Monday, November 23, 2015 

How to get your war on.

If, like me, you find it fitfully amusing that every new threat regardless of its potency must always be described as the most deadly and worst since the year dot, you'll find a lot to delight you in UNSC Resolution 2249.  Passed unanimously last weekend and drafted principally by the French in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, it's an absolute classic of the genre.  It is after all one thing for a idiot politician playing to the gallery to declare Islamic State to be a bigger threat to international peace and security than Hitler/Napoleon/Genghis Khan/Black Death/the discovery of fire, and quite another for the UN Security Council to agree and declare that anyone and everyone if they feel like it can join in the fun of chucking high explosives at "an evil death cult".

As that's what 2249 does.  It really does say that Islamic State "constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security".  Global?  Unprecedented?  Islamic State and its fighters might slaughter anyone they feel like and draw recruits from a wide variety of nations, but are they really a major threat to Japan, say, or your pick of any one of the South American nations?  Yes, they've executed hostages from China and Japan, but a threat?  

When it comes to unprecedented, on what reading of history exactly?  Are we talking since the creation of the UN or going further back?  Islamic State is a threat, certainly, but far more of one to the Middle East than anywhere else.  It was only able to expand as it has thanks to the failures of governance in Iraq and Syria; it calls itself a state and tries to operate as one but no state can last long when it has little real popular support and projects its power through violence.  It can send cells of supporters into democracies to launch attacks, and yet such tactics will bring its demise closer.  The threat might paradoxically in its death throes increase, as it loses ground and its safe havens, and the threat will likely not be extinguished entirely as another group drawing on the same ideology will rise, but Islamic State itself can be defeated.  The threat is only unprecedented if you have no knowledge whatsoever of the past, and crucially, if you want it to be such.

And politicians do want it to be so.  It's why the resolution also calls on "Member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures", the UN's traditional euphemism for military action.  Whether that precisely makes our proposed joining in with the bombing legal or not is up for debate, although for most politicians that would be more than enough.  Indeed, Cameron and friends have been declaring that action without a UN resolution would be legal as it would be in self-defence.  That's based on an extremely broad reading of what constitutes self-defence, but then state sovereignty has been in retreat for some time, or at least has for states that aren't in the free world.  If anyone is worried about the plethora of countries that are involved or have been in bombing Islamic State, which is currently in double figures and might well at some point go beyond the 20 mark, then they aren't yet.  Come on down everyone, eastern Syria is so bracing!

Syria is the ultimate conclusion of the insanity of Western foreign policy post 9/11.  Taking the worst aspects of 80s foreign policy, which was to pick on a shithole nation and either supply and arm murdering bandits, for which see Nicaragua, or bomb it/invade it, for which see Tripoli/Grenada and combining it with the liberal interventionism of the 90s, not a single country the US/UK has bombed is a better place for it.  If you want an example of when intervention does work, you could look at Mali, but as last weekend demonstrated problems remain even there.  Syria is the culmination of the initial mistake of invading Iraq, the mistakes made post-invasion, and mistakes made since the uprising against Bashar Assad.  This is not to say we are overwhelmingly responsible, as we are not.  We might have created the conditions in which a group like Islamic State could flourish, but we didn't force the Iraqi Shia to persecute the Sunnis to the point where a substantial minority if not majority would ally with IS.  We did not invent the jihadist way of thinking, even if at times we sponsored groups that subscribed to it and have had a major role in the spreading of the ideology.

Without wanting to speak for those with similar views to mine, what I suspect most of us want is recognition, however slight, that we are here in part because of those mistakes.  I don't want an apology, although others might; I want our policy going forward to be informed by those mistakes.  To an extent, some lessons have been learned, as was proved in Libya.  Rather than try and rebuild a state we smashed, we left as soon as Gaddafi was dead.  Enjoy your liberation, we're off now.  We went from one extreme to another, with predictable results when Gaddafi was the state, as the Ba'ath in Iraq was the state and Assad in Syria is also the state.

It's also true that Iraq/Afghanistan have rightly made us wary of "putting boots on the ground".  That is an undoubted positive, as it's what groups like IS want more than anything else.  What we have not learned is that a secular dictator is in some cases preferable to the chaos of what comes after.  This doesn't mean we should have supported Mubarak in Egypt for instance, or have acquiesced to the military coup which overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood, but that a feeble and contained Gaddafi is preferable to the civil war that has followed there.  In the face of IS and al-Nusra as well as all the other jihadist and Islamist groupings in Syria, demanding Assad leave immediately as we have been for years now has been a madness.  Yes, to an extent Assad has enabled those groups through his butchery, and there is an extremely arguable case that if we had intervened early in the uprising much of the carnage could have been avoided.  This overlooks however that it was not long before the Islamist rebels dominated the opposition, and that the cash from the Sunni Gulf states which subsequently went to those rebels would have without doubt gone to political parties instead with much the same views.  Seeing Syria as purely a civil conflict is too simplistic - it is a regional, proxy conflict.

At the same time we should take a step back and consider what would have happened had we intervened against Assad in 2013As Flying Rodent tweeted, no one seems to think it odd that a mere two years later we must now urgently target the very force that would have benefited most had we intervened.  Discount the idea we were merely going to chuck bombs at a range of targets in retaliation for the Ghouta attacks, as that made no sense then and even less now.  It would have been Libya a second time, with likely co-ordination with rebels on the ground.  Whether or not IS would have taken complete control is arguable, but a scenario where the jihadists even if fighting each other are in majority control would be the all but certain outcome.  Difficult as it is to imagine, the potential for further ethnic cleansing, even genocide and for more refugees fleeing than have already would have been massive.

Are our politicians grateful they were prevented from making that horrific mistake?  No, because they care far more about their own prestige and "our standing" in the world than such things.  Matthew d'Ancona informed us a few weeks ago of how Cameron and friends would never forgive Miliband for inadvertently stopping their march to war.  George Osborne yesterday told Andrew Marr that bombing IS is less about destroying the group and more about ourselves: "whether we want to shape the world or be shaped by the world", the chancellor claiming we had "retreated into ourselves a bit" after Iraq and the economic crash.  Buying the most useless and most expensive military aircraft ever created is about "projecting power abroad in order to defend ourselves at home".  It's no use whatsoever against non-state actors, the biggest threat we face and will continue to face according to the strategic defence review, but we must project our power in order to defend ourselves.

What the proposed war against IS comes down to in the end is our perceived standing in the world, our relationships with our allies, the vanity of politicians, and the one remaining way in which they can sell themselves to the voters.  Not bombing IS when every other major nation is just can't be allowed.  We must do something, even if it's completely negligible militarily.  We must be seen to be reliable, to not shrink into ourselves, to not be feeble, like the spineless Corbyn.  A P5 nation not involved in the struggle against "a global and unprecedented threat", one that has killed British citizens, even if not yet in Britain itself?  It's just unthinkable.  At the same time, Cameron could not possibly endure the humiliation of being defeated by the Commons for a second time on such a vote, and so it will only go ahead when the government is certain it can win, and by a sizeable majority.  It doesn't matter how bogus the arguments and justifications are for our involvement, especially the idea that by bombing IS in Syria we will reduce the threat to the UK when the opposite is more realistic, so long as they are made repeatedly and with force.

Lastly, there's the old Adam Curtis Power of Nightmares thesis.  Politicians have abandoned so much else which they used to control to either the markets or regulators.  They claim not to be able to buck the market in order to save jobs.  They can claim to have restored economic security and credibility until the next crash arrives.  What they can still do is pledge to protect us.  It doesn't matter if the wars they've fought in order to protect us have demonstrably, objectively made us less safe, as there is always a new threat more serious than the last about to come along.  It doesn't matter if they restrict civil liberties or want the ability to see our every interaction online as long as they say it's to stop terrorists in their tracks.  So long as we are acting elsewhere in order to stop the war from coming home, it doesn't matter.  It worked for over 10 years in Afghanistan.  It will undoubtedly work with Syria too.

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Friday, November 20, 2015 


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Thursday, November 19, 2015 

That police advice on what to do if caught up in a terrorist gun attack in full.

Developing dynamic lockdown procedures

What is dynamic lockdown?

Dynamic lockdown is the ability to quickly restrict access and egress to a site or building in response to a threat, either external or internal.  Of course, if the terrorist has got inside, then locking it down so either they can't get out or the police can't get in might not be the best idea.  Some sites due to their nature may also not be able to achieve lockdown.  In which cause you're pretty much screwed and you can probably disregard most of the rest of this note.

Why develop dynamic lockdown?

You've heard of the illusion of safety, right?

How to achieve dynamic lockdown
  • Identify all access and egress points
  • Identify how to quickly and physically secure these points.  Because your staff obviously won't be panicking and running for cover when dozens of AK-47 bullets are whizzing at them
  • Staff must be trained to act effectively and made aware of their responsibilities.  Anyone who does something stupid like play dead in the event of an attack should be fired immediately, even if they died as a result
 How to let people know what's happening
  • Public address system.  The operator should try to remain calm and not alert staff to the fact they may all be about to die
  • Dedicated "Lockdown" alarm tone.  Preferably similar to the "all clear" and "fallout" tones that would have sounded after a nuclear attack, and were practically identical.  
Training your staff
  • Train all staff using principles of "Stay Safe" (see below)
  • Resist the temptation to test staff by asking Muslim employees to grow their beards and raid the premises using toy rifles one wet day in January
How to Stay Safe

  • Seriously, fucking run.  Use some common sense though; don't run towards the men with guns
  • Insist others leave with you.  If they're gibbering at the prospect of potentially dying, try and slap them out of it.  Drag them if you have to.  You can always use them as a shield if you get spotted
  • Leave belongings behind.  That means your iPhone, your man bag and your skinny latte.  Smashing the phone of any halfwit attempting to film the proceedings is not only highly advised, it should be considered mandatory
  • If you can't RUN, as you're morbidly obese or pissing yourself at what's happening, then HIDE
  • Outside of the line of sight of the gunmen, obviously.  If you can see them, they can probably see your worthless hide
  • Be aware of your exits.  As if you and everyone around you wasn't already
  • Try not to get trapped
  • Lock / barricade yourself in.  Yes, this contradicts the above if the gunmen shoot out the lock or break down the barricade, but at least you tried, eh?
  • Everyone on social media what's happening.  Then the BBC, ITV, the press, etc
  • Phone 999.  Just to be on the safe side
Armed Police Response
  • Remain calm.  Don't worry that all your friends and colleagues may be bleeding to death, you're safe now
  • Avoid sudden movements.  The police will be just as jittery as you, only they'll be as heavily armed as the actual attackers
Officers May
  • Point guns at you
  • Grab hold of you
  • Shoot you multiple times in the head without warning.  If you're wearing a light denim jacket or are a wookie
  • Then ask you questions
You must STAY SAFE
  • What are your plans if there were an incident?  Don't think you're safe just because you live somewhere like Cockermouth, either.  Forewarned is forearmed
  • What are the local plans in the event of a tactical nuclear weapon strike?  Are you aware of the location of the local mass grave?
  • Finally, if all else fails
  • DUCK and COVER

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015 

Idiot(s) with a cause.

Ken Livingstone is a prat.

He is also, sadly, about the only person who can be relied upon to defend Jeremy Corbyn in the media.  That he invariably in doing so says something daft that further riles the Anyone But Corbyn ranks makes the venture pointless, but so it goes.  If he genuinely didn't know that Kevan Jones had gone public with his battles with depression, then it's odd his remarks were so pointed and specific.  He didn't merely say Jones should consider psychiatric treatment, or that he was mad, rather that he should seek help from his GP for depression.

After a couple of hours of equivocation and no doubt after being told to make a proper apology by Corbyn's office, sorry did stop being the hardest word.  Ken's remarks were unquestionably offensive, prejudiced and stupid, but the idea he owes everyone else offended an apology is a nonsense politics needs less of.

Appointing Ken to the party's review of defence as co-chair with Maria Eagle was itself a provocation, albeit one with a point.  If any further evidence was needed that a sizeable number in the party are prepared to do everything other than declare open mutiny with the leadership, then yesterday's performance in the Commons was the final confirmation.  It wasn't just Ian Austin, Emma Reynolds, Chris Leslie and Ann Coffey who all expressed sentiments clearly directed at Corbyn, there was also Pat McFadden, shadow minister for Europe.  He asked the prime minister to "reject the view that sees terrorist acts as always being a response or a reaction to what we in the west do".  Cameron duly obliged, praising McFadden's "moral and intellectual clarity".  As opposed to Corbyn, who wasn't even sure if the police should be shooting dead "genocidal fascists", to quote another Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw.

There isn't much Corbyn can realistically do in response to such challenges to his authority, other than put the few supporters and sympathisers he does have into positions where they can temper the policies of his opponents or if nothing else stare them down.  Parachuting in Ken, as dumb and self-defeating as such a move is, still makes a kind of sense.  After Maria Eagle all but agreed with General Sir Nicholas Houghton on Andrew Marr, Corbyn read the riot act to the shadow cabinet, as he had every right to.  It's one thing to brief journalists or have disagreements in public, both of which are on-going; it's quite another to have your defence secretary all but accept her leader is a threat to national security as he won't incinerate everyone should the balloon go up.  As is obvious, Corbyn's attempt to restore something approaching order has been ignored, as his opponents seem to have decided that if their leader won't sign up for mutually assured destruction, they'll take the party down with them anyway.

This clearly cannot go on.  If anything, David Cameron today went easy on Corbyn at PMQs for the reason that the opposition leader's real enemies are all seated behind him, a situation he can no doubt empathise with.  He didn't as much as mention the Ken farrago because he didn't need to, leaving a final comment on "shoot to kill" for the last answer instead.

If the point has already been reached where any slim confidence some Labour MPs had in Corbyn has gone, then they should make that clear.  They're fully entitled to take the view that as Corbyn was a serial rebel they can do and say whatever they like, but they ought to reflect on the damage it is doing and will do to Labour as a whole.  Atul Hatwal, despite advocating the exact same steps as his paranoid colleagues accuse Momentum of planning, is right there is no unifying alternative to Corbyn and not the slightest appetite for any move as yet.

Should a majority in the PLP really want to get rid of Corbyn, then they have to box a lot cleverer than they have so far.  Criticising their leader in parliament, to their journalist pals and over such idiotic things is not going to win them any new friends, and only encourage the keyboard jockeys like me to call them out.  Instead, let Corbyn do their work for them: many more interviews as catastrophic as the ones on Monday, if not necessarily for the reasons they believe, and it will become ever more apparent that he isn't improving as he should be.  Rather than plotting in public and complaining about Corbyn supporters daring to criticise them, they need to get organised, coalesce around an alternative who can appeal to both left and right and start the process of preparing the ground.  At the moment all they're doing is putting the equivalent of two fingers up to the 60% who voted for Corbyn, and no amount of sneering at the "selectorate" is going to make their actions more palatable.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015 

14 years of war, and it's whose fault again?

It's a tale in essence of two deleted tweets.  On Friday night at 10, while the siege at the Bataclan was still on-going, John Rentoul of the Independent, noted Blair fan and supporter of assorted interventions sent out a message asking "Will Corbyn say France made itself a target?"  He fairly swiftly erased it, and the next morning made a fulsome apology.  Stop the War Coalition meanwhile tweeted out a link to an article it had sourced from a certain Chris Floyd, titled "Paris reaps whirlwind of western support for extremist violence in Middle East".  They too later deleted the tweet, and the article from their site. 

You can no doubt guess which of these messages was brought up in the House of Commons this afternoon.  In fact, it wasn't made reference to just the once, but three times, all by Labour MPs.  The article itself, despite being fairly standard, simplistic anti-war boilerplate does not blame France or the French in the slightest.  It makes no direct reference to France's taking part in strikes against Islamic State.  It condemns the attacks in no uncertain terms, as does the actual statement from Stop the War.

This makes no odds, for there are only two groups of people that care what the Stop the War coalition thinks about anything.  First, the Stop the War coalition; and second, those who got their war in Iraq but ended up losing the argument.  Ever since they've wasted their time pointlessly trolling the StWC, achieving precisely nothing except making themselves feel better.  The prior example to this was activists from the Syria Solidarity UK group turning up to the last StWC public meeting.  SSUK wants a "limited" UK military intervention in Syria; StWC doesn't.  Surprise, there was conflict, spun as the StWC refusing to listen to ordinary Syrians, even while the actual peace talks between the various powers involved in the war have no Syrian involvement whatsoever.

The most egregious remarks in the Commons came from Ian Austin.  In his view those suggesting that Paris had "reaped the whirlwind", or that "Britain's foreign policy has increased not diminished the threats to our own national security are not just absolving the terrorists of responsibility, but risk fuelling the sense of grievance and resentment which can develop into extremism and terrorism".  David Cameron agreed.  "We have to be very clear to those people who are at risk of being radicalised that this sort of excuse culture is wrong. It’s not only wrong for anyone to argue that Paris was brought about by Western policy. It is also very damaging for young Muslims growing up in Britain to think that any reasonable person could have this view."  This it's worth noting came after Cameron had pointedly responded to Jeremy Corbyn stating President Obama had recognised that Islamic State grew out of the Iraq war by saying "we should not seek excuses for a death cult".

At times like these it's hard not to wonder if you've gone through the looking glass.  Forget for a second about the clear attempt to frame those who so much as suggest that foreign policy might have played a role, not in the Paris attacks themselves, but in the wider threat we face as terrorist enablers.  Forget that some Labour MPs are so caught up in their hatred of Jeremy Corbyn they are willing to ignore President Obama and Tony Blair, both of whom have recognised that Islamic State owes its existence to the Iraq war.

Let's instead just focus on the idea that our foreign policy over the past 14 years has decreased the terrorist threat.  Austin was referring to the speech Corbyn was due to give on Saturday but cancelled in light of the Paris attacks, where he would have said that "For the past 14 years, Britain has been at the centre of a succession of disastrous wars that have brought devastation to large parts of the wider Middle East. They have increased, not diminished, the threats to our own national security in the process."  

Which part of that statement is incorrect?  The security services, the home secretary, the prime minister, all inform us that the threat we face from terrorism is the most serious it has ever been.  Have those wars made us safer?  For short periods they might have done, prior to Islamic State rising again, with al-Qaida struggling to stay relevant.  That is surely not the case now, when our failures in Iraq, even if we are not even close to being fully responsible, have undeniably helped Islamic State to grow.  Our policy on Syria, of hoping that by letting or encouraging the Saudis, Qataris and Emirate states to fund whichever Islamist/jihadist groups they felt like would lead to the fall of Assad has not decreased the threat.  It has increased it.

So too would joining in with the airstrikes on Islamic State increase the threat we face.  Don't though take it from me; take it from our American allies, with the defence secretary no less stating that Russia would pay the price for its intervention.  Well golly, they did, didn't they?  The Daily Beast went so far as to report that some in the US government "privately delighted in the news that Russia was made to pay".  Seeing as the prime minister and other politicians are so keen to police what are and what are not acceptable views on foreign policy, we could also remember that earlier on Friday Cameron was insisting killing Mohammad Emwazi was "a blow at the heart of Isil".  The Sun's front page, before it realised it was in appalling taste in light of what was happening but not before 20 had already been confirmed dead, had a picture of Emwazi with the headline "JIHAD IT COMING".  It's perfectly fine to say that our enemies had it coming and enjoy the schadenfreude, but when someone suggests perhaps there could be a link between our failures and terrorist attacks it's time to get out the ducking stool.

The fact is that to plenty of Labour MPs and their friends in the media, their real problem with Corbyn has always been his views on foreign policy more than anything else.  It admittedly doesn't help when he fails to explain himself clearly, whether it's in interviews or at meetings of the PLP.  It was painfully obvious however that his comments on "shoot to kill" to Laura Kuenssberg were in relation to manhunts, not in bringing an end to situations similar to those in Paris.  Plenty of his critics are happy to be wilfully obtuse so long as it's seen to damage him.  Things like how "shoot to kill" policies have gone horribly wrong in the past, or how the two murderers of Lee Rigby, who charged at the police while armed were not shot dead are unimportant.  When it comes to Corbyn's comments on the legality or alternatives to the drone strike on Emwazi, they point to how it would be impossible to have acted otherwise.  It almost certainly would have been, and yet time and again the same people make the case for military intervention without the slightest thought for the implications or to the how it should happen as opposed to the why it must right now.

If the prospect of Corbyn attending the Stop the War Christmas fundraising party really is enough to make shadow cabinet ministers consider resigning, perhaps it's time they re-examined their priorities.  How exactly did they think Corbyn was going to respond to a terrorist attack on the scale of Paris?  Did they honestly believe he would come out swinging, agreeing entirely with Dave in his "the case for action has grown stronger since Paris" claim?  Did they really think he would go all gung-ho for the sake of it, when the best thing an opposition leader can do is to urge calm and for cool heads to prevail?  Do they genuinely imagine that if Corbyn came over the military hard man that the public would be impressed by it?

Of course they don't.  The only thing John Rentoul did wrong it turns out is sending his tweet too soon.  It doesn't seem to occur to Corbyn's opponents that the reason they're stuck with him at least for now is because of their own failures.  They lost to a near pacifist hard leftist and rather than consider if there's a reason why the Labour party membership voted for such a person, they insist on carrying on regardless.  The attempt to pillory and silence anyone who thinks there might be more to attacks like the ones in Paris than they hate us and our freedoms is predictable, but also revealing of a total refusal to accept even the most basic lessons of the past 14 years.  What amazes above all however is that after those 14 years, somehow, incredibly, it's the people that have failed to stop any of those wars that are the ones accused of making excuses for and giving succour to the terrorists.

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Monday, November 16, 2015 

The inevitable Paris attacks post.

(This is long, nearly 3000 words long, and concerns the attacks in Paris.  If either of those things and the necessity to discuss unpleasant truths, such as about foreign policy trouble you, best not to read it.)

Over the weekend, I've been racking my brains, trying to find the right words to describe those who carried out the attacks in Paris on Friday night.  So many just don't seem either adequate to the task, don't seem to convey the full horror, if not of the shootings outside restaurants or the bombings outside the Stade de France, then definitely of the assault on the Bataclan and what went on inside the concert venue.  Many have gone with barbarians, but that carries many connotations with it, just as so many other adjectives do also.  Vermin, scum, filth, they all allude back to a previous time in Europe when ordinary people were described as a disease, a cancer, a bacteria, in order to dehumanise them to the point where they could be targeted, discriminated against, and ultimately, annihilated.

The jihadists of Islamic State are called many things they're not too.  Nihilistic for one, although they often seem set upon destruction for its own sake, so it's understandable.  To a certain extent they are a cult, as they certainly display cult-like traits, and yet cults tend for the most part not to be outwardly homicidal, more often suicidal.  There are exceptions, like Aum Shinrikyo, the cult that released sarin on the Tokyo underground, but they're rare.  One tweeter called them "miserable, spiteful, pious, joyless [and] boring", while Camilla Long settled on a "bunch of self-important, cunty old dads".

Cunts.  Yeah, I think that sums it up.  These people are cunts.  They are not inhuman, but they do not display the slightest sign of basic humanity.  They are oblivious to everything that contradicts their world view, living in their own solipsistic, hateful parody of the life the rest of us experience.  Despite how some of them, perhaps only a matter of a couple of years ago might have been out on a Friday night to see an act at the Bataclan or a similar venue, now they believe it is justified to slaughter people they may have once stood alongside in pursuit of an unattainable goal.  It helps of course they might consider music other than acapella singing to be haram, that men and women were mixing freely, that alcohol was being drank, that drugs will have been taken, that some would have a met a lover there, even if only for the one night, but really that's secondary.  Takfirist jihadists kill people because they can and because many of them enjoy it, especially if they're "apostates".  They target the West and Westerners especially because they hope above hope to sow discord, to inspire a military response, especially one involving Western troops, because they know this will bring further recruits to the cause.  The more alienated ordinary Muslims become as a result of such reactions, everyday discrimination, attacks on what some consider to be the ummah, the more they believe will come to accept their world view.

Let's not get onto that quite yet though.  There was something especially depraved about the assault on the Bataclan, the sheer viciousness, the murderous intent, they way the attackers went about killing so many.  Some will disagree vehemently with me on this, but there is an element of masochism about a "mere" suicide bombing, just as there is a far larger one of sadism.  Is there a certain amount of cowardice in pressing a button and dying instantly, not seeing anything of the carnage the act has caused?  Certainly, and yet at the same time it takes an amount of courage as well.  Yes, they have of course been prepared for what they've often volunteered to do, told of the "rewards", of how it helps the overall "fight", but still at the end they have to be ready to die.  The attackers except for one did kill themselves in such a way, but not before they had seen the consequences of their actions.  Not content with merely shooting down their victims, they prodded prone bodies, firing more volleys into those believed to still be alive, in the same way as their fellow fighters have done to those captured or in the wrong place at the wrong time in Syria and Iraq.  We hear of the sadistic joy at least one attacker apparently experienced through his actions, of the terror those still alive went through, expressions of love and saying goodbye that had no apparent effect on the murderers.  For all the violence we have experienced or lived through, it's extraordinarily rare for an act of such evil to happen on a street in the peaceful West.  We forget just how lucky we truly are.

Some of that luck has been down to the jihadists being far more concerned with the spectacular than the practical.  September the 11th managed to be both, taking advantage of the more relaxed attitude to security that had arisen after the chaos of the 70s when plane hijackings were close to being an epidemic.  Time after time post-9/11 plots were disrupted that involved home-made bombs, when so much can go wrong and where often so many people became involved that suspicions arose.  Al-Qaida believed as much in "propaganda by deed" as the anarchists that first came up with the notion did, thinking that the more shocking an attack the more people would be overawed by it into joining up.  They ignored the example shown time after time by single spree killers, where someone with often little more than rudimentary knowledge of firearms can kill dozens before either killing themselves or being shot dead.  If the aim is to kill as many as possible, why rely on explosives with all that can go wrong when basic training in using an automatic weapon takes a matter of hours?

The Mumbai attack showed the potential for the number of casualties, the difficulties that authorities can have in bringing an assault to an end, and still in the main the example was ignored.  Now, after a further experimentation with telling sympathisers to act on their own, to do anything, the sum of all fears might be upon us.  Obviously there are reasons to be cautious, not least when the plots the security services claim to have foiled here have continued to involve relatively primitive "pressure cooker" bombs, or the targeting of armed forces personnel or police officers, but if Islamic State really is changing tactics and encouraging the combination of the practical with the spectacular, we should be deeply concerned.

Indeed, unless the accounts change then the attacks in Paris demonstrated again the limits of bombs.  6 of the 7 known attackers apparently blew themselves up with their suicide belts/vests, and yet it seems only one bystander was killed as a result.  This again may be down to luck and a desire for the spectacular instead of practicalities: the aim seems to have been to get a group of three into the Stade de France itself, only for at least one to be stopped when he was patted down.  If the others then blew themselves up knowing they wouldn't gain entry, as seems to be the case, even worse carnage was prevented.  They seem to have tried to enter after the match had already started also, when they could had they wished detonated their bombs when the streets would have been full of people heading for the stadium.  Again, you have to suspect the aim was for the explosions to happen live on TV, with all the panic that would have caused both inside the stadium and among those watching the home.  The potential for further massive loss of life was thankfully averted.  That the bombs would also seem to have been fairly weak to go by the lack of casualties, despite the bang they produced as documented, further makes clear the difficulties of making explosives vis-a-vis using an AK-47.

Something though clearly has changed in the calculations of Islamic State.  The reason I and some others argued that IS was not that big of a threat to us back home was because it was focused on establishing and defending its "caliphate".  Those who came back from Iraq or Syria having joined it were the equivalent of "drop-outs": either those who couldn't hack being in a war zone from the start, those who developed PTSD or its equivalents, those who were persuaded by relatives to come back, your gap year jihadis, etc.  To leave IS was to be ridiculed for journeying back to the decadence of the West.  Why go back having made the modern day equivalent of the "hijrah"?

Up until Friday IS had not definitively launched an attack outside of the Arab world/Middle East.  The Hyper Cachet attacker claimed to be acting on behalf of Islamic State, but any real link remains unproven.  Likewise, the foiled by chance train gun attack is now being linked back to IS, but that was not made clear at the time.  Now, in the space of not more than a couple of months IS has attacked a peace demonstration by leftists/Kurds in Ankara, Shias in Beirut, likely the Russians through the downing of the Metrojet plane, and lastly Paris.  Paris is still unique in that it seems to have been in the main carried out by French returnees from Syria, but it's also clear that IS is turning its attention further afield.

The question is why.  Some will point towards Islamic State being threatened, and it's true that IS is finally being pushed back to an extent.  Despite the continuing claims that Russia is only hitting the "moderates" in Syria, last week the Syrian army took back an airbase that has been under siege for 2 years by IS thanks in the main to Russian airstrikes.  Palmyra is their next target, which will finally give the lie to the media narrative about the Russian intervention if/when it happens.  Given far greater coverage has been the taking back of Sinjar in northern Iraq, if you can call completely wiping Sinjar from the map after both civilians and IS had fled taking it back.  It could be that IS does believe the noose is tightening, as anyone would when all the major world powers other than the Chinese are bombing you, but the fall is not coming any time soon.  Both of the ground forces ranged against it, the SAA and the Kurds, are weak, even when getting full backing from the air.

A better explanation is that IS is just doing what it does when things have gone relatively quiet: it hits targets that either will or it believes will once again get those sympathetic to its cause back on side.  Killing leftists, Shias, Westerners, knowing what the response will be makes sense, at least to them.  Some have pointed towards an article in Islamic State's Dabiq magazine about "the grey zone", about how 9/11 made everything either black or white, and it could be this is part of some grand strategy and the Paris attack is linked back to that.  It could equally have just become arrogant, believing it's here to stay regardless of the forces ranged against it, and has dramatically overreached when it should still be focused on Syria/Iraq, and not on making its enemies who until now have been relatively content to let the stalemate continue determined to bring it to an end.

It would be lovely to think the Paris attack will concentrate Western minds on Islamic State, and the initial signs look fairly encouraging.  Sadly, there are reasons to doubt this will last, especially when so much else of the response has been as dispiriting as ever.  Hollande's speech to the two houses of parliament today, as predictable as the measures he announced were, are almost precisely the ones Islamic State would have hoped for.  If as looks likely all the other attackers are either French or European nationals, that there was a token Syrian involved who just happened to take his passport with him to be found after the fact suggests IS knew full well how that would be responded to by those who have been warning of the "threat" from refugees.  That so many have fled from their glorious reinstitution of the caliphate has irked them for a long time, the group repeatedly criticising those daring to escape their clutches.  The response from the vast majority of Europeans to the refugee crisis also undermined their propaganda about everyday, habitual discrimination.  How better to trigger a rethink than to send a lone Syrian to make his journey to France along the refugee route, ending in a suicide attack on fans watching a football match involving Germany, whose teams were among those making clear that refugees were welcome?

This is not to pretend that Europe as we know it is not under threat.  It is, just not from refugees.  If a single suicide bomber is enough to bring down the Schengen agreement, then that will be a failure on the part of politicians to defend their actions.  All the same, this is clearly not the end of Europe as we know it, let alone "how civilisations fall" as Niall Ferguson put it.  If we have learned anything from the last 14 years of war, then it surely ought to be that military action pursued on the basis of ideology or out of a sense of revenge will backfire.  Chucking bombs at Raqqa might be useful as catharsis, but it's not one that's advisable.

Likewise, that it is absurd we have 650 "armchair generals" blocking action in Syria appears so only to those "armchair generals" that have been demanding it since at least 2013, only then it was against Assad.  We shouldn't pretend that deciding not to take part in military action against IS in Syria will make us safer, as it probably won't.  Conversely however, there is every reason to believe that taking part in such action will make us even more of a target, and increase the threat.  Those who are pushing for such action should make that clear to the British public: no, we shouldn't be inhibited from intervening due to such threats, but equally the risks of doing so should be plainly stated.

Defeating Islamic State will also require us to accept some harsh home truths.  Whatever the rights or wrongs of the initial Iraq war, it had a major role in the creation of IS and its predecessor organisations.  Our decisions in Iraq have contributed at various stages to Islamic State's fortunes: the insistence on continuing the occupation, on the disbanding of the Iraqi army, the de-Ba'athification process, the attack on Fallujah, the propping up of a sectarian Shia government that led to many Sunnis who had previously fought against and opposed IS coming to support it.  Similarly, our choices in Syria, still continuing today have not helped.  Supporting the revolution to begin with was the right move: continuing to demand the immediate removal of Assad once it became clear that there were no more moderates in the armed opposition to him, or none of any note has been a disaster.  Allowing or turning a blind eye to the Sunni Gulf states arming and funding the jihadist opposition, even if they have not directly done either with IS, has been a disaster.  Islamic State is especially vile and dangerous, but to pretend the likes of al-Nusra or any of the other jihadist rebel groups or alliances are any better is foolish.  Painful as it will to be admit, Russia's intervention has made the most sense of any, regardless of its ulterior motives.  Demanding that Assad leave now without knowing who or what will replace him is not a policy.  It is a madness.

The solution, if there is one, is to continue what we're doing but more intelligently, including working with the Russians.  President Obama is right to rule out using American ground forces, as that's precisely what Islamic State needs to inspire further recruits to the cause, just as the Iraqi insurgency did.  The forces on the ground that we can support, such as the Syrian Arab Army, the Syrian Defence Forces and the Kurds in Iraq have to be strengthened.  Ceasefires if possible on an individual basis with the rebel groups in the west should be negotiated, allowing Syrian forces to turn their attention to IS in the east.  The promise to the rebels will be that once IS has been driven out of Syria as much as it can be, Assad will leave office as soon as possible, and elections will be held.  This will involve both a huge swallowing of pride on our behalf, and the utmost luck and fortune.  It almost certainly won't work, as the non-IS jihadist rebels will not accept it, nor probably will the few remaining moderates.  It is though just about the only option that will lead to IS being defeated sooner rather than later.  If not now, when we will we recognise that our alliances, our mistakes, our continuing arrogance, if not leading directly to Paris, have had a major role in the creation and success of Islamic State?

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Saturday, November 14, 2015 

The Islamic State will fall.

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