Tag Archives: Milan Rai

Don’t mention Western intervention! Yemen, Somalia and the Guardian

Don’t mention Western intervention! Yemen, Somalia and the Guardian
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
29 March 2017

Earlier this month Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, warned the world was facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Speaking to the UN Security Council, O’Brien said more than 20 million people in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria were facing starvation and famine.

Following up on this, on 17 March 2017 the Guardian published a report on Yemen, noting that aid agencies have warned the country is “at the point of no return”. UN figures show 17 million people facing severe food insecurity, the Guardian noted, including nearly seven million people deemed to be in a state of emergency. With the article relegated to page 29 of the newspaper, there was just one oblique mention of the US and UK, which the report explained “have influence over the Saudi-led coalition” currently attacking Yemen and blocking aid entering the country.

Here are the basic facts the Guardian chose not to highlight. Since March 2015 Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of countries in a bombing campaign to overthrow the Houthi government in Yemen (which itself overthrew the previous government). According to the United Nations there have been over 10,000 civilian casualties, with the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes responsible for the majority of casualties. In 2016 the Yemen Data Project – a group of academics, human rights organisers and activists – reported that one third of Saudi-led air raids have hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. Martha Mundy, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, believes “that in some regions, the Saudis are deliberately striking at agricultural infrastructure in order to destroy the civil society.”

The US and UK have been closely collaborating with Saudi Arabia in Yemen. “We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat… political support, of course, logistical and technical support”, the then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond announced a month into the bombardment. Speaking to me last year, activist Medea Benjamin, author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection, explained Saudi Arabia is “getting munitions from the West… The US is even refuelling their planes in the air”. President Obama – described as “the reluctant interventionist” by senior Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland – sold $115bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia during his eight years in office. This makes the 44th president of the United States “the most enthusiastic arms salesman to Saudi Arabia in American history”, according to Senior Brookings Institution Fellow Bruce Riedel.

Speaking in January 2017, O’Brien was crystal clear about the main cause of the ongoing humanitarian crisis: “The conflict in Yemen is now the primary driver of the largest food security emergency in the world.”

The Guardian has form when it comes to (not) reporting the causes of the deepening humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Surveying the newspaper’s coverage of Yemen between June 2016 and mid-January 2017, Peace News Editor Milan Rai concluded “The critical role of the Saudi blockade in creating these conditions in Yemen has been effectively suppressed by the British media, including Britain’s most liberal mainstream newspaper, the Guardian.” According to Rai there were 70 stories or editorials about Yemen on the Guardian website during this period: “Most of those 70 items (42 stories, 60 per cent of the total) do not mention the humanitarian crisis – or the role of the Saudi blockade – in any way at all.” And though the other 28 articles did refer to the humanitarian crisis “most did so only in a way that effectively suppressed the information”, Rai notes.

Unsurprisingly a recent YouGov/Independent poll found more than half of British people were unaware of the war in Yemen, with just 37 percent of 18-24 year olds aware of the conflict.

Turning to Somalia, on 13 March 2017 the Guardian published a full page article on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in east Africa. “As many as 6.2 million Somalis – more than half the population – need urgent food assistance”, noted the Guardian, including “some districts… under the control of Islamist rebels al-Shahaab, making [aid] access complicated.” There is one mention of the US – “The US government says it has spent more than $110m on humanitarian assistance in Somalia in 2017.”

In reality, the US has been heavily involved in Somali affairs since the 1990s. These interventions, noted BBC journalist Mary Harper in her 2012 book Getting Somalia Wrong?, are viewed by “a growing number of experts” as having “contributed towards [Somalia’s] destruction as a viable nation-state.”

Speaking to Democracy Now! in 2013, journalist Jeremy Scahill explained that in the early years of the ‘war on terror’ the Bush Administration “made a disastrous decision to put [Somali] warlords on the CIA payroll” and “basically had them acting as an assassination squad.” A relative stability was created for a brief period when the Islamic Courts Union took control in 2006 – quickly shattered by the December 2006 US-supported Ethiopian invasion and occupation. The occupation, as occupations often tend to do, energised extremists, with Somali journalist Jamal Osman explaining “al-Shabaab was born when Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 and some still see the group as a resistance movement.”

Since then the US has been trying to destroy the group its actions helped create. In 2012 the Los Angeles Times reported “The US has been quietly equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to wage a widening proxy war against the Shabaab”.

“Officially, the troops are under the auspices of the African Union”, the report explained. “But in truth, according to interviews by US and African officials and senior military officers and budget documents, the 15,000-strong force pulled from five African countries is largely a creation of the State Department and Pentagon”. The US government “is trying to achieve US military goals with minimal risk of American deaths and scant public debate”, the Los Angeles Times noted. Since then the US has intensified its clandestine war in Somalia “using Special Operations troops, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies in an escalating campaign against Islamist militants”, according to the New York Times last year.

Like Yemen, the US military involvement in Somalia has negatively affected the country’s ability to deal with humanitarian crises. For example, though the Financial Times explains the looming famine in Somalia is primarily the result of regional drought, it goes on to note “The lack of effective government and an insurgency by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda linked jihadi group, have not helped.”

This quick survey of the Guardian’s recent coverage of Yemen and Somalia puts the lie to Guardian regular Polly Toynbee’s claim the newspaper is “always free to hold power to account: to take on politicians, global corporations, the secret security state or great vested interests.” The Guardian may well be free to hold power to account but it’s currently missing some huge open goals when it comes to Western foreign policy.

To be clear, I’m not saying the Guardian never mentions Western interference in Yemen and Somalia or links this to the growing humanitarian crises – I’m arguing the newspaper’s coverage does not match the importance of the issue. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argue in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent “That the media provide some information about an issue… proves absolutely nothing about the adequacy or accuracy of media coverage… More important is the way they present a particular fact – its placement, tone, and frequency of repetition – and the framework of analysis in which it is placed.”

Indeed, by downplaying of US intervention in Yemen and Somalia the Guardian have helped to keep the large swatches of the general public ignorant of Western foreign policy (see the YouGov/Independent poll) – a state of affairs that suits the US government’s interests, as the Los Angeles Times report above makes clear.

‘Nobody listened to me’: Blair’s dismissal of the anti-war movement has fuelled violent extremism

‘Nobody listened to me’: Blair’s dismissal of the anti-war movement has fuelled violent extremism
by Ian Sinclair
Ceasefire Magazine
9 June 2014

We Are Many, the forthcoming documentary on the 15 February 2003 anti-Iraq War march in London, is further proof that the day was one of the most important in recent British history. However, one aspect of the UK anti-Iraq War movement that is rarely discussed is its influence on home-grown Islamist extremism. In an attempt to think through this relationship, I devoted a chapter to the subject in my 2013 book ‘The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003’.

Broadly, the huge protests that occurred before and during the Iraq War, of which the 15 February 2003 was the largest, seem to have had two contradictory influences on violent extremism in this country.

First, the good news. With the ‘war on terror’ creating an upsurge in terrorism directed against the West, Milan Rai, co-editor of Peace News, argues “the February 15 demonstration was one of the most effective anti-terrorist actions of the last ten years” as “it convinced a whole bunch of people that Muslim concerns and Muslims as people in the Middle East were of value to large numbers of people in the West.”

Former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Moazzam Begg concurs with Rai’s analysis. Speaking in 2008, he noted “The Stop the War movement is a buffer which helps prevent terrorism in a way that the government would never conceive; when they see people demonstrating against the war it helps to pacify some of the radical elements who would otherwise have said ‘They’re all the same – go and bomb the lot of them.’”

This was the experience of Hadiya Masieh, a former Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) activist, who told me the 15 February 2003 protest “did overthrow some of the arguments of HT – that they [the non-Muslim population] hate Muslims, that they demonise Islam. If so, then why is everyone out there [on the march]?”

However, we cannot escape the fact 7/7 and other atrocities did take place. And although it’s clear the bombers’ anger was primarily about the invasion and occupation of Iraq, there is an important link to the anti-war movement. Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7/7 bombers, met his wife at an anti-war rally. Raffaello Pantucci, author of the forthcoming ‘Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen’, told me three of the 21/7 failed suicide bombers – Muktar Said Ibrahim, Yassin Omar and Hussain Osman – attended anti-war protests. When he was captured in Rome, Osman said “I am against war. I’ve marched in peace rallies and nobody listened to me.”

Speaking to me in 2009, author and activist Mike Marqusee provided a possible explanation for this move from non-violent protest to suicide bombings. “It is definitely true that the more you reject a community’s legal, lawful and non-violent expressions and aspirations the more some of them are going to turn to illegal and violent responses”, he noted. “That was as true in the American Civil Rights movement as it is now.”

Anas Altikriti, spokesperson for the Muslim Association of Britain in 2003, told me that the 15 February 2003 protest showed many British Muslims that “Democracy, politics, engagement – don’t work.” Altikriti explained, “What the Abu Hamzas and the Anjem Choudarys of this world say when they argue with me is: ‘You can shake the hand of the infidels until the cows come home. Nothing will happen. You will be their servant, and you will do as they wish. You will be no one.’ That is what they say. I’m trying to disprove them. Now you tell me, who has won the argument? They have won the argument!” In short, Altikriti believes the perceived failure of the anti-war movement to stop the march to war pushed some elements within the UK Muslim community towards adopting more extremist positions.

When I put these points to Pantucci, he urged caution about making any sweeping claims. “The link between the non-violent protest, subsequent frustration and action is not as linear as you might suggest”, he told me. “I would say that in both the 21/7 and 7/7 lot, there is considerable evidence that they were very radical before the invasion of Iraq. Iraq seems to have acted as an accelerator, but I would say that they were headed down that path long before the 2003 rally.”

Of course, this is not science. The impact of social movements is always difficult to quantify.  The evidence is messy, sometimes contradictory. And I should point out that this is dynamic does not necessarily apply to British Muslims only. Speaking to members of the Black Bloc on the day of the 26 March 2011 anti-cuts march in London, the Guardian noted “All of them said the failure of the peaceful anti-Iraq war march to overturn government policy was formative in their decision to turn to violence.”

What we can say is although it did not stop the war, the continuing influence and impact of the anti-Iraq War movement has been far wider and more far-reaching than many people appreciate. Those that marched against the war were very far from wasting their time. As Abjol Miah, a community activist in Tower Hamlets, told me: “If it wasn’t for the anti-war movement I think the Muslim youth would have been radicalised physically more.”

Reconsidering the March that Failed

Reconsidering the March that Failed
by Alex Doherty and Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
15 February 2013

Ten years on from the largest public demonstration in British history NLP’s Alex Doherty spoke to Ian Sinclair, author of the new book The march that shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003.

AD: It is now a commonplace to describe the February 15th march as a total failure since it failed to derail the drive to war. However in your book you document how the anti-war movement came very close to detaching the UK from the invasion force. Could you describe how this occurred and the broader impact of the march?

IS: I think the key period was the month between the march on 15 February 2003 and the invasion itself on the 19 March 2003 – what Gabriel Carlyle from Peace News calls “a special time in British politics: a brief window of opportunity.” A careful reading of news reports and recently published insider accounts shows a prime minister under intense political pressure, a government in continual crisis and, most importantly, a government close to falling.

“TB [Tony Blair] could barely be in a more exposed place now”, was Alastair Campbell’s diary entry on 10 February 2003. “PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] tricky. Massive march being planned.” By 7 March 2003 Campbell was writing about how the Cabinet Secretary “was quietly looking into how a JP [John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister] caretaker premiership would operate” should Blair be forced to resign.

On 9 March 2003 Development Secretary Clare Short threatened to resign, and there was a real concern within Blair’s inner circle that the Government might not win the parliamentary vote on the war. Receiving worrying reports from their embassy in London, Washington was so concerned about Blair’s position that on 9 March President Bush told his National Security Advisor Condeeleeza Rice “We can’t have the British Government fall because of this decision over war.” Bush then called Blair and suggested the UK could drop out of the initial invasion and find some other way to participate.

Two days later was what has become known as ‘Wobbly Tuesday’ – “the lowest point of the crisis for Mr Blair”, according to the Sunday Telegraph. The same report explained that the Ministry of Defence “was frantically preparing contingency plans to ‘disconnect’ British troops entirely from the military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of the campaign and peacekeeping.” The Sunday Mirror reported that Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon had phoned the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and “stressed the political problems the Government was having with both MPs and the public.” An hour later Rumsfeld held a press conference and explained that Britain might not be involved in the invasion. The Government was thrown into panic. Blair “went bonkers”, according to Alastair Campbell. In his book The End of the Party Andrew Rawnsley notes the Government’s predicament was so serious that “[Chief Foreign Policy Advisor David] Manning, [Aide Sally] Morgan and [Foreign Secretary Jack] Straw made further attempts to persuade Blair to pull back.”

All this remains one of the biggest secrets of the Iraq War – even among activists themselves. But I think if you want to seriously assess the effectiveness of the anti-war movement and, importantly, think about how you might go about stopping the next war then I think it’s important to be aware of just how close the anti-war movement came to derailing British participation in the Iraq invasion.

As everyone knows the anti-war movement didn’t stop the war but it arguably had some important impacts during the invasion and occupation. For example Milan Rai maintains that the increased public scrutiny provided by the UK and global anti-war movements reduced the destruction caused by US and UK forces. He points to the fact that the US-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War targeted and destroyed Iraq’s life-maintaining infrastructure – its electricity system, the water supply, sewage systems etc. However, in 2003 this didn’t happen. In addition, the relatively early withdrawal of UK forces from southern Iraq in April 2009 was arguably a response to the anti-war mood at home. “Their continued presence in Iraq was politically toxic” in the UK, Greg Muttitt, author of Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Iraq, explained in a public lecture at the London School of Economics last year. “Gordon Brown was keen to get rid of them and say ‘that was a Blair problem.’”

AD: The march is viewed as a complete failure even on the left – for instance at the start of the book you quote Eleanor Mae O’Hagen of UK Uncut describing the march as having achieved “absolutely nothing”. Why do you think this view of the march as an unalloyed defeat become so prevalent even on the far left?

IS: I don’t have any definite answers on this but a few things come to mind. Firstly, I should point out in one sense I think it is perfectly reasonable to describe the march as a failure because the anti-war movement failed to achieve its central aim – to stop the war.

However, as I suggest above there is a lot more to say about the march than this. And, with a few exceptions, I don’t think the anti-war movement has done a great job articulating its own achievements to a wider audience. Milan Rai has been trying to draw attention to ‘Wobbly Tuesday’ since 2003 and the Stop the War Coalition’s official book also had some things to say about the anti-war movement’s legacy, but there seems to be a lot more to say on the subject if you bear in mind that 15 February 2003 was the biggest demonstration in British history. This gap in the debate is one of the reasons I wanted to write the book, which I hope will generate discussion on the subject.

Also, I think the shades of opinion about 15 February 2003 within the left, in so far as one can make generalisations, are interesting. From my research and interviews I found the young people, like Ellie Mae O’Hagan, involved in creative direct action groups like Plane Stupid, Climate Rush, UK Uncut and Occupy had a far more critical view of 15 February 2003 than older activists, such as the leadership of Stop the War Coalition or CND. I wonder if this is indicative of a different ethos when it comes to their respective involvement in activism? For example, I interviewed the radical US activist and organiser Michael Albert a couple of years ago for Peace News and when I asked him what kept him going over his 40 years of activism he replied “I want to win. I’m not in this to be able to look at myself in the mirror. I’m not in this to fight the good fight and lose. I want to win. I don’t see any other reason to do this.” This may have been an obvious statement to many but it really shook me. Up until that point I hadn’t really thought that activists should concern themselves with winning! No doubt many will disagree but I wonder if the older, what might be called ‘career activists’ in the Stop the War Coalition leadership are a little more happy to chug along fighting the good fight, whereas the younger activists now involved in UK Uncut, Occupy etc. are closer to Albert’s position, and therefore a little more impatient for change?

AD: What were the historical roots of the protest? What laid the basis for a march on such an unprecedented scale?

IS: It depends how far you want to go back. For example, many of the people centrally involved in the anti-war movement, such as the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition, took part in many of the major activist campaigns of recent British history – the 1984-5 Miner’s Strike, the 1991 Gulf War, the war on Serbia in1999 etc. Also, in the book Rai argues the activism against the US-UK sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s assisted in the relatively quick growth of the anti-war movement because it had already “built up a considerable amount of knowledge about Iraq and had mobilized a certain amount of people”.

So I think all this activism unknowingly laid the groundwork for the huge anti-war movement that opposed the Iraq War, including the march on 15 February 2003. However, the key event in the birth of the anti-war movement was clearly 9/11. “The terrain evolved” on 9/11, according to Anas Altikriti, who was a spokesperson for the Muslim Association of Britain in 2003. Altikriti was referring to 9/11’s effect on the British Muslim community but I think his analysis can be applied to other parts of British society. Blair’s increasingly unpopular backing of the US on Afghanistan, the wider ‘war on terror’ and then Iraq was clearly the key driver of the growth of the anti-war movement. The Stop the War Coalition, arguably the leading organisation in the anti-Iraq War movement, was formed within weeks of 9/11 and by the end of 2002 had created a formal coalition with the Muslim Association of Britain and CND – the three organisations who organised the march on 15 February 2003.

To what extent can the anti-war movement take credit for the surge in anti-war feeling among the public? One answer in the book comes from Philip Steele, a peace activist from Bangor, Wales: “I would say that it was not down to any of us activists – the public had motivated themselves.”

Alex Doherty is a co-editor of New Left Project and a graduate student in the war studies department of King’s College London.