A country for old men

When George W Bush gives his last State of the Union address, a milestone will be passed. But don't

On Monday 28 January, the increasingly pathetic figure of George W Bush will make his way slowly down the centre aisle of the House of Representatives for what, to the relief of most of the rest of the world, will be his last State of the Union address. This is one of those egregiously unreal American rituals where reality is turned on its head: America's 43rd president may have made America more hated than it has ever been before, caused mass slaughter in Iraq, and brought economic recession into millions of American homes, but he will be greeted with wild enthusiasm by backslapping Democrats and Republicans alike, as though he really is the cleverest fellow in the world.

Detachment from reality, though, is an innate American characteristic. It enables a country of 300 million people to convince itself it really is the progenitor of democracy and fine values across the globe, evidence notwithstanding. For exactly this reason, I must issue a government health warning: do not assume the Democrats will win this year's presidential election. The Republicans are not only better and more ruthless campaigners, but a new wind of hope is imperceptibly starting to sweep through their ranks.

In the past week, in fact, seismic but virtually unnoticed shifts have been happening in the polls. I will explain the fickleness and unpredictable chaos of the 2008 presidential campaign in a moment, but all of a sudden 71-year-old Senator John McCain is the Republican front-runner in all nine of the leading American polls I track - no fewer than 15 points ahead in the CBS News/ New York Times one, and by 14 in that of USA Today/Gallup. Hillary Clinton remains the Democratic front-runner in all nine polls, too.

But here's the real shocker: if you amalgamate the results of the four polling organisations that routinely pose the question, McCain would beat Clinton by four points in the 4 November election. Should Barack Obama be his opponent, McCain would still win by 1.3 points (don't ask me to explain the logic of this). The Republicans, meanwhile, still have three candidates - McCain, the former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, the former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, and the former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee. Fred Thompson, former senator, withdrew after a disappointing result in South Carolina and is expected to urge his (by no means negligible) supporters to switch to McCain, a close personal friend.

Few in the world hate Bush more viscerally than McCain, whose political insurgency among the Republicans in 2000 was destroyed when vicious rumours about him - for example, that his five and a half years as a prisoner of the Vietcong had left him mentally unstable, or that he had fathered a black child (actually a little girl from Bangladesh whom he and his wife had adopted) - were spread throughout South Carolina. Bush duly won the Republican primary in that vital first southern state, and from that moment his progression to the White House was assured.

McCain had the satisfaction of winning South Carolina eight years later on 19 January, leaving the Reverend Huckabee (he is also an ordained Baptist minister) trailing second in the Bible Belt state many expected him to take after his Iowa victory, and winning more than twice as many votes as either Romney or Giuliani. Exit polls also showed, crucially, that McCain cornered the moderate vote in his first primary victory in New Hampshire on 8 January, and those of the evangelicals in South Carolina - a potent combination.

Reality check

So, perhaps it's poetic justice that McCain has Bush to thank as much as anybody for this success. His support for the Iraq War seemed to have doomed him as recently as just before Christmas, but the American people really are increasingly convinced that the ludicrously meaningless "surge" in Iraq (an adroit PR trick dreamt up by Karl Rove, I'm told) is actually working - another example of America's ability to suspend its disbelief, and a notion we will doubtless hear echoed several times over by Bush in his State of the Union address. See, we knew it would all come out right in the end, didn't we?

But before we get carried away, let's have a reality check. The polls unanimously predicted that Obama would trounce Clinton in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire - which she, in fact, won by a clear margin. And in 2008, most conspicuously of all, the illogical system of caucuses and primaries is finally beginning to fall apart (just as I hear voices from across the Atlantic urging Britain to adopt the system). The caucuses and primaries that began this month will reach a crescendo on "Super Tuesday", 5 Feb ruary, when - by the latest count - voters in as many as 23 states will go to the polls, far more than ever before on a single day.

Democrats will probably hold contests in 22 states and one US territory on that crucial Tuesday, picking 52 per cent of their delegates who will go to the Democratic party convention at the Pepsi Centre in Denver on 25 to 28 August - pledged, in accordance with the electoral outcomes, to support one of the candidates and then enthrone him or her as the official Democratic presidential candidate. Republicans will probably vote in 21 states, choosing 41 per cent of their delegates pledged to do the same with their candidate at the Republican convention at the Xcel Energy Centre in St Paul, Minnesota, at the start of September. If you consider that only roughly 4 per cent of delegates have been chosen so far, two clear winners should have emerged by 6 February - long before the final primaries in South Dakota, New Mexico and Montana on 3 June. Dead easy. Good old American democracy will have triumphed again. But this is the presidential election where anything can happen: it's not inconceivable that one or both candidates will end up being selected in brokered conventions in what used to be called smoke-filled rooms.

I say "probably" about the voting on 5 February, because the chaos is such that states and parties are still squabbling over exactly who will vote and when. Rules and regulations differ in each party and state. The confusion is worse with the Democrats: Obama may have comfortably won the first Democratic caucus in Iowa on 3 January but, the next day, because of the Democrats' arcane procedures, Clinton had 215 delegates in the bag compared with his 126. Clinton then beat Obama in both New Hampshire and Nevada, but they won the same number of delegates in New Hampshire and Obama even came out one delegate ahead of Clinton in Nevada.

Or let's take another absurdity. The polls have Obama easily beating Clinton in South Carolina on 26 January and thus taking its 45 Democratic delegates. But then Clinton is streaking miles ahead of Obama in Florida for its 29 January primary, just as she was for Michigan's on 15 January. But Clinton will take none of Michigan's 174 or Florida's 210 delegates because each state jumped the gun in the race to hold the early primary elections, and Democratic Party rules mean that voting in both states must be ignored. Democrats in the hugely important states of Michigan and Florida have therefore, in effect, been disenfranchised in this year's crucial presidential primaries.

Roller coaster

Phew. These are just two of many possible examples that illustrate just how confusing and wild a roller coaster the 2008 presidential campaign is turning out to be. Less than a month ago, lest we forget, it was Giuliani who was soaring in all the Republican polls, only to sink without trace.

Yet it's too soon to write off even his chances: he took the strategic decision to concentrate most of his campaign funds and efforts on Florida rather than the other early states, and should he even scrape through there on 29 January he will win all 57 of Florida's Republican delegates. In one blow, that would hurtle him to the front of the Republican pack; with the same illogic as the Democrats, Romney has the most Republican delegates with 59, compared to Huckabee's 40 and McCain's 36.

The firmest prediction I have allowed myself is that the election in November will end up being between Clinton and Romney, and I see no reason to change, though the unpredictability of Campaign 2008 is such that I could easily be wrong on both counts. Following their increasingly rancorous exchanges, for example, Clinton and Obama could mutually self-destruct and let the former senator John Edwards in to take the Democratic nomination.

And the Republicans? McCain has that enviable ability to make you think you are a lifelong friend after only a few seconds' conversation, but has age against him, has battled with serious cancer and is ultimately a maverick and born insurgent; Romney is a less personally likeable company man, literally and figuratively, but has the backing of the Republican Establishment.

The Democrats must now unexpectedly face the fact that either would be difficult to beat in November, which is why Republicans are just beginning to stir and scent Democratic blood. Suddenly, the days of the man whose back they will slap with such fake enthusiasm on Monday night seem to be numbered; a milestone has quietly passed and, in less than a year, the nightmare of George W Bush will have receded and a new president will be in the White House.

If the current polls have caught the mood of the nation, it could just be a Republican one yet again.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer

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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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