The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

The Australian Christian Lobby’s Delusions of Adequacy

Australian Christian Lobby

This is the ACL’s idea of an ‘argument’. Note the complete absence of logic of any kind.

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) is a frustrating organisation, not least because of its militant parochialism and refusal to accept that positions based on a combination of Christian revanchism and bigotry are, in fact, revanchist and bigoted. Its tendency to bleat out an utterly fabricated narrative of persecution, its insistence on blaming some amorphous ‘left wing media conspiracy’ for reverses generally caused by its own media incompetence, and its startling inability to pursue or even to form any kind of logically coherent argument are all extremely annoying. And Lyle Shelton, their managing director, is the kind of attention-seeking, self-pitying, incompetently grandiloquent noisemaker who makes the fists of all right-thinking folk become seriously itchy.

So, given just how annoying they are, it’s not hard to understand why someone blowing up a van in their carpark could immediately be put down to a targeted attack. I myself thought it highly probable, given how I feel every time Shelton opens his stupid gob or mashes ineffectually at his keyboard. And I wasn’t alone in this. There are huge sections of the voting public who apparently take ghoulish glee in attributing any and every act of non-domestic violence to Muslim terrorism or Muslim immigration or Muslims in general, possibly because a narrative as inherently irrational as Islamophobia requires quite a lot of fodder to sustain. Within twenty minutes of the first run of the the story, thousands of comments claiming that this was definitely the work of Islamic State and that the leftard libtard media was deliberately suppressing any mention of this, had engulfed certain pointy-headed and ill-spelled corners of the internet. Incontrovertible, iron-clad arguments like: “It was a quiet area, so it must have been a terrorist attack” were helpfully formulated, presumably to assist the police in their investigation, and not to muddy the waters with irrational reactionism. Quite a valuable contribution given that the poor, helpless counter-terrorism and  security experts of the world tend to be stuck with the idea that mass casualty attacks are generally conducted in busy areas at busy times of day. In order to cause mass casualties. Such narrow, blinkered thinking was obviously much enriched by the public’s insightful contributions.

In any case, during the initial phase of this story, the ACL actually had my sympathies. It doesn’t matter how mendacious, petty, bigoted or deluded one’s beliefs are – no law abiding organisation deserves to be the target of political violence. Shelton’s initial Twitterings were mostly generous and politic, though his comment, “hard to believe this could happen in Australia” sounded an ominous warning of the stupidity to come. And my word did he deliver. It appears that in the wake of the explosion, his first and admirable priority was to see to the welfare of his staff, which meant cutting short his holiday and returning to Canberra. In view of the fact that the building was empty at the time, and that none of his staff were injured or killed or, presumably, present at the time, this seemed a little odd. But then, if someone blows up the front of your building, it makes sense that you should repair immediately to the scene. It appears, however, that upon his return he did little other than stand in front of cameras and say stupid things stupidly to the media.

Australian Christian Lobby

Lyle Shelton, proclaiming his organisation’s suspect martyrdom.

By the end of the day, the ground was laid out as follows. The Canberra police had interviewed the suspect, who was unknown to police, and therefore presumably to domestic intelligence, and who said that his sole aim was to “blow myself up”. This, and the host of other factors militating against the interpretation of this event as an attempted mass casualty attack led the police to conclude that there was “no ideological or political motive” behind the explosion. Shelton, of course, wasn’t at all happy about this, and by evening he had proclaimed that the police had been too quick to jump to conclusions, jumped himself to the conclusion that the ACL was the victim of a terror attack and blamed the Greens and other parliamentarians for inciting anti-Christian terrorism by using the word ‘bigot’ to describe his bigoted views.

And then, of course, the story faded from view. This is partly because the only sources of credible information are a tight-lipped police command and a man with burns to 75% of his body, but mostly because the ACL is basically not all that important. Sure, it’s loud in its claims to represent the Christian community, but there isn’t any real evidence that it does. Its base, purportedly largely made up of Pentecostal and non-conformist churches, does not in fact support its views on marriage equality. Its measurable impact on elections is negligible to non-existent. To an informed observer, the ACL’s principle role is to be trotted out in front of the cameras whenever journalists want to provide the appearance of balance by padding out a panel with a talking head from the lunatic Christian right. And this represents, for me, the single most frustrating thing about the ACL – their persistent and unfounded delusions of adequacy. On no level do they actually contribute in any meaningful way to the debate on any issue, but their notoriety and fatuous self importance means that they have a profile which is all out of proportion to their relevance.

So, in the unlikely event that there’s anyone out there who actually is planning an attack on the ACL, I would urge you to reconsider. Not only would such an action be illegal, immoral and inhuman, it would also be of material assistance in backing their delusional narrative of persecution. They’re just not important enough to attack. In fact, I’m convinced that they’re not even important enough to respond to. Like every other screaming toddler, I firmly believe that the best tactic by far is to simply ignore them.

Turkey Nightclub Blitz Attack – Context And Meaning

Turkey Night Club Attack

For many, the news of the New Year’s Day blitz attack on a Turkish nightclub came as shocking news. I suspect that many people automatically categorised this attack as being a part of a global phenomenon, helped along by the media’s insistence on comparing ‘similar events’. Thus the inevitable false parallels being drawn between this attack, Paris, and the Orlando nightclub shootings. The only things these attacks really have in common, though, are modus operandi and nature of venue. In terms of the real DNA of an incident – context and cause – this attack is much more about Turkey than it is about global jihad.

First, a quick note on sequence of events and reporting. Our primary sources for the attack are eyewitness accounts and Turkish state media and agencies. For various reasons, none of these are exactly famous for accuracy or veracity. Eyewitnesses, especially traumatised ones, are generally confused and inaccurate, and the Turkish state does not so much disseminate information as it selects and fabricates to serve its own agenda. If media reports seem conflicting and confused, this is because the primary sources are tainted, and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. For our purposes, however, just the fact of Turkish state reporting will suffice.

It is axiomatic that a principal aim of terrorism is to cause sufficient destabilisation of state structures to bring about capitulation or collapse. Thus the categorisation of terrorists as ‘enemies of the state’, amongst other things. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, and by immediate I mean in less than forty minutes, no less than three enemies of the state were posited by Turkish authorities as potential perpetrators. The two most prominent were Islamic State (not the specific organisation, but the huge amorphous radical diaspora as it exists in the popular mind), and a miscellaneous grab bag of Kurdish independence and separatist groups. Humming in the background as always, however, was Gulen – Turkey’s very own political bogeyman.

This is telling. At a stage when people on the ground were still unclear as to even the basic sequence of events, Turkish authorities were able to confidently declare multiple suspects. What this tells us is that Turkey is wealthy in credibly dangerous enemies of the state. I’ve spoken elsewhere about Turkey’s parlous internal politics, and about Erdogan’s project of Islamisation and Ottomanisation in a bid for stability through presidential power and regional hegemony. The other important fact is that Turkey is a nation tied to wild horses pulling in different directions. Its economic co-dependence with Russia, a power whose regional interests are diametrically opposed to their own, its bitterly oppositional marriages of convenience with NATO and Europe and its own internal woes are all combining to create a situation where, if Erdogan does not find a solution, Turkey will be torn apart. It would appear that a combination of the special stupidity which comes with populism and, more importantly, limited capacity for state agency, has reduced his viable options to brutal repression combined with transparent propaganda. It’s highly unlikely that in a situation as complex as this, blunt instruments like these are going to prove effective.

This is deeply worrying for any nation with interests in the region. For most of the twentieth century Turkey has been a bulwark against the systemic instability caused in large part by Israeli expansionism and the Sykes-Picot line. It is for this reason that the West has tended to tolerate its brutal suppression of ethnic minorities, strongman governments, aggression and insultingly blatant dishonesty. Turkey is important as a lynchpin for the region. Attacks like the one on New Year’s Day, however, are becoming increasingly frequent. In the last few months, attacks have been occurring on an almost weekly basis, their foci being the capital Ankara and the arguably more significant cultural and symbolic capital Istanbul. Possibly the only absolute truth to emanate from the Turkish authorities is the contention that the aim of this attack was to destabilise the unity of the Turkish state.

If Erdogan’s administration is unable to contain and prevent future attacks, the credibility of his government as an authority capable of protecting its people will evaporate entirely. This process will necessarily be accelerated by a perceived inability to protect foreign nationals, tourism being a major pillar of Turkey’s economy. It doesn’t take much of a prophet to see that when faith in a government’s ability to provide security and prosperity disappears, so too does that government. In the case of Erdogan, his vision for Turkey’s future has alienated his allies, trading partners, security services and military. Too many more of these attacks will see the state of Turkey fragment and disappear. It’s vitally important that we recognise this to be a primary goal of the plethora of internal and external enemies which Turkey has managed to accrue. As much as we may dislike Erdogan’s obtuse brutality and religious fanaticism, a coherent Turkish state is decidedly the lesser of two evils for the region, and it’s incumbent on the international community to recognise and support this, rather than allowing Turkey to crumble as a side effect of the pursuit of narrow national self interest.

 

Turkey, Russia, Murder and Islam

Assassination of Russian Ambassador

Most of us are aware by now that the Russian Ambassador to Turkey has been shot dead by a 22 year old Turkish policeman who the Turkish regime is tentatively linking to Fethullah Gulen, the figure who was also blamed for the abortive military coup earlier in the year and who basically acts as Turkey’s ‘Goldstein’ a la 1984. The screamsheets (my new name for all media, shamelessly stolen from Cyberpunk) have done their usual best to spread despondency and panic, and the conspiracy theorists can’t be far behind. I’d like to get in before them and try to break down what this attack actually means.

Firstly, we need to understand a little bit about what’s happening in Turkey at the moment. A full situational appreciation would take thousands of words, but a brief, somewhat simplistic rendering should be sufficient for our purposes here. In very crude terms, Turkey is conflicted between secular nationhood and Islamist regional hegemony. Erdogan, authoritarian, populist and Islamist, is attempting to undo, prick by prick, the grand experiment in secular nationhood kicked off by Ataturk. His consistent tendency has been to expand the powers of the presidency, nudge state law closer to Sharia, and to position Turkey as a regional hegemon at the very least. Many suspect that he seeks imperial power, with his detractors comparing his regime to the Ottoman Empire.

These are big changes which strike at the core of Turkey’s revivified vision of itself in the wake of its humiliation at the end of WWI. This has led to a nation which is sharply divided. There are many splinters and factions, but two broad schools of thought can be identified – populist, interventionist, Islamist and expansionist on the one hand; middle class, secular, republican and non-interventionist on the other. Erdogan’s straw man opponent, one time ally Fethullah Gulen, is almost exactly analogous to Trotsky – hounded out of the USSR and subsequently blamed for every riot, production shortfall or particularly nasty winter. Gulen believes in interfaith dialogue, secular government and science – basically, Ataturk’s westernising, secularising vision. He’s also vehemently opposed to Turkey’s support of elements seeking to overthrow Bashar al Assad. It’s this last belief, loudly proclaimed from Gulen’s exile in the USA, which conveniently allows the Erdogan regime to pin this assassination on his influence. This is not to say that the Gulenists are necessarily innocent, but rather that Turkey’s attribution should be taken with a rather large grain of salt.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that this socio-political ferment could produce someone like Mevlut Mert Altintas, the police officer who shot the Russian Ambassador. This is not an isolated attack – Turkey has been wracked with violence for some time now, with car bombs, suicide bombings and shootings having become so routine that western media outlets have largely given up reporting on them. What is unique is the targeting of a Russian dignitary. The motives behind this have to be seen as fairly transparent. There are many groups who wish to see Turkey fall out with its old enemy, Russia, for a whole confusing spectrum of reasons. And groups aside, there’s also the simple fact that many Turks despise Russia, vehemently support the rebellion in Syria and are broadly sympathetic to the aims and worldview of extremist Islamist militia. It should be noted that I’ve made no attempt to attribute responsibility for this attack. The investigation, such as it is, is in a very early stage, and it’s highly probable that we may never know the truth of it as very few of the investigating bodies are of the kind whose conclusions can readily be believed at the best of times.

Taken in context, the most probable deep motivation would either be to unseat Erdogan, highlight Russia’s pro-regime actions in Syria, or both. Erdogan is tap dancing on thumb tacks when it comes to Russia. They’re one of Turkey’s most important economic partners, but their interests in the region are diametrically opposed. So long as Erdogan pursues an anti-Assad policy while maintaining his hegemonic ambitions, the possibility of an irreconcilable conflict with Russia looms large. Mismanagement of this relationship could very well see him ousted through loss of popular support, such support being the only limiting factor on the Turkish military’s capacity to remove him from power. So we can see that the focus here is largely inward when it comes to Turkey, and the measured restraint of Russia’s response is an indication that they understand this.

Implications for the end game, however, are slightly more worrying. Erdogan, secure in his popular support for now, is still somewhat beleaguered  on the international front. The price he has paid for his policies has been to devolve his role into that of ‘strongman’. What’s key, in this position, is the perception of the degree of control he has over his country. Turkey’s relationship with Russia and, somewhat more worryingly, its status as a NATO member, now rest largely on this perception. While it’s very unlikely that anything Turkey can do will lead to all out war, too much more of this nonsense will see Erdogan isolated, possibly removed from power, and Turkey on the brink of becoming yet another domino in the failed state effect which is sweeping its immediate region.

Remember When Syria Was About Assad?

Residents look for survivors at a damaged site after what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail - RTX242XG

Residents look for survivors at a damaged site after what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail – RTX242XG

You could probably be forgiven for being unable to remember the origins of the Syrian conflict. It was all a long time ago, involving factions which have long since been overshadowed, over issues which seem irrelevant in the face of the current situation. Many of the details have probably become quite hazy over time – blotted out by the insanity of Islamic State atrocities, major power involvement and the rapid and increasing fragmentation of the factional make-up of the region. Now that Mosul is probably due to fall in the next few months, and the encirclement of Raqqa, due to start any second now, is likely to follow a similar trajectory, the imminent destruction of Islamic State in its current form and, more importantly, the means by which this fall is being engineered, is almost certainly going to bring the seed of the conflict rushing back to the forefront. All this being the case, it’s probably worth examining the state of play a new POTUS is likely to be confronted with.

If we cast our minds back a few years, we will remember that this all really started out as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) against the Assad regime. The FSA were (and possibly still are) pro-democracy secularist military defectors from Assad’s own forces, who largely concentrated their operations around Aleppo. While the world was fixated on this conflict and wondering why we weren’t intervening, an organisation based on the surviving rump of Al Qaeda in Iraq was completing their integration of an influx of Baathist military officers who had been seriously disaffected by some frankly disastrous US decisions in the aftermath of the second Iraq war. Many people also believe that around this time, Islamist insurgents being rather co-operatively held by Assad’s regime were quietly released into the wild in a dramatically high risk ploy to fragment the opposition. When I first heard about this possible tactic, I called it insane. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I call it insane and somewhat effective. In any case, with a perfection of timing which seems deeply suspicious to paranoid types like me, the organisation which we now know by several equally inaccurate names and acronyms formed into a sort of flying light armoured column (strongly reminiscent of Baathist tactical columns) and took swathes of territory, materiel and cash from the ineffectual Iraqi authorities, as well as the (possibly deliberately?) absent Syrian ones. Rather embarrassingly for the US led coalition members who had invaded and then attempted to stabilise Iraq, they also took some major cities and a whole bunch of NATO gear.

We mostly know, or think we know, the rest of this story, largely because of its direct effect on us. The Paris attacks, as well as the wave of lone wolf incidents all over the world, refugees, pictures of injured or dead children, and then Russia’s blustery, propaganda-heavy intervention which made louder and louder claims to be anti-IS the more apparent it became that they’d barely hit a single target which wasn’t FSA. But now that the end of this phase is in sight, various factors which haven’t so far seemed to catch our interest are likely to become all-important. The fact that the real achievers in the fight against Islamic State have been Kurdish militia will prove to be a major sticking point in any future settlement. The US, always ready to back a winner, has cleverly and quietly folded these groups together into something called the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF), presumably as a workaround to avoid being seen to be arming and training members of proscribed terrorist organisations. The major problem here is that these organisations are in direct opposition to Turkey, a NATO member, and Iraq, one of the USA’s newest proxies. On top of this, Russia’s actions to defend its strongest ally in the Middle East have put them in a position where it’s very hard to see them acceding to the toppling of the current regime, especially if the replacement is US backed. There’s also the problem of what is to be done with organisations like Jabaht el Fatr al Sham, openly linked to Al Qaeda but also instrumental in reclaiming territory from IS. How can any lasting settlement exclude them? And if they are included, how to avoid the problem of negotiating with terrorists? And as if this wasn’t enough, there’s the fact that Turkey is backing and arming the FSA and operating openly on Syrian soil, in near-direct opposition to the major thrust of US policy. How to deal with the fact of their insulting and provocative exclusion from the final push against the last of Islamic State’s strongholds? And how much longer can everyone go on ignoring the added complication of Iranian militia operating on Syrian and Iraqi soil?

As we can see, the whole situation is a kind of horrible Gordian knot. Neutralising Islamic State as a force is not so much the end of the campaign, as it is the ending of a bloody and horrific sideshow which, once over, will put us firmly back on a heavily compromised square one. When the dust has settled on Raqqa and Mosul, it’s going to take very careful management to prevent a kind of backdraft effect from re-igniting and re-escalating the original conflicts. While the tortuous network of factions and alliances might be as clear as mud, what is very clear is that the destruction of IS in its current form is merely the end of a phase of this conflict. There’s a great deal more work yet to be done if the great powers are to fulfil their commitment to help the region return to stability.

The Paris Attacks, ISIS, And Its Al Qaeda Roots

Much hay has been made of the fact that the core leadership of what is now called ISIS, ISIL, IS or Daesh was once booted out of Al Qaeda. Various propagandists and even analysts have made the argument that if an organisation as evil as Al Qaeda was unable to tolerate ISIS, then the rest of the world certainly shouldn’t. I certainly don’t disagree with the conclusion, but the argument is false.

Yes, Al Qaeda’s leadership was largely made up of a kind of intellectual elite who thought of ISIS (then AQI) as a barbaric and ignorant embarrassment. Yes, Osama bin Laden was famously horrified by the methods and even the existence of the thuggish, practically apostate Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. But no, it is simply not true to say that the two organisations fell out due to delicacy of feeling on bin Laden’s part.

When Osama bin Laden was killed, a large document cache was recovered. Amongst these was a wealth of correspondence between bin Laden and other militants in which the 9/11 mastermind made pronouncements on a range of different issues. Mujahideen operating in the Levant needed to know if they could accept funds and logistical support from Shiite jihadists. Osama told them they could – the just could be sorted from the wicked at a later date. Various affiliates expressed discomfort at the use of infidel technology to spread their message. The Al Qaeda leader advised them to shut the hell up because wars cannot be won without propaganda. The Shabaab in Africa were told in no uncertain terms that they were too grubby, insecure and haphazard to be officially accepted under the AQ banner. But Allah bless them anyway, and if they should win a major victory, Al Qaeda would smile on their efforts and, presumably, share in the credit.

Most notable in the light of current events, however, was a collection of letters apparently begging the leaders of the Iraqi insurgency to stop killing fellow Muslims and to focus their attacks on Westerners. It is understandable that these have repeatedly been misinterpreted, especially by the media, as showing a merciful side to the world’s most notorious terrorist. The letters were written in the archaic, classical Arabic favoured by Al Qaeda and which formed such a significant part of their revanchist appeal. The translations tried to catch the sense of this language, leaving us with English that smacked vaguely of the King James bible. On a casual reading, language like this can make things sound quite a lot more reasonable than they really are.

The truth of the matter was that the use of mediaeval language is simply a part of their Salafist image. A closer reading of the letters between AQ and AQI reveals that the heart of their disagreement was not about mercy, it was about military doctrine. Osama bin Laden was pushing the core point of difference that AQ had over every other Islamist terror organisation, which was their strategy of focussing their attacks on foreign soil. This approach had been the key to their success and had the added advantage of leaving local Muslim populations unharmed, significantly improving propaganda and recruitment efforts.

What bin Laden was trying to persuade Baghdadi and his insurgents to do was to take a leaf out of his own book. He worried that the Iraqi insurgency was diluting the overall strategic thrust of groups under the Al Qaeda banner. AQI’s leadership basically told him to bugger off. They saw themselves as a grassroots insurgency, a breed that couldn’t be more different from elitist Al Qaeda. And with their numbers being swollen by disaffected, well trained Iraqi military and security personnel, and coalition forces harried and bleeding casualties daily, they didn’t need advice from some fancy-talking throwback who couldn’t even go outside, thank you very much. The Al Qaeda leadership responded by taking away the right to use their brand name.

Their disdain for bin Laden’s advice would seem to have been vindicated early on. The newly minted IS rushed into the gap created by the Syrian rebellion and the Iraqi failure like a biblical plague, helped along by Western lassitude and Assad’s frankly insane tactic of releasing known militants in order to fragment the secular rebellion against his regime. IS broke every rule in the insurgent handbook and ended up in control of two major cities. They were stepping high and wide all over the Middle East and nobody seemed able to stop them. Until they did.

History will possibly remember this, if it does at all, as a victory of democratic leaders over democratic process. Despite the immense unwillingness of practically everyone, Obama and Co. embarked on an incremental escalation of force, salted judiciously with atrocity propaganda (made easier by the fact of real atrocities), and helped to create a situation where the ISIS advance was halted by force, practically against the will of the people. A key victory was won just before the Paris attacks, when the supply line between Raqqa and Mosul was cut by Peshmerga forces with coalition air and SF support. ISIS, which had basically morphed into a kind of flying mechanised cavalry column, was ‘contained’. It was the beginning of the end.

It is at this stage, presumably, that those ISIS leaders who had their roots in Al Qaeda must have had a bit of a brainwave. As the major assault geared up and they saw that they simply would not be able to hold the line, it must have occurred to them that there might be something in what old bin Laden had to say after all. Faced with a situation where they were unable to win a victory on their own territory, they decided to activate multiple cells overseas. One of those cells, apparently reinforced and advised by jihadis blooded in Syria, was behind the attacks in Paris. And it worked. US backed forces had won one of the most significant victories of the campaign so far, but this news was simply swallowed up by events in Paris. If the goal of such attacks is to sow disruption and erode fighting will amongst the general populace, Paris was a near total success.

In a way, this would seem to be a posthumous validation of bin Laden’s military doctrine. Beleaguered at home? Then attack abroad. This is why, amongst the outpourings of grief and outrage, several quiet academic voices could be heard saying that we had no right, really, to be surprised. This kind of attack exists deep in the doctrinal DNA of ISIS and, even though they initially rejected it, ISIS reversals in the Middle East are likely to cause a return to this strategy. As coalition forces and their proxy militia consolidate their gains in Iraq and Syria, we in the West should brace ourselves for more attempts to attack us at home.