Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Night of the Jihadis...Revisited

The last time I saw Paris, in early May 2011, there was a bomb scare near the Quai d’Orsay. The streets, busy with bug-eyed tourist coaches, cars and hooting scooters, were patrolled by blue-uniformed armed police.

A few days before, American Seals had stolen into Pakistan under the cover of darkness and assassinated Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. French news magazines were full of it. Bin Laden’s bearded face shone in hot sunshine on all the glossy covers on news-stands. Evidently the French were apprehensive of retaliation by Islamic jihadis.

Twelve years earlier, in late March 1999, a writer friend and myself spent a long weekend in the capital of love to celebrate the publication of a couple of books and to see the exhibition of David Hockney’s three Grand Canyon paintings at the ugly Pompidou Centre. 

On the afternoon of our departure the streets were full of armoured vehicles and CRS men in their dark blue airmail hats. NATO had just started bombing Serbia in response to the crisis in the Balkans. Tomahawk Cruise missiles were flying. The French authorities feared some kind of backlash in the city. Coincidentally, the length of the Pont des Arts bridge was full of larger than life statues of falling US Seventh Cavalrymen and Sioux Indians gripping – tomahawks. The Battle of the Little Big Horn had come to Paris.

I happened to be re-reading Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal round about the time of the latest massacre of innocents in Paris. The eight masked Islamic State kamikaze nihilists must have been making their final preparations while I was reading. The book begins and ends with attempts to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle, first by members of the French military disillusioned by Government policy over Algeria (the Secret Army Organisation), then by a British hit-man, code-named Jackal, hired by the OAS. Against vast odds - many thousands of patrolling police oficers and paramilitary men - the Jackal comes within a whisker of killing the President. Part of the fascination of this story, first published in 1971, is that the reader watches the Jackal making his detailed preparations including four changes of identity. The security forces are always chasing, never lying in wait. If a fictional lone gunman could come close to destroying the status quo then why not a real group of trained and determined gunmen utterly indifferent to their own safety?

De Gaulle survived seven or eight attempts on his life; he even survived the 1968 student revolution which occupied the streets of Paris and the university quarter of Nanterre. That bout of street-fighting, replicated in Berlin, London and Chicago, was in part triggered by the (undeclared) Vietnam War. Although widespread and intense, exciting much fervour among the impressionable young and older intellectuals, the revolt did not result in casualties on anything like the scale of either the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January this year (20 murdered) or these November killings (129 dead and counting).

The French have known nothing like it since the war for independence in Algiers. In that murderous encounter, embittered by the French defeat in Vietnam in 1954, the French Government felt obliged to agree to talks with its enemy and eventually to withdraw from Algeria. I don't think they'll be doing the same in this case because this is not a battle for independence but war on a way of life.

All this the world well knows – doesn’t it? I thought so until I watched some of the television reporting of the latest killings. That Islamic gunmen, driven by religious fervour, anger at French military action in Syria and a shoot-to-kill policy, should take to the streets of Paris and open fire on civilians seemed to come as a complete surprise to some. It was as though they had no knowledge of recent history. Militant Islam's war on the West started in the mid-1970s with Black September, the late Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organisation and continuing through the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the 1989 fatwah against Salman Rushdie and thereafter the rise of the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan (funded by the United States), followed by the religious nihilists of the Taliban, Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and latterly the black-masked killers of Islamic State.

Going back further, the jihad against the godless West has been going on ever since General Gordon was killed in Khartoum by the Mahdi’s forces in January 1885 – 130 years ago. In Afghanistan it goes back to the early decades of the 19th century when the British made a bad choice of allies among tribesmen and ended up sending a punitive expedition from India through the Kyber Pass and into Kabul.

In the book We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists by Rafaello Pantucci, director of International Securities Studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security (founder, the Duke of Wellington), the point about the longevity of militant Islam’s war with the West is re-stated:-

The reality is that while British security services understand much better the networks they are dealing with and what radicalisation looks like, there is still very little understanding of how to counter and de-radicalise.
Among the wider radical community, numerous arrests and lengthy incarcerations have not stopped a steady number of young Britons posting radical material online, attending meetings or seeking out others with similar ideas with whom they can plot and form secret communities.
Britain’s jihad has been underway for decades, and the appeal of the ideas that underlie it has proved remarkably resilient.
Three main drivers usually have to be in place before individuals become involved in terrorism: ideology, grievance and mobilisation. How they coalesce is dictated by random events and how individuals respond to a given situation, factors that are difficult to forecast.

In his book Pantucci explains each of these three factors in detail, giving them an historical context. Like the emblems in a fruit machine, they have to be aligned in order to drive an individual to terrorism.

One of the problems of this murderous conflict is the different application of the word ‘martyr’. The Christian and post-Christian West associates martyrdom with self-sacrifice, not the taking of the lives of others. Usually this conscious act of existential self-abnegation is undertaken by an individual who lays down his or her life for others or in support of an idea. The eight Islamic State killers in Paris killed or wounded hundreds of others to justify their adopted nihilism and their own acts of self-immolation. Clearly they had no conscience about doing this because they believed that the people they were shooting and bombing were infidels.

To fall into this category appears to have little to do with belief in God or Allah; it’s more to do with the Islamic caliphate as defined by the leaders of Islamic State. Their followers happily kill fellow Muslims - Shias - wherever they find them. The military forces of the West may have killed 100,000 Muslims in the ‘shock and awe’ attack on Iraq in 2003; but in the eight year war between Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran (the West supported Iraq in that one) more than a million Muslims were killed. Few if any Muslims in this country felt compelled to join in. It didn't seem to be a public issue with them at the time even though the West tacitly supported Iraq.

The West’s military meddling in Iraq and Afghanistan undoubtedly played a part in educating disaffected young Muslims in the art of insurrection and insurgency. Islamic State is one of the consequences. The refugee crisis now bewildering the European Union is a concomitant consequence of that. Again, all this the world well knows – at least I thought it did. 

But the heart is also involved as well as the head. All day the sombre weight of what happened in Paris has been upon me.That weight has been there so many times in the past it's a wonder I have any humanity left. Gruesome newsreels of so many wars, civil wars, acts of genocide, terror attacks and hatefulness have been a constant feature of life since Korea in the early 1950s. Thirty of my nearly sixty-seven years were besieged by Northern Ireland, a conflict which the late Denis Healey said he could not imagine an end to. 

I felt the same about the terrible civil war in Lebanon when various religious militias tore into each other and the fabric of the country. Thirty years ago or more Beirut was like Aleppo and other Syrian cities now. In the early Nineties it was the turn of Sarajevo. I had hoped the 21st century would be different from its blood-boltered predecessor. Fifteen years down the road I'm still hoping; but then, as Russians say, hope is the last thing to die.


Anonymous said...

Someone a year or two ago, may have been five years, mentioned that since the 2nd World War there had been three days of peace on this planet, peace as in - three days without a war going on somewhere or other.

So we have to look at mnany more factors than what we are presented with. BBC2 radio's broadcast yesterday lunchtime for example - the subject for discussion, should we nuke Syria? - established a baseline.

Hate cannot take you through a night, cannot take you through a morning. My mother told me a story a few weeks ago which made it impossible for me to watch any TV news for longeer than a few seconds - she was evacuated from Southend in 1940, eleven or twelve years old. She was sent to the Midlands, in the vicinity of Derby. Two or three years later she was living in a suburb of Derby near Spondon, there were Rolls Royce and train building engineering works in the vicinity. Consequently the area was frequently bombed. Consequently she went to school knowing that bombing had been taking place in the intervening night. She didn't look at the fresh rubble on the other side of the street.

The children walked to school without looking. Steely detmination. You kept control of yourself.

24/7 coverage guarantees we present our enemies with the dimensions of our hysteria. Where do we get the reflection?

Where do we see the enemy? Where do we see ourselves? Maybe the only good thing about it is that the jihadis are purportedly as media obsessed as ourselves.

One other point - Dylan's Cutting Edge Bootleg 12 is marvellous. Utterly brilliant.

Dave H.

Jim Greenhalf said...

Your opening observation Dave reminds of something Professor Paul Rogers of Bradford University's School of Peace Studies told me when I was still employed as a reporter. He said that in spite of the horrors in the Middle East most of the world was not at war - at that time. Apart from internal strife, domestic crime, the same could be said today. South America and the Antipodes aren't at war, nor is Scandanavia. East of the Urals, a large chunk of Russia isn't either.
News warps as well as informs,fires up as well as enlightens; and where there is fire there is also obfuscating smoke. Tactical nuclear weapons are only likely as a riposte, if at all, if Israel or Iran is seriously attacked. I say that because last year I happened to hear a radio serialisation of Neville Shute's 1950's novel On the Beach, in which the world ends after a nuclear attack in the Middle East - on Israel. I think the novel was meant as a warning rather than a prediction.