Palestine’s comeback kid

The first Fatah congress for 20 years featured new faces, sore losers – and a very complicated elect

Fatah's sixth congress, the first to be held in Palestine, was also the party's first conference for 20 years. But as the programme was extended from three days to four and then to seven, it often seemed that the congress itself would last 20 years. The reason for the endless extensions lay in Gaza, where the Hamas authorities denied Fatah delegates permission to travel to the West Bank, throwing party elections into disarray. Missing delegates phoned threatening to resign if their voices were not heard; but as Bethlehem's hotels and restaurants filled with smoke and raised voices, it became clear that Hamas's attempt to weaken Fatah was producing a more chaotic but also a more vital gathering.

Before the conference began, a struggle was expected, between Fatah's old guard and a younger generation raised in Palestine, for places on the executive central committee and the larger, governing board, the Revolutionary Council. In reality, the leadership was relaxed about losing a few old faces. "We need to bring in new blood," said Rafiq Husseini, the urbane chief of staff to President Mahmoud Abbas. "A lot of people think they are God's gift, so there will be many sore and surprised losers." But could the elections go ahead without the Gazan delegates? "It's not the first time delegates have been unable to attend," he said. "In previous conferences, there were none from the occupied territories. Today, there are 150 delegates in prison. We have to send out the message that we are not to be held to ransom."

The extra days of debate were welcome, but elements of the conference eventually began to grate, such as the decision to hold much of it in closed session. One delegate was so frustrated at the secrecy that he waited for a general session, held under TV cameras, before rising to lambast the outgoing executive for their failure to provide any account of their activities or finances over the previous two decades.

There were other grievances. Jamal Hweil - at 38, the youngest candidate - complained that officials were inventing hurdles. "The law says you can be president at 35, but to be a member of the central committee, you have to be a Fatah member for 20 years." The youngest delegate was Kifah Radaydeh, 26, from Jerusalem. What about youth committees, I asked: had they no younger delegates? She told me they were all men, ranging up to the age of 35.

These annoyances were offset by the heat of debate. Muhammad Dahlan, the controversial former security commander of Gaza, was twice forced to explain how Hamas had mounted a coup on his watch. He vigorously argued that any failures were the collective responsibility of the party. Although many delegates were unmoved, even they agreed that Dahlan had come prepared to face the charges head-on. It began to seem possible he could win a seat on the executive. His hardline stance especially appealed to delegates who believed Gaza could be "liberated" only by force.
Hweil, who had fought in the Battle of Jenin of 2002, spoke out against a military solution. He agreed that Hamas would resist talks as long as it had the backing of Syria and Iran, but warned the delegates: "We cannot fight Hamas and we have nothing to threaten them with. There is no alternative to negotiations."

There was solid backing for another set of negotiations - those proposed by the president to achieve a two-state solution. Everyone also agreed that there must be a timeframe. It was 16 years since Oslo, eight years since the Taba summit, and negotiations had only hardened the occupation rather than offered a route to statehood. But there was also consensus on the need for a "Plan B". What happens the day after negotiations with Israel fail? The answer to that remained stubbornly vague.

There were almost 100 candidates for the 18 central committee places, and 600-plus for the Revolutionary Council's 80. Although lists of preferred candidates were forbidden, slates were chalked up everywhere. Votes were traded, yet no one withdrew. Years of flattery, graft and poor communication had left small-town leaders with an inflated sense of their own importance. "God's gift", indeed.

The ballot papers were so long that the president took more than half an hour to complete his, and the results for the central committee were announced a week late. The newly elected members were all familiar faces: Marwan Barghouti, Jibril Rajoub, Tawfiq Tirawi, Nabil Shaath, as well as Palestine's comeback kid, Muhammad Dahlan. The big surprise was that the former prime minister, Ahmad Qureia, had been nudged out by just two votes. Husseini's prediction of sore losers came true. Qureia announced that the electoral fraud in Iran was "smaller than we have seen in Palestine", declaring that successful candidates were in the pay of Israel. He wasn't alone.

All the Gaza delegates resigned after none was elected. Then the results of the Revolutionary Council election came in: 70 new faces, the majority aged below 40, including 11 women, four Christians and Uri Davis, universally described as a Jew (though he prefers the term Palestinian Hebrew). Still, the congress did not solve the problem of what happens if talks fail. Delegates produced elegant formulations to justify legal forms of armed resistance, such as: "If international law allows for such solutions, why should we deny them to the Palestinians?" But no one argued that military action could be a route to liberation: such justifications were merely offered to avoid disavowing Fatah's heritage of fedayeen and martyrs. Delegates spoke warmly of the joint Palestinian-Israeli protests at the villages of Bil'in and Ni'ilin, but all failed to notice that the Israeli demonstrators were anarchists who might take a bullet for a villager but would never accept the leadership of a conventional political party. Similarly, I heard talk of boycotts, but no details about who would partner Fatah abroad. Fatah remains convinced that it is the natural leader of the Palestinian movement, but few deny that the party lost this role in the international community long ago.

The conference in Bethlehem had the unmistakeable energy of a party in transition, committed to democracy and to formulating policy in the open. The party's only serious competitor, Hamas, selects its leaders in opaque backrooms and formulates policy in Syria. Grassroots politics in Palestine will lead to Fatah, if only because one in ten of the population is a paid-up member. But as conference delegates recognised, any post-negotiations strategy will need international friends. Until Fatah can find some, Plan B will remain as elusive as ever.

Nicholas Blincoe's latest novel is "Burning Paris" (Sceptre), set in Paris and Bethlehem

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?

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Inside the minds of the Isis murderers

As pressure on the terror group who claimed responsiblity for the Manchester attack intensifies, the threat to Britain will only become more acute.

The police and security services had consistently warned that a significant terrorist attack in Britain was inevitable. Yet no warning could have prepared us for the horror of the suicide attack on the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Twenty-two people were killed and at least 60 were wounded as they were leaving a concert by Ariana Grande in what was the most deadly attack in Britain since the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 56 people died.

Like the London bombers, the Manchester suicide attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was British. He was 22, lived in Manchester and studied business management at Salford University before dropping out. He worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. The son of Libyans, Abedi is said to have returned recently from a visit to the North African country, where Islamic State has a foothold.

Ariana Grande is a former children’s TV star who made her name on channels such as Nickelodeon. Her fan base is overwhelmingly young and female, and many of those killed or wounded were children, including Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old girl from Leyland, Lancashire.

Islamic State inevitably claimed responsibility for the massacre, dismissing the victims as “crusaders”, “polytheists” and “worshippers of the cross”. This is not the first time Islamist terrorists have targeted children.

A Chechen jihadist group calling itself ­Riyad-us Saliheen (meaning “Gardens of the Righteous”) took more than 1,100 hostages, including 777 children, in a school siege in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004. In the event, more than 330 were massacred, including 186 children. Gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban also stormed a school in 2014, killing 148.

For terrorist actors, these are neither whimsical nor irrational acts. Contemporary jihadist movements have curated a broad and expansive intellectual ecosystem that rationalises and directs their actions. What they want is to create an asymmetry of fear by employing indiscriminate barbarism to intimidate and subdue their opponents into submission.

We have grown accustomed to a wave of terrorist attacks being carried out in the name of the self-styled Islamic State ever since the group’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began prioritising them in 2014. (He was killed in an American air strike on Aleppo province in Syria in August last year.)

The US-led coalition against Islamic State has weakened the terror group in its former strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In response, IS has been forced to concentrate more on what it calls “external operations” – by which it means inspiring its sympathisers and operatives to carry out attacks on Western countries. Indeed, al-Adnani encouraged the group’s supporters not to migrate towards IS-held territory but rather to focus their efforts on attacks in their home countries.

“The tiniest action you do in the heart of their [Western] land is dearer to us than the biggest action by us,” he said in an audio statement released last year. “There are no innocents in the heart of the lands of the crusaders.”

Islamic State refers to its strategy as “just terror”. Its framing places culpability for attacks on Western states on these nations themselves by claiming that IS actions are a response to aggression or assault. That much has been outlined in the group’s literature. “When will the crusaders end their hostilities towards Islam and the Muslims? . . . When will they recognise that the solution to their pathetic turmoil is right before their blinded eyes?” the militants ask in the IS magazine Dabiq. “Until then, the just terror will continue to strike them to the core of their deadened hearts.”

IS offered a rationale of this sort as justification for its bombing of a Russian commercial aircraft – Metrojet Flight 9268, travelling from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to St Petersburg. That attack in October 2015 killed 224. Similar reasoning was offered for the attacks in Paris the following month in which 137 people were killed, in a series of co-ordinated, commando-style gun and bomb outrages across the city.

“Revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe,” IS declared in Dabiq. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken . . . The [caliphate] will take revenge for any aggression against its religion and people, sooner rather than later. Let the ­arrogant know that the skies and the lands are Allah’s.”

***

Through my academic research at King’s College London, I have ­interviewed scores of Westerners who became foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq to quiz them about their motives. Last year, one man from High Wycombe who had joined IS told me that it wanted to attack British targets in response to the vote in the House of Commons to extend British air strikes against IS targets to include sites in Syria (the British had only been targeting the group in Iraq until that point). “Do they [the British government] expect us to sit back and do nothing? ­Idiots,” he said.

In this respect, IS frames its attacks as acts of “revenge” and predicates its response on the Islamic principle of qisas, which is comparable to lex talionis or the doctrine of “an eye for an eye”. Qisas was always intended to be a tool of private redress for an individual or his/her family to seek justice in matters relating to bodily harm. Typically, it relates to cases of murder and manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation (say, leading to loss of limbs). The principle creates a framework for retributive justice.

The contemporary Salafi-jihadi movement has adopted a particularly innovative approach to the concept of qisas in two ways. First, groups such as IS have taken the idea and construed it in a way that justifies indiscriminate terrorism, such as the attack in Manchester. They argue that qisas has a political dimension and that it can be applied to international affairs in a way that holds civilians responsible for the perceived crimes of their governments.

Second, qisas is normally applied only in cases where the aggressor is known. IS, by contrast, holds every citizen-stranger of an enemy state responsible for the actions of his or her government. Thus, when it released its statement claiming responsibility for the Manchester attack, it said that it had struck against a “gathering of the crusaders . . . in response to their transgressions against the lands of the Muslims”.

It is this militaristic construction of qisas that allows IS to rationalise the bombing of a venue where large numbers of young girls had gathered to watch a pop concert, dismissing them as “crusaders”.

This is not new. In 1997, Osama Bin Laden told CBS News that “all Americans are our enemies, not just the ones who fight us directly, but also the ones who pay their ­taxes”. His rationale was that all Americans, by virtue of citizenship alone, are vicariously liable for the actions of their government.

Just a few years later, Bin Laden used the same idea to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks and also invoked it in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged,” he wrote. “You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.”

IS used the concept most dramatically in January 2015, when it burned alive a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, whose plane had crashed in its territory. A video of the killing was circulated on the internet and social media. The group claimed his bombing raids had killed civilians and that it wanted to punish him with “equal retaliation”, in keeping with qisas.

What is well known about al-Kasasbeh’s murder is that he was burned alive inside a cage – but that is not the whole story. To understand how IS tethered this to the principle of qisas, it is the end of the gruesome video that is invested with most significance. After al-Kasasbeh has died, a truck emerges and dumps rubble over the cage. It was claimed this was debris from a site he had bombed, thus completing the “equal retaliation” of returning like for like. The idea was that IS had retaliated using the two principal forms in which a missile attack kills – by fire or debris.

***

The Manchester attack came on the fourth anniversary of the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. Rigby was killed by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the middle of the afternoon on a street outside a military barracks. That attack was in keeping with a pattern we have become increasingly accustomed to in Europe: an unsophisticated plot that employs ordinary, everyday items – a car, say, or a knife.

The consequences of such attacks have been seen across Europe, most notably in Nice on 14 July 2016, when 86 people were killed during Bastille Day celebrations after a jihadist drove a truck into crowds on the promenade. Similar attacks followed in Berlin, Westminster and Stockholm.

The security services find that these murderous attacks are extremely hard to disrupt because they typically involve lone actors who can mobilise quickly and with discretion. The Manchester attack was different. Explosives were used, which means the plot was inherently more sophisticated, requiring careful planning and preparation.

We know that two of the 7/7 bombers had previously trained in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, where they honed their skills. In other plots, such as the connected attacks in London and Glasgow Airport of 2007, the explosive devices failed mainly because the bomb-makers had found it difficult to travel abroad and develop their skills in safe environments. Whatever Abedi’s connections, the long war in Syria and Iraq has once again created a permissive environment for terrorist training and attack planning.

The devastating impact of this has already been felt across Europe. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, more than 800 Britons are believed to have travelled there to fight. From Europe as a whole, the figure is over 5,000, of which a significant number are believed to have joined IS. Of the British contingent, the security services estimate that about half have returned or become disengaged from the conflict. Of those who remained, a hundred are believed to be active, the rest having been killed.

It is improbable that Abedi acted alone in Manchester or that this plot had no international component. Indeed, he was already known to the authorities (and had returned recently from Libya). As pressure on IS intensifies across Syria and Iraq, the threat to Britain will only become more acute as the group’s sympathisers prepare for what they consider to be a fightback.

This speaks to the scale of the threat facing Britain, and Europe more generally. Our police and security services have been stretched and continuously tested in recent years. Just recently, in March, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley told Radio 4’s Today programme that 13 plots had been thwarted since Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. Put another way, the police have disrupted terrorist plots every four months for the past four years.

Naturally, Islamic State is not the only threat. On 13 May, one of Osama Bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, released a video, titled “Advice for martyrdom-seekers in the West”, on behalf of al-Qaeda. Hamza, 27, who was his father’s favoured successor to lead the group, called on its supporters to concentrate on attacks in the West rather than migrating to conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond. Scenes of previous ­terrorist attacks in Britain played throughout the video.

The central leadership of al-Qaeda is increasingly looking for opportunities to reassert itself after being eclipsed by Islamic State and losing control of its affiliates in Syria. It needs attacks and a cause in the West with which to revive itself. Hamza therefore cited the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris as a critical example, calling for the assassination of anyone deemed to have “insulted” Islam.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was especially important for al-Qaeda because it enabled the group to transcend the fratricidal conflicts that frequently define relations between the various jihadist groups. In Syria, for instance, al-Qaeda’s affiliates (when it had better control over them) and Islamic State have been in open war with each other.

Yet, the Charlie Hebdo attack brought warm praise from the group’s Islamist rivals because none of them wanted to appear ­unsupportive of an atrocity that had, as the terrorists proclaimed, “avenged” the Prophet Muhammad’s honour.

The British man from High Wycombe who joined IS told me the group had welcomed the attack for precisely those reasons. It was something that, in his view, had confirmed the “nobility” of the attackers, even if they had not been members of IS.

Is it too late for the West to save itself, I asked him. What if the West simply accepted all of Islamic State’s demands: would that provide respite?

The answer was as emphatic as it was stark: “We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue.”

He went on: “Their kufr [disbelief] against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.”

In other words, we are all guilty, and we are all legitimate targets.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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