Why IS hates refugees, and what that tells us about it

The Syrian passport found on one of the Paris attackers turns out to be a fake. The Egyptian one Le Point thought belonged to another turns out to belong to a bystander. The only attacker for whom we have a positive identification so far is a Frenchman. There are a couple of possible readings for this – it’s possible that a home-grown terrorist who went to Syria used the fake document to return discreetly, that a terrorist who entered the EU as a refugee used a fake document because they came from Daesh country, where valid ones are not issued, or that the attackers wanted to label their act as a blow struck in the Syrian war, or alternatively, that they wanted to smear the refugees. Mike Giglio, of Buzzfeed, was early with this one.

This may seem a bit conspiratorial, but you ask Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maiziére. Since I drafted this post on Sunday, more information has emerged and it turns out all the passports so far found are stiff, and every one of the perpetrators so far identified are either French or Belgian nationals. Even the Daily Hell has recast its original OMG REFUGEES coverage as how easy it is to buy fake passports. It seems to be approaching the status of conventional wisdom.

In fact, there’s quite a lot of evidence that the leadership of Daesh is furious with the refugees. Aaron Zelin has collected a string of their propaganda videos in which Daesh leaders alternately implore the refugees heading for Europe to stay, denounce them as traitors, and assert conspiracy theories about replacing proper Sunni Muslims with Shias, Druze, and Christians. With exquisite irony, this last mirrors the ideas of Umvolkung or the grand remplacement dear to European right-wing extremists. During September, as the exodus began, this seems to have been a major theme of IS propaganda. Over the weekend, they reprised the theme.

The explanation of this is the S in IS – it’s a state, and it’s a particular kind of state. It offers a particular religious and political group – Muslims who accept its claims – three things. First, a defensive haven of security. Second, a beacon of inspiration. Third, a champion of strength, waiting in overwatch to defend them outside its borders. This is to be achieved by emigration as a form of revolution.

Moving to the Islamic state helps to create it. It also helps to achieve its aims. And it is also a way of pursuing personal transformation. Emigration to Daesh is both a physical journey, and a journey in the sense of Tony Blair’s memoirs. Participating in the creation of the state is meant to change both the community, and the individuals who take part. War is either accepted as necessary in self-defence, or actively sought as an accelerant to the process.

This was true, more or less, of many other states. The United States of America incorporates this mythos into its official founding story. This tweet is snarky, but it gets at the point.

The Soviet Union started off a bit like that. You could say the same for the Crusader kingdoms – they aimed to protect the Christians of the Levant and their holy sites, to deter anyone else who threatened them once that was achieved, and to transform themselves by demonstrating both Christianity and chivalry. Bits of those four elements show up repeatedly in colonial-era narratives about emigrating to escape the decline of the old country and to be a better person. And Israel probably expressed all four elements more thoroughly than any other state. In fact, I borrowed the elements pretty much from Theodor Herzl.

A more radical and aggressive version of this sets out to force its people to leave and join the new state. Consider some more IS texts. The point is to eliminate even the possibility of coexistence, to force everyone to take sides.

There were even people in the Revisionist wing of Zionism who were willing to treat with the Nazis for exactly those reasons, as the ultimate polarising force. Whatever you might say about this Hitler fellow, he wasn’t going to leave any grey zones of coexistence lying around.

This ought to be familiar, again, because it’s the doctrine of Barry from Four Lions:

The idea of seeking security in Paris – or, heavens forbid, Berlin – is intensely subversive to such a state. It crushes their claim to provide a safe haven for the faithful. It tramples Daesh’s claim to be an inspiration to Muslims. And it makes the idea of providing a defensive overwatch to them around the Middle East look absurd.

The refugee exodus is also harmful materially. IS is a state, and a state at war craves manpower. It has frequently been pointed out that young men are over-represented among the refugees. This is because they went ahead, hoping to find a home and bring the rest afterwards. And it is also because IS is most likely to conscript them. It may also be because when the World Food Programme temporarily ran out of cash, people calculated it was more likely to keep feeding the most vulnerable. They had a choice; believe in IS, or in Europe.

Perhaps we should see the last few weeks as the result of an IS crisis. The movement of refugees was a political disaster. Although a lot of people are sceptical about Russian aims, they can hardly have been pleased to see the roaming Hinds overhead. US airpower has been hitting high-value targets again, after it was reinforced recently. Other Syrian forces have been receiving a lot of guided weapons again. The Kurds have been advancing towards Sinjar, which they took on Saturday, and threatening to cut the road from Deir ez-Zour to Mosul. What to do?

The answer seems to be to strike in the deep, using their ability to recruit in Europe as a kind of terrorist air power. The point is simply to impose costs and spread fear, but also to put soldiers on the streets who might otherwise be deployed somewhere closer. And if they’re really lucky, on the strategic level, to prove that we agree with them deep down on at least one issue.

Of fish, flowers, AKs, offshore banking, and now horsemeat

The horsemeat scandal has taken an unexpected, and possibly very significant, turn. So the Cyprus company controlled by Dutch meat merchant Jan Fasen, who was caught last year passing off South American horsemeat, and which is accused of doing the same with horses from Romania and the British Isles, turns out to have a single director, which is itself a company. (Fasen’s firm, if you haven’t heard, is named Draap, or the Dutch word for “horse” spelled backwards.)

This second company, Guardstand, also controls something called Ilex Ventures, which was used by…ahem…the international arms dealer Viktor Bout to buy some aeroplanes. Oh. Guardstand, for its part, is controlled by something called Trident Trust, which is a company-formation agent in Cyprus, which mostly serves Russian customers.

Now, it would probably be wrong to assume that Bout was behind the horsemeat racket or that some huger interest controlled both. It is probably more useful to look at this from a horizontal, functional perspective. Both Bout and the horsemeat guy made use of Cyprus’s role as a Russian-speaking offshore financial services centre with access to the eurozone.

There’s quite a lot more information at Reporting Project, which speaks to this point. The corporate structure is more complicated than the Guardian piece suggests. Draap’s sole shareholder is Hermes Guardian Ltd. in the British Virgin Islands, its sole director is Guardstand, and the company secretary is Trident Trust. Hermes Guardian is a shareholder in numerous other Cypriot companies, and one of its directors is the head of the Cypriot Fiduciary Association. And both Guardstand and Trident were also used during a half billion dollar acquisition of a steel mill in Donetsk.

All this originated because of the existence of a tax treaty between the Soviet Union and Cyprus. Russians and Russian money have been very obvious in Cyprus in the euro era.

It is often suggested that this treaty, like the similar one with Iceland, was intended by the Soviet side to help finance their intelligence agents in the West. If true, it’s possible that Bout would have been aware of it, having worked for the GRU (Soviet/Russian Military Intelligence) in Africa in the 1980s. As he used the Sharjah Airport free-trade zone as the trading and aviation centre of his business, he may have used Cyprus as the financial centre. These are the places where the rubber meets the road of globalisation, and they tend to build up a layer of secrets over time.

This immediately reminds me that his alleged financial manager, Richard Chichakli, has recently surrendered to Australian police after eight years on the run. He’s been extradited to the United States, where Bout is serving his sentence, still protesting to Russia Today that he only ever dealt in fish and flowers.

Now, for the other significant bit. Cyprus has a lot of the same economic problems as, say, Greece. Notably, its banks are in trouble and the sovereign may have to bail them out and the sovereign itself will end up bust, so on and so forth, we all know the story by now. One of the reasons the Cypriot sovereign is on the hook for quite so much money is that Cyprus has surprisingly big banks. Of course, they’re linked up to the rest of Europe via TARGET 2, so if the big depositors spook*, it’s an instant run on the bank.

Big depositors, you say? And who might they be? I think it is fair to say that nobody is particularly keen to bail out Viktor Bout or Horsemeat Guy. As a result, it’s politically very possible that the whole idea of a bail-in might get tested. And whether it does, and the exact terms, are increasingly linked to things like “how far into the maze the journalists get” and “whether Richard Chichakli starts singing in jail”.

And we may be going to see what happens when an offshore financial centre goes bust.

*surely the right word here…

It’s Azerbaijan

Winning Eurovision 2011. Apparently the AFOE crew was too sober to liveblog the festivities. In any event, one member of the collective has already observed, “That’ll put off any war over Nagorno-Karabakh for at least a year.”

Eurovision previously at the Fistful:

2009 Slightly depressing follow-up relevant to this year’s winners.
2007 Bonus 2007

Thoughts? Or is Eurovision simply beyond thought?

After Osama

Juan Cole sets the stage:

Usama Bin Laden was a violent product of the Cold War and the Age of Dictators in the Greater Middle East. He passed from the scene at a time when the dictators are falling or trying to avoid falling in the wake of a startling set of largely peaceful mass movements demanding greater democracy and greater social equity. Bin Laden dismissed parliamentary democracy, for which so many Tunisians and Egyptians yearn, as a man-made and fallible system of government, and advocated a return to the medieval Muslim caliphate (a combination of pope and emperor) instead. Only a tiny fringe of Muslims wants such a theocratic dictatorship. The masses who rose up this spring mainly spoke of “nation,” the “people,” “liberty” and “democracy,” all keywords toward which Bin Laden was utterly dismissive. The notorious terrorist turned to techniques of fear-mongering and mass murder to attain his goals in the belief that these methods were the only means by which the Secret Police States of the greater Middle East could be overturned.

I’ve got to think the European militaries will be done with Afghanistan about as fast as is practicable. How much civic and NGO engagement remains afterward is an open question. The Schröder government in Germany may have said that the country’s security began in the Hindu Kush, but surely there are ways to secure Germany without soldiers in Afghanistan.

European support for new democratic governments in the Arab world will not be simple, given troubled colonial histories in some places and populist worries about Islam in others. Nevertheless, Europe has much to offer in both managing transitions and models of pluralist democracies that remain true to their varied national and religious backgrounds.

Of Gods and Men: non-premature evaluation

In my role as the AFOE occasional film critic, off to the Curzon Mayfair for Of Gods and Men/Des dieux et des hommes. After the DICKHEADS, we’re going to deal with some much more serious terrorism in this post.

Of Gods and Men is a classic peace movie, in the sense that there are classic war movies. In fact, it mirrors quite a lot of the structure and tropes you expect from a war movie – a neat trick. The film deals with the hostage-taking and eventual murder, by unidentified gunmen, of a group of French monks in the high Atlas mountains of Algeria in 1996, during the grim worst of the Algerian civil war. The monks, to begin with, are living at peace – in fact, as we learn from some of their conversations, their elected leader Brother Christian sees their mission (that word, already) as a project in deliberately waging peace, a continuation of the alternative-leftist dream of 1968. Every time the monks have a meeting, Christian takes his seat directly in front of an icon of 1980s internationalists, the world map redrawn to make the size of Africa and Latin America more obvious.

The monks tend their land, produce honey and wine, worship. Christian is writing a book. They practice social service – one of them, Luc, is a doctor, who holds a weekly surgery for the poor. They live in apparent harmony with the Algerian villagers across the valley in their structural-tile favela settlement.

Nobody wants to be involved with the war, but the war wants very much to be involved with them. A group of Croatian engineers working nearby are murdered by insurgents. Gradually, the violence infects everything else. They try to refuse it – Christian meets with the Algerian governor, who offers to post troops near the monastery, and he refuses as a matter of principle. As a result, the monks fall out among themselves, not so much about the troops but because he has acted without getting their approval first. The war draws progressively closer, and they debate endlessly whether to abandon the whole project and go back to France, to move temporarily to a place of safety, to go back on the governor’s offer, or to stick it out. One night, the insurgents appear and demand medical assistance. Christian persuades their leader to stay outside the monastery, and they accept drugs and dressings.

Things rapidly become more serious. It becomes obvious that one side, or another, wants them dead. The insurgent leader is killed in action with the army and Christian has to identify his body, thus becoming suspect to both the insurgents and the army. A succession of monks struggle with their fear and doubt, but Christian talks them around one by one. Eventually, gunmen kidnap all but two monks (who succeed in hiding) and march them off into the mountains. They ended up dead in reality; who killed them, and how, remains a mystery.

I liked the way this film showed people at work – the monks, the Algerians, like the village haji who they hire to bring his Polish tractor and plough their patch. We see him hit a sticky patch, carefully raise the hitch, reverse, and try again. The doomed Croats boom around the site with their Caterpillars and a sort of proud working-class confidence.

I also liked the role of time. The monks initially seem to be blessed with the gift of all the time in the world, but as the film progresses, the slow progress of time becomes a source of cranking suspense and maddening waiting.

That’s another war-movie trick, of course. Among other things, Brother Bruno makes a dangerous journey through the checkpoints and the debatable lands to bring in an urgent supply run, including cheese, medicines, and several hundred rounds of communion wafers. People write home illuminatingly. One of the monks demands of their leader “What are we doing here – trying to be heroes? Martyrs?”, and his leader talks him down reminding him of the importance of their mission and his obligations to his brothers (another telling word). The characters seek out their leader one by one to talk to him in confidence, and he pays out the big cheap words used on all such occasions. After they are captured, one after the other, the hostage-takers make them read out their name, age, and monastic affiliation. (Monks don’t have serial numbers.) In fact, it’s arguable that this is how the war seeps into the monastery – the monks get pressganged into a war movie.

As well as being a great war movie about peace, it’s a pretty good peace movie about war. The Algerian regional governor honestly doesn’t want the monks to get killed, but he also has political motives – it would be welcome if they were to simply leave, but he would prefer they stay, so he can install a detachment of troops in the village and establish the government’s authority there on the pretext of protecting them. He would like to make the monks part of his counter-insurgency plan. And if the insurgents were to butcher them, despite all he could do, that would make useful propaganda.

The insurgents would much rather have the monks in place – it’s always possible to slaughter them if a dose of revolutionary terror is required, and they are a source of medical assistance. Although the insurgent leader doesn’t give Brother Christian any assurances, he does let others believe that the monks are under his protection.

And the people, it turns out, are hoping that the presence of the monks will deter the insurgents from doing anything to them, for fear of committing an atrocity awful enough to wreck their reputation. They don’t want the insurgents and they want the government still less – they want, most of all, to survive and to avoid being governed. It is telling that the villagers and the monks are the only people in the movie who practice a sort of democracy – the Algerian military, of course, couldn’t care less, and the insurgents obey their leader. But this doesn’t mean they are passive. Part of the horror is that the relationship between the villagers and the monks subtly changes, from peace to something approaching a hostage situation. After all, the villagers are in a position to denounce them to the insurgents (or the army) and then carefully see nothing.

Obviously, this situation is intolerable to both the insurgents and the military. Neither the insurgent nor the counterinsurgent will put up with people who insist on escaping from their joint demand that they take sides. In a sense, the monks are wiped out by an unconscious conspiracy between two factions desperately competing to deliver their rival visions of government to people who want no part of either. Monks don’t have serial numbers, and all the killers of the Algerian war want to impose them.

Oddly enough, the Algerian governor, with his Ottoman title of Wali, is quite a sympathetic character. A curious feature of his role is that every time he appears on screen, he speaks the unvarnished truth as a sort of bureaucratic Greek chorus. Also, he always appears in a black suit, a uniform that marks him as a survival of civilian power. In his office, though, when he talks about the people and gestures out of the window, you can’t see any people.

Meet the DICKHEADS, and pity them

Anyone with any sense should mock this as hard as possible. The “shorter” seems to be that British (and probably other) counter-terrorism officials have convinced themselves that some of the constant false-positive results from baggage scanning are really deliberate reconnaissance by terrorists. The evidence presented is pathetically thin – apparently someone had both a BlackBerry and its USB charger in their bag, and the charger cable was wound round a bottle of gripe water. Who travels with a mobile device without bringing the battery charger?

This is worrying for all the obvious reasons – it shows that they are rationalising the false positive problem by defining-down the very idea of a suspect package, to the point where there is no real distinction between a suspect package and a non-suspect package. But the problem is broader than that. Consider the last few Al-Qa’ida incidents. All of them have been, objectively, pathetic. The common denominator has been failure mixed with futility. Terrorists who regularly and publicly fail to kill people or destroy artefacts are simply not terrifying. But the official narrative has been that this represents a “new form of terrorism”. For example:

Abdaly’s bombs may represent a new type of jihadist attack in the west. In terms of sophistication, it is at the opposite end of the scale from 9/11. But al-Qaida has failed to land a serious blow on western soil since the 2005 London bombings. Experts say they may be trying a new tack: calling on supporters to attack westerners at will, with whatever tools are at hand.

If this is a new form of terrorism, it’s nothing but good news, as it strongly suggests that the highly competent and ruthless agents of international Al-Qa’ida are a thing of the past, replaced by a new kind of terrorist I propose to call the DICKHEADS, for Desperate, Incompetent, Converts, Kids, Harmless, Economically insignificant, Aimless, Disconnected, and Suicidal.

Desperate – Recent terrorist plots show every sign of desperation. The Stockholm bomber had a bomb that probably wouldn’t go off properly, which he attempted to place somewhere where he realistically needed much more explosive and shrapnel to achieve a real massacre. The printer-cartridge plot amounted to sending some stuff off in air freight and blindly hoping it would explode in a passenger plane at some point. The underpants bomber…what can I say?

Hijacking a flight of fully fuelled Boeing 767s and crashing them into the New York skyline and the headquarters of the US defence establishment is a convincing and terrifying plot. Blowing up the Golden Mosque of Samarra in order to start a religious war in Iraq, in the hope of forcing one side to ally with you, is a convincing and deadly plot. Assassinating Abdel Aziz al-Hakim in order to forestall a stable political settlement in Iraq – that’s terrorism. Pants? No. Pathetic and desperate.

Incompetent – You thought the plans were poor, but that’s as nothing to the execution. Time after time, the DICKHEADS fail to explode. Even though the printer cartridges were well concealed, they failed the primary test of a bomb. They didn’t go bang. The pants bomber crazily attempted to mix his explosives at the point of use, set himself on fire, and made such a spectacle of himself he would have been restrained before doing anything even if he’d got the mixture right. The Stockholm bomber did actually have a nail bomb that worked, and he’d have done better simply to come on foot and chuck it into a crowd, but this apparently didn’t occur to him.

Converts – It is notable that in many cases, even the sources of ideological legitimacy now seem to be iffy converts, sort-of Muslims. The same goes for some of the terrorists. These people are no Sayyid Qutb.

Kids – It’s also notable that there don’t seem to be many Mohammed Attas or even Mohammed Sidique Khans these days. Instead, the DICKHEADS seem to include a lot of people of limited experience of the world, lacking in competence at anything much, without being obviously fit, energetic, or aggressive enough to start a good teenage riot. The nadir, so far, was the mentally ill not-really-a-Muslim who was persuaded to set fire to his trousers in a chain pub in Exeter. As Chris Morris says, Four Lions is very nearly a documentary.

Harmless – In the light of this, I’m quite convinced that the jihadi movement off its home turf is now essentially harmless. Its intentions are fantastic and its capability pathetic. The English Defence League for example, which has a well defined organisation, a support base willing to fight with cops, and members who know real honest-to-goodness criminals, is probably more worrying on a day to day basis. Terrorism is boring: let’s all go home and get on with life.

Economically insignificant – If they can’t get it together to blow up properly, we certainly shouldn’t let them affect our business decisions. The Stockholm bomber’s impact on GDP is certainly less by several orders of magnitude than one day’s heavy snowfall over London.

Aimless – If their operational plans are silly, and their technology and tactics pathetic, their target selection is hilariously awful. Outside the Middle East, they are still yet to even attempt a serious attack on infrastructure other than aircraft, or a single serious attempt to assassinate an individual politician. It can’t be that the security is so formidable – where are the arrests, then?

Disconnected – It does not seem that the proven technology or effective tactics that Al-Qa’ida’s allies in Iraq make use of has spread beyond the Middle East. The DICKHEADS develop in semi-isolation, living on an intellectual diet of rantings and jihad fanboy culture. They are just as effective as you’d expect from that.

Suicidal – In the light of all this, perhaps we should think of them more like those occasional Americans or Germans who go mad and shoot their classmates. There have been some cases where it has been difficult to distinguish the two. There has been some debate about what the social and psychiatric sources of this phenomenon are. I should like to see something similar.

But in general, the lesson here is that we should feel the emotion that the terrorists’ leaders would hate more than anything else: pity. These people are both pathetic, a word that derives from pity, and pitiful. This is worth reading.

Update: If you need help, start here.

West Point trolleyology

I blogged about the doctrine of double effect at the beginning of last year. It comes up just about any time there’s mention of the morality of warfare, and here it is in a piece by David Edmonds, writing for Prospect, on the popularity of trolley problems. Edmonds reports that West Point cadets engage in tutored discussions on ethics (this is actually something I’d heard about before). Double effect and trolley problems come up in these discussions. The cadets interviewed by Edmonds are unanimous in saying that it’s wrong to push the fat man off the bridge but OK to switch the trolley onto the spur. This – the cadets say – is because pushing the fat man intends the death of the fat man, whereas switching the trolley involves no intention to kill the lone person tied to the track of the spur. Likewise – according to the cadets – it’s wrong to intentionally target civilians (like Al Qaeda does) but OK to carry out a bombing in which civilians might be killed as – yes – collateral damage.

I’m not going to attempt to dissect double effect again. It does, though, disturb me that trolley problems seem to have carved out some sort of justificatory pattern in the minds of West Point cadets. Double effect considerations might explain why certain people give certain answers to certain trolley problems (apparently most people think it’s OK to switch the trolley onto the spur). Trolley problems as a set of thought experiments might help to explain why we make the ethical decisions that we do in fact make. However, I don’t see that worked out answers to trolley problems are therefore adequate guides to action. If you’re a military person tasked with dropping bombs on targets of opportunity, the plane you’re piloting (or directing) is not a trolley and there isn’t anyone tied to the track; there is no track. Trolley problems are highly stipulated; real life usually presents additional options. Likewise with many double effect characterisations. We’re not required to operate as though the use of JDAMs were an institution, such that the only moral problem concerns targetting. This is part of what I was trying to get at before.

Update: More – much more – on trolley problems here and here.