The truths they never tell us

Behind the jargon about failed states and humanitarian interventions lie thousands of dead. John Pil

Polite society's bombers may not have to wait long for round two. The US vice-president, Dick Cheney, warned last week that America could take action against "40 to 50 countries". Somalia, allegedly a "haven" for al-Qaeda, joins Iraq at the top of a list of potential targets. Cheered by having replaced Afghanistan's bad terrorists with America's good terrorists, the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has asked the Pentagon to "think the unthinkable", having rejected its "post-Afghanistan options" as "not radical enough".

An American attack on Somalia, wrote the Guardian's man at the Foreign Office, "would offer an opportunity to settle an old score: 18 US soldiers were brutally killed there in 1993 . . ." He neglected to mention that the US Marines left between 7,000 and 10,000 Somali dead, according to the CIA. Eighteen American lives are worthy of score-settling; thousands of Somali lives are not.

Somalia will provide an ideal practice run for the final destruction of Iraq. However, as the Wall Street Journal reports, Iraq presents a "dilemma", because "few targets remain". "We're down to the last outhouse," said a US official, referring to the almost daily bombing of Iraq that is not news.

Having survived the 1991 Gulf war, Saddam Hussein's grip on Iraq has since been reinforced by one of the most ruthless blockades in modern times, policed by his former amours and arms suppliers in Washington and London. Safe in his British-built bunkers, Saddam will survive a renewed blitz - unlike the Iraqi people, held hostage to the compliance of their dictator to America's ever-shifting demands.

In this country, veiled propaganda will play its usual leading role. As so much of the Anglo-American media is in the hands of various guardians of approved truths, the fate of both the Iraqi and Somali peoples will be reported and debated on the strict premise that the US and British governments are against terrorism. Like the attack on Afghanistan, the issue will be how "we" can best deal with the problem of "uncivilised" societies.

The most salient truth will remain taboo. This is that the longevity of America as both a terrorist state and a haven for terrorists surpasses all. That the US is the only state on record to have been condemned by the World Court for international terrorism and has vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling on governments to observe international law is unmentionable. Recently, Denis Halliday, the former assistant secretary general of the UN who resigned rather than administer what he described as a "genocidal sanctions policy" on Iraq, incurred the indignation of the BBC's Michael Buerk. "You can't possibly draw a moral equivalence between Saddam Hussein and George Bush [Senior], can you?" said Buerk. Halliday was taking part in one of the moral choice programmes that Buerk comperes, and had referred to the needless slaughter of tens of thousands of Iraqis, mostly civilians, by the Americans during the Gulf war. He pointed out that many were buried alive, and that depleted uranium was used widely, almost certainly the cause of an epidemic of cancer in southern Iraq.

That the recent history of the west's true crimes makes Saddam Hussein "an amateur", as Halliday put it, is the unmentionable; and because there is no rational rebuttal of such a truth, those who mention it are abused as "anti-American". Richard Falk, professor of international politics at Princeton, has explained this. Western foreign policy, he says, is propagated in the media "through a self-righteous, one-way moral/legal screen [with] positive images of western values and innocence portrayed as threatened, validating a campaign of unrestricted political violence".

The ascendancy of Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and associates Richard Perle and Elliot Abrams means that much of the world is now threatened openly by a geopolitical fascism, which has been developing since 1945 and has accelerated since 11 September.

The present Washington gang are authentic American fundamentalists. They are the heirs of John Foster Dulles and Alan Dulles, the Baptist fanatics who, in the 1950s, ran the State Department and the CIA respectively, smashing reforming governments in country after country - Iran, Iraq, Guatemala - tearing up international agreements, such as the 1954 Geneva accords on Indochina, whose sabotage by John Foster Dulles led directly to the Vietnam war and five million dead. Declassified files now tell us the United States twice came within an ace of using nuclear weapons.

The parallels are there in Cheney's threat to "40 to 50" countries, and of war "that may not end in our lifetimes". The vocabulary of justification for this militarism has long been provided on both sides of the Atlantic by those factory "scholars" who have taken the humanity out of the study of nations and congealed it with a jargon that serves the dominant power. Poor countries are "failed states"; those that oppose America are "rogue states"; an attack by the west is a "humanitarian intervention". (One of the most enthusiastic bombers, Michael Ignatieff, is now "professor of human rights" at Harvard). And as in Dulles's time, the United Nations is reduced to a role of clearing up the debris of bombing and providing colonial "protectorates".

The twin towers attacks provided Bush's Washington with both a trigger and a remarkable coincidence. Pakistan's former foreign minister Niaz Naik has revealed that he was told by senior American officials in mid-July that military action against Afghanistan would go ahead by the middle of October. The US secretary of state, Colin Powell, was then travelling in central Asia, already gathering support for an anti-Afghanistan war "coalition". For Washington, the real problem with the Taliban was not human rights; these were irrelevant. The Taliban regime simply did not have total control of Afghanistan: a fact that deterred investors from financing oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea, whose strategic position in relation to Russia and China and whose largely untapped fossil fuels are of crucial interest to the Americans. In 1998, Dick Cheney told oil industry executives: "I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian."

Indeed, when the Taliban came to power in 1996, not only were they welcomed by Washington, their leaders were flown to Texas, then governed by George W Bush, and entertained by executives of the Unocal oil company. They were offered a cut of the profits from the pipelines; 15 per cent was mentioned. A US official observed that, with the Caspian's oil and gas flowing, Afghanistan would become "like Saudi Arabia", an oil colony with no democracy and the legal persecution of women. "We can live with that," he said. The deal fell through when two American embassies in east Africa were bombed and al-Qaeda was blamed.

The Taliban duly moved to the top of the media's league table of demons, where the normal exemptions apply. For example, Vladimir Putin's regime in Moscow, the killers of at least 20,000 people in Chechnya, is exempt. Last week, Putin was entertained by his new "close friend", George W Bush, at Bush's Texas ranch.

Bush and Blair are permanently exempt - even though more Iraqi children die every month, mostly as a result of the Anglo-American embargo, than the total number of dead in the twin towers, a truth that is not allowed to enter public consciousness. The killing of Iraqi infants, like the killing of Chechens, like the killing of Afghan civilians, is rated less morally abhorrent than the killing of Americans.

As one who has seen a great deal of bombing, I have been struck by the capacity of those calling themselves "liberals" and "progressives" wilfully to tolerate the suffering of innocents in Afghanistan. What do these self-regarding commentators, who witness virtually nothing of the struggles of the outside world, have to say to the families of refugees bombed to death in the dusty town of Gardez the other day, long after it fell to anti-Taliban forces? What do they say to the parents of dead children whose bodies lay in the streets of Kunduz last Sunday? "Forty people were killed," said Zumeray, a refugee. "Some of them were burned by the bombs, others were crushed by the walls and roofs of their houses when they collapsed from the blast." What does the Guardian's Polly Toynbee say to him: "Can't you see that bombing works?" Will she call him anti-American? What do "humanitarian interventionists" say to people who will die or be maimed by the 70,000 American cluster bomblets left unexploded?

For several weeks, the Observer, a liberal newspaper, has published unsubstantiated reports that have sought to link Iraq with 11 September and the anthrax scare. "Whitehall sources" and "intelligence sources" are the main tellers of this story. "The evidence is mounting . . ." said one of the pieces. The sum of the "evidence" is zero, merely grist for the likes of Wolfowitz and Perle and probably Blair, who can be expected to go along with the attack. In his essay "The Banality of Evil", the great American dissident Edward Herman described the division of labour among those who design and produce weapons like cluster bombs and daisy cutters and those who take the political decisions to use them and those who create the illusions that justify their use. "It is the function of the experts, and the mainstream media," he wrote, "to normalise the unthinkable for the general public." It is time journalists reflected upon this, and took the risk of telling the truth about an unconscionable threat to much of humanity that comes not from faraway places, but close to home.

www.johnpilger. com

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The SAS story they want to suppress

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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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