Britain's Distant War
The latest attack in London is deeply connected to a hidden war Britain itself is waging
Britain is engaged in a major war, and has been for three years, yet very few people recognise this and there is little debate about the rationale or potential consequences.
It is mainly an air war fought with strike-aircraft and armed-drones and is at an intensity not seen since the Gulf war in early 1991. As then, this war is run by a United States-led coalition and has killed tens of thousands of people. What is difficult to explain, though, is that few make the connection between this new war and the many attacks of the past three years, including Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, Nice, Berlin, Istanbul, Manchester and three attacks in London – Westminster Bridge, London Bridge and now Parsons Green.
That there is a direct connection should hardly be a surprise, since ISIS propagandists were calling for attacks on the “far enemy” as soon as the coalition’s air war started in August 2014. Nor should it be forgotten that this blowback has happened before. After the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, prime minister Tony Blair insisted strongly that there was no connection between the Iraq war and those attacks; but this stance was quickly undermined with the release of suicide-videos by the bombers and by the deputy head of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The latter said: "this blessed battle has transferred – like its glorious predecessors in New York, Washington, and Madrid – the battle to the enemies' land", and that the attacks were a “slap” to the policies of Tony Blair.
For one of the bombers, Mohammad Siddique Khan, the matter was clear-cut:
“Until we feel security, you will be our targets. Until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation."
A major commitment
An odd element about the current war with ISIS is that its extent and intensity are actually in the public domain, but are scarcely covered in the media outside of the specialist security and military publications. As a result, there is virtually no political debate, even after four attacks in Britain this year alone, and many more elsewhere, not least Barcelona.
A few indicators are illuminating. The independent monitoring group Airwars finds that in the 1,134 days of the campaign so far, there have been 26,739 coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria with 98,532 bombs and missiles dropped. The great majority of these have been precision-guided munitions; the Pentagon currently estimates that over 60,000 ISIS personnel have been killed.
The Pentagon does acknowledge that many hundreds of civilian have died, but Airwars has examined the evidence very closely and estimates the number of civilians killed at a minimum of 5,343. The great majority of all the attacks have been by the US airforce and navy: the USAF flying mainly from bases in Turkey, Kuwait and Qatar, and the navy from aircraft-carriers.
The Parsons Green attack on 15 September did not kill anyone, but left several people badly burned and scores more traumatised. On 15-16 September, Airwars reported sixty-six airstrikes in Iraq and Syria which, if the death-toll was average for the coalition, would have killed at least fifty-five people on each day.
Why should Britain, in particular, be a target and why is there so little discussion? The first relates to Britain’s substantial role. In the wider coalition involved in this war, Britain is the second-most significant country after the US, followed by France and a number of others (including Belgium, Denmark and Australia); still more, such as Spain, deploy troops to Iraq to train forces being used against ISIS.
Britain operates mainly out the RAF base at Akrotiri in Cyprus, but also deploys drones from elsewhere in the region, possibly including a base in Kuwait, with these operated remotely at RAF Waddington just south of Lincoln. Furthermore, many other RAF stations in Britain are indirectly if substantially involved.
The extent of what is officially known as Operation Shader is remarkable and was covered in a useful briefing from the House of Commons library in March 2017 and a much more recent summary in the ever-reliable Jane’s Defence Weekly (see Tim Ripley, “Heading for Brexit”, JDW 54, 36, 6 September 2017)
At the forefront of the UK contribution are Tornado and Typhoon strike-aircraft and Reaper armed-drones. The strike-aircraft number fourteen at any one time, which is likely to require at least thirty available overall, but the back-up from other aircraft adds greatly to this. They include Airseeker surveillance aircraft, Voyager tanker aircraft, C130 and C17 transport-aircraft, E3-D, Rivet Joint and Sentinel surveillance aircraft and, reportedly, the newest transport aircraft in RAF service, the Airbus A400.
The Commons report in March listed 3,000 missions flown including 1,200 airstrikes, with the RAF “conducting operations not seen since the first Gulf War” in 1991. Interestingly, Jane's reports satellite data showing that RAF Akrotiri has also been host to heavy-lift Chinook twin-rotor helicopters, indicating, in its view, that they are there to support UK special forces.
The use of special forces, which governments consistently refuse to discuss in parliament, has figured in some newspapers with close links to the ministry of defence such as the Mail and Telegraph. In this case, the way the forces are organised will mean a fairly broad-based commitment.
While centred on personnel from an SAS squadron, there will also be units from the Special Forces Support Group which normally includes elements of 1 Para, the Royal Marines and the RAF regiment, as well as specialists from the Special Reconnaissance Regiment and the Special Signals Regiment, with the Chinooks and other aircraft operated by the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing.
A time to rethink
A clear conclusion follows from all this. Britain is at war; ISIS wants to bring that war home to its “far enemy”; the movement succeeds in Nice, Barcelona, Manchester, London Bridge and elsewhere. The second question above, of why there is so little discussion of how the two connect, remains to be answered.
There are several reasons. One is that it is a "remote war", with very few boots on the ground, virtually no risk to military personnel and therefore no body-bags coming home and no funeral corteges through Royal Wootton Basset.
The Remote Control Project at Oxford Research Group chronicles how this kind of conflict is part of a much wider trend towards remote war, and is accentuated by the almost complete absence of western media reporters at the war's receiving end. There is copious coverage of grim attacks like Parsons Green but no coverage whatsoever of the daily attacks in Iraq and Syria.
The political significance is considerable: for this situation is likely to continue unless ISIS gets lucky and succeeds in a major attack. At least until now, it has not been able to use chemical or radiological weapons in its targeting on the far enemy. Hopefully it never will, but if it does then that may be the circumstance when people wake up to the fact that we have been involved in a very dirty war for more than three years with no end in sight.
Furthermore, this is likely to be the model of conflict that states like Britain will repeatedly fight in the coming years – unless they consider radically different approaches to security. A week after the country entered the seventeenth year of the "war on terror", there is so far little sign of that much needed rethink.