To whom it may be confusing: let it be known I do not condone any form of violent action in pursuit of political, territorial or religious objectives. Nor, if I hope to find reasons for it, does it mean I seek to excuse mass murder. Thank you.
- Uncle Bogler
Given that the human lifespan is a mere few decades, if I told you the recent terror attacks in Europe can be traced back to the fall, around 1500 years ago, of the Roman Empire, it would be understandable if you snorted with derision and turned over to something more entertaining.
The explosion of the Islamic caliphate out of Medina into much of the former Roman territory dates from only 150 years – two human lifespans – after the arrival in 476 of the Goths under Odoacer at the gates of Rome. There had been no sudden defeat, no conquest: the Roman Empire atrophied slowly, fragmenting into numerous competing polities and cultures, creating a vacuum to be filled.
And while the Western empire had indeed fallen to the Germans well before 625, the Eastern empire based on Byzantium (Istanbul) with, behind it, the squabbling Frankish kingdoms of western Europe briefly united under Charlemagne, was to survive for hundreds of years more at the fluid dividing line between two competing major world-views.
Like the Cold War, the conflict may have waxed and waned, with periods and places of tolerant, multicultural harmony, but it has never entirely gone away. Religion, territory and oil have proved a toxic mix.
Why do so many people seem to believe the story that terrorist attacks come from nowhere?
- In 1948, President David Ben-Gurion declared the foundation of the State of Israel. There were overwhelming humanitarian reasons to support a permanent homeland for the Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Exhausted by six years of war, British objections based on treaty obligations to the Palestinian Mandate were overcome with the help of terrorist outrages perpetrated by Zionist underground groups, Haganah and Irgun. This set the stage for the postwar era.
There was an inconvenient problem: the land was already occupied by Palestinian Arabs, who had lived there for centuries. Indeed, new archaeological evidence suggests that at the time of the Roman occupation, today’s Palestinians and yesterday’s Jews were one and the same people.
Over 600,000 were killed or expelled, to endure for generations in refugee camps beyond their borders; their homes, businesses and land appropriated. Their refugee status has never since been resolved, it being in the interests of the surrounding Arab nations to keep the issue festering, and the camps duly became a breeding ground for terrorism; or, in other terms, the battle for statehood.
After three victorious conflicts against their Arab neighbours, with Jewish-American support nuclear-armed Israel has become vital to the strategic interests of the region; their separatist policies untouchable despite numerous UN resolutions. This separatism, which is by no means universal in the country, has literally taken concrete form in the so-called ‘Peace wall’.
The plight of the Palestinians, of whom over a million and a half have been walled-up in Gaza city, while on the other side of the country in East Jerusalem territorial agreements are being torn up every day as Jewish settlers grab more land, is frequently painted by Zionist extremists with no sense of irony as ‘their own fault’. Many times Palestinians have resorted to protest, using only their living bodies, stones and low-grade rockets for weapons against the US-guaranteed military might of the Israeli army, and been ruthlessly suppressed.
Too many times, however, more serious attacks involving knives or bombs on, for instance, crowded buses have reinforced global sympathy for what many Palestinians see as the occupying power. Behind the repeated Intifadas, Palestinian units have operated for decades at a meta-terrorism level, spreading discord throughout the Middle East and beyond, fomenting revolt against the West over its support for Israel. Aircraft have been hijacked and bombed, hostages killed.
The response of the Israeli security services has been for decades to operate their own clandestine ‘war on terror’ against Palestinian groups, such as the PLO, pursuing their objectives through intelligence networks, bombings, kidnappings and selective assassinations even in other sovereign jurisdictions around the world.
Although the United Nations has recently granted the moderate Palestinian Authority nation status, Israel refuses to recognise it; while the rival, Islamist Hamas organisation that controls Gaza in turn refuses to recognise the State of Israel as a legitimate national entity. Attempts to negotiate on the basis of a two-state solution have failed, over and again. Thus the conflict remains stalemated.
Intransigence has hardened on both sides, with the Likud government in Tel Aviv in an impossible position, squeezed between its own ultra-Orthodox coalition partners and the sectarian interests of the two rival Palestinian authorities. Thus a 70-year-long dispute over land rights has been turned for complex political motives into an international conflict, that rumbles on as the permanent background to all our present-day concerns about Islamic ‘jihad’.
- In 1992, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sent troops to seize the small, oil-rich independent state of Kuwait, on his southern border. Partly for territorial reasons, as it was believed the Kuwaitis were drilling horizontally beneath Iraq to steal ‘their’ oil; but also to shore up the price of oil, then all of $10 a barrel!
He did so, perhaps because he had misread the signals from his sponsors, the Americans, and imagined they would not object.
In common with Adolf Hitler, Saddam had suffered years of abuse from a tyrannical father, and endured a brief period of imprisonment for his political views. Despite his cosy relationship with Moscow, and his repressive regime, Britain and America supported Saddam for years because he appeared to be a strong, secularist leader who would hold his divided country together, guarantee supplies of cheap oil to the West and oppose the rise of the medieval Islamic clerics in Iran.
In private, he was a rapist and a murderer. Typically, he would force his political opponents and anyone he considered disloyal to watch while his sons Uday and Qusay raped their wives and daughters. Uday’s Wikipedia entry describes a psychopathic monster, who once had the entire Iraqi national football team (of which he was the self-appointed manager) tortured and killed for lack of success on the pitch. These excesses were reminiscent of the absolute power wielded by debauched Roman emperors. Saddam would watch from one of his special TV viewing theatres while his opponents were humiliated and executed. Spying and surveillance were rife, but at least he kept the lid on tribal and religious sectarianism and Kurdish secessionist ambitions, that threatened the oil fields to the north.
From 1980 to 1988, at the behest of the Americans and Britain, Saddam (a Sunni muslim) prosecuted the longest conflict of the 20th century, against neighbouring Iran, to oppose the theocratic Shi’ite revolution there. According to Wikipedia:
“The conflict has been compared to World War I:171 in terms of the tactics used, including large-scale trench warfare with barbed wire stretched across trenches, manned machine-gun posts, bayonet charges, human wave attacks across a no-man’s land, and extensive use of chemical weapons such as mustard gas by the Iraqi government against Iranian troops, civilians, and Iraqi Kurds.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran%E2%80%93Iraq_War)
Over a million people died in what has become the century’s forgotten war. At the same time, Saddam practised genocide against the Kurdish minority in Iraq, gassing whole villages, and ecocide by draining the ecologically sensitive and important Arab marshes to force the tribespeople who had lived there for centuries, a unique culture, to modernise.
In 1993, US President George H. Bush mustered a coalition of forces including, vitally, Saudi Arabia, who funded over half the cost of the operation, and attacked Iraq. Having succeeded in forcing Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait, and seizing Baghdad, he backed off – stopping short of regime change. This was an egregious error his son, George W. Bush, was open to remedying when, as President, his advisors Carl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, proposed the audacious rightwing coup known as the Project for the New American Century.
- In 2003, following the September 11th attack two years earlier against the World Trade Center in New York, that resulted in the deaths of almost 3,000 people, a coalition comprised of the US, Britain and other forces re-invaded Iraq and, deploying overwhelming firepower (so-called ‘Shock and Awe’ tactics), forced Saddam out of office. Captured while hiding in a bunker, after a cursory show trial he was hanged.
A meticulously planned operation using hijacked civilian airliners as lethal missiles, that involved training members of the terror cell in the USA to fly them into buildings full of bankers, brokers and office workers, the September 11th plot succeeded, probably beyond the wildest dreams of its organisers.
A little-known group calling itself al-Qaeda had coalesced around the millionaire Saudi businessman, Osama bin Laden, who had gained experience of asymmetrical warfare as a minor fighter, financier and arms supplier to the Mujahideen, a guerrilla force developed under the auspices of the US military to combat the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. Deeply spiritual, bin Laden had formed the conclusion that the West was irredeemably decadent. Attacks on civilians would weaken morale and bring down governments, opening the way to a new Islamic caliphate.
But despite US propaganda, Iraq and Saddam had had nothing whatever to do with the attack on the Twin Towers; nor did they still possess weapons of mass destruction. The al-Qaeda group originated in ‘friendly’ Saudi Arabia and trained in Afghanistan under the wing of the puritanical separatist movement known as the Taliban. The plot was masterminded, not by bin Laden himself, but more probably by his Egyptian lieutenant, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri. While grateful for Saddam’s removal, nevertheless many Iraqis feared for the future. Civilian casualties of the Allied operations and their aftermath were numbered in the tens of thousands. The Project for the New American Century had targeted countries in the Middle East for conquest on any pretext, such as the ‘War on Terror’, to guarantee oil supplies and ‘development’ contracts for US conglomerates: US hegemony in perpetuity. This was their finest hour.
What Cheney and Rumsfeld and their UK ally, Blair, had failed to plan for were the ‘unknown knowns’: the restoration in Iraq of manageable civil society, and even the repair of functioning utilities, post-invasion. The country remained in chaos. Private US, so-called Contractors were given carte blanche to take over the security role and handed lucrative reconstruction contracts against foreign competitors. Their chief mistake was to remove traces of Saddamite Sunni influence in local government and the army, which was left in disarray without its trained officer corps. An equally ineffectual Shi’a-dominated government was put in place, thus setting the scene for a Sunni-inspired revolt.
The Arab Spring rebounds
Despite widespread attempts to develop more moderate, democratic governance through popular demonstrations – the so-called Arab Spring movement was largely unsuccessful. Its failure was largely owing to its inchoate leadership and the profound conservatism and religiosity of the working-class majority. Other than in Egypt, where a heavy-handed military regime has been returned to power following the deposing of an ‘unacceptable’ elected Islamist government, the proscribed Muslim Brotherhood party, the region has since disintegrated into a welter of internecine conflict: tribal, factional, religious, criminal; and witnessed, as a result of the unremitting civil war in Syria, the rise of an ultraviolent, puritanical, fundamentalist group of fanatics, respecting no borders: the Islamic State.
Its aim, seemingly, is to reinstate the C7th caliphate of the Umayyads, whose empire (based in the Syrian capital, Damascus) eventually stretched from Portugal and Morocco to India. According to Wikipedia, ‘At its greatest extent, the Umayyad Caliphate covered 15 million km2 (5.79 million square miles), making it the largest empire (in terms of area – not in terms of population) the world had yet seen, and the fifth largest ever to exist.’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umayyad_Caliphate). Now, that would be impressive.
In a little over three years, IS has made territorial gains and set-up a well-funded, professionally administered, theocratic statelet attracting thousands of disaffected young muslim volunteers from all over the world, flocking to their cause and incidentally creating a new potential reservoir of highly mobile, trained and combat-ready terrorist operatives prepared to spread ‘jihad’ back to their home countries. These autonomous units are seemingly able to move freely to and within Europe under cover of the mass movement of civilian refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict, taking advantage of relaxed border controls within the so-called Schengen zone of the European Union.
- Remarkable historical resonances with al-Qaeda and its IS successors can be found in the story of the Assassins, a fanatical cult that grew up in the early 12th century around a charismatic Ismaili* Shi’ite leader, Hassan-i-Sabah.
The actions of today’s well-known terrorist organisations, their political motives, organisation, aims and tactics, under the cloak of religious fundamentalism, have a direct parallel in the legendary exploits of the Assassins (Arabic: Hash-ishiyun). Based in the almost impregnable castle of Alamut, in Syria, from which he never emerged, Hassan spent his time developing his own scholarly interpretations of Koranic doctrine, sending teams of highly trained operatives with promises of direct entry to Paradise to carry out potentially suicidal missions to kill religious, political and military leaders and sow discord among his perceived enemies. The elite young men chosen for these attacks were known as Fid’aiyin, or ‘those who are prepared to sacrifice themselves’.
Not a great deal more is known about the Assassins, as their story is contaminated by contemporary counter-propaganda – other than that, after the Mongol invasions in the C14th and the sack of Alamut after a bitter 20-year siege, they disappear into the mist of history. Sometime after Hassan’s death, they seem to have become merely mercenaries for hire. There is an interesting potted history on Wikipedia. To quote briefly from it: ‘For about two centuries, the hashashin specialized in assassinating their religious and political enemies.[Wasserman] These killings were often conducted in full view of the public and often in broad daylight, so as to instill terror in their foes.’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassins).
The marked difference from today is that our leaders are better guarded, the weapons available more undiscriminating and powerful. While the Assassins are said to have tried to avoid civilian casualties, less well-protected civilian populations are nowadays the soft target of choice. And it is a fact that the majority of victims of terror attacks around the world are, by far, other Muslims. While the terrorists’ aim is to weaken and perhaps even bring down Western governments, this is still fundamentally a religious war, a struggle for power between Sunni and Shia Islam.
It is perhaps interesting to note that the two major world religions, Islam and Christianity, are virtually a mirror-image of one another; both deeply riven between rival theologies, their major blocs splintered in turn into sects adhering to virtually incomprehensible minor points of doctrine, supporting rival lines of succession from the original avatars. When not at war with each other, Christianity and Islam seem content to turn inwards on themselves: millions of Christians died in the ‘religious wars’ of 16th and 17th century Europe, over the vital question of ‘transubstantiation’ – do the wine and wafer of the Communion actually turn to the blood and flesh of Christ, as the Catholics believe/d, or is it merely a symbolic transformation? Appalling brutalities were inflicted on, for instance, the heretical Cathars of southwestern France, who practised a form of Marianism permissive of women priests, and held to the Manichean heresy of a world divided beteen Good and Evil.
In reality, the religious wars masked a struggle for hegemony between northern, Germanic Protestantism and southern Italian and Spanish Catholicism, over the telluric power wielded by the Pope in Rome.
Despite both Christianity and Islam being, like Judaism, Abrahamic religions believing in the same deity, but accessed through different prophets, saints, rituals and symbols of faith, it is relatively easy for those seeking power to exploit their doctrinal differences and a history of extreme violence, that has left in some quarters a bitter legacy. Even today, Islamists refer to the West as ‘Crusaders’, while the West talks of ‘Jihadis’. In both cases, it was the interpretation of religious texts claimed to have divine origins that promoted large-scale military campaigns to extend the rival religious states by seizing cities regarded as having religious significance: Byzantium – also known as Constantinople, after the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first to make Christianity a state religion – Mecca/Medina, and most potent symbol of all, Jerusalem, still today a contested city whose ancient places of worship are uneasily shared, administered by the three main religious authorities.
(In 2018, President Donald Trump inspired his Evangelical Christian supporters by fulfilling prophecy, moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.)
Actions at a distance
Since the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent failure to rebuild and maintain civil society, a policy mistake that has belatedly been recognised, in the past twelve years the West has preferred to intervene in the region without getting its hands too bloody again, mainly through arming and training the more acceptable local Islamist militias in opposition to IS; at the same time, bombing IS positions from the air, attempting to track and take-out their leadership using remote weapons technologies: deep-penetrating ‘bunker-buster’ bombs, ‘cruise’ missiles, rapid-fire machine-guns mounted on helicopters capable of targeting an enemy from over the horizon, miniaturised camera-guided missiles fired from unmanned drones, spy satellites, and so on.
It’s a tactic employed to disastrous effect in Libya in 2012, where a popular ‘Arab Spring’ uprising against the brutal dictator and sponsor of global terrorism, Muammar Gadaffi, was supported only from the air by French and UK fighter-bombers, allowing Islamist tribal militias total freedom of movement to battle one another for control on the ground, and pro-Gadaffi elements to melt into the background, to do whatever mischief they can devise. The seizing of installations at a BP oilfield at Amenas in Algeria in January 2003, where western hostages were killed, has been linked with anger at French support for Mali; a Gadaffi client state. Much of the Islamist activity in the region is funded by the drugs trade.
Gadaffi too was a serial rapist, maintaining private rape rooms in, among other places, Tripoli university, where the prettier students would be brought to him after being broken-in by his bodyguards. His political opponents were regularly tortured and murdered, including the mass shooting in 1997 of more than 1,200 political prisoners held in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim gaol. Increasingly irrational in later years, Gadaffi is thought to have personally ordered the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103, blown up over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988 with the loss of 270 lives. The casus belli was revenge for a punitive bombing raid two years earlier, ordered by US President Reagan on Gadaffi’s properties in Tripoli and flown from the UK, in which one of his daughters was killed. Flight 103 was known to regularly carry diplomatic and security personnel back to the USA from Frankfurt, and mystery still surrounds reports of the last-minute cancellations of a number of tickets, which were allegedly reallocated to students at cut-price.
In 2004, Britain was shocked to witness its Prime Minister, Blair, allowing himself to be kissed in greeting on both cheeks outside Gadaffi’s personal Bedouin tent in the desert, where an oil deal was to be signed. (The tent travelled everywhere as part of Gadaffi’s flamboyant entourage, which included a formidable bodyguard of 200 female soldiers.) Libya agreed to pay reparations for Flight 103, while still denying responsibility for the outrage. Other parts of the deal involved Gadaffi giving up his support for the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland, and an admission of Libyan guilt for the murder of a British policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher, shot from a window during an anti-Gadaffi demonstration at the Libyan embassy in London.
Most crucially, Gadaffi also agreed to give up pursuing a nuclear weapon through dealings with maverick Pakistani agents. Perhaps a kiss or two between friends was a small price to pay.
Since the overthrow of Gadaffi in 2012, during which he was filmed being dragged from hiding in a culvert and beaten and shot to death by an enraged mob while pleading for his life, Libya has failed to restore civil order and now has two competing self-appointed administrations attempting to control tribal militias vying for power. The country has once again become a breeding-ground for terrorism, promoting atrocities throughout the Maghreb and southwards into Central Africa. Closely allied with, and a financial supporter of the military government in Mali, following the deposing of Gadaffi, whom they had tried to rescue, in 2012 the Malian army mutinied over a number of grievances, leading to the fall of President Touré and allowing the occupation by, largely, Tuareg tribal militias, of the north of the country. They were thrown out by a French expeditionary force in 2013, but the country remains under threat of random attacks by Islamist secessionist militias allied with al-Qaeda In the Maghreb (AQIM).
As a result of this and other operations, including in Libya and Syria, the former colonial power in the Maghreb region, that fought a lengthy civil war in the 1950s over Algerian independence – another long-running cause of bitterness – France under President Macron has become increasingly bogged down, with thousands of troops in the region a prime target for jihadis looking for notoriety and kudos.
In Syria/Iraq, where the West is hoping to weaken the IS with tactical airstrikes, with so-far little success, the strategic plan is to rely on Kurdish Peshmerga and tribal irregulars to do the grunt work – although supporting the Kurds has not made our other regional ally, Turkey, happy. They have since restarted their decades-old war with the Kurdish separatist movement, the PKK; whilst also offering minimal resistance and intelligence-sharing against IS.
(Postscript, January 2220: since this article was written, concerted ground offensives against IS-held towns and cities by Kurdish and Iranian-supported militias armed and advised by US coalition forces including the national army of Iraq; in Syria by Assad’s national army in concert with the Russian Federation, and with minimal support from Turkey, combined with coalition and Russian airstrikes have ensured the Caliphate has been militarily defeated and now holds no territory outside a small enclave in Libya. Its founder, Abubakr al-Baghdadi was killed, detonating a suicide vest in his compound in October, 2019 during an assassination attempt by US special forces. As the participating groups have largely resumed attacking one another, with, especially, the reassignment of US troops from northern Syria, to ‘protect the oil’ in the south, enabling Turkish attacks on the Kurdish YPG; the unilateral abrogation by the USA of the nuclear arms prevention treaty with Iran (the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and the assassination in January 2020 of the Iranian military leader Gen. Qassim Suleimani in a drone strike ordered by President Trump on Iraqi soil, IS is reportedly regrouping and the situation seems once again fraught with possibility for a wider conflict.)
Crucially, the key Western ally in the fight against Sunni IS in Syria/Iraq is Shi’a Iran. Sterling efforts have been made to patch-up differences with Iran over the country’s nuclear policy, over the heads of the furious Israelis. Iranian military units have been in action on the ground against IS, ostensibly in an ‘arming and training’ role. It is a bizarre alliance: the West opposes Assad, holding him responsible for promoting a grim and bloody civil war as a step too far in his repression of the Arab Spring movement. Iran, on the other hand, is a supporter of Assad, who is a member of the minority Shi’ite Alawite sect. President Putin has opportunistically seized the Syrian high ground, possibly as a counter to growing Chinese influence in the region; although energy policy is very much to the fore as large gas fields are being opened up offshore of Syria.
The situation has grown more complex and potentially dangerous with the intervention by Russia, whose objectives are not entirely clear. The Syrian war has been prolonged, with mass casualties and an intractable refugee crisis causing further unrest in the region, in part because of Russia using its veto in the UN Security Council to close-down debate in support of the dictator, Hafez al-Assad. It seems however that Putin is attempting to draw Western attention away from his ill-judged closet war in Ukraine and to take on the role of Syria’s ‘good guy’, in the hope of gaining relief from Western economic sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea. Assad’s continued presidency is thus becoming a bargaining chip to get Putin off the domestic hook of Russia’s failing economy, mainly dependent as it is on oil and gas with US technological support.
It also seems that the downing of a Russian civilian airliner over Egypt three weeks ago with the loss of 224 lives may indeed have been the response of Islamic State to the Russian bombing of IS positions around Raqqa; although Russia has other enemies, including the long-running Islamist separatist movement in Chechnya. Only since negotiations began over the possible removal of Assad in exchange for Russian support against IS has this connection, identified early on by US intelligence, been admitted by Moscow. The aim of the US now is to get Putin to stop also bombing the anti-Assad ‘moderate’ groups, whom he has branded as ‘terrorists’, on whose support we are relying to oust both IS and Assad, clearing the way for a potential settlement.
The ramifications are positively Byzantine.
But we’re the good guys! Democrats! Why would these religious fanatics want to harm us?
‘The enemy in our midst’ is neither a new phenomenon, nor invariably related to Islam. British and European security services were on high alert against all kinds of plotters back at the beginning of the 20th century, for instance because of nervousness over a possible Islamist rising in the Sudan; and long before that, in the C17th and 18th centuries as revolutionary ideas took hold and occasionally erupted into violence.
British concerns about homegrown and exported terrorism have surrounded such topical issues as pro-Spanish Catholic recusancy, Irish independence, the Jacobite succession, Luddism, Bolshevism, Balkan nationalism, the Pretender (Perkin Warbeck, executed by Henry V11 in 1499) and (for all I know) the rise of Central European anarcho-syndicalism. Each year on November 5th we celebrate the notorious 1605 ‘Gunpowder Plot’ by a small band of aristocratic Catholics who attempted to blow up the Protestant James 1 in the houses of Parliament, and were hideously put to death. The ‘Siege of Sidney Street’ in London in 1910 has resonance with last week’s police operation in Paris’ St Denis district. Home Secretary, Winston Churchill took personal charge of an armed operation to winkle-out a group of anarchists led by a Pole, Peter Piatkow (aka Peter the Painter), who had taken refuge in a building after a robbery in which three policemen were killed. The battle lasted all day. Two more police died in the raid, several were wounded, and two anarchists were killed.
Now, once again it’s the threat of Islamic resurgence; the ‘return of the Mahdi’, in the guise, first, of Osama bin Laden and now IS leader Abubakr al-Baghdadi.
But whatever the stated cause, it’s always about power: getting it and keeping it. Fear is power. Land is power. Money is power. Cattle are power. Water and oil are power. Military supremacy is power. Owning the law is power. Controlling the lives of the citizens is power. In the religious mindset, holding the keys to heaven confers ultimate power.
What the IS and their allied militias are seeking is to exploit the political power vacuum in countries including Iraq, and the opportunity offered by the increasingly fragmented civil war in neighbouring Syria. They perceive that the power of the West, particularly of the USA, is waning. Led by the charismatic Baghdadi – like Saddam and Gadaffi a serial rapist – that’s about power too – IS has been described as a ‘death cult’. Its crimes include mass kidnappings, rapes and enslavement of women, suppression of religious minorities and the murders of Western hostages – aid workers and journalists. Those activities are transparently un-Islamic, which only adds to the sense of threat.
Its excesses have run, for instance, to the executions of men for smoking in public; disobliging wives, and those suspected of being ‘Israeli spies’. A captured Jordanian airforce pilot was put in a small cage and burned alive, despite international appeals for mercy. No mercy is shown, especially, to Iraqi army prisoners of war, who have been filmed being shot, beheaded or herded into cars which are then used for artillery practice. Such elaborate executions provide exciting images that are distributed globally over social media, to the accompaniment of stirring music and portentous religious commentaries, as effective recruitment advertising.
Yet these bizarre and frankly sickening atrocities are not to be dismissed as inexplicable expressions of abstract ‘evil’, committed by a ‘death cult’. This isn’t a comic book, or a Hollywood movie. It’s not a ‘death cult’, it’s a power-grab.
The IS propaganda machine, its conquests on the ground and its recruiting sergeants have been successful in persuading thousands of disaffected young Muslim men and women born to immigrant families in Western countries, plus some converts, to flock to join the cause of creating what is portrayed as an Islamic heaven on earth, in opposition to the loose morals, vacuous lifestyle and soft secularism of the West; that offers its young Muslims few prospects.
Historically important and irreplaceable ancient sites have been destroyed, museums looted for their artifacts, sold for cash to buy arms on the global black market. Clearly an important part of the strategy is to demonstrate root-and-branch contempt for Western civilization, as well as for human life. To wind-back the clock of history, to deliver a cultural slap in the face to those who treasure the past, to deracinate the enemy’s foundation myths is the aim of all such power-grabs; as demonstrated by ruthless revolutionaries like Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, together with the leaderless Taliban, all of whom favored a return to Year Zero.
The ‘caliphate’ of the Islamic State is indeed their very own ‘Israel’ – a homeland and a refuge, that they can be pioneers in building, just as the young Kibbutzim did in Israel in the 1950s, that will rescue their lives and their sense of self-worth out of the shame of the diaspora. It’s a powerful meme, arising from the same old conflict of values that has gone on for centuries. But it is also being imposed by force:
‘He who is not with us is against us’.
For, nor is the rest of Islam safe from IS, which regards the modern Islamic world as corrupted, finished. Westernised Muslims who do not conform to the strict sharia code and brutal repression of IS are branded apostates. Many have been killed as ‘collateral’ in terrorist operations, alongside Western victims. IS is also willing to kill its own people if necessary. And it is working. Panic, discord and division are being successfully sown. Western governments are in disarray. France is again living under wartime conditions; Belgium has declared a state of emergency. An innocent package caused the abandonment of a football match between Holland and Germany. Is the suspension of civil liberties a proportionate response? We can’t tell, we don’t know where the enemy will strike next.
As hundreds of thousands of displaced and vulnerable people fleeing the violence in Syria and desperate economic conditions elsewhere crowd into what they believe is the safe haven of Europe, hoping for rescue, native opinion against the refugees is hardening; borders closing.
The discovery of a forged Syrian passport near the remains of one of the Paris suicide bombers led to reports that he had entered France via Greece, posing as a refugee. Almost immediately, as the first flights were arriving in Glasgow with a few acceptable, heavily security-vetted families aboard, polling in Britain showed a massive drop in public support for taking in more – or indeed, any – Syrian refugees; contrary to the usual spirit of generosity shown towards victims of oppression.
That one man blowing himself up outside a football stadium could achieve this effect shows how successful IS propaganda is being at leading Western populations into a cul-de-sac of our own making, where fear is replacing compassion as the dominant driver of public policy. (A legend about the leader of the Assassins, Hassan i-Sabah, ordering one of his men to throw himself off a tower to demonstrate that not even the fear of death could defeat them demonstrates the principle nicely.) Rightwing groups are again in the ascendant, immigrant populations fearful of reprisals. It is all playing nicely into the hands of the extremists on both sides.
The ‘war’ against IS is no longer perceived in Europe to be a foreign war; thanks largely to statements by politicians anxious to be seen to have some kind of plan, with emotive phrases about needing to bomb Syria ‘to keep our nation safe’ (just as we intervened militarily in first, Iraq, then Afghanistan, and then Libya ‘to keep our streets safe’) through a muddled and vacillating foreign policy and a half-baked military response that seem designed to do anything but.
British home security forces have been thankfully successful in that objective: there has not been a major incident since the London bombings of 2003. But repeated government assertions that ‘it is only a matter of time’ do little to reassure the public and only contribute to a growing Islamophobia. How quickly we have forgotten that Irish nationalism was for three decades the previous fear-factor of choice on our streets.
Guerrillas in the mist
There are, essentially, three types of warfare. That between rival states, in which armies are pitted more or less equally against one another; wars of invasion, in which one side sends a force to seize the territory and possessions of a (hopefully) weaker state; and guerrilla, or ‘asymmetrical’ warfare, in which a weaker side adopts covert hit-and-run tactics, propagnda campaigns and one-off ‘spectaculars’ in an attempt to wear a more powerful enemy down by small acts of attrition.
In the case of a conflict between a powerful nation with a massively superior military capability and a poorer, weaker nation, arising out of whatever causes, the only tactics that can be employed by the latter are well-tried and frequently successful: hide in the shadows, strike hard and fast when the opportunity arises, exploit weaknesses, provoke response, be more willing to sacrifice lives for the cause than is your enemy, remain patient, and make sure the world hears your case. Did the French not do this after 1940 when occupied by the Wehrmacht? Did the Vietnamese and the Algerians not use the same tactics in their 1950s independence campaigns against the French colonial power?
It is odd, then, that so many Parisians interviewed since the IS strike last Friday appear bewildered that this horror has been visited upon them. The distractions of the modern world, the misreporting by so-called Citizen media and the ‘snippet’ culture of the news, where facts are presented without context in a confusing arc of ‘balance’, the unmediated raw footage of current events, are condemning us fatally to live in an eternal present, ignorant of the wider issues. As well as being the capital of a country that is bombing IS in Syria and taking on Islamist insurgencies in former colonial Central Africa, Paris is also the very symbol of decadent Western consumer culture, of radical ideas and loose morals: the natural enemy of the ascetic Islamist.
It is also a city where tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants have been warehoused for decades in suburban tenement blocks, the ‘banlieus’, where rioting periodically breaks out between police raids, and crime is rife. It does not excuse the stepping-up of protest to armed murder and insurrection on the streets; the vast majority remain peaceful but nervous, hoping only for acceptance, for integration into French society, for a purpose in life – employment – that never arrives. It is, however, the proximate cause of it.
It is patently not good enough to say that nothing justifies an attack on ‘us’, but everything justifies us attacking ‘them’, with far greater loss of life. You cannot simply discount the historic context. No doubt I shall be accused of treason or gross insensitivity for pointing out that the desire to avenge a perceived historical wrong is not the sole preserve of my own nation, that the game of ‘who started it?’ may take us far back into the mists of time, where the roots of present-day conflicts can seem irrelevant to a culture easily distracted by games and TV shows. They are not irrelevant!
How do we suppose the people responsible for violent attacks against us see our own acts of violence against them? What mental gymnastics enables us to set our own actions on a different moral plane and claim: ‘We are standing up for our way of life against the forces of Evil’, whilst all the while denying our own acts of lethality, our economic interests, our perceived cultural decadence, against their more disciplined, ascetic, religious ‘way of life’? Might it not help at least to try to understand the moral and cultural basis for their actions? To ‘remove the beam from our own eye’, to use a Biblical analogy?
A young British Muslim with a subnormal IQ of 65 was yesterday found guilty of planning acts of terrorism, merely by virtue of his having travelled with a group of friends hoping to join IS. The boy, who is 18, panicked and dropped out of the enterprise in Turkey, handing himself in to the authorities. He did nothing worse. Nevertheless, he is to be sentenced for terrorism offences. Surely this cannot be the paranoid, Robocop future our government has planned for us in Britain? The wisdom of taking in large numbers of unidentifiable refugees must of course be questioned and proper checks and controls imposed, but the pre-criminalising of whole swathes of the population for what might be called ‘thought crimes’ is truly alarming.
Them versus us
I was once sent as a 16-year-old schoolboy to a ‘training camp’ for a couple of weeks, to be taught how to fight and kill people with a rifle and bayonet; yomping over mountains in the inky, rain-sodden blackness, scrambling under and over obstacles while a large man with a loud voice threw exploding thunderflashes at me.
But it was okay, because it was a regular British army camp in Wales, not a jihadi rats’ nest in remotest Waziristan, and that’s of course quite different. The padre on church parade was not really indoctrinating us by telling us that Jesus would have expected us to shoot and kill our enemies, he was merely doing his Christian duty.
The difference is, I was being trained; they’re being radicalised.
Born in 1949, I just missed conscription – National Service. Like thousands of others, my not-much-older uncle Peter was less lucky, being rounded-up and sent out to quell a rebellion in Kenya involving a gang of ‘evil psychopaths’ known as the mau-mau, where it became his job to capture, interrogate or kill them if he could.
Their reason for rebelling was that they wanted to run their own country: a story repeated over and again throughout the last century, against the background of wider international power struggles between competing empires and ideologes. I gather mau-mau could also be pretty violent. No secessionist militias have ever been willing to act within the rules of engagement and to respect the rights of civilian populations; many are, frankly, very nasty.
But the willingness to do evil is not the same as being intrinsically evil: the rapes, murders and mutilations, the taking of slaves, the forced induction of child soldiers, the public beheadings of hostages all have a cold-eyed strategic purpose.
We are blind, too, to the truth that ‘we’ can (and have) behave just as badly when we want to. The approaching hundredth anniversary of the massacre in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar in 1919 by Indian troops, Sepoys under the command of the British General Dyer, of almost 400 unarmed protestors, using heavy machine-guns against women and children trapped in the city square and unable to disperse, reminds us of the crimes that were committed in the name of Empire.
And in the end, for better – usually for worse – the former dominions of Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, flung across the globe, having been plundered for centuries of their labour and natural resources, were abandoned to their own devices; frequently leaving bitter resentments and festering power vacuums waiting to be filled, corrupt political and business relationships to be cemented; a history of oppression and violent retribution unresolved, infrastructure broken, wounds unhealed. Islam has filled many of those gaps, but now feels itself to be under attack by Western corporate interests. Islam is not a wasteful, consumerist ideology; Islamic banks do not charge 32.9 per cent interest on store cards. To an extent, then, Islam is anti-capitalist – which will never do.
A case in point, yet another ‘peace accord’ has had to be hurriedly cobbled together in Northern Ireland this week, as the power-sharing agreement between the nationalist and unionist factions at Stormont was rapidly unravelling over this painful issue: the unresolved legacy of past crimes committed on both sides, after three hundred years of ‘history’ that one suspects few people outside Ireland know or care about.
What will History make of today’s murderous tensions?
The difference today is that personal communications technology, cheap mass travel, the proliferation of illegal sources of weaponry, the prevalence of post-independence regimes with malevolent intent towards their former colonisers, the polarisation of superpowers, the rise of micro-nationalism, the driving factors of unemployment, poverty, climate, religious schisms; the arbitrary historical carving-up of territories and ancient border disputes, the willingness to blow oneself up in a holy cause, and so forever on, have all made asymmetrical warfare, random acts of public violence, a global phenomenon that we can now witness live on camera.
Enemies can strike anywhere, at any time, in a multitude of ways, for any reason; chief among which, I believe, is a sense of purposelessness and loss of identity in an inequitable world of seven billion people, from which the millionaire and billionaire class are moving away at light speed. ‘Making history’ – individuals acting distinctively, memorably, to gain importance – has become the new ambition. Maybe it always was, which is why we have ‘history’ in the first place.
There is, in short, no end to the possibilities for ratcheting-up the violence.
Generals agree, aerial bombardment is ineffective as an answer to a highly mobile and barely glimpsed enemy: a recent Pentagon report concluded that B-29s dropping the equivalent of the entire ordnance exploded during the Second World War on North Vietnam in the space of a few months – a terror campaign – had absolutely no military effect whatever, and was done only to get Richard Nixon re-elected President; an aim to which, incidentally, the Mafia donated one million dollars.
(Postscript, January 2020: The story goes that Nixon literally laundered the money, through a false-front laundromat business set up for him in Florida. In 2019, a little-known Soviet-born American with Mafia connections, Lev Parnas, acting on orders from President Trump’s ‘personal lawyer’ friend Rudy Giuliani, was indicted for laundering $325 thousand in illegal contributions from a Ukrainian gas oligarch wanted by the FBI, to the re-elect Trump campaign through a false-front energy company in Florida; proving that history often repeats itself as farce.)
Nevertheless we still drop bombs, because politicians fear that voters are put off by the sight of ‘our heroes’ coming back in body bags and bombing is safer – remote. Thanks to live media coverage, that has developed rapidly since the war in Vietnam and is increasingly difficult for the authorities to control, ‘boots on the ground’ has become possibly the last resort of headline-averse politicians committing their forces to conflicts around the world. We too are becoming an unseen enemy.
The civilian casualties – ‘collateral damage’ – caused by aerial bombing obviously creates a further reservoir of bitterness and national humiliation, requiring whatever small acts of revenge that may be organised against a far more powerful enemy. I’m not going to dismiss the 139 fatal casualties of the recent Paris attack, or the 224 victims of what the Russians have finally admitted was a bomb hidden on one of their tourist flights out of Egypt three weeks ago, as small acts of minor significance, of course not. Nothing whatever justifies the taking of innocent lives.
But moral outrage alone cannot compensate for the massive discrepancy in the numbers of civilians being killed on the opposing sides in this escalating conflict. We witnessed the horror of the Israeli attack on Gaza last year, a punitive expedition by air, land and sea in which 2,000 Palestinians, mainly women and children, walled inside the city and unable to escape, were killed, their homes razed, because of stupid and provocative (but seldom lethal) rocket attacks on Israeli border towns by disaffected young Hamas militants. Do we imagine it will just be forgotten by the rising generation?
All that will give meaning to the combined weight of grief and loss is a constructive political settlement, starting in Israel-Palestine; and a genuine will for peace. With the rise, first of al-Qaeda and now of IS, neither of which seems capable of a negotiated compromise, so irrevocably committed is their ideological stance, we’re a long way from either. That is no reason not to try; and indeed, it is reported that some progress is being made in talks-about-talks on finding a settlement to the Syrian conflict, although there is a very long road to travel.
Here in the West, the North, whatever you call us, we are down to possibly only one weapon against these ‘guerrillas in the mist’: our lead in surveillance technology. The Belgian-born local organiser of the Paris outrage is today (19 Nov.) reported to have been killed in a police raid on an apartment in St Denis. That will be thanks to intelligence on the ground, not to firing cruise missiles pointlessly at Raqqa. But he has already been replaced.
Instead of wasting decades throwing long-range ordnance and vast sums of money at the problem while the arms industry grows rich, we need somehow to deploy the weapons of negotiation, compromise – mutual reconciliation – and open debate: let in the daylight.
It can only happen with a quick military victory against the IS, although it is doubtful that the Hydra won’t grow a new head to replace them; and the rapid restoration of civil institutions in the conflicted territories. Part of the solution has to be to find a way to give the children of the migrant populations of Europe a reason for hope, a different cause to believe in.
More bombing is not an answer, nor is sticking our heads in the sand, denying that there are legitimate and rational, historic reasons for Islamist terrorism: these people are not mad, random, evil fanatics, as our politicians and the media try to pretend. Like the Assassins of old they are organised, they are trained, they have historical precedent, a cause they are willing to kill and die for, and we need to understand what that is or we risk merely perpetuating the violence for generations to come.
The Manichean belief in a war between good and evil, in which the enemy is always ‘evil’, and we are always ‘good’, is every bit as much part of a medieval worldview as anything we might find to sneer at in Islamic teachings. It’s not helpful to portray the situation in such a puerile way if we are going to end the current crisis and move on. We’re in enough trouble as it is.
*p.4 I cannot even begin to explain the rift in Shi’a Islam between the Seveners, known as Ismailis – and the Twelvers. It is to do with how many Imams would succeed the Prophet before the Endtime. Ismailis follow a mystical reading of Islam, as opposed to the Twelver Shi’ites whose theology is based on ascetic Sharia. Ismailis are led by a quasi-religious figure called the Aga Khan. I remember one from the 1950s, a portly voluptuary with a fondness for horseracing. There I give up.