Comment: Terrorists have upper hand in deadly game

WHO COULD blame the families of James Foley and Steven Sotloff for feeling betrayed by the US government’s refusal to hand over the ransom Islamic State (IS) wanted for their release?

David Haines, pictured with his wife Dragana and their daughter. Picture: Universal News And Sport
David Haines, pictured with his wife Dragana and their daughter. Picture: Universal News And Sport

If you had to watch a man you love kneeling in the desert while a nihilistic British jihadi taunts and beheads him, it seems likely you’d be immune to the argument that caving in to IS’s demands would fuel further acts of terrorism and place many more people in danger. Especially if you’ve seen the governments of other countries – Canada, France Italy and Spain, it is said – securing the release of their citizens with secret payments and grubby little compromises.

What of aid worker David Haines’ partner Dragana? Is she sitting at home chewing over the philosophy of utilitarianism and how to achieve the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people? Or does she believe no price is too high to ensure her child’s father escapes the brutality meted out to the US hostages?

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As for Haines, as a security expert, he will be well-acquainted with all the rhetoric: that negotiating with terrorists just locks you into a cycle of hostage-taking; that any money paid will be used to fund further outrages. But Frederico Motka, the Italian aid worker kidnapped with Haines, was released after his government paid almost £5 million. As the clock keeps ticking – and no ransom is forthcoming – how can Haines feel anything other than abandoned?

This is the horror of IS; like the prison guard in Sophie’s Choice, it is forcing governments to pick one of two abhorrent options: hold firm and (potentially) sign a death warrant for one citizen or pay up and risk sacrificing many more.

Either way the terrorist organisation wins. If there was any coherence to its campaign, it would not have targeted Haines, a man who helped local people, including Muslims, rebuild their homes in Pritinja in Croatia after the Balkan War and who was helping Muslims in Syria at the time of his capture. But with no real ethos other than to inflict indiscriminate pain and cause maximum chaos, it doesn’t care much which way the government goes (the gargantuan $132m (£80m) it allegedly wanted for Foley suggests it was never serious about releasing him anyway).

If David Cameron co-operates over Haines then IS gains much-needed funds and if it doesn’t – worst-case scenario – it seizes the opportunity to flaunt its unparalleled capacity for brutality across the world. Again.

In the meantime, it gets to drive a wedge between allies, with Cameron last week berating other G8 countries for failing to keep to the agreement not to deal with terrorists. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office estimates more than $60m has been paid to militant groups over the past five years. Last year, a rise in of kidnappings was recorded in Syria, Yemen, Nigeria and north-west Africa. Unless western countries present a united front it can be assumed that trend will continue.

From the moment IS began its bid to establish a caliphate in the region in earnest – storming its way through Iraq, taking Mosul and Tikrit, massacring Shiites, Christians and Yazidis wherever, whenever it could – the west has been had on the back foot. It is difficult to fight a force that is actively seeking anarchy, particularly one that is goading you into action so it can make you out to be the bad guy.

Doing nothing is not an option, but every obvious form of retaliation seems to play to IS advantage. Having baited the US into air strikes, it is now using them as a justification for further violence against westerners. If Obama backs down now he gives the group permission to continue its barbaric onslaught. But the rebel fighters are so embedded with the population that intensifying the bombing campaign risks replicating Israel’s mistakes in Palestine and killing innocent civilians. Cameron is also right that we can’t ally ourselves with Bashar al-Assad, but equally launching air strikes in Syria without his support seems foolhardy.

Even domestic policies, such as making it easier to take away the passports of suspected fundamentalists or forcing them to go on deradicalisation programmes seem self-defeating. You can see the logic.

We can’t risk more British Muslims going off to fight or returning with the tools and training to carry out domestic terrorist attacks. If one of the problems is a growing sense of disaffection among young Muslim men and women, then depriving them of full citizenship is only likely to make matters worse.

Of course, there may be/must be other alternatives; in terms of the hostages, the US and the UK have attempted abortive rescue missions. The US was willing to engage in a prisoner swap to get Bowe Bergdahl back from Afghanistan so that’s another avenue it could explore.

On the attempt to destroy IS, Obama is intent on playing the long game, with John Kerry travelling to the Middle East to try to build a coalition of countries which back military intervention before the next United Nations Security Council meeting. In theory that seems reasonable. Yet sometimes the long game is so long it’s difficult to tell the difference between moving your pieces strategically and standing stock still. Certainly, as the world waits to find out Haines’ fate, it feels less like we have a cunning plan than that we are being completely out-manoeuvred. «

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