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Monday, November 16, 2015 

The inevitable Paris attacks post.

(This is long, nearly 3000 words long, and concerns the attacks in Paris.  If either of those things and the necessity to discuss unpleasant truths, such as about foreign policy trouble you, best not to read it.)

Over the weekend, I've been racking my brains, trying to find the right words to describe those who carried out the attacks in Paris on Friday night.  So many just don't seem either adequate to the task, don't seem to convey the full horror, if not of the shootings outside restaurants or the bombings outside the Stade de France, then definitely of the assault on the Bataclan and what went on inside the concert venue.  Many have gone with barbarians, but that carries many connotations with it, just as so many other adjectives do also.  Vermin, scum, filth, they all allude back to a previous time in Europe when ordinary people were described as a disease, a cancer, a bacteria, in order to dehumanise them to the point where they could be targeted, discriminated against, and ultimately, annihilated.

The jihadists of Islamic State are called many things they're not too.  Nihilistic for one, although they often seem set upon destruction for its own sake, so it's understandable.  To a certain extent they are a cult, as they certainly display cult-like traits, and yet cults tend for the most part not to be outwardly homicidal, more often suicidal.  There are exceptions, like Aum Shinrikyo, the cult that released sarin on the Tokyo underground, but they're rare.  One tweeter called them "miserable, spiteful, pious, joyless [and] boring", while Camilla Long settled on a "bunch of self-important, cunty old dads".

Cunts.  Yeah, I think that sums it up.  These people are cunts.  They are not inhuman, but they do not display the slightest sign of basic humanity.  They are oblivious to everything that contradicts their world view, living in their own solipsistic, hateful parody of the life the rest of us experience.  Despite how some of them, perhaps only a matter of a couple of years ago might have been out on a Friday night to see an act at the Bataclan or a similar venue, now they believe it is justified to slaughter people they may have once stood alongside in pursuit of an unattainable goal.  It helps of course they might consider music other than acapella singing to be haram, that men and women were mixing freely, that alcohol was being drank, that drugs will have been taken, that some would have a met a lover there, even if only for the one night, but really that's secondary.  Takfirist jihadists kill people because they can and because many of them enjoy it, especially if they're "apostates".  They target the West and Westerners especially because they hope above hope to sow discord, to inspire a military response, especially one involving Western troops, because they know this will bring further recruits to the cause.  The more alienated ordinary Muslims become as a result of such reactions, everyday discrimination, attacks on what some consider to be the ummah, the more they believe will come to accept their world view.

Let's not get onto that quite yet though.  There was something especially depraved about the assault on the Bataclan, the sheer viciousness, the murderous intent, they way the attackers went about killing so many.  Some will disagree vehemently with me on this, but there is an element of masochism about a "mere" suicide bombing, just as there is a far larger one of sadism.  Is there a certain amount of cowardice in pressing a button and dying instantly, not seeing anything of the carnage the act has caused?  Certainly, and yet at the same time it takes an amount of courage as well.  Yes, they have of course been prepared for what they've often volunteered to do, told of the "rewards", of how it helps the overall "fight", but still at the end they have to be ready to die.  The attackers except for one did kill themselves in such a way, but not before they had seen the consequences of their actions.  Not content with merely shooting down their victims, they prodded prone bodies, firing more volleys into those believed to still be alive, in the same way as their fellow fighters have done to those captured or in the wrong place at the wrong time in Syria and Iraq.  We hear of the sadistic joy at least one attacker apparently experienced through his actions, of the terror those still alive went through, expressions of love and saying goodbye that had no apparent effect on the murderers.  For all the violence we have experienced or lived through, it's extraordinarily rare for an act of such evil to happen on a street in the peaceful West.  We forget just how lucky we truly are.

Some of that luck has been down to the jihadists being far more concerned with the spectacular than the practical.  September the 11th managed to be both, taking advantage of the more relaxed attitude to security that had arisen after the chaos of the 70s when plane hijackings were close to being an epidemic.  Time after time post-9/11 plots were disrupted that involved home-made bombs, when so much can go wrong and where often so many people became involved that suspicions arose.  Al-Qaida believed as much in "propaganda by deed" as the anarchists that first came up with the notion did, thinking that the more shocking an attack the more people would be overawed by it into joining up.  They ignored the example shown time after time by single spree killers, where someone with often little more than rudimentary knowledge of firearms can kill dozens before either killing themselves or being shot dead.  If the aim is to kill as many as possible, why rely on explosives with all that can go wrong when basic training in using an automatic weapon takes a matter of hours?

The Mumbai attack showed the potential for the number of casualties, the difficulties that authorities can have in bringing an assault to an end, and still in the main the example was ignored.  Now, after a further experimentation with telling sympathisers to act on their own, to do anything, the sum of all fears might be upon us.  Obviously there are reasons to be cautious, not least when the plots the security services claim to have foiled here have continued to involve relatively primitive "pressure cooker" bombs, or the targeting of armed forces personnel or police officers, but if Islamic State really is changing tactics and encouraging the combination of the practical with the spectacular, we should be deeply concerned.

Indeed, unless the accounts change then the attacks in Paris demonstrated again the limits of bombs.  6 of the 7 known attackers apparently blew themselves up with their suicide belts/vests, and yet it seems only one bystander was killed as a result.  This again may be down to luck and a desire for the spectacular instead of practicalities: the aim seems to have been to get a group of three into the Stade de France itself, only for at least one to be stopped when he was patted down.  If the others then blew themselves up knowing they wouldn't gain entry, as seems to be the case, even worse carnage was prevented.  They seem to have tried to enter after the match had already started also, when they could had they wished detonated their bombs when the streets would have been full of people heading for the stadium.  Again, you have to suspect the aim was for the explosions to happen live on TV, with all the panic that would have caused both inside the stadium and among those watching the home.  The potential for further massive loss of life was thankfully averted.  That the bombs would also seem to have been fairly weak to go by the lack of casualties, despite the bang they produced as documented, further makes clear the difficulties of making explosives vis-a-vis using an AK-47.

Something though clearly has changed in the calculations of Islamic State.  The reason I and some others argued that IS was not that big of a threat to us back home was because it was focused on establishing and defending its "caliphate".  Those who came back from Iraq or Syria having joined it were the equivalent of "drop-outs": either those who couldn't hack being in a war zone from the start, those who developed PTSD or its equivalents, those who were persuaded by relatives to come back, your gap year jihadis, etc.  To leave IS was to be ridiculed for journeying back to the decadence of the West.  Why go back having made the modern day equivalent of the "hijrah"?

Up until Friday IS had not definitively launched an attack outside of the Arab world/Middle East.  The Hyper Cachet attacker claimed to be acting on behalf of Islamic State, but any real link remains unproven.  Likewise, the foiled by chance train gun attack is now being linked back to IS, but that was not made clear at the time.  Now, in the space of not more than a couple of months IS has attacked a peace demonstration by leftists/Kurds in Ankara, Shias in Beirut, likely the Russians through the downing of the Metrojet plane, and lastly Paris.  Paris is still unique in that it seems to have been in the main carried out by French returnees from Syria, but it's also clear that IS is turning its attention further afield.

The question is why.  Some will point towards Islamic State being threatened, and it's true that IS is finally being pushed back to an extent.  Despite the continuing claims that Russia is only hitting the "moderates" in Syria, last week the Syrian army took back an airbase that has been under siege for 2 years by IS thanks in the main to Russian airstrikes.  Palmyra is their next target, which will finally give the lie to the media narrative about the Russian intervention if/when it happens.  Given far greater coverage has been the taking back of Sinjar in northern Iraq, if you can call completely wiping Sinjar from the map after both civilians and IS had fled taking it back.  It could be that IS does believe the noose is tightening, as anyone would when all the major world powers other than the Chinese are bombing you, but the fall is not coming any time soon.  Both of the ground forces ranged against it, the SAA and the Kurds, are weak, even when getting full backing from the air.

A better explanation is that IS is just doing what it does when things have gone relatively quiet: it hits targets that either will or it believes will once again get those sympathetic to its cause back on side.  Killing leftists, Shias, Westerners, knowing what the response will be makes sense, at least to them.  Some have pointed towards an article in Islamic State's Dabiq magazine about "the grey zone", about how 9/11 made everything either black or white, and it could be this is part of some grand strategy and the Paris attack is linked back to that.  It could equally have just become arrogant, believing it's here to stay regardless of the forces ranged against it, and has dramatically overreached when it should still be focused on Syria/Iraq, and not on making its enemies who until now have been relatively content to let the stalemate continue determined to bring it to an end.

It would be lovely to think the Paris attack will concentrate Western minds on Islamic State, and the initial signs look fairly encouraging.  Sadly, there are reasons to doubt this will last, especially when so much else of the response has been as dispiriting as ever.  Hollande's speech to the two houses of parliament today, as predictable as the measures he announced were, are almost precisely the ones Islamic State would have hoped for.  If as looks likely all the other attackers are either French or European nationals, that there was a token Syrian involved who just happened to take his passport with him to be found after the fact suggests IS knew full well how that would be responded to by those who have been warning of the "threat" from refugees.  That so many have fled from their glorious reinstitution of the caliphate has irked them for a long time, the group repeatedly criticising those daring to escape their clutches.  The response from the vast majority of Europeans to the refugee crisis also undermined their propaganda about everyday, habitual discrimination.  How better to trigger a rethink than to send a lone Syrian to make his journey to France along the refugee route, ending in a suicide attack on fans watching a football match involving Germany, whose teams were among those making clear that refugees were welcome?

This is not to pretend that Europe as we know it is not under threat.  It is, just not from refugees.  If a single suicide bomber is enough to bring down the Schengen agreement, then that will be a failure on the part of politicians to defend their actions.  All the same, this is clearly not the end of Europe as we know it, let alone "how civilisations fall" as Niall Ferguson put it.  If we have learned anything from the last 14 years of war, then it surely ought to be that military action pursued on the basis of ideology or out of a sense of revenge will backfire.  Chucking bombs at Raqqa might be useful as catharsis, but it's not one that's advisable.

Likewise, that it is absurd we have 650 "armchair generals" blocking action in Syria appears so only to those "armchair generals" that have been demanding it since at least 2013, only then it was against Assad.  We shouldn't pretend that deciding not to take part in military action against IS in Syria will make us safer, as it probably won't.  Conversely however, there is every reason to believe that taking part in such action will make us even more of a target, and increase the threat.  Those who are pushing for such action should make that clear to the British public: no, we shouldn't be inhibited from intervening due to such threats, but equally the risks of doing so should be plainly stated.

Defeating Islamic State will also require us to accept some harsh home truths.  Whatever the rights or wrongs of the initial Iraq war, it had a major role in the creation of IS and its predecessor organisations.  Our decisions in Iraq have contributed at various stages to Islamic State's fortunes: the insistence on continuing the occupation, on the disbanding of the Iraqi army, the de-Ba'athification process, the attack on Fallujah, the propping up of a sectarian Shia government that led to many Sunnis who had previously fought against and opposed IS coming to support it.  Similarly, our choices in Syria, still continuing today have not helped.  Supporting the revolution to begin with was the right move: continuing to demand the immediate removal of Assad once it became clear that there were no more moderates in the armed opposition to him, or none of any note has been a disaster.  Allowing or turning a blind eye to the Sunni Gulf states arming and funding the jihadist opposition, even if they have not directly done either with IS, has been a disaster.  Islamic State is especially vile and dangerous, but to pretend the likes of al-Nusra or any of the other jihadist rebel groups or alliances are any better is foolish.  Painful as it will to be admit, Russia's intervention has made the most sense of any, regardless of its ulterior motives.  Demanding that Assad leave now without knowing who or what will replace him is not a policy.  It is a madness.

The solution, if there is one, is to continue what we're doing but more intelligently, including working with the Russians.  President Obama is right to rule out using American ground forces, as that's precisely what Islamic State needs to inspire further recruits to the cause, just as the Iraqi insurgency did.  The forces on the ground that we can support, such as the Syrian Arab Army, the Syrian Defence Forces and the Kurds in Iraq have to be strengthened.  Ceasefires if possible on an individual basis with the rebel groups in the west should be negotiated, allowing Syrian forces to turn their attention to IS in the east.  The promise to the rebels will be that once IS has been driven out of Syria as much as it can be, Assad will leave office as soon as possible, and elections will be held.  This will involve both a huge swallowing of pride on our behalf, and the utmost luck and fortune.  It almost certainly won't work, as the non-IS jihadist rebels will not accept it, nor probably will the few remaining moderates.  It is though just about the only option that will lead to IS being defeated sooner rather than later.  If not now, when we will we recognise that our alliances, our mistakes, our continuing arrogance, if not leading directly to Paris, have had a major role in the creation and success of Islamic State?

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One further possible reason for a ramp up in IS "overseas operations" - perhaps they needed some news coverage to boost recruiting.

I also should point out that studies by the US army suggest that it's not actually that easy for most people to shoot another human being. If you don't have a serious training camp, or an ongoing war, it's not necessarily easy to find the combination of "cold-blooded shooter" and "organised enough to carry out the undercover bits of the plan" and "ready to die for the cause" required. That's another reason this tactic has been relatively limited in the past.

True. Which is why if Islamic State really is changing its tactics, there is reason to be concerned as all of those requirements are now in place. We might be in a slightly better position as automatic rifles are (probably) more difficult to come by here than on the continent, but it's not that much of a reassurance.

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