In London, government sources confirm that there is a serious risk of attacks within Britain by people supporting extreme Islamist movements in the Middle East. The primary concern is with supporters of the Islamic State. As many as 15,000 recruits from across the world have moved to Syria and Iraq to support IS. The great majority are from the region, especially Tunisia, but many hundreds are from western European countries, including Britain.
The Islamic State is now under substantial pressure within Iraq and Syria, having been the target of over a thousand airstrikes - with at least the same number of people on its side killed - since the air war began in August 2014. Even so, the movement has proved resilient. The United States secretary of state John Kerry acknowledged this at the Nato meeting in Brussels on 3 December, when he said that despite the reversal IS was experiencing, the war is going to last for years.
In countries such as Britain, people accept that there is an increased risk of a terror attack but little understanding of why there is a threat. The Islamic State may be a thoroughly brutal entity, as its hostage beheadings and repeated massacres make clear, but still the question is asked: “why are they trying to kill us?”
One way of answering this is to dig a little into the detail of what is happening on the ground. A recent example is helpful here. The UK's ministry of defence (MoD) is keen to tell the media what it is doing in Iraq and publishes short accounts of each operation. The latest covers the period from mid-October to mid-November and includes records of the RAF’s first combat use of the Reaper armed-drone which is equipped, among other weapons, with the Hellfire missile.
Each account details what targets are hit and what the results are, although - in the spirit of the US general, Tommy Franks, who said in the early months of the Iraq war, “We don’t do body counts” - there is never any mention of people killed or injured. The authorities, of course, do do body counts, since this is an important part of battle-damage assessment; what they don’t do is publish them.
Here is the example from the MoD output in mid-November:
“19 November - RAF aircraft contributed to a major coalition air strike on an extensive ISIL complex of bunkers and tunnels. Aircraft from seven coalition nations conducted a comprehensive and closely coordinated attack on complex early on Wednesday. RAF Tornado GR4 aircraft, carrying Paveway IV precision guided bombs, formed the UK element. Separately, an RAF Reaper remotely piloted air system (RPAS) was tasked to investigate ISIL activity elsewhere in Iraq. The Reaper’s operators were able to locate a bulldozer which coalition forces confirmed was being used to prepare fighting positions to hold up Iraqi advances. A Hellfire missile was used to attack the bulldozer, which initial reports indicate was destroyed.”
It is the bulldozer incident which is worth examining. Islamic State forces were using a bulldozer to prepare defences against an Iraqi army attack; so this straightaway serves as a reminder of how the foreign intervention has changed from protecting Yazidis and Kurds from the Islamic State to aiding offensive operations against the Islamic State. What is not known is whether the driver of the bulldozer, presumably killed by the missile, was a supporter of the Islamists, someone forced to work for them, or possibly even the equivalent of a willing private military contractor.
That in itself isn’t the point. More relevant is how Islamic State propagandists might use this incident, whether or not what they put out is remotely truthful. What they can do is produce short videos or other outputs for the new social media, which might contain graphic images of the wrecked bulldozer and whatever might remain of the unfortunate driver. They would certainly say he was a civilian and they might well include videos of his family, with children grieving for their lost father.
The message would be that Islam is so under attacker from the crusaders that even poor bulldozer drivers trying to make a living are legitimate targets. They can build on this by referring to the thousand airstrikes and the many people killed, to develop the whole narrative of the role of the Islamic State as the only body prepared to fight to protect Islam from onslaught by the west and its hated allies in the region - including, of course, the Zionists.
This narrative will count for nothing among the great majority of the world’s Muslims, but among a tiny minority it might strike a chord. So, the answer to the question posed earlier - “why are they trying to kill us? - the answer may partly be, “because we are killing them”.