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It is a dangerous moment for any government when the public suspects that it is incapable of preventing a great disaster like the Grenfell Tower fire. Angry people see the state as failing in its basic duty to keep them safe. Politicians in power, in such circumstances, are embarrassingly keen to show that there is a firm hand on the tiller, calmly coping with a crisis for which they are not to blame. Above all else, they need to dissuade people from imagining that a calamity is a symptom that something is rotten in the state of Britain.

Whatever the real culpability, it is vital to play for time in the expectation that the news agenda will ultimately move on. The old PR adage holds that the accused should first say “no story” or, in other words, deny all guilt until the media has lost interest and they can safely say “old story”.

This ploy is usually effective but is difficult in the present case. The mistakes that led to the inferno in Kensington are so blatant, undeniable and easy to establish that the Government looks evasive as it pretends that long enquiries are necessary to establish what went wrong.

It is already known that the cladding that encased the tower was inflammable and led to the building igniting like a torch within 15 minutes. It is likewise established that this material is banned in buildings of any height in the US because it poses a fire risk and that it was chosen in preference to fire-resistant cladding because it was cheaper. A sprinkler system, which would have suppressed the original blaze before it spread, was never installed because it would have cost a small amount of money. The Government is quoted, in words that it may come to regret, as saying that “it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire-sprinkling systems effectively”.

What I find so shocking and disgusting is the way in which the Government has deregulated the building industry with the excuse that it is “cutting red tape”, while at the same time it is strangling the weakest, poorest and most vulnerable people with “red tape” in order to deprive them of meagre benefits they receive from the state. Compare the enthusiasm of successive governments to increase regulations for claimants in the name of austerity with their laggard performance when it comes to protecting the public.

Just as ministers were trying to explain their snail-like progress in putting in place basic rules to stop tower blocks burning down, I spoke to a charity worker about the hideous maze of regulations facing those in most need. People with mental health problems must fill in labyrinthine forms, something which, by the nature of their disability, they cannot do. Once upon a time, an experienced social worker would have helped them, but their numbers have been slashed. The charity worker, who wanted to stay anonymous, said that often the red tape was so complicated that “mental patients give up in despair and do without the benefits which should be theirs by right”.

It is not only the mentally ill who fall victim to these regulatory booby traps. Another example is families who are about to be evicted and become homeless. The charity worker said: “I always tell them that they must stay in the house until the bailiffs begin to break the door down. This is because, if they leave even a few hours before the bailiffs arrive, the council may deem them to be ‘intentionally’ homeless and refuse to do anything for them.”

The Government is clearly frightened that the burned bodies in Grenfell Towers will be seen as martyrs who died because of austerity, deregulation and outsourcing. It is not as if Theresa May does not know about social wrongs and her speeches often contain eloquent descriptions of the miseries facing the mentally ill. But her proposals smell of political opportunism, primarily geared to attracting media attention and usually ending up as an expression of good intentions with nothing concrete happening.

Despite all May’s supposed concern for the mentally ill, something she presents as a sort of signature policy, her accomplishments are small. Criminalisation of mental illness has continued relentlessly and the number of beds available to mental patients is now 17,000. This is well below the number of mentally ill people who are in prison – 21,000, a quarter of the prison population.

Most of these miseries are suffered in silence by deprived people unable to defend themselves. Injustices may evoke concern, but there is little pressure for action because most people are not affected. This is very different from the Grenfell Tower disaster, visually overwhelming even as a burned-out hulk, as were the shattered towers of the World Trade Centre on 9/11. Everything about the disaster conveys a sense of total failure in which the whole political system is implicated.

Natural and man-made disasters have frequently been the last nail in the coffin of governments that were already tottering. There was the Tangshan earthquake in China in 1976, which helped determine who would rule the country after Mao Zedong. The Rex Cinema fire in Abadan in Iran in 1978 was blamed on the Shah and helped end his reign. The failure of President Bashar al-Assad to do anything for the two or three million Syrians who fled to the cities to escape the four-year-long drought in 2006-10 helped to cause the uprising the following year.

But commentators are probably right in seeing the closest parallel to the burning of the Grenfell Tower as being the devastating floods in New Orleans 12 years ago when Hurricane Katrina sent a 9m-high surge of water into the city on 29 August 2005 that led to the death of 1,464 people. The disaster had been repeatedly predicted by experts, but nothing effective was done so the levees and flood walls were too low or too weak or had been built out of clay that rapidly disintegrated under the impact of the rising water. The victims were mostly poor African Americans without the influence to get adequate flood defences.

As New Orleans was being engulfed, President George W Bush was on an extended holiday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he remained for several days. He finally flew back to Washington on 31 August, his plane making a detour over the stricken city. It was a picture of him looking distant and disengaged as he viewed the wreckage of New Orleans that destroyed his reputation forever.

It is curious that Theresa May should make much the same mistake as Bush by not meeting survivors in Kensington while appearing cold and uninterested. Even the photo editors have turned against her and mostly chose to contrast her chilly appearance with a cuddly looking Jeremy Corbyn comforting a victim. She appears to be somebody who cannot handle pressure, which makes it look particularly odd of her and her advisers to have sought to win re-election as the unshakeable national leader. Corbyn, on the contrary, seems to thrive on crisis and adversity.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, Theresa May 

The Conservative government largely avoided being blamed during the election campaign for its failure to stop the terrorist attacks. It appealed to British communal solidarity in defiance of those who carried out the atrocities, which was a perfectly reasonable stance, though one that conveniently enables the Conservatives to pillory any critics for dividing the nation at a time of crisis. When Jeremy Corbyn correctly pointed out that the UK policy of regime change in Iraq, Syria and Libya had destroyed state authority and provided sanctuaries for al-Qaeda and Isis, he was furiously accused of seeking to downplay the culpability of the terrorists. Nobody made the charge stick that it was mistaken British foreign policies that empowered the terrorists by giving them the space in which to operate.

A big mistake in British anti-terrorist strategy is to pretend that terrorism by extreme Salafi-jihadi movements can be detected and eliminated within the confines of the UK. The inspiration and organisation for terrorist attacks comes from the Middle East and particularly from Isis base areas in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Their terrorism will not end so long as these monstrous but effective movements continue to exist. That said, counter-terrorism within the UK is much weaker than it need be.

The attacks in London and Manchester come very much from the Isis playbook: minimum human resources deployed to maximum effect. Overall direction is distant and at a minimum, no professional military skills on the part of the killers are necessary, and the absence of guns makes them almost impossible to forestall. Tracing the movement of a small number of weapons is usually easier than following a large number of people.

There is a self-interested motive for British governments to portray terrorism as essentially home-grown cancers within the Muslim community. Western governments as a whole like to pretend that their policy blunders, notably those of military intervention in the Middle East since 2001, did not prepare the soil for al-Qaeda and Isis. This enables them to keep good relations with authoritarian Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan, which are notorious for aiding Salafi-jihadi movements. Placing the blame for terrorism on something vague and indefinable like “radicalisation” and “extremism” avoids embarrassing finger-pointing at Saudi-financed Wahhabism which has made 1.6 billion Sunni Muslims, a quarter of the world’s population, so much more receptive to al-Qaeda type movements today than it was 60 years ago.

Deliberate blindness to very specific places and people – Sunni states, Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia, Syrian and Libyan armed opposition – is a main reason why “the War on Terror” has failed since 9/11. Instead, much vaguer cultural processes within Muslim communities are targeted: President Bush invaded Iraq, which certainly had nothing to do with al-Qaeda, and today President Trump is denouncing Iran as the source of terrorism at the very moment that Isis gunmen are killing people in Tehran. In Britain the main monument to this politically convenient lack of realism is the ill-considered and counter-effective Prevent programme. This not only fails to find terrorists, but actively assists them, by pointing the security agencies and police in the wrong direction. It also poisons the waters for anybody trying to improve relations between the British state and 2.8 million Muslims in the UK by generating a mood of generalised suspicion and persecution.

Under the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, people who work in public bodies – teachers, doctors, social workers – have a legal duty to report signs of terrorist sympathy among those they encounter, even though nobody knows what these are. The disastrous consequences of this are explained, with a wealth of devastating supporting evidence, by Karma Nabulsi in a recent article on the Prevent programme in the London Review of Books entitled ‘Don’t Go to the Doctor.’ She tells the story of Syrian refugees, a man and his wife, who sent their small son, who spoke almost no English, to a nursery school. Because of his recent traumatic experiences in Syria he spent much of his time there drawing planes dropping bombs. The staff of the nursery might have been expected to comfort the young war victim, but instead they called the police. These went to see the parents and questioned them separately, shouting questions like: “How many times a day do you pray? Do you support President Assad? Who do you support? What side are you on?”

If Isis or al Qaeda were asked to devise a programme least likely to hamper their attacks and most liable to send the police off on wild goose hunts, they would find it difficult to devise anything more helpful to themselves than Prevent and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. The great majority British people have as much idea about how to identify a potential terrorist as their ancestors 400 years ago did about detecting witches. The psychology is much the same in both cases and 2015 Act is in effect a crackpots’ charter in which five per cent of the British population are vaguely regarded as suspicious. Nabulsi writes that a Freedom of Information request to the police “revealed that more than 80 per cent of the reports on individuals suspected of extremism were dismissed as unfounded”.

The Government may persuade the gullible that turning everybody working for the state into a potential informant produces lots of useful intelligence. In fact, it serves to clog up the system with useless and misleading information. On the rare occasion it produces a nugget, there is a good chance that it will be overlooked.

The oversupply of information explains why many who say they reported genuinely suspicious behaviour found that they were ignored. Often this action was very blatant and revealing such as the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi shouting down a preacher in a mosque who criticised Isis. He was also associated with the extreme jihadi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. One of three killers on London Bridge and in Borough Market, Khuram Butt, had even expressed his pro-Isis views on television and another of the three, the Italian-Moroccan Youssef Zaghba, was stopped by Italian police at Bologna Airport on suspicion of trying to go to fight for Isis or al-Qaeda in Syria. Yet none of these were picked up by the police.

In most cases, potential terrorists do not have to be sniffed out, but have made their Isis sympathies only too apparent. The government’s obsessive belief that terrorists are isolated individuals “radicalised” by the internet without being a member of any network is simply untrue. Dr Peter Neumann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College London is quoted as saying that “the number of cases where people have been entirely radicalised by the internet is tiny, tiny, tiny.”

Absurdities like the Prevent programme mask the fact that Isis and al-Qaeda type terrorists are closely interlinked, mostly by participation in or sympathy for the jihadi armed opposition in the Libyan and Syrian wars. “If you start connecting the dots,” says Professor Neumann, “a very large number of those in Britain who went to Syria were connected to each other, people who had already known each other.” Contrary to conventional and governmental wisdom, terrorist conspiracies have not changed much since Brutus, Cassius and their friends plotted to murder Julius Caesar.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, ISIS, Terrorism 

Anti-Isis forces are advancing into eastern Raqqa, the de facto Isis capital in Syria, and Iraqi troops have penned surviving Isis fighters into one part of the Old City in Mosul, once the heart of the self-declared Caliphate.

“They are down to their last neighbourhoods in Mosul and they already lost part of Raqqa, and the Raqqa campaign from here on can only accelerate,” said Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the international coalition fighting Isis. “These are critical elements in the ultimate defeat of Daesh [Isis], but this will be a long-term effort.”

Predictions of impending victory, mixed with doubts about just how long this will take, are echoed by fighters in the front line as they approach Raqqa. “We broke into Raqqa from the east in just two hours,” says a Syrian Kurdish fighter in the People’s Protection Units (YPG), who did not want to give his name, when contacted by The Independent. “We advanced for 1.5 km in a few hours and the centre of the city is about 2 km away from us.”

But the grim experience of the seven-month siege of Mosul is making everybody cautious about forecasting imminent victory. The YPG fighter says that Isis has withdrawn quickly and without putting up much resistance from the eastern entrance to Raqqa, but he warns that “the battle will not be as easy as many expect and maybe they [Isis] are hiding in tunnels”.

Isis has become skilled in waging urban guerrilla warfare using a limited number of fighters in the face of superior numbers backed by artillery and air strikes. Snipers, suicide bombers, mines and booby traps slow the advance of the anti-Isis forces. One well-informed estimate suggests that Isis had between 2,500 and 4,000 military in Mosul of whom only between 450 and 800 were in contact with the enemy.

The same thinning out of forces in Raqqa may already have been ordered by the fanatical but experienced Isis commanders. Another observer believes that Isis still has as many as 36,000 fighters available in Syria and Iraq who will revert to the sort of guerrilla warfare they waged before capturing Mosul in 2014 and made sweeping advances in Iraq and Syria.

Isis does not see the ultimate loss of Mosul and Raqqa as a final defeat, but rather as a new phase in a long war in which they will hold several valuable cards. Once Isis fighters no longer have to defend fixed positions in cities, they will be better able to avoid being overwhelmed by the firepower of the US-led air campaign. The Syrian and Iraqi armies and the Kurdish forces in both countries are short of combat troops and will have difficulty holding the territory they have taken. The pervasive brutality and corruption of the occupying armies will soon alienate the local Sunni population which may once again look towards Isis as its only defenders.

There are other signs Isis is not fought out or finished as a religious military movement. Its fighters launched an offensive at the weekend to over-run that part of Deir Ezzor, the biggest city in eastern Syria, that is not held by the Syrian army. Accounts of the fighting imply that Isis is close to winning, despite heavy bombing by the Russian air force.

Isis may calculate that the loose anti-Isis coalition is only held together by common fear of Isis and, once Mosul and Raqqa have fallen and the fear dissipates, its ill-assorted members will quarrel among themselves and create the sort of chaos that originally gave birth to Isis and enabled it to expand.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS 

“I do not think the siege of Raqqa will be as long as Mosul,” says Awad, an Arab fighter in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who belongs to a military unit attacking Raqqa, the de facto capital of Isis in Syria. In an exclusive interview with The Independent, he says that “we are advancing quickly and the geographical nature of Raqqa is different from Mosul”.

The SDF has launched the crucial battle for Raqqa, a city with a population of 300,000 on the north bank of the Euphrates, after a long delay imposed by threats of military intervention by Turkey, which denounces the 45,000-strong SDF as “terrorists” dominated by the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish priority is to prevent the consolidation of a quasi-independent Kurdish statelet in northern Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim today hinted strongly at Turkish military intervention, saying that “we will immediately give the necessary response if we come across a situation in Raqqa … that threatens our security”.

Awad, 32, comes from Raqqa but fled to Tabqa to the west of the city last year before it was captured by the SDF and four months ago joined the SDF, which the US says has 13,000 Arab fighters in its ranks. In a phone interview, he gives a vivid description of conditions on the front line, which the SDF Raqqa Operations Room says is 3km away from Raqqa to the west and north and 1km away to the east. The US estimates that there are between 3,000 and 4,000 Isis fighters in Raqqa, who are isolated there because US coalition air strikes on 3 February destroyed the last two bridges linking it to the south bank of the Euphrates. The fighters can only cross the river by boats, but they would then be vulnerable to air attack.

“They [Isis] are mostly withdrawing [into Raqqa], though some are fighting fiercely and do not leave their positions until they are killed,” says Awad. “We killed dozens when we liberated al-Mansoura [west of Raqqa] and Baath Dam [on the Euphrates, renamed Freedom Dam by the SDF]. In addition, we repelled many counter-attacks by Isis since the Tabqa battle until now.”

The SDF captured the Tabqa Dam, the largest in Syria at the southern end of Lake Assad, and the nearby town of Tabqa, 25 miles west of Raqqa, on 10 May, ending a stalemate that had lasted for several weeks. The US decided in May to give the SDF additional military assistance including armoured cars, anti-tanks weapons, mortars and heavy machine guns, despite strong opposition from Turkey. The Turkish government had claimed that its proxy forces inside Syria, backed by the Turkish army, could replace the SDF as the main US military ally in Syria against Isis, but the US did not consider this a realistic option.

Though Isis units have been retreating in the face of SDF advances and US-led air strikes, the jihadis are still resisting strongly. Awad says that “last week, Isis fighters attacked us from behind in a village called Abu Qebab, east of Raqqa. They were hiding in a tunnel that had not been checked yet by our comrades. In that attack, we surrounded them from two sides and killed about 10 of them.”

The state of play in late May, as the SDF closed in on Raqqa from the north, east and west. Baath Dam has since been captured and the SDF says it is within 1km of the city to the east (GraphicNews)
The state of play in late May, as the SDF closed in on Raqqa from the north, east and west. Baath Dam has since been captured and the SDF says it is within 1km of the city to the east (GraphicNews)

It should become clear in the next few days if Isis will try to defend Raqqa strongly and risk losing many of its experienced fighters. In Mosul, Isis has fought skillfully using an innovative mix of urban guerrilla tactics that has withstood Iraqi government forces for seven months. When Isis was previously fighting for two other big cities, Ramadi and Fallujah, in Anbar province west of Baghdad, it resisted most strongly in the villages and countryside around them, but not in the built-up areas in the city centres.

But in Mosul, where the siege began on 17 October last year, Isis fighters have reversed this approach, holding the periphery of the city lightly and concentrating its fighters in the centre. It tries to avoid its positions being identified from the air and destroyed, by using a mixture of mobile sniper teams, swiftly changing their positions by means of holes cut in the walls of houses, along with suicide bombers in vehicles, mines, booby traps and mortars. This has succeeded in slowing down and inflicting heavy casualties on the advancing Iraqi security forces.

Isis may use the same tactics in Raqqa and seek to draw out the siege, but the city is a geographically smaller and less populous than Mosul which had a population of 1.3 million before the siege. Awad does not believe that the siege of Raqqa will be as prolonged as in Mosul and suspects that the determination of the Isis defenders may not be as high as in Iraq. He says that “the SDF made two calls last month for Isis to surrender, but those that did so were locals. No foreigners have surrendered so far.”

Some of the Isis units are composed of foreigners who cannot blend into the local population, or expect much mercy, if they surrender. “I have been told by our officers that all the Isis snipers killed by our forces are foreigners,” says Awad. “We lost some of our commanders because of these snipers and a few days ago one of our snipers killed an Isis sniper when we fought in Mansoura, west of Raqqa.”

The firepower and military expertise of the SDF is much enhanced by US support: “The US-led coalition air strikes and forces are working efficiently with us, we have many American experts who train our commanders and officers and instruct them in using new technical devices. We also have heavy weapons and armoured vehicles. Every week we receive many weapons on the three fronts around Raqqa.” This supply of modern weapons, and expertise on how to use them, will determine not only the fate of Raqqa but the future ability of the Syrian Kurds to stand up to Turkish military intervention or action by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, which are advancing into Isis-held eastern Syria.

The offensive by the SDF, whose military punching power comes primarily from the combat experienced YPG Kurdish militia backed by US air strikes, will determine who in the long term holds northern Syria. If Turkish troops cross the border into Kurdish held territory in Syria, then the Kurds have made clear that the attack on Raqqa would cease. An alternative strategy for Turkey would be wait before intervening in the hope that the SDF will become entangled in a long struggle for Raqqa in which it suffers serious casualties. The Turks may also calculate that once the SDF and the Syrian Kurds have defeated Isis, the US will have no more use for them and will return to its traditional alliance with Turkey.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Syria 

Qatar is unexpectedly under siege from its neighbours. Led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, supported by Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen, the five Arab states have cut diplomatic relations with Qatar, severed land, air and sea travel and are expelling Qatari citizens who have 48 hours to depart.

The Saudis and their allies are demanding, in effect, that Qatar end its independent foreign policy and tame or close down its television station, Al Jazeera. They claim that Qatar is complicit with Iran in supporting terrorism, though Qatar is one of the loose coalition of Sunni states supporting forces hostile to Iran in Syria and Yemen.

One pro-Saudi lobbyist in the US even threatens regime change in Qatar, tweeting to its Emir: “I would like to remind you that [elected Egyptian President] Mohammed Morsi did exactly the same [as you] and was then toppled and imprisoned.”

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have long been rivals and, despite Qatar’s small size, its great wealth and vast gas reserves have given it great influence. It backed the Arab Spring with its wealth and media outlets, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza.

Three years ago in 2014 there was a similar but less serious confrontation between Qatar and its neighbours, who accused it of interference in their internal affairs. Since then Qatar has been much more compliant in not confronting or pursuing radically different policies from those of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

What has changed in the Gulf to precipitate a crisis now? The answer is that the Trump wrecking ball passed through the region last month and the US President’s unreserved backing for Saudi Arabia, and in particularly for deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has disturbed the regional balance of forces. It has already emboldened the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain to crush the last Shia resistance to its dominance, killing five protesters in one village and closing down the only remaining independent newspaper.

Much more seriously, Mr Trump’s unqualified support for the Sunni monarchies and autocrats during his two-day visit to Riyadh emboldened the kingdom to start a second and, it hopes, final round in its confrontation with Qatar. Mr Trump may not have intended to touch off this latest crisis when he aggressively and inaccurately demonised Iran and by implication the Shia as the source of all terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa. But his words were interpreted by the Saudis as enabling them to move against Qatar though it is home to a major US base.

It will be difficult for Qatar to withstand what amounts to a form of siege. Under Mr Trump, the degree of protection it can expect from the US is uncertain and Prince Mohammed bin Salman, eager to secure his own path to the Saudi throne, cannot afford a failure. He may even want to go the limit and eliminate Qatar as an independent state, the first time this has happened in the Gulf since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Qatar, Saudi Arabia 

The indiscriminate slaughter of ordinary members of the public on London Bridge and in Borough Market on Saturday night is fully in keeping with the operational methods of Isis. They have yet to claim responsibility, but it is extremely likely that they were ultimately behind an attack that bears so many Isis hallmarks.

The killings were probably triggered by a pre-arranged instruction to a cell or individual in Britain, the order coming from within the Isis apparatus, and not in response to a more generalised call to its sympathisers to make attacks in Europe and elsewhere. Isis is more professionally organised than is generally supposed, going by its track record over the last five years; its military and terrorist tactics traditionally involve those in charge deciding overall objectives and timings, but leaving local operatives to determine everything else.

Mass murder by Isis of defenceless civilians is frequently carried out in well-known or iconic places to ensure maximum publicity and to spread as much fear as possible. The perpetrators, for the most part, die along with their victims or soon afterwards, making a deliberate public demonstration of their religious commitment. The latest killings in London have all these characteristics, and are very similar in this respect to previous atrocities on Westminster Bridge carried out by Khalid Masood, and in the Manchester Arena by Salman Abedi.

The timing of these three acts of terrorism is most likely connected to Isis setbacks and retreats on the battlefield in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Its fighters have lost most of Mosul – the centre of the self-declared Caliphate since Isis captured the city in 2014 – which Iraqi security forces have been assaulting for seven months. The US-backed Syrian Kurds and their Arab allies have said in the last few days that they are about to storm Raqqa, the isolated Isis de facto Syrian capital on the Euphrates River.

Isis uses terrorism in a deliberately sadistic and attention-grabbing way to counter-balance any perception that it is weakening or is fought out. In return for minimum expenditure of men and resources on its part, it can demonstrate to the world that it is still in business despite its loss of territory. It welcomes denunciations because its savagery is geared to topping the news agenda. For this purpose, Isis films its own massacres, ritually decapitates journalists, burns captives alive or drowns them in cages. Last week, a bomb exploded outside an ice cream shop thronged with children in Baghdad killing at least 15, with some reports saying 30 people were killed and dozens more injured.

It has been suggested that the Western mass media plays into the hands of Isis or al-Qaeda by the wall-to-wall coverage of their crimes. But self-censorship is unrealistic since there is overwhelming and understandable public demand for information about terrorists and terrorism which needs to be satisfied. Where authoritarian governments censor or play down Isis and al-Qaeda acts and capabilities, as they do in much of the Middle East, the result is simply to create a vacuum of news and to discredit any media outlet that is silent.

The terrorist tactics used by the three men shot dead in Borough Market in the midst of their killing spree, have been developed by Salafi-jihadi movements over the last 20 years. The most notorious example of a suicidal terrorist attack of this nature was 9/11, when the World Trade Centre was destroyed, but they were used on a mass scale from beginning of the war in Iraq in 2003, though they were not pervasive in Afghanistan until later.

The effectiveness of this sort of terrorism is that the entire population is the target and cannot all be defended. Fanaticism but no great amount of military expertise is necessary, so Isis is not depleting its limited number of experienced fighters. Many of the untrained Isis supporters who arrived in Syria and Iraq in recent years, who did not speak Arabic and had no other useful skills, were deployed as suicide bombers, with more than 600 being dispatched, often in vehicles packed with explosives, in the first weeks of the Iraqi security forces’ advance into Mosul last year.

A further aim of the suicide bombings in Iraq and Syria is to spread out the security forces and to discredit the government in the eyes of its own people, on the grounds that it cannot defend them. In these countries, the ability of bombers to pass through numerous checkpoints without being stopped is often blamed on corruption, but, even when they are stopped, they can cause heavy casualties by blowing themselves up at a crowded security post.

The emphasis in Britain on seeking to stop Isis attacks by monitoring and neutralising some 23,000 Salafi-jihadi suspects can never be more than partially successful. Only five people are known to have been directly involved in the Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge killings, and these may have been selected, or self-selected, because they were not on a list of prime suspects. But the real key to preventing terrorist attacks lies not in Britain at all, but in eliminating Isis sanctuaries in Iraq and Syria which remain the inspiration and guiding hand for Isis worldwide.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, ISIS, Terrorism, TomDispatch Archives 

The general election is showing the extent to which Britain has diminished in power over the last year. “L’Angleterre, ce n’est plus grand chose – England is not much anymore,” said President de Gaulle in 1963 as he vetoed Britain’s bid to join the EEC.

He was premature because of Britain’s subsequent EU membership and its longstanding transatlantic alliance with the US. The first advantage was thrown away by the vote for Brexit last year and the election of President Trump means that the US is no longer a reliable ally for Britain or for anybody else. Any doubts about this latter development should have evaporated on Thursday when Trump pulled the US out of the Paris climate agreement.

Brexit is the most important single development in British foreign policy since declaring war on Germany in 1939. It is also arguably the worst unforced error ever in British history, so debate on its precise nature should naturally be the main topic of the election. Every aspect of life in the country – trade, industry, finance, welfare, health, education, defence, immigration – will be affected or transformed by it. But Theresa May’s claim to be prime minister for the next five years is based on the childish schoolyard virtues of being tough and combative, though this is contradicted by her swift retreats in the face of opposition on issues like national insurance and care for the elderly.

The attractiveness of May to the electorate is in keeping with a traditional English liking for authoritarian female rulers as exemplified by Queen Elizabeth I, Margaret Thatcher and Judy Dench as ‘M’ in the James Bond movies. In keeping with this archetype, she was reassuring voters this week that “the promise of Brexit is great … It is not a process, but an opportunity, alive with possibilities [to] build a greater Britain.”

No, it isn’t. Quite the opposite. The reason the Government is keeping its cards in the Brexit negotiations so close to its chest is that it knows that it holds no aces, few court cards and plenty of low scoring clubs and diamonds. It is a dud losing hand that is not going “to make sense of Brexit”, whoever is playing it. Britain is voluntarily leaving the EU club on the absurd assumption that the remaining 27 members will give it sweetheart terms under which ex-members suffer no penalties and are just as well off as those who stayed put. This won’t happen.

Conservative election strategy is to hold a presidential-type campaign in which the electorate is offered a choice between May and Jeremy Corbyn and inevitably chose the former. This approach is summed up in Hilaire Belloc’s advice to children on how to stay safe, citing the example of Jim who got eaten by a lion at the zoo: “Always keep a-hold of Nurse for fear of finding something worse.”

This strategy has been coming unstuck in recent days as Nurse May wobbles and weaves. Indeed, when it comes to playing a weak political hand without buckling, as will be necessary during the Brexit negotiations, all the evidence is that Corbyn is much tougher and more resilient under pressure than the Prime Minister. Going by his performance over the last two years, this mild-looking man should be able to deal with anything the EU leaders could throw at him since he has stood up without turning a hair to attacks of unrelenting venom from the British media as well as many of his own MPs. May revels in an embarrassing way in once having been called “a bloody difficult woman”, but nobody ever called Corbyn “a bloody difficult man” because it would be too obvious to be worth saying.

Sadly, toughness and resilience will not be enough because Brexit is only one reason why Britain is weaker than a year ago. Since 1940 the country has been sustained by its position as the closest ally of the US. For decades, it was able to piggy-back on American power, exerting influence beyond its own political and economic strength. But this advantage is disappearing because Trump is all about American nationalism, as he made clear in his speech withdrawing from the Paris accord.

The political consequences of this are more important than the climatic. Britain is an important building-block in the architecture of US global authority, but the Trump administration sees this role as a burden and a drain on Americans, so its need for close relations with the UK is reduced. Even if Hillary Clinton had won the election, Britain would have had less cards to play in Washington than when it was a leading member of the EU. A prominent feature of Trump’s politics is overwhelming respect for power – witness his happy relations with kings and dictators – and power is what Britain no longer has.

Brexit and the election of a more isolationist US president are not the only signs of Britain’s receding ability to debate and grapple successfully with its problems. The election is meant to be about Brexit, but the options here can only be discussed in the most infantile and jingoistic terms. Much of the same is true of the Manchester bombing on 22 May, with the Government pretending to be shocked and horrified when anybody suggests that the ability of British-Libyan Salman Abedi to carry out this atrocity might be connected to the British foreign policy of regime change in Libya in 2011, though it was this that reduced the country to chaos and allowed Isis to take root.

The Government’s shabby little cover story is that anybody who criticises its well-established willingness to allow Salafi-jihadi Libyans living in Britain to go to Libya to fight against Muammar Gaddafi is somehow providing a moral alibi for the bomber. May, Boris Johnson and the others pretend that the case against them is that British military intervention in Iraq, Syria and Libya motivated Isis killers like Abedi, but the real accusation is that they empowered people like him by giving Isis and al-Qaeda territory from which to operate. It would be particularly interesting to find out what role May played as Home Secretary in lifting control orders and returning passports to Libyan jihadis six years ago. Has she spoken about this?

By helping overthrow Gaddafi, and aiding the Salafi-jihadis who were the cutting edge of the Nato-backed armed opposition to him, Britain allowed the creation of sanctuaries where Abedi and his like can learn their bomb making skills. Focus on how Libyan and other jihadis were radicalised in the UK is a convenient diversion for the Government that enables it to evade responsibility for its actions in opening up Iraq, Libya, and Syria to them.

Government rhetoric about stopping radicalisation of Muslims is fundamentally dishonest and ineffective because it shies away from pointing the finger at the intolerant fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam which has become so influential in Sunni states and communities thanks to funding from Saudi Arabia. Short of allies in Europe and the US, May has been reduced to cultivating the very states most implicated in fostering Salafi-jihadis.

A stronger government was meant to be the outcome of this election, but Nurse May is selling rose-tinted fantasies about an isolated post-Brexit Britain in the age of Trumpism. A realistic discussion of these grim prospects would have been useful.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, Terrorism 

The explosion of a giant bomb in a sewage tanker close to the diplomatic quarter in Kabul is receiving much publicity because of the heavy loss of life and because so many foreign embassies were damaged. A BBC driver was killed and four BBC journalists were wounded by the blast.

But, aside from spectacular incidents where foreigners are involved, the Afghan war has largely dropped off media and diplomatic agendas since direct foreign combat involvement ended. This has happened even though, over the past two years, the conflict has been escalating with the Taliban gradually gaining ground and the Afghan affiliate of Isis, also known as Khorasan Province and which holds far less territory, losing several of its strongholds in recent months. The number of civilian casualties last year was 11,000 of whom 3,500 were killed according to the UN, the highest number since 2009. The severity of the fighting also forced half a million Afghans to flee their homes.

The Taliban denies that it is responsible for the latest bomb blast and it has not yet been claimed by Isis, though it appears likely that it was behind the attack. Isis’s Khorasan Province has been under severe pressure this year from Afghan and US special forces in its strongholds in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. It was here that the US dropped what it claimed was the largest conventional bomb ever on an Isis tunnel complex on 13 April, though this was reportedly not as effective as first claimed. The Isis leader in Afghanistan, Sheikh Abdul Hasib, was killed in the fighting.

It is a traditional tactic for Isis to respond to setbacks on the battlefield by suicide bombings targeting civilians in order to show that it is still a force to be feared. Isis has made devastating attacks in Ramadan in many countries as it did earlier this week in Baghdad. Isis specialises in urban terrorism directed at civilians to a unique degree. In March this year its gunman entered a military hospital in Kabul and killed more than 50 people.

The war in general in Afghanistan is close to a stalemate, though the Taliban has been making ground since international forces withdrew at the end of 2014. They control or contest areas inhabited by more than 40 per cent of the Afghan population, though the government of President Ashraf Ghani holds all the provincial capitals. US air strikes limit the ability of the Taliban to win strategic victories or capture and hold urban centres.

President Trump is considering sending a further 3,000 to 5,000 troops to bolster the 10,000 who are already there as a “counter-terrorism mission”. It became clear during the past two years that the Afghan government could not survive without foreign assistance, much of it from the US. While President Obama tended to play down its growing military engagement in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, Mr Trump plays up more air strikes or troop reinforcements as a sign of stronger US resolution under his leadership.

In practice, it has been unlikely over the past decade that the Taliban would lose so long as it had a strong core of indigenous support and the covert backing of Pakistan, where its forces could always seek sanctuary. Though aware of this, the US has always balked at a confrontation with Pakistan as a leading US ally in South Asia and a nuclear armed military power. It has likewise been unlikely that the Taliban would win because of sectarian and ethnic limitations to their support in Afghanistan and the financial and military backing of the US for the government in Kabul.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Afghanistan, Terrorism 

Ice cream and blood mingle on the floor after a bomb exploded outside an ice cream shop in the Karada district of Baghdad as people broke their fast during the first day of Ramadan.

A bewildered young girl wanders through the wreckage, past the smashed yellow tables and benches where at least 26 people have just been been killed and dozens injured by an Isis bomber.

Bombings are usually worse in Baghdad in Ramadan, but they never stop during the rest of the year. Last year in Ramadan some 340 civilians were killed in the explosion of a single car in Baghdad.

Loss of life is all the greater because crowds of people are walking the streets after eating in the comparative cool of the evening.

This year the slaughter of civilians may be even worse than in the past in Iraq and Syria because Isis is losing the two largest urban centres still partly held by its fighters.

After six months of savage street fighting, Isis are penned back into part of the Old City in Mosul where the close-packed buildings and alleys, so narrow that two people cannot walk abreast, are ideal for Isis guerrilla fighters.

The largest Isis stronghold in Syria, Raqqa on the Euphrates, is isolated by Kurdish-led forces backed by US airpower.

Isis is on the retreat as is al-Qaeda in its different guises, but neither group is going out of business and they still have several tens of thousands of fanatical and experienced fighters.

Keep in mind that the Iraqi and Syrian armies, the main military forces fighting Isis, along with the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, are all short of combat troops so it is difficult for them to consolidate their victories on the ground. Isis has suffered heavy losses in fighters and territory, but it can return to guerrilla warfare combined with systematic terrorism at home and abroad.

From the Isis point of view the future is not entirely bleak. They are still able to sow fear by murdering civilians, mostly Shia and Christians, from Manchester to Baghdad and beyond.

Their name is on every lip, even if it is being execrated. Moreover, Isis and al-Qaeda have always relied on the internecine hatreds of their enemies to help them survive as much as their own strength.

Donald Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel has aided them by exacerbating the struggle between Sunni and Shia and Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Paradoxically, Isis at the height of its strength in 2014/15, after it had captured Mosul, so frightened all whom it targeted that it imposed a degree of unity or at least non-belligerence on its diverse enemies.

As Isis is perceived to weaken, its opponents become less terrified and recall other grievances against other rivals.

The Iraqi government and the non-Kurds of Iraq recall that the Kurds took advantage of the initial Isis victories in 2014 to grab territories long disputed between Kurds and Arabs.

In Syria, there is likewise a race by all parties and their foreign sponsors to over-run territory in eastern Syria previously held by Isis.

As Ramadan begins there is little expectation of violence receding in much of the Muslim world.

Nation states remain weak and there is an escalation of sectarian differences in places where warfare has faded from the new agenda such as in the southern Philippines.

Some episodes, like the Saudi security forces siege the Shia town of Awamiya in eastern Saudi Arabia and escalating clashes in Bahrain are little reported. In Yemen lack of clean water has led to 52,000 cases of cholera and 471 dead from the disease.

These wars may ebb and flow, but there is little sign of peace returning.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS 

The massacre in Manchester is a horrific event born out of the violence raging in a vast area stretching from Pakistan to Nigeria and Syria to South Sudan. Britain is on the outer periphery of this cauldron of war, but it would be surprising if we were not hit by sparks thrown up by these savage conflicts. They have been going on so long that they are scarcely reported, and the rest of the world behaves as if perpetual warfare was the natural state of Libya, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan, North-east Nigeria and Afghanistan.

It is inevitable that, in the wake of the slaughter in Manchester, popular attention in Britain should be focussed on the circumstances of the mass killing and on what can be done to stop it happening again. But explanations for what happened and plans to detect and neutralise a very small number of Salafi-jihadi fanatics in UK, will always lack realism unless they are devised and implemented with a broad understanding of the context in which they occur.

It is necessary at this point to emphasise once again that explanation is not justification. It is, on the contrary, an acknowledgement that no battle – certainly not a battle to defeat al-Qaeda and Isis – can be fought and won without knowing the political, religious and military ingredients that come together to produce Salman Abedi and the shadowy Salafi-jihadi network around him.

The anarchic violence in the Middle East and North Africa is underreported and often never mentioned at all in the Western media. Butchery of civilians in Baghdad and Mogadishu has come to seem as normal and inevitable as hurricanes in the Caribbean or avalanches in the Himalayas. Over the last week, for instance, an attack by one of the militias in the Libyan capital Tripoli killed at least 28 people and wounded 130. The number is more than died in Manchester, but there were very few accounts of it. The Libyan warlords, who pay their fighters from the country’s diminished oil revenues, are thoroughly criminalised and heavily engaged in racket from kidnapping to sending sub-Saharan migrants to sea in sinking boats. But their activities are commonly ignored, as if they were operating on a separate planet.

Britain played a central role in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 without considering that there was nothing but such warlords remaining to replace his regime. I was in Benghazi and Tripoli at that time and could see that the rebel bands, financed by Gulf oil states and victorious only because of Nato airstrikes, would be incapable of filling the vacuum. It was also clear from an early stage that among those taking advantage of this void would be al-Qaeda and its clones.

But it is only since last Monday that people in Britain have come to realise that what happened in Libya in 2011 dramatically affects life in Britain today.

British Libyans and Libyan exiles in Britain, who saw their “control orders” lifted and their passports returned by MI5 six years ago so they could go and fight Gaddafi were never going to turn into sober citizens the day after his fall. Just as the link is undeniable between the perpetrators of 9/11 and the US and Saudi backing for Jihadis fighting the Communists in Afghanistan in the 1980s, so too is the connection between the Manchester bombing and the British Government using Salafi-jihadis from the UK to get rid of Gaddafi.

The British Government pretends that anybody making this obvious point is seeking to limit the responsibility of the killers of 9/11 and the Manchester attack. The Conservative response to Jeremy Corbyn’s common sense statement that there is an obvious link between a British foreign policy that has sought regime change in Iraq, Syria and Libya and the empowerment of al-Qaeda and Isis in these places has been dismissive and demagogic. The venom and hysteria with which Mr Corbyn is accused of letting the bombers morally off the hook has much to do with the General Election, but may also suggest a well-concealed suspicion that what he says is true.

The Manchester bombing is part of the legacy of failed British military interventions abroad, but is this history useful in preventing such calamities as Manchester happening again? Analysis of these past mistakes is important to explain that terrorists cannot be fought and defeated while they have safe havens in countries that have no governments or central authority. Everything should be done to fill these vacuums, which means that effective counter-terrorism requires a sane foreign policy devoted to that end.

There should be nothing mysterious about the cause and effect which led to the Manchester bombing. Yet the same mistakes have been made by Britain in Iraq in 2003, Afghanistan in 2006, Libya in 2011 and in Syria over the same period.

It is no advertisement for President Bashar al-Assad to say that any well-informed assessment of the balance of forces in Syria from 2012 onwards – and the powerful foreign allies supporting each side – showed that Assad was likely to stay in power. Fuelling the war with the expectation that he would go was unrealistic and much to the advantage of al-Qaeda, Isis and those who might target Britain.

Eliminating the bombers’ safe havens is a necessity if the threat of further attacks is to be lifted. Security measures within Britain are never going to be enough because the al-Qaeda or Isis targets are the entire British population. They cannot all be protected, particularly as the means of murdering them may be car or a kitchen knife. In this sense, the bomber will always get through, though it can be made more difficult for him or her to do so.

Better news is that the number of Salafi-jihadi networks is probably pretty small, though Isis and al-Qaeda will want to give the impression that their tentacles are everywhere. The purpose of terrorism is, after all, to create pervasive fear. Experience in Europe over the last three years suggests that the number of cells are limited but that committed Jihadis can be sent from Libya, Iraq or Syria to energise and organise local sympathisers to commit outrages.

Another purpose of terrorism is to provoke an overreaction, in this case the communal persecution or punishment of all Muslims in Britain. The trap here is that the state becomes the recruiting sergeant for the very organisations it is trying to suppress, The ‘Prevent’ programme may be doing just this. Such an approach is also counter-effective because so many people are regarded as suspicious that there are too little resources to focus on the far smaller number who are really dangerous.

Atrocities such as Manchester will inevitably lead to friction between Muslims and non-Muslims and, if there are more attacks, sectarian and ethnic antipathies will increase. Downplaying the religious motivation and saying the killers “have nothing to do with real Islam” may have benign intentions, but has the disadvantage of being glaringly untrue. All the killers have been Muslim religious fanatics.

It might be more useful to say that their vicious beliefs have their roots in Wahhabism, a very small portion of the Muslim world population living in Saudi Arabia. Of course, this would have the disadvantage of annoying Saudi Arabia, whose rulers Britain and much of the rest of the world are so keen to cultivate.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Libya, Middle East, Terrorism 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.


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