Tuesday, September 30, 2014

De-radicalisation programmes: defeating the Islamic State at the UK grassroots level

In the wake of the UK Parliament’s decision on Friday to sanction air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, superficial comparisons with the 2003 Iraq War have invariably been drawn. In reality, the two wars could not be more different. Most importantly, from a legal standpoint, Iraq’s call for assistance from foreign nations validates lawful military intervention within its territory; the inclusion of regional players – Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar – supplements the legitimacy of operations.

There is also one further key difference between the two wars: in 2003, European citizens were not flocking to Iraq to join the ranks of local insurgents and terrorists. This unprecedented phenomenon requires fresh approaches to be tackled.

EU officials estimate between 3-4,000 European citizens to have travelled to fight alongside ISIS – around a quarter of whom are thought to be UK citizens – presenting the dual-pronged threat not only of UK citizens fighting against the interests of the UK abroad, but also the potential catastrophe that awaits when these citizens return to the UK with radicalised ideas and behaviour. Dozens of jihadi fighters have been arrested already upon their return to the UK; however, the desertion of ex-ISIS fighters may yet prove to be a silver lining.

Many UK fighters have reached out with requests to return, fearful of the repercussions should they do so, and mandatory de-radicalisation programmes – though not a panacea – could offer the solution to increased spread of extremism at home. These programmes – which have historically enjoyed success with former Al-Qaeda fighters in Algeria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia – would allow the UK to rehabilitate existing fighters whilst simultaneously deterring more UK citizens from following the same path. Such use of cautionary tales and rehabilitation programmes already exists within government-endorsed schemes for the likes of ex-gang members leaving prison.

The existence of analogous schemes in European States such as Denmark could assist in dispelling any stigma accompanying the establishment of such a programme in a Western State. The programme’s success would depend primarily on popular and political support to enable the social underpinning necessary for de-radicalisation, but also on reaching out to the pool of the most vulnerable groups from which IS and other terrorist organisation recruiters traditionally draw – disenchanted and disenfranchised Muslim youths.

Extremist figures are able to garner support through silver-tongued rhetoric and mutilation of religious tenets, but also crucially by abusing a vacuum of uncertainty that exists amongst second-generation immigrants. As the son of Egyptian parents myself, I am familiar with the risks of identity crises that are created growing up in the UK to foreign parents; the clash between one cultural world at home and another outside can lead to sentiments of ostracism, solitude and isolation – ripe pickings for extremist ideologies.

Bespoke UK de-radicalisation programmes must therefore incorporate cultural awareness, ensuring that the rights and religious customs of the target audience are balanced with the principles that underscore modern Britain – democracy, equality and diversity. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

The case *against* foreign intervention against The Islamic State (I.S.)

Yazidis are dying of thirst in the mountains of Iraq and the US just bombed Iraq. Again.

And so our sympathies flutter from the horrors of Gaza with its charred and disfigured children innocent of any crime but of being born Palestinian, to a fresh paradigm of horrific violence equally callously perpetrated in the name of religious supremacy and superiority; it takes a cold heart to pause and reflect on the sheer level of depravity in the face of the typhoon of emotion sweeping the globe (from both perspectives, I might add). Yet that is what is needed, perhaps all that is needed, from us. And the United Nations Security Council. Advocates of the responsibility to protect doctrine would choke on their Fairtrade coffee and granola bars to hear such words being espoused, but I would urge you, fellow humanitarians, to bear with me momentarily as I explain.  

Working at the UNHQ in New York in 2008 on the Iraq Team of the Department of Political Affairs, I participated in and researched for numerous meetings with the different Iraqi factions and representatives, including the Kurdish Regional Government and Presidential meetings with Jalal Talibani. Some things have changed- for example, the Peshmerga are now friends with Iraqi PM Maliki, albeit a marriage of convenience. Some things have not- Maliki is still in power, for one, but more importantly (do I “caps lock” this?) religious minorities are still dying. Christians are still fleeing to the same hills they fled to in 2008, this time from Qaraqosh, only 30km from Mosul from which they fled back then. Six years ago this exact thing happened: different shooters, same victim. A more Ibsenesque story could not have been composed fictionally. The situation has not changed sufficiently; clearly, something has gone wrong here, but let us not point the figure too quickly at the UN. Many’s the time I sat astonished at the sheer impotence of the leviathan that is the UN slouching towards Baghdad to birth yet another mission; in response, I was told that the UN acts as facilitator for dialogue, not catalyst for action. Disillusioned though I was then, now I realise the follies of my youth.

I am not about to take a leaf out of the Sino-Russian “Security Council playbook” and try to convince you that intervention in the domestic affairs of a sovereign State is wrong – far from it; nor would I claim that the principle behind the establishment of an International Criminal Court to try the most heinous of crimes is superfluous, though it is almost self-defeating in its purpose; nor would I deem it just to permit thousands if not millions of civilians in a State with strategic and/or economic importance (read: Syria, Zimbabwe) to be brutally oppressed without hope of light at the end of the tunnel. My objection to UN-authorised intervention in Iraq is simple: the solution cannot be to simply look to the UN to solve the internal problems of sovereign nations.

The Security Council is not the Pez-dispenser of panaceas, despite the image it has worked hard to craft against the backdrop of the dramatic language of the UN Charter: “primary responsibility”, “maintain or restore international peace and security” and “urgent military measures” are accompanied with imaginary French horns and ominous military drums. The decades have seen the Council stretch the definition of “peace and security” like dough in the hands of a skilled pizza-maker; slowly encroaching on the domestic jurisdiction of States and the domain of sibling organs such as the ICJ, the Council is the Japanese knotweed of international organs. Yes, today peace and security is the master key that can open any door the Council wishes. But even if the Council wanted to intervene in Iraq now, should it?

“Nevermind”, come the calls, “that the US and UK did not wipe their feet and use the key last time they went into Iraq, preferring to creep round and kick in the back door like they were Zimmerman responding to gunfire that turned out to be an OAP watching a late-night Steven Segal movie – the world is looking to the Security Council to act now!”

Indeed. What is happening in Iraq is heinous, it is humanly unacceptable, it is too abhorrent for words. But is military intervention the way? There will be those who claim that “violence is the only language I.S. speak”; perhaps this is true. So let the world once again put on army fatigues and trudge towards the Levant. But then what? In 2008, the Sahwa in Iraq – on the payroll of the US (for better or worse) were instrumental in the destruction of Al-Qaeda in Iraq; in 2010, after the MNF-I pull-out, the Shiite Maliki distrusted the Sunni Sahwa and failed to incorporate them into the ranks of the Iraqi military – their numbers waned whilst I.S. counts over 3000 Iraqi fighters alone – and growing. Maliki’s paranoia has been key in the downfall of the country: Moody Maliki does not play well with others.

At all costs, Iraq must not be reduced to another failed pitch on a UN Dragon’s Den; playing the long game requires dedication, tenacity, selflessness and the implementation of excruciatingly hard decisions at the Iraqi government level. You thought Israel was hard with its Christians, Muslims and Jews? Try dividing those Muslims into Shiite and Sunnis, adding to the Christians some Zoroastrians and Yazidis and then introduce Kurds and different tribal affiliations to the melting pot. I imagine it’s like trying to pat your head and rub your belly on crack. So any Iraqi leader needs to be on point 25 hours a day; Maliki – who incidentally is not only PM but also acting Interior Minister, Defence Minister and Security Affairs Minister – is not quite the Atlas it takes to hold up the weight of the role. And, of course, that leaves the UN, right?

Wrong. Against the backdrop of double vetoes in the Council on Syria, it is also almost impossible to foresee any mandated action by the UN organ; yes, none of us want another Rwanda in Iraq but remember that the reason the Council sat on its hands in 1994 was that no one wanted another Somalia in Rwanda. P5, hollow be thy name, thy will be done. Add to this the dissipation in large part of the wave of xenophobic terror and Fox News style “fear the brown people” mentality that fuelled support for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the “fool me once” logic in the UK and support for full-intervention at the grassroots domestic level plummets to numbers lower than a Bush IQ test. So we can establish that the Council and its members will not fully intervene. Pragmatic though this  may be, it does not answer the more philosophical question on whether the Council should intervene.

If we are to learn anything from the recent failed interventions in Libya and Iraq (twice!), then an international response along military lines cannot be permitted. International Criminal Court critics will know the mantra “African solutions, for African problems” (the geographical lean of this sentence is deliberate); similarly, domestic and regional issues must be solved with domestic and regional solutions. This author fails to see how foreign airstrikes are a valid option when the Iraqi Air Force has weaponised aircraft at its disposal, which it put to use in defence of the Peshmerga in June 2014 for the first time; the world, too, remains deadly silent on the Syrian airstrikes on I.S. fighters on the Iraq/Syria border that were “welcomed” by PM Maliki. Why is the Iraqi air force incapable of solving this issue by itself? Yet again, Captain America swoops in to save the day: Iraqi: “No, no, it’s fine I got this”, C.A.: “Listen, I flew all the way from Washington for this- I’m dropping some goddamn bombs”. This latest move by the US seems to be a Crocodile Dundee case of “you think that’s a knife?” Or perhaps it’s just to detract from their recent renewal of the Iron Dome funding…but that’s none of my business.

You will, of course, be waiting for my closing remarks, in which I insightfully remedy the situation in one fell swoop with logical perfection of sniper-like precision. Well, there is none. But that’s exactly the point. There is no easy solution to the situation in Iraq. Nor is there an easy solution to the situation in Syria. But the two are inextricably linked, though not mutually solvable; that is to say, tackling the situation in Syria and strengthening the offensive from the Syrian side might just allow a strategic advantage in the offensive against the I.S. in Iraq. Syrian-Iraqi cooperation is well-documented and historically supported; PM Maliki lived in Syria for 20 years and outgoing President Talibani held a Syrian passport until 2004. Ok, they may have had a lovers’ quarrel in recent years but if Maliki can help Peshmerga and Kurds, then there must be a way to join forces against I.S. Whatever the efforts, they must be organic and cannot be transposed from abroad, for there is one guaranteed way to make things worse – more foreign military intervention.

An international rendition of the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, bombing the “cake” out of Iraq will not put an end to the I.S. movement; the notion that a solution can be rolled off a production line and air-lifted over to Iraq is as facile and misleading today as it was in 2003 and even 1990, not to mention supportive of the crux of fundamentalist ideology in combat of a Western hegemony. This mentality has been to Al-Qaeda and I.S. what the Israeli shelling has been to Hamas: a recruitment drive. Let us not forget the inevitable civilian casualties that will accompany a renewed military offensive, analogous to what we as an international community have been so quick to condemn of the Israeli offensive in Gaza. This in turn fuels new ranks of vengeful factions and a new threat is created; it simply, unequivocally cannot continue- the cycle must be broken and all States must be permitted their own difficult, painful and deeply sad catharsis. Iraq needs to cut its own path and wean itself from the teat of Western assistance when it stumbles.  Is it ugly? Yes. Is it brutal? Perhaps. But it is realistic and the factual, cold, hard truth: if the UN intervenes too far in Iraq, or indeed in Syria, the ensuing results will be even more catastrophic. Iraq won’t be fixed with some gaffer tape and an episode of MacGyver. How have we not learnt our lessons from Iraq in 2003? Or Libya in 2011? The current calamities in both these countries are a direct result of policies of foreign intervention and IKEA flat-pack democracies. Intervention is simply not the solution, despite the best intentions of the international community, picketing the UN and tweeting the US and UK to "do something". “Do what?” “I dunno- bomb them?”

In the words of Vikram Seth, “God save us from people who mean well.”