And here is my RT interview, done just as the story was breaking last Sunday, on which my last post was based:
This morning I was invited on to RT to do an interview about the breaking story of a mass shooting that occurred last night at a nightclub in Florida in the USA. You will, no doubt, have seen the headlines by now – the biggest mass shooting in modern American history.
At the time, as the news was breaking, I was somewhat puzzled about what I could contribute – surely this was just another ghastly massacre by the usual gun-toting crazy that America seems to spawn so regularly? After all, it seems that the Second Amendment is the last right standing from the US constitution, after all the others have been eviscerated as a result of the “war on terror” and the social friction caused by the financial melt-down of the US economy?
However, with a little thought on a mellow European Sunday, I could see a number of threads coming together, which I explored during the interview. I would like to develop some of them further in this article.
At the time I was interviewed, few hard facts had been confirmed about the shooting – merely a conservative estimate of the number of dead and wounded, and the fact the gunman had been killed. Everything else was pure speculation. That did not stop much of the Western media from jumping to conclusions – that this must be an ISIS-inspired attack and therefore Muslim terrorism, by our current Western definition.
I have a problem with this current usage. When working as an intelligence officer with MI5 in the 1990s – at the height of the religious civil war being waged between the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland, our working definition was that “terrorism” was the use of violence to achieve political aims. So “terrorism” has never been a purely Muslim-originated concept, no matter how the USA has chosen to define it since 9/11.
The reason I am making this rather obvious point is that the USA, particularly, has always engendered some rather unsavoury domestic “terrorist” groups, motivated by Christian or cult fanaticism – think the Branch Davidians, or the Christian fundamentalists murdering doctors and blowing up abortion clinics, or white supremacists terrorising black communities or blowing up FBI offices such as the Oklahoma bombing of 1995, which was initially blamed on Middle Eastern terrorism. If that is not the use of violence to achieve political aims, then our intelligence agencies need to change the definition of terrorism.
As the shootings in the Pulse nightclub in Florida specifically targeted a LGBT crowd, it is just as feasible that the gunman could have fundamentalist Christian beliefs that urged him to target this community as some ISIS-inspired jihadi. After all, we have seen similar attacks in the UK, with the London nail bomber targeting gay nightclubs in 1999.
Yet the former is, to this day, widely seen as a mass killing, a “rampage shooter” or a madman, and treated as a criminal, whereas a Muslim committing the same acts for similarly bigoted reasons is automatically deemed to be a terrorist. And we all know that “terrorism” is a unique form of “eviltude” that immediately exposes the suspect to greater legal penalties at the very least and assassination at the worst end of the scale, US citizen or not.
Terrorism is a crime – pure and simple – and it should be treated as a crime. Muslim suspects of such crimes should not be kidnapped, tortured, held in isolation for years, or subject to military tribunals with no real right to defence, any more than Christian, atheist or any other suspects should be. Nor should specifically “Muslim” terrorism be the excuse used to strip away all our basic and hard-won civic freedoms and human rights in our own countries, yet that is what has been happening in the unending “war on terror”.
The UK went through this debate in the 1980s and 1990s – at the height of the Provisional IRA and Loyalist paramilitary bombing campaigns across the UK – which was another religious-based terrorist war, as I mentioned before. It also – at least from the PIRA side, received the bulk of its funding from the American Irish diaspora. In fact, despite the peace process in Northern Ireland signed with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, this funding from America only finally dried up in the aftermath of 9/11.
And what of the third point in the title – the mental health issue? I mention this because there was a recent case in London of a knife-wielding man frenziedly attacking commuters in an underground railway station last year. The reporting at the time declared that he had been shouting “this is for Syria” – as he attacked his fellow travellers. At the time everyone assumed he was another radicalised jihadi carrying out a lone wolf attack. Indeed, even people at the scene seemed convinced. One witness cried out “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv“, a heartfelt sentiment that went viral over social media.
This story was headline news in the UK at the time. The trial recently reached its conclusion, and it now appears that the perpetrator had serious mental health issues. These may have latched onto jihadi terminology, but the motivation was not terroristic.
The guy probably needed an earlier intervention by health professionals, but he slipped through the cracks. That does not make him a terrorist though – no matter what he said in his frenzy – and yet this conclusion certainly did not get the front page headlines the initial attack received.
Let us also look at the so-called “lone wolf” attacks that have happened across Western countries over the last few years – in Canada, London, Australia, the USA, Denmark – as well as the Paris and Brussels attacks. Many of the protagonists were already on the radar of the Western intelligence agencies, but because they are drowning in a tsunami of information garnered for the mass surveillance of us all, these crucial nuggets of real intelligence were swamped.
Even worse, it appears that many of the people subsequently fingered as the perpetrators had already been approached by the intelligence agencies, as appears to be the case in Florida too.
So, how does this all come together? There is not doubt that genuine psychopaths or sadists are attracted to terrorist as well as criminal gangs to give free rein to their tendencies – ISIS is an absolutely horrifying example of this. But the ideology of such groups can also attract from a distance the mentally fragile, who can become useful idiots or delusional followers, or vulnerable individuals who can even be manipulated by law enforcement. Add into the mix fundamentalist religion, cult, or racial supremacy beliefs and it all gets too messy, too fast.
And yet…. all these groups use terror to achieve their goals, but only a few are deemed to be terrorists rather than criminals – and we all know now that anyone labelled a terrorist faces far higher penalties than these other categories of crime.
Intelligence agencies are there to protect our national security – ie our nation’s integrity and its very existence. As I have said for many years now, such threats include imminent invasion, as Britain faced during the Second World War, or global annihilation as we all faced during the Cold War.
The random attacks of terrorist – or criminal groups or mentally ill people – cause trauma to the country and the communities in which they occur, but they do not threaten our country’s very survival.
We need to clarify our thinking urgently, both around the definitions applied to such crimes and to the proportionality of the response we make. This will allow us to preserve and strengthen the concept of the rule of law and the notion of democracy under which we all hope to live.
According to the Daily Mail this week, Russian security expert, Andrei Soldatov, reckons the UK is wide open to the threat of the Russian mafia. He primarily blames the froideur that has blighted Anglo-Russian relations since the Litvinenko affair. However, he also states that MI5 no longer has a role to play in investigating organised crime, and that has contributed to our vulnerability.
Naturally resisting the temptation to say that MI5’s involvement would not necessarily have afforded us any meaningful protection, I would say that this is down to a fundamental problem in how we organise our response to threats to the national security of this country.
The security infrastructure in the UK has evolved over the last century into a terribly British muddle. For historic reasons, we have a plethora of intelligence agencies, all competing for funding, power and prestige: MI5, MI6, GCHQ, the Metropolitan Police Special Branch (MPSB), special branches in every other police force, military intelligence, and HM Revenue and Customs et al. Each is supposed to work with the other, but in reality they guard their territory and intelligence jealously. After all, knowledge is power.
MI5 and MPSB have always been the lead intelligence organisations operating within the UK. As such, their covert rivalry has been protracted and bitter, but to the outside world they appeared to rub along while MI5 was primarily focusing on espionage and political subversion and the Met concentrated on the IRA. However, after the end of the Cold War, MI5 had to find new targets or lose staff, status and resources.
In 1992 the then Home Secretary, Ken Clarke, announced that MI5 was taking over the lead responsibility for investigating IRA activity on the UK mainland – work that had been done by MPSB for over 100 years. Victory was largely credited to clever Whitehall manoeuvering on the part of the head of MI5, Stella Rimington. The Met were furious, and the transfer of records was fractious, to say the least.
Also, there was a year’s delay in the handover of responsibility. So MI5 artificially maintained the perceived threat levels posed by political subversion in order to retain its staff until the transition was complete. This meant that there was no real case for the aggressive investigation of subversive groups in the UK – which made all such operations illegal. Staff in this section, including me, vociferously argued against this continued surveillance, rightly stating that such investigations were thereby flagrantly illegal, but the senior management ignored us in the interests of preserving their empires.
However, in the mid-1990s, when peace appeared to be breaking out in Northern Ireland and beyond, MI5 had to scout around for more work to justify its existence. Hence, in 1996, the Home Secretary agreed that they should play a role in tackling organised crime – but only in a supporting role to MPSB. This was never a particularly palatable answer for the spooks, so it is no surprise that they have subsequently dropped this area of work now that the threat from “Al Qaeda” has grown. Terrorism has always been perceived as higher status work. And of course this new threat has led to a slew of increased resources, powers and staff for MI5, not to mention the opening of eight regional headquarters outside London.
But should we really be approaching a subject as serious as the protection of our national security in such a haphazard way, based solely on the fact that we have these agencies in existence, so let’s give them some work?
If we are really faced with such a serious terrorist threat, would it not be smarter for our politicians to ask the basic questions: what is the realistic threat to our national security and the economic wellbeing of the state, and how can we best protect ourselves from these threats? If the most effective answer proves to be a new, dedicated counter-terrorism organisation, so be it. We Brits love a sense of history, but a new broom will often sweep clean.