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.

 

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.