What’s in a Name?

Why are we calling a group that is neither Islamic nor a state ‘the Islamic State’?

Daesh flag

ANOTHER day, another conference on counter terrorism, or whatever we’re calling it this week. I’ve been on the circuit long enough to know the format: academic presentations, some of which are insightful, some statistical, some irrelevant, some just plain bizarre; a chance to learn the latest buzzwords, keep up with the latest fads (COIN – out, CVE – in); the social side, where the real business is done; and a nice break in a nice hotel in a nice city (Rome, Riga, Lisbon, Abu Dhabi and, on this occasion, Ankara). Oh, and the obligatory participant with a tangential point to make, a drum to beat throughout the conference/workshop/course.


Except this time, while the point is made regularly throughout the conference like the chiming of the clock, it is not tangential. If anything, it is fundamental to the discussion of counter terrorism right now and it comes, appropriately, from a Tunisian army officer, and is echoed variously by Turkish, Pakistani and Jordanian participants. We need to stop calling ‘it’ the Islamic State.


I normally prickle at the use of ‘we’ (in my experience ‘we need to do something’ usually means I end up having to do a lot of work) but my Tunisian comrade is correct – it is the collective ‘we’ who are at fault, the westerners dealing directly with terrorism or violent extremism or whatever we’re calling it this week. Western militaries, western governments, western media all default onto ‘Islamic State’ or ‘ISIS’ (the Islamic State in Iraq & Syria or the Shams) or ISIL (the Islamic State in the Levant). They’re relatively accurate translations of the term the group uses for itself in Arabic, ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī ‘l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām. (It’s currently cool to call them ‘Da’esh’, an acronym of the latter which is also close in sound to an Arabic word meaning ‘destructive’ and which will get you your tongue cut out if you use it in Da’esh controlled areas.)


This isn’t a new discussion. But what is new is that this is first time I have heard a group of Muslims, many of whom live next door to Da’esh, discuss how to refer to the group. It is quite clear that the Muslim participants, all of whom seem very westernised and liberal in their interpretation of Islam (like most of the many Muslims I know), are nonetheless offended that westerners routinely recognise this particular group as being both Islamic and also a state.


It’s a very pertinent point, bearing in mind the fact that, while we drop the occasional bomb and train some people here and there, Tunisia, Turkey, Jordan et al are the ones who will be doing the dirty work in combating these groups. For many of these countries, this is an existential threat: for us, it is not. (We would be doing a lot more if western society was actually facing an existential threat, even if media commentators tell you otherwise during their paid-for rants.)


What should we call it then? There are a wealth of suggestions from the participants: the Un-Islamic State (I thought of that one – no-one else liked it, but I’m writing the blog piece so it gets a mention); the Iraq-Syria Border Terrorists (although better if we could get an insulting acronym out of it); and the Baghdadi Gang (nice because it reduces it to an individual, to a criminal gang).


But Da’esh seems most acceptable to the Muslim participants. Da’esh is what the group is known as routinely in my own neck of the terrorism woods, Somalia as well.


‘But will the western media be able to pronounce it?’ asks a western academic who studies the western media in a western university. The Arabic letter ‘ayn’ is a back-of-the-throat sound and is generally rendered as an apostrophe when transliterated in English (‘da’esh’ pronounced ‘da-quick pause-esh’, ‘qa’ida‘ pronounced ‘ka-quick pause-ih-da’). But that’s quite an ask for the western meeja, so ‘qa’ida’ becomes ‘ka-yee-da’ (close to ‘coyote’, so more pronouncable). Hence ‘ISIS’ or ‘ISIL’ or just plain old ‘Islamic State’. (Let’s ignore, for the moment, the fact that I’m sure those meeja folks can manage to properly pronounce paella and rioja in the tapas bar near the studio once they’re off air.)


The point is that ‘we’, the westerners in the meeja, the military, the government and on the western street, should flex our tongues and our cheeks and our throats in a more constructive manner than we usually do, and stop calling ‘them’ the Islamic State and jihadis and Islamic terrorists. We’re insulting the people who are living with and fighting the threat. Our hundreds killed are their hundreds of thousands. No-one referred to the Irish Republican Army as ‘Catholic Terrorists’ (except maybe in a few Shankhill pubs and UDR drinking clubs) though the majority were Catholics. We didn’t routinely credit the virtual no-go areas of Belfast or Derry or South Armagh as being states. It’s akin to the way we used to racialise crime. So why are we treating the threat from al-Qa’ida and Da’esh differently?


This sits within a bigger problem, the flaw with what the academics call our ‘meta-narrative’ (the big, unifying story our leaders and influencers are telling us). A luminary of my acquaintance, Paul Bell, explained it well in his speech, ‘ISIS and Violent Extremism: Is the West’s Counter-Narrative Making the Problem Worse?’, delivered at the Hedayah Institute in Abu Dhabi (another one of those workshop/conference/courses).


Yes, there is a threat, and Francois Hollande is allowed to call it a ‘war’ when he is interviewed in the immediate aftermath of an attack. He’s French and they’re emotional. But it is not a war for us, it is not a threat to our existence. It is for the people we are inadvertently but consistently offending by Islamicising the problem and giving credit to a gang of terrorists, sadists and criminals who happen to control a bit of territory – for the moment.


So say after me, ‘Da-esh, Da-esh, Da-esh…’






The Attack That Never Was

Bodies on the beach


ON the morning of December 14th reports appeared of a foiled attack on MIA (Mogadishu International Airport), the airport complex in Mogadishu, a city within a city that houses the various manifestations of the UN, the military and political headquarters of the African Union mission in Somalia (‘AMISOM’) various embassies and the obligatory post-conflict zone mixture of security, construction and logistics contractors. Reporting indicated that an attempt had been made to infiltrate the camp from the sea (the runway runs along the shore) but that AMISOM forces had thwarted the amphibious assault, now credited to al-Shabaab.

I rang around the usual suspects. One had heard banging in the early hours but thought it was doors slamming as boys and girls do what boys and girls do in post-conflict zones the world over (some even believing that relationships survive the end of rotation). Another had been told it was Danab, the Somali special forces, doing a night shoot down on the firing range that faces out to sea.

More details emerged: up to five boats, each with ten fighters, had been fought off. Turkish Airlines, which had shown unrivalled daring in being the only international carrier to add Mogadishu to its long list of routes, apparently suspended flights. In the run-up to Christmas and with al-Shabaab’s tradition of mounting attacks on MIA at Christmas (an indirect fire attack on Christmas Day in 2013, a bloody complex attack on Christmas Day 2014), everyone was in a heightened state of alert anyway.

But al-Shabaab didn’t claim the attack. Normally, and without giving them anything akin to credit, respect or honour, al-Shabaab normally claims credit for its attacks, successful or failed, especially the high profile attacks. And, after the obligatory 48 hours that it takes for the alternative view to manifest itself in the media, pretty soon AMISOM was being accused of mounting a deception.

Military deception as a discipline is something I happen to know about, having practiced it a long time ago in Iraq, while based on the Iranian border in Maysaan province. In one of those funny moves the military often makes in the game of chess that is your career, I attended a course on Military Deception ten years after actually doing it for real (I attended the Psychological Operations course at the end of my operational tour in Psychological Operations, so this wasn’t by any means an aberration).

My chum, Colonel Dougie, who was running the course on Military Deception, puzzled me when he gave a health warning before the practical element of the course, noting that some previous students had found themselves becoming quite worked up during the exercise.

About two hours later I was quite worked up in my tweed suit (I was no longer in uniform by this time, although I gave I nod to my past by wearing a regimental tie, which was angrily askew): I was the student Colonel Dougie described. I was infuriated by my uniform-sporting colleagues’ lack of creativity, bemused by their unwillingness to get downright dirty, livid at their risk aversion.

In Iraq we had had a problem: the other side were constantly using indirect fire, mortaring and rocketing, against us. While we had never lost anyone to indirect fire in this particular location, it was wearing down the troops with the constant ‘INCOMING! INCOMING!’ alarms, donning body armour and helmets, crouched in close, darkened bunkers for hours at a time, all done in the knowledge that on one occasion the other side might actually get lucky.

My special little band had the task of doing something about it. (It was us who had briefed the commander on the morale problem he had: so it was only fitting we try to fix it.) We tried a lot of things, and one of them was military deception. A Lithuanian officer in headquarters was apparently an expert in military deception: he was sent up to assist. (The boys couldn’t master his name, so he was known as ‘Boris’.)

We mounted the old washing machine Boris had brought with him on the roof of our block with a satellite dish stuck to the top of it and fenced off the compound. (We filled the barrel of the washing machine with concrete to slow down the cycle and to stop the dish flying off and beheading some random locals fifteen few miles away.) We waited.

There was a pause in the rocketing, a long pause. One of the locally employed civilian cleaners was caught with a video camera: his footage was of the block and the washing machine/satellite dish combo. We had got their attention, certainly.

That wasn’t all we did, of course. The boys patrolled nightly, deliberately being seen near known firing points. We considered faking the destruction of a mocked up rocket team but were dissuaded. We nearly called in an airstrike on what appeared to be a mortar team (but which turned out to be some men stealing some pipes). We bought ourselves a few lulls, and then the mortaring and the rocketing would begin again.

But deception can and does work. The Allies diverted the German High Command’s attention from Sicily to Greece by planting fake documents on a body dumped at sea for the Germans to find, and then invaded Sicily famously recounted in ‘The Man Who Never Was’. D-Day preparations included grand deceptions to deceive the Germans about the likely beachheads. Iraqi forces in 1991 expected an amphibious assault on Kuwait but instead received a land based out-flanking manoeuvre. But the danger of deception in the modern age is credibility. The deception used in 1991 Gulf War both used and compromised the news media, who had dutifully focussed their cameras on Marines and amphibious assault craft. Whether such deceptions would be possible now is debatable, when everything is recordable (see Bellingcat’s tracking of the Buk launcher that allegedly fired the missile that downed flight MH17) but nothing is believable. Truth has become selective truth. Perception has become reality. Perhaps the pre-eminence of credibility, combined with our built-in risk aversion, means deception is no longer viable.

As it happens, I know that stretch of coastline very well, having been in Mogadishu on and off since Christmas 2009. It was always viewed as being relatively safe (as opposed to the city facing side of the camp) because of the jagged coral and the volcanic rock formations that run all the way along that stretch – I used to go and paint watercolours there at the end of the day. Rumour (of which there is never a shortage in either Somalia or in the post-conflict environment generally) had it that a western special forces unit (ibid – they used to run past me while I was painting the same coastline again and again) had attempted a nocturnal landing and, while they had managed it, it was a significant challenge for them, even with all their canoes and night vision goggles and years of crawling out of torpedo tubes and up the legs of oil rigs.

There is a Somali saying, ‘the Somali stands with his back to the sea’, meaning they are a generally landward-looking race. Even now it’s not uncommon to find Somalis who don’t eat fish or who can’t swim and the maritime wealth of the longest coast on mainland Africa is still relatively untapped. But there are a few fishermen and, of course, there were, for a while, more than a few pirates.

But a few fishermen and more than a few pirates does not easily translate into an amphibious assault capability for al-Shabaab. The pirates have been driven away by an international blockade and armed guards on ships. The fishermen sail by the stars and occasionally, on moonless nights, like December 14th, they have to navigate by the coastline. On the occasions when they happen to pick the coastline along MIA to fix their position and head homewards, they get a few warning shots and are sent on their way. Perhaps that is what actually happened.

There is another Somali saying: the truth can never catch up with a widely-spread lie. In the information age, I wouldn’t be so sure.



The image of the stencilled bodies on the Normandy beaches comes from a memorial to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day. ©rossparry.co.uk syndication/Daily Mail











Hmmm… – 1

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 06.38.16Interesting that the la-la who wakes up in the US and decides he/she wants to be a jihadi tools up with assault rifles, pistols, body armour and pipe bombs – while their UK brethren (because they are all symbiotically linked, ye ken?) has to make do with a steaky bought from Morrison’s. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, isn’t there? Read the story/watch the video here.


‘Hmmm…’ is a series of short observations, too long for Twitter, too short for a proper posting.