Making matters worse
Official reaction to the atrocities in France demonstrates once again that imperialism has no answers, writes Yassamine Mather
Paris: bullet holes and dead bodies
The horrific attacks in Paris on November 13, and the terrible loss of life they caused, came at the end of a week of atrocities committed by Islamic State. On November 11, 41 people died and 100 were wounded in two attacks in Burj el-Barajneh - not far from a Palestinian refugee camp in a Shia neighbourhood of Beirut. On the same day as the Paris bombing, 21 Muslims attending ceremonies in a Baghdad mosque were killed, and 33 were wounded, by an IS suicide bomber.
The Baghdad bombing did not make the headlines, mainly because such IS attacks in the Middle East, resulting in dozens of deaths, have become a daily event. For example, earlier in the week tens of thousands of Afghans took to the streets of Kabul and other Afghan cities to protest against the beheading of seven people from the Hazara ethnic minority. The Muslim Afghan protestors were chanting: “Down with Daesh” - the Arabic acronym for IS.
The assailants in Baghdad, Paris and Beirut were not local Muslims fighting Christians - many are recruits form western societies. In Paris they were until recently disco-going, alcohol-drinking, second-generation immigrants. Some were alienated youth from the banlieues, others were from Brussels, London, Birmingham or other UK cities.
Up to recently their victims have been mainly Muslims, but, of course, in the last few weeks we have seen the mass murder of Russian holidaymakers and now French citizens. Those who call this a war between Islam and Christianity, between obscurantism and modernity, are either ignorant, racist or both.
In the words of Kenan Malik, writing in Al Jazeera:
These attacks have targeted cafes, trains or mosques, not political targets ... Whatever may eventually turn out to be the identities of the Paris killers, until now the problem of terrorism in Europe has not been created by terrorists smuggling themselves onto refugee boats. Most of the 4,000 or so Europeans who have joined Isil as fighters are European-born, professionals and well-integrated into society. Pointing the finger at refugees not only sidesteps the problem of home-grown jihad, but it also foments more anti-immigrant hatred, further polarising European societies.1
Who armed IS?
There can be no doubt that we are seeing a change in IS’s tactics: a reaction to military setbacks in Syria and Iraq. But it is not just that: what we are seeing is the inevitable consequence of decades of supporting Islamists in the Middle East to defeat secular and leftwing forces - decades of the ‘special relationship’ with those who finance and support jihadism.
François Hollande tells us France is now at war with IS - maybe he should have thought of the possible consequences back in 2012, when France began arming Islamic rebels against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. For all the indignation expressed by French ministers in the last few days, the reality is they must accept some responsibility for their own actions. According to Hollande, “We began when we were certain they would end up in the right hands” - even though by that time the US administration was already convinced that the arms flow was benefiting jihadists:
Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the west wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats ... The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it.2
Having stopped the supply in 2013, in August 2014 France once more began delivering arms to Syrian rebels. As late as November 2015, Hollande said weapons had been delivered to Syrian rebels “a few months ago.”3 Arms intended for ‘moderate opponents of Assad’ ended up bolstering IS.
Of course, we all know that, as far as most western states are concerned, there are good terrorists and bad terrorists. According to Iran Daily, close to the reformist faction in the Islamic Republic, there are currently 60 ‘terrorist’ organisation in the Middle East, almost all of whom have had, at the very least, contact with the security services of one country or another, including representatives of western secret services.
And France in particular - no doubt prompted by Saudi Arabia and Qatar - has played a crucial role in arming the Syrian opposition over the last few years. Throughout this time, as various groups - including what the US and its allies insist calling ‘moderate Islamists’ (in other words, allies of al Qa’eda) - have lost ground to IS, these weapons have found their way into the latter’s hands. At a time when Hollande is talking of waging war, we should remind French citizens and the rest of the world who armed Islamic State.
Furthermore, now that France has declared “war” on IS, promising to “destroy the organisation”, will the French president take the necessary preliminary steps? Will he end France’s arms deals with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the main backers of Islamic State? Will he call on France’s allies to impose sanctions against those countries that openly finance and arm IS - notably Turkey, Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Persian Gulf?
According to a report by Business Insider,
Oil sales - the extremists’ largest single source of continual income - are a key reason they have been able to maintain their rule over their self-declared ‘caliphate’ stretching across large parts of Syria and Iraq. With the funds to rebuild infrastructure and provide the largesse that shore up its fighters’ loyalty, it has been able to withstand ground fighting against its opponents … Daniel Glaser, a US treasury official, estimated IS oil revenues at around $500 million a year. The group is also believed to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars a year from ‘taxes’ on commercial activities in the areas it rules.4
And apparently IS is capable of “bringing in equipment and technical experts from abroad to keep the industry running”. How can this be? Apparently the US knows the answer: the culprit is Turkey! How are the payments made? It seems they are wired to IS accounts in Istanbul and Ankara or to IS sympathisers in Kuwait, Qatar and other Gulf Sates. In Kuwait, supporters take advantage of the country’s weak regulations to send hundreds of millions of dollars to various Syrian rebel groups, including Islamic State.
Those who deny continued Saudi and other Arab support for IS must explain how the group manages to sell oil, continue banking transactions from Mosul and other Iraqi cities under its control. How come the majority of the group’s Twitter followers are in Saudi Arabia? The standard answer from the Saudi authorities is that the government is not involved in dealings with IS. First of all this is not true - we are talking of a family-run business that happens to be a kingdom. A country where individuals cannot even write a blog mildly critical of the royal family or the government without risking a flogging. How can we believe that in such a state members of the Saudi family or their immediate relatives finance, support and arm IS without the complicit approval of the inner circle of rulers?
Russia claims it has pictures taken from low-flying planes, showing the transportation of oil and petroleum products. According to Putin, “The motorcade of refuelling vehicles stretched for dozens of kilometres, so that from a height of 4,000 to 5,000 metres they stretch beyond the horizon.”5
This week Tariq Ali has reminded us of the long history of Al Qaeda and its offshoots:
The point has often been made that both al Qa’eda and Isis are the result of imperial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this is undoubtedly the case. But it’s not enough. The suicide of secular nationalism and the impotence of the tiny progressive groups as a result of both local repression and decline in mass support has to be taken into account. This process has pushed the Saudi regime to the fore and both al Qa’eda and Isis are under the strong influence of Wahhabism, which is a tiny minority within Sunni Islam.6
In Britain sections of the rightwing press and some Conservative MPs are now blaming the UK parliamentary vote against military action in Syria for the continuing rise of IS. Clearly these people have a very short memory, are compulsive liars or are completely unaware of what that vote was about.
The vote in the summer of 2013 was about bombing the Syrian government (accused by the USA administration of crossing a “red line” by employing chemical weapons). Had such bombings taken place, IS would be in a far stronger position now - probably controlling larger areas of Syria, maybe even Damascus, and as a result acquiring a much larger arsenal of weapons. It now looks like David Cameron - as always responding to the latest headline - is going to ignore the recommendations of the Commons foreign affairs committee, with its Conservative majority, which has advised against military intervention in Syria. The prime minister spoke of his “firm conviction” that Britain should extend its air strikes against IS targets from Iraq to Syria, as part of a “comprehensive strategy for the region”. Given the current mess in the Middle East - largely created by previous interventions in the region, which Britain supported - why not take action against Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries, and deal with Turkey’s complicity with jihadist groups?
Similarly, the US Republicans have been showing nostalgia for the good old days of the Iraq war and blaming Obama for failing to send ground troops to Syria. What nonsense. We are where we are because the last time US and UK troops were on the ground, in Afghanistan and Iraq, they treated prisoners of war as criminals, torturing them in Bagram and Abu Ghraib, executed civilians in revenge for military setbacks … In short they created favourable conditions for jihadists to recruit amongst rebellious youth - not only in those countries, but also elsewhere in the Arab world and amongst the alienated children of Muslim immigrants throughout the world. So, yes, sending ground troops might work in a proper war, but acting in the way they did in the first decade and a half of the 21st century not only would they fail to defeat IS: they would increase the number of its recruits.
On social media there is a lot of speculation about the veracity of claims that one of the Paris killers was an asylum-seeker claiming to be a refugee - his almost intact Syrian passport was discovered at the scene of one of the atrocities. The passport allegedly has a Lesvos stamp - proof that he had arrived in Europe recently. Anti-immigration groups are using this as an excuse to call for further clampdowns on the issue of migration and political asylum.
Former French justice minister Rachida Dati has claimed Germany’s chancellor “made an error of judgement” by letting in so many migrants. In the US more than half the country’s governors have declared they are against letting Syrian refugees into their states, with some demanding that asylum-seekers should pass an ideological test before being allowed entry.
The reality is that even if it is true that one of the eight Paris killers was a ‘bogus asylum-seeker’, the majority of those who perpetrated these crimes were born or raised in Europe. François Hollande has claimed that security forces will track down every terrorist in France, bringing them to justice in order to make the country safe again.
There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, identifying potential jihadists and suicide bombers is an impossible task - often the culprits live ordinary lives, exhibiting very little sign of what they will become in a very short time. Also, state targeting of Muslim youth will create further resentment and alienation, increasing the number of those turning to Islamic State and similar groups.
According to Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid,
As with the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the 2005 London Underground bombings, what seems to be emerging from the fragmentary reports so far is that the Paris attacks were carried out by a loose network of family, friends and fellow travellers, who may have each followed their own, somewhat independent paths to radical Islam before joining up with Isis. But their closely coordinated actions at multiple sites in Paris indicate a significant degree of training, collective planning, and command and control by Islamic State ...
French converts from families of Christian origin are often the most vociferous defenders of Islamic State. There’s something about joining someone else’s fight that makes one fierce. When we asked a former body builder from Epinay-sur-Seine, a northern suburb of Paris, why he converted to Islam, he said that he had been in and out of jail, constantly getting into trouble: “I was a mess, with nothing to me, until the idea of following the mujahid’s way gave me rules to live by.”7
In France, as elsewhere, it is social and economic problems that are at the root of the deep alienation felt by this generation, not all of them Muslims - and it is precisely because of this that ‘shoot to kill’ policies do not work. The young girl who blew herself up in Paris on November 19 would not have been deterred by such policies. The thousands of volunteers who have gone to Syria and Iraq to train with IS are actually hoping to become martyrs. What makes Hollande and Cameron think their threats of either internal repression or renewed military action abroad will stop them? l