Nowhere else to go

It is too easy to believe that anyone who votes for the BNP in the 3 May elections is a racist or a

Under grey skies at Oldham Athletic football ground, a group of schoolkids stands on the steps of our 1964 double-decker anti-racism bus, wearing Hope Not Hate T-shirts. All except one boy, a pale-faced 11-year-old in an ill-fitting school uniform, who is standing at the back of the bus studying the floor.

"Come on, lad!" his teacher calls out. The boy stamps his feet one after the other. His expression says he wishes he were invisible. In big letters behind him, a sign reads: "Celebrating Modern Britain".

"Come on, J!" His friends are calling him. He drags off his hoodie and pulls on a yellow Hope Not Hate T-shirt over his white school shirt. He takes his place on the steps of the bus for the photograph. J turns out to have a lovely smile.

"That's a big step for him," one of the mums says. "His family are all BNP. It's more than 40 per cent on our estate voted for BNP in the last election." When I ask her why, she shrugs. "Because there's nowhere else to go," she says, in a matter-of-fact way. "Not really, when you think about it. Working families feel let down by Labour. It's like it's a London party for southerners. It's all about spin. There's Iraq and all that. Local lads dying out there from the regiments round here - cannon fodder." And why isn't she voting for them? "Because they aren't a proper party, that's what people don't realise. They're not like the other parties. They're extremists as bad as the ones in the mosques."

On 3 May, the British National Party will contest a record number of seats in the local elections. A total of 827 across England and Scotland, and more than twice the number the party has ever fielded before. The Hope Not Hate battle bus - which took a 1,700-mile drunk's scribble of a journey from London to Glasgow organised by the Daily Mirror and Searchlight - was an attempt to engage with those parts of the country most likely to connect with a far-right message.

It also turns out to be a tour of an angry, alienated Britain - the estates and shopping centres and market towns mainstream politics is no longer reaching. On estate after city centre, supermarket after community hall, we meet the same feeling that there is no longer any party left to speak for the working man or his wife or children, or his elderly parents.

At times our trip on a 1964 Leyland Titan with a grindingly slow top speed of 38mph (downhill and in fair winds), without such mod cons as heating or a petrol gauge, feels like a journey into a vacuum, the ground vacated by the political parties as they rush to the milk-and-honey heartland of Middle England. Every day brings its own surreal hybrid of celebrity visits to soap opera sets, interviews with pop stars, tea on sink estates and leafleting of supermarket car parks.

We meet people left on council waiting lists for housing, whose estates are no-go at night because of antisocial behaviour, and whose schools are failing and knife-ridden. People whose experience of the NHS is distressing and whose home is between two burnt-out properties.

One day in the West Midlands we spend a morning with white working-class shoppers, followed by Sugababes, and then an evening eating baltis and drinking Guinness at a Sikh-Irish pub.

In Thurrock, in Essex, a man tells us proudly that the local BNP candidate is a young woman in her twenties. "Not a thug with a pit bull," he says. I find this strangely shocking, as if women shouldn't be fascists, or at least young people should be idealists.

He looks at me curiously. "Maybe she is an idealist. Have you thought of that?"

It is too easy to believe that everyone voting for the BNP is a racist or a fool, when in fact it is no coincidence that the party is flourishing in old industrial areas where jobs are scarce and hope is thin on the ground.

In the BNP heartland of Dagenham, where the car industry has been ravaged, BNP leaflets are fresh in the doorways of the estates, and the party's presence is strong in the old mill towns and the once-proud Potteries. In the multiply disadvantaged Sandwell, the BNP 4x4 follows us at a distance, watching the kids come and take the badges and balloons.

In the towns where Tory recession and abandonment have bled into the disinterest of the national Labour Party, nationalism is both listening and offering a voice to quiet, bottled-up rage.

As we trundle through Leicester and Lincoln, Nottingham and Sheffield, we meet the same faces again and again - men and women who feel ignored, put upon, let down. These are the communities spitefully mocked by the middle classes, who prefer to caricature the "chav" underclass as feckless, ignorant and thuggish. Yet if you ask them they'll tell you it is Westminster that isn't "bovvered".

In Yorkshire, we meet Andy Sykes, a former BNP organiser turned anti-racist, who tells us why he joined the party in 2002. "I started going to meetings because I was afraid," he explains. "I started believing the stuff they were pushing through my letter box about paedophiles and rapists and murderers."

The BNP understands that people are feeling frightened and abandoned. It is slipping into the vacuum left by mainstream politics and setting out its stall, countered only by handfuls of local activists and MPs.

They don't tell people that they didn't support England in the World Cup because of its black players, or that their constitution states that a black or Asian person can never be British. They raise valid issues and then exploit them with dizzying distortions, a bombardment of half-truths and semi-facts, all in a language littered with buzzwords designed to inflame feelings of outrage and paranoia: paedophilia, jobs, Islam, 7/7, immigration. They find a tiny blister and then they rub and rub until it is a running sore.

They will tell you it is because of asylum-seekers that your grandmother's heart operation is being delayed - when in fact the amount given to asylum-seekers is less than 1 per cent of what is spent on the National Health Service each year. They will say these people are bringing tuberculosis into the country and that they are criminals, when the British Medical Association refutes any claim about TB and the Association of Chief Police Officers confirms there is no higher rate of criminality among asylum-seekers (and that, in fact, asylum-seekers are far more likely to become victims than perpetrators of crime).

They speak to people's perception that crime - especially violent crime - is on the rise and that eventually all the jobs they can do (and it's all right for Middle Englanders in their gated communities, plugging in by laptop to a global job market) will have gone abroad, and they'll wake up one day and everyone will be speaking Hindi or in that homogenised black-white patois common to inner-city youth.

And all the while, the same language is being whispered by extremist Muslim leaders to young black and Asian youths in our young offenders' institutions, sink estates and prisons: "No one is listening to you, except us. You are nothing, nobody to anyone but us."

Towering heroes

We met some towering heroes on our tour: the boxing legend Brendan Ingle - trainer of Prince Naseem, Herol "Bomber" Graham and, now, a generation of white and Asian Sheffield kids; Chris Keen on the deprived Stoops Estate in Burnley, a great big ex-rugby player of a community worker; Joe Sargonis, a Nottingham Forest football coach offering teenagers alternatives to gun culture.

But if I could have taken the alienated voters of Dagenham anywhere, it would have been to Oliver's Gym, a sweat-soaked, old-fashioned boxing club on a Salford industrial estate.

Here is J the schoolboy's biggest idol, effortlessly jumping rope - a 5ft 10in British Pakistani Olympic boxing hero. "Look at that gym in there," Amir Khan says, taking a breather. "English, Jamaican, Pakistani, Irish, we all train together. We're all treated equal and we all treat each other the same."

According to the BNP, Khan shouldn't be allowed to represent Great Britain. And, with more candidates than the National Front contested at its peak during the Seventies - as the BNP website boasts - there is a real danger that it will increase its foothold in some groups on 3 May.

Some, of course, are only paper candidates, but the party is standing full slates of regional candidates in areas such as Stoke, Leeds, Thurrock and Sunderland, as well as Scotland and Wales. Once elected, these candidates acquire no track record of doing anything to help communities. In fact, it rather suits them if alienation worsens, because they already have their scapegoats in place.

Still, Khan, at least, is optimistic.

"I think racism's going to die out," he says, jumping up into the driving seat of our bus. "It's got to, right? 'Cos in the end, what's the colour of your skin got to do with anything?"

Ros Wynne-Jones is senior feature writer for the Daily Mirror. http://www.mirror.co.uk/hopenothate

Ros Wynne-Jones writes about poverty in the UK and abroad for the Daily Mirror and The Independent.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Tearing down the "caliphate": on the frontline against Islamic State in Mosul

Truck bombs and drone warfare in the fight to take back Iraq’s second city from Islamic State.

The battle to retake west Mosul began, for me, rattling around in an armoured Humvee with two Abaases. “I’m Abaas One. He’s Abaas Two,” the driver, Abaas Almsebawy, said in English with a broad smile, pointing to the gunner on top.

“I have killed two Da’esh,” Abaas Two said, using an Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State (IS). “Well, one for sure. The other one crawled away but he was bleeding badly. I was told he died.”

Abaas One was jealous of his gunner’s luck. He was shot twice by IS in the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq; he still had a bullet lodged in his back. “The doctor said it is my gift from Da’esh,” he told me and laughed.

Over the sound of gunfire and mortars, the two Abaases called out to each other, giving directions, spotting targets. The cry of “Abaaaaas!” was constantly in the air. One from Babylon, the other from Baghdad, they stretched out on a felt blanket inside the armoured vehicle during lulls in the fighting and fell asleep, oblivious to its discomforts and the IS mortars landing outside.

They had been involved in the fighting in the east of the city, which it had taken 100 days to recapture, in hard, street-by-street clashes and through an onslaught of IS car and truck bombs. Yet the battle to retake the west, which began on Sunday 19 February and is being led by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division (ERD) and counterterrorism forces, has proved different – and faster.

Abaas One, the driver, was exhilarated. As Iraqi army helicopters flew overhead and the air force strafed villages with machine-gun fire and rockets, he rolled on, part of an armoured assault on a front that stretched for miles. His Humvee was built for this kind of terrain, moving at speed across the desert towards villages, the airport and eventually the city of Mosul.

Something else was different about this battle, too. These men were not technically soldiers: they were policemen. Abaas One went into battle in a hooded top and a leather jacket. Stuck outside manning his gun, Abaas Two, like a fighter from another age, wore a greatcoat, small, circular spectacles and a woolly hat. One lean and broad-shouldered, the other bulky and round-faced, they were a contrast but a good fit.

The Abaases were part of Iraq’s elite ERD, which has led the charge into the west of the city, just as the country’s heralded “Golden Division”, the counterterrorism unit, had pushed into the east. The ERD, part of the ministry of interior, is the less experienced junior brother of the battle-hardened Golden Division but it was determined that west Mosul would be its prize. It made swift progress and, as it took back village after village from IS, troops posed for selfies with enemy corpses on the roadside.

The closer to Mosul you were, the more charred bodies you would see, lying along the route. Two in a ditch, killed by a mortar, and two on the road, the motorcycle they were travelling on cut in half by an air strike.

In command of the 1st Brigade was Colonel Falah al-Wabdan. In Ramadi in 2015, he and his men had been cut off and surrounded by IS forces and had escaped only when more troops came to their rescue.

As he stood on the ruins of a former palace that had belonged to one of Saddam Hussein’s brothers, he had a view of all of Mosul. “I will be very glad when I see my forces move forward,” he said. “Also [when I see that] my soldiers are all safe. And I will be even happier when we have killed IS. These people [IS] are like a disease in the body, and we are now removing it, day after day.”

From there, the Iraqi forces took the town of Abu Saif, and then, in a six-hour battle, what was left of Mosul’s airport. Its runways were in ruins and its terminal buildings reduced to rubble. Yet that was the last open ground before they reached the city. By the end of the week, Colonel Falah’s forces had breached the IS defences. Now they were heading into the dense and narrow streets of the city’s old town. Meanwhile, the elite Golden Division was the secondary force, having earlier been bogged down in heavy fighting.

The competition between the two rival divisions had helped to accelerate the advance. The ERD, however, had a secret weapon. “We need to ask your men to hold off, sir. We have helicopters in the air,” the US special forces officer told an Iraqi lieutenant colonel on the rooftop as the assault on Abu Saif was in full force.

The Iraqi mortar team in the orchard and olive grove below held fire. Then the mighty thud of coalition air strikes could be heard and, just two miles away, a huge, grey cloud rose above the town.

 

***

It is Iraqis who are doing most of the fighting and the dying in the battle against IS, but since the Pentagon relaxed its rules of engagement late last year more Americans are at or near the front lines. They are calling in air strikes and laying down fire from their MRAP (“mine-resistant ambush-protected”) vehicles. They are not in uniform but, despite being a covert force, they are conspicuous and still wear the Stars and Stripes on their helmets. When journalists, especially cameramen, approach, they turn their backs.

In and around Mosul, it is more common now to get stuck in a traffic jam of US vehicles: either artillery or route-clearance teams. The Pentagon will soon respond to President Donald Trump’s call for a new plan – an intensification of US efforts against IS – but on the ground around this city, the Americans are already much more engaged in the fight against the militants.

British special forces were also in the area, in small numbers. Unlike their American counterparts, they went unseen.

Also seemingly absent in the early part of the offensive were civilians. It was three days before I met one: a shepherd, Ali Sultan Ali, who told me that he had only stayed behind because he could not get his flock to safety, as a nearby bridge had been destroyed.

As his sheep grazed, Ali explained: “They continued to attack this area, and now we are three days sitting in our homes, unable to go out because of attack and mortars . . . All the people, they have left this area one after another. They went to the east of the city of Mosul and they rented houses there because there are too many attacks here.”

Almost 60,000 people have fled west Mosul. In this area, with its population of three-quarters of a million, the battle has the potential to become a humanitarian crisis. Camps for internally displaced people still have capacity, but they are filling up.

IS, with anywhere between 500 and a few thousand fighters inside Mosul, is again using the local population as cover. But coalition air strikes may be taking a heavy toll on civilians, too. Officially, the US-led force claims that 21 civilians have died as a result of its bombs since November, but an independent monitoring group, Airwars, suggests that as many as 370 have been killed by Western aircraft since the start of March.

After the airport was recaptured, the columns of desperate people heading south began to thicken. The children among them usually held a white flag – perhaps a clever distraction thought up by terrified parents for their long walk to safety. Near the airport, I met a man who was too distraught to give his name. He told me that his brother’s family – six people – had been killed in an air strike. With his eyes red from crying and a blanket over his shoulders, he stood by the roadside, pleading. “For God’s sake,” he said. “We need you to help us. We need a shovel to get the dead bodies out of the building, because there are still two bodies under that building.”

But the battle was reaching a new pitch around him, so he left for a camp to look for his brother, the only remaining member of his family, he told me.

When the ERD finally made it inside the city, the first thing I noticed was the fresh laundry hanging in the yard of a family house. Then I heard a huge explosion as an IS truck bomb slammed into one of the Iraqi Abrams tanks.

The tank trundled on regardless and, by nightfall, the ERD had a tiny foothold inside the city: the al-Josak neighbourhood.

 

***

 

Islamic State is steadily losing Mosul and in Iraq, at least, the end of the so-called caliphate is in sight. In Abu Saif, state forces found the corpses of foreign fighters and, hiding, an IS operative who was still alive.

“He’s Russian,” one officer told me, but the man might have been from one of the central Asian republics. There were dead Syrians on the battlefield, too, men from Deir az-Zour; and for the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who joined IS, Syria will likely be a last refuge.

There may be another reason for the faster pace of the assault in west Mosul. The Iraqi forces, having fought IS in Ramadi, Fallujah and east Mosul, are getting better at dealing with the militant group’s tactics.

Truck bombs took a huge toll on their men in eastern Mosul. It is hard to describe the force unleashed when one of these detonates near you. In an early assault on one village, IS sent out four truck bombs and one of them exploded a few hundred metres from where I was standing. The shock wave ripped around the building and shards of engine went flying over our heads. My mouth was full of dirt. The debris was scattered for what seemed like miles around – yet no one died.

The suicide attack driver may have been taken out by an Iraqi soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Whenever they advance now, men stand ready with RPGs, specifically to tackle the threat of car bombs. And they are becoming better at “hasty defence”. An armoured bulldozer is always in the lead. When a new street is taken, defensive berms made of mud or rubble are built to halt any speeding car bombs.

The IS fighters are crafty. Iraqi forces took me to a house on a captured street. Its yard was covered and the front wall was gone. Parked in the front room was what looked like an ambulance. Hidden from surveillance aircraft, this was another truck bomb.

“It’s still live. I wouldn’t go any further,” a major warned me. Even the bomb disposal team said that it was too dangerous to touch. It was later destroyed from a very safe distance.

Although the group violently suppresses modernity, IS fighters are innovators. They have no air force but they can get their hands on drones, which are commercially available, and they have “weaponised” them. If the battle for east Mosul was the attack of the car bombs, the battle for the west began as a drone war.

For the men on the ground, IS drones are enormously disconcerting. During a gun battle in west Mosul, I stopped to speak to some troops taking cover behind a wall. As I asked a final question, the captain I was talking to cupped his ear and leaned forward because of a sudden eruption of gunfire. Then, just to my right, I felt a shock wave of a detonation that seemed to come from nowhere.

A member of the BBC team was hit, receiving a small blast injury to the arm. When we got back to the Humvee, the driver explained that there had been a drone above us. The gunfire was from Iraqi troops trying to bring it down. The detonation had not come from nowhere; it had come from directly overhead. As we drove out of there, I noticed that the gunner had closed the hatch. We were protected inside, but he was outside manning his weapon, looking for more drones.

“They drop MK19 40mm grenades from the drones to stop the movements forward. All the time, they will use four to five drones to attack one location,” Captain Ali Razak Nama of the federal police explained. “As you know, we can’t always see these drones with our eyes, but if we do see them we can attack the drones with our rifles. [But] when we go into the battle, we are not looking at the skies. We are looking ahead of us for car bombs, suicide attackers, IEDs or snipers.”

A unit of the Golden Division was hit 70 times in a single day by wave upon wave of IS drones. The operator managed to drop a grenade inside a Humvee from above; all four men inside, members of a bomb disposal unit, were killed. Dozens more were injured that day.

The sound of a drone, even one of their own, is enough to make the Iraqi forces hit the dirt and scramble under a vehicle. They are difficult to bring down. I once watched as snipers and heavy machine-gunners opened fire on some drones; they managed to strike one but still it flew on.

The IS fighters control them from motorcycles in an attempt to prevent the operators being tracked and killed. They switch frequencies in the hope that they will not be jammed. Yet as a coalition commander told me: “The enemy aren’t going to win by dropping grenades from the sky. So it is certainly not a game-changer.” Iraqi and coalition forces now appear to be having success in countering the threat. Just how, they will not say, but in recent days there has been a “very significant” drop in their use.

 

***

 

Mosul has been the biggest battle for Iraqi forces against Islamic State, but commander after commander said that others had been tougher. In Ramadi and in Fallujah, IS had a better grip. In Mosul, the local people have been quicker to turn away from the militants.

In the eastern part of the city, the bazaars are busy again and children have returned to school. Girls are receiving education for the first time in nearly three years, since IS captured the city. The so-called caliphate was declared on 29 June 2014 and, four days later the new “caliph” and IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only filmed appearance, delivering a sermon at the city’s al-Nuri Mosque. Iraqi forces are now in sight of the mosque, with its Ottoman-era leaning minaret.

Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and has a cosmopolitan heritage, but Islamists had influence here for many years before IS arrived. As one Mosulawi told me, after neglect by the Iraqi capital, “There is discontent with Baghdad, not support for Isis.”

Al-Baghdadi is believed to have fled the city already. According to US and Iraqi commanders, he is hiding out in the desert. Shia militiamen and Iraqi army forces are attempting to seal off escape routes to the west, into Syria. Yet senior commanders accept that in a city Mosul’s size, it will be impossible to close all escape routes. Capturing al-Baghdadi is not a priority, they say.

There is also an acknowledgement that neither his death nor the loss of Mosul will be the end of Islamic State. But in Iraq, at least, it will destroy the caliphate.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain