Tuesday, October 07, 2014 

The war against IS: going just swell.

Compared to the previous execution videos released by Islamic State, their fourth "message to America and its allies" was almost apologetic in tone, as though even they realised the murder of Alan Henning was a step too far.  Gone was the more obscene bombast that had accompanied the killings of James Foley, Stephen Sotloff and David Haines, the lengthier forced testimonies from the men blaming their deaths on Western leaders, with Henning made to say just a couple of lines on the parliamentary vote that authorised British attacks on IS in Iraq.  He also looked calmer, not terrified as he obviously was in the Haines video.  Perhaps he was resigned to his fate, or perhaps this wasn't the first time IS had made him give a statement to camera, on the previous occasions not following through.

Lasting not so much as 90 seconds, the video gave every indication of being hurriedly produced.  The location clearly wasn't the same as it had been in all the previous videos, it wasn't as well lit, the British jihadi (I'm refusing from now on to refer to him in the same way as the rest of the UK media have decided to) was neither as menacing, coherent or arrogant in his speech.  The only things remaining much the same were the execution, the quick fading out, displaying of Henning's lifeless body and then parading of the next likely victim.  Jihadis have and always will invent specious, quasi-religious justifications for the murder of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but even the hardcore will have struggled internally to convince themselves killing Henning was necessary: a man who travelled to Syria purely to help the very people IS claims to be defending, his life and compassion will be remembered long after his killer's banal hatred is consigned to history.

If there are crumbs of comfort to be taken from such an act of unconscionable cruelty, it's that even prior to the murder itself there had been an outpouring of condemnation from all sides, and the video itself suggests the airstrikes on the IS capital of Raqqa have already had an effect.  Elsewhere the war on IS doesn't appear to be going as planned, not that it's ever been apparent there is something resembling a plan.  In northern Iraq airstrikes, combined with the aiding/arming of the peshmerga, have stopped IS from advancing further.  This though seems to have been at the price of IS turning its attention both further south, with reports of IS consolidating its hold on territory in Anbar province, while more attention is being paid to the siege of Kobani on the Syria/Turkey border.

The same doom-laden predictions of an imminent massacre, of betrayal at the hands of the Americans and Turks, of demands for heavy weaponry to match that which IS took from the Iraqi army, all have been heard before and are now being aired yet again.  There is some truth in these latter complaints: the War Nerd points out IS took the small border crossing of Jarabulus (and in the usual grandiose fashion, declared it an emirate), 25km from Kobani in June 2013, long enough ago for all sides to have acted or prepared for just this eventuality.  It also speaks of the relative weakness of IS that it's taken over a year for the group to move the short distance from Jarabulus and try capturing the next obvious large settlement.  At work are the divided loyalties of President Erodgan's Turkish state: it doesn't especially want Kobani to fall to IS, but it doesn't want to empower the Kurds either, not least when the militias fighting IS are either allied with or directly connected with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), still designated as a terrorist group despite the long-term ceasefire agreed last year.  Until recently the Turkish border with Syria was all but wide open, allowing foreigners to join up with the rebel grouping of their choosing with relative impunity; now it's closed, especially to those wanting to reinforce the Kurdish militias.

Turkey's role in the Syrian civil war has long been opaque, as demonstrated by leaked recordings which suggested the military could have been preparing a so-called "false flag" attack on the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, in a bid to justify intervening in the country.  Erodgan today continued to demand a two-pronged strategy, to defeat both IS and Assad simultaneously, without explaining how this could possibly be achieved, only that air power alone couldn't do it.  Many Kurds for their part believe IS has received support directly from Turkey, while the Americans are understandably fuming at how a NATO member state has done little beyond place heavy weaponry along the border, despite Turkey's parliament at the weekend voting to support intervention.

For all the insults thrown at IS, including from the esteemed likes of the War Nerd, it's adapted quickly to the forces now ranged against it.  Partly this is down to how many of its fighters are relative veterans, either from Iraq or battling Assad, and so aren't strangers to being attacked from the air.  They've learned to dig in, scatter when they hear jets or blend in with the population.  The airstrikes have disrupted their ability to operate completely in the open for sure, but not to the point where it means they can't still take new ground.  Already we have the likes of Jonathan Powell urging everyone not to rule out talking to our new enemy, and he makes quite a few salient points.  Strangely, Powell doesn't so much as mention talking to Assad, something that would make far more sense and which even his former boss suggested was inevitable earlier in the year.  Powell it seems is more Blairite now than ever: not prepared to jaw-jaw with dictators when we could war-war instead, but perfectly happy to talk with the most brutal of armed groups.  One could bring up how Powell and Blair's war effectively created IS, but that would be frightfully rude.

Everyone knows IS can't be defeated through just air power.  At the same time, no one wants to admit they're wrong, and have been for the past few years.  For either Obama or Cameron to send ground forces (as opposed to special forces or military "advisers", both of whom are and have been operating in Syria and Iraq for some time now) in would be to go against their twin strategies of drawing down and back from prolonged, costly deployments in the Middle East.  To even reach a temporary accommodation with Assad would be a propaganda coup for the "illegitimate" gasser of women and children, and outrage the Saudis and Qataris whom are still keen on their proxy war against Iran.  To admit the Free Syrian Army doesn't exist and probably couldn't be trained in 8 years, let alone 8 months to a standard where it could take on IS would remove the one remaining illusion of influence we have on the ground. 

We could, of course, have chosen not to intervene; we could have told the Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis and all the other funders of IS and al-Nusra in no uncertain terms how they were risking the seeming advances made in Iraq; we could have pushed far harder for a peace settlement before the power of the Islamists became too great; we could have done almost everything over the past decade connected with Syria and Iraq differently.  In the same way, "boots on the ground" intervention is just a matter of time.  It's not that we haven't learned anything, it's not that we haven't had a choice, it's just that not repeating the same mistakes over and over is too difficult by half.

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Friday, September 26, 2014 

That justification for a third war in Iraq in full.

We have a slightly different missile in our arsenal to the ones used by the Americans.

Well, I'm convinced.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014 

Perpetually stuck in a sepia film.

Abu Qatada's acquittal on terror charges in Jordan is an all but perfect metaphor for the entire way we've gone about fighting the "war on terror".  For the best part of 10 years an innocent man was detained without charge, either in Belmarsh, Long Lartin or in his own home under onerous bail conditions.  He finally left the UK, not because he was forced to as the government would like us to believe, but as he decided he'd rather take his chances with the Jordanian court system than continue to be locked up.  So desperate were we to be rid of ol' bird-nest face we persuaded the Jordanians to somewhat reform their system, ensuring the torture tainted evidence that convicted him in absentia was made inadmissible, apparently unconcerned he could be found not guilty.  He can't return, so why should it bother us?

Qatada's detention was not just dependent on his awaiting deportation, but as he was judged to pose a threat in general.  He was, according to judges with access to secret intelligence Qatada himself was not able to see, a "truly dangerous individual", while a Spanish judge, since defrocked, described him as "Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe", something quoted ever after.  And indeed, Qatada is a supporter of al-Qaida.  He is without doubt an Islamist extremist, his writings and sermons read by those whom have gone on to carry out terrorist attacks.  Qatada himself though is not a terrorist, nor is he a takfirist; he made an appeal on behalf on Norman Kember, and most recently has denounced Islamic State's murder of three Westerners.  The other most respected Salafi ideologue, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, while calling for the release of Alan Henning, has also wrote on his website that Qatada had asked IS directly to release Henning, with the group denying at the time it was behind the kidnapping.

Dispensing with civil liberties at the first opportunity; exaggerating the real level of threat posed by jihadists; dumping our problems on the rest of the world at the same time as maintaining our actions have been in the interest of everyone.  All were characteristic to our approach to Qatada, and while as yet the coalition hasn't signalled it believes in further dilutions of liberty in the name of security, the other two have most definitely been in evidence as parliament gears up to authorise air strikes against IS.  One of the surest indications a policy is a terrible idea is when it has almost universal support, as accepting the Iraqi government's invitation to bomb their country has, with the exception of the usual stick in the muds.  No one seriously believes simply attacking IS from the air will destroy it, nor does the government have any faith either in the Kurdish peshmerga or Baghdad's ability to win back the territory seized by IS.  Nor are we filling a vital gap in the coalition put together by the United States, especially when the Gulf states have this time shown a willingness to actually use their own military capabilities.

No, we're about to go to war again because it would be almost rude not to.  Of little to no apparent concern is how damn familiar this seems.  Western intervention in the Middle East hasn't rid the region of Islamic extremism; rather, at every turn it has encouraged it.  Starting with the funding of the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, almost every single policy decision taken has put fuel on the fire.  13 years of war in Afghanistan hasn't defeated the Taliban, who remain in wait for the long coming withdrawal of Western troops.  We overthrew a secular dictator in Iraq without a plan as to what to put in his place: the result was a sectarian civil war, the creation of IS and the empowerment of Iran.  We overthrew a secular dictator in Libya in the name of the "responsibility to protect": the result is a civil war between Islamist militias.  We've supported the overthrow of a secular dictator in Syria, recognising the opposition as the "legitimate representative" of the Syrian people; that "moderate" opposition has never existed in reality, and we either turned a blind eye or didn't object when our allies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar funded and armed the self-same extremists we are now posed to obliterate from the air.

If we're concerned the targeting of both the al-Nusra Front and IS in Syria could help to repair the fitna between the groups, it's not apparent.  Nor does it worry us how Western bombing always kills civilians, always unites in anger those otherwise against the extremists.  Yet again we don't have an exit strategy, even an idea what the "degrading" of IS means in practice, nor a guarantee attacks won't be extended to Syria.  Once again it will intensify the otherwise low threat IS currently poses, ironically when that limited threat is being used as a justification for the attacks.  Once again our enemy is evil, uniquely terrible, a "network of death".  Forgive me if I recall just how many deaths the forces of freedom have been responsible for, how insulted I am at being asked to accept the same people who got us in this mess are now going to solve it, and all through once again lobbing high explosives at whichever brick shithouse in this particular area IS has set up shop.  The case for joining the truly unholy coalition stitched together by the US is, remarkably, even weaker than the one made for bombing Assad last year.  It's just it's too much trouble to say no again.  We'd rather history repeat, as it will.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 

It's that time again.

The interventionists have at last got their war in Syria.  It's not the war they wanted, the feel-good bombing the fuck out of anything that looked vaguely like belonging to the Syrian military in revenge for the gassing of children war, rather a not quite as feel-good but still pleasing bombing the fuck out of anything that looks vaguely like being an Islamic State stronghold war, but a war's a war.  It means the same old white guys in uniform presenting a salivating media with grainy black and white images of death from above, completely different from the pristine high definition snuff propaganda offered up by IS.  It means the ever willing servant of the United States, Her Majesty's Government, rushing to pledge the use of its own US-bought ordnance in the battle against the forces of evil, this completely new and unprecedented threat from the marauding, advancing, terrifying IS.  This is not just a battle for Britain, it is the battle of Britain: forget that mere skirmish with the Hun, when a true coalition of the willing fought in the skies against the Luftwaffe; this is the real deal.

Just to underline how completely insane the indirect intervention in Syria before now has been, also hit at the same time as IS was the al-Nusra Front, only the US has renamed them the Khorosan group for the duration.  According to the US they were in the final stages of preparation for an attack on the West, perhaps with those fabled iPhone bombs we heard about a few months back.  Al-Nusra is of course al-Qaida's affiliate proper in Syria, albeit one almost certainly funded indirectly if not directly by the same Gulf states now allied with the US.  One wonders if a strike on al-Nusra was a Saudi condition of getting their own jets dirty, intended as a message to Qatar, the Saudis having stepped back from supporting jihadists at the start of the year in favour of plain old Islamists, having realised its clients were getting out of control.

Such are the rivalries at work in the patched together US coalition.  Kudos must go to the Saudis and Qataris, whom having played a major role in fomenting the sectarian civil war are now bombing those they eulogised as their Sunni, Wahhabi brothers.  Luckily for them such contortions are easier to explain when they also control their media.  Our media by contrast is completely free and unafraid to ask the difficult questions, hence why they didn't inquire about civilian casualties given the opportunity.  Difficult as it is to comprehend, far more lies have been told about Syria than ever were about Iraq.  Back then we didn't have any equivalent to the Graun insisting there had been an unofficial truce between the Assad regime and IS, deals between the two over oil aside.  Whole sections meanwhile fell into believing there really was something equivalent to a Free Syrian Army on the ground, rather than an extremely loosely tied alliance of self-starting battalions, the vast majority Islamist if not jihadist.  There never was and never has been a "moderate" armed opposition, with even those the US is now supposedly training in what it all but admits is little more than a PR exercise fighting alongside the likes of al-Nusra.

Not that you can necessarily blame those on the frontline when reporting on conflict gets ever more dangerous.  It isn't just that the rebels and the Syrian government both care little for the lives of journalists, although they do, it's that media organisations don't want to pay the vast sums that go hand in hand with in-depth foreign reporting, and so the local guides who play such an important role in keeping correspondents safe walk away.  James Foley and Stephen Sotloff paid a price in blood as a result.  Quite what IS hopes to achieve with the videos featuring John Cantlie isn't clear when the message he's being forced to deliver is so one note, but it is undeniable he and the other British and American hostages have been abandoned to their fate.  The refusal to pay ransoms is certainly a morally righteous position, but combined as it is with the media blackout on their captivity it means their only real chance of escaping death is a special forces raid.  You have to hope the news that IS put Alan Henning before a Sharia court which cleared of him being a spy means they could still act with mercy towards someone who only wanted to help the Syrian people, yet when you start throwing cruise missiles around with gay abandon it's hard not to fear the worst.

Striking al-Nusra at the same time as IS also lays bare how the whole non-strategy takes its cue from the Libya campaign.  Once the UN resolution was passed, NATO's interpretation was it allowed them to do whatever the hell took their fancy.  With it as yet uncertain whether the UN will be involved beyond the passing of a resolution skirting the issue, not least as Russia will veto anything that looks remotely like 1973 again, there's not even the figleaf of legality being maintained.  While there's probably more contact between the Assad government and the Americans going on than is being admitted, there's not even the pretence that should IS be "degraded" the focus won't then switch towards finishing the job.  Why else would the "moderate" Gulf states as the BBC hilariously referred to them earlier join in unless they've received assurances that Assad won't in the long run gain from the destruction of IS?

This said, IS won't crumble under the weight of air power alone.  As Juan Cole writes, shock and awe has never worked, and won't this time.  The Islamic State survived in Iraq for years without anything near to the safe havens it's established over the past 12 months, and should it have to abandon Raqqa or anywhere else it will just be a return to what it's known before.  If the intention was to go all out against IS, rather than merely contain them, the kind of truce between Assad and the "moderate" rebels proposed by Patrick Cockburn would be high on the agenda.  It's not as IS is far too useful, as proved by the non-role of Israel.  A jihadist organisation that makes Hamas look like the girl guides rampages across Syria, getting ever nearer to the one true democracy in the region™, and how does it respond?  By, err, shooting down a Syrian jet.

What then is the aim of all this?  Just as we came within spitting distance last year of attacking Syria thanks to Obama's "red lines", so now the main reason why the US has acted is down to domestic pressure to do something, anything.  As soon as the president "misspoke" by saying he didn't have a strategy it doomed him into having to find one.  Thankfully for him, most commentators haven't noticed the new strategy is just the old one with knobs on, easily distracted as they are by explosions and the usual war porn.  Islamic State must return to its old ways of blowing up markets filled with Iraqis rather than cutting off the heads of Westerners is the mission in short.  Chase them back into the desert and away from minorities while still dropping the odd Hellfire missile, and everyone will be happy.  It's "worked" in Yemen.  This doesn't solve anything whatsoever you'll note, and at some point the Saudis and Qataris are going to return to their old ways, especially if this empowers Assad as it undoubtedly will, but we'll worry about that once it happens.

Any British politician with more than a modicum of sense would take one look at this mess and run a mile.  Appearances must though be kept up.  The bloody French have involved themselves for whatever reason, probably down to Hollande trying desperately to distract from the country's economic woes, and Labour, ever the hypocrites, made a lot out of those remarks from Robert Gates about our military capability not keeping up with theirs.  The Atlanticist headbangers on the backbenches love a good turkey shoot, so any worries that getting involved will increase rather than decrease the potential for a terrorist attack must be put to one side.  America expects, you know.  We might hedge our bets, attacking only Iraq rather than Syria lest this trouble Labour unduly, but make no mistake, the war party is going to be in full swing again.  Besides, we can't possibly make things even worse, can we?

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Thursday, September 11, 2014 

The new strategy is there is no strategy.

One thing is abundantly clear after President Obama set out his new strategy on "degrading and destroying" Islamic State: our politicians have been getting themselves in a tizzy for nothing.  Just as policy on Syria has long been to contain, if not actively prolong the civil war in the country, with the result being the rise not of moderates but the likes of the al-Nusra Front and IS, so now this will be extended into Iraq despite the containment strategy having singularly failed.  Got that?

There certainly isn't any other conclusion you can possibly reach after Obama's televised address.  The strategy he sets out is the same one his administration has long favoured, using drones and special forces while trying to empower the jihadists' foes on the ground.  This has "worked" in Somalia and Yemen, in the sense neither al-Shabaab or al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have launched attacks on the west, despite the latter having made a number of attempts.  As for whether our allies in either country have been empowered, it's very much a secondary concern.  So long as the high-ups in the groups are thinned out every so often, as has just happened with al-Shabaab, it goes down as a success.

Why then all the rhetoric about destroying IS, it being a cancer needing to be cut out etc, when it's obviously a long-term aim?  Well, it's what he needed to do after he said previously there was no strategy, when he meant there was no new strategy.  There still isn't, it's just you can make it look as though he's proposing something different by ratcheting up the language, sending John Kerry round all the "friendly" American-allied despots and getting them to say they're going to do something when there's little evidence they will based on how some of them are just as much responsible for the rise of IS as the Ba'ath in Syria and the Americans themselves have been.

If this was the intention all along, it's not clear if the message got through to dear old Dave.  There he was declaring IS poses the greatest threat to the country since William the Bastard, with JTAC declaring it to once again be severe, and now it's not even apparent if the US wants us to help out by firing the odd Hellfire missile at a rag-tag bunch of wannabe headloppers.  Despite the media leaping at Obama saying he "will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria", that doesn't mean he's going to be authorising air strikes there any time soon.  Apart from the Russians making clear their displeasure, any sustained campaign against IS will only benefit Assad in the short-term.  If there really are "moderate" Syrian rebels currently being trained by the US, with Patrick Cockburn suggesting they amount to the last remnants of what was the Free Syrian Army, which was never an army in the first place, only now fully under the auspices of the CIA, the idea they can fight both IS and Assad at the same time is as ridiculous as it is amusing.  The US can't possibly imagine they'll make the difference either; the hope presumably is the Saudis, Qataris, Kuwatis etc will come round to the US approach and start funding their controlled rebels instead of the likes of the Islamic Front or IS itself.  This in turn will risk the non-IS jihadists going over to IS, but that apparently doesn't worry anyone.

The Syrian rebels are themselves still fixated on overthrowing Assad, not surprisingly considering that's err, why they rose up in the first place.  Sadly for them the mission's changed: once it was about getting rid of the Ba'ath, only the west soon realised the rebels weren't going to be any better than Assad, in fact probably worse.  Rather than admit we got all our predictions about the Syrian regime being doomed wrong, Assad "re-elected" and going nowhere, we settled on support for the rebels knowing full well neither they nor the government could strike a killer blow.  Only we didn't count on the apparently defeated and broken Islamic State of Iraq morphing into not just IS but also al-Nusra, or the Sunni Arab states using them in their proxy battle against Iran.  Or at least on IS becoming so powerful so quickly.

As for Iraq, the US is perfectly happy to send a few more units to the country, for allies to arm the Kurds and Iraqi government, and for neither to move all that quickly against the towns and cities IS controls.  Unlike the panic-mongers over here, Obama spelled out how IS currently doesn't have the intention of attacking the west, being far too busy in both countries.  No reason then to risk further unbalancing the fragility in Iraq; with the Yazidis mostly safe and other minorities having fled, the US is counting on IS once again outstaying its welcome amongst the Sunni tribes, just as it did back in 2007.

Moreover, Obama's reheated strategy is almost certainly the right one, despite its failure in Syria.  If the intention was to really deal with IS and right now it would mean temporarily allying with Assad, something we simply aren't prepared to do, both out of the sheer embarrassment it would involve and of course down to how he's a chemical weapon using tyrant.  Having morals is nice, but not losing face is far more important.

It would be great though if for once, just once, our leaders could admit how badly they've got things wrong.  We hold our hands up: we're just as responsible for the rise of IS as either Assad or the sectarian Iraqi government.  Now it's turned out this way, we're going to make it right by not making the same mistakes as we did before.  The Americans, against the odds and to their credit, have reacted in a far calmer manner than our politicians have, regardless of Cameron's rhetoric not matching the legislation proposed so far.  With the parties currently far more exercised by the little matter of Scotland potentially leaving the union, by the time parliament returns (assuming there is a no vote) the initial something-must-be-done stage might have passed.  Just don't count on it.

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Thursday, September 04, 2014 

Desperate business.

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

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

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

Ah.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2014 

A greater and deeper threat. Just not to us.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Thursday, August 21, 2014 

The security-industrial complex triumphs yet again.

Is there a better job going currently than being an "expert", either in security or radicalisation?  Your words are treated as gospel, regardless for instance of how many times we've been warned the sky is about to fall by these people, whether it be due to the ever more ingenious bombs created by the fanatics or by the sheer number of said fanatics just waiting to get their hands on those ingenious bombs.

Take Shiraz Maher for example, the now go to guy at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, which smartly drops the PV bit on the end and just goes by ICSR for short.  You might remember him (although probably not) for the work he did on Islamic extremism for Policy Exchange, the think-tank behind the report exposed by Newsnight as being based on forged evidence.  Maher's studying and researching pretty much amounts to following those jihadists with either no shame or no brains on Twitter, Skyping with those he's managed to persuade to talk to him about their own personal holy war, and then talking to journalists about the threat posed and horrors committed by these otherwise fine and upstanding gentlemen.  He probably has links to the more discrete jihadis who still use forums too, although the switch to Twitter and Facebook by so many has made the whole monitoring process easier for all concerned.

In short, Maher and his ilk are essentially spooks, only not as useful.  His numerous interviews with those out in Syria and now Iraq don't tell us anything we didn't already know, or rather tell those who have gone through Maher to get their own interviews exactly what they want to hear.  According to Maher the first wave of fighters going to Syria went with the best humanitarian intentions, only becoming further radicalised once they got there.  This ties in precisely with the bogus idea of the armed uprising at the beginning being dominated by moderates pushed by the violence of the Assad regime into embracing jihadism (for an especially putrid example of how this argument is still being made, you can hardly do better than this Left Foot Forward piece, a blog transformed by James Bloodworth into one pretty much advocating war all the time, all of the time).  This isn't to say some British fighters weren't at the start somewhat naive about what they were getting themselves into, considering the reporting which often reflected that narrative, only for it to later flip 180 degrees into the equally absurd, all these people are going to come back and continue the war here territory.

Maher nonetheless pours scorn on the idea any of the British fighters could be compared to those who joined the International Brigades in the 1930s.  The "modern state simply cannot allow itself to become a launch pad for every foreign conflict" he writes, except presumably when those conflicts are ones we approve of, or indeed take part in ourselves.  It's also deeply odd how so many of the 500 or more fighters have managed to leave the country, with only the waifs and strays and clingers-on prosecuted.  What purpose for instance was served by jailing Mashudur Choudary, who came back here precisely because he realised he wasn't cut out for the jihad game?  If letting them go is the plan, and it's not necessarily a bad one, shouldn't that be made clear, or are we playing a game of double bluff?  Maher even repeats the ridiculous claim that the Islamic State is too extreme for al-Qaida, when the split between IS and AQ was about personalities and just which was the "real" al-Qaida affiliate in Syria rather than tactics, despite AQ central's concern in the past over al-Zarqawi's igniting of a sectarian war.  Syria is nothing if not a sectarian war after all.

The belligerence of foreign fighters as described by Maher is predictable.  It also hides a weakness, just as the murder of James Foley was the action of a weak actor against a stronger one.  As yet IS hasn't faced an enemy worthy of the name in Iraq, although it will once the peshmerga proper gets involved.  Its ambition could also be its undoing: fighting on two fronts is liable to spread its best fighters too thinly.  Foreign fighters can threaten attacks against the west, but it doesn't make the prospect any more realistic, although the likes of Maher and the hacks following his every pronouncement will make the most they can out of them. Having successfully got the attention of America and the world, there's only way this is going to end for IS and its pitiful "caliphate".

2 months back the spooks and securocrats were convinced the threat was not from IS but al-Nusra, with all electronic devices in air travellers' baggage needing to be charged to show they weren't the latest AQAP-designed fiendish device.  How quickly things change.  What doesn't is the spiel, the certainty this latest danger is real, will endure, and requires immediate action.  And so the security-industrial complex will continue to triumph.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 

Wasted your life in black and white.

Hi Time magazine hi Pulitzer prize / Tribal scars in Technicolor / Bang bang club AK47 hour

The reaction to the murder of James Foley by the Islamic State, documented in their now favoured fashion of showing the beginning of the execution before fading the image out, with the victim's head then pictured atop their prone, lifeless body, has been both all too predictable and all too revealing.  Strangely, while even IS deems the release of an unedited decapitation with a small knife in high definition too stomach turning, too brutal, too liable to make even the most bloodthirsty armchair jihadis blanch and wonder about the merits of such base, pure propaganda, few bat an eyelid as our politicians, commentators and media respond as though such a heinous act has never been committed before.  David Cameron stayed on holiday as Gaza burned, the Yazidis took to Mount Sinjar to escape IS and dozens of celebrities took the ice bucket challenge, but the filmed killing of a white, western journalist?  He had to return when such "an act of violence shocks the conscience of the entire world."

Foley's murder is of course straight out of the old al-Zarqawi bequeathed playbook.  The words, both from Foley and the butcher tasked with the killing would with minor adjustment be the exact same as those we heard 10 years ago, when if we're to believe the Americans it was Zarqawi himself wielding the blade.  Things have undoubtedly changed since then: Zarqawi made demands that were never going to be accepted, but it gave the illusion of possible escape both to the prisoner and their relatives; up till yesterday some were still insisting Foley was being held by Assad's forces, not a group like IS.  Killing Foley without any such public warning or ultimatum as "revenge" for the US strikes is of a piece with their other filmed atrocities.  Straight brutality designed to invoke fear and rage in equal measure is the default position.

It's deeper than just a terrorist group being a terrorist group though.  The propaganda of the Red Army Faction for instance, at least during the initial Baader-Meinhof period was exactly what you'd expect from the pen of a political journalist turned wannabe guerilla.  IS by contrast, while working by the model put down by jihadi groups past doesn't have the same ideological or intellectual back-up, with the vast majority of scholars whom backed al-Qaida denouncing IS and its declaring of a new caliphate.  IS can point to even less theological justification for its actions than al-Qaida, which really is saying something.  All the same, for all its amateurism, its massacre first and ask questions later mentality, it knows both how to play the media and politicians at the same time.

For PJ Crowley to say the video isn't then aimed at the United States is completely specious.  It couldn't be more aimed at the US.  As Jason Burke writes, IS might not believe in "propaganda by deed" to the same extent as bin Laden did, understandably considering how the Ummah failed to rise against their infidel rulers despite such prompting, but it is about trying to once again get the US to involve itself fully in Iraq/Syria.  The invasion and occupation of Iraq resulted in the creation of IS in the first place, for goodness sake.  Those with an old school jihadi outlook will continue to look down on the chaos and mayhem IS has caused, until that is the US widens its current strategy and starts bombing more widely than just "threatening" vehicles.  Then any such concerns will quickly be forgotten, and another wave of fighters will start flocking towards IS's black flag.  It works both ways: threaten attacks anywhere, regardless of how unlikely an IS attack outside the Middle East is, and threaten the lives of the few Americans IS can get to.  Both demand a response from the war addicts at the Pentagon and in Congress.

Then we come to how it was apparently a "multicultural London English" man who speaks and then kills Foley.  The Islamic State is smart enough to realise both how the foreign fighter angle has been overplayed, the importance of communication, and the intended horror at how a westerner could be killing another westerner in a country far away from home.  No one knows just how many young British men (and women, for that matter) have gone to join the jihadists in Syria/Iraq, but plenty are willing to guess and draw the most alarmist, scaremongering conclusions, especially if it means more government money for the anti-radicalisation industry (1 in 800 young Sunni Muslim men, shrieks James Brandon, formerly of Quilliam).  We saw with the entire Trojan Horse affair just how deeply the government has bought into the at risk of extremism narrative, regardless of the lack of evidence of any actual radicalisation, simple intolerance and vile sectarianism not being enough.  Nicky Morgan has since given a speech making clear how nurseries and pre-schools will also be monitored lest they start churning out 5-year-old jihadis, in what has to be one of the most absurd government policies since oh, David Cameron promised to make all of them family friendly.

As the War Nerd wrote a few months back, the bigger question is why relatively so few go and join the jihadis.  Perhaps one of the reasons those few have is connected to our continued, blatant double standards.  You might remember the UN used very similar language to Obama in condemning the shelling of their schools in Gaza, language of the sort our politicians would never use to condemn a fellow democracy, regardless of its actions.  The same media commentators who wonder just why it is people in Ferguson are prepared to riot over the shooting dead of a black teenager regard the murder of Foley as terrorist attack that demands a response.  The slaughter of dozens if not hundreds of Shia men at the hands of IS gets perfunctory coverage, if that, with the images and video shared on social media freely.  A white westerner killed in the most brutal fashion necessitates a crackdown, the closing of Twitter accounts, another of those Twitter "campaigns" masquerading as being about not helping IS propaganda spread when really it's about people not wanting to see something happening to "us", rather than it happening to "them".  So much as watching the video could be enough to get a knock on the door from the police, presumably once they're done with harassing the wives and friends of fighters.

The only realistic endgame to all of this involves, as the Graun is brave enough to point out, a settlement in Syria as well as reconciliation in Iraq.  The difficulty is in trying to push for that reconciliation at the same time as Iraq looks destined to break apart.  If we take the side of the Kurds over the weak Iraq military, unable to take back Tikrit, the risk is it only holds things together in the short rather than the long term.  It also likely means coming to some sort of accommodation or at the very least a short term pact with the Assad government, regardless of how anathema such a deal will be.  It additionally requires the making clear to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar that even if they haven't directly funded IS or the other jihadist groups in Syria, their encouragement and indirect funding of an almost region wide proxy war must end now.  The same message must also go to Iran and Hezbollah, but their involvement was more in response to the actions of the above than out of any real love for Assad.  This is not the time for a recital of all the old noises about a war on terror, a generational battle or why-oh-whying about British Muslims and the other failings of the past.  It's time we learned from them.

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Monday, August 18, 2014 

Our clear as mud Iraq strategy.

Living life like a comatose / Ego loaded and swallow, swallow, swallow

At times, everything seems to descend into parody.  This, for instance, has to be a piss-take, an anonymous record producer making fun of a relatively new genre, a track made with a smile, the creator certain everyone will get the joke.  It gets best new music on Pitchfork, Boomkat describes it as "exquisite ear candy ... visionary pop architecture" and even Resident Advisor approves.  If this turn of events discombobulated the producer (whom last year put out this pleasing slice of house) then he seems to have just gone with it.  After all, why not?

By the same token, David Cameron surely didn't think he'd get away with his article for the Sunday Telegraph.  He (or whichever adviser/hanger-on wrote it) writes we can't let ourselves be imprisoned by the events of 10 years ago, and he has a point.  Just because we've had a major hand in Iraq being in the mess it now is doesn't mean we shouldn't return and help Johnny Kurd push back the ethnic cleansers of the Islamic State.  Besides, we're not going to put "boots on the ground", just as we didn't in Libya.  If we so choose to bomb a few Islamic State positions, or more accurately described, vehicles, as they seem to be the main targets the Americans have chosen to obliterate thus far, we should know that doing so is all the more likely to prevent the Islamic State from becoming a threat here.  Just think what might happen if we sat this one out.  A positively medieval caliphate stretching across the Middle East, on the shores of the Mediterranean, bordering a NATO country!  A NATO country!  What could be more terrifying, more ignominious, more unacceptable?

Like the estimable Flying Rodent, I'm more than a little tired of the this-time-it-really-is-as-bad-as-we're-saying-it-is intervention argument.  Ten years ago every politician told us we were facing a generational battle against Islamic extremism, a long war, a war we might even not realise was still going on or in fact had ended.  Yesterday David Cameron said we will be fighting this "poisonous and extremist ideology" for the rest of his "political lifetime".  His political lifetime could extend all the way up till next May, but put that happy thought to one side for a moment.  Outside of the anti-jihadist monomaniacs, around the time of the Arab spring with bin Laden dead and al-Qaida central having been reduced to Ayman al-Zahawiri occasionally holding forth in his eternally pompous fashion, all those predictions seemed to have come to naught.  Why then are all the old favourites being reheated like the fried chicken in the local kebab shop?

Cameron, naturally, has the answer.  According to him what we're seeing isn't Sunni against Shia, but rather "a battle between Islam on the one hand and extremists who want to abuse Islam on the other".  This is, as Kim Howells had it on the Turner prize entrants however many years ago, cold mechanical bullshit.  The Islamic State of Iraq 5 years ago had been routed, thanks to the Awakening groups, i.e. Sunnis who had turned against ISI's brutality.  Only our friend Nouri al-Maliki didn't keep his promises to the Awakening groups, with many complaining the payments they were due were either paid late or didn't arrive at all.  Then came the uprising in Syria, which quickly descended into a sectarian proxy war.  Some of the remnants of ISI formed the al-Nusra Front, and seeing this brought funding from the rich Wahhabi takfirists in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and so on, possibly including direct from the Saudi authorities, ISI proper joined the fray.  Along with the proceeds from the oil fields they captured, ISI was suddenly swimming in wealth and gathering in a lot more fighters too.  With the Sunni Arabs in the north of Iraq once again prepared to join up with or acquiesce to the jihadis, first Fallujah fell, then Mosul did.

When Cameron then says we must work with the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey you can't help but wonder if he isn't doing this deliberately.  Those three nations have done more to help the Islamic State and its jihadi brethren than the rest of the world combined.  Saudi policy towards Syria only altered at the beginning of this year, while it's difficult to know whether Qatar's has at all.  Turkey's main role has been to keep the border open, helping refugees escape yes, but also to allow money and fighters to flow through unimpeded.  Cameron even mentions the spectre of the Islamic State taking Aleppo, which prompts the obvious question of whether we might just have backed the wrong dog in this fight.  Assad's a murderous, barbarous chemical weapon using dictator yes, but compared to the Islamic State he's a sweetheart.

What then is the plan now that the Yazidis have been helped off the mountain and the imminent threat of genocide seems to be receding?  We're going to arm the Kurds, although it's not clear which Kurds, or whether by "arm" we mean provide them with equipment rather than ammunition for their ageing Soviet-era weapons, but are we expecting the peshmerga to liberate all of the territory taken by the Islamic State, albeit with ourselves or just the Americans providing air support, or just Mosul?  If it's the former, are the Kurds then just going to hand all this Sunni dominated territory over to the Shia dominated Iraqi army once Baghdad has sorted itself out, or are they going to keep some of it in hope of a greater Kurdistan becoming inexorable at some point?  This major favour to the west isn't going to come free, that's for sure, and if anyone with the exception of the Palestinians deserves a state, it's the Kurds.  It certainly won't please either Turkey or the Iranians, though.

See, what starts out as a thoroughly decent operation to prevent abused and persecuted minorities from being slaughtered has the potential to quickly become the kind of conflict we did our best previously to prevent igniting.  Trying to justify it all by resorting to the ever more exhausted national security reasoning is contemptible.  When the best they can point to is hot-heads in east London flying an IS flag or ex-drug dealers joining a different type of war without the slightest evidence they have any intention of bringing the fight here they really have to change the record.  Indeed, getting further involved would almost certainly increase rather than decrease the threat, exactly as MI5 warned prior to 2003.  Yet here we are once again, with Michael Fallon warning our role is likely to take months rather than weeks.  Irony, as ever, is smothering everything.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014 

The personal is more political than ever.

Don't tell me, a liberal American Jew in London, what to think about Israel, pleads Hadley FreemanWe are all Palestinians, writes Karma Nabulsi.  We broke Iraq, therefore we have a responsibility to do whatever it takes to save its people from themselves, insists Tom WatsonFeel my pain, demands Tory MP earning an amount the vast majority of us can only dream of receiving at the end of the month.  No, feel our anguish, says group of utterly deranged Israel supporters, at how those we will defend to the death are forced, literally forced by Hamas, to kill Palestinian children.

The personal is political, as feminists prior to the current generation of Twitter using crybabies had it.  Back then it meant something, and perhaps it still does.  Politics is always personal, of course.  For some, it's a crusade or it is nothing.  It's hard not to think though we've reached a peak for this, despite what it seems I'm writing about, I am in fact writing about myself style of political commentary.

Hadley Freeman doesn't really care about Israel or Gaza then, nor does she care about the Tricycle theatre asking the Jewish Film Festival to reconsider accepting money from the Israeli embassy, rather she's affronted that anyone would dare think she, a good liberal American cosmopolitan Jew might care to express her opinion about something serious for a change.  In her entire piece we don't learn what she does think, although to judge by her quoting of Roger Cohen's claim that to not hold a negative view of Israel in Britain is to be considered without a conscience, and her end summation that media coverage in America and Europe is equally skewed, just in opposite directions, we can guess.  Nor does she present any evidence anyone has told her or any other Jews what to think about Israel, but that's to be expected.

Europe's roots are showing, nonetheless.  Reports of antisemitic attacks and vandalism have spiked, as they usually do when Israel brings out the Hellfire missiles.  Racism is always racism, and it is without question protests against Israel attract their fair share of Islamists, kooks, conspiracy theorists and outright loons.  Nor is enough done by others on the marches to denounce them, or make clear they are most definitely not welcome.  Smearing "FREE GAZA" on the walls of a synagogue is as just as much an act of stupid hate as painting "EDL" or something similar on a mosque would be.  It is strange though that, unlike when hate crimes against Muslims peaked after the murder of Lee Rigby, we haven't had left-wingers claiming such reports of antisemitism have been exaggerated, as we did with the attacks on Tell Mama by the Telegraph and Mail on Sunday.  Also peculiar is the number of articles which popped up one after the other about Europe's continuing problem with antisemitism, or as it could be more accurately termed, Europe's continuing problem with racism.

Other than crying antisemitism, the other perennial is victimhood, again because of its roots in reality.  Once, the Golda Meir quote about forgiving Arabs for killing their children but not forgiving them for making Israel kill their children was poignant and reflected how Israel was surrounded by enemies. Now it can be wrongly interpreted all too easily, precisely because Palestinian life is regarded as cheap and the standard defence of every Israeli attack is they have no choice.  The advert paid for by This World, co-written by Elie Wiesel, takes the "human shield" argument, whatever its extremely limited merits and debases it completely.  We are the ones who are really suffering by having to kill children is its message. The Palestinians are responsible if they don't change their leaders; they must find "true Muslims", to represent them, Muslims acceptable to Likudniks.  Even the main suspect in the murder of the Palestinian teenager Abu Khdeir, an act committed in revenge for the kidnap and slaughter of three Israeli teens, claims to have immediately felt remorse for his crime.  Feel our pain, not theirs.

Not that we are all Palestinians has any true resonance beyond the demonstrations either.  We are not Gazans, nor would we want to be.  It's not enough to want justice for the Palestinians, the lifting of the Gaza blockade, the establishment of a viable Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital, we have to be them, not just express our most earnest solidarity.  So too we must save Iraqis, at least once it's decided whom it is we should be demonstrating in favour of today.  We either have to do so because this could have been prevented had we armed the rebels in Syria, although it's not made clear which rebels we were meant to have given heavy weaponry to, or because of our involvement in the Iraq war, or because of Sykes-Picot, or because of whatever other justification can be dredged up.  Then again, according to the Sun, we can't do anything, although it isn't exactly clear what we're supposed to do about Australian jihadists taking their kids to Syria.  Perhaps we were meant to provide him with a toy AK-47 which in turn would have prevented the Islamic State from taking over the north of Iraq?

For a nation supposedly turned isolationist by the vote on Syria, our other representatives in the media are as quick as ever to want the bombers sent in, without explaining what it would achieve, whether there is any sort of plan, or if attacking IS from the air will push them back.  One has to wonder if this isn't about us rather than them.  It shouldn't therefore surprise when an MP tries the same tactic, attempting to garner sympathy as he can't afford to house his family in Westminster under the new expenses regime.  He wasn't prepared to have them live anywhere else in London, the public transport system in the capital being notoriously unreliable, and so would rather step down instead.  As one of the few people who wouldn't begrudge MPs a second home in London with the tab picked up by the taxpayer, at least within reason, Mark Simmonds hasn't really helped out his colleagues.  His wish to spend more time with his family could also have something to do with his missing the Syria vote last year, not hearing the division bell as he was discussing Rwanda with Justine Greening.

It could be in this age of Buzzfeed writers believe the only way to get readers interested is by making it personal.  It could be the cult of the self continues to grow.  It could be the only way to get anything worth doing done is to spell out why it matters to us, charity beginning at home, altruism no longer enough.  It could be we can only talk about things when they happen to celebrities, even if then most reach immediately for contemptibly puerile clichĂ©s.  At least it's talking, right?  It's that it's also limiting, closes down debate, encourages personal abuse, which in turn leads to further articles about how terrible it is to be called names in the comment section and on social networks.  What was it the original piece was about again?

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Monday, August 11, 2014 

Stop me...

Stop me if you think you've heard this one before.  An armed force is approaching a major cityAlready hundreds of thousands of people have fled in their wake.  There is a very real threat of genocide being committed.  Those on the ground are pleading for help from the outside world.  Doing nothing isn't an option.  Parliament has to be recalled.

It's all too wearily familiar, isn't it?  In fact, if you were the cynical sort, you could say that seems to be the point.  The difference is that unlike in Libya a few years back, there really is a genuine possibility of an entire community being slaughtered, the Yazidis of Iraq threatened in a way they never were during the reign of the Ba'ath party by the self-proclaimed "Islamic State".  It's difficult therefore to object at all to the steps taken by the Americans since the flight by up to 40,000 Yazidis to Mount Sinjar, of whom up to 20,000 are now thought to have managed to escape into Iraqi Kurdistan.  How much help the airstrikes and drops of aid have been is open to question - there are suggestions the food and water parachuted down hasn't survived the impact with the ground, while in the past the aid itself has proven deadly - but if it has allowed the peshmerga the breathing room to evacuate some of the refugees, all pessimism should be tempered.  The danger is not just directly from the jihadists, but also the fearsome Iraqi summer: without shelter or water, heat exhaustion can affect the young and the elderly very quickly.

This said, these strikes are not anything close to altruism.  Over the weekend US media reported on the "thousands" (later "hundreds") of Americans in Erbil, the Kurdish city that has become a mini-Dubai, except far more liberal and tolerant than the emirate beloved by the corpulent Western elite.  As Steve Coll reports in the New Yorker, the vast majority of however many Americans there really are in Erbil are there because of the oil, with a far smaller number of military operatives also in residence.  Erbil probably wasn't at imminent risk of being overrun by IS, as the peshmerga would most likely have regrouped and been quickly reinforced, as indeed they now have.  Still, it never hurts to be absolutely certain, and the plight of the Yazidis and other minorities provided an opportunity to bomb a few Islamic State vehicles in the bargain.

Quite what the US plan now is doesn't immediately present itself.  If the idea is a rerun of Libya, with the US carrying out attacks on IS targets which get too close to areas they've decided to protect while the Kurds and hopefully also the central government properly get their shit together, this could take a while.  It's clearly not a coincidence that in Baghdad today there's been a coup against Nouri al-Maliki, after the reports Maliki himself was preparing a coup.  The appointment of Haider al-Abadi as the new prime minister, instantly welcomed by the US, hardly suggests the turmoil and torpor in the Iraqi capital is going to be over any time soon.  Nor is replacing one Shia Islamist from the Dawa party with another Shia Islamist from err, the Dawa party likely to win over the disenchanted Sunnis whom have either worked with the Islamic State or done little to oppose their takeover of much of the north of Iraq.

Exactly why it is then some MPs are now chomping at the bit to get ourselves involved is a bit of a mystery.  Or rather, isn't.  Ever since the Syria vote there's been continued murmurings from those convinced the only way we can stand tall on the world stage is to support America in absolutely everything she does.  When parliament voted against intervening in Syria at that time, something David Cameron took as ruling it out for all time, it was only a matter of days before government ministers were complaining this meant the royal prerogative had gone out the window, and we would no longer be regarded as a reliable ally, much less a "full spectrum" one.  It doesn't seem to matter the US hasn't made any suggestion as yet it could do with more help, and besides, we've already taken it upon ourselves to carry out further humanitarian drops of aid.  They've even gone so far as to suggest parliament could discuss Gaza at the same time, just to make sure it appeals to those on the opposite side, devious buggers that they are.

The real difficulty is knowing how much blame to put on each state actor for the current desperate situation.  Amazing as it is, at the weekend both Hillary Clinton and John McCain were insisting if only we'd armed the Syrian rebels earlier we wouldn't now be in this mess.  The fiction that there is or was a Syrian moderate faction ready to be trained and empowered before the Islamic State and al-Nusra established themselves as the big two continues to go unchallenged.  A more than healthy dollop of blame must obviously be put on Bashar al-Assad for his murderous reaction to the original, peaceful protests which demanded reform, not revolution.  After the switch to armed struggle, the funding of the most extreme factions by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, some of it through private donors, some of it direct, is how IS managed to reach the point where it was able to hold not only a large area of Syria, but also launch an operation to control much of northern Iraq, having previously been reduced to a mockery of its former self.  The west either turned a blind eye to this, or in some cases, facilitated it and encouraged it with little concern for the potential consequences.  Only last year did the west suddenly realise the monster it had helped create, and even then useful idiots and apologists for the other rebels kept pushing the nonsense there was some sort of deal between Assad and IS where they didn't attack each other.  Finally, al-Maliki and his Iranian/American backers bear a grave responsibility also for his antagonising and marginalising of the Sunni population to the point where so many were prepared to align themselves with the Islamic State.

Whether if given the same shock and awe treatment as Iraq was back in 2003 IS would quickly disintegrate doesn't enter into the equation.  Even with quite possibly the most violent and potentially dangerous jihadist force the world has yet seen dismantling the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Americans aren't interested in getting involved to such a point again, entirely reasonably.  At the same time, by carrying out attacks on IS from the air they seem ready to step into the role of ostensible Iraqi air force, with all that entails for possible civilian casualties and potential further disenchantment of the Sunni population should IS eventually be pushed back.

Call me crazy, but I think it might just be best if we sat this one out.  Don't count on it though.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2014 

Condemned to repeat.

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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