Tuesday, October 13, 2015 

Never seen a tinderbox I didn't want to light.

(This was written yesterday, but I unfortunately arrived home to find my desktop no longer so much as wants to power on.  Updates are likely to be sporadic until it's fixed, as while writing posts on a phone is fine, formatting and adding links in the usual way is an utter chore.)

Let me get this straight.

Israel looks to be in the first stages of the third intifada, the Palestinians having lost hope in either Hamas or Fatah being able to deliver their own state.  The world looks on as the Israelis themselves become ever more hardline, as ever more territory is stolen and as ever more settlements are built.  Resistance now is to throw stones, stab ordinary Israelis.  Both are responded to with bullets.

In Turkey, for the second time, a march by Kurds and socialists is attacked by suicide bombers.  As on the first occasion in Suruc, the Kurdish HDP accuses President Erodgan's AKP party of being involved, either turning a blind eye to Islamic State plotting, or actively collaborating with the jihadists.  For it to happen once can be dismissed.  For it do so again, with the AKP having embarked on a new conflict with the PKK as part of a cynical manoeuvre to try and gain a majority in the second general election in the year, the charge is all the more difficult to dismiss.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, the Saudi coalition continues under the authorisation of a UN Security Council resolution to bomb whatever it feels like, the aim supposedly being to defeat the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.  Thousands are dead, and there is practically no media coverage as it is all but impossible for reporters to gain access, not to forget the potential danger of being in what may as well be a free fire zone.

And then we have Syria and Iraq, where currently pretty much everyone and their mother is either bombing one or the other, or if not bombing then funding or funnelling arms to one side in what are both civil conflicts, but also proxy wars and grand theatres for leaders to show just how serious and tough they are by chucking high explosives at people who might be bad men but might equally be secular and moderate or civilians.

Somehow, quite incredibly, despite politicians knowing all of this, not least because some of them have been authorising the vapourising of British citizens who otherwise would have been coming right for us, one of the few people saying hang on, perhaps we shouldn't add to this chaos by getting even further involved is the one getting criticised.  According to John Woodcock MP, Diane Abbott is trolling her own party by continuing to argue that what's being proposed currently will not help Syrian civilians one iota.

The very best case currently being made for our own little intervention in Syria was set out jointly by Andrew Mitchell and Jo Cox.  According to them, Syria is our generation's test, our Rwanda, our Bosnia, our Kosovo, our responsibility.  They say we must get back to basics, that primarily Syria and the Syrians themselves are the issue.  Their first two recommendations are that both the humanitarian effort to help refugees and the diplomatic effort to try to reach a political solution must be intensified.  No one could disagree.

Then we have the proposed military component.  The word how is not used once.  It is "not ethical to wish away the barrel bombs", they write, without explaining how they can be stopped.  "We need a military component that protects civilians", they say.  They do not propose how.  Any safe havens will need to be protected by forces on the ground, and a no fly zone, which would also be needed, would have to be enforced.  They do not suggest which or whose ground forces would be used, whether it would be the Kurdish militias (now also being accused of razing villages), "moderate" rebels, Turkish troops or Western forces.  They do not explain how a no fly zone could possibly work when the skies are full of planes and drones from numerous nations, nor how the Russians would react when just this weekend they have been in talks with the Americans on how to avoid any potential misunderstandings or clashes between the two sides.

"Preventing the regime from killing civilians, and signalling intent to Russia, is far more likely to compel the regime to the negotiating table than anything currently being done or mooted," they argue.  This is about as absurd a reading of the conflict as it's possible to imagine.  They seem to imagine that if only the Syrian government was prevented from killing more civilians it would throw in the towel, when the Russian intervention makes it pretty clear it was the gains being made by the non-Islamic State rebels that were causing real concern. The Russian involvement has changed everything, and yet still they seem to think there's room for yet more slinging around of missiles, as the safe zones idea is now even more of a non-starter than it was previously.  

When those making the best possible case still can't answer the most basic questions of how and who, it makes clear just how removed from reality our discourse has become that it's the critics who get the articles written about them.  We simply cannot get used to the idea of not getting off when everyone else has already shot their bolt.  Not even the potential of an incident with the Russians and all that would involve dissuades them.  We see chaos, and the only response is to want to create more.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015 

Syria: hell on earth, and made worse by each successive intervention.

When it comes to the great worst place in the world to live debate, there are many favourites that immediately come to mind.  Your North Koreas, Saudi Arabias, Eritreas, Irans, etc.  All with highly oppressive authoritarian governments, all set on either outright killing their own people, or just making life as miserable as possible.  Then you have the places where plain old insecurity and crime are the main problem: countries like Honduras and El Salvador, currently battling over which has the highest murder rate per capita of population, while one of the BRICS, South Africa, is also averaging 49 murders a day.

Few though are likely to disagree (Islamic State supporting cretins excepted) that right now Syria is the closest equivalent to hell on earth.  Beyond argument is the root cause of the civil war was the reaction of the Assad regime to the protests that broke out as part of the wider Arab spring; less widely accepted is that the regime's almost immediate resort to violence was not wholly surprising considering events in Egypt.  There the Mubarak government pretty much surrendered without a fight.  It has since resurfaced in the form of the Sisi government, but whether the Ba'ath party would have been able to come back to power in the same way had Assad also quickly left the scene is dubious.

Besides, let's not indulge the view that had the initial uprising succeeded Syria would now be rivalling Tunisia in the Arab spring stakes.  That so many extreme Islamist groupings emerged as quickly as they did to fight the regime, not including either the al-Nusra Front or Islamic State, suggests there would have soon been a battle on the hands of the secularists and liberals to maintain their revolution.

In any case, the peaceful uprising quickly became an armed one.  These groups were soon funded by the usual suspects: the Saudis, the Qataris, Kuwaitis, etc.  Whether any Arab governments directly funded the most notorious jihadist groups is uncertain, but certainly the usual benefactors in their countries did.  At the same time, the Syrian government turned to its own allies, the Iranians and the Russians, both of whom have helped it to survive through direct aid, weaponry and in the case of Iran, fighters from Hezbollah.  Also helping out have been our good selves in the West: we quickly declared that Assad must go, his government was entirely illegitimate, and that the Syrian opposition, whichever group we've decided that is this week, are the only de facto representatives of the Syrian peopleAs well as helping to equip the "moderate" armed groups, it's fairly apparent that our approach throughout was to let the Arab states get on with doing whatever they felt like, even if that meant funding and arming jihadists, at the same time ironically enough as the Saudis and Emirate nations were helping with the overthrow of the moderate Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Confused yet?  We're only just getting started.  Ever since Islamic State took advantage of the Sunni uprising in Iraq against what they saw as the sectarian central government to take over vast swaths of the country, enabling it to also grab a massive part of western Syria, such was the collapse of government authority there, a veritable smorgasbord of nations have decided the best way to defeat them is to drop bombs from a great height on their general position.  This roll call of countries includes the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and France.  Technically we are yet to join in ourselves, but when you remember that British servicemen have taken part in sorties over the country and we felt the only way to protect ourselves from attacks on events that had already passed was to splatter some Islamic State morons across the Syrian desert via drone, you can basically include us also.

And now the Russians have joined in, only they are quite clearly intervening directly on the side of Assad.  For a few moments it looked as though the way was clearing for the sort of precursor to a peace initiative a few of us have long called for: to recognise that however terrible the crimes Assad has committed are, the only way to deal with Islamic State is to work with him and his forces, at least in the short term.  In exchange, Assad would be required to give up power once Islamic State had been defeated in Syria, but be allowed to remain a free man.  With Assad gone, a peace deal would hopefully then be easier to broker with the other rebel groups.  Free elections would follow, and so forth.  Yes, it's a plan with myriad problems that almost certainly wouldn't work, but it's a far more realistic one than all the others offered so far.  It seemed as if the arrival of new Russian weaponry and forces was to help purely with a renewed offensive against Islamic State, as suggested by the Syrians bombing targets they previously felt unable to.  That the Americans appeared to be acquiescing to this rather than complaining about it in the usual incredibly hypocritical style looked a good sign.

That today's first attacks by Russian planes seem to have targeted rebels other than IS rather undermines any lingering hopes on that score.  It could of course have been faulty intelligence, might have been merely an opening salvo designed to minimise any potential threat to the bases where the Russians are operating from, or it may be those on the ground are lying; any statement by rebel groups has to be treated with great caution, so often have they resorted to falsehoods.  More likely however is that this is just the start of a wider Russian offensive against all opposition to Assad.  Considering very few of the remaining rebel groups are "moderate" in the true sense of the word, this isn't the greatest tragedy.  What is a tragedy is the Russians have the same sense of compunction towards civilian casualties as everyone else, i.e. none.

Putin's motives are fairly transparent, as are the arguments being deployed.  All his forces are doing is going the extra mile the Americans and the rest haven't: attacking Islamic State from the air hasn't worked, so the next step has to be to coordinate with forces on the ground.  The Americans have effectively betrayed the Kurds who were playing that role, leaving only the Syrian army.  It's been apparent ever since the US airstrikes began that there is low-level plausibly deniable cooperation between the Syrians and the Americans, hence why there have been no unfortunate incidents in over a year of missions.  Why not simply make this formal, the Russians ask.

They have a point. Of course, these motives are far from pure: as much as the Russians do have more to fear from Islamic State than the Americans do, their intervention has the exact same downsides as ours in the region have.  It will likely increase the terrorist threat rather than decrease it, while the presence of Russians in the country will provide a further rallying cry for the jihadi recruiters.  Putin hopes an intervention that brings the end of the war closer will somewhat make up for the on-going conflict in Ukraine, raising the possibility of an early lifting of sanctions.  It also re-establishes Russia's influence in the region, building on the role played in the Iran nuclear programme negotiations.

Were Russia merely stepping up in this way, there would be little to protest about.  Clearly the hope of the Americans was the Russians were going to do what they weren't prepared to.  Instead, it looks as though there is no plan beyond propping up Assad indefinitely.  If there are to be joint operations with the Syrian military, there is no indication of them starting any time soon.  For a long time the harsh reality has been that we and our allies have been happy with a murderous stalemate in Syria.  Even now, as the refugee crisis is not really directly affecting us as it is the rest of Europe, we're still not especially bothered.  The only logic behind joining in with the bombing is for the sake of appearance; there's certainly no military necessity behind it.

With the Russians deciding to join the list of nationalities determined to make Syria even less liveable, the case for our getting involved becomes ever weaker.  Rarely has there been a case of a country already going through hell being fucked over so utterly by so many others.  The argument that only more war will solve the conflict applies only if that war targets Islamic State exclusively.  Russia's intervention seems likely only to result in yet more suffering.  And sadly, our hands are just as dirty as theirs.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015 

Preventing "bad boys" from becoming dead boys.

Last week's horrific suicide bombing in Suruc, near to the Turkish-Syria border, looks to have been the last straw for both the Kurds and Turkey alike.  Blamed on Islamic State, although for once the group has not claimed responsibility for the attack, the bomber, believed to have been a 20-year-old Kurd, targeted a press conference being held by the Socialist Party of the Oppressed's youth wing.  The conference had been meant to publicise a trip by some of the group's members to help in the rebuilding of Kobani, the Syrian city Islamic State failed to capture despite it at one point seeming to have been abandoned to its fate by everyone other than the Kurds themselves.

As with the civil war in Syria as a whole, conspiracy theories and grievances about the Turkish authorities' seeming connivance with jihadists fighting in Syria have long circled among the Kurds, embittered by how Ankara has continued to see them as more of a threat than Islamic State.  Whether there was any kind of collusion with the Suruc bomber, or more likely a simple failure of intelligence, the PKK, the Kurdish separatist group, responded to the bombing by killing 2 police officers.  In turn, Turkey has launched bombing raids in both Syria and Iraq, attacking both Islamic State targets and those of the Kurds who just happen to be fighting IS.  A deal between Turkey and the Americans for the use of two military bases close to the Syrian border, long previously resisted, has also been struck.  Whether this amounts to an abandonment of the Kurds in favour of more active Turkish involvement as yet remains to be seen.  It does however underline the double games being played by so many of the actors involved, almost always to the detriment of either civilians or the very few groups that have relatively clean hands.

Much comment here has predictably focused on the news that of the five men who travelled together from Portsmouth in October 2013 to fight in Syria, only Mashudur Choudhury, who returned shortly afterwards, unable to adjust to life in a war zone, remains alive.  Just how ideologically inclined the men were really were remains difficult to properly ascertain; Choudhury certainly was less a committed jihadi and more a pathetic man with delusions of religious grandeur, soon brought back down to earth by the reality.  That the rest did stay, and one at least contacted the ubiquitous researcher Shiraz Maher, telling him of the mundane duties required of a lowly fighter with the Islamic State, while still believing in the group's cause, would suggest not just a belief in defending fellow Sunni Muslims, but also in the rest of the IS system.  When you then also think of how such men would have probably delighted in the slaughter in Suruc, where a group that believes in everything Islamic State detests was cut down for wanting to help their victims, it's difficult not to reach the simple conclusion that the only good jihadi is a dead jihadi. 

Except I also can't help but see the tragedy, the utter waste of life, the contradictions contained within those five men, the "Pompey Lads", the "al-Britani Brigade Bangladeshi Bad Boys".  Identity and the search for it is rightly pinpointed as being key to understanding why some British-born Muslims have gone to fight in Syria, and yet these men didn't want to dispense with their identity, they also embraced it.  They didn't call themselves lions, or apply any other self-aggrandising Islamic labels to themselves, but identified as being from a small town, from Britain and as having Bangladeshi heritage.  The "Bad Boys" part meanwhile speaks of their immaturity, as does how apart from Choudhury, who ironically despite being the oldest was the most immature, none of the other four had any real responsibilities.  All they had was either university to come or apparent dead end jobs to exist through.  It's less surprising to learn one craved martyrdom when the only other identifier he had was as a supervisor at Primark.

What they also had was each other, and it's well known how group dynamics and peer pressure play a major role in the reinforcing of thinking that would otherwise be questioned and challenged.  What also has to be remembered is that in October 2013 the myth of a moderate opposition was still being espoused, as was support for the rebels against Assad in general.  Whether the two who were killed in the fighting for Kobani believed in that cause as fervently as the one they travelled for we don't know; what we do know is the longer someone stays, the harder it is to return, especially when they must have known that Choudhury had been prosecuted and jailed for not much more than merely going to Syria.  If the family of Muhammad Mehdi Hassan are to be believed, the youngest of the group at 19 had wanted to come home when he was killed.

Too bad, you might think, and it is hard to have any sympathy for those who fought alongside or may themselves have taken part in mass killings or the almost beyond imaginable abuse of Yazidi women.  At the same time, there has to be some way for those who have gone to Syria and either want to return or have returned to reintegrate into society.  This is in everyone's best interests: not only are returnees potentially the best weapon against the radicalisers, able to argue that the reality is far different from the propaganda, but to exclude, jail and write off only entrenches the problem.  Identifying 3-year-olds as potential terrorists, as is now happening, while either simply monitoring or prosecuting returnees is the anti-extremism of fools, guaranteed to fail.  There has to be an alternative, however much it offends in the short term.

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Monday, July 20, 2015 

The strategy remains that there is no strategy.

In his speech on extremism today (speech in full), David Cameron said "Our freedom comes from our parliamentary democracy".  He's right.  Parliament can also dilute that freedom, and has within its power the means by which to end it all together.  Parliament can only maintain freedom as long as it is challenged through protest, and held to account by the courts and the press, to name but two institutions that play such a role.

When the will of parliament is then ignored by the government of the day, as it clearly has been in the case of British servicemen embedded with allied military forces carrying out air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria, it does rather put into perspective the Tories' continuing obsession with promoting our supposedly indivisible British values as a counterweight against Islamic extremism.  Prime ministers have of course long wielded the royal prerogative, enabling them to make war without bothering to seek the will of parliament, but it's clearly bad form to engage in semantics when there has not been just one, but two votes directly related to Syria.  The first was defeated, while the second did not come close to providing authorisation to attack Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq.  In truth, it's likely that British special forces have long been operating in Syria, but such are the activities of the secret state: for ordinary soldiers to be taking part in military operations in the country is something else.

One of the best, or at least most inventive defences of the government's fuck you, we bomb what we want attitude came from perennial fan of liberal interventionism James Bloodworth.  Apparently those upset at parliament being ignored are "clinging to the outdated idea that Syria still exists as a state".  Bloodworth might have more of a point if the government wasn't itself clinging to that "outdated idea"; lest we forget, according to David Cameron, Islamic State is neither "Islamic nor a state".  The reality probably is that the rise of Islamic State has torn up Sykes-Picot, and that neither Syria or Iraq can return to their borders as previously recognised.  That is however the intention of all the state actors involved, with the exception of the Kurds, if anyone's counting them.  If we're going to ignore state borders because IS ignores them, it needs to be voted on.  It's not a hard concept to get your head round, unless of course you're being wilfully obtuse, something liberal interventionists can never be accused of being.

It might also be an idea to have a strategy for dealing with Islamic State that runs alongside the one for dealing with homegrown extremism, as the two things while not inextricably linkedcould just have a connection.  Launching Hellfire missiles at Toyota Land Cruisers, whether in Iraq or Syria, is not a strategy.  One such strategy worth noting was set out on Left Foot Forward (edited by Bloodworth), Kyle Orton arguing the only way forward was to commit to regime change in Syria, which would convince all the non-ISIS rebel forces just how serial we are, and therefore result in an uprising against IS in both Syria and Iraq.  This naturally wouldn't lead to the other jihadist rebels gaining power, or Syria descending even further into the abyss, just as regime change in Iraq and Libya didn't.  There are times when describing something as insane doesn't quite cut it, although in fairness to Orton he is at least proposing something other than maintaining a murderous, bloody stalemate.  It would be a murderous, bloody victory for the very forces behind the ideology of Islamic State, and result in years more of bloody insecurity in the most dangerous region in the world, but hey, you've got to start somewhere.

To give David Cameron some credit also, his anti-extremism strategy for here in the UK is not all bad by any stretch of the imagination.  If anything, it's probably the most enlightened we've had post-7/7, although that's hardly saying much.  Cameron did nonetheless get remarkably confused, if not express outright contradictions in multiple places in the speech.  He again insisted that Islamic State is not Islamic, or rather isn't true Islam, and yet at the same time it cannot be denied that err, the extremists are Muslims, and clearly do follow Islamic practices.  You realise that Cameron is trying his best to not to fall into the trap of either making this a war on Islam, or to give succour to those who try to paint all Muslims as extremists, but this really isn't working.  Islamic State is Islamic, there's no getting away from it, just as jihadists are Muslims; they follow a twisted, perverse interpretation of the Wahhabi-Salafi tradition, which is in fact a relatively modern tradition, but it's still Islam.  Islamism, or political Islam, is not inherently violent, nor is it necessarily incompatible with democracy; the Islamism of Hamas is very different from that of al-Qaida and IS despite descending from the same source.  Recognising the Islamic State is Islamic surely isn't that difficult a step, or too hard to explain.

Within a couple of paragraphs Cameron is then at it again.  It's only the extremists who divide people into good and bad Muslims he says.  Except, err, the whole basis of his strategy is to do just that, as he then says in the next line, as this new approach is designed around isolating the extremists from everyone else.  Either these extremists are Muslims or they're not; can we possibly make up our minds, please?  He then immediately goes on to lecturing broadcasters about recognising the huge power they have in shaping the debate, apparently oblivious, or rather not, to how this speech will have more effect than anything they produce.

All this distracts from the good, which is the section on why people are being attracted to the extremist cause.  You can quibble with Cameron's declaration that extremist voices overwhelm those of other Muslims, which I don't think is true at all, but his follow-up, that it's ridiculous the debate when the young have gone to join IS has turned into whether or not the security services are to blame is sound.  If anything, Cameron doesn't ask the hardest of questions: whether or not some Muslims are in fact in denial of where their interpretation of Islam can lead.  Radicalisation, as Cameron says, has to start somewhere, and for some it can be nothing more than ordinary religious observance.  This is not to say they are to blame, that their interpretation is wrong, or that Islam always lead to extremism; it does not, and all religions and political ideologies have their extremists.  There is however no getting away from how some are more susceptible than others, and the more conservative the interpretation of Islam, the higher the chances tend to be.  It's not a coincidence that converts tend to be over-represented among the extremists, for instance.

The problem then is that Cameron's proposed solutions are so woefully lacking.   There isn't really much point in once again going through why the emphasis on British values is chuckleheaded: suffice to say that when the leader of a party that has still has major problems with sexual equality, having so recently been converted to the cause, repeatedly insists that we all believe in such things and always have, the only reasonable reaction is to reach for the sick bag.  Cameron protests that the new Prevent duty for schools is not about criminalising or spying on Muslim children, and yet what else is putting that duty on both nurseries and primary schools about if not spying on Muslim children, then spying on their parents and what they might be teaching them by proxy?  It's certainly not seriously about protecting wider society from child jihadists.  He talks about the effect "passive tolerance" could have on young British Muslim girls, when if anything we've now reached the stage where those brought up here are imposing their traditions on their own children.  The "power and liberating force" of our values, and let's not pretend we haven't been debating these questions of identity for decades, don't seem to have had much effect.

Which is rather the point.  Traditions are ingrained in all our little subcultures.  Cameron boasts about the new diverse face of his party, and then within a couple of paragraphs is on to "It cannot be right, for example, that people can grow up and go to school and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths".  Well, no, it's not Dave, but then what does the rest of your cabinet of private school attending mates have to do with this?  Perhaps we finally get to where this is all leading when Dave suggests "the government needs to start asking searching questions about social housing" and also ask "how we can move away from segregated schooling in our most divided communities".  One answer might be the new lower benefit cap, which research for the Graun suggests will lead to an exodus from the south and cities in general.  Ah yes, it's all fitting into place.

The biggest hole by far in the strategy is on identity.  The Tories don't truly believe in the nonsense they're spouting about British values, but it's the only thing they can think of in a world where identity is becoming ever more fragmented.  This hardly affects just Muslims; in the face of seeming constant change it's natural to cling on to an ever more exaggerated sense of self, as we're seeing in the debate in the US over the Confederate flag.  Young people brought up in an austere religious environment see the world as it is and react in different ways: some might abandon their faith and rebel against their parents that way; others might go in entirely the opposite direction.  Identity has never been so fluid, exaggerated by mass immigration and access to wider culture unimaginable even 20 years ago.  Little wonder that some people, and I can include myself in this, don't feel like they belong anywhere.  Tackling alienation when individualism, or rather the marketed sense of individualism, is so prevalent is all but impossible.  Harping on about British values while not actually following those values, especially at the same time as preaching myths such as how this is a country "where in one or two generations people can come with nothing and rise as high as their talent allows" and that our "success is achieved not in spite of our diversity, but because of our diversity" is about as idiotic as you can get.  The strategy remains that there is no strategy.  That there probably isn't one anyway doesn't diminish that.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015 

Syrian trilogy in Yorkshire pottery.

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

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

Perhaps Talha was all of these things.  Perhaps his tender years and naivety were indeed exploited.  Plenty of 17-year-olds think about killing themselves, if not necessarily other people at the same time; I certainly did.  Perhaps he was targeted and befriended, even groomed, although frankly this transferral of the terminology of sexual exploitation and abuse to that of comprehensively changing someone's outlook on life as a whole in a very short space of time doesn't really cut it.

The insistence that Asmal's decision to not only go and join Islamic State, but also take part in a "martyrdom operation", as they're called by jihadists, was all down to faceless individuals on the internet does though take a knock when you learn his best friend, next-door neighbour and and fellow emigree to IS was Hassan Munshi, brother of Hammad Munshi, convicted back in 2008 at the age of 18 for possessing documents useful to terrorists.  Munshi's defence at the time was, uncannily, that he was groomed by the two older men involved in the plot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, June 04, 2015 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, March 16, 2015 

On not understanding the call of duty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, February 23, 2015 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Wednesday, February 04, 2015 

By their works they shall be judged.

The motives behind Fox News's decision to embed on their website the full 22-minute Islamic State video featuring the murder of Muadh al-Kasasbeh are obvious.  Not only will it drive traffic to a site which is read far less than its channel is watched, nothing more epitomises just how depraved and evil these Muslims are.  Fox would of course never dream of showing the agonising death of an American citizen at the hands of terrorists, or probably anyone other than a fellow Muslim, a fellow brown-skinned Arab.  It's also a safe bet that had it been an American or British pilot shot down, Piers Morgan wouldn't have written quite such an abominable piece for Mail Online on watching it and how it means all Muslims MUST stand up against IS as this is THEIR war.  It would have rather undermined that completely specious argument for a start.

If there's one thing more distasteful than people watching the video and then boasting about doing so, it's those who say to watch it is to be complicit, to play into Islamic State's hands.  It's the exact same point as was made after the hacking of celebrities' cloud accounts, only slightly modified.  Not only is the message delivered invariably in a sanctimonious, holier than thou style, it also jars precisely because they're talking about something they don't want you to see, which in psychology terms rather defeats the object.  Suzanne Moore also wrote during last year's Gaza war that sharing graphic images of the conflict "devalued the currency of shared humanity".  Rather, it gave the lie to Israeli claims of only targeting Hamas.  The real hypocrisy is how sanitised the reporting of war is in the West, at least when our servicemen are involved.  The same injuries from bombing have been inflicted by British and American pilots in Afghanistan and Iraq, but only when journalists are directly caught up in it, as John Simpson was, do we see the true horror.

The fact is the media has an increasingly bizarre and idiosyncratic attitude to just what the public can and can't handle on their front pages or news channels.  The denouement of hostage crises, as we saw on a Friday last month, can be shown in real time and no one bats an eye-lid as long as there isn't any viscera in the frame.  Crazed killers who reacted badly to sensationalist media coverage will have their last moments recorded and played back as soon as possible for your delectation, and hardly anyone will speak up and say this is a new low.  Show the real, immediate aftermath of an airstrike though, and I don't mean the gray from the air footage released by the military, a raid carried out not by terrorists or murderers but a democratic state, and many will begin to squirm and come up with reasons as to why it shouldn't be viewed.

There is a line to be drawn, obviously, and on the whole the right decisions are usually made.  As yesterday's post likely made clear, I've watched a lot of jihadist video releases down the years, mostly from Iraq.  I could say I did so in order to be better informed, to know your enemy, and that would certainly be part of the truth.  Was part of it also curiosity though?  Well, yes, and I defy anyone to say they haven't sought out material that challenged them in some way at some point, whatever it may have been.  I'm not a gorehound by any means, and watching such things hasn't desensitised me in any way, shape or form.  If anything, it's furthered my loathing of cruelty, my suspicion of getting involved in wars where the realities are cloaked behind a curtain.  Often the attitude of dedicated researchers or experts, as voiced in the Graun's piece, appears to be only we are capable of analysing such videos and statements in a clinical manner, and to allow the hoi polloi to see them is unthinkable.  Indeed, anyone in this country who watches videos by Islamic State is likely to be committing a criminal offence.  To merely have in your possession a digital copy of Inspire magazine is to risk jail.

Without doubt, some of the reaction is down to the very fact you're capable of making the choice to click, rather than it being in the control of those judged to know better.  Whether such a video should be as easily available as Fox News has decided to make it is dubious, if only because the more clicks or searches needed to find something, the more likely those who in their heart of hearts don't want to see it will step back.  There have been times when I've thought long and hard about describing certain things on this blog, but often the decision I've reached is they need to be confronted and talked about, precisely because we all too often blanch from doing so.  Many seem to prefer not to remain ignorant, but to just not know.  My aim yesterday was to describe Muadh al-Kasasbeh's suffering as respectfully, accurately and calmly as I could, for anyone who did want to know but didn't want to see for themselves.  The very last thing I would say is anyone should watch it; as others who have done said, including the likes of Jeremy Bowen, it is without exaggeration among the most horrific things I have ever seen, if not the most horrific.

That's why it's not enough to just write Muadh al-Kasasbeh was burned alive and leave it at that.  To view what Islamic State did (as an aside, calling groups what they call themselves, regardless of their delusions of grandeur, is not to confer legitimacy on them) is not to be complicit in it.  I didn't feel rage, as I did watching the previous video of the mass beheading of Syrians, which was precisely what they wanted me to feel but was at their disgusting arrogance, how it distilled the sickening narcissism of all murderers.  No, I rather felt horror, sorrow and pity for their victim and all their victims.  This is why it is nonsensical to say videos of their crimes are "superfluous and risk distracting us".  No, they are documenting their own downfall.  By such chronicling they will be known and judged.  No one who doesn't want to see it has to, and no one should be judged for doing so.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2015 

The Islamic State will fall.

(Please take your trigger warnings and do one.  That said, this post discusses and describes some fairly distressing stuff, so you probably shouldn't read it.)

When the news came through Islamic State had captured a Jordanian pilot, my immediate thought was he was going to suffer.  Whatever indignities or torture both mental and physical IS's western prisoners have undergone, and if they were beaten, the group was careful not to leave injuries that would be seen on video, they have been nothing as to how the group treats other Muslims or groups deemed heretical.  The Yazidi women taken as slaves; the men crucified in the centre of Raqqa; the relatives of an Iraqi army commander made to dig their own graves before they were beheaded; Islamic State's brutality, much as it often appears an end in itself, is also meted out as a warning, just as other regimes have prospered in the short term through establishing a monopoly on violence.

For all the words expelled on why beheading and decapitation especially horrify, the most immediate reasons being our heads make us who we are, and to separate the head from the body is to dehumanise someone utterly, with the entire history of decapitation as a form of execution playing in the background as atavism, the main reason it became the favoured method of execution for jihadis is more prosaic.  Other than a bullet in the back of the head, it's relatively simple to carry out, and done "properly" it kills quickly, in a matter of seconds.  It also obviously provides an instant "trophy" that can be held aloft and displayed.  How soon brain death occurs is a matter of scientific debate, and how much pain the victim experiences can only be speculated upon, further depending on specific circumstances.  If the executioner isn't a sadist, or doesn't intend to make it as painful an end as imaginable, whether through using a blunt knife, not fully severing the windpipe or wrenching at the head when the neck has only been half cut, all things jihadis have done in executions they have filmed, there are worse ways to die.  Not many, but there are.

One such way is to be burned.  If beheading reminds of the guillotine, of masked executioners wielding axes, of seppuku, burning alive is even more primeval, archaic.  You think witches, Joan of Arc, women convicted of treason.  It's also more instantly associated with Christianity than Islam.

The murder of Muadh al-Kasasbeh has, all but needless to say, nothing whatsoever in common with Islam and instead everything to do with politics.  The cynicism of Islamic State is not so much over the method of execution, and instead the emotional torture of his relatives.  If the Jordanian government is correct, al-Kasasbeh was put to death exactly a month ago, yet his murderers spent the past week raising hopes in both Jordan and Japan that men they may well have already killed could be released in a prisoner swap.  It also means that IS has had the best part of a month to put together their most despicable and elaborate murder set piece yet, which is exactly what their 22-minute release is.

Back in December Will Self was correct in pointing out none of the videos of the western hostages the media said depicted their execution actually did, in as much as showing the act itself.  They all faded to black as the knife was put to their neck and the cutting motion appeared to begin; when the image came back in, the now severed head of the victim had been placed upright on the back of their now prone body.  This raised the question of whether the British jihadi who addressed the camera in each video was the person carrying out the murder, or whether someone else did once the camera stopped filming.  If there were any doubts, these were answered by the release of a video showing the execution of a group of Syrian officers which gloried in showing the act in full, the British man staring at the camera as he sliced open his victim's throat.

There is no cutting away either from al-Kasabeh's terrible ordeal.  Before the accelerant which trails from the cage he has been placed in is lit, and such is the ferocity of the fire it could well be jet fuel rather than mere petrol, he's led through bombed buildings.  Indeed, destruction surrounds the place chosen for the execution.  It's presented as pure revenge, as being eminently justifiable to IS's supporters, as well as for maximum impact.  Boris Johnson was rightly criticised for his idiotic remarks about jihadis all being porn obsessed wankers, but there are jihadis who do fit that description, only they have a bloodlust equal to that others have for naked flesh.  IS more than any previous jihadist group caters to this market, and it does so in the style of the most vacuous and disposable Hollywood action flick, al-Kasabeh's pained, terrified expressions as he awaits his fate sliced together in a montage over in less than 5 seconds.

What happens to al-Kasabeh isn't only as the broadcasters will say, too graphic to show, it's almost too horrific to describe.  If we have any knowledge of images of death by burning, it's probably of Thích Quảng Đức, or Buddhists in Tibet, either filmed at a distance or in poor quality.  Al-Kasabeh dies in agony, up close, and in high definition.  His screams seem to go on long after he stops moving, after his body has reached the stage at which it constricts, only ending not long before it topples backwards.  Almost immediately, but probably cleverly edited to look that way, a digger moves in and dumps rubble on to the cage, crushing it, al-Kasabeh's blackened hand left visible through the debris.  This is what you've done to us; if we capture you, it's what you can expect in return.

Some on previous occasions claimed Islamic State's releases have been meant to distract from their problems on the ground, not always with much credibility.  This time, it's far more apposite.  To be crude, and not entirely accurate, the butch men of Islamic State have just had their arses handed to them by a militia led by a woman.  Yes, they were helped massively by the airstrikes and backed up by other Syrian rebels and Iraqi Kurds, but let's not ignore that symbolism.  Islamic State seemed at one point unstoppable, or overexcitable media gave that impression.  They are now being pushed back in both Syria and Iraq, and the battle to retake Mosul is being planned.

The ever more elaborate and gruesome Islamic State's base propaganda becomes, the more it becomes clear it's fighting a battle for survival in its current form.  Exactly what shouldn't happen now is for Jordan to engage in tat for tat executions, rather to rise above such instant acts of vengeance.  Justice will be achieved for al-Kasabeh in other ways, just as it will for the western and Japanese hostages murdered, and the ordinary citizens of Iraq and Syria currently under their vicious yoke.  The real challenge, though, will be in ensuring the same mistakes that led to the rise of IS aren't repeated once they have been defeated.

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