Thursday, August 21, 2014 

The security-industrial complex triumphs yet again.

Is there a better job going currently than being an "expert", either in security or radicalisation?  Your words are treated as gospel, regardless for instance of how many times we've been warned the sky is about to fall by these people, whether it be due to the ever more ingenious bombs created by the fanatics or by the sheer number of said fanatics just waiting to get their hands on those ingenious bombs.

Take Shiraz Maher for example, the now go to guy at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, which smartly drops the PV bit on the end and just goes by ICSR for short.  You might remember him (although probably not) for the work he did on Islamic extremism for Policy Exchange, the think-tank behind the report exposed by Newsnight as being based on forged evidence.  Maher's studying and researching pretty much amounts to following those jihadists with either no shame or no brains on Twitter, Skyping with those he's managed to persuade to talk to him about their own personal holy war, and then talking to journalists about the threat posed and horrors committed by these otherwise fine and upstanding gentlemen.  He probably has links to the more discrete jihadis who still use forums too, although the switch to Twitter and Facebook by so many has made the whole monitoring process easier for all concerned.

In short, Maher and his ilk are essentially spooks, only not as useful.  His numerous interviews with those out in Syria and now Iraq don't tell us anything we didn't already know, or rather tell those who have gone through Maher to get their own interviews exactly what they want to hear.  According to Maher the first wave of fighters going to Syria went with the best humanitarian intentions, only becoming further radicalised once they got there.  This ties in precisely with the bogus idea of the armed uprising at the beginning being dominated by moderates pushed by the violence of the Assad regime into embracing jihadism (for an especially putrid example of how this argument is still being made, you can hardly do better than this Left Foot Forward piece, a blog transformed by James Bloodworth into one pretty much advocating war all the time, all of the time).  This isn't to say some British fighters weren't at the start somewhat naive about what they were getting themselves into, considering the reporting which often reflected that narrative, only for it to later flip 180 degrees into the equally absurd, all these people are going to come back and continue the war here territory.

Maher nonetheless pours scorn on the idea any of the British fighters could be compared to those who joined the International Brigades in the 1930s.  The "modern state simply cannot allow itself to become a launch pad for every foreign conflict" he writes, except presumably when those conflicts are ones we approve of, or indeed take part in ourselves.  It's also deeply odd how so many of the 500 or more fighters have managed to leave the country, with only the waifs and strays and clingers-on prosecuted.  What purpose for instance was served by jailing Mashudur Choudary, who came back here precisely because he realised he wasn't cut out for the jihad game?  If letting them go is the plan, and it's not necessarily a bad one, shouldn't that be made clear, or are we playing a game of double bluff?  Maher even repeats the ridiculous claim that the Islamic State is too extreme for al-Qaida, when the split between IS and AQ was about personalities and just which was the "real" al-Qaida affiliate in Syria rather than tactics, despite AQ central's concern in the past over al-Zarqawi's igniting of a sectarian war.  Syria is nothing if not a sectarian war after all.

The belligerence of foreign fighters as described by Maher is predictable.  It also hides a weakness, just as the murder of James Foley was the action of a weak actor against a stronger one.  As yet IS hasn't faced an enemy worthy of the name in Iraq, although it will once the peshmerga proper gets involved.  Its ambition could also be its undoing: fighting on two fronts is liable to spread its best fighters too thinly.  Foreign fighters can threaten attacks against the west, but it doesn't make the prospect any more realistic, although the likes of Maher and the hacks following his every pronouncement will make the most they can out of them. Having successfully got the attention of America and the world, there's only way this is going to end for IS and its pitiful "caliphate".

2 months back the spooks and securocrats were convinced the threat was not from IS but al-Nusra, with all electronic devices in air travellers' baggage needing to be charged to show they weren't the latest AQAP-designed fiendish device.  How quickly things change.  What doesn't is the spiel, the certainty this latest danger is real, will endure, and requires immediate action.  And so the security-industrial complex will continue to triumph.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 

Wasted your life in black and white.

Hi Time magazine hi Pulitzer prize / Tribal scars in Technicolor / Bang bang club AK47 hour

The reaction to the murder of James Foley by the Islamic State, documented in their now favoured fashion of showing the beginning of the execution before fading the image out, with the victim's head then pictured atop their prone, lifeless body, has been both all too predictable and all too revealing.  Strangely, while even IS deems the release of an unedited decapitation with a small knife in high definition too stomach turning, too brutal, too liable to make even the most bloodthirsty armchair jihadis blanch and wonder about the merits of such base, pure propaganda, few bat an eyelid as our politicians, commentators and media respond as though such a heinous act has never been committed before.  David Cameron stayed on holiday as Gaza burned, the Yazidis took to Mount Sinjar to escape IS and dozens of celebrities took the ice bucket challenge, but the filmed killing of a white, western journalist?  He had to return when such "an act of violence shocks the conscience of the entire world."

Foley's murder is of course straight out of the old al-Zarqawi bequeathed playbook.  The words, both from Foley and the butcher tasked with the killing would with minor adjustment be the exact same as those we heard 10 years ago, when if we're to believe the Americans it was Zarqawi himself wielding the blade.  Things have undoubtedly changed since then: Zarqawi made demands that were never going to be accepted, but it gave the illusion of possible escape both to the prisoner and their relatives; up till yesterday some were still insisting Foley was being held by Assad's forces, not a group like IS.  Killing Foley without any such public warning or ultimatum as "revenge" for the US strikes is of a piece with their other filmed atrocities.  Straight brutality designed to invoke fear and rage in equal measure is the default position.

It's deeper than just a terrorist group being a terrorist group though.  The propaganda of the Red Army Faction for instance, at least during the initial Baader-Meinhof period was exactly what you'd expect from the pen of a political journalist turned wannabe guerilla.  IS by contrast, while working by the model put down by jihadi groups past doesn't have the same ideological or intellectual back-up, with the vast majority of scholars whom backed al-Qaida denouncing IS and its declaring of a new caliphate.  IS can point to even less theological justification for its actions than al-Qaida, which really is saying something.  All the same, for all its amateurism, its massacre first and ask questions later mentality, it knows both how to play the media and politicians at the same time.

For PJ Crowley to say the video isn't then aimed at the United States is completely specious.  It couldn't be more aimed at the US.  As Jason Burke writes, IS might not believe in "propaganda by deed" to the same extent as bin Laden did, understandably considering how the Ummah failed to rise against their infidel rulers despite such prompting, but it is about trying to once again get the US to involve itself fully in Iraq/Syria.  The invasion and occupation of Iraq resulted in the creation of IS in the first place, for goodness sake.  Those with an old school jihadi outlook will continue to look down on the chaos and mayhem IS has caused, until that is the US widens its current strategy and starts bombing more widely than just "threatening" vehicles.  Then any such concerns will quickly be forgotten, and another wave of fighters will start flocking towards IS's black flag.  It works both ways: threaten attacks anywhere, regardless of how unlikely an IS attack outside the Middle East is, and threaten the lives of the few Americans IS can get to.  Both demand a response from the war addicts at the Pentagon and in Congress.

Then we come to how it was apparently a "multicultural London English" man who speaks and then kills Foley.  The Islamic State is smart enough to realise both how the foreign fighter angle has been overplayed, the importance of communication, and the intended horror at how a westerner could be killing another westerner in a country far away from home.  No one knows just how many young British men (and women, for that matter) have gone to join the jihadists in Syria/Iraq, but plenty are willing to guess and draw the most alarmist, scaremongering conclusions, especially if it means more government money for the anti-radicalisation industry (1 in 800 young Sunni Muslim men, shrieks James Brandon, formerly of Quilliam).  We saw with the entire Trojan Horse affair just how deeply the government has bought into the at risk of extremism narrative, regardless of the lack of evidence of any actual radicalisation, simple intolerance and vile sectarianism not being enough.  Nicky Morgan has since given a speech making clear how nurseries and pre-schools will also be monitored lest they start churning out 5-year-old jihadis, in what has to be one of the most absurd government policies since oh, David Cameron promised to make all of them family friendly.

As the War Nerd wrote a few months back, the bigger question is why relatively so few go and join the jihadis.  Perhaps one of the reasons those few have is connected to our continued, blatant double standards.  You might remember the UN used very similar language to Obama in condemning the shelling of their schools in Gaza, language of the sort our politicians would never use to condemn a fellow democracy, regardless of its actions.  The same media commentators who wonder just why it is people in Ferguson are prepared to riot over the shooting dead of a black teenager regard the murder of Foley as terrorist attack that demands a response.  The slaughter of dozens if not hundreds of Shia men at the hands of IS gets perfunctory coverage, if that, with the images and video shared on social media freely.  A white westerner killed in the most brutal fashion necessitates a crackdown, the closing of Twitter accounts, another of those Twitter "campaigns" masquerading as being about not helping IS propaganda spread when really it's about people not wanting to see something happening to "us", rather than it happening to "them".  So much as watching the video could be enough to get a knock on the door from the police, presumably once they're done with harassing the wives and friends of fighters.

The only realistic endgame to all of this involves, as the Graun is brave enough to point out, a settlement in Syria as well as reconciliation in Iraq.  The difficulty is in trying to push for that reconciliation at the same time as Iraq looks destined to break apart.  If we take the side of the Kurds over the weak Iraq military, unable to take back Tikrit, the risk is it only holds things together in the short rather than the long term.  It also likely means coming to some sort of accommodation or at the very least a short term pact with the Assad government, regardless of how anathema such a deal will be.  It additionally requires the making clear to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar that even if they haven't directly funded IS or the other jihadist groups in Syria, their encouragement and indirect funding of an almost region wide proxy war must end now.  The same message must also go to Iran and Hezbollah, but their involvement was more in response to the actions of the above than out of any real love for Assad.  This is not the time for a recital of all the old noises about a war on terror, a generational battle or why-oh-whying about British Muslims and the other failings of the past.  It's time we learned from them.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014 

Those 10 funniest Edinburgh festival jokes in full.

1. "I ate some sausages laced with nitroglycerin other day. Boy did they go off with a bang!"

2. "I was going to put some jokes about badgers in my set. Then I remembered the Tories had them all shot!"

3. "Always leave them wanting more, my uncle used to say.  Which is why he loved working in the kitchens at Dachau."

4. "Scotland had oil, but it's running out because you're all such fat, greedy bastards!"

5. "I wanted to make the most obvious gags about being a feminist and married, and my husband couldn't persuade me not to."

6. "There was Ms Costello, Mr Brockett, Ms Wardman and Mr Johnson.  And that was just the teachers. Ahhh."

7. "Did you threaten to overrule him?"

8. "The yes campaign will make up the difference between now and September 18th."

(That's enough unfunny jokes about unfunny jokes. Ed.)

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Monday, August 18, 2014 

Our clear as mud Iraq strategy.

Living life like a comatose / Ego loaded and swallow, swallow, swallow

At times, everything seems to descend into parody.  This, for instance, has to be a piss-take, an anonymous record producer making fun of a relatively new genre, a track made with a smile, the creator certain everyone will get the joke.  It gets best new music on Pitchfork, Boomkat describes it as "exquisite ear candy ... visionary pop architecture" and even Resident Advisor approves.  If this turn of events discombobulated the producer (whom last year put out this pleasing slice of house) then he seems to have just gone with it.  After all, why not?

By the same token, David Cameron surely didn't think he'd get away with his article for the Sunday Telegraph.  He (or whichever adviser/hanger-on wrote it) writes we can't let ourselves be imprisoned by the events of 10 years ago, and he has a point.  Just because we've had a major hand in Iraq being in the mess it now is doesn't mean we shouldn't return and help Johnny Kurd push back the ethnic cleansers of the Islamic State.  Besides, we're not going to put "boots on the ground", just as we didn't in Libya.  If we so choose to bomb a few Islamic State positions, or more accurately described, vehicles, as they seem to be the main targets the Americans have chosen to obliterate thus far, we should know that doing so is all the more likely to prevent the Islamic State from becoming a threat here.  Just think what might happen if we sat this one out.  A positively medieval caliphate stretching across the Middle East, on the shores of the Mediterranean, bordering a NATO country!  A NATO country!  What could be more terrifying, more ignominious, more unacceptable?

Like the estimable Flying Rodent, I'm more than a little tired of the this-time-it-really-is-as-bad-as-we're-saying-it-is intervention argument.  Ten years ago every politician told us we were facing a generational battle against Islamic extremism, a long war, a war we might even not realise was still going on or in fact had ended.  Yesterday David Cameron said we will be fighting this "poisonous and extremist ideology" for the rest of his "political lifetime".  His political lifetime could extend all the way up till next May, but put that happy thought to one side for a moment.  Outside of the anti-jihadist monomaniacs, around the time of the Arab spring with bin Laden dead and al-Qaida central having been reduced to Ayman al-Zahawiri occasionally holding forth in his eternally pompous fashion, all those predictions seemed to have come to naught.  Why then are all the old favourites being reheated like the fried chicken in the local kebab shop?

Cameron, naturally, has the answer.  According to him what we're seeing isn't Sunni against Shia, but rather "a battle between Islam on the one hand and extremists who want to abuse Islam on the other".  This is, as Kim Howells had it on the Turner prize entrants however many years ago, cold mechanical bullshit.  The Islamic State of Iraq 5 years ago had been routed, thanks to the Awakening groups, i.e. Sunnis who had turned against ISI's brutality.  Only our friend Nouri al-Maliki didn't keep his promises to the Awakening groups, with many complaining the payments they were due were either paid late or didn't arrive at all.  Then came the uprising in Syria, which quickly descended into a sectarian proxy war.  Some of the remnants of ISI formed the al-Nusra Front, and seeing this brought funding from the rich Wahhabi takfirists in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and so on, possibly including direct from the Saudi authorities, ISI proper joined the fray.  Along with the proceeds from the oil fields they captured, ISI was suddenly swimming in wealth and gathering in a lot more fighters too.  With the Sunni Arabs in the north of Iraq once again prepared to join up with or acquiesce to the jihadis, first Fallujah fell, then Mosul did.

When Cameron then says we must work with the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey you can't help but wonder if he isn't doing this deliberately.  Those three nations have done more to help the Islamic State and its jihadi brethren than the rest of the world combined.  Saudi policy towards Syria only altered at the beginning of this year, while it's difficult to know whether Qatar's has at all.  Turkey's main role has been to keep the border open, helping refugees escape yes, but also to allow money and fighters to flow through unimpeded.  Cameron even mentions the spectre of the Islamic State taking Aleppo, which prompts the obvious question of whether we might just have backed the wrong dog in this fight.  Assad's a murderous, barbarous chemical weapon using dictator yes, but compared to the Islamic State he's a sweetheart.

What then is the plan now that the Yazidis have been helped off the mountain and the imminent threat of genocide seems to be receding?  We're going to arm the Kurds, although it's not clear which Kurds, or whether by "arm" we mean provide them with equipment rather than ammunition for their ageing Soviet-era weapons, but are we expecting the peshmerga to liberate all of the territory taken by the Islamic State, albeit with ourselves or just the Americans providing air support, or just Mosul?  If it's the former, are the Kurds then just going to hand all this Sunni dominated territory over to the Shia dominated Iraqi army once Baghdad has sorted itself out, or are they going to keep some of it in hope of a greater Kurdistan becoming inexorable at some point?  This major favour to the west isn't going to come free, that's for sure, and if anyone with the exception of the Palestinians deserves a state, it's the Kurds.  It certainly won't please either Turkey or the Iranians, though.

See, what starts out as a thoroughly decent operation to prevent abused and persecuted minorities from being slaughtered has the potential to quickly become the kind of conflict we did our best previously to prevent igniting.  Trying to justify it all by resorting to the ever more exhausted national security reasoning is contemptible.  When the best they can point to is hot-heads in east London flying an IS flag or ex-drug dealers joining a different type of war without the slightest evidence they have any intention of bringing the fight here they really have to change the record.  Indeed, getting further involved would almost certainly increase rather than decrease the threat, exactly as MI5 warned prior to 2003.  Yet here we are once again, with Michael Fallon warning our role is likely to take months rather than weeks.  Irony, as ever, is smothering everything.

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Friday, August 15, 2014 

And not this mess of a man.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014 

CLIFF RICHARD SENSATION.

POP SINGER'S HOME RAIDED AFTER POLICE RECEIVED TIP OFF OVER "CRYING, WALKING, SLEEPING, TALKING LIVING DOLL" LOCKED IN TRUNK.

RICHARD DENIES ALL KNOWLEDGE, CLAIMS NOT TO BE WIRED FOR SOUND.

TOM WATSON OFFERS CONGRATULATIONS AND (CONT. p94)

In other news:

Sexist money-grubbing bully says good riddance to biting racist
Fighting in entire Middle East, north Africa, section of Eurasia continues
Egypt massacre worse than Tiananmen, Tony Blair still peace envoy

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014 

"In America they really do mythologise people when they die."

The unexpected death of a celebrity always seems to bring out the absolute worst in the media, and it has to be said, the "new" media especially.  The beyond dispute facts when it comes to Robin Williams are that he took his own life, and had by his own admission long battled addiction and depression.  Everything else is conjecture and guesswork, completely unnecessary cruel and invasive guesswork at that.

There's a cycle that works in these cases somewhat like this.  First, the shock of the news.  Second, the reports from where fans have gathered and/or left tributes.  Third, the tributes from those who actually knew the deceased.  Fourth, the tributes from those who might have met the deceased once or maybe even twice, but nonetheless have been commissioned to write however many words on the person "they knew".  Fifth comes the standard revisionism from the critics, most of whom a week back were probably slaughtering the deceased's last project, urged by their editors to look back and find something they can praise and so make clear what a genius the sadly departed was.  Sixth, the tabloids start looking for why someone with seemingly everything to live for could do such a thing, and then in turn, the new media and people like me start responding to that.

And so on.  It's not exactly what's happened since the news broke late on Monday night, but it's fairly close.  Knowing Williams had reached the point where he no longer wanted to go on living, it makes it especially crass when those affecting to have been moved or inspired by him are even now still far more concerned with everything being about them.  Who knows, perhaps Russell Brand had been thinking about Williams, although it seems highly unlikely considering the only person Russell Brand seems capable of thinking about is Russell Brand, as his ejaculation in the pages of the Graun amply demonstrates.  Brand's prose is so overwrought, so self-referential, so solipsistic, only the Guardian could have ever thought it was worthy of being spunked over the front page.  Brand's shtick is to appear to be aware of his own contradictions when in fact he's completely oblivious to them, vacuous to the very end.  Yes, people with "masks less interesting than the one Robin Williams wore" are suffering, but please spare us the thought Williams' suicide tells us anything about their individual woes, or that being more vigilant, aware, grateful, "mindful" will help them.

The same goes for this specious notion genius, especially comic genius, goes hand in hand with a hidden internal sadness or heightened personal problems.  Being extraordinary means there has to be something lurking beneath, making them just as human as the rest of us, right?  Turn that idea around and it makes far more sense: that they're just like us, and just as susceptible to depressive illness and all the rest of it.  Those who have it the worst are the ones who can't articulate the way they feel, not those of us blessed/cursed with being able to express ourselves either through speech or the written word, the ones who can't understand why it is they think the way they do.

This is why it comes across as patronising in the extreme when those with personal experience of mental illness speak as though they are fully representative of some imaginary community of the afflicted.  Alastair Campbell doesn't do this in his sensitive piece, but his suitability for the role of "mental health ambassador" has always been dubious.  Far more objectionable is Mary Hamilton's insistence that the amount of detail included in most media reporting on Williams' death is dangerous.  I've written in the past about some genuinely thoughtless or worse journalism on suicide, and to compare that with this week's coverage is a nonsense.  Treating the suicidally depressed as though they are too stupid to know how to hang themselves or cut their wrists is laughable; yes, Hamilton says, people can Google and get far more detailed instructions, but that interaction acts as check.  Presumably going to actually get a belt, rope or knife wouldn't play the exact same role then.

Hamilton also implies suicide is not rational, and there are also never any good reasons to kill yourself.  The suicidally depressed may not be thinking rationally, but to infer it is never rational, or it is never the least worst option is just as stigmatising as the people who say suicide is selfish or express opinions similar to those Campbell quotes Jeremy Hunt as doing.  The NHS doesn't have the best record when it comes to mental health, hardly surprising when funding for treatment is always going to come second to the newest cancer drug proven to extend life by a few weeks, and the real terms cut isn't going to help matters, but provision is arguably better than it has ever been, as is understanding and sympathy, although it can still only get better.  Claiming hyperbolically there is an acute crisis helps no one, especially those needing support who may well be put off even trying to get it.  Just as trigger warnings are infantile, so is the idea newspaper front pages alone can make illness worse.  Media taken as a whole, old and new, is something else.

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