Friday, 11 December 2015

Cameron adopts gesture politics in Syria

The Daily Star
Friday, December 11 2015
By Michael Glackin

Within hours of the British parliament voting to expand its bombing mission against ISIS to include Syria, British security forces flew into action. Protection for the queen and other members of the royal family was immediately stepped up. Travel in royal cars, such as the vintage $500,000 Rolls Royce favored by Prince Charles, will be strictly curtailed and royals will have to use more anonymous vehicles, such as armored Range Rovers instead.

So much for Prime Minister David Cameron’s assertion that expanding the United Kingdom’s largely token airstrikes will make the country “safer” from terrorist attacks.

If only that was the sole false assertion Cameron made in his successful appeal to parliament last week. Speaking to me a few days after the vote, Walid Saffour, the president of the U.K.-based Syrian Human Rights Committee, said the decision would “attract further elements to join ISIS and expose London’s streets to further threats.”

The two other things that happened hours after parliament gave the green light was that British Tornado jets took off from a Royal Air Force base in Akrotiri, Cyprus, and dropped seven Paveway IV laser-guided bombs on the ISIS-controlled oil fields in eastern Syria that Cameron said had funded attacks on the West. At the same time, six Typhoon jets and two Tornados deployed from the U.K. to Akrotiri, joining the eight Tornados already there that have been attacking ISIS targets in Iraq for the last year and a half.

Broadly speaking, Cameron’s rationale behind extending the U.K.’s token airstrikes is thus: First, the laudable point that it’s wrong to turn a deaf ear to the U.K.’s closest allies, the United States and France, which have requested British help. Second, the RAF was already bombing ISIS in Iraq and stopping at a border the enemy on the ground doesn’t recognize was clearly ludicrous. Lastly, ISIS is a barbaric death cult that threatens innocent people in all corners of the world.

No one would argue with that. However, the reality is that the addition of a handful of aircraft to the U.K.’s current paltry contribution will make no practical difference. Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee has said only 5 percent of the anti-ISIS missions flown in Iraq are carried out by British aircraft. The British bombing of Syria is a meaningless gesture, a fig leaf to cover for a lack of leadership in the West to tackle either ISIS or the murderous rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Cameron is common among modern leaders who believe politics is the art of being seen to do something, rather than facing up to tough decisions and actually doing something. Sir Gerald Kaufman, the U.K.’s longest serving parliamentarian, who voted in favor of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 but voted against extending airstrikes into Syria last week, summed up Cameron’s hypocrisy when he said: “I am not going to be a party to killing innocent civilians for what will simply be a gesture. I’m not interested in gesture politics.”

To defeat ISIS will require “boots on the ground,” but the West wants no part of that battle. Cameron insists the boots are already there in the shape of 70,000 “moderate Sunni forces” – a figure that does not include Kurdish fighters. However, this, as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the conflict knows, is nonsense.

There are an estimated 100 or more opposition groups fighting within Syria, each pursuing its own agenda. Indeed if Cameron truly believed in this “moderate” force it is surprising that he has consistently rejected their pleas to be supplied with heavy weapons.

Cameron’s duplicity was best summed up by Julian Lewis, chairman of Parliament’s defense committee, who said that after former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “dodgy dossiers” about weapons of mass destruction which led the U.K. into the Iraq war, we now have Cameron’s “bogus battalions.” It emerged at the weekend that military officials had warned Cameron against citing the 70,000 figure, but, not for the first time, gesture won out over substance.

But in the wake of the attacks in Paris and Tunisia one policy is emerging. It is increasingly clear an accommodation will be made with the Baath Party to impose order in Syria. Saffour believes London and Washington are now “waiting for the right moment to rehabilitate the regime, with or without Bashar.”

As if Syrians had not paid a high enough for this conflict already.

Cameron insists ISIS is a threat to Western “values and way of life” but is only prepared to do the bare minimum to combat its poisonous ideology.

The U.K. is set to spend more than $200 billion over the next 20 years on a nuclear “deterrent” it will never use, yet cannot summon up the money or will to defeat ISIS in its heartland.

Almost two years of bombing has achieved remarkably little. ISIS still controls vast swaths of Iraq and Syria and its affiliates appear able to launch attacks against the West at will. Air power can contain ISIS, but it cannot take or hold territory. Yes, Kurds in northern Iraq have successfully captured territory after bombing, but ground troops in other areas have been much less effective.

Western boots on the ground, if possible under the aegis of the United Nations and alongside Arab troops, still remains the best potential solution to eradicating the murderous nihilism of ISIS.

It is a solution fraught with difficulties. But what we have stood by and watched take place in Syria over the last four and a half years demands a meaningful response, one capable of resolving the problem. Something more than gesture politics.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article was published in the newspaper edition on page 7, December 11 2015.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Paris and the end of the beginning

The Daily Star
Monday, November 16 2015
By Michael Glackin

Shortly after a combined British and American intelligence operation killed Mohammed Emwazi – the infamous “Jihadi John” – U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron stood outside Downing Street and issued a stark warning to ISIS: “We have a long reach, we have unwavering determination, and we never forget about our citizens.”

A few hours later in Paris, ISIS, or more accurately yet another of its numerous offshoots, issued its own more deadly warning: that it too has the capability to reach far beyond its self proclaimed caliphate and bring its terror and barbarism directly to the West’s doorstep.

Friday night’s attack on Paris, in which 129 people were killed, comes hard on the heels of an ISIS affiliate blowing a Russian airliner out of the sky over Sinai, killing 224 people, and just two days after the group bombed Beirut, killing 43.

These atrocities are a stark reminder that liquidating “Jihadi John,” or even destroying ISIS in Iraq and Syria, will not extinguish the group’s ability to terrorize and kill, in the West or elsewhere, anymore than driving Al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan stopped its affiliates carrying out murder across the globe.

Lest we forget, Al-Qaeda offshoots were behind the Madrid bombings in 2004 which killed 191 people, and the London bombings in 2007 in which 52 died. In 2008 the Al-Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Talibi killed 164 people in Mumbai.

The Paris attack was meticulously organized and, though claimed by ISIS, is likely to have been planned inside France rather than in Raqqa or Mosul. ISIS has a ready pool of volunteers, born and living within France, ready to murder on its behalf. Indeed, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, when brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi killed 11 people, and another four died at the hands of Amedy Coulibaly, French President Francois Hollande warned it was just a matter of time before home-grown militants carried out another atrocity.

The attack comes at the same time as ISIS has suffered a number of setbacks in its own backyard, most notably the recapture of Sinjar in northern Iraq by the Kurdish peshmerga. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is thought to have been seriously injured in an airstrike in Iraq last month. Then there is Emwazi’s largely symbolic killing, which intelligence sources have linked to the Paris attack.

Raffaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said: “This was planned long before Jihadi John’s death but it’s possible that they thought this was a good trigger.”

France’s conduct toward Islamic terrorism has been far more proactive than its European allies. Hollande has been an active interventionist in Africa, battling Islamist militants across the Sahel region. Unlike the U.K., France has joined U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS within Syria, albeit on a limited scale.

ISIS’ claim of responsibility for the Paris attacks specifically mentioned French air attacks “striking Muslims in the lands of the caliphate.” The terrorists that attacked the Bataclan concert hall shouted “This is for Syria” as they emptied their machine guns on the crowd.

The French president’s pledge of “pitiless” vengeance toward ISIS in response to the atrocity is likely to be more than just hyperbole. Unlike the Spanish government in 2004, which withdrew its troops from Iraq following the Madrid train bombings, France will almost certainly step up its attacks on Islamic extremists, both abroad and at home.

In the U.K., Cameron will seek to use the Paris attack to win parliamentary support for what would be largely token U.K. airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. But unless he can get Russian President Vladimir Putin to agree a political process to replace President Bashar Assad, he is unlikely to succeed.

Putin and Cameron are scheduled to discuss Syria Monday at the G-20 summit in Turkey. But last weekend’s Syrian talks in Vienna, aimed at ending a war in which a larger number than those killed last week in Paris are being murdered on a daily basis, further exposed that Russia, Iran and the West cannot agree on who exactly qualifies as a terrorist.

However, the real impact of last Friday’s events is likely to be in Europe itself. It is now certain that at least two of the gunmen who carried out the Paris attack were among the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who entered Europe through Greece in the last four months.

Amid a Europe-wide political crisis over migrant flows from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and increasing calls for tighter border controls, anti-immigration political parties are rapidly gaining support. Earlier this month German police detained a man who managed to drive across Europe from the Balkans with a carload of weapons destined for Paris.

Writing in the Sunday Times of London, the respected, though avowedly right-wing, historian Niall Ferguson said Europe had “opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith” and whose views are “not easily reconciled with the principles of our liberal democracies.”

But tougher border controls, abandoning the European Union Schengen Agreement, ignores the fact that there are an estimated 250 French militants who have returned from Syria, capable of radicalizing and recruiting hundreds more from the dismal immigrant banlieues of Paris.

Of course, Paris doesn’t have a monopoly on home grown militants. They exist in the U.K. too. They are a reminder that the poisonous ideology of ISIS, and its potential to attract militants across the globe, is not dependent on its capacity to capture land and impose its caliphate faraway from Europe’s shores.

The West sat on its hands for too long in Syria, haunted by its failures in Iraq and later, in Libya. This week Beirut and Paris paid the price for the West’s laconic response to terror. Other cities will pay in future, regardless of whether Europe closes its borders or the fate of Syria. In the words of Churchill: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on 16 November 2016.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Why does Lockerbie rhyme with irony?

The Daily Star
Monday, October 26 2015
By Michael Glackin

Oh the irony. What are we to make of news last week that Scottish prosecutors suddenly want to interview two Libyans they have identified as “new suspects” in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, in which 270 people were killed?

The short answer is not much.

One reason is that the suspects are hardly new. Both men were of interest to the original investigation in 1991. Abdullah al-Senussi, a former Libyan intelligence chief and brother in law of Moammar Gadhafi, was convicted in absentia by a French court in 1999 after having been found guilty of involvement in the bombing of a French UTA airliner over Niger in 1989. How ironic is that? He is currently on death row in Tripoli for crimes committed by the Gadhafi regime.

The other suspect, Mohammed Abouajela Masud, is currently serving a 10-year sentence in Tripoli for bomb-making. Masud was almost indicted for the Pan Am bombing in 1991, alongside Abdelbaset Ali Megrahi, the former head of security at Libyan Arab Airlines and the only person convicted of the atrocity.

Masud is also thought to have been involved in the bombing of a Berlin discotheque in 1986 frequented by American military personnel. The attack led to U.S. airstrikes against Libya soon thereafter. Ironically, and depending on your point of view, this is what led to the bombing of Pan Am 103.

But the chances of either man appearing in a Scottish court are slim. The Tripoli-based General National Congress, backed by Islamist extremists and not recognized by the West, controls the fate of both men. It’s unlikely they will be extradited, and hard to see anyone volunteering to travel to Tripoli to interview them.

The conviction of Megrahi, who died in 2012, three years after he was released from a life sentence “on compassionate grounds,” was based on the theory that Gadhafi had ordered the bombing in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against Libya.

Gadhafi admitted responsibility in 2003, but this was always seen as an economically pragmatic move, rather than an admission of guilt. A former Libyan prime minister, Shukri Ghanem, said as far back as 2005 that the decision to accept responsibility was to “buy peace and move forward.”

Another irony is that while the authorities insist the investigation into the bombing remains “ongoing,” the Scottish judiciary recently refused a request from some of the relatives of victims to hear an appeal against Megrahi’s conviction that would have allowed new evidence to be presented in court.

The legal case against Megrahi had more holes in it than Swiss cheese. His early release from jail in 2009, after being convicted of the biggest mass murders in British history, only added to the bad smell around the entire case.

The key witness against Megrahi, Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, was given a $2 million reward for his evidence by the CIA and a place in a witness-protection program. Gauci, who even the Scottish prosecutor who indicted Megrahi described as being “an apple short of a picnic,” is now understood to be living in Australia.

It’s worth remembering that in October 1988, two months before the Pan Am bombing, German police raided an apartment in Frankfurt and arrested several Palestinians. The raid unearthed explosives, weapons and, crucially, a number of radio cassette recorders similar to the one used to detonate the Pan Am 103 bomb. Most of the Palestinians were members of the Syrian-controlled Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, headed by Ahmad Jibril, a Palestinian former Syrian Army officer. Jibril has spent recent years defending the regime of President Bashar Assad. He was reported to have been killed in August although this has since been denied.

Much of the evidence indicates Jibril and the PFLP-GC carried out the bombing on behalf of Iran and Syria to avenge the July 1988 accidental downing of an Iranian commercial airliner by a U.S. warship, killing 290 people. This is backed up by evidence from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency showing that the PFLP-GC was paid $1 million to carry out the bombing. The DIA also claimed that Jibril was given a down payment of $100,000 in Damascus by Iran’s then-ambassador to Syria, Mohammad Hussan Akhari.

Many believe then-Syrian President Hafez Assad’s support for the U.S.-led alliance to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 meant Syria’s role in the bombing was swept under the carpet. It is worth pointing out that Megrahi was not formally indicted by the United States and the United Kingdom until November 1991.

But the PFLP-GC is not the only non-Libyan suspect. The Frankfurt raid also revealed compelling evidence against Muhammad Abu Talib, a former leader of the Palestine People’s Struggle Front. Oddly enough Talib was released from a life sentence he was serving in Sweden for involvement in bomb attacks weeks after Megrahi’s release in 2009.

Finally, given that the authorities remain keen to pursue the Libyan angle, it is odd they spent so little time interviewing Gadhafi’s former spymaster Moussa Koussa when he fled to London as the regime was collapsing in 2011. Koussa, who in the words of one British government official was “up to his neck” in the bombing, spent just three days in London and then flew on to Qatar, where he remains, living on assets that were quietly unfrozen by the West around the same time. Oh the irony.

Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this articles appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 26 2015.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Britain adds to the anti-ISIS futility

The Daily Star
Friday,September 18 2015
By Michael Glackin

A recent biography of British Prime Minister David Cameron revealed that the United Kingdom’s top soldier complained that discussing Syria with Cameron and his government in 2012 was rather like talking to children.
In colorful language, Gen. Sir David Richards, who was chief of defense staff at the time, said Cameron lacked “the balls” to put “boots on the ground” in Syria. He added that if Cameron had listened to him back then, ISIS would have effectively been strangled at birth.

On one level you can’t blame Cameron for not taking the general’s advice. Richards is one of those tipped to be heavily criticized when, and if, the long-delayed report of the Chilcot inquiry into British involvement in the Iraq war is ever published. And let’s face it, the British military made plenty of mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the general also has a point. While it’s impossible to say with any certainty that earlier intervention in Syria would have prevented the spread of ISIS, or the wider bloodbath of the last four years, standing on the sidelines has hardly proved a success.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed by the regime of President Bashar Assad in the last four years, while thousands more have perished at the hands of ISIS. Its affiliates have terrorized Europe, and the entire Middle East, from Tunisia to Yemen, has been destabilized. Western European unity is creaking under the weight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the turmoil and the human carnage.

Cameron’s “child-like” understanding of the Syrian crisis has been sorely tested in recent weeks as he faced intense scrutiny in the wake of the refugee crisis and following his announcement this month that a Royal Air Force drone had targeted and killed two British ISIS fighters near Raqqa in August. A third British extremist was killed in a U.S. airstrike at around the same time.
The U.K. has used killer drones in Afghanistan, a declared conflict zone. However, the attack in Syria was the first time it has deployed them in a country with which, and in which, the U.K. was not at war.

Cameron said the strikes were designed to foil terror attacks planned by the two men in the U.K. He insisted the action did not mark wider British involvement in coalition airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria, a step that would require parliamentary approval. However, Cameron is poised to call a vote in Parliament within weeks in a bid to gain authorization to launch such airstrikes. He also warned last week that removing ISIS would require “not just spending money, not just aid, not just diplomacy, but will on occasion require hard military force.”

There is nothing really new in this. Cameron has been keen to expand British airstrikes to Syria for some time. Along with the killing of the two British ISIS fighters, Royal Air Force personnel have already taken part in bombing raids over the country while embedded with U.S. and Canadian forces.

This partly marks a belief within the intelligence services that terror attacks, such as the one that took place in Sousse in Tunisia in June in which 30 Britons were killed, are being planned in Raqqa – although the Tunisian shooting clearly owes more to Libyan instability than to events in Syria.

But the sudden step-up in rhetoric is also a knee-jerk reaction to the refugee crisis engulfing Western Europe. The British chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, Cameron’s effective deputy, said the only way to stop the flow of refugees was to end the Syrian conflict. Though his comment avoided the war in Iraq and the terrible state of Libya and Afghanistan, it was belated recognition that the Syrian civil war has reached a stalemate.

In a move to break the stalemate, and amid what is clearly a buildup of Russian troops in Syria, Cameron’s big idea is centered on the U.K.’s extending its military strikes against the “controlling brains” of ISIS, alongside a diplomatic push with Iran and Russia that would see Assad remain in power for a transitional period of six months while some form of national government can be formed to take power.

Whether Iran and Russia are ready to consign Assad to the dustbin of history remains questionable. Both are deeply suspicious that the West could use military action against ISIS as cover for removing Assad. Hence British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s bizarre comment that RAF airstrikes in Syria would be prohibited from targeting areas where the civil war is raging.

The caveats are fast diluting an already watered-down strategy that looks as ill conceived as Cameron’s last failed attempt to get parliamentary approval for British airstrikes in Syria two years ago. That time Assad was the target, this time he looks set to be the beneficiary.

But the real question is whether the military action being considered against ISIS will have any practical impact. The largely token U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS, supported by a handful of RAF Tornados and even smaller contingents from other Western and Arab nations, have contained some ISIS activities, but have had little real impact on its murderous acts.

ISIS may now control marginally less territory, but despite the airstrikes it has still been able to capture key cities, most notably Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq. Dropping a few more bombs on ISIS in Syria is no substitute for a military strategy to eradicate its evil. To paraphrase General Richards, despite the tough talk, Cameron is still lacking in the cojones department.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 18, 2015.

Friday, 4 September 2015

On and on the Chilcot inquiry goes

The Daily Star
Friday, September 4 2015
By Michael Glackin

It’s hard to imagine that the long-running government inquiry into why the United Kingdom went to war in Iraq in 2003 could descend into greater absurdity. But, gentle reader, it has.

The Chilcot inquiry, led by career civil servant Sir John Chilcot, was charged with finding out what went wrong with the prewar intelligence analysis and post-invasion planning in Iraq, and identify “what lessons could be learned.” The inquiry, which began its deliberations in 2009 and finished taking evidence in February 2011, is now in its sixth year, and there appears to be no prospect of it ever being completed.

Last week the government was forced to deny it was launching an inquiry into why the inquiry was taking so long. That followed the revelation that a number of those criticized in Chilcot’s draft report are trying to get the criticism expunged on the basis that their “human rights” will be violated by the inquiry’s findings.

This sordid move, by those whose actions led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents and resulted in the real violation of the human rights of many more, stems from a fear that Chilcot’s final report could leave them vulnerable to prosecution under the Human Rights Act or some other international legal proceedings.

The shameful maneuver reminded me of the words of the 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift, the author “Gulliver’s Travels,” who said: “I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.”

It is understood that two of the most senior military and intelligence figures facing criticism in the report are Gen. Sir Nick Houghton, the current chief of the defense staff, who was a senior officer in Baghdad, and Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, who was largely responsible for the now infamous “dodgy dossier” on Iraq’s military capability.

Politicians expecting criticism include former Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, both in power at the time of the invasion. Inquiry sources have indicated that the conduct of former Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon and former International Development Secretary Clare Short will also be mentioned.

Prime Minister David Cameron called on Chilcot to set a timetable for publication of report. Cameron is keen to get the report published partly because it will criticize a Labour government, but also because senior colleagues have warned him he cannot contemplate a parliamentary vote to expand Britain’s bombing raids against ISIS targets in Syria unless the lessons of Iraq have been fully aired and the public sees they will be learned.

But Chilcot continues to insist his report, which is thought to run to more than 1 million words, is still “not ready.” The glacial pace of Chilcot’s inquiry has been brought to a complete stop by the so-called “Maxwellization” process – a convention by which witnesses to an inquiry are informed of criticism in advance and given the chance to respond.

This dubious process has been going on for at least a year and there is still no end in sight. It is stating the obvious to say that Maxwellization defeats the purpose of any inquiry, which must surely be about finding out what happened without fear or favor. The continuing delays caused by granting key figures a right of reply means the Chilcot inquiry has now become tainted by the same suspicion of cover-up as the war itself.

The U.K.’s former top prosecution lawyer, Lord Macdonald, succinctly summed up the problem recently when he said that the decision to offer a right of reply was “gifting the prize of control over the inquiry’s timetable to its subjects.”

Effectively what has happened is that the people who are most responsible for the debacle in Iraq have been allowed to hijack the inquiry and abuse a dubious convention to amend its findings and protect their reputations. Ironically, the process of Maxwellization takes its name from the newspaper owner and one-time Labour parliamentarian Robert Maxwell, who in 1971 was criticized in a government report as unfit to exercise “proper stewardship” of a public quoted company. Maxwell went to court insisting he had not been allowed to respond to the criticism before the report was published. The judge said the government had “virtually committed the business murder” of Maxwell, and from then on inquiries began to give prior notice of critical findings in advance.

But more importantly, the British Court of Appeal in 1974 overruled Maxwell’s initial court victory and stated it was not necessary for those conducting inquiries “to put their tentative conclusions to the witnesses in order to give them an opportunity to refute them.” So why on Earth has this sordid process been used so extensively in Chilcot’s inquiry?

Small wonder families of British soldiers killed in Iraq are threatening to take legal action against Chilcot if he fails to publish his findings by the end of this year. Chilcot is due to contact the families of dead soldiers, and is expected to tell them he will not be able to publish his report until next year at the earliest. Even then his final report will not reveal the names of those who have used Maxwellization, nor will we know to what extent Chilcot has diluted his findings in response to their objections. Think about that.

It means we will have spent over six years and $16 million on an inquiry that is patently incapable of revealing the entire truth behind what is considered to be the most colossal British foreign policy blunder in modern history. Not even the playwright Samuel Becket could have imagined a more absurd scenario.

Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Britain’s anti-ISIS actions are futile

The Daily Star
Friday, July 10 2015.
By Michael Glackin

Insanity doesn’t just run through politics, it positively gallops. How else do you explain theBritish government’s reaction to the massacre of its citizens in Tunisia last month?

Seifeddine Rezgui, an ISIS gunman trained in Libya, slaughtered 38 innocent tourists, including 30 British nationals, on the beach in Sousse. What was the government’s response? To “consider” extending its pitifully token contribution to the U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS targets and allow British aircraft to bomb the terror group’s strongholds in Syria. It has been bombing targets in Iraq since September.

This is the sum total of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s promised “full spectrum” of responses to the Tunisian atrocity. And even this pitiful response will require a parliamentary vote, so British airstrikes against ISIS in Syria are unlikely to commence until the autumn at the earliest. It is an expedient political response that is utterly meaningless.

The United Kingdom currently has eight Tornado jets taking part in the bombing campaign on ISIS targets in Iraq. At best, extending British operations to Syria will add but a mere handful to that number. It is a token addition to an already risible effort to smash ISIS.

Don’t just take my word for it. Crispin Blunt, chairman of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said last week that only 5 percent of the anti-ISIS missions flown in the region were carried out by British aircraft. Other experts insist the figure is less than 4 percent. Blunt added that extending British strikes into Syria would make “no practical difference” to the air campaign against ISIS.

The reality is that the government’s lame response to the attack in Tunisia is part of a wider political picture. Cameron is mindful of criticism, particularly from Washington, that the U.K. is a fast-fading power that is no longer willing to pull its military weight in international affairs. During last month’s G-7summit in Germany, U.S. President Barack Obama privately pressed Cameron for guarantees he would maintain British defense spending above the NATO benchmark of 2 percent of GDP. Cameron has steadfastly refused to commit to this.

The government believes expanding the U.K.’s abysmal contribution to the anti-ISIS airstrikes in Syria will allay some of the criticism. It also provides yet another fig leaf to cover the reality that there is no overall plan for defeating ISIS, whether in London or in Washington.

Ironically, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond inadvertently indicated what the government, and indeed the West, needs to do in response to the killings in Tunisia when he said the spread of ISIS into the “ungoverned territory” of Libya had helped sow the seeds for the atrocity in Sousse.

Tunisia’s interior minister, Rafik Chelli, confirmed Rezgui visited Libya in January, traveling and training with the group of terrorists who carried out the attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis earlier this year in which 20 people were killed. Rezgui made a further visit to Libya in March, just before the Bardo murders.

You don’t have to be a critic of the rudderless foreign policies of Cameron and Obama to appreciate that the West’s “intervention lite” in Libya has come back to haunt it. The “ungovernable territory” is a direct consequence of the West’s failure to follow up its role in the ousting of Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Its conspicuous absence in post-Gadhafi Libya created the vacuum that allowed terror and lawlessness to prosper, enabling people like Rezgui to hone their deadly craft.

What Cameron should be outlining now is how he intends to address his government’s failings in Libya and what economic and security support the U.K., France, the U.S. and the Gulf nations can now provide to those struggling amid the chaos to establish democracy.

Second, the targeting of Tunisia was not an accident. Two years ago a suicide bomber thought to be linked to the same ISIS cell as Rezgui’s died at the Sousse resort after his bomb exploded prematurely.

Because Tunisia is the one nation in the region to emerge from the Arab spring with a democracy, the terrorist attack was as much about crushing all that the country has achieved in recent years as it was about killing Westerners.

Tunisia’s tourism industry accounts for around 15 percent of the country’s GDP. The Tunisian government has warned of losses totaling $500 million as Western tour companies cancelled booked trips in the wake of the attack. Such losses could have a fatal impact on an important economic sector, one that has helped underpin Tunisia’s shift to democracy.

Cameron should lead the way in getting a firm commitment from other Western powers to back Tunisia with investment and make up the shortfall it will face from those canceled holidays. However, while soft power initiatives can help in the long term, the time has also come for the West to admit its current operations against ISIS have been a failure.

Since the U.S.-led bombing campaign started last year ISIS has lost some ground, primarily in Tikrit, around Mount Sinjar, and along the Syrian border with Turkey. But it has gained elsewhere, most notably winning control of Ramadi and the area around the historic city of Palmyra.

Meanwhile, on the same day as the massacre in Tunisia, groups linked to ISIS bombed a Shiite mosque in Kuwait killing 27, and last week fought a bloody battle with the Egyptian army in the northern Sinai peninsula. Against this backdrop the West must give proper consideration to expanding its role beyond increasingly fruitless airstrikes.

Too much of the heavy lifting against ISIS has been left to a demoralized Iraqi army and (largely Iranian-controlled) Shiite militias. The time has come when the West must take a decision to face and resist terrorism with the “full spectrum” of its military means, and that must mean “boots on the ground.”

It really is a sign of insanity to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. ISIS needs to be tackled at its source.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 10,2015.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The unbearable lightness of being Blair

The Daily Star
Friday, June 5, 2015
By Michael Glackin

It perhaps says something about the importance Tony Blair attached to his role as envoy for the Middle East Quartet that when I contacted his office this week to ask what he considered his main achievement during his eight years in office, no one bothered to respond.

It’s a pity because, while the short answer is not much, the failure is attributable less to Blair than to the Quartet itself.

There is a danger in playing Devil’s advocate. Blair shares a great deal of responsibility for the murderous mayhem that has enveloped the Middle East in the last decade. But though I speak as a long-standing critic, particularly of his role as envoy, some of the criticism since he announced that he was stepping down from the position has been utterly ridiculous.

Blair was the toothless representative of a collection of global powers – the European Union, the United Nations, Russia and the United States – that failed to invest any of their considerable political capital in resolving Israel’s five-decade-old occupation of Palestinian lands. It is the wider political process that did not deliver, and, without that, Blair’s efforts, for all his grubby tardiness in remaining in a fruitless role for eight years, were always going to lead nowhere.

The Quartet members lost interest in trying to re-energize a moribund peace process that was broken long before the misery of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was dwarfed by events in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. As far back as 2008, regional NGOs warned about the Quartet’s lack of progress and called on its members to “signal strong opposition to continued settlement expansion” by Israel in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Nothing happened.

More recently, in 2012, a report by the Brookings Institution said the Quartet had “little to show for its decadelong involvement in the peace process.” In the end Blair became a lightning rod for this inertia. His extremely narrow remit – to promote economic development and help improve governance in the occupied Palestinian territories – meant he was never in a position to influence political events. He was so peripheral to the decision-making process that he wasn’t even invited to the last ministerial-level meeting of the Quartet last February.

And yet, Blair was hardly on a fool’s errand. Being envoy put the diplomat cum multimillionaire businessman center stage in Middle East diplomacy, while he conducted lucrative private deals with regional governments with which he dealt on Quartet missions. Blair’s global consultancy, which offers investment and strategic advice to governments and corporations, includes among its clients PetroSaudi, an oil company with links to the royal family of Saudi Arabia, the Kuwait government, and the Abu Dhabi wealth fund Mubadala. Since being appointed envoy, Blair is estimated to have amassed between $75 million and $150 million, although he insists the figure is much lower.

This inevitably led to accusations of conflicts of interest. It has also tarnished Blair’s few small successes as envoy. He succeeded in getting the Israeli government to release radio frequencies which enabled cell phone company Wataniya Mobile to operate in the West Bank, allowing competition with larger rival Jawwal. He also lobbied Israel to allow the British energy firm BG Group and Palestinian officials to establish Gaza Marine, a long stalled $1 billion offshore drilling project.

But both Wataniya Mobile and BG Group were clients of U.S. investment giant JP Morgan at the time – the bank that also pays Blair around $3 million a year to act as its consultant. Oddly enough, I suspect this creative multitasking doesn’t overly concern many in the region. However, it is the fig-leaf nature of Blair’s former office, that it was established to provide a shroud to cover the absence of progress to resolve Israel’s long occupation of Palestinian territories, that rankles with many, and his willingness to play along with it for so long.

Blair’s other minor successes included his part in opening up the Allenby crossing, which enabled Palestinian businessmen easier access to Jordan. But that success, and a handful of others like it, must be set against the more than 500 other Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks that remain in place.

The economies of the West Bank and Gaza are in a dire state, and private investment continues to be well below standard levels in other small developing countries. A World Bank report last month reiterated that the primary factor strangling growth in Gaza and the West Bank is Israeli restrictions.

While one can argue that Ramallah is reasonably prosperous, thanks to foreign aid, Israel retains control over 60 percent of the West Bank. That means prospects for any real investment and the expansion of the private sector are extremely limited.

Even before last summer’s Gaza war, one in six Palestinians in the West Bank was jobless and one out of two in Gaza.

But the central problem, and the one Blair faced from the outset, is that there isn’t anything that resembles a workable and effective political framework to improve the plight of the Palestinians. His remit, to start building a Palestinian state “from the bottom up while it is being negotiated from the top down,” was laughable. There were no meaningful “top down” negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel at any point during his time as envoy.

King Abdullah II of Jordan succinctly summed up the attitude of the Israeli government in 2011 with his pithy remark: “Israel is not really interested in a two-state solution, and what is the other option?” Add in the infighting within the Palestinian leadership, the death knell for any hope of reform after the sacking of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2013, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s expansion of illegal settlements, and you have to wonder why anyone thought Blair, even without the baggage of his record in the region, could make a difference.

Michael Glackin is former Managing Editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 05, 2015, on page 7.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

A Lawrence of Arabia Cameron won’t be

The Daily Star
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
By Michael Glackin

The headline in London’s Financial Times neatly captured how important British Prime Minister David Cameron’s election victory will be for the Middle East. According to the newspaper, Cameron’s surprise outright win, ending his need for a coalition with the smaller Liberal Democrats, “reignited London’s property market.” Middle East buyers were leading the charge to purchase multimillion-dollar homes within hours of the results.

And that, I would suggest, will be the extent of this election’s impact on the Middle East. Since Cameron’s humiliation in the disastrous House of Commons vote in 2013, when Parliament vetoed his attempt to launch a limited missile strike against President Bashar Assad’s regime, he has avoided foreign affairs.

In the face of Russian revanchism and the increasing mayhem spreading across the Middle East, Cameron has been invisible. None of this will change under his new government.

It’s a far cry from Cameron’s tub thumping appearances in Egypt, just days after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and months later in Libya, after Moammar Gadhafi was toppled. Today, Cameron’s determination to stand aloof from the shambles that Libya has become is most clearly seen in his new government’s attitude to the North African and Middle Eastern migrants dying in their thousands in the Mediterranean, most of whom are victims of Libya-based people-trafficking gangs.

Within days of the election, Home Secretary Theresa May firmly ruled out British participation in a European Union quota scheme to resettle the migrants – most of whom landed in Italy or Greece – among the bloc’s 28 member states. She insisted that the plan would only “encourage” more migrants to try to reach Europe and called on the EU to send them back to the shores of Libya from whence they came.

It’s an improvement on the previous policy of allowing the migrants to drown in the Mediterranean.

But considering the United Kingdom’s responsibility for the current mayhem in Libya, not to mention Syria, from where many of the migrants have traveled, it is shameful. In fact only 143 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees have been resettled in the U.K. Based on May’s comments that number is extremely unlikely to increase under the new government.

On the wider regional front, Cameron will continue to avoid getting involved in a strategy to tackle problems arising from the so-called “failed-state wars” in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, or the increasing extremism and sectarian violence they have unleashed. The U.K. will also remain a marginal contributor to the air campaign against ISIS.

The new government will however introduce tougher anti-terrorism laws at home, including the “snoopers’ charter,” which will dramatically increase the security services’ already extensive surveillance powers.

The British government will, of course, be involved in negotiating the final terms of a potential nuclear accord with Iran as part of the P5+1 group of powers. If a deal with Tehran is finalized, it is likely to result in wider negotiations on regional security. This will have far-reaching consequences for the West’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, as well as Iran and its proxies, in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. But it is, frankly, laughable to talk of a regional security deal that would see the U.K. becoming one of the guarantors of a U.S.-led security system for the Gulf states, with the Western powers pledging to respond to any military attack against its Gulf allies.

Based on the recent actions of both London and Washington, and even allowing for Saudi Arabia being the U.K.’s most lucrative arms market, such a guarantee would be token at best, and most likely worthless. After all, the U.K. (along with the United States and Russia) is a guarantor of Ukrainian sovereignty through the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, and that has offered scant comfort to Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.

Meanwhile, Cameron will continue to refuse to support tougher measures to hold Israel accountable for illegal West Bank settlement building. His bizarre and contradictory position of supporting a two-state solution while insisting a Palestine state should not be recognized until it is “most useful to the peace process” will not change.

Ultimately, Cameron’s priorities will be keeping the U.K. together in the face of the huge surge in support for the Scottish Nationalist Party, which wants Scotland to be independent. Oddly enough, the SNP, now the U.K.’s third largest party, is the only mainstream political group that supports the immediate recognition of a Palestinian state and has called on the government to upgrade the political representation of Palestine in the U.K. to a fully functioning embassy.

However, while the SNP won almost all the Scottish seats in the British Parliament, and controls the separate Scottish Parliament, it has absolutely no influence over British foreign policy.

Membership of the EU will be the other defining issue of British politics, ahead of a referendum on the matter, which Cameron has committed to hold by 2017. The prime minister, who will campaign for the U.K. to remain in the EU, will have to devote all his energies to renegotiating the terms of Britain’s membership to convince voters to back his position.

Meanwhile, as the Middle East continues to unravel, the well-heeled at least can look forward to purchasing an up-market London bolt hole. The rest, particularly those refugees scattered across Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, will have to learn to live with Britain’s Middle East inertia.

Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut based daily newspaper THE DAILY STAR.A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 19, 2015, on page 7.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

In fighting terrorism, Britain is abandoning its liberal values

The Daily Star
Friday, April 17, 2015
By Michael Glackin

It says something about the world we now live in that we know more about Mullah Omar’s terror plans, despite the fact he has been in hiding for the last decade, than about someone who has undergone the scrutiny of two criminal trials at London’s Old Bailey, arguably the world’s most famous courthouse.

Thanks to the Afghan Taliban’s publication of Mullah Omar’s bizarre biography on April 6, we know about his love of grenade launchers, particularly the RPG-7, his “preferred weapon of choice,” and his future plans for Afghanistan.

If only we knew as much about the plans of the man whom British security and intelligence agencies believe poses such a grave risk to the national security of the United Kingdom that details of his arrest, terrorist plots and trials must be kept secret.

You may recall the case of Erol Incedal, a British national, who has twice stood trial on terrorism charges since being arrested at gunpoint in 2013. In an unprecedented move, the British government had attempted to hold both trials in secret, in the interests of “national security.” Following a legal challenge by media groups a compromise was arranged in which the trial was divided into three parts: public, in other words open to media and members of the public; private, with 10 “accredited journalists” allowed to attend but banned from reporting what they saw or heard; and closed, meaning completely secret, with just the accused, lawyers and the jury present.

Last year Incedal was convicted of possessing a bomb-making document on a mobile phone memory card. But the jury failed to reach a verdict on the more serious charge of planning a terrorist attack on behalf of ISIS. This included allegedly targeting former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and plotting a “Mumbai-style” attack in London.

After a second trial, even more of which was held in secret and which ended last month, a jury finally acquitted Incedal of that charge. This came after police and security agencies admitted that they had no idea what his alleged terror target was.

Following his acquittal Incedal was jailed on April 1 for three and a half years on the earlier charge of possessing the bomb-making document, a shorter sentence than the average house burglar receives. His friend, Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, who last year pleaded guilty to being in possession of an identical document, was jailed for three years. Having already spent 17 months on remand both men are likely to be free within months. The situation is beyond farce. What on earth was all this secrecy about?

Sentencing the two men, the judge, Mr. Justice Nicol, actually told them that they were not terrorists, but added that parliament had made possessing instructions for homemade bombs an offense because of the danger of their being in circulation.

So we can’t even call this a secret terror trial anymore. It’s just a sordid secret trial where the entire weight of the government has been used to ride roughshod over the principle of open justice, for no apparent reason. Considering that what the jury heard convinced them that Incedal was not plotting terror attacks, and bearing in mind the lengths to which the government went to keep this trial a secret, it must surely be in the national interest to know why Incedal has been cleared of being a terrorist.

This is the crux of the matter because we have no idea what really lay at the heart of Incedal’s prosecution in the first place, let alone the reason for all the secrecy that surrounded his case. Here is a man who has been found guilty of possessing a bomb-making manual, but whom two separate juries, who saw all the evidence, failed to convict of planning terror attacks.

It even emerged that Incedal had been in contact with a British extremist known as “Ahmed,” whom he had met on the border between Turkey and Syria. And yet the jury still cleared him. Why? We don’t know.

Amid all these questions we are faced with a government that has developed a worrying obsession with secrecy and the control of information – one that treats its laughingly inept security and intelligence services with mad devotion. The government appears to be in awe of the security services, and will do anything they ask without question.

We have seen this in the abject failure of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee to criticize myriad intelligence failures or the acknowledged illegal activities of the service. The Incedal trial represents yet another erosion of freedom of expression in the U.K., from the pervasive snooping of the security services into our emails, to the government attacks on the media, which has seen more journalists put on trial than terrorists in recent years.

The final bizarre twist in this sorry affair came when Mr. Justice Nicol rejected a post-trial application brought by media to make the case details public now that the trial was over and there no longer was a need for secrecy.

Predictably, Nicol handed down two judgments, one open, and one secret. His open judgment ruled that prosecutors could be dissuaded from bringing such a case in the future if reporting restrictions were lifted. Why? The reason was detailed in the accompanying secret judgment, which of course, we cannot read.

This is a pathetic way to defend the values of freedom and democracy. Former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

It is sound advice, because the greatest threat to British values and freedoms just now is from hysteria, not terrorists.

Michael Glackin is former Managing Editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 17, 2015, on page 7.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Echoes of Orwell in the United Kingdom

The Daily Star
Monday, March 23, 2015
By Michael Glackin

George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece “1984,” described a world of omnipresent government surveillance of its citizens. A world in which the rulers even invented a new language, Newspeak, in order to distort the true meaning of words and suppress dissent. Orwell’s novel, published in 1949, was largely, though not entirely, based on the regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. But today his nightmare vision of society has worrying parallels with the shocking extent of the British government’s intrusion into our day-to-day lives.

The British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee officially confirmed last week that the government was engaged in mass surveillance of the communications of millions of people. But in a long-awaited report into the revelations made by U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden two years ago, the ISC insisted this intrusive surveillance carried out by intelligence agencies was perfectly legal.

That’s because the intelligence services’ trawling of the emails, text messages and other online communications of law-abiding individuals isn’t actually mass surveillance. In a nod to Orwell’s Newspeak, the ISC prefers to call it “bulk interception” and “bulk collection.” As someone who has been embarrassed by the fact that I speak one language, I am now ashamed to discover I don’t even understand the language I thought I could speak.

According to the ISC, bulk interception or collection only becomes surveillance when the information is read by a human. Because most of the vast amounts of material collected by GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency, are never actually read by anyone, it doesn’t qualify as mass surveillance.

But why collect information if you are not going to read it? Surely if any of the content is being stored it increases the likelihood that it will be accessed at some point? The ISC report insists that GCHQ only stores a small amount of the material it intercepts, but the exact figure is redacted so we have no idea how much is being held, or how long it is kept by the intelligence agencies.

The intelligence services insist they need to do all this, and much more, because they are searching for small needles of information about terrorists in the vast haystack of online communications. But as the record shows, and as The Guardian newspaper neatly put it, the biggest security problem appears to be the abject failure of the intelligence agencies to hold on to all the needles they pull out of haystacks.

Lest we forget, despite all its online snooping, the intelligence services failed to prevent a number of atrocities in the United Kingdom – from the London bombings of 2005 to the murder of off-duty soldier Lee Rigby in 2013 – despite the fact that the perpetrators in both cases were on the radar of intelligence services. Mohammed Emwazi, better known as ISIS killer Jihadi John, would not be in Syria butchering Westerners were it not for the intelligence services allowing him to escape from the U.K. while he was under their scrutiny.

By any sane rationale, these failures make the case for a better organized intelligence service. But in the twisted Orwellian prism of the government and the ISC they add up instead to increasing the powers of the spooks to collect Internet data on the rest of us, creating more hay for them to trawl through.

The ISC has essentially given the spooks the benefit of the doubt over the legality of their surveillance. They won’t need to in future, because the government intends to formally legalize the practice, or in the committee’s Newspeak, make the process more “transparent.”

Yet while calling for more transparency, the ISC also flatly rejected demands that a judge, rather than a government minister, should be responsible for authorizing the warrants – of which there were 517,236 issued last year – allowing “intrusive surveillance.” The mantra, repeatedly trotted out by government, is that the innocent have nothing to fear from its snooping.

That’s a lie. On the same day that the ISC was busy recommending more transparency, the government was busy trying to keep secret the extent of the intelligence services’ unlawful behavior. Almost unnoticed last week, lawyers acting for GCHQ, MI5, and MI6, insisted that the agencies should not have to admit whether they intercepted legally privileged conversations between lawyers and their clients.

The demand was made during a case before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal brought by the Libyan politician Abdel-Hakim Belhadj and his family. They were seized in a British-American rendition operation in 2004 and returned to be tortured by Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Tripoli.

The IPT deals with complaints about the conduct of the intelligence services. Belhadj is currently suing the government over its role in his rendition. His lawyers believe the intelligence services eavesdropped on their confidential communications in order to give the government an unfair advantage in court.

Belhadj is not a terrorist, and his court case against the government does not threaten the lives of British people. He is simply someone the government wants to silence, and based on the ISC report, that is enough for his communications with his lawyers to be legally intercepted.

The intelligence services play a crucial role in protecting the United Kingdom. But there is no evidence that mass surveillance of our Internet activity is making us safer. On the contrary there is plenty of evidence that intelligence failures have cost lives. Giving mass surveillance a retrospective legal basis will not change this, whatever the government decides to call it.

Michael Glackin,is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 23, 2015, on page 7.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Britain’s intelligence net needs repairs

The Daily Star
Monday, March 2, 2015
By Michael Glackin

It is hard not to fear for the defense of the realm these days. When the head of the government body charged with overseeing the British intelligence services is daft enough to be duped by reporters pretending to be directors of a fictitious Chinese company you really are in trouble.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the powerful chairman of Parliament’s Intelligence Services Committee, along with a former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, one of the loudest cheerleaders for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, both offered to “use their influence” as senior politicians to help the fictitious company in return for payments of at least $7,500 per day.

Rifkind, who was forced to resign as chair of the ISC following the revelations, told the undercover reporters he could arrange “useful access” to every British ambassador in the world. He said he could meet “any ambassador that I wish to see” in London. “They’ll all see me personally.”

Luckily it was a bunch of reporters exposing his sordid avarice rather than a terrorist group posing as a fictitious company. The headlines could have been very different.

With someone like this in charge of overseeing intelligence and security, it is unsurprising that the services themselves are facing criticism for being inept. The intelligence and security services consistently warn that the greatest threat to national security comes from British jihadis who become radicalized fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and who then return home bringing the violence they have learned to the streets of Britain.

Yet intelligence and security services appear incapable of stopping not just British nationals going to Syria and Iraq in the first place, but even known terror suspects.

The ISIS executioner known as “Jihadi John,” who was finally publicly named by the Washington Post last week as Londoner Mohammed Emwazi, is a case in point. Emwazi, a 27-year-old from west London, was able to escape to Syria despite being on an MI5 terror watch list which prohibited him from leaving the United Kingdom. In fact, Emwazi was so well-known to intelligence services and detained so often by MI5 that he actually filed a formal complaint against them with the Police Complaints Commission in 2010.

Yet the former University of Westminster computer student, who MI5 had linked to a number of Islamist terror groups including Al-Shabab, managed to slip out of the United Kingdom unnoticed in 2012 to join ISIS. He is the best known of an estimated 2,000 Britons thought to be fighting alongside Islamist extremists and butchering innocents in Syria and Iraq.

The latest recruits appear to be three runaway schoolgirls from London. Clearly the intelligence services cannot monitor everyone, and, unlike Emwazi, the schoolgirls had no record of terrorism. However, one of the schoolgirls is believed to have been recruited through Twitter by Aqsa Mahmood, a so-called “jihadi bride” who fled Glasgow for Syria two years ago.

Mahmood’s social media have been monitored by intelligence agencies ever since she disappeared. This is not lost on her family, who said the security services had “serious questions to answer” over her alleged contact with the missing schoolgirls.

It gets worse. It is understood that the schoolgirls were also in contact via social media with a school friend who ran away to Syria in December. The government, not slow to see an opportunity, insisted that the case reinforced its argument to grant greater powers to the intelligence services so they could intercept social media and digital messages. Prime Minister David Cameron wants encrypted communication services such as WhatsApp and Snapchat to be opened up to the security services.

But Steve Hewitt, an expert on security intelligence and counterterrorism at the University of Birmingham, recently told me that mass eavesdropping programs such as Tempora, through which GCHQ secretly gained access to millions of private communications, could actually be hampering intelligence work.

“One of the issues raised by the Snowden disclosures is the vast amount of information the intelligence agencies take in. Frankly it is way too much, and they simply cannot process it all. They need to prioritize more,” Hewitt remarked.

They sure do. Emwazi is merely the latest terror suspect of whom the intelligence services have lost sight, only to see him return to haunt them.

Despite extensive so-called “intrusive” surveillance of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, both men slipped through the intelligence net and murdered an off-duty soldier, Lee Rigby, in broad daylight on a busy London street in 2013. Like Adebolajo, Emwazi has also claimed MI5 tried to recruit him.

The leaders of the July 7, 2005 bombings in London, which killed 52 people, were also on the radar of the intelligence services, but again slipped through the net. After the attack, MI5 insisted two of the bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, were just “petty fraudsters.” However, at least one surveillance transcript of the pair later emerged which contained eight pages detailing plans to train for and take part in terrorist attacks.

These are systematic failings. Hewitt adds: “It’s inevitable that some suspects could slip through their net, and that the occasional lone attacker may not stay on their radar and then later emerge to attack someone. But ultimately that is preferable to hundreds being killed in a single incident, and the security services have successfully prevented those sort of terror attacks.”

Maybe so, but as the old adage goes, the terrorists only have to get lucky once, and the more of them that are allowed to slip through the net, the luckier they are likely to be.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper The Daily Star. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 2, 2015, on page 7.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

A British inquiry descends into farce

The Daily Star
Friday, February 13 2015
By Michael Glackin

The long-running, some would say never-ending, government inquiry into why the United Kingdom went to war in Iraq in 2003 officially descended into farce last week.

The man in charge of the inquiry, Sir John Chilcot, faced a parliamentary committee to explain why he has still not published his report into a war that took place more than a decade ago. Chilcot, a former civil servant who heads the five-member committee of inquiry that began its work in 2009, originally expected his $1,200 a day job to last two years at most. However, six years and $14 million later, there is no sign of him publishing even an interim report, or any hint that he might soon have to give up his well remunerated post.

In truth the Chilcot inquiry was always a pointless exercise. The entire country blames former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s bizarre desperation to ingratiate himself with U.S. President George W. Bush for the U.K.’s joining a war that has cast a dark shadow across the entire Middle East.

But few public inquiries in the U.K. achieve anything, and two previous inquiries into the Iraq war were widely seen as exercises in concealing the truth. Based on last week’s 70-minute performance by Chilcot in front of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, his inquiry will be no different.

In a moment that could have come from a Marx Brothers film, the man who had to explain to Parliament why it was taking so long to publish his report, took so long to explain it that he had to be told to stop in order for parliamentarians to ask questions.

Rumor has it Chilcot’s report so far runs to a million words, and, judging by his responses to the committee, it may well be impenetrable. For instance, when he told the committee that he still didn’t know when he would be ready to publish, he said: “The risk of either arousing false hopes or false expectations either way outweighs for me the powerful appetite, for all sorts of often good reasons, to know when the report is likely to become available.”

A joke that’s been doing the rounds for years is that Chilcot is delaying the report until the main players are all dead. Ironically, his first words to the committee informed them that one of the members of his inquiry panel, the historian Sir Martin Gilbert, had indeed died the previous night.

You couldn’t make it up.

Chilcot said the long delay was initially due to “very long and difficult and challenging discussions” with the U.K’s top civil servant over the release of secret government documents. These include the all-important 25 letters Blair sent to Bush, along with the transcripts of 130 telephone calls between the two men, in the run-up to the invasion. The cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, who was also Blair’s principal private secretary at the time of the invasion, refused to declassify the correspondence on national-security grounds.

It’s ironic that a government that insists on the need to pry into millions of its citizens’ private emails and Skype conversations is so reluctant to allow its citizens a reciprocal right. Although a deal struck between Heywood and Chilcot now allows for the release of “selected extracts,” the reality is that the full details of these important public documents will remain secret.

So, even if Chilcot does publish his report before we all die, we are unlikely to learn whether Blair really did write to Bush in July 2002: “You know, George, whatever you decide to do, I’m with you.” The letter, written a year before Parliament voted on whether Britain would join the invasion, was quoted in well-connected political journalist Andrew Rawnsley’s book “The End of the Party,” based on his interviews with David Manning, Blair’s foreign policy adviser at the time, and Sir Christopher Meyer, then the British ambassador to the U.S.

The tussle between Chilcot and the cabinet office over these documents meant the process by which those criticized in the report are given the right to respond before publication, known as “Maxwellization,” did not begin until the end of last year.

This now appears to be the main obstacle to the report’s publication as speculation is rife that Blair, along with the former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, and senior defense chiefs are attempting to water down criticism of their roles by challenging details and demanding changes.

This covert bartering is an affront to the very principles of democracy and open government that the invasion of Iraq was supposed to uphold. The Maxwellization process defeats the purpose of any inquiry, which must surely be about finding out what happened without fear or favor. Granting key figures in the decision to go to war a right of reply means the Chilcot inquiry is now rightly tainted by the same suspicion of cover-up as the war itself.

The Chilcot Inquiry was always going to be a waste of time and money. The inquiry panel was made up of establishment figures that supported Blair. Chilcot was a key member of an earlier Iraq war investigation, the Butler Inquiry, which exonerated the Blair government of the charge that it had “sexed up” the case for war after the failure to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction – the original raison d’ĂȘtre for attacking Iraq.

The late Sir Martin Gilbert supported the invasion and even claimed Bush and Blair would one day “join the ranks of Roosevelt and Churchill. Another member of the inquiry team, the academic Sir Lawrence Freedman, was a foreign policy adviser to Blair. He is also author of the five tests for military intervention used by Blair in a famous 1999 Chicago speech.

The Iraq war and its chaotic, bloody aftermath cost hundreds of thousands of lives and destabilized the Middle East. It provided fertile ground for the growth of ISIS, poisoned the well of humanitarian intervention, and has destroyed the willingness of the U.K., and indeed the West, to deal with the conflict in Syria. And yet, a decade after the event that unleashed this maelstrom, there has been no proper scrutiny of the decision-making process that led to it. I suspect there never will be.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper The Daily Star. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 13, 2015, on page 7.