Our Changing Understanding of Terrorism

As a sage of my acquaintance (who has been in the game a lot longer than I have) noted at a recent conference on counter terrorism (I paraphrase):

“We used to think terrorism was about numbers: numbers killed, numbers injured, even numbers just inconvenienced in their daily lives. 9/11 put paid to that: there won’t be another terrorist attack that kills over 3000 people, not until a terror group gets its hands on a weapon of mass destruction or gets hideously lucky.

“We began to think that acts of terror were about exploiting the symbiotic relationship between terrorist groups and the news media in an increasingly interconnected and instantaneous information landscape as a force multiplier to offset the overwhelming advantages that governments, militaries and other big institutions have in a conventional confrontation. The line between terrorists and the media was often blurry in our eyes.

“But we are beginning to view acts of terror differently again. Terrorism should perhaps be seen as not being not about numbers or about headlines. Terrorism is about the response it draws out from institutions and from the individually terrorised members of the population. The symbiotic relationship to terrorists with which we used to tar the news media now exists equally between terrorist groups, institutions and populations as well.”

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

If you’re about to comment on the Westminster Attack…

The symbolic image of the Westminster Attack: the attacker is given medical treatment by the emergency services

If you’re about to comment on Westminster attack, pause: imagine what the terrorists behind the attack would like you to post.
Anti-immigrant? Tick.

Anti-refugee? Tick.

Anti-Islamic? Tick.

This is a war? Tick.

Anniversary of Bruxelles attack? Tick.

Our tragedy is greater than your tragedy? Tick.

This is the UK’s/the US’s/Europe’s/the Arab governments’ fault? Tick.
Don’t let the terrorists work you like a ventriloquist’s doll. Unless, of course, you enjoy having someone’s hand up your arse.

[This is an updated version of a posting from November 2015, written in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. I suspect I might have cause to update it again. And again. And again.]

al-Shabaab Spokesman Ali Dheere Speaks – and the Somali People Respond

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In January 2017, the al-Shabaab spokesman, Ali Dheere, spoke to AJE’s Hamza Mohamed (although the interview itself was released through a Somali Diaspora online news channel called Dalsoor). The first part is here and the second here.

About a month later, two cheap-and-cheery locally produced products appeared, challenging Ali Dheere’s comments on the bombings of hotels (here) and the bombings of public places such as markets (here). The products experienced a surge in views this week in the aftermath of the bombing of the Wehliye Hotel on Mogadishu’s Makka ul Mukarama Road.

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The products are slightly clumsy and the English subtitles, which mimic the English subtitling of the original interview, might ring alarm bells for some, but it is nonetheless interesting to see the Somali people feeling confident enough to speak out openly against al-Shabaab.

Hmmm… -4: Lessons Unlearned

Many years ago we realised that violent extremism isn’t exclusive to Islam and that specifically targeting Muslims at home and abroad with a broad, punitive brush was exactly what al-Qa’ida and then ISIS/Da’esh wanted us to do. We also realised that civilian casualties outweigh any gain kinetic counter terrorism operations might offer and are to be avoided. 



If you want to know what is going on in Syria, ask a Syrian – 2

Another share from my good friend, the Syrian photographer and activist, Sima Diab:

From Hiba Dlewati who eloquently says the words that only come out in tears, anger and cursing from me.

“I read the news, and I can’t get over all the headlines of Aleppo ‘falling’ this week. People fall before cities. Syrians broke the wall of silence in 2011 but it brought us crashing down with it long before this week.

“Aleppo ‘fell’ when three medical students bodies’ were found burned to death after being detained by government forces for volunteering at a field hospital. If “fell” when helicopters releasing barrels full of explosives on opposition-held neighborhoods became the norm. Aleppo ‘fell’ when blasts killed 83 students at the university and both sides accused each other. It ‘fell’ when rebels started killing people just for living on the other side of the city. Aleppo ‘fell’ when islamists targeted Kurdish neighborhoods and it ‘fell’ when YPG snipers targeted families fleeing from opposition areas on the Castello Road. It ‘fell’ when Russian and government airstrikes caused 80,000 people to flee their homes in the freezing winter towards a closed Turkish border. It ‘fell’ when so many of its youth, so many of its best, bravest and brightest were arrested and tortured and disappeared and killed and exiled. Aleppo ‘fell’ when a quarter million people were besieged for six months with no access to food or medical supplies because the government decided they lived on the wrong side of the city. It ‘fell’ when international aid organizations were too afraid to do their work there and yet also cut off funding to their grassroots partners who were still willing to take the risk. Aleppo ‘fell’ when it became normal for hospitals to operate beneath the ground because they’d be less likely to be found and destroyed by government and allied forces. It ‘fell’ when a day after the government attacked a hospital in the east, rebels attacked a hospital in the west.

“Syria ‘fell’ when its government allowed foreign militias who self-identify with a religious sect, to fight the war on its own people, igniting sectarian and regional conflicts for years to come. The rebels of course did the same, taking away the agency of Syrian fighters and civilians – regardless of which side – to reach any sort of ceasefire or settlement on their own without the approval of their regional, competing overlords.

“People don’t stay at war because they don’t know any better, or because they don’t learn. People stay at war because the people with power learn they can get away with it and the people without power realize they can’t get out of it. Don’t you dare judge residents of eastern Aleppo for refusing to ‘flee’ or ‘evacuate’ to government-held areas before this offensive out of fear of what was on the other side. Unless you’ve actually been detained by Syrian security forces, you don’t know what it feels like to disappear; to be stripped and beaten and held and violated and burned and diminished into gray, so much gray, until you fall. Your body is real. Spare me the spiritual optimism of the soul transcending and getting justice in some after life. Bodies are real and they break, people break, families break, and they fall before city walls do.

“And we are broken.

“This is not happening all of a sudden and if the news has caught you by surprise, well, then you just haven’t been following it. The ‘media’ that too many always love to blame has covered Aleppo and Syria tirelessly – although not perfectly – but the information is there and if you still confuse a social media website with a news source then that’s your own shortcoming, and I don’t have the time to catch you up on everything you’ve missed. And it’s painfully clear that we will soon see the same large-scale massacres in other Syrian cities as the government continues to “cleanse” the country. Let us mourn because that’s all we have left. For people asking me how to help, I have no idea what could realistically help Syria but you can help Syrians in need by donating to an organization you trust.”


If you want to know what is going on in Syria, ask a Syrian – 1

A share from my good friend, the Syrian photographer and activist, Sima Diab Kassem:

For the people who keep tagging me or sending me that dumb Eva Bartlett propaganda bullshit asking me to explain it, this is my answer- I don’t want to see that idiot woman’s face in my inbox or my name tagged under any of her crap:

1)  I’m not in the mood to explain who this woman named Eva Bartlett is – because she’s a professional propagandist. She is not a journalist as she claims.

2) If people until today don’t understand that Assad, Russia and Iran are creating misinformation to confuse a public so people can remain dumb, twisting events to suit their narrative – I’m not going to explain it to them

3) If those same people are convinced that he’s done nothing wrong and is fighting terrorists while not dropping a single bomb on ISIS then I’m not going to engage in a conversation

4) If people are only condemning the west’s imperialism by citing US intervention in Iraq, but not seeing that Russia and Iran are also an invading force, I’m not going to participate in that hypocrisy

5) If 12 million displaced and half a million killed is not enough for people to be convinced that Assad is not a leader but a maniacal dictator, then I won’t be privy to explaining what a dictator is

6) I’m one Syrian. I don’t speak for all Syrians, but every single Syrian I know has had a family member killed, tortured, arrested, exiled or have become refugees. There’s no leader in the world that deserves to stay in power if that’s the situation of your country.

7) If you only care now for Aleppo and you don’t know about Baniyas, Douma, Hama, Homs, then I’m not going to give a recap of history.



And what I mean by read, is actual news sources not bullshit conspiracy websites.

And if you don’t believe in the professional media, then stay ignorant.


View Sima Diab’s photography here

What Happened? The Wabeeri Market Bombing

L-R: Bomb-maker; Remote Operator; Planner; Bomb-maker; Driver/Suicide-bomber; and an officer from NISA, the National Intelligence & Security Agency

‘THE history of a battle is not unlike the history of a ball,’ said the Duke of Wellington. ‘Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.’ Equally true would be any attempt to describe a terrorist atrocity.

Saturday’s attempted attack by an al-Shabaab suicide car bomber in Mogadishu targeting – depending upon who your source is – the Somali Police Force Academy or the Presidential motorcade is a prime example. In both versions, the operation went dramatically wrong, with the bomber getting lost and having to ask Somali security forces for directions to the target.

The security forces were on a heightened state of alert anyway, because of the President’s visit to a nearby college. But they were wary of the man anyway:  clearly not a resident of the city, his disorientated, dishevelled state and pronounced limp aroused their suspicions. He was identified by a female shopkeeper as the driver of a parked vehicle, but denied it was his. As an officer investigated the vehicle (which was parked some distance away), the explosives in the car were detonated.

It is also unclear at this point if the man himself detonated the device or if an accomplice initiated the bomb by remote control. (Terrorists often deploy a back-up operative with a remote control in case the suicide bomber, as often happens, has a last minute change of heart.)

The driver of the vehicle was immediately taken into custody and a number of arrests were made at a garage in the city where he claimed the attack had been planned and the car bomb assembled.

Putting aside the amateurishness of the attack, which possibly represents al-Shabaab’s difficulty in finding willing, competent attackers from amongst its dwindling ranks, the human tragedy of the attack stands out, even in a city that has suffered regular and horrifying attacks. Many men and women, shopkeepers and customers, the passengers of a crowded mini-bus, a number of children from nearby schools, were killed. (There was a particularly poignant image on Twitter of some shredded jotters – but it could have been taken anywhere, at any time.) The driver of a passing petrol tanker was killed, but fortunately the tanker itself did not explode, otherwise the death toll would have been even greater. The exact numbers are still unclear and it is not the business of this blog to perform al-Shabaab’s Battle Damage Assessment for it anyway. Suffice to say dozens of casualties.

Al-Shabaab rationalises its attacks using the perverted logic of ‘legitimate targets’ – proximity to a target justifies the deaths of the hapless civilians who happen to be nearby. If you hang around with politicians, security forces, foreigners, then you deserve to die along with them, says al-Shabaab. But how can al-Shabaab justify this atrocity? It is unsurprising that their spokesmen have been unusually silent in the aftermath of this attack, despite it clearly being their handiwork.

One positive did come out of the attack: within hours the market was functioning again, albeit with a few sheets of corrugated iron a bit bent here and there. By the next day no sign could be found of the attack. (I would post a photo but the market always looks like a bomb had gone off in it. A lot of markets do.)

Despite its proclamations, Al-Shabaab’s war is not with the government, the security forces or the international community: it is a war on the population. And the population has proven itself to be consistently, unconquerably resilient.

Continuity and Change: The Evolution and Resilience of al-Shabab’s Media Insurgency 2006-2016 by Chris Anzalone

Quality analysis of al-Shabaab’s communications by Chris Anzalone of the International Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University:


There is also an associated podcast, also featuring Dr. Stig Jarle Hansen and moderated by Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council.


I Remember, I Remember

Maysaan province, Iraq 2006

It’s always the popular ones who get done, of course. But Rich actually was – a superb all-round soldier, a Captain in the Parachute Regiment who had been on attachment to the Highlanders and so was well known to two of the three regiments who were present in Maysaan (as part of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Battlegroup). And he took the ‘please kidnap and hideously murder me’ job, liaison officer to the police headquarters in Amarah, and made something of it. He boxed (as most paratroopers do because of the place of milling, a non-stop, high-intensity version of boxing they use in their selection process) so we had something in common and he was just easy to get on with anyway (not always the case with the Parachute Regiment).

To foil the campaign of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices – what the media inaccurately refers to as ‘roadside bombs’ because they aren’t necessarily planted by the side of the road or even on the road for that matter), we would front up our convoys with tracked, heavily armoured Warriors, followed by the lightly armoured, wheeeled Snatch Land Rover. But as fast as we changed our tactics, the other side would respond and the dog-fight continued. We had put heavier armour at the front of the convoys: the devices became larger, eventually taking out Warriors and Challenger tanks alike (but that was during later tours by which time I had hung up my uniform and moved north to the ‘Dad). Or the other side would revert to something simple like a claymore mine, simply peppering the exposed top-cover troops (the ones who protrude through the roof space of vehicles) with hypersonic ball-bearings. The fundamental asymmetric nature of an insurgency means it is the more intelligent, creatively agile force that wins, rather than the largest, better trained or the best equipped.

That day the other side went back to using a command-wire detonated device, allowing them to select which vehicle in the convoy to target – the second vehicle, a lightly armoured Snatch, not the heavily armoured Warrior that led the convoy.

A squat barrel of thick metal (usually iron), packed with explosives, topped with a convex disc of copper, dug into one of the numerous earth mounds or rubbish heaps that adorned the roadsides of Iraq and Afghanistan. The other side had learnt to tilt it slightly upwards, otherwise all that happened was that the wheels of the vehicle were taken out. Now, once the device was laid, the centre of the convex lid pointed straight into the cab of the vehicle.

Explosives upon detonation are like flowing water: they can be channelled. So the heavy iron casing drives the brunt of the explosive force forward through the copper lid, which melts in an instant and forms a bolt of liquid metal.

The eruption rocked the 24-ton Warrior at the front of the convoy forward on its tracks: they thought they had either gone over a mine or been hit from behind by an RPG. After the roar of the detonation, a cloud of dust shrouded the Snatch behind the Warrior.

‘I can’t describe the fookin thing goin’ aff, boss, it was the fookin loudest thing I’ve ever heard in ma life,’ said Taff.

Like the entry of a demon,’ I commented. ‘It’s from a Second World War poem by a guy called Keith Douglas. He died in late ’44 in Normandy.’

‘Yes, that was what it was like, like the entry of a fookin demon,’ said Taff.

Taff was one of my gang, was in the Snatch behind Rich’s and, once the dust cloud settled and everyone had done their own checks (universally ‘Thank f*ck’ followed by a swaggering, ‘Beat you again, Abdul’), he got out and walked forward into the haze. Only one of the two top-cover (the soldiers who stick their heads – and weapons – out the roof of the vehicle for better observation) was still up: the back doors were open and the two dismounts were in the process of falling out the back. Taff looked in the back – the other top-cover was holding his arm up and moaning because he had taken a couple of fragments under his arm. But the four in the back were okay. They would live.

And then Taff saw the front of the vehicle.

The front suspension had collapsed, the wheels splayed outwards.

‘Like the legs of a baby giraffe’, Taff commented – why he was thinking of giraffes I’ll never know, but then again he wasn’t planning on being a writer at a later point so probably didn’t feel the need to have lines of running imagery. Maybe I had started him feeling all poetic, like. Maybe poetry, which I was always so disparaging of as a teacher (‘poetry is for poofs’, as I used to tell my adoring pupils), is the only medium intense enough to capture what he saw.

The forward passenger side of the Snatch was blackened from the blast. And there was a fist-sized hole punched in the door, just below the window. Taff pulled the buckled door off.

It’s gloomy enough in the cab of a Snatch. The windows are armoured, which means the actual (toughened) glass sections are smaller. There is a thick wire mesh over the windows to protect against bricks, stones and the other gifts the locals flung us as we passed by. The whole cab is lined in a fire-retardant fabric that is akin to black canvas. Everything is caked in dust anyway.

But this time it was darker still – dark red.

A pair of legs from the knee down, a helmet with the top half of a head still in it, a buckled, pointless rifle…. A less mangled body in the foetal position in the driver’s seat. That was Ellis, Rich’s driver.

I didn’t get much more out of Taff – a mish-mash of images. Rent-a-mob appearing soon afterwards and starting to brick the reeling troops… The cheering from the crowd as the bodies were loaded onto the casevac helicopter… Taff disarming one of the dismounts from the back of Rich’s vehicle who was ‘gonna light up the fukin crowd’ with the General Purpose Machine Gun… The pop of baton rounds being fired into the crowd by the follow-up cordon troops (and the ‘thock’ as they hit)… The heavy tarpaulin being hauled over the ripped up Snatch (not the sort of thing you want sitting around camp when you are still expecting troops to go out in them)…

Things were different after that.

Shezzer changed when he got back from leave. Rich was his platoon commander. He was resilient – he had to be with the stammer he had, in the intolerant world of the Parachute Regiment . But he had pervious: he went a bit strange after his first tour of Iraq. (Shezzer got home, got sloshed and then shaved off all his body hair. Naked, he then broke into his brother’s house and hid on top of the wardrobe, only revealing himself when his brother and his Mrs were hard at it, at which point Shezzer launched himself on top of them. Luckily his brother was also in the Parachute Regiment and his Mrs’ father had been, so they understood.)

His humour went. The wit that had seen him say, in response to an Iraqi schoolgirl’s request that he marry her, ‘No weddin’, sweetheart, but you can smoke my pole if you want’ was lost for the rest of the tour. Now every time he saw a local he screamed ‘Them’s the BASTARDS what killed Richie!’ We had trouble when he wouldn’t allow the locally employed civilians to have plastic plates and cutlery in the cookhouse because he wanted to make them eat off the floor.

In the cookhouse the night before, I had sat with Rich and others, talking about this and that – football (we were a gaggle of un-officerly officers, preferring football to rugby and so on), cars (he and his doctor wife had just invested in a couple of flash ones), music, favourite songs.

I had said Olive’s ‘You’re Not Alone’.

And Rich had said David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’. It’s a song I can’t listen to anymore.

Vergissmeinicht’: ‘don’t forget me’. The name of the Keith Douglas poem I quoted to Taff as he struggled to describe what he had seen.

Forget? We should be so f*cking lucky. We would if we could.

We remember. We remember.

Images from TELIC 6 notebook