A war close to home

The slow-burn effects of ISIS's dispersal are coming to the west.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
16 August 2018
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Police officers by the barrier outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London the day after a suspected terror attack where a silver Ford Fiesta crashed into it. Stefan Rousseau/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

In London, police are questioning a 29-year-old UK citizen of Sudanese origin, Salih Khater, following an incident on 14 August outside the Houses of Parliament when a car hit cyclists and pedestrians, injuring three, before crashing into a barrier. The authorities describe it as a “terror-related” incident. In Washington, a report finds that Trump's White House is sanctioning the expanded use of armed-drones in  the campaign against Islamist paramilitaries across much of Africa and western Asia.

The two events may seem unconnected, but a closer look shows otherwise. This week’s incident is the sixth in eighteen months, following Westminster bridge, London bridge, Manchester Arena, Finsbury Park mosque, and Parsons Green underground station. Counter-terrorist police report that seventeen more attacks have been thwarted over that period: thirteen Islamist and four from the extreme right.

The Independent says that four of these attacks were against parliament or government departments, and as of June the police and security forces were working on 676 suspected plots. The alert level in the UK, almost seventeen years after the start of George W Bush’s "war on terror" remains at “severe”. Notwithstanding the long and bitter wars in the Middle East, north Africa and south Asia, evolving conflicts across the Sahel – and Trump’s extraordinary claim that ISIS has been defeated – there is no end in sight.

In the United States, two Obama-era officials compare the use of armed-drones under Obama's presidency to Trump's. They acknowledge that in becoming so prominent and controversial in Obama’s second term, the use of drones may actually have hampered any overall assessment of strategic progress or failure. They also point to late efforts by the administration toward greater transparency, and the Pentagon's attitude to this as micromanagement. Leave it to the professionals, was the military outlook (see "Trump's secret war on terror", DefenseOne, 10 August 2018).

Now, in the Trump era, any concern with such political oversight has gone. The military is allowed far greater freedom to pursue its own approach. This fits with reports by sources such as Nick Turse on TomDispatch in the United States and, in a UK context, Oxford Research Group’s remote-warfare programme.

A theme of such studies – elaborated in many columns in this series – is that the wars against ISIS, al-Qaida and other Islamist paramilitary groups are now transitioning to remote warfare using armed drones, special forces, private military companies, and other low-profile activities (see "Remote control, a new way of war", 18 October 2012). That repertoire might be expected at least to result in fewer civilian deaths. But that is simply not the case, for heavy air- and artillery-bombardment remains integral to the overall strategy.

Patrick Cockburn’s illuminating essay on key events in the anti-ISIS war in Syria gives a vivid illustration of this, regarding the coalition's increasing resort to airstrikes and artillery-fire to take control of the movement's urban bases in Iraq and Syria (see "The War in Five Sieges", London Review of Books, 19 July 2018). While in no way minimising ISIS's sheer brutality, Cockburn surveys the fighting for Raqqa in northern Syria, the last city to be taken:

“The SDF and the US-led coalition seem to have felt that Raqqa, a city occupied by IS for longer than any other, was a centre of popular support for IS, and so deserving of whatever happened to it. SDF frontline troops called in airstrikes at will to obliterate any resistance. In addition to the bombs, according to a US officer some 35,000 artillery shells were fired into the city during the siege. Nine mass graves have been discovered, only one of which has been opened. It contained 553 bodies: civilian victims of airstrikes, IS fighters and, possibly, patients from a nearby hospital. The coalition maintains in the face of all evidence that it tried to avoid civilian casualties in both Raqqa and Mosul.”

Cockburn further reports that the coalition justified earlier levels of destructive attacks on Mosul by saying that the ISIS paramilitaries were fighting to the death and killing any civilians who fled:

“But this argument doesn’t hold good for Raqqa. Here, the siege ended with an ugly twist: civilians expected to be bused out under the terms of a truce, but instead IS fighters and their families were evacuated in a convoy while the civilians were left behind.”

Airwars concludes that over 6,400 civilians have so far been killed by aerial assault. There are most likely some thousands more uncounted: buried under the rubble, in mass graves in Raqqa and Mosul, and in areas of Syria hit by the Russians. Also to be factored in – the Pentagon's estimate that it eliminated 60,000 supporters of ISIS during the 2014-18 war.

A question of motive

This situation has a fourfold outcome. Three elements are fairly well understood: threat levels in European states such as the UK are not decreasing, a war in the shadows is continuing in many countries, and both the western coalition and Russia are prepared to use massive force even if this leads to many civilian deaths.

But a fourth element is unappreciated, at least in the west. This is the slow-burning impact of the deaths of tens of thousands of people, and the maiming and dislocation of many more, on future attitudes and behaviour. As many as two million people, including extended families and friends, will have direct and personal knowledge of those killed by the air war. Social media, in sustained and multiple forms, is used to communicate this loss of life. Much of this is designed for a wider potential support base across much of the world, and is intended to foment already huge levels of anger, resentment and desire for revenge.

In this new era of irregular war, the consequences of military operations can return to touch directly the countries undertaking these operations: not in the form of aircraft or long-range missiles, but in much lower-level though still potentially deadly actions using car or lorry, knife or explosive. Many potential incidents are prevented by counter-terror systems and the protection of key targets. But such counter-measures do not address the issue of why there is continuing motivation to mount these apparently random attacks. That neglected question is a crucial part of a never-ending war, ever closer to home.

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