Autonomous Weapons: A Thought Experiment

Human Rights Watch is one of the driving forces behind the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, who make headlines from time to time in their current quest to get “lethal autonomous weapon systems” banned under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. I have no particular beef with HRW, it’s an admirable organisation, but since the newspapers are in full-on “reprint the press release” mode after the publication of an open letter calling for a ban on autonomous weapons signed by a lot of scientists, it’s probably worthwhile pointing out that HRW has choices to make. Like: choosing between a world where states can make (usually imperfect) interventions to prevent mass atrocity, and a world where they can’t. The TL;DR version of this blog post is: if you ban autonomous weapons then aircraft carriers become floating junk, next time someone starts massacring people don’t expect anyone to ride to the rescue. That’s not to say the “the West” has a particularly admirable track record in atrocity prevention, but most of the arguments that now happen usually pre-suppose that if Western political elites could be coerced or persuaded, then they would have the technical means to deliver military forces to some point on the planet where very bad things are happening to civilians.

"Reaction time is a factor in this, so please pay attention."

“Reaction time is a factor in this, so please pay attention.”

The problem with the autonomous weapons debate as it currently stands is that, for the most part, it ignores the current bits and pieces of automatic and autonomous systems that are part and parcel of everyday military life. Like the Phalanx Close-In-Weapon-System (CIWS) and other bits of gear that are designed to shoot down incoming missiles. Because shooting down missiles is something that humans are physically incapable of doing, outside of Hollywood. If one would like the capability to shoot down a missile, then you need a largely autonomous system to do the heavy lifting of identifying, tracking and targeting that missile, and the human being “in the loop” is largely reduced to something to whom a weapon system says: “Hey, meatbag, press the button so that I can save your life.”

"Look Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over."

“Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.”

In theory, you don’t even need the human. Phalanx, and like systems, are tied to command and control systems such as AEGIS, which can be set to an automatic mode with user-defined “If… then…” routines doing the work. Like “If a missile is heading towards this ship, then please shoot it down as soon as possible.” The reason this is necessary is that one doesn’t want to entrust the ability to protect a ship to a person who is, well, liable to die when the anti-ship missiles start flying. Having a system the keeps working despite casualties is a sensible design for a military system. “But wait,” cry the detractors, “We’re not talking about missiles, we’re talking about machines that can make the decision to select and kill human beings (insert lengthy disclaimer about drones being controlled by human beings here).” That may be true, but from a machine’s point of view (and this is perhaps the core of the problem) the means of identifying an object as a missile is not too different from identifying a human being. If someone does conjure up a weapon system to run around killing human beings, then the difference is likely to be most evident in the sensors designed to detect human beings (over, say, a supersonic missile) and the code that interprets the information derived from those sensors, than in the actual process of going from detection to destruction. The difference between “automatic” and “autonomous” is merely the capability of the system to sense different objects, and what to do with them once it senses them. A system designed to identify humans and avoid them is one rule-change away from a system designed to identify humans and kill them. Program an autonomous weapon system to shoot down missiles and it’ll carry that out to the best of its technical limits, just as if you programmed it to shoot readers of young adult fiction over the age of 29, which, I think, is why the ethicists (and adult Harry Potter fans) are correct when they point out that autonomous weapon systems are disturbing. So why not ban them? The problem, returning to the Phalanx CIWS, is that they’re here to help, and in certain situations, autonomous systems are impossible to replace.

"Come with me if you want to live."

“Come with me if you want to live.”

The problem with aircraft carriers is that they are quite expensive, relatively rare, and vulnerable to missiles designed to kill them. America has ten Nimitz class aircraft carriers. They are the cornerstone of American power projection worldwide. By way of comparison, Russia has one, and China has one. I’ll leave it to my colleagues in KCL’s Naval History Mafia (err, “Laughton Naval History Unit“)  to debate how good any of these actually are. America’s carriers are so expensive that it takes over half a billion dollars to de-commission one. Of course the alternate route to decommissioning an aircraft carrier is to hit one with enough missiles to sink it. Logically enough, this is China’s approach to America’s 10:1 advantage in aircraft carriers. For this reason, anyone seeking to deter America needs some kind of long range anti-ship missile capability. For America (or anyone else using an aircraft carrier) you need defensive capabilities mounted on your aircraft carrier and support ships that stand a chance of shooting down said missiles, otherwise they become a bit useless in contested areas.

Contested areas are important, partly because the kind of regimes that carry out massacres usually have powerful friends. Consider Syria. Way back when in 2013, when meaningful international intervention was still a possibility, Russia transferred advanced anti-aircraft missile systems and anti-ship missile systems to the Syrian government in order to effectively forestall said intervention. In effect, Russia escalated the likely cost of international intervention by providing Assad with an asymmetric capability. Perceived costs are important because: politics matters. To return to HRW and autonomous weapons: there is a big difference between persuading America to intervene in a situation, and persuading America to intervene in a situation which puts one of its aircraft carriers at risk.

Alternate use for a Nimitz class carrier: attempt to save Pearl Harbor.

Alternate use for a Nimitz class carrier: attempt to save Pearl Harbor.

So here’s the issue as I see it: if you want to ban the military use of autonomous weapon systems, then you’re going to need to ban the kind of autonomous systems that are currently in service, and any that are being developed to combat anti-ship missiles in future. If you ban those kind of point defence systems, then any kind of power projection becomes very, very risky and costly for the country involved, so even though America has a poor track record, don’t expect them to help in future if a brutal regime is killing its citizens. This ushers in a world where states like China and Russia can effectively prop up any regime that they like, and, given the studied neglect-to-care about human rights in either country, this reduces the capability of states that purportedly care about human rights to intervene in the world at large. This lack of capability to intervene will reduce the incentive for would-be human rights abusers to adhere to the vaguest interpretation of compliance with human rights standards. This is a legal, political and technical issue – given the makeup of the UN Security Council – but at the moment Western states still have a technical means to intervene (if not the legal authority to do so, or the political will), forcing them to abandon the autonomous systems that they use to defend their prime military assets would deprive them of that. As disturbing as autonomous weapons are, is a world where dictators can massacre their populations without fear of reprisal better or worse?

Oh, and just to muddy the waters a bit: they already figured out how to point Phalanx at small surface ships that would probably contain human beings.

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For whom the Channel referral tolls…

It appears that things are picking up in the wonderful world of radicalisation. Following hot on the heels of David Cameron’s speech on extremism, the Evening Standard reports that a primary school has referred one of its pupils to the Government’s multi-agency Channel programme because a child that can’t be older than 11 was “deemed at risk of Islamic radicalisation.” Yes, folks, you heard that right, because “the behaviour of the child’s parents caused concern among staff” a kid is now the subject of government study. That’s because non-violent extremism leads to violent extremism, even in the case of primary school children. Except it doesn’t, or at least doesn’t work like a conveyor belt.

Here’s the resulting paradox in a nutshell: we live in a country that retains global power pretensions (even though we fudge on paying for it) and are committed to retaining a nuclear deterrent to bolster that self-image. At the same time, in a supposedly free and democratic society, we are referring under twelves to a counter-extremism programme because otherwise… bad things might happen?

Channel operates in “pre-criminal space”, which is a nice way of saying that a Channel referral doesn’t require an actual criminal offence. The Channel vulnerability assessment framework is particularly worth reading in full:

1. Engagement with a group, cause or ideology Engagement factors are sometimes referred to as “psychological hooks”. They include needs, susceptibilities, motivations and contextual influences and together map the individual pathway into terrorism. They can include:
• Feelings of grievance and injustice
• Feeling under threat
• A need for identity, meaning and belonging
• A desire for status
• A desire for excitement and adventure
• A need to dominate and control others
• Susceptibility to indoctrination
• A desire for political or moral change
• Opportunistic involvement
• Family or friends involvement in extremism
• Being at a transitional time of life
• Being influenced or controlled by a group
• Relevant mental health issues

2. Intent to cause harm Not all those who become engaged by a group, cause or ideology go on to develop an intention to cause harm, so this dimension is considered separately. Intent factors describe the mindset that is associated with a readiness to use violence and address what the individual would do and to what end. They can include:
• Over-identification with a group or ideology
• Them and Us’ thinking
• Dehumanisation of the enemy
• Attitudes that justify offending
• Harmful means to an end
• Harmful objectives

3. Capability to cause harm Not all those who have a wish to cause harm on behalf of a group, cause or ideology are capable of doing so, and plots to cause widespread damage take a high level of personal capability, resources and networking to be successful. What the individual is capable of is therefore a key consideration when assessing risk of harm to the public. Factors can include:
• Individual knowledge, skills and competencies
• Access to networks, funding or equipment
• Criminal Capability

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m pretty sure that any 10 year old fulfils: “A need for identity, meaning and belonging/A desire for status/A desire for excitement and adventure/Susceptibility to indoctrination/Being at a transitional time of life”. Cynicism aside, the basic problem with this vulnerability assessment framework is that it contains very ambiguous criteria that effectively makes being pissed off at the current state of things a red flag for authorities. This wouldn’t matter so much except that the latest Counter-Terrorism and Security Act put it on a statutory footing. From a not-quite-half-arsed grab bag of indicators that someone might (and could) commit a terrorist offence, to a statutory duty for Councils everywhere to assess people in this way. I have no idea whether a ten year old can develop the intent to cause harm, but I somewhat doubt that they have the capability to cause harm. The question for the rest of us is how well we’d fare if put under the microscope by someone who may, or may not, have any of the training necessary to differentiate between, say, a lonely person and a lone wolf nutcase. Just remember not to express “extreme” opinions to anyone official in future, just in case, like.

Identity? Status? Dehumanisation? That’s got Kafka written all over it.

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Birth Pangs of a New Order, Volume Whatever

So, to re-cap the past week or so: the two-state solution is (almost) dead (again) after Bibi’s victory in the Israeli elections, the Americans came off the sidelines in Iraq with airstrikes in support of an offensive to re-take Tikrit from ISIS, Yemen’s President has reportedly fled the country and Saudi Arabia has now launched airstrikes against the Houthi rebels, Syria has dismantled 3 chemical weapons sites, Syria stands accused of continuing to use Chlorine weapons, Canada announced that it won’t bother to ask the Syrian government before attacking ISIS, oh and nine British citizens have reportedly entered Syria to work as medics in IS hospitals.

Spot the odd one out. That didn’t stop the nine medics making the front pages, though.

What is the British government to do about British citizens that are willing to travel to Syria and support ISIS? The Guardian called this “a test for British policy” and I agree, but it is a general policy problem that any state whose citizens get involved in irregular conflicts will have to face. I had a good debate on Twitter with Shashank Joshi regarding his argument that this constituted “material support” for terrorism, although the question he was asked was slightly different to its presentation. As I see it, the problem here is that two norms are in direct conflict with one another: the idea that the British citizens shouldn’t support ISIS, and the humanitarian impulse to save lives.

The key problem with any assessment is the same as most arguments about foreign fighters: we don’t really know what they’re up to except via scraps of information and rumours spread via twitter/instagram/the internet. As I see it, however, there are three ways that they could be involved (as medics): as a standard fighter with some medical expertise, as a dedicated medic working in a battlefield role, as a medic working in a hospital or similar facility. The first case is the easiest – even under international humanitarian law medical personnel can carry a light weapon for personal protection but lose the protection of their status if they act like standard personnel. The second is perhaps the trickiest issue. A battlefield medic would be providing material support, but at the same time, although medical personnel are integral to the conduct of military operations, they are commonly protected from attack precisely because international humanitarian law seeks to preserve the ability for medical personnel to tend to the sick and wounded while fighting rages. Even though debate rages about what constitutes “direct participation in hostilities” in non-international armed conflicts, this concept doesn’t include medical aid. Fundamentally, in international law there isn’t anything to prevent a person from pulling wounded people from a battlefield or tending to their wounds.

There is little doubt in my mind that the British government could figure out an argument for making it illegal to go to Syria and provide medical support for ISIS, even though this will be fundamentally a British law for British citizens. The question is, do we want to be seen to criminalise the humanitarian impulse? Will nine medical students really make much of a difference? In terms of narrative it seems a needless own-goal. If these students did go to Syria to heal people instead of kill them, the best thing the British government could do is ignore them and focus on something more important. Throw a dart at a map of the middle east, and it’ll probably land on something that should be a priority.

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“If You Tolerate This…”

“…then your children will be next” – the chorus of The Manic Street Preachers’ 1998 ode to (Welsh) foreign fighters going abroad (to Spain) to kill people (Fascists) because of their beliefs. It also happens to be the kind of sentiment that is currently driving anti-Islamic/immigrant demonstrations across Europe, most notably in Germany this week, many of whom were quick to jump on the killing of 12 people by Islamic terrorists in Paris 2 days ago. If you happen to be non-French and would like to get up to speed on French counter-terrorism, check out War Studies’ own Frank Foley, and his book “Countering Terrorism in Britain and France”.

Last night Andrew Parker, Director General of MI5, gave a speech highlighting the attacks (full text) that displayed a degree of caution (“It is too early for us to come to judgements about the precise details or origin of the attack…”) as well as a call for, well, the sustainment of communications intercept powers granted in emergency legislation last year (“we need the capability to shine a light into the activities of the worst individuals who pose the gravest threats”). It is, in my mind, a decent speech – one that we should expect from a person in Parker’s role – and highlighted MI5’s commitment to oversight and accountability. It is also, I think, a speech that will persuade no-one who isn’t already a believer in this institutional commitment.

The bit I liked in Parker’s speech was a turn of phrase – “crude but potentially deadly plots” – to describe a number of recent attacks. You know, the ones defined as “lone wolf” attacks, or as the metaphor of the lone terrorist is now being stretched, “wolf pack” terrorism. Lone individuals can do a lot of damage – see Anders Breivik, Timothy McVeigh, or Ted Kaczynski – but the spate of individuals committing murder in the name of Islam (much to the horror of many Muslims) is seen as a growing threat to the ordinary way of life in the West. Something must be done.

The reason I liked Parker’s turn of phrase is that he somewhat unintentionally put his finger on the limits of his service (and all security forces in democratic states). Almost every single adult is capable of carrying out a “crude but potentially deadly” terrorist attack. It doesn’t take much training to stab someone, like Roshanara Choudhry, who stabbed the MP Stephen Timms. If you ask any A&E doctor or nurse, they’ll probably give you a sober description of quite how fragile the human body is when it encounters sharp objects. Any society where humans possess some degree of agency will be full to the brim of people capable of “crude but potentially deadly” attacks on one another. Guns help, of course, as do explosives, and training. Restricting access to these is the right and proper function of a government. But nothing can save us, 100%, from our fellow citizens. The kind of society in which individuals could not replicate Kaczynski, Choudhry, et al would be a prison. As Rebecca Solnit wrote (on a different topic): “the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.” Unless a person cuts themself off from all human contact – like a hermit or sociopathic executive in an ad for premium London property – then they have to put up with imperfect safety from others.

There is little doubt in my mind that in the coming days and months politicians, analysts and securo-crats will offer up any number of “solutions” to lone wolf terrorism. Preventing general access to guns, explosives and training is good, but that will never stop the truly driven: nothing will. More to the point, there’s nothing that can prevent said lone individuals from taking cheap hits at society. Regardless of the motives of all involved, your average muslim waking up to find the internet flooded with offensive images of the prophet Mohammed is likely to be offended, just as if Christians were to wake up to a billion re-tweets of mocking death metal depictions of Jesus, or if atheists wake up to find the world’s papers full of images celebrating executions for blasphemy around the world. All that offence and division from a single attack, conducted by a handful of people. That said, such offence isn’t a knock out blow, and for the life of me, I can’t see how lone individuals ever could land one.

The point, I think, is that democracy survives on the tensions that states with blasphemy laws seek to eradicate. Most average people can reconcile the right to free speech and the general principle of “don’t be an offensive idiot” (Ross Douthat has a great piece on Blasphemy re Paris here). Democratic states are all the better for that, even if it does mean that, from time to time, cowards will murder people in cold blood. We tolerate the latent threat of our fellow citizens to our own lives, and those of our children, because there is no way to eradicate it without changing the fundamental principles of freedom that underpin our society.

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War Museums, Huh, What are they Good For?

It appears that the government has picked a great time to slash £4 million from the budget of the Imperial War Museum, threatening the closure of its library, and ceasing support for educational visits. The ghost of Malcolm Tucker is probably head butting a table (or PR flunky) in Whitehall on hearing that someone chose the centenary of World War 1 to start hacking off the IWM’s core social functions. I’ll freely admit my bias in this matter – I used the IWM library for my undergraduate dissertation, and the place was my first exposure to working with archival sources. There is also the academic equivalent of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ – a research library closing is a cause for concern, regardless of its content.

The argument will play out in the same way that these arguments tend to play out: the government will say “Why should the taxpayer pay for these things?” and then a multitude of those interested will fight, perhaps in vain, to preserve an irreplaceable bit of British culture. I say irreplaceable, because it is. I have no doubt that a home could be found for the IWM’s collection somewhere, but removing the library from the institution pretty much hollows out the IWM. A national museum without links to academia, or school-level education, isn’t a museum: it’s a warehouse that charges an admission fee. I’m sure this fits with the contemporary role of cultural institutions as tourist honeypots, but it makes me uneasy.

The reason for my unease is that I have no doubt that the government will encourage private donors and philanthropists to help preserve the IWM’s functions. War, and national memory of it, will be increasingly defined by the whims of private donors. The top floor of the new IWM is a monument to this vision: one man’s trophy collection of Victoria Crosses, presented in a boys’ own history style reminiscent of a school playground. It is, to the best of my recollection, the only exhibition where I have encountered explanations urging the visitor to disregard context and revel in personal stories. Oddly enough, my BA dissertation was a comparative study of the politics of the Victoria Cross and the Medal of Honor. It was hours of study in the IWM’s now-threatened library that gave me the perspective on the changing use of ‘heroes’ and heroism in the decades since both awards were created. Without experienced curatorial staff able to explain the contents of the IWM to school children, the narratives written on walls will become the only narratives that they take home with them. There will be no one to explain to them why the hell people were fighting and dying for the British Empire in dozens of mostly forgotten places around the globe. The Ashcroft gallery is one of the few places in the IWM where Britain’s colonial past is readily apparent, but all they’ll get are heroes.

 
(Header by Martin Stitchener)

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Varys

In Putin’s Shadow

Quick post, but there’s a very good article by Peter Pomerantsev over at The Atlantic on Russia’s new breed of information warfare. Of particular note is the speed at which the Kremlin has managed to manufacture into importance the concept of ‘Novorossiya’ as a term to define the sections of Ukraine that Russia threatens to separate from Ukraine, or annex outright. Pomerantsev’s points about wanton unreality, and the general attack on the notion of objectivity reminded me, in a tangential fashion, of one of my favourite quotes on power from the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Before continuing, I’d like to point out that this is in no way an attempt to say that anything from George R.R. Martin’s pen is directly relevant to the situation in Ukraine. Rather, it’s an interesting way to think about the interaction between power and truth, and that interaction is important in regards to Ukraine. No “What can Buffy the Vampire Slayer tell us about people dying in Donetsk?”, etc. Since the quote is well reproduced in Game of Thrones, I’ve included the clip below (Safe for work, unlike half the programme, and spoiler free):

For those without headphones at work, the books don’t delve into the riddle’s answer (although arguably the entire series is an attempt at one). Varys (a royal advisor, of sorts) tells Tyrion:

In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me- who lives and who dies?

In the TV version, this conversation continues:

Tyrion Lannister: Depends on the sellsword.
Lord Varys: Does it? He has neither crown, nor gold, nor favor with the gods.
Tyrion Lannister: He has a sword, the power of life and death.
Lord Varys: But if it’s swordsmen who rule, why do we pretend kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsible? Joffrey? The executioner? Or something else?
Tyrion Lannister: I’ve decided I don’t like riddles.
Lord Varys: Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.

In my mind, if we think of the riddle as a question of power, then the answer to the riddle lies outside its formal structure. The person with the true power is Varys, because Varys is the person able to set the categories and terms which constitute the riddle itself. This is similar to the control of belief and ideology epitomised in George Orwell’s 1984. But as a comparison to Russia’s information war, a 1984 comparison doesn’t work. Russia exercises power in setting the terms of debate, but it doesn’t control this in a unilateral fashion. Russia’s power lies in its ability to destroy or undermine faith in the truth of any basic ‘assumed’ categories present in the narratives of others. Where this connects to Pomerantsev’s piece is that he highlights the Kremlin’s ability (via Russia Today and other media channels) to introduce an inescapable element of doubt into almost every area of the debate. In other words, Russia doesn’t need to persuade, instead by coughing up enough static, it can attack the basis of discussion itself.

Controlling narratives, undermining basic precepts for discussion – it’s hard to say which is more powerful. Although nihilistic, the latter might be more important. After all, Varys’s riddle is only a puzzle if one believes that kings are the ultimate political authority, priests are holy and that merchants are rich. If one can’t trust those three basic ideas as true, then the riddle is unsolvable. The best answer to a world order dominated by rich western states which set the terms might be to destroy the assumptions upon which it operates.

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Start Running

It appears that a British citizen, “John”, was responsible for the murder of US journalist James Foley. No, there will be no link to the video here. Questions abound regarding Foley’s death – did America mess up a rescue attempt earlier this summer? was it the result of a failed shakedown? – as does analysis of its possible strategic impact. Over at War on The Rocks, Brian Fishman’s astute comments about the continuing disconnect between the end goal of “defeating” ISIS and the available means are worth repeating: “without real national consensus to sustain a strategy, there is no viable mechanism to defeat ISIL.” It seems John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, didn’t get the WOTR memo, as he resorted to quite non-diplomatic language to state (via Twitter, of course) “ISIL must be destroyed/will be crushed”. The reason that Fishman’s comments stand out in the morass of “Something must be done” commentary is that it correctly identifies the ultimate restraint on American action in Iraq (not Syria): America itself. How much will a single video change that? I don’t think that can be predicted with any accuracy, but what I do think is that “John”, and others like him, should be very, very afraid.

Earlier this summer, I wrote about a “laissez faire” policy towards the “problem” of foreign fighters from Western countries running off to fight in Syria. In a nutshell, my argument was they shouldn’t be prevented from going, but they should be warned that actions have consequences, and some form of open-source watch list should be established. Since then (well, before, even) “John” and his friends have provided us with a steady stream of video footage of ISIS members committing war crimes, carnage and, with the recent Yazidis, threatening to commit crimes against humanity. Taking a step back from the immediate strategic context and potential security challenges, I think it’s quite productive to think in terms of post-conflict justice. Hence the title for this post: over a long enough time span, ISIS’s members are pretty much screwed.

In the short term: will the British government raise a fuss if someone like “John” happens to get hit by an American bomb, or riddled with bullets by American special forces, the Peshmerga, the Iraqi army, the Syrian government, rival foreign fighters, etc? After this, I somehow doubt it. At the end of the day, the only people that can’t kill British jihadis without tripping off lawsuits are British forces, and David Cameron seems very, very wary of committing the UK to Iraq. Even if military force won’t destroy ISIS, I expect that Iraq is going to get more dangerous for anyone who fights for them. Syria isn’t exactly a safe haven, either.

The medium and long term, are, however, more interesting. After all, are the people committing war crimes going to stick around Iraq forever? I doubt it, and when the time comes to leave, they are going to have problems. At the moment security services across Europe are very worried about tracking the foreign fighters that return. One of the problems is that it’s often difficult to convict them of anything, since evidence from Syria and Iraq is scant (at the moment). Western states like Canada are finding that their laws intended to stop people fighting abroad don’t really fit with conflict in the 21st century. Many have either rushed through new legislation, or are considering it. But we don’t need new laws for war crimes – “John”, if he is indeed a British citizen, is a murderer, and we have laws that mean British citizens committing murder outside the UK can still be charged with that crime in British courts. That’s why, I think, from the perspective of justice, the deck is stacked against war criminals in jihadi groups for two reasons: politics and information.

The primary reason, I think, is that these are transnational war crimes. Every criminal tribunal prosecuting war crimes has, at some point, had to deal with the balance of justice and peace. Certainly, there can be no “true” peace after massive war crimes without a measure of justice, but at the same time, demands for justice can stoke the embers of conflict. Just look at the recent furore over amnesty in Northern Ireland. Truth commissions ostensibly privilege truth-telling and the need for clarity on behalf of victims over punitive justice. But if “John” ever returns to the UK (willingly? extradited? captured?), the English courts don’t have to concern themselves with such issues – murder is murder. If “John” happens to end up in the US, well, bad luck, I suppose. There is little political barrier to prosecution in either case.

Lack of information is a traditional shield for war criminals. The circumstances of war crimes are rarely clear cut. At this point, we don’t know that much about the leaders of ISIS, let alone who is committing which atrocity. But that’s not to say that we won’t. If King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation can identify “hidden influencers” in foreign fighter networks from open sources, then we should probably bet that behind closed doors, the security services know more about these people than they can say in public. Aspects of armed conflict that would once be witnessed by individuals alone are now captured and stuck on Youtube for the world to see. Open source citizen journalism can be remarkably effective in answering “Who? What? When? Where? How?” by locating and assembling these fragments of evidence, take, for example, Bellingcat on the recent MH17 shoot down in Ukraine. For those who commit war crimes in their 20s, we should remember that efforts are still being made to track and prosecute Nazi war criminals, some 71 years after the end of World War 2. The authorities now have a world of digital information to work with, which can be stored near-indefinitely. Foreign fighter networks operate in an environment where one hidden camera phone could produce evidence linking individuals to a war crime, that is, if they don’t film it themselves and upload it for the world to see. This means that “John”, and others like him, can’t rely on the immediate anonymity that a mask provides to protect them forever. Members of armed groups that utilise social media are, over a long enough time span, likely to be identified. I doubt that any future government will be willing to “forgive and forget” ISIS’s war crimes, which means that anybody like “John” who makes it back to the UK alive and unidentified should expect to spend the rest of their lives waiting for a knock on the door from the police. Good.

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Academia’s ‘Crypto Moment’

Like many, I am saddened to hear that Tajikistan is charging a researcher from Exeter University with treason. I am saddened, but not shocked. Authoritarian regimes are prone to detaining people that they perceive as threats, or, in the case of Egypt, jailing journalists on pathetic charges. In the specific instance of Tajikistan, the outcome is uncertain, though like (I imagine) most people, I hope for Alexander Sodiqov’s release. Even if Sodiqov is released tomorrow, the incident is likely to have a chilling effect on academic research involving field work in authoritarian states. Research Ethics Committees are, by and large, considered to be risk-averse entities, and they are likely to become even more averse to approving research where an academic is at risk of detainment by an authoritarian government. This is a problem, not least because to understand political violence and separatist disputes, the best data comes from the people involved, who invariably live in places where Big Brother tends to throw its weight around. If we want to know more about the world, that means academics going to dangerous places. The alternative is that we let ethics committees decide for us that the world is too dangerous, and the field of inquiry closes to political violence close at hand, such as homegrown radicalisation and Northern Ireland. Both of these are important areas of inquiry, but in a globalised world, its necessary to go outside and talk, otherwise the horizons become awfully limited, awfully fast. Continue reading

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War Pilgrims

As a thought experiment: consider the position of a British Shia muslim contemplating Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call to arms to defend Iraq and Shia holy sites. Sistani’s call was directed at Iraqi citizens to defend the country against ISIS‘s recent military advances, who threaten places such as Samarra, a holy place for Shia, and one with a recent history of desecration by Sunni muslims. In such a thought experiment, we might conclude that, yes, on the balance of available evidence, that sacred religious sites were in danger of being desecrated. Furthermore, we might consider that given their relative significance, a reasonably devout Shiite might feel quite upset at the prospect of this occurring. On what basis, therefore, should our imagined British citizen be prevented from travelling to Iraq to join a state-sanctioned militia whose express purpose is the defeat of a reviled group of terrorists/insurgents?

The reason for this thought experiment is that the UK government has now kicked into high gear about preventing British passport holders from travelling to Syria and Iraq to participate in the wars there. The constant refrain is that returning jihadis will pose a threat to British national security ‘for years to come.’ I am inclined to both agree and disagree to this notion. On one hand, I think that some people will come back from Syria intending to kill people in Britain, and I think that it’s quite probable that some of them will succeed. On the other hand, like Simon Jenkins, I don’t think that this threatens the state itself. The government’s policy response is to prevent people from travelling to Syria, and to delete material that might ‘brainwash’ them from the internet. Both of these are profoundly illiberal policies, and, I think, unwittingly place a secular/Christian state on one side of a religious civil war as a by-product. Returning to our thought experiment, a British Shia could, quite rightly, claim that they had no intention of joining a terrorist group, but helping a state which is confronted by very well armed and trained terrorists. Furthermore, fighting to defend religious sites from desecration is quite different from fighting to establish a Caliphate.

I have long held to a laissez-faire attitude towards foreign fighters. That is, if a British citizen wishes to go to Syria to step on landmines, then let them. At the same time, I can see that the movement of foreign fighters no doubt causes issues for states facing them. ISIS, I think, is the best example of why my attitude might be wrong. Does the British state have a responsibility to entomb its angry ‘radicalised’ youth within our borders? The government appears to think so. Football fans who (unlike me) follow football when the World Cup isn’t on will see echoes of this policy in Football Banning Orders, except in the case of Syria/Iraq, the test appears much less stringent. The problem, I think, is that the British government is afraid to grasp the twin nettles of public post-conflict monitoring, and in-conflict abandonment. We’re all too happy to reduce civil liberties, restrict travel and freedom of speech, but don’t, for heaven’s sakes, mention watch lists, surveillance and other measures that the security service could implement to track these people afterwards.

Here’s a second iteration of a laissez-faire policy towards ISIS devotees, and anyone else who might want to run off to war in a foreign country: The UK Government declares that participation in an armed conflict (of whatever kind) halfway around the world which the UK does not involve itself in means that any British passport holder who willingly involves themselves in it has to accept the consequences. No crocodile tears or exceptional diplomatic efforts if you wind up captured by the Syrians, ISIS, or the Iraqi government. This should, I think, be an open declaration or standing policy. It is also better, I think, than unilaterally stripping a citizen of their passport prior to the Americans dropping a bomb on their head, or other Janus-faced hijinx to stay within the limit of the law.

Combined with this, there should be an open-source watch-list, with emphasis on openness. The government should collate a public list of citizens who are identified as having participated in a given armed conflict of concern to the British security services. If someone wishes to contest their participation, for example, they merely wanted to take a battlefield tour, or happen to be a journalist or NGO worker, then they can do so, in some public manner (requiring the submission of a statement/evidence). There are plenty of journalists and academics identifying people in an ad-hoc fashion, but let’s make it official. The key point is that if you have no ‘good reason’ to be in a warzone (helping people, reporting, etc), then, I think, it’s reasonable for the government to state that you were there. I suspect some might disagree with this. But such surveillance should be as public as possible, the reasons for it transparent to all prior to people taking decisions that might place them at risk of being placed on such a list, and to the greatest extent possible, a person should be able to challenge their position on a given watch list. Otherwise we end up like the Americans with a kafka-esque ‘no fly list’.

I can think of problems with the above. For example, the point that publishing a watch list would allow people to see who has slipped through the net. But the point is that a public list of people known to have travelled to an armed conflict is different from the kind of watch lists that the security services use (and need to use) in secret. Someone on the public list would not know whether they are being investigated, nor would someone not on the public list be able to verify whether they haven’t been detected in secret. More to the point, someone who finds themselves on the public list and doesn’t care wouldn’t have to take any action at all. Returning to the thought experiment, the British Shiite considering going to holy war in a foreign land might think twice, which, I think, is the point of the government’s bluster. After all, if someone believes in a cause enough to die for it, this fact places a limit on what any government can do to prevent their death. If someone goes to war and gets themselves killed, then that’s their own fault. If the British government wants to prevent death and destruction in the middle east, then it needs to pursue diplomatic solutions that end wars. Stopping a couple of people at the UK’s border is, in the context of Syria/Iraq, of less use than a band-aid at the Somme.

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