Pitiless War

The Narodnik revolutionary Vera Figner once described terrorism as a ‘very sombre form struggle.’  Figner spent twenty years in prison for her part in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II – the most high-profile assassination of the nineteenth century and an act that contained many of the essential features of revolutionary terrorism, so she knew how sombre it could be.

For Figner and her idealistic comrades in the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) – a name that owed more to their own definition of what the people’s will ought to be than to their own popularity – small group terrorism was a political tactic that they hoped would be able to produce results far beyond their actual strength or capabilities.

In striking directly at  the most important symbol of the Tsarist autocracy,  they hoped to provoke their more powerful opponent into a vicious counterreaction that would radicalize a wider peasant constituency that more longterm methods of agitprop had failed to reach as a result of Tsarist repression.

The reaction came, but it did not produce the results they wanted.  Their movement was destroyed, the Tsar’s assassins were executed, imprisoned or exiled, and the peasantry and working classes remained largely unmoved and even disgusted by the murder of the ‘little father.’

Figner and the Narodniks would almost certainly have been horrified by last week’s vicious assault in Paris.  Though no less willing to die than the druggy dimwitted butchers who struck down so many young lives on Friday, they themselves did not believe in ‘soft targets’ or the deliberate murder of civilians.   Nevertheless the essential dynamic of provocation and counter-reaction is not that different between Figner’s era and our own.

What has changed is the lengths that Daesh and other groups like it are prepared to go in order to achieve the reaction they want.  Stripped of its pseudo-religious exterminatory justifications,  the mass murder perpetrated by the Daesh suicide murder squad last Friday was intended to provoke a more powerful enemy into one of two choices a) either France would withdraw completely from its bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, in which case Daesh could claim victory or b) it could become more militarily engaged and bring about the global polarisation between Muslims and ‘Crusaders’ that would bring more recruits for the  Islamic State  ‘caliphate.’

The second possibility also applies to Muslims in France and the rest of Europe.  It is difficult to imagine that Daesh did not hope for a racist backlash that would help destroy Europe as a home for Muslims.

In other words, this is mass slaughter as politico-social engineering, intended to bring about a ‘them and us’ confrontation in which there can be no bystanders. Given such intentions, you might think that  the sensible response of a state that wishes to avoid such an outcome would be to resist the temptation to enter into a confrontation on terms chosen by its provocateurs.

But one of the most perennially morbid  aspects of terrorism as a form of political struggle is the ease and readiness with which states respond to such provocations in exactly the way that their terrorist enemies would like them to respond.   This is partly because terrorism is often as useful to the state as the state is to terrorism, and because even the most powerful states often seem to have an almost instinctive set of responses when they are attacked in this way.

By striking at the population rather than the state itself, terrorism attempts to make the state look weak, and challenge one of the main justifications for its existence – its ability to protect its own population.   By carrying out ‘spectacular’ acts of mass slaughter intended to generate maximum media attention, whether flying planes into towers or murdering people at a rock concert or blowing up the King David Hotel,  its protagonists deny the state the possibility of any commensurate target that could have a similar effect.

Analysts  like the French criminologist Alain Bauer might tell  The Daily Beast that  “If we really want to do something, we need to erase Raqqa’ – as if an act of mass murder in Paris had suddenly made it morally acceptable to obliterate an entire city – but if France were to do something like this it would lose far more than it could ever gain.

States have the right and the obligation to protect their populations from attacks such as the one we saw last Friday.  But such a response, to be effective, needs to be calibrated, well-thought out, longterm and strategic.  It should recognize what is achievable and what is not.   Even in cases where such a response might require political and military action, states should attempt to weaken their enemies without playing into their hands. They should seek to understand who their enemies are, and what they want and how they are trying to get it, and not invent false or irrelevant narratives about their hatred of our values and our freedoms.

They should concentrate on law enforcement, not ‘war’, because terrorism tends to feed off war and draw a kind of grandiosity and justification from it.  States should also avoid engaging in terror and illegal actions themselves.  They should take responsibility for their own bad policies, inasmuch as such policies may have contributed to the attacks against them, and seek to replace such policies with good ones. Where there is bitterness, resentment and alienation inside their own societies that they are responsible for, they should seek to reduce it rather than inflame it.

They should avoid the temptation to use terrorist groups as instruments of statecraft, either directly or indirectly, because such groups may well bite them as well as their intended targets.

All this should be obvious, especially if we look back on the disastrous consequences of the various ‘wars on terror’ of the last fifteen years.  Yet still  Francois Hollande pledges to wage ‘pitiless war’  against ISIS, as if all the wars  and pseudo-wars of the last fifteen years have not been pitiless.  Still  Labour MPs berate Jeremy Corbyn because he won’t approve of shoot-to-kill in any circumstances  and seek to bump the country into war without any coherent idea of what such a war is intended to achieve or what its political outcome might be.

Such responses demonstrate once again why terrorism is too important a subject to be left to the state, or in the hands of the tough guy politicians, and why civil society should also become part of the conversation about what to do about it.

Because no one can believe that Daesh/ISIS will be defeated by putting flowers in their rifle barrels, but in the end that struggle must be waged primarily by Syrians and Iraqis who have a viable political alternative they are prepared to fight for and countries they feel they can belong to, and I really doubt whether another  ‘pitiless’ but mindless war will bring that outcome any closer – or make Paris any safer.




Islamic State’s ‘radicalized’ British volunteers: a useful threat?

I feel sorry for the Bradford husbands and other British Muslim families whose children and relatives have absconded to join Islamic State’s savage utopia, but I don’t feel any sympathy at all for the ‘radicalized’ volunteers themselves who have gone to Syria.   It isn’t as if you have to look very far to know what ISIS is like.

We are, after all,   talking about an organization that believes it has a divine right to rape women from religious minorities; that beheads and buries alive children and adults; that murders prisoners of war and hostages en masse in exemplary execution-spectacles; that recruits even eight year old children to carry out suicide bombings; that forces homosexuals to jump off buildings; that has casually wiped out even the most ancient historical artefacts and remains in its attempt to establish an Islamic year zero at the heart of Syria and Iraq.

All this has been done in plain sight, and no amount of ‘grooming’ can conceal facts that ISIS doesn’t even begin to hide, because it is actually proud of its barbarity.     In short, this is a gang of fanatics driven by bigotry and sectarian hatred, that rules through the gun, the knife and the whip, whose language is blood and death, and which has trampled even the most basic and elementary laws of mercy and decency in war and peace that humanity has evolved over thousands of years through various religious and secular traditions.   Such an organization deserves only universal contempt, and those who go and fight for it deserve the same.

All this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to understand how this monster came into being, or the socio-psychological motivations that have attracted so many young men and women to such an inherently repulsive and malignant political phenomenon.   But there is an essential contradiction at the   British government’s clumsy, ineffective and increasingly authoritarian attempts to counter pro-ISIS ‘radicalization’ amongst British Muslims that rarely receives the analysis it deserves; namely, that in Syria at least, these ‘radicals’ are fighting on the same side as the government that is trying to prevent their radicalization.

This isn’t just an accidental or coincidental relationship originating from the fact that ISIS and the West have the common objective of overthrowing Assad.       ISIS receives logistical and financial support from the UK’s main allies in the Middle East.   From very early on in the Syrian conflict, US intelligence services regarded the creation of a ‘Salafist principality’ in Syria as a strategic asset.   There is abundant evidence to suggest that Western governments have provided weapons and training to same extremist pool that gave rise to ISIS’ current ‘principality.’

Earlier this month, this relationship flitted briefly through the mainstream media, when the Swedish jihadist Bherlin Gildo was acquited of terrorism charges at the Old Bailey, after his lawyers successfully argued that British intelligence agencies were providing weapons and ‘non-lethal’ help to the same ‘terrorist’ groups that he was allegedly supporting.

Gildo’s lawyers based their defence on the grounds that he was helping these unnamed rebel groups before the emergence of ISIS, and cited press articles referring to Western armed supplies to Syrian rebels in 2013 that suggested that the West was doing the same thing in the same period.   The notion of a cut-off point before and after ISIS is misleading; Gildo had apparently worked with Jabhat al-Nusra, an organization with a very similar ideology and modus operandi to Islamic State, which the crown prosecutor as a ‘proscribed group considered to be al-Qaida in Syria.’

The startling suggestion, in a British court, that British intelligence services had been assisting ‘al-Qaida in Syria’ ought to have raised a few questions about the UK government’s anti-extremism agenda, such as why the UK has been supporting some of the same groups that it has described as a threat to British national security.

These relationships are hardly a historical novelty.   Western governments have often collaborated with extremist jihadist groups that they have regarded as useful foreign policy tools, no matter how often these groups have bitten the hand that feeds them.   In Afghanistan in the 1980s, the US and its allies favoured the most violent and extreme mujahideen groups in order to ‘make Russia bleed.’   NATO’s allies in Libya also included individuals and militias that belonged to the al-Qaeda franchise.

For all the talk about a ‘moderate’ opposition in Syria, such groups have received similar support from the Middle Eastern states seeking Assad’s overthrow for the same reasons,   and these efforts have received the tacit or direct support from the same Western governments, including our own, that also want to bring Assad down.

Some might call this policy ‘shortsighted’, but it really isn’t.   It’s a question of priorities.   For the time being, the reactionary Sunni states of the Middle East see sectarian war against Shi’ism as a tool of counter-revolution and a geopolitical lever that can be used to counter Iranian influence.   This dovetails neatly with the West’s determination to ‘rollback’ any regime seen as a) a potential obstacle to Western strategic domination over the region’s resources b) an ally of Russia, China or Iran and c) as a threat to Israel.

Of course these ambitions may leave a trail of devastated states and potentially destabilising political chaos, in which organizations like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra can thrive. But that is a risk that our governments have clearly considered is ‘worth it’, as Madeleine Albright once said in a very different context but for very similar reasons, perhaps in the belief that the West and its allies will ultimately be able to reshape the wreckage in its favour.

So ISIS isn’t only a threat; it’s also a convenient threat.       Its savagery and barbarity acts as yet another justification for the endless projection of military force abroad, and a new domestic threat that can be politically mobilised to produce evermore authoritarian governance at home, and an increasingly McCarthyite attempt to eradicate a Muslim ‘fifth column.’

These are the calculations that have helped paved the way for the ISIS nightmare.     So let’s by all means talk about why young British Muslims are so drawn to an organization that ought to be an absolute pariah, but when we talk about ‘radicalization’ we ought to remember these ‘radicals’ may also have their uses – and not only for ISIS.

Look out Europe: the Russian bear is coming

There is a psychological theory called projection which I have often thought can be applied to international relations.     Essentially, projection describes a tendency in interpersonal relationships by which individuals project onto others certain characteristics that they fear or hate in themselves.     An obvious example might be a sexually-frustrated fundamentalist preacher say, who persecutes others because he imagines that they are thinking about nothing but sex.   Another example might an unfaithful or potentially unfaithful spouse who imagines that his/her partner is unfaithful.

Freud thought that the main purpose of this mechanism was defensive: by projecting onto others feelings that you find unacceptable or frightening in yourself you are able to externalise them and defend yourself against them, by imagining that it is someone else, not you that feels them.

Applied to relationships between states, this mechanism may serve a similar purpose. If, for example, one state is preparing to launch an aggressive war against another – something that it knows is morally – and more recently – legally unacceptable – then it is far better to imagine that the state you are attacking harbours aggressive or expansionist intentions towards you.     That way your own aggression becomes a ‘defensive’ or ‘preemptive’ reaction that is legitimate and acceptable.

This dynamic has played out many times in history.   Napoleon once justified the invasion of Spain as a response to Spanish ‘treachery’, even though the hapless Spanish could not even begin to compete with the dishonest and manipulative manouevres of the French empire.     Hitler justified the invasion of Poland as a response to ‘Polish aggression’ after a border incident that he himself arranged.     And more recently the United States and Britain invaded Iraq on the grounds of selective and manipulated intelligence that presented Saddam Hussein as a real or potential aggressor who was intent on attacking them

Of course projection in these circumstances isn’t just a question of powerful states trying to legitimize their aggression to themselves.   It also has an explicit propaganda purpose: even the most powerful states like to look good to themselves and to the outside world. Liberal democratic states are particularly prone to projection because they so often take their own virtuousness for granted and because, even more than kings and dictators, they need to make any perceived departure from it appear legitimate in the eyes of their own populations.

But the ultimate outcome of this process is always the same: to present a vision of the world in which your own side is essentially pacific and well-intentioned, while your enemies are intent on conquest and even world domination.   All these tendencies were present in Chatham House’s paper on ‘ The Russian Challenge’ which came out this week.   Produced by The Royal Institute of International Affairs (RUSI), the paper is a classic Russophobic document in the tradition of George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’.

The paper caused a big splash in the Independent because of its eye-catching warning that NATO and the European Union face potential collapse unless the West defends its ‘principles’ in the face of Russian aggression.   It also warned that Russia might use ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ in Ukraine and that therefore the West should take steps to demonstrate to Russia that ‘limited war’ was ‘impossible’.

All of this was what you might expect from a mainstream establishment thinktank that tends to tell the British government what it wants to hear.   The report’s authors include Sir Roderic Lyne, former ambassador to Russia, whose post-government jobs include special advisor to BP and JP Morgan Chase, both of which have extensive interests in Iraq – a connection that did not prevent him from becoming a member of the Chilcot Inquiry.

Lyne and his co-authors are broadly in agreement that the West’s failure to respond to ‘ the full implications of Russia’s descent into authoritarian nationalism’ has now brought Europe and Nato to the point when the ‘post-Cold War settlement’ is threatened with disintegration.     As always, this is Russia’s fault.   While the West has been pacific and naively trusting, Putin has smelt weakness, because this is what Putin and Russia are like.

Far be it from me to present Vladimir Putin as a paragon of democracy.     But it is impossible to avoid the reek of hypocrisy and double standards in RUSI’s analysis of Russian behavior and intentions.     First of all, there is the question of ‘aggression.’   Since the end of the Cold War the United States and ‘the West’ has fought many more wars than Russia, often with catastrophic consequences.   In no case were any of these wars ‘defensive’ except in the most elastic and often meaningless sense of the term.

Such recognition is entirely absent from Lyne’s suggestion that Russia ‘lured Georgia into a short, ugly and ill-judged war’ in 2008.   Lyne does not even acknowledge the existence of allegations that it was the Georgian government of Mikhail Saakashvili that lured Russia into war, in the mistaken belief that the West would step in on Georgia’s side.

Any such recognition would detract from Lyne’s depiction of Russia’s determination to be an ‘independent Great power maintaining its geopolitical position on its own terms’ – a desire that supposedly reflects   ‘a deep sense of insecurity and a fear that Russia’s interests would be threatened if it lost control of its neighborhood.’

Regardless of what you think of ‘ Great Power’ statecraft or Russia’s wars and interventions in Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine, it is worth pointing out that there are few states that don’t regard the states closest to them as their ‘neighborhood’ and which don’t attempt to influence or control them in accordance with their own security interests.   This is what the United States has done for more than a century in its Latin American ‘backyard’, most recently in Panama.   It’s what the European Union did when it attacked Libya.

Do states have the ‘right’ to subordinate their neighbors to their own interests? No, but most powerful states assume this right anyway, and suggesting that such a goal is the result of of some endemic Russian/Soviet pathology is just self-serving drivel, frankly.

Unlike Russia, the US and the West regard the entire world as their ‘neighborhood’ when it comes to military intervention.   American policy documents since the Cold War have made it clear again and again that the US believes that it has the right to wage war or project military power anywhere in the world.   One of the essential goals of post-Cold War US military strategy is to prevent the emergence of any regional rival anywhere.

You will never hear an establishment thinktank on either side of the Atlantic question the ‘right’ of the United States to put troops in Uzbekistan, in the Pacific, or Africa or anywhere else, but when Russia frets at the prospect of Nato missiles in Ukraine then it’s just the result of some strange Slavic insecurity, it seems.

Putin may be an authoritarian jerk, but he is not wrong in denouncing a ‘pernicious’ unipolar world and NATO expansion, nor in his condemnation of the ‘barbarity’ in the Middle East that has   followed from Western political interventions, nor in citing Kosovo as a justification of supporting independence in South Ossetia or Abkhazia, nor in his suggestion that external forces also helped bring about the uprising/coup in Ukraine.   According to Lyne, such suggestions are further evidence of Putin’s ‘deep sense of insecurity’, in which even his language ‘at times verges on the paranoid’ and ‘reveals a defensive mentality.’

Please.     In 2003 the US and British governments invaded Iraq on the basis of weapons that it knew it didn’t have, because bug-eyed zealots like Dick Cheney and Tony Blair believed that the ‘calculus of risk’ had changed to the point when military intervention was justified even if there was a ‘one percent chance’ that certain regimes might have WMD.     And Putin is the one who’s paranoid?

Lyne says that Putin has ‘painted a picture of Russia as a victim and target of Western attack over the centuries’ in order ‘to justify his authoritarian control and aggressive tactics on Russia’s periphery’ as if this past was nothing but fantasy.   Well Russia has been an imperial power, both under the Tsars and the Soviets, but it has also repeatedly been attacked, and these episodes will always influence its approach to security, regardless of whether it’s Putin or someone else who is in power.

Again and again the West has failed to recognize this strategic vulnerability as a driving force in Russian foreign policy, and has preferred to depict Russia as the ancestral enemy, intrinsically aggressive and expansionist and intent onf world domination, and perhaps incapable of behaving ‘rationally’ through some innate ‘oriental’/authoritarian gene which connects the Tsars to Putin.

Thus the paper argues that ‘the prospect of a strategic partnership with Russia, yearned for by many in the West, has become remote in the face of incompatible interests and irreconcilable values’ that include ‘democracy, a law-based state, and personal and political freedom.’

No one would suggest that Putin’s Russia is the embodiment of any of these values,   but Europe and its allies have managed to forge strategic partnership with states that are even further from than Russia, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt – or the fascist-permeated government of Ukraine.     So Chatham House’s antipathy to Russia suggests a problem of geostrategy rather than ‘values’, and I can’t help feeling that what the West really yearns for is a subordinate vassal rather than a strategic partner.

As for the West’s bleating about its disappointment with Russian democracy, well it should have thought about that when it gleefully oversaw the collapse of the Soviet Union into wildcat mafia capitalism.   People don’t tend to like democracy when it’s associated bankruptcy and pauperisation and the Russians are no exception.   If Putin is popular, there might just be a reason – that he is associated, rightly or wrongly, with a small but nevertheless notable Russian national resurgence.

Yet all Chatham House can do is urge the European Union to turn Ukraine into a test case of its resolve, because failure to do so would   ‘deepen instability in Eastern Europe, increase the risk of further Kremlin adventures and diminish the prospects for beneficial change in Russia.’

Yes, ‘benefical change’ in Russia would be good, wouldn’t it?     After all we’ve seen so much of it these last fifteen years.     So maybe Putin knows that just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not trying to get you.   But regardless of whether he does or not, this depressing and one sided analysis is another example of the kind of blinkered, hysterical, looking-through-a-keyhole thinking that is paving the way for a century of permanent war.




Letter from Palmyra

Hey brother,

Greetings from Palmyra!   I’m telling you bro, this has been a good week for the Caliphate, because we are LIVING THE DREAM!       First we took Ramadi and you should have seen the Iraqi army run away from us!   Afterwards we killed the ones we caught and anyone else who was with the government – 500 in a few days!   Just lined ’em up next to a ditch and then bang, bang, bang, like those old pictures of the Nazis in the war books dude – check out the instagram I sent you!   That’s me third on the left with the Glock.

Then we drove Bashar’s troops out of Palmyra.     Now we’re livin’ it large bro, sittin’ on a lake of oil, enough American weapons to keep us going for years, Uncle Sam flying around up there trying to blow us up and they can’t even see us!     And next week we should be ready to clean out some heretics and smash to pieces a 2,000-year-old World Heritage Site!

Because let me  tell you something brother, those ruins are just stones and those stones are coming DOWN, because Daesh won’t stand for no IDOLS innit and no stoneworshipping Romans neither.

Anyway,   right now I’m just chillin’ with a latte, my AK and my Chinese motorbike beside me, and I’m thinking, the Caliphate is COOOL.   And I’m thanking Bashar, I’m thanking the House of Saud, I’m thanking Jordan, Turkey and America, for making this possible, for making this dream come true.

Because you know what?   I never knew how BORED I was till I came to the Caliphate.     I’ve been here eight months now and I have done so much killing and destroying I don’t even know myself.   Forget Call of Duty bro.   This is Playstation for real.   I mean if I’d stayed in Europe I could have killed a few cartoonists and had a bit of a laugh watching the kufar get their knickers in a twist about free speech and all before I got shot and went to paradise, but you know here bro, you can kill ANYBODY, and not just kill them, you get to MESS THEM UP!

I mean you can shoot ’em, cut their throats, push ’em off buildings, crucify them – even shoot ’em with a bazooka! And you know what it is really, really cool?   You can just keep on doing it and nobody tells ever tells you to stop.   Isn’t God just so great?

When this is over there won’t be any Shia or Yazidi or Christians or anyone, just PLUs bro,   all living under the Caliphate in one big happy family, just like in Islam for Dummies, because like my brother al-Britani says in his cool guidebook:

‘I cannot see a Baltimore riot springing up here anytime soon and that is a dead cert, not because those in charge will deal with matters with an iron first, but because there is no blur between right and wrong. What I mean by this is that citizens are not hypocritically led to believe that all cultures can coexist, and then have this belief torn apart by the bigoted reality on the ground. Everyone is judged with the right law (which is Islam), and told what is the truth (which is Islam), and the dangers and impracticalities of multiculturalism are well and truly nipped in the bud.’

Ain’t that the truth my brother?  Because who needs a ‘blur’ between right and wrong and all those ‘dangers and impracticalities’ when you got Islam?       So what are you waiting for bro?   Come on and do some jihad because jihad is not just a duty, it’s FUN.   Come and see the Caliphate for yourself.       You know you always wanted to see the world!

Where else can you get a perfect shish kibab served up by a slave girl whose family you wasted the week before?     And these aren’t women who tell you what to do brother.   Here they do what YOU say and you’ve always got Mr AK or Mr Glock to remind them what will happen if they don’t, right?

Like last August we buried some of those Yazidi heretics ALIVE along with their men, so their sisters  aint going to give you no backtalk, you know wot I’m sayin?  Anyway if you need a wife or two – maybe three! Then this is the place to come looking.   And if you got mates who are already married then tell them to come over with the wife and kids, because like brother al-Britani says, in the Caliphate

‘There are no classes promoting homosexuality, evolution, music, drama, interfaith and the rest of the rubbish taught in non-Muslim schools. Your child”s delicate mind is well and truly protected in the Caliphate.’

That’s right.   Nothing here to disturb a child’s delicate mind.     No smoking.   No alcohol.   No movies.   No music.     No homosexuals.   No drama. No trash.   No disorder.  Just a whole lot of killing! So bring your mates.     And bring your sister too.     Becaise you know a girl like that is too pretty to go around with her face uncovered.

And don’t worry about home comforts, dude.   Here in the Caliphate we got the the most succulent shawarmas, and fruity cocktails to die for.   Transport?     Within a few years we’ll have high speed trains from Damascus to Baghdad,   zeppelins, microlites, cable cars – whatever our ‘witty entrepeneurs’ can come up with!

So what are you waiting for brother?     Come over here and build the dream.

And remember: God is great, and he’s on our side.

Your brother S.

ps. how about that Messi goal?