Wednesday, April 01, 2015 

An "unprecedented intervention", and the Incedal denouement.

There are some things we are destined never to understand.  Caitlin Moran's popularity.  How Grant Shapps' resemblance to Edd the Duck isn't remarked upon more often.  Why it is so many people can dish it out but not take it when they eventually face a backlash.  And, integral to this post, that ever present election campaign set piece, the letter from business leaders to a newspaper.

When said letter happens to appear on April the 1st, you also can't help but wonder if the joke isn't on all of us.  Quite what effect an endorsement from a bunch of people the vast majority will have never heard of and never will again is supposed to have is a mystery all of its own.  Presumably the aim, at least this time, is to underline further just how wonderful the coalition's long-term plan has been and will remain, and if you don't believe us then that bloke off that TV programme says so, as does that woman off that other TV programme who is, err, also a Tory peer.

This seems to rather overlook how most people are cynical sods, who will note all 103 wealth creating heroes are not doing a lot more than agreeing they would like to pay less tax and draw their own conclusions.  As it's corporation tax they want to pay less of, the tax plenty of companies try their best not to anyway and which in turn means the shortfall has to be made up elsewhere, mainly through more people going into the higher rate income tax band, it doesn't instantly follow they'll conclude Labour are lunatics for saying they'll put it up a whole penny to support smaller businesses.

Nor has it ever been clear what the businesses themselves get out of their CEOs making such endorsements.  The letter is after all effectively a list of companies those so inclined can from now on avoid if they so wish, which is why most likely why they're attempting to have their cake and eat it, signing the letter in a personal capacity.  Thankfully the Graun has stepped in with some further details on said bosses, and so we learn alongside the Tory donors and usual suspects is one Mark Esiri, good pal of the Camerons and the person who helped coordinate the sale of Smythson, netting Glam Sam Cam a cool £430,000.  Also on the list are such non-fat cats as head of Prudential Tidjane Thiam, who earned a mere £11.4m last year, up from £5.3m in 2010, so clearly another victim of the cost of living crisis.

George Osborne is then surely right to declare the letter an "unprecedented" intervention.  Still, it's odd as Nils Pratley notes that previous Tory letter signers are notable by their absence, including such an obvious name as Lord Wolfson, a Tory peer no less.  Also curious, beyond the stupidity of releasing the letter to the Torygraph on April Fools' Day, is why they've done it this early in the campaign at all: surely it would have served the party better nearer polling day itself, as let's face it, the majority are still barely paying attention even as the nerds among us are fed up to the back teeth of the same old soundbites.  It couldn't be that failure to achieve "crossover", the point at which the Conservative lead consolidates and which Lynton Crosby said would have arrived by now, combined with a solid start by Labour on the campaign front has spooked them, could it?

Something that should spook us all is the denouement to the Erol Incedal trial.  Mr Justice Nicol has ruled the public cannot be allowed to know why it was the jury decided Incedal, despite the apparently highly incriminating evidence against him, was not in fact plotting a terrorist attack.  His defence, that he had a "reasonable excuse" as to why both he and his co-defendant had a manual containing instructions on how to make "viable" explosive device cannot be reported, and yet it was this defence that put enough doubt in the mind of two successive juries, resulting first in a retrial and then in acquittal.  For possession of the manual Incedal was sentenced to 42 months in prison, a term that seems far beyond that ordinarily passed for possession of similar documents, again without any wider explanation.

The whole situation frankly defies description.  You want to call it Kafkaesque, except the point of The Trial is K never knows what he's been arrested and charged with, whereas with Incedal we aren't allowed to know what his defence was.  Moreover, the state attempted to have the entire trial held in secret, which not even the bureaucracies of Kafka's nightmares did.  Then there's the paradoxes at work, whereby the CPS continues to claim the trial could not have been brought if more details were made public, and yet as Incedal has now been cleared the opinion of the jury was the case had never been strong enough anyway.

Mr Justice Nicol's reasoning for why the in camera sessions attended by the accredited journalists must remain secret are also, naturally, far too sensitive to be made public.  His ruling additionally makes said hacks effectively complicit in secret justice, or rather injustice, raising the question of whether if a situation like this occurs again they would go along with it a second time.  Why on earth would anyone?  Their notebooks locked away, crosswords also confiscated lest they be an attempt to smuggle out a record of what was heard, they've just wasted weeks of their time.  Indeed, it makes you wonder if that was the point, until you remember that cock up is nearly always a better explanation than conspiracy.

Precisely how national security could possibly be so drastically affected by the public knowing Incedal's defence you can't even begin to surmise.  It seems of a piece with the literal sledgehammer response to the Guardian's reporting of the Edward Snowden leaks, when the most ridiculous excuses were come up with as to why the copies of the files in London had to be destroyed.  It was utterly pointless in the sense of preventing the reporting from continuing, but it was very much pointed in the message it was sending.  Anything that might prove embarrassing to the intelligence agencies has to stepped upon, and if that means denying an innocent man the right to truly clear his name, as Incedal most certainly has been, the ends justify the means.  That the state on this occasion has so involved the fourth estate in its machinations could yet prove its downfall.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015 

Just who are the domestic extremists?

Back in the 70s, Ted Heath was not exactly complimentary about MI5's way of working. "They talked the most ridiculous nonsense, and their whole philosophy was ridiculous nonsense.  If some of them were on the tube and saw someone reading the Daily Mirror they would say - 'Get after him, that man is dangerous, we must find out where he bought it.'"  Predictably, Christopher Andrew in his official history of MI5 claimed the reality was often the government itself asking MI5 to keep tabs on MPs they had suspicions about, rather than MI5 becoming convinced various left-wingers were serving Soviet and not British interests.

By the 1990s the bad old days of MI5 and Special Branch keeping tabs on any vaguely left-wing group were meant to have passed.  When it's subsequently revealed Special Branch apparently left their files open on such notorious subversives as Harriet Harman, Jack Straw and Peter Hain, by this point all ministers in the Labour government, it does make you wonder just who they deemed to not be worthy of monitoring.  Frank Field, maybe? Gerald Kaufman?  Or were they too secretly meeting behind closed doors to plot and sing the Internationale?  Considering that Jenny Jones, the Green member of the London assembly recently discovered she was on the Met's current database of "domestic extremists" perhaps we shouldn't be that surprised.

It also brings into sharper focus the Erol Incedal debacle, the first trial to be heard in such a high degree of secrecy since the war.  Despite being found guilty of possession of a document on bomb-making, the jury at Incedal's retrial (the jury at the original trial failed to reach a verdict) was apparently convinced by his explanation as to why emails the prosecution claimed to refer to the Mumbai attacks and AK-47s were nothing of the kind and so cleared him of plotting some sort of attack.  I say apparently as this was part of the trial held in complete secret, with not even the posse of accredited hacks allowed into some of the behind closed doors sessions ordered out.  Further on the surface incriminating details have emerged as a result of the judge's summing up in the second trial - Incedal apparently met with a British jihadist known only as Ahmed on the Syrian border, who allegedly suggested carrying out an attack.  The bug planted in Incedal's car additionally picked him up praising Islamic State commanders.

Just as intriguing is how Incedal came to the attention of the police in the first place.  Arrested for speeding, the BBC reports he "made demands" the police couldn't accommodate, and they also stopped an interview so they could "digest" a written statement.  Whether it was this which prompted the police to make a thorough search of his car, finding the home address of Tony Blair on a piece of paper hidden in a glasses case we don't know, but it seems to have disquieted them enough to plant the bug in his car.  Incedal maintained at both trials he had a "reasonable excuse" for having the explosives manual, an excuse which caused the jury enough reasonable doubt for them to decide to acquit on the more serious charge.  We can't however know what the excuse was, such is the apparent impact it could have on national security.

Or at least we won't unless the judge decides tomorrow that the reporting restrictions on the sessions when the accredited hacks were allowed in but the public wasn't can now be made public.  Both the Graun and the BBC quote Sean O'Neill, the Times's crime and security editor, known to be the kind of journalist memorably described by EP Thompson as "a kind of official urinal in which ministers and intelligence and defence chiefs could stand patiently leaking", as saying there was a lot heard that should not have been secret.  Surely then we can expect the judge to throw some light on the subject?

Except the fact the security services, ministers, the CPS and the judge himself all initially felt the trial should be held entirely in secret, with Incedal and his co-defendant identified by initials, something only prevented by the media challenging Mr Justice Nicol's ruling at the Court of Appeal, more than suggests that avoiding further embarrassment is likely to be order of the day.  The QC for the media at the Court of Appeal hearing argued that "the orders made involve such a significant departure from the principle of open justice that they are inconsistent with the rule of law and democratic accountability".  As Theresa May reaffirmed on Tuesday, the rule of law is one of those British values that is non-negotiable, and to reject it is one of the definitions of extremism.  The law is though there to be changed, especially if meddling judges decide that letters from a prince preparing to be king to ministers must be revealed, as David Cameron has said.  And when the security services and police are so often a law unto themselves, the rule of law is very much what the government of the day decrees it to be.

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Monday, March 16, 2015 

On not understanding the call of duty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015 

The ladies dost protest too much.

Let's be honest.  Good as most of us are at dishing out criticism, few of us take it quite as kindly.  At least if your self-hatred is off the charts one of the, perhaps the only benefit is there's very little going to be thrown your way you haven't already thought yourself, accurate or not.

If there's one quality I can't then abide, it's how those who should know better try and make the most out of something vaguely insulting when they're not averse to the odd bit of directing their own mob.  Witness the very much non-shrinking violets around the fringes of the Scottish independence campaign pretend to be offended by yesterday's Steve Bell cartoon in the Graun, the very same people whom just 2 weeks ago were not, emphasis not trying to get a nurse sacked for appearing on Labour's campaign material.  Indeed, if she did ended up getting sacked it would be the fault of Labour's hatred of the SNP and not those complaining about an NHS worker breaching some unlikely to be well known rules on such activities.

The way politicians and their hangers-on react to criticism can at times be even more enlightening.  You might have thought a government confident in the security services would for instance have just ignored the mostly absurd rhetoric from the charity Cage about our good friend Mohammed Emwazi, which only garnered such coverage in the first place as the media was desperate to immediately know all they could about him.  When someone describes a serial murderer as a "beautiful man", apparently a shy and retiring type until he was made into a fanatical killer by the merest of interactions with MI5, it's the kind of silliness that doesn't really merit a response.

Except of course we have both a media and political establishment that can't just stand by as slander is spoken of those brave guys and gals at Thames House.  The Mail on the Saturday after Emwazi's unveiling had as many pieces on the apologists from Cage as it did alongside the obligatory profiles of the man himself.  Asim Qureshi, Cage's director, has since been given a ritual dunking by among others, Andrew Neil and Andrew Gilligan, as though anyone hadn't been tipped off by Cage's website about their combining of genuine examples of state overreach, such as the continuing imprisonment of Shaker Aamer at Guantanamo, with their general insistence that many other convicted Islamists are in fact gentle sorts.

Cage had been approached by the Washington Post during their investigation into Emwazi, hence why they were able within a matter of hours after his naming to hold a press conference attended by the salivating media.  That Qureshi and Cerie Bullivant didn't expressly condemn the man who had previously complained to them about being harassed, something that would normally be taken as read when it comes to someone filmed beheading aid workers was enough to set in motion what has occurred since.  Cage's bank accounts had previously been closed with the arrest and charging of Moazzam Begg, since released after MI5 "remembered" they hadn't raised any objection to his travelling to Syria.  The charity's other main backers, the Roddick Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust have since put an end to their funding.

Whether they should have supported the group in the first place is a question worth asking.  It does however seem odd at this remove for the defence secretary Philip Hammond to make such a bizarre assertion as a "huge burden of responsibility also lies with those who act as apologists for them [Islamic State et al]", as he did in his speech to RUSI today.  Does it really?  You can hold Cage accountable for not being fussy over those they choose to back, but to say they have a burden of responsibility themselves is a nonsense.  Even if you take the Gilligan line that Cage have significant traction with those who forever see themselves as victims, looking either to conspiracy theories or putting the blame on a persecuting, oppressive state which operates a foreign policy that is itself a radicalising force, then it still doesn't confer responsibility on them.  They might be irresponsible yes, but that isn't the same thing by any stretch.

It's difficult not to wonder if this shooting of the messenger isn't meant precisely as distraction.  Absurd as Cage's claims are that Emwazi's interactions with MI5 turned him into the person in IS's propaganda, there are questions to be asked of the intelligence agencies, not least made clear by Hammond elsewhere in his speech.  As he put it "Not all those countries with whom we might like to share information in the interests of our national security adhere to the same high standards".  Well quite, and we never had any definitive answers over how Michael Adebolajo, one of the two men convicted of the murder of Lee Rigby, was treated while in Kenya by an anti-terrorist squad in part funded by the UK government.  We haven't been given anything close to a defence of the seeming chief tactic of MI5 when it comes to interviewing those suspected of involvement on the fringes of involvement in terrorism of trying to recruit them, nor have they offered an answer as to why it is those in the circle around Emwazi all went abroad to various places without being stopped.

Hammond's speech was all the more remarkable for just how matter of fact it was.  He mentions just what promises the coalition did keep about reform of the intelligence agencies, but for some reason forgot about the inquiry into alleged complicity in torture, cancelled in the face of new allegations concerning Libya.  Apparently intelligence has played a key role in "providing the information to check ISIL’s murderous advance", a statement so patently absurd you wonder how Hammond delivered it with a straight face.  We did everything we could to draw Russia into the rules-based international system, you know, the one where you don't invade sovereign nations on the basis of, err, faulty intelligence, or invoke the "responsibility to protect" then use it to enforce regime change.  This was in a spirit of openness, generosity and partnership, all for our good intentions to be rebuffed.  The Paris attacks are evidence of the dangers of lone wolves, despite the links the killers had to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State.  GCHQ must be allowed to intercept bulk communications data, which they have been and still are.  The debate over such things cannot be allowed to continue forever, although seeing as the Cabinet Secretary told the Guardian the debate was over nearly two years ago now, Hammond seems late to the party.

MI5 is one of those organisations that can't win.  Its major successes only emerge years or decades later if at all, while the failures are immediately glaring.  Such a reality though comes with the territory.  Just as it should be taken as apparent that you aren't supportive of pin ups of the caliphate, so it should be obvious to be critical of the intelligence agencies is not to be against them completely.  One correspondingly obvious conclusion to be reached over how the angle grinder of government and media has been taken to Cage is a whole lot of people are protesting way too much.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, February 23, 2015 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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