Wednesday, February 25, 2015 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, February 23, 2015 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015 

All in the name.

Ever pondered how different things might have been if Hitler's name had been something else?  Would he still have electrified the beer halls in the same way as Adolf Schicklgruber, as his father was originally known?  And what for that matter if rather than Churchill, the right man at the right time had been called Reginald Boggis?
 

No, of course you haven't, because you're not an idiot.  All the same, names are important, especially for terrorist groups.  Boko Haram for instance, which isn't the group's actual title but is usually translated as western education is sinful/forbidden.  More literally though, it's books are forbidden.  The only book Boko Haram wants to suggest is of any worth is the Qu'ran, with the hadiths alongside, which tells you more about them than anything else.  Al-Qaida as you probably know translates as The Base, and in the beginning was a literal database of former mujahideen who had fought in Afghanistan.

Now there's Islamic State, and the name itself is enough to cause journalists to go weak at the knees and governments with ulterior motives to send in the bombers.  The group calling itself Islamic State in Libya has about as much connection with the self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria as I would if I started flying a black flag from my roof and shouted Allah akbar every time I did anything.  All they've done is declared allegiance to everyone's favourite messianic loon Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but such is the fear the Islamic State name carries that it's the moniker itself which demands attention as much as their murder of 21 Coptic Christians.

We haven't after all shown the slightest interest in the Libyan civil war, despite the fact that it was Nato's fabulous intervention against Gaddafi that precipitated today's insecurity.  David Cameron's visit to Benghazi ought to be seen as his "mission accomplished" moment, except Cameron and Nato had sort of learned the lesson of Iraq: impose regime change, then get out as soon as.  Just like in Iraq, where the Ba'ath party effectively was the state, in Libya Gaddafi played a similar role.  And just like in Iraq, with the overthrow of a secular, vicious dictator, into the void have come various groups, some nationalist, some of a more moderate Islamist tinge, others like Ansar al-Sharia and our pals IS of the takfiri Wahhabi bent, and they're all fighting for power and influence.  The key difference is that unlike in Iraq, where the country has become riven due to the schism between Sunni and Shia, with the Kurds and smaller numbers of Yazidis and Christians thrown in for good measure, in Libya the vast majority of the population is Sunni.  Where others see Iraq as a lost cause as a state ruled from Baghdad, this should, according to them, make it easier to reach a political solution.

Only compared to Syria, Libya doesn't exactly strike most as being of the greatest urgency.  It's up there with Ukraine: it's not pleasant that cities are being made uninhabitable and thousands have died, but it rather palls in consideration with the however many hundreds of thousands killed in Syria and Islamic State declaring Sykes-Picot to be history.  With Islamic State duly rearing their ugly heads on the coast of Libya, deciding this time to film their latest atrocity on a beach, no surprises that both Italy and Egypt have decreed something must be done.

Italy's unease and anger is more than understandable: they along with Greece and Malta have become the new frontline of this latest wave of migration from Africa, with the rest of the European Union refusing to stump up the cash necessary to fund the operation to both save lives and turn boats around.  As for Egypt, beyond the anger and grief over the slaughter of Copts themselves looking for a better life, bombing an Islamic State grouplet is the kind of action designed to calm any remaining nerves the West might have over the military coup and subsequent massacres of Muslim Brotherhood supporters.  Facing an insurgency in the Sinai, the last thing Egypt wants is the another hostile force operating in a safe haven next door.  And even if it doesn't become anything more than a militia with a negligible amount of fighters seeking infamy by proxy through Islamic State, the very name and its professed allegiance means Egypt is hardly going to be criticised for striking against it.

Unfortunately for both Egypt and Italy, although whether the latter truly favours a reintervention in Libya isn't as yet clear, getting the team back together which did so much to cause this mess in the first place isn't going to happen.  Only France might be so inclined, and considering the French attitude to arming the rebels in Libya was to drop them from a great height and worry about the groups picking them up later, they have more to answer for than most.  Ourselves and the Americans however aren't interested, as we're both far too busy in Iraq and Syria, and for David Cameron there's the whole election thing to worry about.  Not even blood-curdling warnings from the Egyptians of Islamic State jihadis masquerading as refugees turning up on the shores of the Mediterranean ready to strike will change minds, although they do make for great quotes and clips in news reports.

Much as it feels a little churlish to criticise the media for the unbelievably one-dimensional and often plain ignorant coverage of Islamic State popping up in Libya, considering no one has expressed the slightest interest in the country since the death of Gaddafi, to give the impression IS is metastasing across the wider Arab world is simply wrong.  Nor is it just the usual suspects failing to provide context or make clear worrying about IS in Libya is even less a good use of time than panicking about Ebola was; the BBC have been at the forefront, and the Graun hasn't been much better.  Egypt is relying on just such a lack of knowledge for its own purposes, and its conflation of all varieties of Islamism as posing the same threat is being used to stifle the last remaining voices of dissent in the country.  The last thing Libya needs is further outside intervention; instead, a summit of the kind that could have worked in Syria if all sides had wanted it to is what ought to happen next.  Such things are boring sadly, especially when compared to a death cult's latest reprehensible crime.

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Monday, February 16, 2015 

Still an aberration, not a pattern.

The weekend's attacks in Copenhagen bear the hallmarks not of a fresh assault by jihadis trained overseas so much as those of copycats.  The distinction is important, regardless of the end result being the murder of two people, with the attacker, unofficially named as Omar El-Hussein, clearly wanting to kill as many as possible at the cafe hosting the free speech event, including Lars Vilks, the Swedish cartoonist responsible for one of the caricatures of Muhammad printed by Jyllands-Posten in 2005.

From what has so far been written about El-Hussein, a 22-year-old born in Denmark with Palestinian heritage, he appears to have been a petty criminal likely to have been radicalised, or perhaps merely preyed upon in prison.  Released just two weeks ago, he doesn't seem to have travelled outside of Europe, nor does he appear to have attempted to contact the media as the Charlie Hebdo attackers and Amédy Coulibaly did.  The Kouachi brothers were calm and resolute in the way they carried out their massacre, whereas El-Hussein seems to have "sprayed and prayed".  There has also so far been no claim of responsibility, nor was there a claim from El-Hussein himself to anyone who might have been listening that he was attacking on behalf of any particular group.

This doesn't of course mean that El-Hussein wasn't by proxy acting for either say, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has particular reasons for attacking Denmark, or Islamic State, but it would surprise massively if he wasn't first and foremost carrying out deeds suggested by those he developed links with in prison.  That he apparently became known to the Danish intelligence services due to his spell of incarceration is a further indication of this.  It's not an impossibility he was acting of his own volition, perhaps on just the suggestion of carrying out an attack and he improvised, influenced by the attacks in France, but the slight period of time between his release and his actions would seem to rule out his being a true "lone wolf".  All the same, if this was a planned attack, in the sense of targeting Vilks, it wasn't planned to anywhere near the extent the Charlie Hebdo massacre was, nor was it implemented with the same ruthlessness.  The real constant is the targeting after the "main" assault of Jews, the singling out of a visible community purely down to religious and racial hatred, as well as to incite further terror.

Most of the comment has then concentrated on this continued threat to Jewish communities, rather than on freedom of expression once again coming under attack.  Some of this reticence could also, you have to suspect, be due to the release of audio from the cafe, with Inna Shevchenko, a representative of the Femen protest group making a point rendered all the more powerful by what follows.  “It’s about freedom of speech, but. The key word here is 'but’.  Why do we still continue to say but when we...”  Then gunshots ring out.

There were more than a few people saying but just over a month ago, or words to that effect.   Just this weekend Will Self was repeating how in his view satire is meant to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable".  Self doesn't need any lectures on how the likes of Hogarth were equally at home targeting the powerful as they were the drinkers of Gin Lane, just as so many other satirists and writers have turned their pencils and inks against those both worthy and in the view of the Selfs, unworthy of mockery.  My own view of satire has always been the best sort is uncomfortable to everyone, both the target and those viewing it, precisely because as much as satire needs at times to be obvious, wounding to the pompous, it also needs to challenge those who think themselves different.

Another way to do the equivalent of saying but is to bring in false comparisons and other equivocations.  Not since the murder last week of three young students, all Muslims, in North Carolina has there been the slightest piece of evidence produced to suggest they were killed because of their faith, rather than being yet more victims of a violent man with easy access to firearms.  This hasn't stopped those with axes to grind from ignoring the actual people who lived alongside the victims and their killer, who said they were all scared of him and that he complained habitually about his neighbours, especially when his Facebook page was filled with a screed against religion.  You don't however expect the Guardian editorial to draw a link, as much as you do the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain.  Claiming the North Carolina murders were an attack on freedom is completely absurd, yet such it seems is the continued nervousness of admitting a tiny minority of those calling themselves Muslims are prepared to kill in "defence" of their religion without wringing hands and saying yes, but you know, a lot of people are equally hate-filled.

Just as absurd is Binyamin Netanayhu once again in the wake of the attack on the Copenhagen synagogue doing the equivalent of saying "Israel is so bracing".  I thought for a moment about then adding something about wiping the blood off his hands, but (yes, that word) to so much as include blood and an Israeli leader in the same sentence is to be antisemitic in the view of some.  You could if you so wished calculate the number of Jews killed across Europe in acts of racial hatred over the past few years with the number of Jews killed in attacks in Israel, it's just there is no comparison so there's not much point.  As Keith Kahn-Harris exceptionally puts it, those who would murder Jews do not make distinctions between them, and the calls from Israeli politicians, designed as they are to appeal to a domestic audience with elections in the offing do precisely that, intended to or otherwise.

All the same, it's worth asking exactly what else EU leaders should have done to further protect Jewish citizens, after Rabbi Menachem Margolin said not enough had been.  Two attacks, despite Netanayhu's comments, is still an aberration rather than a pattern.  When you have so many claiming it's only a matter of time before something happens along the same lines in other European capitals, the obvious danger is of self-fulfilling prophecy, of inspiring further copyists, of overreaction and diluting other freedoms taken for granted, more so than we already have that of expression.  Seeing patterns where there isn't one yet is to fall into their trap, just as it is to condemn while saying but. 

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Monday, January 12, 2015 

Charlie sets the example.

It's always reassuring to see just how quickly unity and resistance can be appropriated by the very people who want nothing of the sort.  Call me a negative Nancy, but it's one thing for people to spontaneously come together in silent protest and remembrance, as they did on Wednesday night, and something remarkably different when the state itself then urges everyone to do so.  Martin Rowson's cartoon in the Graun points out how the murdered Charlie Hebdo journalists would have seen the irony in politicians who refuse to endorse freedom of speech being invited to march alongside their fellow leaders, and when it comes to Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas joining the parade, who can't talk to each other but will take part in any opportunity for self-promotion, the bad taste left in the mouth has lingered ever since.

Admittedly, Netanyahu hardly couldn't go considering the racist targeting by Amédy Coulibaly of a kosher supermarket, yet it still didn't feel quite right how the Israel/Palestine conflict, regardless of your personal views on it, without doubt exacerbates tensions in a way little else does.  And let's not pretend Israeli politicians of any stripe have recently attempted to calm such feelings: we only have to recall Netanahyu's response to the murders of three Israeli teenagers, when he called for "God to avenge their blood", to realise it's not just non-state actors that invoke religion when they want to.  There have been criticisms of some of the language used by politicians in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, with questioning even of describing the attacks as "barbaric" considering the word's origins, but European leaders have been moderate in the extreme compared to the rhetoric casually thrown back and forth elsewhere.  The cynical response of the Israeli government to those murders led directly to last summer's Gaza conflict, which in turn sparked the horrified news reports about the rise of anti-semitism in Europe.  Nothing of course justifies racism in any form, but when the Israeli government ostensibly collapsed on the very issue of legislation that would have defined Israel as a Jewish state, those same politicians know the game they are playing.

This said, it would be difficult not to be moved by the size of the crowds on the streets of France yesterday.  One wonders however if this was precisely because all real semblance of meaning had already been stripped from "Je suis Charlie", the marches being little more than a indication that life would carry on as before, as though it wouldn't have done anyway.  You could also if you wanted characterise it as a very French reaction to an attack on France rather than one on "freedom of speech" or "universal values"; demonstrating, marching is in the French national character, going all the way back to 1789, passing 1968 right up to the present day.  It just doesn't seem like something that would ever be repeated here, perhaps you can snidely comment because there isn't any such thing as a British national character, and even if there were it certainly wouldn't involve taking to the streets.

Moreover, for all the angry responses to the Charlie Hebdo attack, including from myself, justified as they were, it should once again bring home just how weak those who have set themselves against the West are.  We can agonise over the alienation, and the sense of dispossession some in marginalised communities feel against the countries they were often born in or which gave them sanctuary, and yet it ought to bring home just how small in the number those who feel this way really are.  Compared to those previously attracted to fascism or communism, neither of which are really comparable to jihadism beyond the utopian, or in practice dystopian ideals at their ideological core, it's indicative of just how easy it is to overhype the threat.  To those in Nigeria, let alone in Syria or Iraq, the last few days seen from the outside must have seemed the epitome of Western solipsism.

As I wrote following the release of the ISC report into the murder of Lee Rigby, we've apparently moved past the point where the threat is spectacular mass casualty bomb attacks to one where it's one or two armed men against the full weight of the state.  One armed man carrying out a spree killing in a heavily populated area is almost impossible to prevent.  In France on Friday we're told 80,000 police officers were mobilised, and Coulibaly still managed to launch his deadly assault on somewhere which made for an obvious target.  All three men were also known to the authorities, as were Rigby's killers.  Rather than this being a failure, as much as it is, it also shows how total security is an impossibility.  If someone is motivated enough, they will act, and they can't always be stopped.

This doesn't though stop the authorities from saying if only they had this power, if they only could do this, we'd all be that much safer.  Andrew Parker's speech on Thursday was coincidental rather than taking advantage, but it was no doubt further weaponised after Wednesday's events.  The cynics amongst us might note how it was the head of GCHQ who first denounced internet companies as effectively being hand in glove with terrorists, with his theme fully approved by the ISC in their Rigby report afterwards, no doubt completely unconnected events.  Now in the aftermath of Parker's sermonising, the same old faces and newer ones with their eyes on a greater prize solemnly agree on how essential it is the intelligence agencies get the ability to do whatever the hell they like, which is without hyperbole what they're demanding.

It doesn't seem to occur that it's the very openness of our society that makes us stronger, not as some would have it, more susceptible.  The sight of military personnel outside Jewish schools, while understandable and probably justified as those connected with the killers are sought, is exactly the sort of change those behind the attack seek.  Something meant to reassure nearly always has the exact opposite effect.  It's a small thing also, but it felt distinctly odd on Friday hearing journalists talk about the killing of the three behind the separate attacks being the "best possible outcome"; surely the best outcome would have been to deny them the martyrdom they sought and to bring them before a court, although that was probably impossible in the case of the Kouachi brothers coming out shooting.  Charlie Hebdo itself provides the example we ought to follow: that of continuing as before while remembering.

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Thursday, January 08, 2015 

Solidarity is meaningless unless we embrace freedom.

Trust Matt in the Telegraph to come up with one of the saddest, most poignant cartoon tributes to his slain French colleagues.  "Be careful, they might have pens."  With its echoes of a cartoon from Charlie Hebdo which featured a crying Muhammad, distraught at being followed by murderous idiots, it ought to make the minority still criticising the paper and its use of bad taste humour think again.  It didn't care who it offended, and increasingly that seems a quality to be prized rather than critiqued, however much it will be abused by the witless and those seeking controversy for its own sake.

As was predictable, many are falling into the trap set if not by the murderers themselves, who are unlikely to have given any wider thought to how their actions would be reacted to, then by the ideologues who inspire such attacks.  Yesterday's massacre was not an act of war, but it was meant to give that exact impression.  Jihadists know they cannot possibly win in a a straight fight against nearly any even semi-developed state: Islamic State, for its triumphs, is no nearer controlling either Syria or Iraq than it was prior to Western intervention.  Their main aim is to engender the exact response we saw to 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq: draw the West in, wear them down, kill as many soldiers and military contractors as possible, while creating such insecurity that beleaguered communities look to them for protection.

The same principle lies behind symbolic attacks like yesterday's, although none previously have been so professional, so merciless.  We look at the obscene irony of extremists killing people for criticising extremists for killing people, and the first conclusion, a more than reasonable one, is to declare it a war on freedom.  The reality is "they" don't hate us for our freedoms, not least because without those exact freedoms they could not operate as they do, they hate what is against them.  The very nature of takfiri jihadism, as epitomised by Islamic State, is that ideology is secondary to doing whatever they like because they can, as all those who believe power comes directly from the barrel of a gun do.  You'll search in vain for even the most opaque justification for enslaving women in the same way as IS has in the Qu'ran or the hadiths, and IS itself has only about one real Islamic scholar providing justification for their actions, with the other leading jihadist clerics, as shown by their attempts to save the life of Peter Kassig, continuing to oppose what they helped to spawn.

Just as when the predecessor to Islamic State twice attacked the Samarra mosque in Iraq, knowing full well it would intensify the conflict between Sunni and Shia, the ultimate aim of such assaults as well as instilling fear is to tear communities apart, emphasise the differences, to make everyone retreat back into what they know.  Unfortunately for them, the reality is French and British society are both far stronger than the far-right and the extremists believe, as demonstrated by how beyond the outpouring of grief over the murder of Lee Rigby, which saw war memorials across the country festooned with messages and tributes, there was no rise in support for the EDL despite their best efforts, with the result being the all but collapse of the movement.  There will always be knuckledraggers who respond to such attacks by defacing mosques or worst, as there have been in France, yet the true spirit of the nation was shown by the impromptu vigils of last night.  The same goes for the likes of Nigel Farage, with his comments on multiculturalism, as though despite the problems of integration this can all be linked back to "fifth columns" of enemies within, rather than a variant of totalitarian ideology we've fought against before.

Describing jihadism in such terms is undoubtedly to give it a dignity it doesn't deserve.  Stalin joked about how many divisions the Pope had, and you could ask the same of the self-proclaimed caliph.  The threat I wrote about yesterday doesn't come from such weaklings, from such a pitiful belief system, but from how we so easily forget democracy as we know it is such a recent development.  Universal suffrage is not even two centuries old, and despite Fukuyama declaring the End of History so pompously, the West's values having triumphed, the harsher reality is the nation soon to be the world's biggest economy gives no indication of moving towards one person one vote as we recognise it.  Russia under Putin is a democracy in name only, popular support for the president aside, and whereas free speech in the United States is protected by the constitution, in Europe about the best guarantor of liberty is the European Convention on Human Rights, the same one so loathed by the Tories and UKIP.

Combined with how there is no real love for true freedom of speech in this country, having just experienced an entire year that seemed to be nothing other than people taking offence both for the sake of it and to push their own agendas, where making extremely bad jokes on social media can see you fired within hours, or indeed imprisoned, and the picture is not quite as rosy as we'd like to believe.  Solidarity with Charlie Hebdo will not mean anything if we continue to self-censor, as we have, if we go on hounding those who go beyond what we deem "acceptable" rather than just criticising them, if we don't protect our freedoms in the face not of an Islamist assault but of that from securocrats and politicians who say they can deliver safety.  Already tonight MI5 is whinging about its capabilities, losing no time in taking advantage before the initial shock wears off.

A repeat of yesterday's massacre is unlikely.  The mistakes of the past and the now most certainly will be.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2015 

Je suis Charlie.

Cowardly is one of the words universally reached for to describe terrorist outrages.  In many instances, its use doesn't properly convey how while the use of violence against the defenceless can never be justified, someone willing to sacrifice their life for their cause, regardless of how vile that cause may be, can not truly be described as cowardly.  Stupid and self-defeating yes, cowardly no, in the same way there's often an extremely fine line between bravery and being foolhardy.

What is without a doubt cowardly is running someone over and then attempting to decapitate them as they lie unconscious.  What is not is then running at armed police with the intention of being killed, the police to their credit in that instance not giving them their lusted after "martyrdom". 

The absolute definition of cowardly, by comparison, were the actions carried out today in Paris against the journalists of Charlie Hebdo.  With apparent knowledge of when the satirical paper's editorial meeting was being held, 2 men armed with assault rifles massacred 10 people whose only weapons were words, drawings, and ideas.  They were targeted in offices from where there was no easy escape, desks and furniture offering the merest protection.  Then, just to emphasise their brutality, their lack of pity, one of the masked individuals executed an apparently unarmed, already stricken police officer before the group made their getaway.

Everything about the attack suggests this was the work of men with a certain amount of military training, not the "lone wolves" or "self-starters" much warned about.  From the weapons used, the way they were determined to make their escape rather than die in the process, to how the assault was planned somewhat and probably even rehearsed, it points towards funding or at the very least tenuous backing from a foreign jihadist group.  While thoughts immediately turned to Islamic State, or men possibly having returned from Syria, the claim from a witness that one of the attackers said they were from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula makes just as much sense.  All of AQAP's previous attempts to attack the West have involved bombs, and all have either failed or been foiled.  By switching to a guerilla style assault, and against the softest of targets, the chances of another failure were drastically reduced.

The only question then remaining is why specifically go after Charlie Hebdo, "insulting" of the prophet aside, rather than a Mumbai-style attack or a reprise of something like the Taliban attack on the school in Peshawar.  One explanation is Islamic State's brutality and takfirism has succeeded in revolting the Muslim world in a way al-Qaida itself never managed.  Many Sunnis may see the Syrian conflict mainly through the prism of sectarianism, but few look to Islamic State as the best alternative to Assad, even while supporting groups whose ideology is much the same.  Killing those who dared to satirise Muhammad is more defensible than an indiscriminate attack, and it also reannounces AQAP as the only real challenger to IS as the standbearer of the banner of global jihad.

One thing the attackers and their backers will have barely thought about is the consequences.  They have no interest in freedom of thought, of speech, how the only possible response is an outpouring of rage, sadness and defiance at how in the 21st century people are still being targeted, killed for criticising and mocking organised religion.  They care nothing for how their actions only underline the sheer poverty of their unquestionable doctrine, how unutterably weak their prophet and God must be if they can't take being caricatured.  The most powerful entity in all creation, who gave us the power of free will, and yet neither he nor his messenger are to be depicted as anything other than benevolent, peace be upon them.  If they considered it at all, they probably counted on it resulting in the exact soldiarity that has occurred, which will see the cartoons they killed over republished and spread wider than before.

Much will be wrote and already has been written about what the reaction should be, and then those all too familiar axes will be ground, about how all Muslims should condemn the attack without reservation, at how we have much the same extremists in our midst.  It comes at the precise moment when the far-right is on the march, literally in Germany, and as the National Front polls higher than ever in France itself.  The murderers of course have no concern for their co-religionists and the wave of hostility that always follows such outrages, at the same time as they justify their actions in the name of defending the honour of the Ummah.  One reaction that probably won't be noted but deserves to be is how those nations that have done to so much to spread extremist interpretations of Islam will condemn the attack, then carry on just as before, executing "sorcerers", enforcing blasphemy laws and funding "moderate" armed groups of their choosing.

Regular readers will know I'm not one for jumping on bandwagons, for echoing hashtag sentiments.   Tonight though I too am Charlie.  The aphorism that the pen is mightier than the sword is not always true, but what history suggests is the pen triumphs in the end.  The challenge today is to ensure that carries on.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014 

Project Mayhem urges you to stay safe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014 

The real face of 21st century insecurity.

(This is almost 2,000 words.)

To believe in most conspiracy theories, you need also to believe in the concept of all powerful government.  9/11 couldn't possibly have been the work of 19 men armed only with boxcutters and rudimentary knowledge of flying planes, that's far too implausible.  Instead, it was an inside job, possibly involving explosives that were planted in the twin towers when they were built, possibly involving holograms that looked like planes, all in the aid of justifying war and/or wars designed to take control of more Middle Eastern oil.  Or maybe the owner of the WTC wanted the insurance money, and was so motivated by greed he felt no compunction about the lives of the people in the buildings he was going to first have planes flew into, and then demolished remotely.

Except, as anyone who pays the slightest attention will quickly realise, government is not all powerful.  The intelligence agencies, despite having incredible powers of surveillance are not all knowing, let alone an panopticon.  In fact, for the most part they're just as stupid as you or I.  They rely chiefly for many of their outlandish claims on how the vast majority of the public don't remember the last time they were told about just how massive the threat level is, not to mention how the media for the most part repeats those same claims without hesitation.  More to the point, why shouldn't they when those wishing us harm say that's precisely what they intend just before they kill their latest victims?

We are then facing perhaps the most severe level of threat ever, says Theresa May.  Since 7/7 40 major plots have been disrupted, including ones we know about, such as the liquid bombs one, as well others we might not, like a Mumbai-style massacre, which could be a reference to the on-going Erol Incedal semi-secret trial.  This is the most severe level of threat since the last most severe level of threat.  For I recall former Met commissioners telling us how the "sky was dark", such was the scale of plotting going on, former MI5 heads warning of 30 on-going plots, of 2,000 individuals associated with extremism.  To be taken in by this nonsense you need to completely forget about the IRA, and more or less, every single past agitator either inside or outside the country.  In reality, the only thing that distinguished Islamist extremists from other terrorists was they didn't issue warnings, and were prepared to kill indiscriminately.

Now even that claim doesn't properly stand up.  As the Intelligence and Security Committee's report into what did or didn't go wrong with the security services' dealings with the two men convicted of killing Lee Rigby makes clear (PDF), the most pernicious threat right now is not so much from "lone wolves", those who have no contact whatsoever with other extremists, but "self-starters" (page 80, para 232).  Self-starters are those without major links to an al-Qaida franchise or Islamic State, but who are inspired by their example and decide to do something, anything.  They will be known to other extremists, probably having appeared on the periphery of investigations carried out by the police or MI5/GCHQ, just not considered an imminent threat.  Without the support and resources available to those with direct links to an AQ franchise, they're likely to think smaller and go for something achievable rather than spectacular.  Such as killing a soldier, or perhaps beheading the first person they don't like the look of.

This raises the question of just what is and isn't terrorism.  Within hours of Lee Rigby's murder his death was being defined as a terrorist act, rather than a homicide egregiously justified by his killers as revenge for British foreign policy.  The implication seems to be all someone needs to do is shout "Allah akbar" or the equivalent for their violence to be deemed terrorist inspired.  Any other factors can then be disregarded, and lessons must be learned from the failure to prevent the attack in the first place.

In the absence of there being anything or anyone to blame, or the refusal to apportion blame where it would most obviously lie based on the evidence, something else can always be found.  When it's done in such a transparent, utterly flagrant way as it has by the ISC and the government though, it just insults everyone's intelligence.  The first part of this week has been designated as a time to highlight "the threat" and demonstrate why yet more new powers are necessary, with the ISC report at the core, despite it having been ready for publication for weeks if not months.  It's a brilliant report, in that in the style of the very best it provides documentary evidence of how incompetent MI5 and MI6 can be, taking months to process intelligence and follow it up, leaving crucial details out of reports provided to the police, removing Michael Adebolajo from his status as a subject of interest, despite his links to 5 other major investigations and so on, and then reserves its real ire for Facebook for not passing on what it considers the one key piece of intelligence the security services believe could have prevented the attack.

It does this despite openly contradicting itself.  The key intelligence not passed on by Facebook was a conversation between Michael Adebowale and an extremist with links to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, where the former spoke of wanting to kill a soldier and received advice on how to go about doing so (page 127, para 378).  It seems fairly damning, until you consider how a similar piece of intelligence on Adebowale was used, or rather not used.  Back in 2012 GCHQ reported an unknown individual, not at that time identified as Adebowale, had been espousing "views includ[ing] references to operating as a lone wolf (or lone actor), and other general extremist remarks" (page 77, para 221).  The ISC notes at first sight this seems "striking", only for the committee to be reassured by the director general of MI5 that "those sorts of things said, and worse, on these sorts of [sites] are very common" and "[T]he vast majority of it, *** translates into no action at all". 

You can of course argue that going into the specifics of an attack is very different to vaguely talking of wanting to be a lone wolf, as does the contact with someone with links to AQAP, although at the time the intelligence agencies didn't know that was the case.  The same argument as made by Andrew Parker could though surely be applied to the exchange on Facebook; the vast majority of such talk would similarly translate into no action at all.  The real difference seems to be GCHQ obtained the first conversation, while Facebook didn't until after the murder discover the interaction between Adebowale and "Foxtrot", despite a number of Adebowale's accounts being automatically closed due to links to terrorism.  Adebowale closed the account used to contact "Foxtrot" himself.

Just then as Robert Hannigan, the new head of GCHQ used his first day in the job to describe social media companies and other tech giants as "facilitators of crime and terrorism" so today David Cameron was denouncing the likes of Facebook for providing a "safe haven" for terrorists, intentionally or not.  All this cant seems purely down to how accessing the personal data, meta or otherwise of everyone has been made harder by the shift towards greater encryption by the data companies.  Despite the efforts of GCHQ to master the internet, the ISC report claims in what seems to be the first official confirmation of the existence of Tempora, without naming it as such, in theory, "GCHQ can access around ***% of global internet traffic and approximately ***% of internet traffic entering or leaving the UK" (para 410, page 135).  James Ball suggests Edward Snowden believed GCHQ could access 20% of UK internet traffic, although as neither Adebowale or "Foxtrot" were under investigation at the time they wouldn't have known what to look for anyway.

Quite what the real aim is remains far more opaque.  As Alan Travis and others point out, what GCHQ and the government seem to be demanding is either that social media companies do their job for them, which is an impossibility; or, far more dangerously, that they let governments and their intelligence agencies do whatever they like with the data passing through the servers.  Even if we accept they have the very best of intentions, why should a US company hand over information without objection to a UK government agency and not say do the same for the Russians or Chinese when their requests would no doubt be made on the very same terms?  The argument they already do so when it comes to child exploitation is bogus, and more to the point, as we saw with the raids on Tor, disrupting paedophile networks still appears to come second to the war on drugs.

The report also downplays or accepts "national security" excuses for why MI5's attempts to recruit Adebolajo can neither be confirmed or denied (page 44, para 117).  Despite this, the ISC "investigated all aspects of MI5’s actions thoroughly, and [has] not seen any evidence of wrongdoing by MI5", so clearly any suggestion the "harassment" of Adebolajo may have contributed to his actions must similarly be dismissed.  MI6 was also wholly uninterested in Adebolajo's claims he was mistreated when arrested in Kenya (page 153, para 461), presumed to be intending to join up with al-Shabaab with Somalia, with the ISC concluding "we would have expected that all allegations of mistreatment would now be treated with the seriousness they merit" and that "whatever we now know about him as an individual does not detract from the fact that his allegations were not dealt with appropriately".  Again, any impact the alleged mistreatment could have ultimately had on Adebolajo's actions, considering the links between the UK and the anti-terrorism unit in Kenya codenamed ARCTIC, must obviously be disregarded.

As the Graun puts it, the "bleak truth is that it's possible nothing would have saved Lee Rigby from his awful fate".  Despite the government or the agencies themselves occasionally repeating the old adage that whereas they have to be lucky every time, the terrorists only have to be lucky once, protecting the public in the face of such odds remains one of the few things they continue to boast about.  It doesn't matter that governments wilfully redefine terrorism to be almost anything, raising the stakes even further, to the point where schools are deemed not to be doing enough to tackle extremism if sixth form societies have Facebook pages with links to radical preachers, still everything must be seen to be done, even if it turns out to be counter-productive or worse.  Continuously ramping up the perceived threat helps no one, and yet successive governments have done it.  When the intelligence agencies then fail, as they will, the blame has to be diverted.  If that in turn further helps the securocrats who are never satisfied with the material they have access to, so much the better, again in spite of how Tempora is useless against one determined person armed with a sharp knife.  All the technology, all our powers of surveillance, all our intelligence, brought low by men armed with a car, an unloaded gun and a few blades.  There is the true insecurity of the 21st century, and it's not the stuff conspiracy theories are made of.

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Monday, November 17, 2014 

Islamic State and the "glamour" of war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, September 04, 2014 

Desperate business.

It's a strange old world.  You might have thought for instance that regardless of how the SITE Intelligence Group, formerly the SITE Institute, is a self-started organisation that presents itself as an adjunct of the security services but in fact operates as the middle man between jihadis and the media and therefore needs to get more exposure, it wouldn't have plastered its logo all over the Islamic State's "Second Message to America" video.  It might not, as was the case in the previous video, actually show the beheading of Stephen Sotloff, but it most certainly does have the terrified, close to tears Sotloff reading out the statement demanded of him, before then cutting to an image of Sotloff's prostrate body, his severed, bloodied head placed on his back.  On the opposite side of the image to SITE's logo is the Islamic State's billowing black flag.  Still, it's good for business, right?

Equally odd is the idea a media blackout helps when it comes to those abducted in Syria or elsewhere.  Until Tuesday night when our new friend Jihadi John, as we apparently have to refer to him, was seen holding the scruff of David Haines's neck, we didn't have any idea there were Brits held by IS or any of the other groups.  The government and media did; they just felt it was better for all concerned if we were left in the dark.  Even yesterday, despite the rest of the world's media being understandably exercised by another westerner threatened with an especially grisly, brutal end, our own finest were pussyfooting around naming him.

As unlike our European counterparts we refuse to pay ransoms, failing a successful rescue operation David Haines faces the same fate as both James Foley and Sotloff.  It's true this might not have been the case until recently, as we don't know whether Foley, Sotloff or Haines were abducted by groups or rebel battalions other than IS and then sold onto them, and there might have been negotiations going on with them about possible deals not involving money, but if not IS has likely held these men with the intention of using them as pawns in a potential battle of wills with the west.  Media publicity before now might have made some sort of a difference, as it clearly did when Alan Johnston was abducted in Gaza, for instance.  It's certainly difficult to think of further harm it could have caused, unless the coalition is haunted by the memory of Ken Bigley and the pressure put on Tony Blair at the time over it.

Ah.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2014 

A greater and deeper threat. Just not to us.

In a world so overflowing with bullshit, one where it's difficult to keep your head above the surface in the septic tank of life, it takes a statement the equivalent of an Olympic-sized swimming pool of cow dung to give anyone the strength to make the effort to say simply, and boldly, you're talking crap.  According to our prime minister last Friday, the threat from the Islamic State, or ISIL, as he insisted on referring to the group for some bizarre reason, despite how we haven't described the greater area of Syria as "the Levant" for a very long time (those in the region refer to IS as Daash, the acronym for Dulat al-Islam fi al-Iraq wal-Sham, i.e. ISIS) is "greater and deeper than ... we have known before."

It's never been clear when politicians talk about threats and security just how far is it we're meant to go back in looking for a comparable situation to the one we're facing now.  Are we talking black death style threat, Spanish Armada type threat, the civil war, Waterloo, Crimea, the Boers, the Kaiser, the Nazis, the Soviet Union, the IRA, Saddam Hussein, al-Qaida?  Obviously enough, the new threat is always greater and deeper than we've known before, and we're all meant to have absolutely no knowledge of history at all, or indeed a memory span beyond that of last month.  Tony Blair claimed on a number of occasions the threat from al-Qaida was beyond comparison, just as every dictator we've faced off against since Hitler is, err, worse than Hitler.  Mao might carry the distinction of (arguably) killing more of his own people than any other 20th century leader, but it's always to good ol' Adolf the glib and shameless turn.

David Cameron's press conference came after JTAC concluded the overall threat is now once again severe, despite the lack of any specific information suggesting an attack is being planned or is any more likely than it was the previous day.  This is especially curious as only a few months back new checks were put in place at airports after specific intelligence suggested bombs could be concealed in iPhones or Samsung Galaxy devices.  That didn't necessitate any wider action, and yet here we are with a hypothetical threat from Islamic State requiring a "rules of the game are changing" style intervention, urgent legislation and the general public told to be more vigilant, reporting any concerns they have to the local cop shop.


Except Cameron's rhetoric hasn't matched the measures announced.  With the removing of citizenship from those born here not possible without breaching international treaties, the government instead proposed temporarily excluding those who've gone to fight in Syria or Iraq from the UK, without explaining where they would be expected to stay or just how long such an order would remain in place.  The police might be given the power to confiscate passports from those looking to travel, while TPIMs, the coalition's replacement for control orders, could be tightened by reintroducing the relocation element.  No one relocated under a control order absconded, so correlation must equal causation, right?  Even during the debate Cameron was emphasising how it "sticks in the craw that someone can go from this country to Syria, declare jihad ... and then contemplate returning to Britain having declared their allegiance to another state".  Apart from buying into Islamic State's own sense of self-importance, he knows full well those who do return can be prosecuted under the alarmingly widely drawn powers in the Terrorism Act, as Mashudur Choudary was, despite not having fought in Syria at all.  It raises the question of why if around half of the 500 estimated to have travelled to Syria to fight have come back more haven't been prosecuted, unless that is the threat posed by these Brit mujahideen has been over-egged.

Why then such a disjunct between the message and the action?  It's not down to the concerns of the Liberal Democrats, as Labour have made it perfectly clear they're prepared to bring control orders back, and so are hardly likely to defeat the coalition, at least on this issue, for the sake of it.  Nor does breaking international treaties bother a party set to propose leaving the European Convention on Human Rights in its election manifesto.  Instead the reasoning behind it seems a strange mix of playing up the threat for all it's worth, just in case the Americans decide they would like our help in Iraq and/or taking the fight against IS into Syria, preventing a repeat of last year's fiasco, while at the same time knowing full well that for the moment at least the threat posed by IS to the country directly is fairly negligible.  Getting further involved would make the threat worse, just as our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq did, but that irony seems lost on most involved.

With IS having followed through on its threat to kill Steven Sotolof, with the promise a hostage described as British, David Cawthorne Haines, will be murdered next, there's little reason to imagine the thinking behind all this to fail in its aim.  Despite there being no indication either ourselves or the Americans have the first idea of what to do about IS in Syria, as any suggestion of temporarily allying with Assad has been rejected, with the idea of training and arming "moderate" rebels to go after IS still being mooted, it looks as though we're heading towards another intervention without having either a plan or an idea of what the end game will be.  Destroying IS in principle is a laudatory aim; when however they have already turned to ethnic cleansing, what's the most likely outcome should they find themselves having to flee their current safe havens?  There is a great, deep threat to those trapped between IS, Assad and the other Islamist rebel forces, and we might just be about to make it even worse.

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