Imperialism digs a deep hole

The assassination of ‘Jihadi John’ was a substitute for serious warfare, argues Eddie Ford

Last week the media triumphantly reported the death of their favourite public enemy - the 27-year-old, Kuwaiti-born British national, Mohammed Emwazi (aka ‘Jihadi John’), seemingly responsible for a series of videotaped beheadings. According to Pentagon officials, he was killed on November 12 by a drone Hellfire missile strike the moment he stepped into a car in Raqqa, Syria - the de facto capital of Islamic State.

However, there still has not been any formal confirmation that he was the actual victim of the attack - though a senior US military official has been widely quoted as saying, “We are 99% sure we got him”. Nor has IS refuted the claim or produced a breathing Emwazi, which you would expect it to do if the story was untrue or mistaken - as the Taliban regularly does when one of its top people has been supposedly killed. Quite predictably, the strike - or assassination - was described as “flawless” or a “clean hit” with no ‘collateral damage’ - obviously the driver of the vehicle, who is also thought to have been killed, does not count.

A jubilant Pentagon spokesperson, colonel Steven Warren, said Emwazi was a “human animal” and that killing him was “probably making the world a better place” - in fact US forces have “killed on average one mid- to upper-level IS leader every two days since May”, making the latest killing “fairly routine”.1 Almost bursting with joy, Tim Collins, a retired British colonel, described Emwazi as an “icon of evil” who “had to be eliminated”. The fact that “these creatures” - meaning Emwazi and others like him - “had been accepted from broken, backward countries and supported, educated and cared for by our society” makes it much harder for many in the west to swallow. He went on to compare Emwazi’s killing with the British Special Operations Executive assassination in 1942 of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Nazi genocide (November 13).2 Yes, he comments, “terrible retribution” was exacted by the Nazis, but the “boost to morale” at his elimination “far exceeded that” - similarly, IS will “lash out” over the loss of this “comparable monster”, but “all right-thinking people will heave a sigh of relief”. Perhaps unfortunately for colonel Collins, IS did indeed “lash out” - in Paris, the day after Emwazi’s “elimination” - the “boost to morale” did not appear to last very long.

Strangely enough, some of the families of Emwazi’s victims were not feeling particularly triumphant. Dragana Prodanovic Haines, the wife of aid worker David Haines, said the news did not “bring me any comfort”, as “nothing will bring back my husband” - it would have been better if Emwazi had been “captured alive”. And Diane Foley, the mother of murdered American journalist James Foley, said it “saddens” her that in America “we are celebrating the killing of a deranged, pathetic young man”. Maybe they are not “right-thinking people”.

Fucking disgrace

Naturally, David Cameron is very keen for it to be known that a British drone was involved in the action. He stated that the US and Britain had been working “hand in glove, round the clock” to track down Emwazi - who had topped the UK government’s ‘kill list’ - and that the drone strike was an “act of self-defence” under article 51 of the United Nations charter, which guarantees the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defence” if an armed attack occurs against a UN member. Back in September, Cameron said Britain had had exercised the country’s “inherent right to self-protection” following the death of three British-born IS fighters as a result of an RAF drone attack and the killing of another Briton in a US drone operation.

However, there is some confusion about the legal basis for such targeted killings or assassinations. Possibly slightly off-message, the UK’s permanent representative at the UN provided an alternative justification - saying that the attack was justified by the right of collective self-defence of Iraq, with UK involvement being at the “request” of the Baghdad government. Further confusion, or suspicion, has been fuelled by recent changes to the ministerial code, which removed references to the need for ministers to “respect” international law. The new version simply refers to a duty to comply with “the law”.

David Cameron is now facing a direct legal challenge from the human rights group, Rights Watch UK, over the amended code, which was quietly announced in a written statement in the House of Lords. Tom Watson, the deputy Labour leader, has also been pressing Cameron to say whether his cabinet colleagues - including the serving attorney general, Jeremy Wright QC - were consulted before the new ministerial code was published.

Unsurprisingly then, the entire justification for these air strikes - along with the obvious existence of the ‘kill list’ - is coming under scrutiny from a newly launched parliamentary inquiry headed by Harriet Harman, former deputy Labour leader and new chair of the joint committee on human rights. She has requested evidence from Wright, as well as foreign secretary Philip Hammond and defence secretary Michael Fallon, and has asked ministry of defence permission to visit the control room from where the drone strike against Emwazi was directed. Harman also sent a letter to the key ministers containing a list of 18 questions, including whether the UK shares information with other governments for the purpose of identifying targets and whether there is a “list of individuals in respect of whom ministerial authority has already been given for targeted killing by drone strike”.

Jeremy Corbyn too, of course, has expressed deep unease about the drone strike against Emwazi - saying to the BBC that he is “awaiting an explanation of where the legal basis was for that incident”. If he was prime minister he would “only authorise actions that are legal in terms of international law”, and did not support a “shoot-to-kill” policy of suspected terrorists - such an approach could “often be counterproductive”. Ditto bombing Syria, which would cause “yet more conflict, more mayhem and more loss”. For these comments, Corbyn was reportedly branded a “fucking disgrace” and “aggressively heckled” during the Monday meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The Labour right is also angry that Corbyn will not give MPs a free vote on Syria - Cameron is strongly implying that he will ask MPs to approve British air strikes against IS targets in that country.

You cannot help but wonder if the rightwingers shouting at comrade Corbyn would say the same to the relatives of Jean Charles de Menezes - who in the paranoid atmosphere following 7/7 was shot seven times by the Metropolitan Police having boarded a London tube train.


François Hollande has baldly stated that his country is at “war” with IS. This immediately raises a whole host of questions, political and legal - like the legislation in force in France prohibiting “mercantile activities” with foreign nationals that might “assist the enemy”. So what about the UK government’s numerous, and highly lucrative, business/military deals and alliances with Saudi Arabia and Qatar - which have poured money and arms into the hands of Islamist militias in Syria and elsewhere, even arguably acting as partial sponsors of IS. Does that make Britain the enemy of France?

Leaving that aside, the killing of Emwazi is further indication that the policy of individual assassination is becoming a form of warfare which represents a significant departure from past practices. Of course, individual assassination did happen on this or that occasion as part of an overall strategy in a wider conflict - like the killing of Heydrich, as colonel Collins reminds us. Essentially though, the norm was to allow the grunts on the ground to die in a contest between different armies - individuals were almost totally unimportant.

But the increasing tendency to take out particular individuals smacks of the politics of desperation, not success. Or as the Financial Times puts it, “That a 27-year-old, with no fighting ability, no lethal technological knowhow, and no strategic or operational power, should have been such a high-priority target reveals a great deal about Isis’s power and the struggles of those trying to fight it” (November 13). The idea that the leader of IS (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) is irreplaceable is total nonsense, and even more risible when applied to Mohammed Emwazi - for all of the fleeting symbolic value. In fact, if anything, it just invites someone else to commit the same sort of atrocities in order take his place and share the fame. You might as well argue that you can get rid of concentration camps by assassinating guards.

Actually, this tactic of individual assassination is fundamentally Israeli in origin, arising at the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur war - Israel wanted to hit back and restore wounded prestige. This ideological shift became apparent with the first intifada in 1987, then the Lebanon interventions, with ‘terrorists’ equated to criminals liable to be pinpointed for assassination. Yes, the Israelis had targeted individuals before - especially those associated with organisations like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and its breakaways. But they were singled out first and foremost for their role in military (or ‘terrorist’) operations against Israeli targets. Over time, however, the Israeli military and secret services forces started to assassinate prominent anti-Israeli political leaders - now more for publicity purposes than any special or concrete political-military reasons.

Broadly speaking, the US is now aping Israeli tactics - particularly with regard to media-driven targeted bombings and killings/assassinations. Hardly unexpected, you could say, given the intimate ties between the two countries. Yet by going down this path, the US has paradoxically trapped itself - as reflected in the whole issue of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, ‘unlawful combatants’, extraordinary rendition, and so forth. Yes, US imperialism could tackle this problem - or at least develop some form of coherent strategy - if it were prepared to go all the way and say this is aggression committed against us. In that case there could be ‘boots on the ground’ and the situation could be dealt with French-style as “war”. But that would mean implementing the Geneva conventions/protocols, putting IS fighters (and others) on trial for war crimes, but treating them as prisoners of war, with Red Cross access and so on.

But the US has totally rejected the idea that the Geneva conventions apply to Islamist fighters - this is exemplified by Barack Obama’s failure to close down Guantanamo, which still has 107 detainees. The US has dug its own deep hole. Therefore, in a certain extremely limited and particular sense, we do have an example of the Israeli tail wagging the US dog - the very nature of politico-legal-military alliance with Israel has contaminated the ability of the US armed forces and its state core to carry out effective military operations. In reality, individual assassinations are a substitute for serious warfare.