admitted discussing the "issue of jihad" with Qatada, although not specifically about any plot.  Another defendant claimed Qatada had given a further $5,000 to the same man, while the money he had been promised to marry the first defendant's sister never arrived.  Otherwise, the evidence again amounts to possession of books by Qatada, and the discovery of messages between the two men.  SIAC additionally comments on this that "[T]he record of the evidence produced at the trial does not clearly support the prosecutor’s case", although it's presumed that in the case file there will be statements from investigators that will.

All is likely to depend on whether the Jordanians are prepared to move further, or whether a case comes before either court that irons out the disagreement between the experts consulted by the commission.  SIAC accepted that the Jordanians had moved significantly from their initial position, and also noted their awareness of how this was a potential opportunity for them to show they were capable of trying a man notorious internationally with scrupulous fairness.  If SIAC was making its decision on that basis alone, as indeed had the ECHR, Qatada would be long gone.

In a different world, this entire case might be seen as showing the best of the British state.  Despite the contempt often shown towards the Human Rights Act and the ECHR by politicians from both main parties, successive governments have abided by the decisions made in line with it, refusing to countenance ignoring the rule of law in this specific case, and have gone so far as to push Jordan towards making genuine judicial reforms.  Pushing any authoritarian state in the direction of respecting basic human rights is something to be proud of, regardless of the circumstances.

Unfortunately, we're stuck with this world, and it's one where judges are traduced by tabloid newspapers for doing their job.  By all means criticise the judiciary if they get basic decisions wrong, or apply the wrong tests when they sentence someone, but not when they've delivered a judgment as in-depth and cogently argued as Mitting has.  

The real responsibility for this 7-year-long slog lies with the last government.  The decision to simply get rid of Qatada rather than attempt to prosecute him has never been explained adequately: we don't know whether there simply isn't enough evidence against him, whether the evidence is mainly phone intercepts, whether his involvement with MI5 goes too deep, whether it was made impossible by the rendering of Bisher al-Rawi who reported on Qatada to MI5, or whether deportation was felt to be the easiest option.  Where this government has failed has been to fall into the same trap as the previous one, of boasting to the media that the deportation is all but done and dusted, only to find it still hasn't got its legal arguments in order.

One suspects that Qatada will eventually get sent to Jordan, if only down to how successive governments have backed themselves into a corner.  Should further changes to the Jordanian law not be forthcoming, then Qatada's bail restrictions will have to be either loosened or dropped entirely.  The only other option is to impose a TPIM, and they can only last for two years.  Even at this late stage there's still time for a potential prosecution to be looked at, however embarrassing that might be either for the previous government or the security services.  It can't be any worse than the prospect of someone built up to be Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe mooching free around London.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012 

Pawns in a game.

This piece in the New York Times from C.J. Chivers, having managed to embed himself with rebels from the Free Syrian Army just outside Aleppo, is undoubtedly a magnificent piece of journalism. It is though, shall we say, either just a little credulous or to give the absolute benefit of the doubt, decides not to explain some of the finer details about the group Chivers has joined up with. It may well be that the "Lions of Tawhid" are a mixture of recruits from different backgrounds, as is its parent, Al-Tawhid. That doesn't alter the fact though that Tawhid, or the concept of monotheism in Islam, has been used for some time now by jihadists as part of the name of their groupings. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's original formation in Iraq was called Tawhid and Jihad, while the Army of Islam in Gaza, best known for kidnapping the BBC journalist Alan Johnston, also goes by the moniker. Jihadis also often refer to themselves as lions, something it seems Chris Morris's satire Four Lions has done little to alter.

It therefore seems just a little dubious that the Lions of Tawhid are as opposed to using fighters as suicide bombers as they claimed to Chivers. In any case, why do they need to when they have a member of a shabiha militia they can use instead? Abu Hilial may well have been a shabiha, but when he'd been treated to "extensive beatings" it's likely he confessed to anything and everything, including that he'd been in prison and was released to serve as part of a militia, committing a rape and six murders. He'd been sentenced to death, but why waste a life completely when he could be used instead as a unknowing truck bomber? It's all but needless to say that using Hilial as such is about as heinous a breach of the Geneva Convention as there possibly is, and is in spite of the claims from the FSA that they were going to abide by a code of conduct. That the bomb failed to go off is neither here nor there, while the fact that the group had access to the 650lbs of explosives for it more than suggests that certain sections of the FSA have access to plenty in the way of resources, despite claims to the contrary.

Jonathan Steele's report in the Graun does go some way to telling the other side of the story: as much as the regime must shoulder 99% of the blame for their reliance on indiscriminate shelling and attacks from the air, it's little wonder that some within Syria are also now criticising the FSA for encouraging such reprisals. Strangely, unlike when Israel has launched attacks on Gaza in the past, with Hamas roundly condemned as a result for hiding behind civilians, nary a word of concern has been voiced by our own politicians against the FSA's tactics. You can hardly blame Syrian civilians then when they feel as Youssef Abdelke told Steele, like "pawns in a big game".

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012 

These people are insane.

Bartle Breese Bull in the New York Times knows exactly what the Syrian rebels need to bring down Assad:

Only a shift in military momentum will end such talk. The balance of power that currently favors Mr. Assad could easily be overturned. Providing the rebels with as few as 500 Stinger missiles and 1,000 tank-busting R.P.G.-7’s could potentially cut the conflict’s length in half. And grounding Mr. Assad’s air force, keeping his tanks off the roads, and neutralizing his command-and-control would be likely to bring him down within a couple of months.

Well yes, it's certainly possible such weaponry could tip the balance in the FSA's favour. We could though go the whole hog and hand over a couple of tactical nuclear missiles, the result being the vaporisation of Damascus and instant victory for the rebels! Any concerns that the rebels might then, oh, point one in the general direction of Israel are unfounded, as the FSA would be forever in our debt.

Believe it or not, Bartle Breese Bull went through seven journalistic tours of Iraq, and yet that experience hasn't ingrained in him the lesson that leaving vast stockpiles of weapons and explosives lying around, as Saddam helpfully did, or worse yet, actively giving exactly "500 Stinger missiles" to insurgents isn't the best idea in the world. Not just to pick on Bull, as our very own armchair warrior Malcolm Rifkind is saying much the same. Marc Lynch makes the case for not arming the rebels extremely powerfully:

Nor should the U.S. be joining the dangerous game of arming the insurgency, which seems to be getting plenty of weapons from other sources. All of the risks of the proliferation of weapons into a fragmented insurgency of uncertain identity and aspirations, so blithely dismissed by the op-ed hawks, remain as intense as ever. There are still vanishingly few, if any, historical examples of such a strategy actually leading to a rapid resolution of a civil conflict, and all too many examples of it making conflicts longer and bloodier. Nor is it likely that providing weapons will provide the U.S. with great influence over the groups they are. I see no reason to believe that armed groups will stay bought, or stay loyal, just because they were given weapons, or that the U.S. would be able to credibly threaten to cut off the flow of weapons if groups deemed essential to the battle used them in undesirable ways. As a general rule of thumb if you really think that a group might join al-Qaeda if you don't give them guns, you'd best not give them guns. At this point, the flow of weapons may be as unstoppable as the descent into protracted insurgency and civil war, but that doesn't mean that the U.S. should heedlessly throw more gasoline on the fire. At the most, it should continue its efforts to help shape some form of coherent political and strategic control over those newly armed groups.

If this wasn't enough, then today's report by the UN, while accusing the Assad government of committing multiple war crimes, also points out that the rebels have carried out "murder, torture and extra-judicial killings", although not of the "same gravity, frequency and scale" as the regime. War crimes though are war crimes, regardless of who carries them out and how often. We provide plenty of aid and weaponry to distinctly dodgy governments, but handing over aid, even "non-military aid" to groups we know little about who are accused of carrying out atrocities is something we really shouldn't be doing.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012 

The same old mistakes.

Just when you thought you couldn't be surprised any further by the apparent naivety of our rulers, as well as that of the journalists and commentators helping to push policy forward, up pops this latest piece in the Graun on Syria. Horrors of horrors, it seems as though the best funded groups among the rebels are Salafists, and they're being directly supported by the Saudis and Qataris! This is only what those of us who hadn't fallen completely in love with the Free Syrian Army have been saying for ooh, weeks now. What started out as a peaceful uprising against the Assad regime understandably turned to armed insurrection when it became clear that the Ba'ath party could not be removed bloodlessly, but the original leaders of the revolution were quickly usurped by veteran fighters, some of whom had come back from fighting the Americans in Iraq, and who had no problem with following Assad's lead and turning the conflict into a sectarian struggle. Since then civilians have been trapped between a rock and a hard place, the brutality and heavy weaponry of the government and the savage guerrilla tactics favoured by the FSA, with Iran and Russia supporting the regime, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey doing the same for the rebels. As well as a civil war, it's also a proxy war.

And as such, we've had to stick our noses in. With the Chinese and Russian blocking any action at the UN, quite understandably considering the liberties we took with the "responsibility to protect" doctrine invoked over Libya, we've been reduced to promising "non-lethal aid" to the rebels, although who exactly it will be receiving it on the ground is anyone's guess. Whether the United States is directly providing weaponry is unclear, but you most certainly wouldn't bet against it. The other thing that has been so staggering is how we've failed to learn even the most basic lessons from the Libyan intervention, where we didn't have the slightest clue who it was we were helping to overthrow Gaddafi. Luckily enough, while there were some Islamists among the rebels there, they've mainly been sidelined by their more "liberal" allies, although such terms are relative.

In Syria, scratch even slightly below the surface and you'll find the rebels aren't much better than those they wish to replace. In Libya there was plenty of concern about the fate of "mercenaries", those the NTC claimed were soldiers from other African states being paid by Gaddafi to fight on the government side, but whom many worried were being rounded up purely on the basis of their darker skin colour. While there were reports of summary executions from Libya, the worst most were subjected to was torture. Back in Syria, videos abound of those the rebels claim are "shabiba" (non-army militia) being swiftly dispatched, while at the weekend videos of soldiers being thrown from rooftops were widely circulating. Some of this is always going to happen when atrocities have undoubtedly been committed by the government; unlike in Libya though barely a word of condemnation has passed the lips of our politicians, while media commentators have all but ignored these clips, even while they're perfectly prepared to show "unverifable" footage of bombings and demonstrations. The one major exception was the mass execution of members of the Aleppo al-Barri clan by the rebels, and that was glossed over as quickly as was possible with claims of how they themselves had killed a number of FSA troops during a supposed truce.

The fact is that the FSA's propaganda is far better than that of the regime's. Even if the claim by the defected prime minister that the regime now only holds 30% of the country's territory is accurate, and that's extremely doubtful, then it's the 30% that matters. The battle for Aleppo isn't over, but the retreat of last week was a setback the rebels had to spin ferociously. There are also still small parts of Damascus reverberating to the sound of gunfire, but the attempt to capture the capital in the main failed hopelessly. The assumption has to be that Assad will eventually fall, such are the forces now ranged against him, but these are defeats that are important in the short-term. Rather than reporting them as such, they've been presented exactly as the FSA has wanted, as strategic. This is clearly nonsense.

As I said previously, this reticence from the media is understandable, partially due to how volatile the rebels are, and partially down to how many see them as the lesser of two evils, Salafis among them or not. Our politicians have no such excuses: how on earth could they not see that the Saudis were always going to sponsor the most extreme groups they could find when it's what they've been doing for decades? What made them begin to imagine that the Syrian National Council, a group based outside the country, could ever manage to organise the opposition within it? Why do they think providing aid to the rebels, either military or "non-military", will end any differently to how it has before The weapons provided to the Libyans (as well as those taken from Gaddafi's stocks) were swiftly supplied to extremists in Mali, currently attempting to shore up the region of the country they control, while they're also reported to have gone to Gaza and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. We don't need to rehash what happened in Afghanistan, while the funding of the Contras led inexorably to atrocities. Hizbullah might have plenty of weaponry already, but you can bet those on the right in America cheerleading for the rebels, such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham would hardly welcome their aid being sold on at the earliest opportunity.

The sad reality is that whatever we do, it's going to get far worse before it gets better. You only have to read the terror of those trapped in the village of Al-Dmayina Al-Sharqyia, after a shell hit a house killing ten people, to realise how trust in everything and everyone has irrevocably broken down. Unsure whether it was fired by the regime or the rebels, they're left with pleading on their Facebook page for both to stay away.

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Thursday, August 09, 2012 

When is a withdrawal not a retreat?

When it's the Free Syrian Army performing it, of course. You can at least understand why those journalists that have got into Syria and managed to embed themselves with the FSA are very reluctant to criticise their hosts: apart from earlier occasions when it seemed as though the FSA was trying to get journalists killed, more recently they've been threatening to murder those whose allegiance they aren't certain about.

For those wondering what Ed Husain is up to these days (i.e. none of you), then it seems he's got a plum job at the Council on Foreign Relations. His verdict on the situation isn't just that al-Qaida is infiltrating into Syria and joining up with the FSA, but that the FSA actively needs al-Qaida to avoid being overwhelmed. That this poses something of a problem for us back here in the West, keen as we are to either provide further "non-lethal" support (our good selves) or weapons through Turkish intermediaries (the US) to the FSA is something Ed says we shouldn't worry about for the minute. No, we should simply plan "to minimize" al-Qaida's influence over the rebel groups, and of course, make contingencies for seizing Assad's chemical weapons should the regime fall. Don't worry, it will all work out fine.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012 

On Syria.

It's cards on the table time. Richard Seymour (aka Lenin from the Tomb) writes for the Graun that the anti-war left, while understandably concerned, is wrong to be either ambivalent or against the Syrian uprising. It is, he writes, a popular revolution, and the initiative lies with the people. Robin Yassin-Kassab says much the same, ridiculing "blanket thinkers" who can only see the Middle East through an "US-imperialist lens".

I don't claim to have any expert insight into Syria. All I can go by is what I've read, and by what I've been told. On this basis, I find it difficult to disagree with Seymour when he says it's a popular uprising. At least, it's definitely a popular uprising amongst the Sunni population of Syria. Much of the coverage, as Angry Arab (criticised in Yassin Kassab's first paragraph) has repeatedly pointed out, has been viciously anti-Alawite, often without any thought whatsoever being put into the underlying message it sends. 16 months into the uprising, you would have thought by now that we would have had some definitive reporting on just what section of the population supports the status quo and which supports the revolution. I say status quo and not the regime for the reason that it seems unlikely that anyone now has much love for Assad, but they understandably fear what might come next. Some of this will be down to the regime's constant propaganda, claiming that all of those in support of the revolution are al-Qaida supporters, while some will be down to very real fears of the possibility of reprisals should the uprising succeed in overthrowing the Ba'athists.

We don't know then just how far the uprising is supported by the Alawite (including other Shias), Christian and Druze minorities. It could be that they're just keeping their heads down and secretly hoping for it all to be over quickly, and will adjust accordingly whichever side eventually triumphs. It could be that there's a sizeable minority among them who support the revolution, but can't do so openly for fear of what will happen to them. It could be that they're completely opposed to the revolution and dearly love Assad and wish to retain their status, or it could be that they'd rather have Assad, murderer as he is, than either the Muslim Brotherhood or an even more fundamentalist Islamist grouping in power. The point is that we just don't properly know. Of all the protests associated with the Arab spring, only Bahrain comes close to Syria in terms of how religious background impacts as heavily on whether or not someone is likely to be for the uprising or against it.

What both Seymour and Yassin-Kassab underplay is the role of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in funding and supplying the revolutionaries with weaponry, with the Turks and the Americans playing a more minor role. It may well be that this is still relatively slight in comparison to the equipment being supplied to the Syrian military by Russia, but it surely isn't a coincidence that the fighters have made major gains since the House of Saud and the Qataris upped their game. Both countries simply would not fund or supply fighters unless they were fairly sure of what they were getting themselves into; they tend not to throw guns and cash around as freely as the Americans have in the past. The Saudis have little time for the Muslim Brotherhood, regardless of past ties, as shown by their antipathy to the coming to power of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. Qatar may have trained the forces that made the difference in Libya, where the West has claimed that a "liberal" grouping won the elections (if you can call a massive coalition which has Islamists within it liberal), but they too wouldn't be getting involved if they feared a government opposing their regional influence coming to power.

It's impossible then to ignore the fact that a major contingent of armed groups operating in Syria are at the very least Islamist in outlook, while some are straight jihadist or Salafi. This is to be expected when Islamism has long taken over from various strains of leftism as the main political resistance in the Arab world to secular authoritarian rulers, but this doesn't mean we should be any more accepting of jihadists than we were, say, in Iraq. There the likes of Seymour overlooked the fact the much of the resistance was made up of jihadists (The Islamic State of Iraq and Ansar al-Sunnah/Islam, to name the two major groups), with only one or two insurgent alliances being nationalist in politics, as they were fighting the Americans, despite how they succeeded in sparking civil war through sectarian attacks.

While it would be lovely if the Free Syrian Army was overwhelmingly secular and non-sectarian, this was unlikely to ever be the case when the regime has also turned towards sectarian attacks through desperation. All the same, it makes it impossible to support the FSA when you can't possibly know what will follow should Assad fall. At the same time, you can completely be in favour of the overthrow of Assad and his murderous clique by those sections of the opposition that simply want to be rid of a tyrant determined to cling onto power at any cost. Regardless of misgivings about the electoral triumphs by Islamists in both Tunisia and Egypt, I challenge anyone to deny that their being in power is vastly preferable to the despotisms of Ben Ali and Mubarak. In both countries however the state remained while it was the rulers who were overthrown. In Syria, like as in Libya, should Assad be overthrown the victors will have to begin from scratch, except the inevitable sectarian tensions that will follow will make the regional spats between militias in Libya look like a picnic. Syria is one of those instances where the third way is the best way: for the revolution, against sectarianism.

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Friday, June 08, 2012 

Syria: as much a proxy war as a civil war.

As the media as a mass come to the conclusion that Syria is descending into civil war, something that has been apparent for a couple of months now, less well reported is that it's reached this point because of the various proxies supporting the two sides. Just as Assad has been dependent on Iran for advice and training and received moral support from Russia, so has the so-called Free Syrian Army relied upon the backing of Saudi Arabia and Qatar for money and weapons. As the video posted online yesterday of a Syrian heavy vehicle exploding spectacularly showed, the FSA is starting to pose a real threat to the military's movements. It's not surprising that as a result they're increasingly using artillery.

This Saudi support comes at an especially high cost. As much as the Saudis are determined to isolate Iran, and removing Assad would heavily dent the theocracy's influence in the region, they won't provide funding without being sure that their particular bent of Islam is represented. For all the denials of the FSA, there is plenty of evidence of extensive jihadi involvement. Some of this is to be expected when Syria was the main transit point for fighters travelling to fight against the Americans in Iraq, but it's also clear that the traditional Salafi tactic of attempting to turn Shia against Sunni is being put into practice. Almost entirely unreported in the West is that FSA cadres kidnapped a group of Lebanese pilgrims travelling through the country, in the hope that doing so would enflame Shia opinion in the country and prompt intervention by Hizbullah, the Iranian-backed group having so far stayed out of the conflict over the border. A blog post by Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News, detailing how the FSA led his vehicle into a free fire zone, apparently in the hope his group would be killed so his death could then be used as further propaganda against the regime shows the depths they're willing to descend to.

This said, the depravity of the regime is unsurpassed. Any doubts about the perpetrators of the Houla massacre have been dispelled by the pathetic cover-up at al-Qubair, where the UN and reporters were today allowed in, the village having been emptied of any survivors, the scene of the crime impossible to clean. The hope has to be that Russia can be persuaded to dispense with Assad, and that a Yemen type "solution" can be put in place. One suspects though that the conflict has now reached the point of no return, where so much blood has been shed as to make compromise impossible. And sadly, the FSA is only slightly less vile than the Ba'athist regime.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012 

Abu Qatata, finally?

Credit where credit is due then: the government could have taken the advice of the head bangers on the Tory backbenchers (and head banger is the only way you can possibly describe Peter Bone, whose surname seems to be lacking something) or followed the wonderful example set (allegedly) by the French and Italians, and just stuck your friend and mine Abu Qatada on a plane to Jordan (the country, not the model, although they could perhaps be the ultimate odd couple in a sitcom: she's had more surgery than Michael Jackson and Joan Rivers combined; he's never had a shave).

Instead, if we're to believe Theresa May, our need to deport an unwanted extremist has struck a blow for human rights in general in the country. In practice, this doesn't look quite so clear cut. The European Court of Human Rights ruled Qatada couldn't be deported in the main because the evidence of his co-defendants, which would make up the majority of the case against him, was obtained as a result of torture. May states that as they have since been pardoned, and that whatever they say will no effect upon those pardons, "we can therefore have confidence that they would give truthful testimony". This is dubious in the extreme. Their pardons might not be affected, but this hardly means that an authoritarian state can't put pressure on them in other ways.

May also seems to contradict herself. She said in her statement that Qatada will be able to challenge the original statements made against him, then states "[I]ndeed, one of the more significant recent developments is the change to the Jordanian constitution last autumn that includes an explicit ban on the use of torture evidence". Presumably if there's an explicit ban on the use of torture evidence then Qatada won't need to challenge the original statements as they won't be admissible? And in any case, there are plenty of vile regimes that in their constitutions have explicit restrictions on certain practices that they nonetheless indulge in. As nit-picking as this might look, these are exactly the sort of doubts that should Qatada appeal again to the ECHR will have to be addressed and answered.

On the whole though it's difficult not to applaud. As there seems to be no chance whatsoever that the government will reconsider and instead decide now that Qatada should be prosecuted here, especially after it's gone to all this effort to persuade the Jordanians to in turn persuade the ECHR that they can be trusted to try him fairly, this is undoubtedly the second best option. It not only shows, as pointed out previously by Maajid Nawaz, that we will not succumb to the very thing that the government's counter-extremism strategy defines as being unacceptable, the undermining of the rule of law, it also indicates that when really pushed we can work with countries such as Jordan to help them improve their systems of government without then in turn selling them weapons as a reward. It does mean that it's doubtful we'll ever learn exactly how intertwined Qatada was with the security services, and there's plenty of reasons why we shouldn't believe that MI5 only had contact with him three or so times prior to 9/11, but if it means we are rid of one of the main reasons for why the tabloids so loathe the ECHR and in turn the Human Rights Act, although there are plenty of others, then it'll at least somewhat make up for it.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012 

The past scratching of backs.

The one major thing that has to be kept in mind about today's ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that Abu Hamza and five others, including Babar Ahmad, can be deported to the US is that, in part, this is about previous governments on both sides of the Atlantic scratching each others backs. Our fanatical, hook-handed friend had become tabloid shorthand for how, despite everything, the government was failing to keep the public safe. It didn't matter if Hamza's actual links to terrorism were relatively minor, or his supposed powers of indoctrination were much exaggerated, he was the symbol of what was soon to be known as Londonistan. When Hamza was first detained under the 2003 Extradition Act in May 2004, it looked as though he was going to escape charges here, the Crown Prosecution Service having twice decided evidence against him was insufficient. It was only a couple of months later that finally they decided there was enough to proceed with a trial.

In any case, the charges of soliciting to murder and inciting racial hatred were not going to result in a sentence that would keep Hamza off the streets long enough to appease the papers that were demanding his deportation. The Americans stepping into the breach was therefore incredibly helpful. It also followed the pattern of the time, where the authorities massively preferred just getting rid of extremist clerics, such as the on-going attempts to deport Abu Qatada, as well the declaration that Omar Bakri Muhammad's presence was not conducive to the public good, rather than going through the frightful process of proving that they had actually committed criminal offences.

Whether Babar Ahmad was directly involved in the discussions around the extradition of Hamza or not we don't know. While it's clear that we ourselves were interested in him, as it takes quite a lot for MI5 to install a bug in your house, it also rather puts charges in doubt when the arresting officers are accused of brutality, allegations that the Met paid out over but which the officers themselves were subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing over, the jury uninformed of the damages. In any event, the CPS again decided there was insufficient evidence against Ahmad, and the US once again came to the rescue. While the charges against Hamza are fairly detailed, they're flimsy at best against Ahmad, especially on whether or not any offence was committed in the US at all; was hosted in the US, but this was when law over jurisdiction on the internet was still developing, while the other charge of Ahmad having a disc in his possession with the movement times of the US fifth fleet through the Strait of Hormuz is laughably thin.

There's also a double standard an inch thick running through the indictment over It's all well and good for the likes of Evan Kohlmann to describe it as one of the most important jihadist propaganda sites, and crucial for the building of consciousness over the insurgencies in Chechnya and Bosnia, which it was, but it's also the case that without it there now wouldn't be as many of these private security companies and experts like Kohlmann to pontificate on how dangerous those running them are or were. Ahmad doesn't deny that he himself fought in Bosnia, and was supportive of the other insurgencies going on prior to 9/11; the real issue should be whether what he was doing was a crime in this country at the time. The CPS decided there wasn't enough to put before a jury.

All this said, the ECHR was never going to block extraditions to the US, barring all five of those challenging being subject to the same treatment as say, Bradley Manning was. However ghastly the super-max prisons are, and the ECHR in its ruling seems more inclined to believe the authorities than the critics, there wasn't much chance the conditions were going to amount to inhuman or degrading treatment. The ECHR have though quite rightly adjourned their decision on Haroon Rashid Aswat until they've had further assurances on the treatment those with mental health problems receive, as Aswat is currently being held at Broadmoor. Much as you can't begrudge Ahmad going down every avenue, Hamza on the other hook won't be held at a super max as they can't deal with the fact he's an amputee, which rather brings the ECHR into disrepute. Lawyers: the ECHR needs as much help as it can get at the moment, so please don't do the work of the tabloids and Tory backbenchers for them. Thanks in advance.

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