After they go

The US invasion unleashed chaos in a fragile region; the withdrawal of troops could prove equally de

General David Petraeus clapped Sheik Abdul-Sattar al-Rishawi on the shoulder and talked enthusiastically about their new project. "It's men like this who are going to make Iraq work," he said, looking back towards my camera with the confidence of a king.

It was March last year. By September Rishawi, instigator of the "Anbar Awakening", was dead. What he had given to the Americans, however, was the vital Sunni co-operation that had been missing until then from their "surge" plans.

When President Bush adopted the "surge" strategy and appointed Petraeus as overall commander in Iraq, all that seemed important was to increase the number of US troops. Yet four things made up the "surge". Two were within US control - more troops, and more trained Iraqis in uniform deployed with those forces. The other two were less certain - Sunni co-operation in confronting al-Qaeda and Shia co-operation in not attacking everyone else.

After four years of fighting the US occupation, Sunni tribal leaders decided to change sides because al-Qaeda was imposing a harsher Islamic regime than they were prepared to stomach. They formed the "Awakening Councils" and signed 80,000 of their kinsmen on to the Pentagon's payroll to fight beside the US military. The Sunni fighters, together with an increase in Iraqi forces of around 110,000 over the past year, have helped to stem the violence and bloodshed.

Certainly the changes in the Baghdad neighbourhoods I visited while embedded with the US military in early 2007 were secured by enlisting local Sunnis into a home guard. Initially unarmed, these home guards were being trained by US marines by the end of last year. While the US geared up Sunni militias, Shia fighters sat tight. It could have been a recipe for civil war.

"[The] ceasefire has been helpful in reducing violence and has led to improved security in Iraq," noted Rear Admiral Greg Smith, a US spokesman, acknowledging that the success of the "surge" was down to its fourth and least certain constituent - the Mahdi army ceasefire declared by the anti-American Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr last August. To the relief of the US military, the ceasefire, which had reversed the statistics of violence, was renewed last month.

Five years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the issue is no longer the chaos unleashed by occupation, but the impact of the expected US withdrawal, both within Iraq and across the region. The UN Chapter 7 resolution that the US quotes as legitimising its 2003 invasion runs out at the end of June. By then, what remains of the coalition will have to negotiate a deal with a weak, fractured government. The Iraqis have to decide on the number of foreign troops they wish to remain in the country, and for how long.

Aware of the potential for renewed civil war as troop numbers fall, both the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, and Petraeus have talked of a "brief period of consolidation and evaluation". This means that as the US presidential race plays out through the summer and autumn, the commanders will take the opportunity to exercise "strategic patience". There will be a halt in troop repatriation, and gains made with the surge will be consolidated. By the time a new president has finally to grasp the nettle, the military and political balance may have stabilised, reducing the likelihood of Washington's greatest enemy, Iran, stepping into a vacuum of withdrawal.

The largely Shia government of Iraq talks to Iranian officials all the time; President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has just held historic, high-profile meetings in Baghdad. But a fourth round of talks between US and Iranian diplomats, due to be held in Baghdad, should have taken place on 5 March. They didn't happen, for reasons unrelated to Iraq. Because of American efforts to isolate Iran, the US embassy in Baghdad declared there had been no such arrangement.

Proxy war

Iran's influence in Iraq is most visible in the south of the country, where it permeates nearly every faction of Shia politics. A power-sharing agreement is being hammered out by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The initial part of that understanding was the al-Zahra Charter, which attempted to disarm the Shia militias, leaving use of force solely in the hands of the government. Iran has pushed hard for this, in an attempt to keep the Iraqi government beholden to the Islamic Republic.

Between the overt influence of Shia Iran and the depredations of fundamentalist groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, it is no wo nder Rishawi and other Sunni tribal leaders turned to the Americans. They realised they had to get what weapons and backing they could while it was possible. Only thus would they be in a position to defend themselves against Shia militias, the largely Shia government and its Iranian backers when the Americans withdrew.

There is also the fear that the US withdrawal could provoke Sunni nations bordering Iraq to support their fellow believers in a nasty war by proxy. Such a possibility, reinforced by the US's "isolate Iran" diplomacy, makes regional leaders nervous.

In a demonstration of how keen it is to isolate Iran, the US has been arming its authoritarian Arab allies in parallel with Israel. Israel is to receive military aid of £15bn a year over the next ten years, up 25 per cent from present levels. Egypt will receive £6.5bn, while the Saudis will get an arms package of satellite-guided weaponry and other hi-tech munitions worth £10.2bn.

When Bush visited the region in January he repeated often and publicly his theme that Sunni Arabs had to face down Iran "before it's too late". The cautious Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, played down the antagonism, insisting that "Iran is a neighbouring country, an important country in the region. Naturally we have nothing bad against Iran."

But he was not being entirely sincere. Reports suggest that Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt and Jordan, could be intending to demonstrate animosity to Iran's friends by sending only officials to this month's Arab League summit in Damascus. Arab leaders are critical of Syrian ties with Iran and Hezbollah, and of their meddling in Lebanon, putting them in what King Abdullah of Jordan has referred to as a new "crescent" of dominant Shia movements or governments - from Iran through Iraq, Syria and into Lebanon. Speaking to the Washington Post in 2004, the king warned: "If Iraq [becomes an] Islamic republic, then, yes, we've opened ourselves to a whole set of new problems that will not be limited to the borders of Iraq."

Maintaining the unity of Iraq has been a core US aim throughout the past five years, but the turbulence of a pullout could, in addition to aggravating antipathy between Sunnis and Shias, result in the Kurdish north declaring independence. After the First World War, the ethnic territory of the Kurds was split by the imperial powers between Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The consequent struggle for Kurdish independence is closest to fulfilment in northern Iraq. Unsurprisingly, the central government finds itself at odds with Erbil's regional government over who should control local oil revenues.

The issue of independence is focused, in Kurdish eyes, on control of Kirkuk. The decision as to whether Kirkuk remains Arab or becomes Kurdish is due to be made by the end of June; but the issue is so contentious and potentially explosive that it has already been shelved three times since the downfall of Saddam, and will probably be delayed again.

Meanwhile, Turkey fears that independence for Iraqi Kurds would encourage its own Kurdish separatists, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). In the past few weeks, Turkish forces have entered Iraq to attack PKK fighters operating from the Qandil Mountains. Despite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice making it clear that "no one should do anything that threatens to destabilise the north", US forces in northern Iraq have, over the past six months, helped to facilitate Turkish military operations at the border.

It is already a year since that hot afternoon when General Petraeus and Sheik al-Rishawi talked of their plans to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq. The success of the "surge" cannot be denied, but there are long-term implications for the balance of power in the region. The borders that resulted from the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, held so sacrosanct by today's governments and diplomats, may be about to change.

George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defence, planned the war, but not the peace. They should have paid attention to the known unknowns.

Tim Lambon is assistant foreign editor of Channel 4 News

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us

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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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