Iraqi Turkmen preparing to fight Isis militants last weekend. Photo: Marwan Ibrahim, AFP
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Isis and the global rise of non-state actors

The recent onslaught by Isis isn't a rogue success for terrorist groups; non-state actors are on the rise worldwide. We should be watching and wary.

Over the weekend Isis insurgents expanded their control across northwestern and central Iraq, seizing crucial border crossings to Syria and Jordan in Anbar province, as well as a number of key towns close by.

The latest conquests render the colonial border between Iraq and Syria all but obsolete. This blurring of state lines is, of course, all part of the jihadists' aim to create a pan-Islamic caliphate spanning as great a reach of territory as possible.

In geopolitical terms, Isis's challenge to traditional state authority and national divisions is also emblematic of the explosion of terror-driven non-state actors around the globe - most markedly in the Middle East and Africa, but also extending as far as the Asia Pacific to countries such as Indonesia.

It is worth being mindful of this global phenomenon, because the successful onslaught by Isis in the past fortnight appears to have caught Western intelligence agencies offguard. In reality it should have come as no surprise, not least because the group’s name-change last year from al-Qaeda in Iraq (Aqi) to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) reflected the growing scope of the group’s ambition.

Another reason the West should have been prepared is that Isis has been patently swelling its ranks during the past 18 months in Syria, another nation in which the state actor - the embattled Assad regime - is threatened by non-state players.

Events in the past year seem to indicate that Islamist terror groups are on the rise around the world, a sense that is backed up by statistics in a recent report by Rand Corporation, a US non-partisan think tank. The number of Salafi-jihadist groups (which includes al-Qaeda and its affiliates) jumped 58 per cent since 2010, from 31 to 49 groups, according to the report.

Outside of Iraq and Syria in the Middle East, Salafi-jihadists are flourishing in Yemen. In the US’s country reports on terrorism last year, the State Department described the Yemeni government as “struggling somewhat” in its efforts to combat al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (Aqap).

Meanwhile terrorist groups in North, East and West Africa continue to grow in influence too. A series of deadly attacks last year in Kenya, Somalia, Algeria, Mali and Nigeria put Islamist militancy on the continent under the spotlight briefly, but interest seems to have faded quickly.

To recap: a spate of lethal bombings to the recent kidnap of innocent schoolgirls, 200 of whom remain missing, Islamist terrorists Boko Haram are increasing a reign of terror in Nigeria. The group killed more than 1,200 people in under 8 months last year, according to the UN.

On the east coast of Africa, Islamist group al-Shabaab wreaked devastation when they stormed Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall last September, killing 63 people. The non-state actor, which is mired in a bitter contest with Somalia's UN-backed government, is suspected of having carried out a number of attacks in neighbouring Kenya over the past year as a warning to the nation that its attempts at intervention are unwelcome.

In Tunisia, separate assassinations of two leading secular politicians by the terrorist group Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia (AAS-T) last year plunged the government into crisis.

Meanwhile al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), North Africa's branch of the global terror franchise, has extended its tentacles deeper into the sands of Libya and Mali in the past year. Splinter groups have also formed and grown; most notable has been the Signed in Blood Brigade, which was responsible for the death of 39 foreign hostages, including 5 Brits, in Algeria's In Amenas gas facility attack last year.

In addition to lethal terrorist attacks, kidnapping operations have yielded hefty ransom sums for Aqim and its offshoots, which have upped their operations in the Trans-Sahara region. Meanwhile the smuggling of arms, narcotics and cigarettes remains a lucrative trade for these non-state actors too.

These are just some of the Islamist examples of non-state actors that are heaping pressure on governments; the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood are a few other examples of non-state actors growing in influence and authority.

Unbound by the constraints of law and, in many cases, quick to extreme violence to bolster their influence and aims, non-state actors are a growing threat and one of which we should be wary.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear