What follows are comments on some of the issues raised in my 15 November posting (‘There is a war on’), which dealt with the ISIS attack on Paris.
Last Tuesday (17 November), there was a soccer match in Istanbul between Turkey and Greece. Just before the kick-off an official call was made for a moment of silence for the victims of the terrorist attack in Paris, on the previous Friday. It was greeted by whistling and shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar’ (‘God is great’). They were celebrating!
Now this does not tell us that all Muslims support the aims of ISIS. Still less does it tell us that all Muslims support their methods. But it does tell us that a sufficient proportion of ordinary Turkish citizens feel confident enough about their sympathies to expose them in a public gathering. I am taking it that this ‘sympathy’, however little it is indulged, applies to Muslim persons generally, whether they are in a Muslim state or not. This is the genesis of the challenge to them that radical Islam presents and it cannot be dismissed by such mealy-mouthed platitudes as, ‘real’ Islam is a ‘religion of peace’ or by a refusal to call Islamic terrorism what it is.
My second point concerns the fraught matter of rules of engagement (ROEs). These are not usually published (for obvious reasons) but it has been reported in the last few days that the United States has modified its ROEs to permit the targeting in ISIS territory of fuel trucks. Apparently this had been prohibited because the driver might have been a ‘civilian’ (i.e. a person protected under humanitarian law). In fact, it is clear that this sort of legal nicety is the reason why so many sorties in the US air campaign against ISIS have resulted in the aircraft concerned returning to base with their weapons load unused. It also the reason why the sorties have been almost totally ineffective.
The generally applicable principle here is that combatants are persons who are ‘participating in the hostilities’. They are legitimate targets in virtue of what they are doing, whether or not they may claim non-combatant status on the basis of not being occupationally engaged in a formal military organisation. As noted in the previous posting, persons may also be legitimately harmed in the course of an operation the military value of which may be said to override their presumed protection.
A recent episode concerning the supposed ‘mastermind’ of the Paris attack (Abdelhamid Abaaoud) may illustrate this principle. Shortly before returning to Europe he had been in Syria. He had gone there from his home in Brussels, taking with him his 13 year-old brother. During this time, he became a potential target for a US drone, whilst driving between engagements. Again the ‘minimal risk of civilian casualties’ rule seems to have applied and the strike was aborted because of the presence of the boy. Abaaoud lived on to direct the murder of some 130 ‘civilian’, ‘non-combatant’, ‘innocent’ citizens in Paris.
On the basis of what is known about the technology and intelligence capability behind US drone strikes, it is clear that those taking this decision would have known who their potential target was. It is plausible to argue that killing him could have been justified under the principle of military necessity.
There is another aspect to this, about which I also hinted in the first posting. What was the 13 year old boy doing in the car in the first place? Is it possible that he was there to provide just the sort of protection that he did provide? If so, then Abaaoud committed a war crime. Using civilians or civilian artefacts as cover for military operations is specifically prohibited under the Geneva Conventions and the Statutes of the International Criminal Court. Are we all laughing derisively at the thought that ISIS operatives might have any concern that what they do may be contrary to humanitarian law?
The presence of the boy might have been significant in another respect. Some accounts of the incident, suggest that Abaaoud’s vehicle may have become a target because of a cell-phone intercept. This would have been a bit of a surprise because terrorist operatives like him are usually too careful to be caught like that. On the other hand, it is possible that a thirteen year old, less sophisticated in the world of political mass-murder, might have just taken an opportunity to ring home to his dad to let him know how things were going?
As I said in the previous posting, we really need to take these things seriously (and not sentimentally) if we are going to protect ourselves against what is a growing threat!