The Daily Telegraph headline was categorical: “RAF kills British jihadists in Syria to save the Queen”. That seems reasonable enough. We cannot rely solely on God to save the Queen, particularly given that, as I understand it, he is the Muslims’ God as well as ours. When even God’s loyalties are uncertain, we should be thankful for the protection offered by our steadfast Prime Minister, who apparently commanded our armed services to act – without bothering with piffling legalities or parliamentary approval – while also displaying the compassion to save 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. Perhaps we should all pray to David Cameron in future.
Before we trust in his omniscience and benevolence, however, we should try to establish some facts. These are hard to come by. In his Commons statement, Cameron said only that, in an “act of self-defence” – which the Attorney General ruled to be legal, presumably under Article 51 of the UN Charter – two jihadists, both British citizens, were killed by a drone attack in Syria on 21 August. A third Briton was killed by a US strike three days later. Cameron explained that “we are dealing with people who are producing such a tempo of terrorist attacks – attacks on police and members of the armed services, attempted attacks on commemorations in our country”.
So when and where did these attacks or attempted attacks take place? Who tried to carry them out and how? How were they stopped and by whom? Have any arrests been made? Will anybody be tried in court? What role did the three dead Britons in Syria play? Pleading “issues of national security”, Cameron sidesteps all such questions. Even the details of the Attorney General’s advice are unavailable. We just have to accept his good faith and that of Cameron, the intelligence chiefs and the military.
Haven’t we been here before?
Attacks? Check the diary
If Cameron was grudging with details, newspapers weren’t. Quoting “sources”, they offered varying accounts of when the Queen – and possibly a few dozen more insignificant and entirely dispensable people – had been threatened. The Telegraph plumped for the VJ Day commemoration service last month. The Times preferred the VE Day events in May and Armed Forces Day in June, though the Queen didn’t attend the latter. The Sun also favoured VE Day but added Anzac Day in April. Most papers were clear that another, future attack had been “foiled” by the killings in Syria. What was this planned attack? The Queen is in Balmoral until mid-October. No major public events involving her are scheduled until Remembrance Day in November, but no newspaper mentioned that occasion.
The attacks, whenever they were supposed to happen, were allegedly “foiled” without British citizens, or anyone else, being killed. Why is it now necessary to take such drastic action to avoid a hypothetical attack on some unspecified future occasion?
Saved by the Sun and Sky
A few clues to what may be going on emerge from looking back over the summer’s newspapers. “IS plot to bomb UK today”, was the Sun’s headline on 27 June, Armed Forces Day. Junaid Hussain, the Briton later killed in the US drone strike, plotted to kill soldiers using a suicide bomb made of a pressure cooker, nails, rat poison and other household goods. Unfortunately (for him), he sent the instructions, through an encrypted online messaging service, to an undercover Sun reporter, who then “alerted police”.
On 9 August, the Mail on Sunday reported “Jihadis’ VJ Day plot to bomb Queen”. It originated in Syria but was to be carried out by IS supporters in Britain. This also involved “a deadly pressure-cooker bomb”. Only after several paragraphs elaborating this alarming information did readers learn that “terrorists . . . have the intent to carry out such an atrocity but do not yet have the capability to turn the device into a lethal device”. They had to wait a few more days to learn, from the Sky News website, where the story came from. Sally Jones, the wife of Junaid Hussain (she is also in Syria), had informed “fictional characters created online by Sky” not only of the “VJ Day plot”, but of three potential bombers ready to carry it out. Sky passed this to the Metropolitan Police and, although the Met denies leaking it, the story then found its way to the MoS.
These tales suggest the IS “masterminds” in Syria, especially Mr and Mrs Hussain, can’t distinguish between undercover hacks and bona fide potential terrorists and that their UK recruits can’t make workable bombs. Are we sure, now we’ve killed these people, that Isis won’t replace them with more competent operators?
I shall miss BBC4 if Tony Hall, the BBC’s financially beleaguered director general, closes it down. True, I don’t watch it much but I like to know it’s there if I have the time and desire for something classy and mildly cerebral. For similar reasons, I used to like Rupert Murdoch’s two Sky Arts channels, which usually had something I might watch, such as an original drama or a classical music concert. Now one channel is closed and the other, on a typical recent evening, featured an hour to two hours each of Dolly Parton, Abba, the Hollies, the Jam and the Sex Pistols, with half an hour of Bach. Sky Arts 2 probably existed only because Murdoch, at the time, hoped to get his ill-fated bid for the whole of BSkyB through the competition authorities.
One doesn’t usually expect much choice from Murdoch who, after all, has to make a profit. Now, thanks to the Tories, we probably won’t get it from the BBC either.
Talking of Murdoch, I loved this line from Les Hinton, a senior Murdoch henchman for 35 years, writing in the latest British Journalism Review: “If someone founded a hall of fame for perfect people, I would not raise a petition to induct him [Murdoch].” Attaboy, Les, hit him where it hurts!
This article appears in the 09 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles