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Huff Post: “The Woolwich attack: Should we feel terrorised?‎”

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You can read the original of this piece on the Huffington Post site, here

In the aftermath of the brutal murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich yesterday, questions have ‎surfaced on how best to describe the events – are labels such as “terrorism” either warranted or ‎even accurate? While the facts are still emerging, it is now clear the attackers were both British of ‎Nigerian heritage, with one named as 28-year-old Michael Adebolajo who, prior to adopting radical ‎Islamic views, is alleged to have dabbled in petty crime. The men attacked Lee Rigby in South East ‎London with a range of knives before being shot by police officers, as they attempted to turn on ‎them.‎

Many have questioned why the murder has received such unprecedented coverage, with some ‎pointing out that the equally brutal murder of 75 year old Mohammed Saleem, stabbed to death as ‎he returned home from his local mosque in Birmingham earlier this month, received comparatively ‎little attention. In both cases, a violent minority may be implicated in a murder with political ‎dimensions, in one case politically radicalised Muslims, in the other, the Far-Right. Both could be ‎dubbed a form of ‘terrorism’ and yet, only one has been.‎

It is a rather trite observation to state that the term ‘terrorism’ has become eminently politicised, ‎used much more readily and easily to refer to violence by certain types of political dissidents, such ‎as those whose violence targets the majority, than to refer, as it was originally devised, to states, ‎or groups targeting minorities. ‎

And yet, there are significant aspects of this case which appear to fit the ‘terrorism’ label. Amongst ‎these, the nature of the target – A British soldier – and the identity of the perpetrators – radical ‎young Muslims – as well as the stated motivation. When asked about his motive by an eyewitness, ‎one of the men responded, “because he has killed Muslim people in Muslim countries”, “I killed ‎him because he killed Muslims and I am fed up with people killing Muslims in Afghanistan”. He ‎added: “You will never be safe. Remove your government”. What’s more the style of the attack, ‎undertaken and filmed in full public view with the objective of publicising the actions to a wider ‎audience, is reminiscent of a strategy employed by the media savvy loose network, often referred ‎to as Al Qaida. While there is evidence to suggest Michael Adebolajo became radicalised through ‎the now-banned al-Muhijaroun, the group is well known to security services who monitor it closely ‎and it treads a fine line between espousing hate and undertaking violent actions. Though the ‎group may have laid the foundations for a binary and simplistic worldview, it is likely other ‎inspiration was involved in the move to action.‎

‎ “We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. We must fight them as they fight us. ‎An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” one of the attackers told onlookers. To those familiar with ‎Al Qaida’s discourse, this is all too familiar. A veneer of Islamic rhetoric dressing up opposition to ‎the presence of Western troops in Muslim majority countries. The perpetrators need never have ‎met anyone vaguely even affiliated to Al Qaida, they may have simply imbibed the rhetoric, easily ‎accessible online and in the pamphlets and clips of extremists distributed in a murky underground ‎network. ‎

In a posting on a jihadist website in January this year, Al Qaida said ‘coming strikes’ would target the ‎‎’heart of the land of non-belief’ and that attacks would be ‘group, lone-wolf operations and booby-‎trapped vehicles’. If indeed the men turn out to be self radicalised Al Qaida groupies, the attack ‎would seem to suggest that the security services have become much efficient in countering more ‎elaborate plots and that extremists are now left with the “last resort” tactic advocated by Al Qaida ‎and its satellites – rogue attacks by individual foot soldiers – basic and simple to undertake, ‎requiring little planning or logistics and hence less likely to be foiled. The most recent “lone wolf”, ‎self-radicalising extremist was Frenchman Mohamed Merah, who killed three soldiers as well as ‎three Jewish schoolchildren and a teacher in March 2012. If this indeed the trend of the latest Al ‎Qaida attacks, they indicate just how weakened the network’s reach in Europe as become.‎

So should the Woolwich attack be dubbed terrorism? Yes, it appears to fit into the evolving pattern ‎of Al Qaida inspired attacks. But should we be worried? Not really. If Al Qaida style terrorism in ‎Europe peaked with the coordinated attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London on 7/7, the most recent ‎plots, from a foiled crude bomb plot at Glasgow airport in 2007, to yesterday’s knife attack on a ‎soldier, are an indication of just how limited their scope has become in Europe. ‎

The fact is the perpetrators want this to be perceived as an act of terrorism. Doing so would put ‎them in a league with the Al Qaida aficionados they have idealised and ultimately, vindicates their ‎sense of purpose, having “succeeded” in etching their names on the wall of terror, alongside the ‎Bin Ladens and Mohammad Sidique Khans of this world. That’s precisely why they requested the ‎public film their actions and why they appeared to relish a dramatic confrontation with the police. ‎Like all Al Qaida attacks, the force of the attack lies in the ripples of fear and division created as a ‎consequence. A successful attack against European targets is measured not in victims but in the ‎pandemonium and fear fostered. ‎
Thankfully, the British “keep calm and carry on” attitude has largely prevailed. Despite a worrying ‎spike in attacks on Muslims centres in the immediate aftermath, the message from the political ‎class has been broadly reassuring. Cameron was right not to return too promptly from Paris and to ‎advise soldiers to keep wearing their uniform in public. Muslim organisations have vocally ‎condemned the attack and stood united with their fellow citizens, a blow to the intended wedge al ‎Qaida seeks to place in order to attract its recruits.‎

Terrorism it might be, but the critical concern now should be to avoid the politicisation of public ‎fear, to further unnecessarily impinge on our civil liberties. In 2009, former head of MI5 Dame Stella ‎Rimington denounced the exploitation of public fear of terrorism to restrict civil liberties, while ‎campaign group Liberty have repeatedly warned that “the risk of terrorism has been used as the ‎basis for eroding our human rights and civil liberties”. Several peers have already pushed for the ‎government to resurrect the communications data bill, rebranding it a tool to fight terrorism and ‎John Reid has called for the total observation of all our data communications. Although Cameron ‎has said he wants to avoid “kneejerk responses”, we must remain vigilant. For our security, yes, ‎but also even more crucially, for our freedoms.‎


Written by Myriam Francois

May 24, 2013 at 18:01

HuffPost: Mali: France’s Afghanistan?

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This piece was originally published on my HuffPost blog, here
It was also re-published on the Back-Bencher, here

Is France’s military intervention in Mali a neo-colonial enterprise, dressed up in the conveniently ‎nebulous language of the ‘war on terror’? France’s less than gleaming record in the region – ‎with 50 military interventions, since the 50 years of independence in 14 francophone African ‎countries – has left many questioning the official narrative of restoring order to the country.

In the midst of its economic woes, cynics might look at France’s intervention in Libya which brought ‎home lucrative oil and reconstruction contracts and point to Mali’s significant natural resources. ‎Others speculate that Hollande’s shaky political standing and the virtually unquestioned support ‎bestowed upon any leader opining to combat Al Qaeda and its associates, offers motivations closer ‎to home. Few things can ensure political consensus on the French political scene the way ‎‎’operation Serval’ has. A few renegades not withstanding – including former PM Dominique de ‎Villepin who drew parallels with Iraq and Afghanistan – the Socialists, UMP and even the National ‎Front have approved Hollande’s decision. But surely if the decade has taught us anything about ‎defeating highly motivated guerrilla groups, it is that short interventions turn into protracted, ‎bloody battles which can only actually be resolved at the diplomatic table. ‎

So why has France decided to intervene and why now? Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has ‎been a longstanding concern in the region and the suggestion it has teamed up with criminal and ‎militant elements in the lawless region in northern Mali is bound to create some concern. This is ‎particularly true as these elements take advantage of the power vacuum which has followed Mali’s ‎military coup in March 2012, to expand control over greater parts of the north, emboldened by the ‎government’s unresponsiveness. Indeed, in October last year an EU official warned “”We consider ‎AQIM the growing, and maybe the leading, threat against us.”‎

In the last few years, the northern region has become a haven for criminal activity and a key transit ‎route for cocaine trafficking. A recent United Nations mission in the Sahel region described ‎northern Mali as a dangerous crossroads of drugs, crime, terrorism and rebellion. Until recently, ‎Mali’s disaffected ethnic tuaregs, a nomadic people at odds with the Mali government, had ‎teamed with jihadists to take control over an area the size of France, in a marriage of convenience ‎which soon ended in infighting. Criminal activity has funded the purchase of weapons used to ‎impose an extremist form of control, which has included public executions and the use of child ‎soldiers. ‎

This growing militancy in northern Mali has occurred alongside the demise of one of West Africa’s ‎hopes, as the military overthrow of a democratic government has left the country as just another ‎‎’failed state.’ Given broader instability in the region, namely that of the indigenous militants of the ‎Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, arms floating around following NATO support to rebels in Libya, ‎and the predominantly Algerian AQIM, a small but dangerous group involved in the hostage crisis ‎on an oil plant in alleged retaliation for France’s “crusade”, the implications of Mali’s instability are ‎far reaching for the region. Popular support for French intervention among African leaders should ‎be understood in light of the instability wrought by extremist elements and more cynically, to the ‎Western aid which may also ensue.‎

On one hand, the extremist alliance at work in northern Mali, which includes AQIM, Mali’s ‎homegrown Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar Dine rebels suggests an ‎emboldening of jihadist elements in the face of West Africa’s struggling states. Though a military ‎solution will likely defeat this threat, although perhaps not as quickly as the French might hope, ‎Foreign minister Laurent Fabius having optimistically predicted the intervention would last “a ‎matter of weeks”- it is unlikely to resolve systemic political instability. A military intervention looks ‎a lot like a quick fix solution to a much deeper problem which involves a legacy of failed states, ‎poverty, ethnic tensions and corruption. Northern Mali has never been properly integrated into ‎the state, with poor social indicators across the board, leaving an alienated ethnical tuareg minority ‎willing to forge insalubrious alliances. Oxford researcher in African studies, Harry Verhoeven ‎described the problem, saying: “the jihadists are a symptom, veiling a deeper crisis of ‎underdevelopment, failed nation-building and faltering public services delivery in Mali and the ‎Sahel more broadly.”

Comparisons with Afghanistan have their limitations, but after 11 years of armed conflict, the ‎realisation has dawned on many that the political stability of any nation cannot be secured through ‎strictly military means. French President François Hollande has described the goal of the operation ‎as “to ensure that when we leave (…) Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process ‎and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory.” A unilateral military approach alone is ‎unlikely to achieve any of these goals. Without addressing the endemic problems which contribute ‎to the fragility of Mali’s state, France’s actions could simply be adding fuel to the fire. ‎

Written by Myriam Francois

January 18, 2013 at 15:54