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The Traditions of the Sea and the EU

Late last year, the governments of the European Union, having refused to share the cost of a very successful operation called Mare Nostrum in which the Italian Navy rescued tens of thousands of refugees from sinking boats in the Mediterranean, replaced it with a much smaller operation called Operation Triton. Its purpose (though they didn’t put it exactly that way) was NOT to rescue the refugees, because then they ended up in the European Union.

Triton was a “coastguard” operation, with a third of the budget of Mare Nostrum and orders only to patrol Italian and Maltese coastal waters. They could save any boatloads of refugees that made it that far, but they were not to do “search and rescue” operations off the Libyan coast, which is where most of the overloaded boats actually founder.

Inevitably, the death toll from drownings in the first five months of this year was thirty times higher than in the same period last year: at least 1,750 human beings. The losses were so shocking that an emergency EU meeting in late April boosted Triton’s budget back up to the level of Mare Nostrum – but they didn’t change its “mission”. It was still only supposed to operate in EU coastal waters.

But then something odd happened. Last weekend, ships from the Italian, British, German and Irish navies rescued more than 4,000 people in two days – the vast majority of them just off the Libyan coast. The EU has not condemned the operation, but it wasn’t really the EU’s plan. What drove it was the sheer reluctance of the navies to stand by and let people drown.

The European politicians face a huge demand from their electorates to stop the seemingly endless flow of “migrants” (the preferred term for refugees, since it elicits less sympathy) across the Mediterranean. 170,000 people made it across last year, and it could be double that number this year unless lots and lots of them drown. But the voters (or most of them) don’t want to hear about that, and most of the politicians are not very brave.

So the politicians did what the voters wanted. At some level they must have understood the consequences of stopping the search-and-rescue operation, but they found ways of lying to themselves. First of all they said that all these life-saving operations were just encouraging more people to risk the crossing. Stop saving them, and they won’t come.

Ridiculous: these are desperate people who have already faced many big risks to get as far as Libya. They kept coming, and the horrendous death-toll this spring got the media so excited that the politicians had to do something – but not, of course, anything that would actually result in more people arriving in Europe. So they gave more money to Operation Triton, but they still didn’t give it a life-saving role.

Instead, they came up with some nonsense about saving the refugees from drowning by destroying the people-smugglers’ boats on the shores of Libya before they went to sea. It’s the “new slave trade,” and we’re just saving the refugees from themselves. Of course, the EU hasn’t actually destroyed any boats (which would be an act of war against Libya).

What they didn’t reckon with was their own navies, who come at this from a very different angle. The sailors don’t have to worry about the voters, and on the whole they are not terribly fond of the politicians, but they certainly do know about the sea. And one of the oldest traditions of the sea is that you do not leave people to drown.

Everybody who has spent much time at sea knows that it is an intrinsically hostile environment. Alone and unsupported by technology (including flotation gear), you will survive in the water for a matter of minutes, or at most, if you are very fit and lucky, for an hour or two. So when you see somebody in the water, you do everything you can to save them – because another time, it could be you.

When I was in the navy we were once first on the scene of a collision in which a tanker had exploded in flames. There was little chance of survivors, as oil had spilled and the sea was on fire around the stricken ship, but we searched all night and into the next day anyway. Nobody questioned why we were doing it, nobody even discussed it. There is no higher priority in a peacetime navy.

I was not on the warships attached to Operation Triton to overhear the conversations of the people on the bridge, but I am sure that they were outraged by their orders. So they gradually pushed out beyond the appointed bounds of Operation Triton to the places where the people were actually dying, and none of the politicians dared to expose themselves as heartless bastards by telling them to come back.

Eventually it has become the new de facto policy of the European Union – just like the old Mare Nostrum policy, before the European governments got at it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“Instead…Libya”; and “When…navy”)

NOTE: If you think that “heartless bastards” will upset your readers, you may substitute “gutless cowards”, or even “craven opportunists”.

Egypt Under Sisi

The “Islamic State” franchise in Libya, which is emerging as the main winner in that country’s chaotic civil war, published a video on Sunday showing 21 Egyptian men in orange overalls being forced to the ground and beheaded. The video made it clear that they were being killed for being Christian, “people of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian church.”

Within hours the Egyptian air force responded with raids on IS camps and training sites in Derna, the group’s headquarters in eastern Libya. Announcing the safe return of all the aircraft, the Egyptian military authorities declared: “Let those far and near know that Egyptians have a shield that protects them.” But it didn’t really protect them, did it?

Okay, that’s not fair. Everybody knows that you can’t protect people once they fall into the hands of the jihadi head-choppers. An air force is a particularly unsuitable tool for that job, nor can anyone stop unemployed Egyptian labourers, including members of the Christian minority, from seeking work even in war-torn Libya. Most of the victims came from a dirt-poor Christian village in Upper Egypt, and they had to feed their families somehow.

So the Islamic State fanatics murdered them because killing Christians attracts recruits from a certain demographic. Then the Egyptian air force flailed out aimlessly, and the public relations boys wrote the usual guff about the air force being a shield for the people. So far, so tediously normal – but the whole event also serves the narrative of the Egyptian military regime.

We’re not supposed to call it a military regime. The military coup (with substantial popular support) that overthrew the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013 was allegedly just a brief detour from democracy. But the commander of the armed forces, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, ended up as president, and the promised parliamentary elections have still not happened.

Why not? The main excuse Egyptians are offered is that the government is too busy fighting a huge terrorist threat. And don’t mention that the terrorism is largely the regime’s own fault, or that the threat is not so big that normal political life must be suspended. People who say that have featured prominently among the 40,000 who have been arrested since July 2013. (16,000 are still in prison.)

What happened in Egypt twenty months ago was a betrayal of the democratic revolution of February 2011, when peaceful demonstrators forced former general Hosni Mubarak out after thirty years as president. Few of the urban, relatively well educated revolutionaries on Tahrir Square supported the Muslim Brotherhood, but they should not have been surprised when it won the first free election.

Ninety percent of Egyptians are Muslims, and most of them are deeply conservative rural people. They remembered that the Muslim Brotherhood had been Egypt’s main opposition party during the decades of dictatorship. They shared many of its values, and many of them had benefited from its social programmes for the poor.

They reckoned the Brothers deserved the first go in power, and gave it their votes. More secular people were appalled when the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated constituent assembly amended the constitution to give it more religious content, although the changes were not actually all that extreme. And they forgot that in a democracy, you can change the government by voting it out. You just have to wait for the next election.

Victory in the first post-revolution election was a poisoned apple for the Muslim Brotherhood. Every day its behaviour in power was alienating more people. The economy was a wreck (and still is). But the Brotherhood was not making irreversible changes in Egypt, so the right strategy was to wait it out, and then vote it out.

Instead, the naive and impatient revolutionaries made an alliance with the army to drive the elected government from power. Did they think that the army, despite sixty years of military dictators in Egypt, was a secret ally of democracy? General Sisi accepted their support, took over the government in 2013, and put President Morsi in jail. Shortly afterwards, he began putting the revolutionaries in jail too.

But Sisi needs some excuse for destroying Egypt’s democratic revolution, and the excuse is terrorism, the bigger the better. He declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, and when tens of thousands of non-violent supporters of the Brotherhood established a protest camp in Rabaa Square in Cairo he cleared it by force, killing at least 627 people by the government’s own count.

Human Rights Watch has documented at least 817 deaths, and suspects there were more than a thousand. It was, said an HRW report last August, a premeditated assault equal to or worse than the massacre of Chinese protesters on Tienanmen Square in Beijing in 1989. The purpose, as in 1989, was to cow the population into submission, and it is working in Egypt as well as it did in China.

Terrorism, real and imaginary, helps to distract attention at home and abroad from what actually happened in Egypt. Even before the ghastly slaughter of innocent Egyptians in Libya on Sunday, the US Congress had put military aid to Egypt back into this year’s budget proposal.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 13. (“Victory…out”; and “Human…China”)

Two New “Islamic States”

A coalition of imams and organisations representing British Muslims has written Prime Minister David Cameron asking him to stop using the phrase “Islamic State”when talking about the new country carved out of Iraq and Syria by Islamist terrorists. That’s what Abu Baqr al Baghdadi, who has proclaimed himself “the caliph of all Muslims and the prince of the believers,” calls his newly conquered territory, but it’s giving ordinary Muslims a bad name.

The British Muslim leaders declared that “the media, civic society and governments should refuse to legitimise these ludicrous caliphate fantasies by accepting or propagating this name. We propose that “UnIslamic State” (UIS) could be an accurate and fair alternate name to describe this group and its agenda – and we will begin to call it that.”

Good luck with that. But meanwhile two more “UnIslamic States” are being created right now, on Libyan and Nigerian territory: same black flags, same fanaticism and cruelty, even the same ski masks. (It’s a fashion statement.)

The city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in northeastern Nigeria, has more than two million people. It is surrounded by the forces of Boko Haram – the name roughly translates as “Western education is forbidden” – and most of the rest of Borno has already fallen under their rule. In fact, the whole north-eastern corner of Nigeria is passing out of the government’s control.

“At this very moment,” Alhaji Baba Ahmad Jidda, the secretary to the Borno state government, told The Independent newspaper last week, “most parts of Borno state are being occupied by Boko Haram insurgents. Government presence and administration is minimal, with economic, commercial and social services totally subdued. Schools and clinics remain closed.”

Boko Haram’s ultimate goal was the imposition of an Islamic state in Nigeria ever since it began active operations in 2009. It was in touch with al-Qaeda from the start, and later with the jihadi groups in Syria that subsequently turned into ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and finally into the “Islamic State” that now spans those two countries.

Only the northern half of Nigeria’s population is Muslim, so that was where Boko Haram’s murders and abductions were concentrated, although it also carried out terrorist bombings in the Christian parts of the country. 3,600 people were killed in these attacks in the four years to 2013, but then there was a major acceleration: 2,000 more people have been killed in just the first half of this year.

From about mid-July, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau also changed tactics: instead of hit-and-run raids, he started to take and hold territory. In August, after his fighters captured the town of Gwoza in Borno, he released a video declaring that the area was “now part of the Islamic Caliphate.” He now rules over about three million people in northeastern Nigeria and neighbouring Cameroon.

The Nigerian army rarely stands up to Boko Haram’s fighters. Like the Iraqi army, which ran from far smaller numbers of ISIS troops, it is corrupt and badly equipped, but it is also deeply penetrated by Boko Haram sympathisers: last June fifteen senior military officers were found guilty by court martial of passing arms and information to Boko Haram. So Abubakar Shekau may end up ruling much of northern Nigeria.

Libya is considerably further down the same track. A civil war broke out between the various militias left over from the 2011 campaign to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, the former dictator, shortly after the June election that might – just might – have produced a government that would try to disarm those militias. It has got so bad that almost a third of the Libya’s population, 1.8 million people, has fled the country, mostly seeking shelter in Tunisia.

The real divisions between these warring militias are regional and tribal, but a number of them have adopted extreme Islamist ideologies, partly because it guarantees a flow of arms and money from certain governments in the Gulf. These Islamist militias have emerged as the winners both in the savage fighting in western Libya around the capital, Tripoli, and also in the other major city, Benghazi, in the east.

In fact, Islamist militias with ISIS-style ideologies now control every city along the Libyan coast except Tobruk, a short distance from the Egyptian border. That is where the new parliament elected in June has taken refuge, and the parliament’s members are living on a hired Greek car ferry that is serving as a floating hotel. The front line starts just west of town – and the next town along the coast, Derna, has been declared an Islamic caliphate.

A lot of this is just ideological fashion, of course. The various “caliphates” are in touch with one another, after a fashion, but there is no master plan. However, the results are truly nasty both in Nigeria and in Libya – and the risk of over-reaction by those who feel threatened by these developments, especially in the West, is quite large.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9.  (“At…closed”; and “The Nigerian…Nigeria”)

The Framing of al-Megrahi

16 March 2014

The Framing of al-Megrahi

They lied, they’re still lying, and they’ll go on lying until Libya calms down enough to allow a thorough search of its archives. That’s what intelligence agencies do, and being angry at them for lying is like being angry at a scorpion for stinging. But we now KNOW that they lied about the Libyans planting the bomb on Pan Am flight 103 in December 1988.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan airline official who was convicted of placing the bomb aboard the plane and sentenced to 27 years in prison by a special international court in 2001, was freed from jail in 2009 and sent home, allegedly dying from cancer and with only three months to live. He eventually did die three YEARS later, but it was a very peculiar thing for  the Scottish government to do.

Megrahi was in a Scottish jail because Pan Am 103, en route from London to Detroit, had blown up over the Scottish village of Lockerbie, killing all 259 people aboard and eleven in the village below. But he clearly wasn’t dying when he was freed, and he had served less than a third of his sentence.

And there was something even more disturbing about the case. As a condition of his release, Megrahi was required to drop an appeal against his conviction that had been granted by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission in 2007.

The SCCRC listed no fewer than six grounds for serious concern about Megrahi’s conviction, including the fact that the US Justice Department made an undisclosed payment of $3 million to two Maltese citizens whose evidence had linked Megrahi with the suitcase that contained the bomb.  If the appeal had gone ahead, Megrahi’s conviction would probably have been quashed.

That would have been deeply embarrassing for the Scottish authorities, especially since the evidence suggested there had been a deliberate attempt to frame the Libyan. But they did have the power to delay the hearing of his appeal for a very long time, and al-Megrahi was not a well man. So one can imagine a bargain being struck: his freedom for his silence.

Megrahi never stopped protesting his innocence, but he did withdraw his appeal, so the new evidence was never heard in court, his conviction was never cancelled, and nobody was embarrassed. But why did the intelligence agencies pick on him in the first place?

Because they had to abandon their first working hypothesis, which was that Pan Am 103 was destroyed in late 1988 as tit-for-tat Iranian revenge for the accidental shooting down of an Iran Air plane with 290 people aboard by the US warship Vincennes earlier that year.
Since the Iranians didn’t have people in the right places with the right skills to do this job, US intelligence calculated, they paid some Palestinian terrorists to do it. The US even fingered the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, headed by Ahmed Jibril, as the ones who took the contract.

But the investigation moved slowly, and 20 months after Pan Am 103 went down, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. The US was mobilising a coalition of Western and Arab armies to liberate Kuwait, and it wanted Syria to be part of it. But Syria was Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, so this was not the right time to get into a confrontation with Iran.

Nevertheless, somebody had to be punished or the intelligence services would look incompetent. The people who carried out the bombing for Iran had made some rudimentary attempts to put the blame on Libya, and the security services now started using that evidence to frame Megrahi. The evidence was full of holes, but the Libyan’s defence team did a poor job of exposing them, and he was convicted anyway.

The reason his defence team did so badly may have been that the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafy, had made a deal: in order to be released from a crippling trade embargo, he would admit the blame for the Pan Am bombing and pay compensation to the families of the victims. For that deal to stand, Megrahi had to go down. A few threats to his family back in Libya would have persuaded him to sabotage his own defence.

But with the appeal that would have exposed the truth smothered, all this remained mere conjecture until last week, when the al-Jazeera network broadcast an interview with Abolghassem Mesbahi, a former Iranian intelligence officer. Mesbahi,  who once reported directly to the Iranian president, said it quite plainly: Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, gave direct orders for the destruction of an American airliner after the Vincennes incident in 1988.

So the original hypothesis was correct, and the Western security services probably always knew it was correct. They don’t care; the case is closed, and with Megrahi’s appeal cancelled it will never be re-opened. But it is worth noting that he was an innocent man, not a mass murderer, and that his life was cynically destroyed by the same people who brought us the invasion of Iraq, mass surveillance, and so much more.
To shorten to 725 words, open paragraphs 9 and 12.  (“Since…contract”; and “The reason…defence”)