Archive for March, 2016

Terror is Just a Train Ride Away

March 22, 2016


22 March 2016


Ever since the attacks in Paris last year, most cities within a train ride have been anticipating another atrocity.

The Belgians caught Salah Abdeslam last Friday. He was part of the Paris attacks. But the second man they wanted, everyone wanted, Najim Laachraoui, the bomb maker slipped through the net. So did the getaway driver in Paris, Mohamed Abrini. The two on the run meant others were free covering them. That meant another attack was “on the clock” – likely.

The security alert in London and other cities is Severe – the counter-terrorism agencies have covered all known bets. But the Belgian authorities have warned at the highest levels that something was about to happen.

This morning it was Zaventem airport. An hour later Maelbeek metro station was hit. Brussels Midi train station was closed. Eurostar from London was terminating at Lille in Northern France. What is special about Lille? Modern terror is just a train ride away.

Sickenly, terror means more than corpses and wounded.

Terrorism also means the bringing to a standstill or diversion of systems we take for granted. So this morning (22 March) flights were cancelled or diverted. Railroads halted. People did not get where they expected to be.

But for most who were not in the airport and not on the metro there are two concerns: am I all right and when can I get to wherever I was heading?

Therefore the greater unlikelihood is the relationship between the Western urbanite and the poor wretches trapped in the origins of terrorism, Iraq, Syria and wherever. A Syrian child observes then plays in the rubble of that morning and a late for conference all expenses paid executive checks the board for the next flight to wherever she or he was supposed to be that afternoon.

We have now a world between the longitudes of the Tigris and Euphrates and the Iberian Peninsular that is fighting for its identity. That is what terrorism is.

Every police and security agency this day in Western Europe (hardly ever Eastern Europe) is running double checks on the terror state of its capital. Terrorists like capitals. They are less obvious and the target is more terror-efficient. Anyone, especially the nervous who avoids the carriage with the guy with a Muslim look and a backpack, who rides any subway knows this.

So if we know all this and more, what now? Now is the test of a counter-terror adage. When a terrorist team strikes they are for 48 hours on the run. When they run they are, if the intelligence report system is in place, vulnerable to capture. Najim Laachraoui and Mohamed Abrini prove some escape the net, especially the Belgian net. The Belgians are particularly bad at counter-terrorism. But the rule is reasonable sound. The terrorist team is vulnerable. But if one goes down another will form. This morning’s terror attack was successful.
Many dead. Many wounded. Many scattered. The best we can think is that more attacks have been prevented than have got through. The worst we can think is that Najim Laachraoui and Mohamed Abrini are still out there. The network that supports them is still out there. For all our habit of “carrying on” we should remind ourselves that the next act of terrorism is rarely more than a train ride away.


War & Peace – Civil Wars Leave The longest Memories

March 14, 2016


Christopher Lee

Memphis 14 March 2016

Driving through the Mississippi Delta and it’s shining like a National guitar. Gracelands playing in the dashboard because the car’s old enough for that. Long John Morgan reckons this is the bleeding heart of the Civil War.

Not the Syrian, the Iraqi, the Libyan or any other ‘Goddammit fig eating civil war boy’.  Long John taps the bakelite steering wheel in time to Paul Simon. The war.  I understand.  So I have for the 20, maybe 30 years he and I have driven this trail. We’re talking four years – 1861-65. `The American Civil War.  The scar on all American lives even today.

In 1861 there were 34 states in an America not then a hundred years old.  That year seven southern states refused to give up slavery and pulled out of the Union and formed the Confederate States. The continent went to war. States went to war. Regions went to war. Families went to war. Brothers went to war. About three quarters of a million die – more Americans than died in two world wars and Viet Nam.

Long John Morgan  – he stands six seven in his cotton socks and butt-kicking boots  and comes in at 275 lbs – knows the name of every one of the Morgans (and the Delleys) who died in that thing. He knows the name of every skirmish and gut spilling moment in that four years.  Forte Munro, Pickens, Taylor and especially Sumter.  The lands were angry he says.  The ones who were not cut down were made prisoners of that war. 56,000 of them, 56,000 Americans died in those prisons. That’s somewhere near the same number of GIs who died in Vietnam.

We’re on Route 61 the Blues Highway. Greenville, Leland, Cleveland. South of Memphis.  No monuments but still in the American psyche. The black people rode this highway in search of a future. The hopelessness of it all in the music Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, John Lee Hooker and B. B. King. Not in the uptown of Paul Simon. Simon and I were born on the same day. The directions weren’t so different.  They all, he said, led to Gracelands. Monuments. The symbolism of a ghost of America’s past.

Bad Joe is big on symbolism.  He did nine years in Parchman Farm, the state pen. So did Elvis’s old man, Vernon Presley. So did Stokely Carmichael. Remember Stokely? Long John rhythms the wheel.  “Hell no-We won’t go!”  That was him.  “He sang that against the draft. Against Nam”. The civil rights activists the 300 Freedom Riders were jailed in a 6×8 cell in Parchman. Jailed, stripped, chain-ganged.  “You remember that” says Long John. “You remember Deputy Tyson. A tobacco mouth that would have backed the devil hisself into the darkest corner. Peace marchers? He knew everyone. They still quote him.  ‘Y’all all a time wanna march someplace? Well y’all gon’ march right now, right t’yo cells. An’ ahm gon’ lead ya. Follow me. Ah’m Martin Luther King.'”

We pull into the dustiest gas station ever seen.  A truck with the shiest cleanest highest pointing exhaust alongside.  America is full of contradictions. Long John Morgan rests his belly into the counter and orders two coffees and chocolate cake. “Now they’re telling us we have to burn the flag.” The symbol of the Confederates. He calls it stamping out the past but not the soul. These seem nothing things.  But they are big.  You want to talk about the tragedies on Syria? Of Libya?

To Long John Morgan and the truck driver, the bar tender, the help out back with the bucket and swab, the highway patrol officer with the cop-show blank look of a leather face US lawman Syria, Libya, Iraq are sad places for “those folk over in that place”. It is not that they do not care.  It is that they do not know. The American Civil War all that time ago they do know about, even when the facts are only folklore. They know it because it has not left them.

That’s the point the big man makes. A nation doesn’t forget even if it is not sure what it is it’s not forgetting. He repeats repeats repeats.  The Civil War has left a scar. Understand that you will begin to understand even modern America. Those folk over there, he says,will not forget.  Three four generations on from what we have let happen will still remember.  Suits in Geneva may one day call a truce. But just as 1865 was about identity so Syrians, Iraqis and all will only call truce on their memories.

What they are negotiating in Geneva this week has a hundred years to go.




Weakness in UK’s New Spying Charter

March 1, 2016


Christopher Lee

1 March 2016 Westminster

The British government is to demand that all citizens in the British Isles will have their telephone calls and internet use stored for examination by the Intelligence agencies.

Every number dialled and received will be logged and details of every web site visited will be filed and made available to police and Intelligence agencies for twelve months.

When this legislation goes through Parliament, as looks likely, it will be the most comprehensive snooping charter of any democracy in the world.

The reason for such draconian legislation is the Intelligence departments’ belief that terrorists and criminals are hiding in a maze of encrypted emails. British Intelligence agencies especially the electronic spy centre GCHQ (Government Communications Head Quarters) want access to encoded data in those messages.

The only security solution put forward is an Act of Parliament allowing the agencies to have access to everything that could be considered against national interests.  Sounds easy but it is not.

Moreover, in new legislation the heat, theoretically, is turned down on internet providers. They would be asked to give private information on encoded data where it is practicable for them to do so.

The term “where practicable” tells us that even the providers cannot get to the source of all email writers.  It is similar to end user certificates in arms sales or company accounts hiding in tax affairs.  Emails are encrypted into another email into a third fourth or how many.  The source is then hidden by numbers and redirections through more providers until no access is identified. Even if a provider were to be willing to hand over data, it is unlikely that the source would be known.

Only half of data requests are completed. Even then, Intelligence services cannot handle the quantities of encryption and certainly not unencrypted data created ever hour.

So what is the problem?  Why the urgency?  There is already legislation that allows with safeguards and restrictions legislation Intelligence agencies access to some communications.  But that legislation is about to run out.  Hence the need to renew plus additional powers as the technology outclasses codicils within existing laws.

The original draft legislation proposed during 2015 was flawed inasmuch that it was not specific enough to reassure critics that public would be protected from random snooping by the agencies.  Question is, will it do the job of catching villains and terrorists before or after their trade is carried out?

We should also consider a moment that cannot be assumed under any legislative power: this law (or set of laws) may come with the best intentions of government to protect society.  But the snooping jargon is more than slick journalism.  Such powers for the Intelligence and police departments must bring about a dawning of uneasiness in British society.

Rightly or wrongly, inevitable or not the powers to spy are about to be massively increased.

Thus British society and the way it is supposedly quietly governed is undergoing radical change. The very drafting of the Bill says that citizens are now stripped of their trusting relationship with government. Police state is not the right term for the direction Britain is heading but the Investigatory Powers Bill will change the sort of place in which most British thought they lived.

The far our next step joked about in Whitehall? To protect the citizens, homes will be fitted with anti-burglary CCTV.  Protection? No. The purpose is to check upon the comings and goings of the people. Stupid blue sky thinking? So sixteen years ago was the Investigatory Powers Bill.