The predictable slaughter

"Shock and Awe" killed very few Iraqis, but the inept implementation of regime change has let loose

There is that moment when the snackering sound of a rifle being cocked makes you pay attention. And three camouflage-uniformed members of the new Iraqi National Police had just cocked their AK assault rifles. The half-dozen grey-patterned US soldiers standing protectively in front of the man in the grey shirt were now paying attention. Later, they said they thought they were about to get into what the US military calls an "escalation of force situation". But, with a lot of shouting and pushing, and a deal of finessing by Lieutenant Ford and his interpreter, the situation was eventually defused.

Last weekend, Channel 4 News's Nick Paton Walsh and I were in the district of Shula, right beside the famous Umm al-Mahare ("Mother of All Battles") mosque in north-western Baghdad, travelling with a search patrol as it cleared the half-built villas dotted over the marshy land around the mosque. The morning's work had been un event ful. Around eleven, the Iraqi police patrol accompanying the platoon from the US 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment announced that we had to look for a car. Apparently, there were "terrorists" in an Opel or Mercedes-Benz on the other side of the mosque. The joint patrol rapidly set off across sheep-riddled wasteland. Within minutes, the lead Humvee had stopped an Opel. Inside were two men, well dressed in the smart casual clothes of the Iraqi middle classes.

It quickly became obvious from the shouting and waving of weapons that the Iraqi National Police felt these two should be terminated. Realising this, the American lieutenant moved his men into defensive positions around the detainees, having to extricate one of them from a pasting being administered by several police officers. This quickly put him at odds with his comrades-in-arms. Later, he said he had feared there was a moment when they were about to be attacked by the police patrol.

At the time, I felt sure that the only people in danger were the detainees, but the US soldiers were really spooked. The lieutenant explained that the Iraqi police had become agitated when the men, on being questioned, produced documents showing that they worked for US intelligence. They were also Sunni. In a Shia area. And had been apprehended by an INP patrol that was completely Shia.

That is why this little incident is so revealing and showed the problem of Iraq in a microcosm. I have been reporting from Iraq since the Iran-Iraq war of the Eighties, but more recently during the latest upheaval since 2002. I witnessed the "Shock and Awe" air campaign from a balcony of the Palestine Hotel. That extraordinary display of firepower killed hardly anyone, and the actual war itself killed very few.

But the evil genie unleashed by an inept execution of regime change in Iraq has been horrifying to watch. Since I was last here in December, the Shia-dominated government has rushed Saddam Hussein to his ignominious end and the place now seems somehow hollow.

I would never mourn the old killer, but it seems obvious that he and his Ba'ath Party thugs held this secularised Arab nation together, as well as in thrall. Now the nastiness is barefaced, the bitterness of the oppressed is expressed in their revenge, and criminality is given free rein.

As is now commonly acknowledged, the invaders have found themselves in something of a quandary. Resistance to the "liberation", initially laid at the door of the former Ba'athists and al-Qaeda, changed subtly after the White House forced Iraq into an election that returned a Shia majority. The newly legitimised authority of the majority has since allowed the age-old fight between Sunnis and Shias to flare up - to the point where a death toll of "only" 1,531 in February this year is seen as an improvement on the monthly figures for the second half of 2006.

As the incident last Saturday showed, increasingly, most Sunnis need the US to stay so that the democracy the Bush administration bequeathed the country doesn't turn out to be a death sentence for them.

Lieutenant-Colonel Nikolas, commander of the 2nd Battalion, says the Baghdad security plan designates Shula as a quiet neigh bourhood requiring only an "economy of force" to police it. But then it is not run by the US troops who patrol there daily, nor by the INP, nor by the Kurdish Iraqi army battalion stationed there. Shula is run by Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi militia, who, for the moment, have hidden their weapons and changed out of their black fatigues while the Baghdad security plan proceeds.

Time is on their side. They need the plan to give the US the sense that things have calmed down. They also need the US to beat the Sunni groups, such as al-Qaeda, which fight both of them, while they consolidate their turf. Then, when the US begins to withdraw, they can finish the job of making sure that the Sunnis are completely broken.

Lieutenant Colonel Nikolas is under no misapprehension. He knows he is being used. But he's an officer with the lives of his men at risk and a job to be done, so he's going "hammer and tongs to sort out this area" south of Shula, along the Jordan-Syria highway out to Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. Every day, one of his companies patrolling the area comes under attack. They believe they have dislodged resident al-Qaeda Sunni insurgents from the blocks of shoddily built middle-class villas, but the attacks, although reduced, have not stopped.

At the same time, Nikolas has stabilised a "creeping front line" where the Mahdi Shia militia was pushing south from Shula into Ghazaliya in a spate of ethnic cleansing.

"They [the Sunnis] needed us to stop them being pushed out by the Shias from the north. We're doing that. But their brethren to the south make it real difficult," he says referring to the insurgent attacks from near the highway.

Thus, at every level, Americans are having to come to terms with the reality they have created. From Lieutenant Ford, protecting two men on the ground in the salt marshes of Shula, through Colonel Nikolas, working in an area where whole districts have to be protected, to the president in the White House, who has to juggle the complexity of power politics between Sunnis and Shias at an international level, the problem remains the same. It's only the scale that differs.

"It seems we're caught right in the middle of this," said Lieutenant Ford.

No kidding.

Tim Lambon is assistant foreign editor of "Channel 4 News". He is embedded with the US military in Iraq, in part of the Baghdad Security Plan

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war

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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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