Saturday, 14 November 2015

Paris attacks: how we might react, and how we should

Yesterday morning, 13 November, the British media were dominated by one story: the probable killing by a US drone strike in Syria of “Jihadi John”, British citizen Mohammed Emwazi. He became notorious around the world when he executed, on camera and with cruel delight, six captives of the ISIS group.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Labour Party, responded to the news of Emwazi’s likely death, with the comment, “it appears Mohammed Emwazi has been held to account for his callous and brutal crimes. However, it would have been far better for us all if he had been held to account in a court of law.”

Indeed. Being killed in the streets of Raqqa by a US weapon turns him into a martyr of the fight against imperialism; in front of a court, he could have been exposed as the cruel, small, cowardly man he really was.

The point was made more strongly still and, for me, more movingly by Diane Foley, mother of one of Emwazi’s victims, James Foley.

Diane Foley: It saddens me that, here in America, we’re celebrating the killing of this deranged, pathetic young man…

ABC (Brian Ross): It gives you no solace?

Diane Foley: No. Not at all. Had circumstances been different, Jim [James Foley] probably would have befriended him and tried to help him. It’s just so sad that our precious resources have been concentrated to seek revenge, if you will, or kill this man when if a bit of them had been utilised to save our young Americans... That’s what our country should be doing, I think, is protecting our citizens and the vulnerable, the people who are suffering, and not trying to seek revenge and bomb… I’m sorry… Jim would have been devastated with the whole thing. Jim was a peacemaker. He wanted to know how we could figure out why, why all this is happening.

ABC: For you there’s no sense of justice then, in this strike?

Diane Foley: Justice? No. It’s just sad. We have to be careful … not to glorify this deranged young man. I mean, he’s a sad individual, filled with hate for us. I hope our country can choose to lead in ways of peace and valuing young Americans who are trying to protect… our best ideals. That’s the part of America I’m proud of... I don’t like this bully part, I’m sorry, no.

She’s so right. We went to war in 2003 to wreak revenge for 9/11 on someone, anyone – after all, Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks – and the result has been twelve years of more disasters including the rise of ISIS, the ravaging of the region, a huge flow of refugees which we’re struggling to cope with, and further terrorist outrages. Twelve years, with no end in sight.

Yesterday morning, though, the talk was all about how significant the likely death of Emwazi would prove. Since he was not a significant player in ISIS, it was generally felt that his death would not be a body blow to the organisation, though it would be a major propaganda coup.

Parisian emergency services going into action
at the Bataclan concert hall, where most victims were killed
And then we had the Paris attacks. When it comes to propaganda effect, it leaves the killing of Emwazi firmly in the shade. It was a way of saying to the West:

Firstly, that we are all targets – ISIS doesn’t attack individuals like Emwazi, it attacks whole populations, with no interest in guilt or innocence (or rather, on the assumption that we are all guilty).

Secondly, the attack shows that our twelve years of fighting, with all the investment of lives and treasure, have had no impact at all on degrading our enemies’ capacity to strike us. The Paris attack is the worst France has undergone since the Second World War.

There’s quite a message behind this.

Lesson number 1 is the easy one: ISIS is a present and growing threat, and we need to combat it.

Lesson number 2 is that the approach we’ve taken so far has only been partially successful. Excellent intelligence work in a number of countries has prevented attacks within their territory. France probably needs to do a great deal better in this field. But when it comes to snuffing out the movement at its roots, in Syria and Iraq, we’ve done little more than nibble around the edges of the problem. Indeed, we created many of the difficulties in Syria and Iraq ourselves when, in our pursuit of the kind of revenge Diane Foley criticises, we incompetently waged war in the region. Remember the prisoner abuses in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and ask yourself what they did to attract recruits to ISIS.

Lesson number 3 is the lamentable one. The most common reaction to the events in Paris will probably be to want to do more of precisely the things that have proved ineffective in the past. There’ll be more Islamophobia. There’ll be more calls for curbs on immigration. There’ll be more pressure to go to war.

What there’s unlikely to be is any attempt to follow Diane Foley’s advice, to stop wasting our resources on seeking revenge, and instead focus on protecting our people and upholding our values. That doesn’t mean ducking the issue of war if military action really is necessary, but only taking it when we know exactly what we’re doing, it’s limited to necessary and defensible goals, it’s legal and we know it can achieve what we need.

If I’m lucky, I’ll be proved wrong. The West will adopt a different and far more intelligent approach to the problems that 9/11 and the ill-thought out Western reactions have caused. And at last we’ll see effective action taken.

Well, we can always hope...

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