New Canadian Media

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Here we go again.  I have lost track of how many articles I have read over the last few days, all written in an accusatory tone that when you distill comes down to a very simple claim: British intelligence should have known that Salman Abedi was a terrorist and should have stopped him before he acted. Here is one such article.

The premise goes like this. MI5 was aware of Mr. Abedi’s extremist ideology. Concerned Muslims called authorities on several occasions to register their fears. The government did not act and hence 22 people, including many teen and tween girls, are dead.  Hence the government blew it and we have yet another example of ‘intelligence failure’. 

What is surprising, at least to me (even if I am biased) is that few if any of those casting the stone of blame have any background in intelligence or terrorism. Think about that for a moment. By analogy, political scientists should blame doctors for losing patients and soccer moms decry generals for losing wars. Make sense? I didn’t think so.

I have long complained that much of the commentary on what to do about terrorism is written or spoken by people with little firsthand or frontline experience on the subject, so I won’t repeat that here. What I will do, however, is attempt to provide an accurate picture of what really happens on the ground and put that into the context of the U.K. 

At any given time, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are engaged in a number of investigations (for our purposes we will limit the discussion to terrorism cases). These investigations are driven by what they know and a need to learn quickly what they don’t in order to assess risk. Not all cases are equally important and not every subject poses a serious threat, but you don’t know the answer to either problem until you carry out the investigation. 

There is no model or paradigm to tell you where to focus your efforts because of the high degree of variability and idiosyncrasy. 

So no, Manchester was not an ‘intelligence failure’.  It was a tragedy and a horrible act of terrorism.

On top of this, these organisations have finite resources and are unlikely to get substantially more soon (the heyday of the post 9/11 period where money and staff were limitless are long gone). In this light, you have to make decisions on the fly. Most of your decisions are good ones as evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of terrorist plots are thwarted (well above 95% I would guess).  Some are not; attacks are carried out and people die or are injured. 

So here is a simple way to explain Manchester. Mr. Abedi was ‘known’to MI5 (the U.K. equivalent of CSIS). That puts him among anywhere between 3,000 and 23,000 similar people (I have seen a wide range of estimates in open source). 

'Known’ does not necessarily mean ‘investigated’. MI5 has approximately 4,000 staff. That figure is a total number: not all 4,000 are investigators/intelligence officers (I would be surprised if the percentage of those running cases topped 1,000).  It takes anywhere from 20 - 40 people to investigate/follow one subject of interest.  Do the math. 

Even at the low end of radicalised people, you need between 60 and 120,000 officers to investigate them all. MI5, one of the best, if not the best, domestic security services in the world, is hard pressed to carry out 40 investigations at a given time.  Remember that terrorists do not always advertise their intent and that risk assessment models are tools, some better than others, not predictors. 

That, dear New Canadian Media readers. is the reality. Intelligence services like MI5 are going flat out 24/7, 365 days a year to keep U.K. citizens safe in a very challenging environment.  And as for those tips from the community – a great thing by the way – in 2016, the U.K. Channel program, a government counter-terrorism strategy, received almost 4,000 referrals.  Do the math there too please.  These numbers speak to a serious problem in U.K. society, one that goes way beyond MI5.

So, no, Manchester was not an ‘intelligence failure’.  It was a tragedy and a horrible act of terrorism. It was not MI5’s fault. It was not the U.K. government’s fault or the fault of British foreign policy.  It was not the community’s fault.  It was not Islam’s fault.  It was Mr.Abedi’s fault (plus those who aided, radicalised or inspired him).

We need to stop pointing fingers in the aftermath of attacks.  And the peanut gallery really needs to do one of two things: a) become more knowledgeable about terrorism and the challenge of preventing it, or b) shut the hell up.  The choice is yours.  Choose wisely. 

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

 
Published in Commentary

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Sunday, 13 December 2015 18:01

Pakistan Market Bombing Kills 22, Injures 55

Islamabad (IANS): At least 22 people were killed on Sunday in a bomb blast in the crowded market of a garrison town in northwest Pakistan’s Khurram tribal agency, near the Afghan border. Amjad Ali Khan, the political administrator of the area, said 55 people were injured in the blast, Dawn reported. The bomb blast took […]

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Published in South Asia

by Hadani Ditmars (@HadaniDitmars) in London, England

Iraqi cellist Karim Wasfi’s video of his musical improvisations at the site of last month’s bombing in Baghdad became an online sensation – with over 47,000 collective hits on YouTube and various content sharing platforms.

I admit to being as moved as the thousands of others who watched worldwide as he played his cello on a blasted sidewalk in Mansour – the neighbourhood named after the Abbasid Caliph who championed arts and culture. And Wasfi continues to play at the site of bombings all over his city, performing this week in beleaguered Karrada, where several blasts have rocked the neighbourhood in recent weeks, and today in Adhamiya, at the site of a violent sectarian attack.

Video Source: YouTube/News House

But Wasfi's story is not new to me.

In fact, I first met Karim in 2000, when Baghdad was enduring a different kind of siege: not car bombs, militias and ISIS at its gates, but rather a crippling embargo exacerbated by a dying police state and the growing strength of a criminal smuggling culture.

Inspired by his penchant for playing the cello under bombardment, I ended up dedicating two chapters to Karim – one bearing his name – in my 2005 book Dancing in the No Fly Zone that documented Iraqi culture pre and post invasion. 

I remember [Karim] practising every day in the tiny flat, almost as a form of resistance against the whole situation.

When my US dollars ran out, I stayed with him and his sisters in their apartment across from the old Press Centre, seemingly under the radar of the ubiquitous “minders” ('guides' assigned by the old Ministry of Information who were in reality spying on journalists). I remember him practising every day in the tiny flat, almost as a form of resistance against the whole situation.

We even staged a fundraising concert for a children’s charity in the garden of an art gallery that was later bombed, performing Gounoud’s “Ave Maria” and some Leonard Cohen songs as rather desperate incantations.

Channeling a Musical Heartbeat

Indeed after my first trip to Iraq in 1997, to report on the state of sanctions-era health care for the NY Times, I discovered that Iraqi culture was far more seductive than interviewing beleaguered doctors and overwhelmed UN workers and compiling depressing statistics.

I remember spending three days in a private hospital run by a tough Iraqi nun – Sister Marie, who had to barter for black market penicillin –hearing the stories of patients who came here from all over Iraq, as the once shining example of public health care in the region that bore the ravages of sanctions.

A doctor, who had studied in California in the 1960s, offered me his practice as a “day in the life of” venue. Just when I could not bear to hear another story of a cancer patient with no access to proper pharmaceuticals, or a child stunted by malnutrition, a lady in her 80s wandered in.

There in the hospital full of dying children, [the once famous Iraqi singer] offered a gorgeous, throaty love song about moonlit nights and the scent of orange blossoms. I was transported.

She seemed arrested in another era; her dyed black bob and dark eye make up giving her the appearance of a ’30s Hollywood screen siren. As it turned out, she was a once famous Iraqi singer, who had been the mistress of Abdul Karim Qassim (who was deposed by a CIA backed Baathist coup when he got too cozy with the Russians and nationalized foreign oil interests).

She lived in a once swanky area, but like so many others drinking tainted water, and with chlorine blocked at the border, she was suffering from dysentery. Before long she and the doctor were chatting like old friends, an introduction was made and soon she began to sing.

There in the hospital full of dying children, she offered a gorgeous, throaty love song about moonlit nights and the scent of orange blossoms. I was transported.

In a similar moment, I had wandered accidentally into the al-Rashid theatre, strung out after a frustrating day talking to people who would lapse into Baathist platitudes as soon as they saw my “minder”, drawn in by the soothing sound of strings.

Indeed his music was very resonant with the current situation and expressed all the hopes of his generation, touching the soul of his city. But these were pre-internet days . . . Lance’s story never went “viral.”

I happened upon the rehearsal of a new orchestral piece called “Heartbeat of Baghdad” by a young composer named Lance Conway (whose improbable name came from his Anglo/Indian/Irish grandfather, part of the British occupation) that celebrated, he told me, “Baghdad’s history of resistance – from the Mongols to today.” 

Indeed his music was very resonant with the current situation and expressed all the hopes of his generation, touching the soul of his city. But these were pre-internet days, and apart from a story in U.K. newspaper, The Independent, that I wrote about the orchestra, and a few paragraphs in my book, Lance’s story never went “viral.”

Making a Difference

Now Lance, a Christian, lives in Erbil, having fled the post invasion violence of the capital. Like so many of my friends in war zones, we reconnected recently via Facebook.

I mentioned the odd phenomenon of having former minders “friend me” at a recent evening at London’s Frontline Club – attended, as it turned out by Tony Borden, of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, whose colleague Ammar Al Shabandar – a supporter of Wasfi’s efforts – had been killed two days earlier by a car bomb in Karrada.

In London, a city with thousands of Iraqi refugees and exiled artists – who keep their culture alive at venues like the Iraqi Cultural Centre on Shepherd’s Bush, which currently features an exhibition of paintings inspired by the ISIS Camp Speicher massacre – Janine di Giovanni read a poignant piece she’d written on Iraq for the latest Granta publication.

With Karim’s moving video having gone viral, and so much technology at our fingertips, I asked, would this ‘make a difference’ as they say, to the situation?

Sadly not, she replied, noting a distinct sense of ‘compassion fatigue’ in the West.

While the “cellist of Baghdad” has been playing in the rubble for the better part of two decades, and the misery in Iraq appears endless, it’s still enduring culture that offers medicine for the broken hearted and succour for the soul.

And yet acts of cultural defiance, I would argue – implicit in the title of my first book Dancing in the No Fly Zone, which was inspired by a lively chobi I encountered at a wedding in Baghdad the day after Clinton’s Desert Fox bombing campaign – are as important now as ever.

While the “cellist of Baghdad” has been playing in the rubble for the better part of two decades, and the misery in Iraq appears endless, it’s still its enduring culture that offers medicine for the broken hearted and succour for the soul.

I hope that Karim’s video will indeed make a difference. But predictably, as he posted on Facebook the other day, he is now under threat from a militia opposed to his performances.

I watch his Mansour video again now, as he plays next to a barefoot man in a wheel chair, and light a candle for Iraq. Inshallah el salam, I pray, and may music continue to heal the country’s many wounds.


Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and is working on a new book about ancient sites in Iraq. She has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades and is also a singer and musician. She will be performing some Andalucian songs at the Iraqi Cultural Centre in London at 6:30 p.m. on May 16, in solidarity with Iraqi people and artists. 

 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

 

Published in Commentary

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Islamabad: At least 15 people were killed in bomb attacks at two churches on Sunday in Pakistan’s Lahore city, triggering violent protests from the minority Christian community which took to the streets, killed two suspected attackers, smashed vehicles and clashed with the police, media reports said. Two powerful explosions rocked the Catholic Church and Christ […]

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