The Obscurer

Category: Terrorism

What Do You Get If You Multiply Six By Nine?

David Davis’s decision to stand down as an MP and fight a by-election on the subject of civil liberties, be it brave, foolish, principled or vain (and it is probably all four), will only become interesting to me in the unlikely event that it resolves some of those unanswered questions raised during the debate over 42-days detention. I have to doubt that Davis can provide me with those answers by fighting shadows in a by-election when a he didn’t manage it as shadow home secretary, but if he pulls it off he will have done me a great service.

I think I am a bit erratic on the matter of civil liberties. I am dead against ID cards, although for now it is mainly for the pragmatic reason that they are a monumentally ineffective waste of time and money. I similarly oppose the proposed database that will run alongside the cards, but I can see some worth in the similarly gargantuan NHS “spine”. The DNA database’s reach is far too extensive, but the profusion of CCTV cameras, whether state or privately owned, does not leave me over-fussed. On the matter of detention without charge I opposed the extension to 90 days in terror cases and I oppose the 42-day move now. I’m all over the place really, although perhaps no more than David Davis himself, a curious “libertarian” who despite his recent protestations is socially conservative and an authoritarian on many issues, supporting the repeal of the Human Rights Act and also – as many have pointed out – in favour of the death penalty. So while he is appalled by the metaphorical “slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms” he is far more relaxed about the literal, brisker, honest-to-goodness strangulation of a human being in a noose. He is against the state retaining our DNA and storing it in a vial but is happy to afford it the power to erase us from the face of the earth.

It is easy to pick holes in what passes for the government’s case for 42-days. I have little doubt that Labour’s main reason for pushing the bill forward was political, to triangulate and to sound tough on terror while painting the Tories as weak. Certainly it is the case that some terrorists have been held right up to the current 28-days limit – just as the previous limit of 14-days was occasionally approached – but isn’t that the way with deadlines? If I am given 4 weeks to complete an assignment then it will take me 4 weeks; give me a 2-week extension and it will take 6 weeks.

And yet; I am not whole-hearted in my opposition to this bill, primarily because as I have no experience of investigating a terror plot I have no knowledge of what it actually entails. Certainly the government hasn’t effectively made the case for why the change it is needed, but the opposition hasn’t convinced me that it isn’t. It is an unpleasant feature of our parliamentary democracy that the whips operate to push MPs through the lobby to vote for their party rather than with their conscience and some of the reported horse-trading in last week’s vote reflects badly on the government, but I have heard far worse cases of bullying and intimidation under previous votes and governments; the whips work on both sides and it would be interesting to see how a genuinely free vote would have gone when many Tory MPs would have voted for 42-days rather than against the government. Much of the opposition case seems to be shrill and hyperbolic, to exhibit some unavoidable gravitational pull towards Latin, where Magna Carta, habeas corpus and cave canem get waved around for no very good reason, and where opposing 42-days is made to sound synonymous with supporting civil liberties. Sure, many of those in favour of 42-days can also some make utterly stupid points in response by, for example, saying they don’t care how long terror suspects are banged up for as long as we are kept safe, but I can easily dismiss such Daily Mail-style wing-nuttery as I don’t feel the need to understand and sympathise with such rabid nonsense. Not so the arguments made by liberals, and David Davis; but the latter’s speech to parliament in the debate on the bill was typically full of emotive talk of innocent people being dragged from their homes in the early hours and hurried away from their famillies and jobs to be slammed in a cell for weeks on end; true, of course, and uncomfortable to admit perhaps, but these facts apply as equally to the 28-day limit which Davis supports as to the 42-day limit he opposes.

But it is when the bills opponents compare the UK’s record with other countries that I become most concerned about the arguments being made. It is commonplace to blithely state that we already have the most draconian terror laws going, and Liberty published a document detailing how out of step the British legal system is, but what does that mean? Some things don’t seem to add up. Italy, for example, is said to be able to make do with a mere 4 days detention prior to charge, yet in the Meredith Kercher case I remember it being stated that the suspects can be held for up to a year pending investigation, the 4 day limit apparently being for the courts to authorise the initial arrest. Italy is a civil-law country and so the comparison may not be exact (which is part of the problem here) but what of other common-law countries? In the United States, when not being held indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay, Liberty state that suspects can only be held for 2 days prior to charge, but again comparisons seem misleading. My understanding is that in the States it is the norm to charge suspects with a lesser crime and then use post-charge questioning to get at the real reason for the arrest; but is that really any improvement on the British system? It doesn’t seem a victory for civil liberties if we move over to a procedure where you can be arrested for some trumped up trifle – tax evasion…jaywalking? – and to then be held for as long as a friendly judge refuses bail. You still won’t know why you have really been arrested, you still can’t prepare your defence for the genuine case ahead, and it all seems to lead to a far less transparent system, with nothing like the judicial oversight that exists in the UK. In Canada, another common law country, under most circumstances charges actually need to be laid prior to an arrest – which certainly suggests a low level of evidence is required – and anyway within 24 hours. It beggars belief that the Canadian and British police are working under truly comparable systems or else we have to believe that our coppers are 42 times more lazy than the Canadians; but I guess I don’t know.

My problem here is that while I instinctively support Liberty in its endeavours some of its claims seem disingenuous which undermines the case, as if they are playing fast and loose with the evidence in order to take a utopian line on civil liberties. It is easy to oppose 42-days on a high-minded principle when it isn’t your arse on the line if the current 28-day limit means you have to let a genuine terrorist go free; easy to tell others how to do a job you have no intention of doing yourself and to still keep yourself free to criticise if things do go wrong; easy enough to do it and stay put. No, the antis haven’t convinced me of their case; ultimately it comes down to how much time the police actually need to do the job, and that is something I simply don’t know.

But the antis don’t have to convince me, it is the pro-42-dayers who are seeking a change to the status quo, it is they who have to do the convincing. Some senior police officers may well want more time to question suspects, but who wouldn’t like more time in which to do their job? Just because they want it doesn’t mean they need it; if the police are given 42 days then they will certainly use them, but while that could be out of necessity it is as likely to be out of risk-aversion, to continue to hold people against whom there is no evidence just to be on the safe side. Neither side in this argument has persuaded me, but liberty is too vital an issue to take lightly. As in law, then, it is for the Crown to make its case beyond reasonable doubt. This is something it has signally failed to do.


I bet he’s furious. After three long years he finally psyches himself up to do his first television address in ages, intoning his beautifully crafted and meticulously rehearsed prose, so to spread fear and unease in the hearts of the infidels and apostates; and what is the reaction? No one even has the common decency to listen to the content and power of his words and delivery, all anyone does is to talk about how much older he looks nowadays, and hasn’t he dyed and trimmed his beard?

Osama Bin Laden has every right to feel aggrieved: We’ve all aged over the last three years, he would argue, even you. You just try keeping on top of a thorough skin-care regime when you live in this cave; it’s not exactly awash with pentapeptides you know, whatever they are, if they even exist beyond an advertiser’s imagination. Listen, I’m up here. Thank you. And there’s nothing in the Koran that forbids dying your beard either; or if there is it must be somewhere towards the back and I’ve skipped it. Anyway, I’ve had this look for months now; it’s only new to you because you haven’t seen me recently. When you get used to it you’ll realise that it suits me. I cringe now when I look back at those old videos, I really do. Now, where were we? But we wouldn’t take any of this in, so distracted would we be by his facial hair the shade of black Kiwi boot polish.

Osama will not be replacing Natalie Imbruglia as the new face of L’Oreal, and he shouldn’t expect that call from Grecian 2000 either. But this does all highlight the perils of being a terrorist mastermind in these superficial, celebrity-obsessed and ageist times. Bin Laden must feel like giving up, throwing in the towel, and who could blame him? How he must wish he was of a different, more deferential time, fifty years ago perhaps, some imagined golden age, when evil mass-murderers were afforded the unconditional awe and dread they so deserve.

The NeverEnding Story

I was depressed to hear Alan West state over the weekend that the war against terror “will take 10 to 15 years” to complete, if we all just knuckle down. No, I wasn’t depressed because 15 years seems like a long time – in fact it seems like no time at all to rid the world of an abstract noun – just depressed (though not surprised) that yet another government official has found the need to announce a meaningless sound bite. I was further depressed because until recently Alan West wasn’t even directly involved in politics and so you would hope he could bring a bit of common sense and realism into government; but then, as in so many other walks of life, you probably have to be something of a politician in the first place to rise through the ranks of the Royal Navy, so I’m not all that shocked.

Why declare this “10-15 years” figure? You’re not telling me that it is an estimate arrived at through analysis and investigation. Why not just haul out the phrase “we are in for a long haul”, or take the vague term “the long run” out for a run? What is the point in announcing such an arbitrary time scale? Well, if you share my exasperation it seems we are in good company, because terror expert David Capitanchik of Aberdeen University is similarly nonplussed by all this talk. “The 15 years puzzles me,” he said, when speaking to LSE (that is Life Style Extra, not the London School of Economics, nor the London Stock Exchange), because it “doesn’t seem to relate to anything”. Well said. Putting such a time scale on the war on terror is sheer folly, isn’t it?

Our terror expert continued

When he was Home Secretary, John Reid said it would take as long as the Cold War lasted…The fact is we are going to continue to have to be prepared for these plots for around 40 years.

Ah right, I see. So the “15 years” line should be dismissed because it doesn’t seem to relate to anything; so far so good. But we should in fact be prepared for a 40-year battle, because that does relate to something, insofar as the sainted Dr John Reid once made a speech invoking the Cold War. Because that lasted for around 40 years, so the war on terror must also last for around 40 years. Brilliant. Can I be a “terror expert” please?

Clearly we should consign Alan West’s crazy optimism to the bin (15 years indeed!); instead we have to plan for 40 years. But is that it? Do I hear any advance on 40? I think I do. What has the Cold War really got to do with anything in this context? Surely this war on terror is more a clash of civilisations than ideologies, a battle between Christianity and Islam more akin to the Crusades; and according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia the Crusades were fought between 1095 and 1291. So, shouldn’t we be planning on this war lasting for 196 years? Ditch that, it’s not a nice round figure; let’s strap ourselves in for the Two-Hundred Years’ War!

“But we can do better than that” I hear you cry, and of course we can. Wikipedia also has an entry on the “longest war”; the Three-Hundred-and-Thirty-Five Years’ War between the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly, ended by a peace treaty in 1986. Now, the war on terror is far more significant that some trifling oversight in signing a peace treaty over something and nothing (and probably tulips), so it seems only fair to set 335 years as a more appropriate target for its conclusion; if nothing else it is something we can aim for.

There was a time when politicians would promise that wars would be short-lived, that “our soldiers will be home for Christmas” in order to curry favour with the public. Now it seems that rather than being honest – that they simply just don’t know how long this current situation will last – we are instead set long-term deadlines that hint at knowledge but invite ridicule. What figure will they come up with next? All bets are off, except perhaps for openly countenancing Orwell’s idea of a perpetual war. That, I think, is a concept best left to us cynics.

PostScript: I originally wrote this post yesterday morning, an uncharacteristically topical bit of blogging, at least for me. Unfortunately I was thwarted in posting it by my ISP, which was down for most of the day. So here it is anyway, one day late. Never mind.

Taking Stock

The Stockwell shooting was a tragic event, and people are understandably discussing where this leaves the “Shoot to Kill” policy for dealing with suicide bombers. The problem with much of the comment I have read and heard on this matter is that many seem to have jumped to their conclusions the moment they heard the words “police officers have shot…” on the news. Some people’s instant reaction was “Ha! Got a terrorist,” while others thought “Ah! Another bloke with a table leg”, before any further details had emerged.

That it subsequently transpired that the dead man was an innocent Brazilian electrician doesn’t really seem to have shifted many (I don’t know of any) from their original stance. It has of course emboldened those who originally criticised the police, prompting further points arguing that if the police “knew” Jean Charles de Menezes was a suicide bomber, why didn’t they tackle him earlier, the moment he left his flat? Further, if they thought he was packed with volatile chemicals then why did they jump on him to detain him prior to shooting him in the head? Those who initially cheered the shooting have tended to reply that this is a war and accidents will inevitably happen, that in the rough and tumble world of global terrorism some innocent people are going to get shot, and anyway, what was the idiot running away for, and why was he wearing that coat?

What seems to be lacking from either of these positions (and I am not suggesting that these are the only opinions out there) is any sense of empathy for or understanding of the situation, a lack of any attempt to put oneself into the position of either de Menezes or the police.

I can honestly say that I don’t know what I would do if people in plain clothes carrying firearms confronted me, but I suspect I may well panic and make a run for it. Similarly, even if I was aware that the people approaching me were police officers, and yet I knew my visa had run out (as has been suggested), then I may well act in exactly the same way, not for one moment considering that I could be shot as a consequence.

At the same time, how would I have handled the situation if I were a police officer? Perhaps I could have approached de Menezes as he left his flat, but all that may have achieved is to have brought his fatal dash for freedom forward by a few minutes. More likely, the police didn’t know he was a suicide bomber, but he was a suspect, and on following him they became more suspicious and concerned until eventually they felt the need to act (there is also the suggestion that the officers on surveillance weren’t armed, which could have prevented them intervening in the first instance). Now, as to later jumping on a man you believe to be strapped with explosives; this may well seem a foolish act, sat as I am in the calm atmosphere of this room typing away on my PC, but if I thought I was following a suicide bomber as he headed onto a tube train laden with passengers – and if I were far braver than is actually the case – then I can imagine I would take my chances by trying to bring him down rather than just letting him do his worst on the train carriage.

What seems absent from much criticism is an understanding of people’s fallibilities, an intolerance of human error under the most extreme situations. Hence suggestions that by making that fatal error in running away from armed police during the current tense climate, de Menezes was therefore “asking for it”. In some criticisms of the police’s actions (such as by questioning “if the police officers thought he was a suicide bomber, why did they…”) the logical conclusion of the line of reasoning seems to be an implicit suggestion that the police knew de Menezes was an electrician, not a terrorist, but killed him anyway. This is not impossible, but seems a somewhat improbable explanation.

But of course we know that people are fallible; we know that, surely, from our own actions in life, but also from the accounts of the eye witnesses at the incident; one of whom mentioned the infamous “unseasonal” coat, another who stated he saw wires popping out of de Menezes’ jacket, a third who said he heard the detonators of the terrorist’s bomb exploding as he entered the train.

I am left to reflect that, unfortunately, I don’t know how else the police are meant to stop someone they are certain is a suicide bomber other than to use potentially fatal force as a last resort. In accepting this fact, then I also have to accept that mistakes will be made, as the only time you will know for certain that a suspect is a suicide bomber is when he detonates his explosives; in the meantime the officers have to work on reasonable suspicion. Perhaps on further investigation it may well turn out that in this specific case a reasonable suspicion was absent, and it is of course right that this incident is fully looked into, that the police’s actions are scrutinised and questioned, that lessons are learnt and perhaps that procedures are tightened up to try as best as possible to prevent such an event from happening again. That said, I can well imagine that in a future incident, if there are new, more rigorous procedures, and if police officers do act with more caution and discretion (or simply freeze and fail to act decisively) and a suicide bomber subsequently does blow up himself and others, then again the police will be criticised. Human error can work at both ends of the spectrum.

We can speculate all day about what actually happened, informed, as I have said, by our instant responses the initial news story; but until the IPCC have concluded their report I will have to put this all down to a tragic accident, a terrible incident for all parties involved. I am glad I am not a police officer charged with making such decisions; but I am also glad that I was not put in Jean Charles de Menezes position, whose last moments must have been filled with uncomprehending horror.

PostScript: So, are you not afraid, or are you fucking terrified? Six out of my last eight post have been in some way connected to the London terrorist attacks and their aftermath, and I hope that I can move on a bit now and talk about a few different issues. I don’t particularly want to sound like a broken record, although I probably do most of the time anyway. While I am at it, can I suggest some sort of moratorium on “liveblogging” for a while? It has its place, and NoseMonkey’s was very good on the 7th of July for example, but some now seem to be being done more for the sake of it, mixing speculation on the basis of rumours with updates on what Sky News is saying (a service I believe is already ably provided for by, er, Sky).

So the next post from me is likely to be just a picture of my son in his new City away kit; either that or a liveblog of the 2nd test match at Edgbaston. You have been warned.

Strange Days

Yesterday’s leader in the Telegraph was full of righteous indignation about “the ‘buts’”; people who were “lining up to suggest that the (London) bombers had been forced into their terrible actions by the policies pursued by our own government”. It continues

The idea that Iraq – or even Palestine, a cause notoriously ignored by Arab and Muslim leaders until the 1990s – explains the campaign of death now waged against the West is so false as to be contemptible.

I think this is part of what I was talking about in my previous post when I said “although I don’t want to try to pin the blame on Blair for the London bombs, I am not that happy about letting him of the hook either”. Anxious as I am not to spread the blame where it is not deserved, I also don’t want a flat out rejection of the possibility that Iraq may in part explain the motivations of the London bombers. To say “Iraq has nothing to do with this”, as certain government ministers have been doing, seems to me like a dangerous denial, just as similarly saying “this is all Blair’s fault” is plainly stupid. The Telegraph does say that “It is surely undeniable that Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed to the radicalisation of Muslims across the world” but then pretty much tries to ignore this fact by saying “those conflicts have stimulated an attitude which existed quite independently of them”, continuing with this tired mantra that “the West first felt (al Qaeda’s) force with the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993”. So, is the Telegragh really suggesting that because al Qaeda existed before the Iraq war, then Iraq cannot have any bearing on events that have occurred since? This is just nonsense.

I have long thought that terrorism is just criminality with a cause. Criminology of course studies what causes people to become criminals, and in the case of the London bombs a good place to start could be to look at what it was that drew those particular bombers towards their twisted ideology. It seems likely that Iraq played a part in this, and to deny this is to potentially lose a valuable understanding of the terrorists’ reasoning. Of course there will be many other factors involved, otherwise everyone who opposed the war would become a terrorist, but if we choose to ignore the possibility that the war can have at least partly influenced some individuals in their journey towards terror, just because it may be embarrassing to those who have supported the war, then we may wilfully lose a part of the understanding regarding what makes some terrorists tick, and so fail to learn some vital lessons. At the same time, to characterise “The real project” of the Islamists as “the extension of the Islamic territory across the globe, and the establishment of a worldwide “caliphate” founded on Sharia law and the temporal reign of ayatollahs and imams” appears to me to be an over simplification. That may indeed be the aim of the generals, but not necessarily the foot soldiers who may have been drawn to radical Islam for all manner of reasons – peer pressure, disaffection, brain washing – and may not have signed up for everything in the al Qaeda handbook. Of course we have to fight the generals, but we also have to deal with the foot soldiers, and hopefully act to ensure that as few people as possible join their ranks.

To try to understand the bombers is not to empathise or condone, it does not mean you are trying to justify their actions, it is not an attempt to shift responsibility or culpability from the terrorist to elsewhere; it is, as it says, an attempt to understand what is going on, and to see how we can prevent such acts in the future.

You can see why those who supported the war would want to deny any role for Iraq, but I think that if I were in the pro-war camp then I would not act this way. If I thought the war was the right thing to do then I would stand by that belief, and say that even if the war may have influenced some into commiting terrorist acts then it was still for the greater good. Surely the people who supported the war must have known there was a possibility that it would provoke a backlash; to now seek to deny any link between Iraq and the bombs means we may not learn anything from those tragic events.

Meanwhile, Telegraph columnist Mark Steyn continues to spread himself ever more thinly by writing for a host of other publication. His website lists about 13 titles he currently writes for. With so many commissions he must have to dash them off on the hoof, and so it is little wonder that as a result he usually talks a right load of old shite.

This article for The New York Sun features many trade mark Steyn-isms. There is the hyperbolic title (“Islam’s Anschluss”), the nod that anyone who disagrees with him is an anti-Semite (by quoting some dick who has written to him saying “ bet you Jewish supremacists think it is Christmas come early don’t you?”) and a fair dash of Islamophobic bollocks (“When France began contemplating its headscarf ban in schools, it dispatched government ministers to seek the advice of Egyptian imams, implicitly accepting the view of Islamic scholars that the Fifth Republic is now an outlying province of the dar al-Islam”).

But then, surprise of all surprises he actually makes a point I had not considered before, namely that

when one contrasts the vast number of British, European and Canadian jihadists who’ve turned up in the thick of it in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iraq, Israel, Bosnia, Chechnya and beyond with the relatively insignificant number of American Muslims so embroiled, one begins to appreciate that the Great Satan is indeed a relatively effective seducer — at least to the extent that America seems to be doing a better job at assimilating Muslims than Europe or Canada

Now this is an interesting point, and again something we could do with understanding and learning from. If Steyn’s assertion is correct then there may still be a simple explanation, that more Muslims in the States are African Americans and followers of the Nation of Islam, and so perhaps do not feel the same link with the Middle East and Arab regions compared with those Muslims who live in Europe; but I don’t really know and I am not sure how to find out. Whatever, I still think it is still an interesting observation.

It would be wrong to say that this is the first time Mark Steyn has ever made me think; however, usually all he makes me think is “What a knob!”. These are strange days indeed.

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