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UK Politics: For Brutus is an honourable man….

Juilius Caesar

Assassination of Julius Caesar

With exquisite irony, thus spoke Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as he whipped up the rabble into a frenzy against the dictator’s assassins.

The phrase keeps coming to me as I watch members of his own party praise Jeremy Corbyn for his sincerity and integrity in his stand against air strikes on ISIS in Syria. Even more so when David Cameron does the same.

For different reasons of course. His own colleagues hoping to bury him, and Cameron hoping to keep the opposition divided and impotent for the longest possible time. As with Caesar, such tributes usually come after death. In the case of Corbyn, some would say that he’s joined the ranks of the politically undead.

Should he fail to bring his parliamentary party round to his point of view over Syria, no doubt there will be other opportunities to praise, then bury him. The Oldham by-election is just round the corner, for example.

One thing’s for sure. The would-be assassins in his own party will need to have nerves of steel. Will the disaffected right wing of the party risk the wrath of the all-powerful Len McClusky, leader of Unite, Labour’s biggest trade union backer? Are they prepared to risk targeted deselection campaigns by Corbyn’s supporters?

Depends on their principles, I suppose. Also there will be a number of them thinking that if they can get rid of him now, they will be in a better position to defend their back yards with a new leader in place and four years to prepare for the next election.

Otherwise, they might calculate, better to suffer a quick political death and have those years to prepare for a career outside Parliament than to soldier on through endless bickering, plotting and lip-buttoning.

One thing’s for sure, there will be blood on the Senate floor. Whose blood remains to be seen.

Or, to quote John Lennon:

There’s room at the top they are telling you still

But first you must learn how to smile as you kill

If you want to be like the folks on the hill

Working Class Hero. Copyright Lennon Music

Britain’s Syrian dilemma – to strike or not to strike?


If I was a member of the British Parliament I would reluctantly vote for military action against ISIS in Syria.

I chose my words carefully. We should not be confined to air strikes. If our contribution is to be meaningful, we need to keep our options open for other forms of military action, such as the use of ground troops. I’m not suggesting that the British Army is capable of driving ISIS out of Syria and Iraq on its own, or that we should send thousands of soldiers on to the battlefield. Only that ISIS rules out no options in its holy war, and neither should we, excepting only the use of weapons of mass destruction.

To require parliamentary approval for each minute step in the war against ISIS is a nonsense. Large scale action on the ground should of course only be launched with the consent of Parliament. And right now, such a venture would be unlikely to gain approval under any circumstances.

But our military should be free to react to changing circumstances by using different kinds of force, be that naval action, the use of special forces or whatever else is deemed necessary. It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of our generals, civil servants and politicians to devise a formula that stops short of a full ground war, yet gives our armed forces the power to vary their tactics according to the needs of the moment.

In Parliament yesterday, David Cameron set out the argument for air strikes in Syria. His main points were:

  1. Air strikes would help the chances of the international coalition
  2. Strikes would contribute to a transition plan for Syria
  3. The action would be legal
  4. Numerous countries in the region support air strikes
  5. There are 70,000 fighters ready to attack ISIS on the ground
  6. The military objective of the strikes is to stop the threat to the UK and to the existence of Iraq
  7. We would make a difference because our precision-guided missiles are more precise than anyone else’s

So do his arguments stand up?

It depends how we define the national interest. Certainly it’s in Britain’s best interests that the mix of diplomatic, military and political initiatives results in a peaceful Syria and the destruction of ISIS. And yes, the two do go hand in hand, because without the settlement there is always the danger that Son of ISIS will emerge and will continue to inspire terror attacks in the homelands of the coalition members, including our own.

Where the argument breaks down, however, is in the assumption that the diverse groups operating in Syria can be welded into a coherent whole that is not only capable of operating within an effective military command structure, but also are prepared to support whatever political settlements are put in place.

This is by no means guaranteed. We in Britain have the assurance of our Joint Intelligence Committee that there are 70,000 members of the Free Syrian Army ready to roll over ISIS with the help of coalition air support. But two questions arise. Does the FSA actually exist in any shape or form other than as an alliance of independent groups, many of which have less than “moderate” agendas? And second, would 70,000 be enough? To hold the ground maybe, but certainly not to roll ISIS back, if some military experts are to be believed.

Then there’s the argument that regional powers, including Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan support the strikes. All well and good, but each Arab state has its own agenda. Jordan is directly threatened by ISIS, and also houses hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as the primary bogeyman, and it’s hands are full in Yemen. Egypt is consumed by its internal political unrest, not to mention the ISIS-affiliated insurgency in Sinai.

Support is one thing, but direct action is another. Since ISIS’s burning of the Jordanian pilot, the coalition’s allies in the region seem highly squeamish about getting their hands dirty – Turkey being the obvious exception. Looking further down the line, if we assume that foreign boots on the ground would be needed to supplement the fabled 70,000, how likely is it that those boots would come from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan?

As for the assurance that the UK’s intervention is legal, apparently the advice Mr Cameron has received is based on Article 51 of the UN Charter. Now the legal eagles are far smarter than the rest of us, so surely we can trust the advice they have given to the Prime Minister, can’t we?

Well one would think so. But hang on. Let’s look at the actual source of the argument, Article 51:

“Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

So has ISIS carried out an armed attack on the UK? Does the beheading of two UK citizens constitute such an attack? Does a thwarted conspiracy to attack qualify as an actual attack? Are such conspiracies the result of direct orders from the Islamic State? Does rhetoric encouraging sympathisers to attack us qualify as an actual attack? Er, not sure really.

Another problem with Article 51 is that it was written in an era when states attacked other states. It’s certainly not designed to provide cover for asymmetric warfare, where the aggression is as likely to be home-grown as originating from abroad. It also doesn’t allow for cyber-attacks, which may not be “armed attacks” as defined in the Charter, but can be just as deadly. Clear as mud then.

As for the big picture, Peter Oborne, the respected former columnist comes up with a provocative article in Middle East Eye, entitled Cameron doesn’t know what he’s doing so he shouldn’t go to war.

One of Oborne’s arguments seems to be that Tony Blair successfully made the case for war in 2003, and he was wrong. Cameron is not good at foreign affairs, but has made an equally strong case this time. Ergo, Cameron’s wrong too. The Joint Intelligence Committee provided lousy data to Blair about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Ergo, the estimates of the 70,000 in Syria champing at the bit must be wrong also. Not necessarily on both counts. Does he think that nobody in government is incapable of learning from the mistakes of the past?

He also questions the benefit of launching a couple of Tornadoes at a time into skies over Syria that are already crowded with the bombers of several nations queuing up to drop their munitions on ISIS. Fair point. Even if our munitions are superior, we do have the option sharing the technology with our allies without launching them ourselves.

And finally he says:

“There is one other point that most observers have overlooked. What about civilian casualties? The British prime minister claims that British bombing technology is more accurate than the Americans.

The United States claims that only half a dozen civilians have died since it launched its campaign of airstrikes against IS across Syria and Iraq 15 months ago. Airwars, which compile lists of civilian deaths, asserts that the true figure is at least 680 and possibly as high as 975.

There would be a dark irony if Britain (and France) killed innocent people in our quest to hurt IS. Cameron’s strategy, as set out today, is to bomb and hope for the best. We should not go ahead until we have a better idea of what we are doing.”

Frankly, I should have thought that his last point was stating the obvious. Of course there are casualties. Where there are bombs there will always be casualties. Over 300,000 have died already in Syria, but for once the vast majority have not perished by Western hands. We should be aware, though, that by joining the swarm of bombers, the UK, no matter that its Brimstone missiles can take out one person leaving the guy next to him unscathed, it will share the responsibility for the deeds of the whole coalition, not just those of the two Tornado pilots.

But have any of the coalition members yet come up with a better idea than to bomb and hope for the best? Not from where I’m sitting. So is it fair to accuse Cameron of not knowing what he’s doing? Sure. But no more and no less than any of the others.

The one observation of Oborne’s I do buy into is this: the main reason for joining the bombing campaign is that it would be a gesture of solidarity.

We can do little to affect the military outcome, but the least we can do is to avoid losing friends among those who are putting the lives of their soldiers and airmen on the line. Because who knows, we might need their help in the future.

That’s an argument anyway. It didn’t help us with our little adventure in Suez, but our American friends were pretty helpful during the Falklands War. But that was then and this is now. I doubt if Barack Obama would lift a finger to support us if it wasn’t in America’s interest to do so. In one sense we have a more special relationship with our old adversaries, the French, because we’re able to cover for each other’s deficiencies. With the French it’s not so much a coalition of the willing, more an entente of the cash-strapped.

I accept that most of the arguments for not getting involved have some validity. Syria is a rat’s nest. The interests of the leading actors are almost impossible to reconcile. The military outcome is uncertain. The legality of the strikes is a grey area.

But we are already involved. ISIS respects no boundaries between Iraq and Syria, and nor should we. No military action can ever guarantee the desired results. And there are no modern precedents for a struggle against a ruthless non-state entity like ISIS, therefore resolving this conflict is entirely new territory.

So for all the emotional reasons – that we are morally bound to try and put an end to the suffering in Syria and Iraq, and that it’s a matter of national self-interest that we show solidarity with our allies – I would vote yes to the strikes.

But let’s not kid ourselves. This is a game of trial and error. It’s dangerous. People will die, including, perhaps, our own, and perhaps in horrible ways.

We may not fully know what we’re doing, but neither do the Americans, the Russians, the French and the Turks. Is that a reason for us to do nothing? As long as we act with good intentions and with the best information to hand, I don’t think so.

Britain’s spending cuts – Attila the Hun meets Princess Charming


The Feast of Attila, by Mór Than

So the grizzly turned out to be a pussycat.

George Osborne, the UK’s finance minister, spent months softening us Brits up for the biggest round of cuts in public spending since the Great Depression in pursuit of his sacred book-balancing project.

Opponents of the cuts we were led to expect regaled us with doomsday scenarios that left us slashing our wrists in anxiety.

Tax credit cuts would make the impoverished even poorer. Reductions in police budgets would make life easier for terrorists as they cooked up their chemicals and stitched together their suicide vests in unpatrolled neighbourhoods. Defence cuts would make us a laughing-stock among our better-equipped allies.

Muggers and burglars would be free to ply their trades in the knowledge that nobody in a dark blue uniform would be seen on the streets for months, and the chance of one of them attending a crime scene would be less than that of being dive-bombed by a flying pig.

Little old ladies would quake in their sitting rooms waiting for the intruder to appear at the window, or the Russians to come marching down the street. Young families would bristle in outrage because they wouldn’t be able to eat. Or, worse still, that they could no longer afford their Sky TV subscriptions.

It turns out that we’ve been played.

When Mr Osborne revealed the details of his spending plans yesterday, the tax credit cuts were nowhere to be seen. Police budgets were left as they were. And whoopee, more spending on health, defence and housing. All this because apparently we’re £27 billion better off than we thought we were. Well that’s nice. Presumably Santa knocked on the minister’s door just as he was about to tell us that we would be having nut rissoles for Christmas.

And so a grateful nation sighs in relief, and gets ready to spend the equivalent of several times the GDP of Burundi on new IPhones for the kids.

All of this reminds me of an episode from when our children were growing up.

At 14, one of our beloved daughters had the attitude of Attila the Hun and the dress sense of Alaric the Goth. When she wasn’t in Attila mode she could be utterly charming. And she used that combination of nice and horrible to great effect.

One day she approached me with a problem. Daddy, my clothes are crap. I need at least six new tops, two pairs of jeans, a coat and three pairs of shoes. She chose me, of course, as the line of least resistance. I, being a moral coward, referred her case to the real authority in the family.

Mrs Royston politely pointed out that she had several thousand pounds worth of clothes strewn over the floor of her bedroom in layers according to their age. Rather like the seven layers of ancient Troy. Perhaps if she looked after the stuff she had, not all of it would turn out to be crap. Well actually, she wasn’t very polite, and this is a sanitised version of her language.

At this point our daughter went into full Attila mode. With Hunnish fury she made our lives a misery for the next five days, shooting her arrows of contempt at every opportunity and spreading a poisonous atmosphere as only a hormonal 14-year-old can.

We withstood the siege, sighing with relief every morning as she stomped off to school, no doubt to compare notes with her mates on the cruelty of parents, only for the hostilities to renew when she got home in the evening.

On day six she changed tactics. Attila was but a horrible memory as she sidled up to me in Daddy’s-little-girl mode. She’d had a think about what she’d needed, she said, and it turned out that perhaps she could do without the clothes for the time being. But please, please, please could she have a new pair of party shoes?

At which point the united front collapsed, and I took an executive decision. Yes. The prospect of another week of emotional battery was too much to bear, and Daddy’s little girl danced off with a smirk on her face and several crisp bank notes in her hand.

An object lesson in how to conjure something out of nothing. So yes, be it by accident or design, we were played.

Which goes to show that in politics you don’t need a dozen advisers to achieve your objectives. You just need to watch your children going about their business. And if you don’t have kids, hire some as advisers.

After Paris – Trumping the Trumps


Hillary Clinton

Good for Hillary Clinton for pushing back against the knee-jerkers in the US who are using the Paris massacre as a reason not to give sanctuary to refugees from Syria and Iraq. For her and those who agree with her, it’s a moral issue.

Indeed it is. But there’s another reason why these people shouldn’t be left to rot. But first some questions.

In the wake of the Paris atrocity, do we really believe that we are incapable of detecting fake Syrian passports now that their use has been identified as a security risk? With the billions that we are pouring into all manner of security measures are we likely in the future to be so lax that we fail to scrutinise more closely the backgrounds of the refugees seeking the right to remain within our borders? Do we not face a far greater threat from home-grown terrorists than from those who seek to infiltrate from Syria?

I would answer no to the first question, no for the second and yes to the third.

Now for the other reason. If we let the refugees settle within the EU, if we treat them in a humane and supportive manner and if we give them the opportunity to build new lives for themselves, why should they turn against their hosts? Surely the last thing they will want will be to recreate the battleground from which they have fled. They will no more tolerate the warmongers and fanatics in their midst than we do.

If states in continental Europe have by accident or design marginalised their ethnic minorities, thus producing “breeding grounds for terrorists”, then that is a separate issue that they must address. That’s something that we in the UK must do also, to prevent the like of Bradford, Bolton and Tower Hamlets from becoming more like the Paris banlieues than they already are. When the newcomers arrive, it will be hard to prevent Little Syrias and Iraqs from springing up in our economically deprived areas, because people with common backgrounds, initially at least, tend to stick together. So we must work harder to make those areas less deprived, and help those within them to spread out beyond their ethno-centric communities.

If that means greater investment in housing, education and social amenities in those areas, then so be it. To hell with the orthodoxy of deficit reduction. Priorities have changed. Nobody will thank the current government for sticking to its deficit target if our fiscally-neutral nation is a perilous place in which individual freedoms as well as public services have been cut to the bone.

Much as the right-wing factions across the EU are trying to exploit the Paris tragedy to pursue their anti-immigrant agendas, they cannot turn back the clock. There are multi-ethnic societies in virtually every country in the Union, and that’s not going to change. Integrating them is the problem we need to fix. At least that’s within our power to achieve, whereas helping the countries from which the refugees are fleeing to find political and economic solutions is fiendishly difficult and not within the power of any individual nation.

If fear is preventing us from welcoming the new arrivals, then it needs to be dissipated by a combination of practical measures – again within our control – and moral argument. What better way to set a new tone among our established ethnic minorities than to welcome the refugees (as many Germans have), make use of their skills, and do our best to integrate those who wish to make our countries their permanent home?

There are lessons to be learned from Paris. We will not stop further attacks, but we can get better at preventing more of them. And we can, given time, effort and money, fix the underlying causes behind the attacks.

Letting a million refugees rot in camps, or sending them back to the hell-holes from which they escaped, will do nothing to cure the malaise in our towns and suburbs. Welcoming them and giving them the opportunity to start new lives might be just what we need to begin rebuilding coherence in our European societies, because it will force us to pay full attention to a defining issue for our generation which for decades we have struggled to address effectively.

I admit to a bias. I’ve spent many years living and working in the Arab world among industrious, smart and principled people, including Syrians and Iraqis. They are resourceful and adaptable. Liberate them from a sense that they must defend their cultures and beliefs, and they will have much to offer us. Those cultures are evolving. No matter how much ISIS would desire otherwise, the differences between Middle East and West are becoming less, not more.  I have no fear of the other.

And I for one refuse to accept that our continent, which seventy years ago rebuilt itself from the ashes of conflict, can’t emerge from this crisis without building walls, herding people into ghettos or indulging in bouts of ethnic cleansing. As in America, our domestic Donald Trumps are doing us a favour by reminding us of the consequences if we don’t put social coherence at the top of our national agendas.


Jonah Lomu – Rugby’s Pivot Point

Jonah Lomu

Jonah Lomu, whose death was announced yesterday, turned rugby into a different kind of war.

In my muddy recollection of the way things were, Rugby Union before Jonah was the sport I briefly played at school and watched occasionally thereafter. A game full of regulated violence played by guys who were tough as nails, had a strong team ethic and liked a few beers after the game. A game played by men who did it for fun, not money. They were fit, but not to the extent that you would easily be able to recognise their favourite pastime if you met them in a bank, an estate agency or a solicitor’s office. They were salesmen, miners, sheep farmers and accountants.

Many of them – particularly in England – were products of private schools, in which rugby was the winter game of choice. But many more were from countries in which the sport trumped soccer as the national game – Wales and New Zealand for example, where background and social class were less important than the ability to sprint past six opponents determined to bring you crashing down on to the muddy turf. A code of courage, camaraderie, endurance, and refusal to admit to physical pain. A showcase of gentlemanly virtues, of the stiff upper lip. A sport of soldiers, of empire.

Jonah’s arrival changed everything, just as tanks transformed the battlefield of the twentieth century. A six-foot-four Polynesian battering ram, running with the ball not just past, but through, opponents half his size, sending them flying in his wake.

Suddenly – at least looking back it seemed sudden – rugby was no longer the game of my youth. Bulked-up forwards and mountainous backs turned it into a contest of attrition. Just as the First World War was described by those who survived it as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of indescribable terror, rugby at the highest level became a game full of long periods in which players custom-built to resist the likes of Jonah fought out a relentless stalemate up and down the pitch, to be broken now and again by lightning offensives that mostly came to nothing.

The rules seemed to be more complicated. Commentators started to talk about phases, to describe each time an attack came to a juddering halt as defenders swarmed to stop attackers. Line-outs became a matter of who could lift their team-mates high enough to catch the ball. Penalty kickers could mount the ball under a plastic plinth so that they could lift it goal-wards more easily. And miked-up referees shared their decisions, and their reprimands of offending players, with millions of TV viewers. Rugby became a technical game full of gizmos and gimmicks, not just a matter of blood and guts.

The game of empire had become a professional sport, and suddenly, thanks to the Rugby World Cup, we became aware of other places beyond the traditional playing fields where the game was flourishing – Uruguay, Canada, Georgia, Russia and Japan.

Jonah didn’t bring about these changes. They happened gradually over a couple of decades. But for me, watching from afar with decreasing interest, he symbolised the pivot point. It seems so long ago when rugby’s long age of innocence ended. Yet he was only 40 when he died.

The World Cup semi-final of 1995, in which Jonah pulverised England and transformed the game, was the last truly exciting rugby match I ever saw. It all seemed to go downhill from there. But was he worth watching? You bet he was.

If you ask any sports fan under the age of fifty to name one superstar in a sport they don’t regularly follow, they might come up with Messi, Federer, Woods, Magic Johnson, Mohammed Ali and Usain Bolt. Ask them to name a rugby player, and the chances are that they’ll give you Jonah Lomu.

Goes to show once again that it’s not how long you live that makes you immortal, but what you achieve, even in a few short years. I hope that’s a comfort for Jonah’s loved ones as they grieve for a man who died too young.

After Paris – the Futility of the Blame Game


Rouget de Lisle, composer of the Marseillaise, sings it for the first time

I have few words to say about Paris beyond what has already been said, except that it is one of my favourite cities, and that France is a country I love deeply.

Many commentators far smarter than me have written enough wise and moving words about the dead and the wounded, and about the perpetrators and their motivation.

But if there’s just one though I keep coming back to whenever I read about the tragedy in Syria, Iraq, Beirut and Paris, it’s this: at what stage do past events cease to be opportunities to find culprits and turn into history? At what stage do we move from blaming to understanding?

After the last guilty man or woman dies, would be one answer. Which is why we continue to pursue Nazi war criminals, arrest a soldier on suspicion of murder committed in Northern Ireland thirty years ago and agitate for those who got us into the Iraq war in 2003 to go on trial for war crimes. Which is also why some of the relatives of Mohammed Emwazi’s victims would rather he had lived to face trial for the crimes of which he was accused.

To an extent the line is artificial. Blame is the brother of hatred, and hatred runs deep. Christians still blame Jews for the death of Jesus. Shiites still rail at the Caliph Yazid ibn Muawiya for the killing of Imam Hussain. And in Northern Ireland, more than three hundred years after the Battle of the Boyne, King Billy is still a symbol of oppression among the Catholic minority of the Six Counties. Crusades and a hundred other events etched into the memories of those who live around the battlegrounds continue to feed ancestral grudges today.

As for the origins of ISIS, you will find far more people who take to Twitter and point the finger of blame at a list of states and individuals than those who say enough – that was then, this is now; we have to deal with the present and the future rather than endlessly ruminate on the causes.

Worse still is the tendency to draw lessons from dubious historical parallels. Because of the adverse consequences of our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, some of us say that we shouldn’t be contemplating action on the ground against ISIS. Just as those who urged us not to resist Hitler’s empire-building did so because they didn’t wish to see a repeat of World War I.

Those who most energetically point the finger often seem to be the ones reluctant to propose a way forward. For many Western voices it seems to be enough to use blame to confirm a world view. It’s all the fault of American or British imperialism, globalisation, capitalism, the banks, the super-rich, the military-industrial complex, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Monsanto and so on. And in the Middle East, the same people who blame America for all their ills, are the one who happily chat on their IPhones, drive their Ford pick-ups and watch Hollywood movies. Far easier to blame than take responsibility.

Jeremy Corbyn, the recently-elected leader of the Labour party, has never been kindly disposed towards America, its actions and motives during his political career. He is saying that we should try and achieve peace in what’s left of Syria before turning our attention on ISIS. That’s all very well, but with fifty factions vying for influence, with the international players that have a stake in the future of Syria all looking for different outcomes, a settlement will, to put it mildly, require a miraculous alignment of interests. Until that miracle comes to pass, how will Corbyn’s position resonate with the voters if ISIS manages to mount a Paris-style attack in the UK?

For what it’s worth, I agree with those who say that in the short term boots on the ground will be required to eliminate ISIS. In terms of capability the most effective boots would most likely be Western. But if the result is further casualties and further bitterness against the West, the destruction of Baghdadi’s gang will ultimately be futile. One insurgency will simply be replaced by another. And “victory” in Syria and Iraq will not make the radicalised citizens of France, Britain and Belgium go away. They will switch their allegiance to the next group.

So what’s the solution? There are plenty of opinions, but the problem is that nobody really knows, because the recipe of circumstances and interests that produced ISIS can’t easily be mapped onto similar events from the past. In this case, experience is no guide to the future. And this is also why those who try to deconstruct the situation are far more comfortable finding scapegoats than coming up with a coherent way forward.

For sure, defeating ISIS in Syria, Iraq and other areas where their tentacles are spreading would buy time to create some form of lasting settlement in the region, just as the suppression of Al-Qaeda in Iraq during the Anbar Awakening provided an opportunity for Iraq to organise itself into a non-sectarian state – something that it lamentably failed to do under Nouri al-Maliki.

It would also deprive its followers in the West of a focal point for their efforts. The terror threat would not go away, but groups operating in Western countries would have to become relatively autonomous. Whether that would make them easier to track down is debatable, but if Iraq and Syria no longer served as a training ground for jihadis, the effectiveness of the home-grown groups would probably decline.

In terms of tactics, it’s pretty obvious to this observer with no military training that bombs can certainly degrade. But recent experience shows that they can’t, as Barack Obama suggested, destroy ISIS. And if a coalition of Middle Eastern forces can’t be assembled to provide the boots on the ground that can take the territory without further exacerbating sectarian divides (and that’s a big ask, hence the widespread opinion among Arab commentators that only “moderate” Sunnis can defeat the Sunni extremists), then increased use of special forces might tip the balance.

It’s almost impossible to function as a “state” – which ISIS aspires to do – if you have no control of your airspace, if your leaders are continually in hiding from the bombs and drones. Even more difficult if your institutions can be targeted at will and without notice by helicopters disgorging highly-trained special forces. Just as ISIS thrives at home and abroad on surprise attacks, the same tactics used against it would surely have a telling effect. These days Western opinion tends to be less squeamish about special forces rather than the use of conventional ground troops. The big question is whether there are sufficient intelligence sources on the ground to ensure that the raiders hit the right targets without causing mass casualties among the innocents. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi suggests that those sources do exist. In sufficient numbers? That remains to be seen.

The British prime minister David Cameron tells us that the UK government plans to recruit a large number of additional security services operatives. I suppose the announcement is designed to make us all feel a little safer. But in reality the effect of hiring a couple of thousand extra staff will make little difference for at least a couple of years. After all, these people need to be recruited and then trained.

Of equal significance  – again in the longer term – are the government’s plans to invest a further £1.9 billion in cybersecurity, and a similar amount to be spent on equipping the British special forces. Although Cameron announced that the SAS will have a role in defending the country against Paris-style attacks, the money will surely enhance their ability to operate abroad.

Whether or not special forces play an increasing part in the conflict, in the absence of a political solution that leads to an effective military response to ISIS, the benighted lands of Syria and Iraq will continue to be the stage for trial and error on all sides.

Back at home, we in the UK, France, Belgium and all other countries potentially under attack will need to treasure our common values, societies, institutions and way of life, and reflect on what life would be like without them rather than focus only on their imperfections. And if we can’t help those amongst us who hate them to change their minds, then the consequences will be unpredictable, and probably dire.

I for one don’t want to live in an Islamic State under the black flag. But neither do I want to live in a police state. Ultimately, we have to make sure that we don’t have to choose between the two.


After the Sinai Crash – Transparency, Oversight and Passenger Empowerment


Two days after the Metrojet crash in Sinai, I took a flight from Jeddah to London on British Airways. At the airport I and the other passengers were subjected to the third degree. Body search, hand baggage gone through with a fine tooth comb. Two laptops, one IPad and two phones switched on and off to prove that they were really what they appeared to be.

It was a good job that the flight was half empty, because otherwise we would have been standing in the line for many hours. When we finally boarded the aircraft, I asked the steward whether we would be flying over Sinai. “Yes sir”, he said. “But don’t worry, we’ll be well beyond the reach of any surface-to-air missile.”

I didn’t want to get into a discussion about the range of the BUK missile that shot down MH17 over Ukraine, so left it at that and took my seat. And actually, I wasn’t asking the question he so reassuringly answered.  I just wanted to know whether I should be more prepared than normal to meet my maker within the following hour or two.

After all there are many factors that bring down aircraft. Bombs and missiles are relative rarities. There are also lots of targets, and not so many people willing to go for them. So it’s really a matter of calculating the odds and taking a view. And since I’m writing this from the comfort of my home in England, the view turned out to be correct.

And so it seems that what brought down the Russian airliner was a bomb, not a missile. Which I guess justifies deploying a couple of guys rifling through hand baggage at an airport in a country where a recent poll revealed widespread sympathy for the aims of the suspected perpetrator of the atrocity, ISIS.

Well yes, sort of. But whenever I encounter this belts and braces approach – note that we had already been through the X-ray scanner – I wonder where the distrust lies: with the people looking at the images from the scanner or with the technology itself? This shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of the Saudis. As will be evident later, they did exactly what they were supposed to by international convention in response a perceived high security risk.

Nevertheless, I have been through enough scanners to know that the attention of the operators can wander. In my experience this happens more often in Middle East airports, something that travellers at Sharm el-Sheikh have reported. But I suspect that’s only because I use more airports in the region than, say, in continental Europe or Africa.

So if one of the security vulnerabilities is down to the scanner operators, what’s to be done? More frequent breaks? Better training? More supervision? Probably all of these things. Yet none of those measures would prevent an operator sympathetic to the cause of would-be bombers from turning a blind eye to something sinister passing through the machine. More thorough – and regular – background screening might just reveal the sympathies of the operator, but what if that person was under duress? A threat to their family in the event of non-cooperation for example. No screening system is likely to pick up on that.

That’s where a technology fix could help. An audible alarm incapable of being overridden by the operator that is set off if the machine sees something suspicious. A similar alarm sounds if you go through the metal detector with a coin in your pocket. In the case of the X-ray scanner an alarm system would mean that the bomber would need two accomplices, not one, to get something through, a far less likely event unless the entire security system was hopelessly compromised.

If such an alarm triggered more bag checks at the scanner, then surely the argument for double checking would be weakened. The last thing travellers and the airline industry needs is for repeated  searching of hand baggage to be mandatory on every flight.

Checking hand baggage is only part of the problem. Extra checks may serve to reassure and annoy passengers in equal measures, but then there’s the question of baggage stowed in the hold, and the possibility that a baggage handler might smuggle a bomb on to the plane. Checks on stowed bags take place out of sight of the passenger, so unless they also go through the scanner in the presence of the owner, the traveller usually forgets about them until they arrive at the baggage hall at the other end. The Israelis use barometric chambers to detect devices designed to detonate during flight at lower air pressures. No doubt there will be people pushing for blast-proof baggage containers to be introduced, at least in areas seen to be most at risk. And of course more body searches and screening of staff.

What’s pretty sure is that there will be consequences as the result of the Sinai crash. Governments are already making noises about tightened security. Almost certainly those measures will include improved technology – for those airports that can afford it – and new processes. Equally likely will be that waiting times at airports will increase.

From the passengers’ point of view, frustration will increase. Right now, in most airports around the world (Israel being a notable exception), the same security measures theoretically apply to each passenger regardless of age, nationality, ethnic origin and other factors that might feed into an assessment of the risk that person potentially poses to airport and flight safety. In practice? Who knows?

There has long been an argument for pre-screening measures based on risk assessment. Without the resources of intelligence agencies such as  the NSA and GCHQ, looking into a person’s background before they arrive at the airport will always be an inexact science – a matter of risk percentage. But if pre-screening makes life easier for a large number of passengers who, according to objective measures, are highly unlikely to feature on any no-fly list, then for the vast majority of passengers the pain will be alleviated.

The question is: who does the screening and what measures will they use? At the moment, it depends on the country. If you fly to the USA, those from countries that qualify for the visa waiver have to apply for the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation). You are never going to know what criteria the US uses to determine whether an ESTA can be granted, but my experience after 9/11 leads me to hope that the system is more sophisticated today.

At that time my passport was full of stamps from Middle East countries, and I found myself being targeted for “special measures” every time I arrived at and left the country. Was there a connection? I’ll never know, but in all other respects as a married middle-aged Englishman with no political or religious affiliations I would surely have ranked pretty low down the list of potential terrorists. I even co-owned a business in the US, for goodness sake!

And then there was the Saudi friend once told me that shortly after 9/11, he was interrogated by the FBI and put under surveillance, seemingly because he shared a name with one of the 19 attackers. He and about a million other people in the Kingdom! Not very smart, you might think.

There is one issue that doesn’t seem to have received much airtime of late. Why is it so difficult to find information from official sources about the safety and security of the airports we must use to travel from one place to another? Why, for example, did it only emerge after the Sinai crash that a couple of months a British airliner full of passengers had to dodge a missile that flew 300 metres past it on approach to Sharm El-Sheikh? The British government explained that “we investigated the reported incident at the time and concluded that it was not a targeted attack and was likely to be connected to routine exercises being conducted by the Egyptian military in the area at the time.” Well that’s OK then. Nothing to do with ISIS, just some trigger-happy army unit letting off missiles for fun. Clearly our masters don’t believe that we need to be told about such incidents. An entirely routine potentially catastrophic near-miss. Happens all the time, does it?

So where can we go to find out whether en route to our place in the sun we are at risk of having to engage in a pas-de-deux with an incoming projectile? Or indeed whether the airport we’re heading towards has security staff who prefer to send messages on WhatsApp rather than keep their eyes on what’s passing across their scanner screens? If our governments won’t tell us, who will?

Now in no sense am I a safety expert, but from a motive of self-preservation, I do take a keen interest in the subject. In the dim and distant past I actually worked in civil aviation for a number of years. That experience led me to a very obvious place to see if I could find an authoritative source of information on airports. Take a look at this interesting document produced by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). It’s called a “Manual on Threat Assessment and Risk Management Methodology (Reference Guide for States)”.

The publisher, ICAO, is a UN-affiliated body. According to its website, ICAO “works with the (Chicago) Convention’s 191 Member States and industry groups to reach consensus on international civil aviation Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) and policies in support of a safe, efficient, secure, economically sustainable and environmentally responsible civil aviation sector.”  One of its key functions is that it “audits States’ civil aviation oversight capabilities in the areas of safety and security.”

The organisation runs a campaign called No Country Left Behind (NCLB) that aims to ensure that members rich or poor are able to implement the standards to a uniform level. One of those standards, of course, relates to safety and security. Hence the The Threat Assessment and Risk Management manual, which shows that at an international level there is a coherent and sensible approach to ensuring the safety of airports. The website goes on to say that “The NCLB effort also promotes ICAO’s efforts to resolve Significant Safety Concerns (SSCs) brought to light through ICAO’s safety oversight audits as well as other safety, security and emissions-related objectives.”

In other words, when there are safety issues, it attempts to resolve them, and carries out audits to ensure compliance.

But are all the member states following the guidelines? Based on a couple of hours browsing the ICAO website I wasn’t any the wiser on that question.

Wading through the acres of acronym-strewn information on the site, in layman’s terms the following is apparent:

  • All member states are supposed to adhere to the guidelines in the Threat Assessment and Risk Methodology
  • ICAO audits member nations in order to identify and help members resolve Significant Safety Concerns.
  • The audit can include on-site inspections.
  • Most member nations have agreed to make public information on Significant Safety Concerns

Unfortunately I was unable to find information on Significant Safety Concerns relating to individual countries on the website, but no doubt it exists somewhere. The closest I got to what I was looking for was this annual safety report on European member nations. Though it provided plenty of country ratings, none related to individual airports. Which leads me to the next question: why is there no publicly available worldwide ranking of airports based on an objective assessment of the safety risk of travelling to, from and through them?

My reason for asking that question is that it would be extremely helpful if  we the customers – the flying passengers – were able to make our assessment of the risk of using one airport or another. It would also be useful if we were able to be sure that such rankings are based on frequent, impartial, hands-on inspections that are beyond the ability of airport owners and operators to manipulate and obstruct for their own reasons. In other words, no possibility of cover-ups of issues of which the passenger should be aware. In addition to current risks, it would be useful if those rankings were based on historical safety and security track records, and objective measures of political stability.

Difficult to do? Too sensitive for the member states? Too dependent on secret squirrels? Don’t care. It’s about time passengers had the opportunity to make their own minds up about whether they’re prepared to travel to an airport with low safety and security standards, and for the information that they use to make that decision to be objective, credible and easily accessible.

Individual states have too much riding on the outcomes from safety incidents to be left to make their own risk assessments without some element of external mediation. Look at poor Egypt, faced with the loss of 70% of its tourist industry according to one observer. Is it likely to face its problems fair and square and fix them, with international assistance if need be? One would like to think so. Would it be more likely to do so if it was unable to varnish the risks? Highly likely.

That external mediation is what ICAO is supposed to deliver. It may be doing so, but not in a manner easily accessible to this layman.

It’s also a factor that the safety of a particular airport is not the only consideration. The airport is merely the point of arrival or departure. What happens in the air is equally important. So travellers should become aware of the routes being taken to the destination, which was why I asked whether the flight from Jeddah was crossing Sinai.

The bottom line is that as passengers we should not blindly accept what we’re told about the safety of a particular airport, aircraft, airline or air route. We owe it to ourselves to arm ourselves with as much information as we can that might have a bearing on our decision about how we travel and where we travel. Just as it’s relatively easy to find out where malaria and dengue fever are prevalent, and in which country there is a significant risk of terrorism, it should also be easy to access information about aviation safety. We should be able to do that without having to spend many hours on the web dredging up dodgy information or watching endless episodes of Air Crash Investigation.

I personally believe that ICAO and individual member states could do much more to reassure us (or otherwise) that we’re going to a safe place. No-notice security spot-checks, mystery customer programmes and even a place where passengers can easily report incidents and poor practice that they notice while going through an airport or flying would, if publicly accessible, go a long way towards repairing the damage caused to confidence in air travel by high-profile security failures.

The counter-argument will be that if information on security weaknesses was made available to the public, would-be terrorists would gleefully leap in to exploit the open doors. Well yes, they probably would, but don’t you think that airports and countries named and shamed would have a very good incentive to act pretty quickly to resolve the issues?

Air safety has improved significantly over the past decade, which is why crashes when they occur are all the more shocking and extensively reported. But there’s no such thing as perfection, as the Sinai incident showed. More, much more, can surely be done. Yes, I know there are thousands of airports used by over a hundred thousand flights on any given day worldwide, so to apply more rigorous inspection, new procedures, enhanced technologies and more thorough training consistently across all airports will cost money.

But since many national economies, including that of Egypt, depend on air travel, in the future we will have to balance the risk of not investing further in safety and security against the risk of  collapsing economies and ultimately failed states, with all the knock-on consequences.

I grieve for Egypt, and for Tunisia, whose tourism industry has been so badly damaged by the attacks in Tunis and Sousse. Also for the families who were snuffed out over Sinai. It’s time for some smart solutions to keep our travel safe, not just more of the same – yet more layers of inspection for the benighted passenger to endure.


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