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: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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