Monthly Archives: November 2015

ISIS: Foundations and Response after the Paris Attacks – Interview with John Bew and Shiraz Maher

By Sam Wyatt and Tabby Urban. Sam is a Welsh second-year student at KCL reading BA International Relations. He is also the East Asia and Pacific Editor at International Relations Today. Tabby is a German second-year student at KCL reading BA International Relations. She has interned with the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Bucharest, and lived in the Middle East for several years. She is also the Middle East and North Africa Editor at International Relations Today.



Dr. John Bew is a Reader in History and Foreign Policy at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. His research interests include Grand Strategy, Anglo-American Foreign Policy since 1789, terrorism and political violence. He’s a contributing writer for the New Statesman, and Senior Fellow at the KCL based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR). His most recent book is Realpolitik: A History and was published by Oxford University Press.


Dr. Shiraz Maher is a Lecturer at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, as well as an adjunct Professor at John’s Hopkins University, USA. His research interests and expertise include the study of radicalisation, political movements and in the Middle East, as well as jihadist movements in the broader Middle East. He’s a contributing writer for the New Statesman, and Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR). His most recent book is Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea.



IRT: Many European politicians have said that “Paris changes everything.” Do you agree, or are we merely seeing history repeat itself as there are observable parallels between President Bush’s rhetoric on the “War on Terror” and President Hollande’s declaration of “War on Isis” after the November 13th attacks?


JB: Both. First of all, Paris does change a lot, because of the scale and obviously because of the movement of the UN, and the building up of a new coalition. Britain will most likely join further air strikes, and there’s been a massive escalation of the French campaign against Isis. Secondly, yes, also because the French have used remarkably similar language to George Bush’s “War on Terror” and that’s for legal reasons for one, but it’s also because of the serious gravity of the threat. Paris changes everything mainly because of the new international coalition that’s emerging, which will certainly make a significant change on the ground in Syria. Especially for the French, this is a massive turning point, even more than the Charlie Hebdo attacks. This also makes you wonder what effect an attack such as the one in Paris would have on Britain, because even the attack on Tunisia, where 30 Britons were killed, had surprisingly little impact on Britain’s policy towards Isis. So yes, Paris changes everything and yes, there are strong echoes of President Bush’s “War on Terror.”


IRT: Moving on to the issue of radicalized Western nationals, which we have seen execute the majority of the terror attacks on the West. How do you think we could combat this home-grown terrorism and do you see any differences in the radicalization process in countries like Britain and other European countries, like France?


SM: In terms of a pattern of radicalization for the individuals going (to Iraq and Syria to join Isis), it’s fairly consistent across Europe. There’s a sense that these individuals have not bought into the societies in which they’ve been raised, and they don’t feel a sense of connectedness with the national story of whichever country they have migrated from. So in that context, we haven’t seen a great change from the same classical issues that arose in the post 9/11 context. People weren’t set to feel British or French or German or any other Western nationality at that time, and we see a continuation of that today. For instance, when Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the 7/7 attacks in London, produced his suicide video, he said to Britain: “you are bombing, killing, imprisoning and torturing my people.” That was very telling, because who are “his people”? His people were the people he was killing that day in the 7/7 attacks, and not the citizens of a country he’d never been to and who spoke a language he didn’t speak. So in that sense there hasn’t been a real change in the drivers of this radicalization, and it’s been fairly consistent. The only main change that we see is that at that time it was civilizational discourse: here’s the West waging a war against Islam, which was the radical narrative. Now, the narrative has been, up until relatively recently, much more internalized within the Muslim community. Here, there is a battle between a Sunni and Shia future in Islam, and that was an intra-civilizational discourse. That is changing a bit with what we’ve seen happen in Paris, and this increased sabre-rattling between the West and fighters on the ground, particularly in the “Islamic State.”


IRT: So how would we combat this radicalization as a country? Should we aim at more inclusive policies?


SM: There’s no “quick fix”. Everyone needs to appreciate this, particularly the politicians, who look for these “quick fixes” and “one size fits all” approaches to this kind of trend. If you look over the last 14 years, we’ve had this “War on Terror,” and we’ve had prevent strategies in place for the best part of a decade, and yet we have more people getting up and leaving this country to go abroad and to engage in violent jihad. This is not just true for Britain, however, it’s true for Europe as whole – everything we’ve done has in this sense been a failure over that time. To tie this in with the Tory government, the prevent strategies have been aimed a lot more “up-stream,” whereas under Labour, prevent was very much concentrated with the violent extremists. The Conservatives were much more interested in combating anti-extremism per say and recognised the symbiotic relationship between extremist individuals and those who are violent extremists and how they feed off of one another. That’s going to be an important part of the challenge that comes in at this stage, and I believe that that’s going to be one of the most interesting and effective long-term soft power initiatives that governments can use. But the key is to recognise that it is long-term and unfortunately, the way I see it, the threats and dynamics we face are generational. Therefore, we can’t expect this First World War mentality of “it’ll all be over by Christmas.”


IRT: Looking at the cyber space, which Isis uses extensively for propaganda and recruitment services, do you think that “Anonymous,” who have also declared “war” on Isis, are credible threat to the organisation?


SM: In the most simple terms, no. “Anonymous” are a hacktivist collective, and using another narrative to explain this better, Isis propaganda is like a poster put up at the university for an event. Imagine I don’t like this event and the people that are behind it, so I rip the poster off the wall. That’s effectively what “Anonymous” are doing: they’re ripping the posters off the wall that Isis has put up, but the event’s still going ahead, the room is still booked, and the speakers are still confirmed. So in essence, you’ve done nothing that will actually damage them.


IRT: In your opinion, is Isis more of a state-building group, or is it transforming into a global terrorist organisation?


JB: There’s still a strong element of both. We’ve had a series of evolutions in terms of terrorist threat after Al-Qaeda, which is a modern Islamist and post 9/11 terrorist threat and which had franchised and had several affiliated organisations. Isis is still simultaneously a state and brand, so it can make a claim to be an “Islamic State,” albeit one with weak borders, and a largely unhappy population under its control. The Isis appeal, however, is a brand, which is more popular than the Al-Qaeda brand ever was in Western society. The two things, state building and global terrorist recruitment, are therefore not mutually exclusive. The problem and the difficulty is that there is no simple home vs. away aspect of this threat – there are clearly connections. The mixture of the two, both the home-grown and the foreign fighter element, are present in the Paris attacks. However, it is also possible that the attacks could have happened with people returning from the “Islamic State.” Hence, the two things co-existent and are all the more potent because of their co-existence. They also have to be tackled separately, as you can’t have the same policy for Isis abroad and within. This is also because the problems that they feed upon are different. Isis the “state” has benefited from the collapse of state order in the Middle East, while Isis the “franchise” feeds off long-term problems of discontent, alienation, lack of integration and ideologies that pre-date Isis and are associated with certain brands of Islamism. So essentially, the two aspects of Isis are connected, but the solutions are fundamentally different, and they have to be treated in this way. Any military response to Isis has to be performed under the premise that Isis is a de facto or pseudo “state.” Any response to the problem of domestic radicalisation has to start from the premise that a lot of those at threat are indigenous to those populations.


SM: All I’d really add to that is that Isis is a very sophisticated, quasi-state-building movement that uses terrorism. You therefore can’t classify them as simply a terrorist movement and I think it’s unhelpful for any policy maker to see them in that way. To really understand them, you have to go inside and really understand their theological view of the world. They have two very contradictory aims, but which make sense to the internal dynamics of the group: they believe in the Caliphate, so in the state-building element of that, which is to expand the “state” and develop it in any meaningful way. But at the same time, the “state” is just the means to an end. The philosophical end is to hasten the end of time and to essential meet your maker. So in that sense, the project is simultaneously constructive in the physical and real sense, but all of that constructiveness is there to achieve the philosophical destructiveness, which is to bring about the end of time in and of itself.


IRT: Tying in to this apocalypse idea, with “Dabiq” in northern Syria being the place where Isis will eventually meet and conquer the enemy, are boots on the ground inevitable? Or would this simply be playing into Isis’s propaganda purposes and being what they essentially want?


JB: To answer this question, you have to go back to the early debates at the start of Syrian civil war about intervention or non-intervention. These actually are debates that we’ve been having constantly since the end of the Cold War. In the initial phase of the Syrian civil war, which was escalated massively by the Regime and who have done their fair share of killing civilians in Syria. At the start of the civil war, there was a debate about what to do, and boots on the ground were inconceivable from a Western perspective. Since 2011, we’ve seen a lot of disputes, with the UK parliament’s Syria vote in 2013, with last year’s strange compromise whereby the British contribute to airstrikes against Isis in Iraq, but not in Syria, right through to the debate on Syria, which is going to happen next week in parliament. The irony is that as that process has pro-longed further and where there has been no intervention, the likelihood of boots on the ground is now greater than ever. The longer you leave it, and don’t do anything, the more likely it is that your nightmare scenario is approaching. I think that there will be Western boots on the ground. Obviously, there are external boots on the ground already with the Iranian and Russian forces. There are also creeping American boots on the ground in an advisory capacity. Whoever the next American President will be, will probably put more people on the ground, and Obama is more likely to as well in the remainder of his term in office. In the short-term, the way to lose an argument on Syria is to say that we need boots on the ground. But the fact is that we need to re-enter that mental space where boots on the ground are conceivable, because the mental frame from before has led to a consistent “no” policy, and we’re in a lot more of a mess than we were with any sort of the minor and lesser varieties that were mooted since 2001. Simple answer therefore is: nobody wanted to go there, even the advocates of some limited form of intervention, such as I was in 2013. I would recommend reading Robert Kagan’s long essay on World Order in the Wall Street Journal, which is very controversial, but basically argues that boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq are highly likely.

Do we put boots on the ground also goes back to an era where we had shared Western approaches to these problems. Now, however, we entering an era where there is no coherent Anglo-American or Western approach. So Britain has to face a different question: as France and the US are intensifying their approach against Isis, does it do the same? Does Britain want to be part of this Western alliance? Ultimately, when the chips are down, it has chosen to be part of this in the last 100 years. That choice is coming up again. We’ve just had the SDSR (Strategic Defence and Security Review), which shows that Britain’s two new “strike brigades” of 5,000 probably won’t be ready until 2025. Britain is therefore in no fit state to put boots on the ground at the moment anyway, but that’s a different question and more UK-centric.


IRT: Do you think that Assad and Isis can be tackled simultaneously, or should one be taken out before the other? What can be considered the “end-game” for Syria especially?


JB: Personally, I think another problem with policy has been this obsession with first of all “end games” and second of all “exit strategies.” There’s a good reason why we talk about end games and exit strategies, especially after we have seen how wrong things in this respect went during the Iraq War. Therefore, of course we’re concerned about these things. You don’t, however, have a strategy that always envisages a neat end game, where everything is wrapped up nicely. I think one of our problems has actually been to talk about angels without any strategy at all. We’re talking about a desired end state of affaires. An ideal one, particularly in 2001, was all about Assad and a transition to a feasible democracy. That is something that I, morally and emotionally, would prefer the outcome to be. However, the problem that I have with this approach is the role of the Western diplomats, who ran so far ahead of themselves and adopted a policy of “Assad must go” without the ability or the willingness to bring this about. It’s therefore very important to be careful about what you say in these circumstances, and if you do say something, you should mean it. If we keep going about proclaiming things we can’t follow through with, this will start to diminish our authority. I salute the instinct of “Assad must go,” but we need to get back in the business of being able to do things and not just talking about them.


SM: The whole point about Assad going is an important one in the context that every crime that Isis has committed, Assad has committed the same crime. We talk about the sexual slavery brought about by Isis, but sexual violence was brought into this conflict by the Assad regime. We’ve seen the “Islamic State” behead people, torture people – but these are things that the Assad regime has been doing since the very beginnings of the Syrian conflict. However, people were too afraid to raise their voices against the regime. So in that context, there’s no moral equivalence to be drawn here – the Assad regime has not only committed the same acts as Isis, but has perpetrated them on an industrial scale. It is sometimes said that at least Assad is somewhat of a status quo power, whereas Isis fundamentally wants to re-order the world, and they’ve got the blood of our citizens on their hands. The first part of that is true, because yes, Isis wants to destabilize the status quo, whereas Assad was generally happy with what he had in 2010. But the idea that Assad’s hands are clean of Western blood is nonsense. For every foreign fighter that got through to kill British and American troops in 2003, if you want to take a very narrow and self-interested line, you have to ask yourself how they were getting there. They were going through Syria – they were travelling with the complicity of the Syrian state and the acquiescence of its intelligence agencies. These, in conjunction with Iran, wanted to de-stabilize Iraq so as to give the West a tough and torrid time there. So precisely this brutalized experience that we’ve had in Iraq in 2003 and thereafter was not solely, but in a large part, due to a policy pursued by the Syrian regime. The idea that we should now give this man a “free pass” is a very dangerous. Of course, nobody is explicitly saying that we should give Assad a “free pass” directly, but just that we have to work with him for now. I think that this fundamentally miscalculates the situation that’s on the ground. Isis is deeply unpopular, and the Syrian people don’t want Isis there. But they don’t want Assad either, and so any attempt by us to simply go in and remove Isis, is mistaken. How are we going to achieve this? At the moment, our strategy is to bomb them from the air, which is largely ineffective. We are not going to disrupt the group and destroy it through this campaign, and whilst we do that, we share the airspace with Syrian regime jets and helicopters that mercilessly bomb civilians. Hence, the Syrian people, who were once very pro-Western, are standing there saying: “What is the West doing?” It is not exactly aiding our abuser, but at the same time aren’t doing anything to stop it either. We’ve therefore lost a lot of good will and prestige on the ground. Even if Isis were removed from the equation tomorrow, the conflict itself would persist, because what Syrian people want is a removal of the regime. This is the regime that is principally responsible for the hundreds of thousands of deaths, the refugee crisis and indeed for the growth of a movement like Isis, which was given space to develop due to the ineffectiveness of the regime.


JB: I think where we would strongly agree is on the dangers of being sold a false dichotomy: either Isis or Assad. This has been a strong component of the debate right from the start. There are people that say Assad shouldn’t have been allowed to cross red lines with the chemical weapons attacks on his own people and within the vicinity of his own capital. Others would then ask if you therefore want Isis to win. This has been an argument for inaction, but it shows the false dichotomy that has been set up to dumb down the debate, and this should never have been the dichotomy. Unfortunately, as this conflict has unfolded, the choices have gotten worse. This, in turn, shows the detrimental effects of doing nothing across the board, which I think is the biggest issue here. Early on in the conflict, Shiraz and I would talk separately to people on the ground, who were involved in the “Moderate Opposition.” One of the things that they said in conversation with the Russians, for example, is that Russia didn’t want to see a complete implosion of Syria and Iraq along the lines that this happened for very selfish and strategic reasons. But the Russians, earlier on in the conflict said that they can bring Assad to the table on a chain, but the opposition can’t bring anyone. The rebels have created this external opposition, which is not very grounded and has little sway on the ground. So while having this diplomatic posture of “Assad must go” we’ve actually lost any sort of leverage as to how that might be achieved. To re-iterate what Shiraz said, there’s no stability choice here. We’ve had a massive collapse of order in the Middle East, with Isis playing off on this, and there’s also no stability in a Syria under Assad. Working with Assad is therefore not the right answer. But taking a serious approach would mean being able to juggle the full complexity of the conflict, being able to play two games at once, being able to think of short-term and long-term goals, while at the same time being able to take the tactical choices in order to achieve these. I think this is a lost art in Western foreign policy, because we deal in absolutes and “Home by Christmas” approaches. But what we see in the world, with Russia, Turkey, the Kurds, and the Iranians, is a different way to conduct foreign policy, politics and security. This is ugly, morally complex and sometimes contradictory. We have to learn how to play that game again, because we can’t continue down the path we’re going down at the moment.


IRT: Talking about the role of Turkey, which has had first hand experience with Isis terrorism, but is also not always aiding the efforts to combat Isis, mainly because of their targeting of the Kurdish militants, how do you see the role of Turkey evolving in the conflict?


JB: Turkey has immediate interests that involve the security of its own state, its borders, as well as its whole perception of what it needs to do in order to survive. First of all, we have to appreciate that the stakes are very high for the Turks. Secondly, Kurdish terrorism is a serious problem in Turkey and continues to be. Thirdly, Isis is and could be a very serious problem for the Kurdish state, and we’ve seen Isis directed attacks in Turkey. So let’s not forget that Turkey has a real problem here. Relating to the complexity of the game we’re playing in the Middle East, it has to be kept in mind that we need Turkish air space to have an effective campaign against Isis. We see that the Turks have used the alliance with the West as a cover to wage their own war against various Kurdish organisations. This shows just how messy this conflict is getting, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. What you’re left with when you fail to play big power politics, don’t try to manage borders, don’t do anything when states are collapsing, and don’t do anything when industrial scale killing is going on, is that you end up having less and uglier choices and many other actors fill the void. There was a brief moment with Turkey when official senior figures in the Obama administration responsible for the conduct of foreign affaires went out and did get Turkish acquiescence for a blunting of the Assad regime’s capabilities right at the start of the conflict. But that door has closed. Instead, we’ve had further unravelling of events. More than anything, the shooting down of a Russian plane, allegedly over Turkish airspace, tells you everything you need to know about this conflict and how complicated it’s become. So overall, there’s no easy answer and there might have been a moment where Turkey could have been a key strategic asset, but that is gone now. Even the Kurdish-Turkish relations were improving up to this moment and there were some very intelligent articles in 2001 and 2002 about how this stabilization of the relationship may be the key. But that has been blown up now. Turkey, therefore, will be a massive player in whatever happens, perhaps an even bigger player than Iran.


SM: The important thing to remember as well is that Kurdish forces have killed a staggering amount of Turkish soldiers in the last few months. If you look at this from the national security perspective of the Turks, you’re responsible for Turkish security. That is therefore a massively pressing issue on Turkey’s doorstep, which is directly affecting your armed forces and your national interests, and therefore requires your attention. The second aspect is that we told the Turks at the start of this conflict, and when the Free Syrian Army essentially came into being, to keep their borders open. The West was only giving non-lethal aid, but it was central for the Turks to allow the free passage of weapons through their borders when the Saudis and Qataris started supporting the Free Syrian Army. If you look at interviews towards the end of 2011 and throughout 2012, the West was saying to Assad that he needed to bring the conflict to an end. Assad replied saying that he could end the whole conflict in a couple of weeks, if one could get Turkey to close the border. What he really meant by saying this was to choke off the supply lines of these rebels, and this would end the opposition movement in military terms. This is true, but the supply lines were never closed, because we had an interest in keeping them open in order to allow the flow of supplies. In that time and in that context of having those supply lines open, of course the jihadists began to use them as well. They used them to establish a very sophisticated network. Think about the debate we’re having in the UK about securing our borders as an island, and then consider the length of the Turkish border with Syria, and with Turkey being a landmass. The idea of sealing off the border is a fantasy – it’s a huge amount of territory that is also very difficult to control. The final point on this is that I’m very sympathetic with the Turks. Look at the situation in Pakistan in the 1980s, but in the post 9/11 climate as well: you have a conflict going on in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. You have a number of highly motivated and committed jihadists landing in your country who wish to do nothing to it – they just want to use it as a thoroughfare to join the armed conflict next door. The moment you begin to close that border to domestically crack down on these individuals in your own territory, what happens? The crisis comes home. So in Pakistan, when they closed the border and made life harder for those cross-border operations, certainly Islamabad, but also Lahore became the target of attacks. It fundamentally changed the entire nature of Pakistani society, because the domestic terrorism threat became so severe, and it had become so severe because of the clamping down on the tribal areas in the FATA provinces. The same thing would happen Turkey. When we’ve done field-work going down to Turkey, there are members of Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra in Istanbul and other cities. There have been the odd occasional bombs that have gone off, but nothing sustained or comparatively significant. But I guarantee that if you started to close down the border to Syria and really made life difficult for these jihadists, they will start saying that the Turkish state has become the enemy and that they are the ones prohibiting jihad. Therefore, they will feel the urge to wage jihad in Turkey, which would result in massive instability. So for Turkey to just let people jump the border is a policy that makes complete sense from their own pragmatic national security perspective.


IRT: How do you see the role of other regional powers emerging in the conflict? We’ve seen that Iran has recently become more involved, since it participated in the Vienna Conference on Syria, but do you see them getting together and finding a common solution any time soon?


SM: Each of the countries in the region has their own interests in the conflict. They are broadly aligned sometimes, but not always. Even if you look at the Sunni side of the balance, for example, you see that the Saudis are often not aligned with the Turks and the Qataris, who actually align more often. Take those official state actors out of the equation, and you find that there are well-organised and rich networks of individuals who also fund some of these organizations. Blocking off those supplies of money is incredibly difficult. This is a conflict where we in the West don’t have a direct influence to block the flow of funds and therefore weaponry was going to Al-Qaeda in 2003 when they were killing our own troops. Trying to do it now is even harder. The point is that on one side you have all these different powerful states with deeply vested interests that are not just important in the grand geo-political equation of the region, but which is also complicated further by the religious split between the Shia and Sunni communities. That makes it clear to me that at least on that side, you’re not going to get a resolution any time soon. On the flip side again, the Iranians and the Russians are pursuing different agendas, although they’re on the same side in the region. For Iran in particular, its objectives in Syria are very different to the ones in Iraq. In Iraq, Iran wants to build the militia al-Hashd al-Sha’bi, and is therefore completely different from what they’re pursuing in Syria. The different agendas behind the backing of all these troops in the region therefore suggests to me that we won’t see a resolution any time soon. More importantly, even if you were to get some level of official agreement between these countries, the two most important actors on the ground, Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, would not be bound by any agreement that these partners reach. In this case, you would see a continuation of the conflict, so I fear that any agreement may essentially be limited to the paper that it’s written on.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

War Aims – The Fundamentals of our Fight Against ISIL?

By David Vallance, a second year student from Sydney, reading War Studies and History at King’s College London.


For almost two years now, we in the West have been witnesses to the absolute barbarism of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. We have all read the stories in the newspapers and online about the beheadings, rapes, mass murders, and burnings, and some with stronger stomachs than me have watched the videos ISIL put out. It is a truly disturbing time we live in; we are used, in our history, to people trying to cover up atrocities – now we have been confronted by a group that revels in sharing their cruelty with the world. What ISIL do is against any ethical code, be it a religious or cultural one, but it is my opinion that because of their awful actions and the visceral emotional effect they have on us, we have lost sight of any appreciably concrete aim to be fighting towards. To say we will “degrade and destroy” ISIL makes for a good sound bite, but not a good policy, as I shall try to explain. ISIL should be destroyed, but in order to achieve that end, we must first decide exactly why they must be destroyed. Not only will that decision colour how we are able to fight them, but it will also determine what comes after their defeat.

In the wake of the most recent United Nations resolution (2249), which has called for vastly increased international cooperation to defeat ISIL, we must critically analyse exactly why we are fighting – and before anyone reading this accuses me of not wanting to help those unfortunates suffering because of ISIL, I am strongly for increasing our military commitment to help stop their atrocities. However, if we do not at least discuss the core reasons for fighting ISIL, we will not be able to develop any concrete aims or end points of our intervention; and with them, we will not be able to have a coherent strategy about how to rebuild the region when (or for the pessimists among you, if) ISIL is defeated.

So, when we step back from all the political posturing, the loud moral indignation of social media, and the slow response of the UN, we see three main arguments as to why we are fighting.

Firstly we have the threat (and in some cases, the reality) of ISIL destabilising and threatening nations around the world – is this why we are fighting, for the interests of nations who have been attacked by the group or have had their interests threatened by them? Some realists would say that this is enough, but does not seem like a good enough explanation.

Next we have the ethical arguments you cannot help but see all over social media, condemning ISIL as not only acting as animals rather than as people, but also perverting a region the majority of whose adherents live in peace to their own violent ends. Are we then fighting a moral war for the survival of a universal ethical code? Again, the idealists of the world will see this as more than enough justification to step up military activity against the group, but again the explanation is not complete.

Finally, we have the justification focusing on the threat ISIL pose to international order in general. Resolution 2249 called the group an “unprecedented threat to international peace and security”, which therefore must be stopped. While I’m sure we would all agree that indeed they must be stopped, but does ISIL really constitute that “unprecedented threat”? I would suggest that the threat it poses is anything but unprecedented. The events of the 11th of September 2001 should be able to tell us that much. Many people cite terrorist activity in countries outside Iraq and Syria, particularly in Nigeria, to counter this, however we must remember that casualties here are so high because of the groups already operating there – of course I am talking about Boko Haram. Where ISIL have no affiliated organisations, there are no more dangerous than their parent group, Al- Qaeda, was in the first decade of the century. If anything, if we judge by casualties, Al-Qaeda have been more destabilising than ISIL outside the Iraq/Syria region. ISIL certainly do pose a credible threat to international peace, but it is not unprecedented, and as such we cannot justify our military action by that point alone.

You only need to look at the Coalition’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan to see how destructive not having coherent war aims can be. On the flip side of that, we can look back in history to the Second World War to see the opposite – the Allied aim to defeat Nazis as opposed to Germany meant that post-war reconstruction not only took place with great efficiency, but was seen as a matter of course. When aims are clouded, it is totally impossible to see past them. Post- war reconstruction in Germany, I believe, have invaluable lessons to teach us, and it is from this example that I base my interpretation of what our aims should be in this current conflict.

All the justifications for war I listed above do not talk about the concrete situation of people on the ground in Iraq and Syria living under ISIL’s rule. Contrary to what many exponents of the moral arguments against the group will tell you, many are able to live decent lives under their rule. In a recent event hosted by the King’s Think Tank – The Future of The Islamic State – panelists from Chatham House and RUSI Qatar explained that in many cases life in occupied Iraqi territory can be better than in areas controlled by the government. Joining the group provides a higher income than generally available elsewhere, and also guarantees that, should you be killed, your family will be provided for. To the many Iraqi’s and Syrians impoverished by war, this has to seem a very attractive prospect. Thus it is not true to say that ISIL hold their territory purely by terror – they are providers as well.

With this in mind, it should be obvious to what end or aims should drive us: the provision of a credible alternative to ISIL by a comprehensive program of not only state, but also nation building.

I make the distinction between the two since our post-conflict experience in Iraq and Syria show that simply creating a vaguely competent administration is not enough; we must also make efforts to foster a sense of national identity. It is my belief that a great draw of ISIL for its members is that it provides, through its ridiculously extreme interpretation of Islam, a incredibly strong sense of identity. If we then consider that the majority of its fighters are young men, this conclusion becomes all the more inescapable – young men, as well as women, all over the world are generally confused and seeking some kind of belonging or direction. We are fortunate in our countries we are able to find other means of being part of something, like student politics, music, or sport, to name just a few examples. Those who end up joining ISIL have had no such opportunities, and so their only option to garner a sense of identity lies in subscribing to and ideology of violence.

This conclusion goes a long to explain the deficiencies in the justifications for fighting ISIL listed above. The national interest argument fails to take conditions for those living on the ground into account, focusing too much on those intervening. Conversely, the moral argument focuses too much on the ethical implication of ISIL’s violence, failing to take into account conditions on the ground in a very different way. The former is too practical with its realist logic and does not address the fundamentals in the region, and the latter has too little practicality about it, simply saying that these things should not happen. Strangely, both of these different approaches to the conflict had the same result – neglecting the material needs of those civilians caught up in the conflict on the ground. This being the fundamental issue that should be addressed in ultimately bringing this conflict to an end, neither of these justification are sufficient, and indeed we should avoid them as much as humanly possible. The threat to international peace and stability argument is essentially the same as the national interest argument, and so suffers from identical deficiencies.

From all this, what we should take away is that it is simply not enough to label ISIL as “evil”. That accomplishes nothing. In fact, it actively stymies our attempts to agree on how to fight the group and how to bring the conflict to an end. We cannot let our passions – though anger at ISIL’s atrocities is certainly justified – rule the day. In a matter as complex as this, our only hope for anything resembling a decent resolution is to approach it critically and keep our heads. For the sake of those suffering in the region, we cannot afford to be ruled by self-interest or emotional politics.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Valletta Summit on Migration – A Truly Selfless Political Agenda?

by Elisa Gomez, a second year European Studies (French Pathway) student and the Communications Officer for the European Society here at King’s.


Last Wednesday 11th of November, European Union leaders and their African Union counterparts flocked to Valletta, Malta’s capital, to discuss potential common strategies to deal with the ongoing migration crisis. The main outcome of the conference, which was meant to build upon pre-existing cooperation mechanisms such as the Joint EU-Africa Strategy (1), was the promise made by the European Commission to establish an Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. Such a fund would consist of a total of 1.8 billion euros drawn out of the different development schemes included in the EU budget, and its main objective would be – in the words of Donald Tusk- to “address the root causes” of migration, namely the lack of “security and opportunity” in many African countries (2). The conference also touched on the need to take decisive steps to fight human trafficking in the Horn of Africa, as well as the need to promote effective investment strategies in order to boost African business initiatives (3). All in all, the Summit was nothing short of ambitious, and it remains to be seen whether these schemes will lead to actual, concrete developments in the future. Furthermore, the EU’s true motives have been called into question, with some members of civil society and NGO representatives voicing their concerns that the Emergency Trust Fund is simply an appealing way to impose more severe migration regulations (4).

It is no secret that anti-immigration feelings are currently at an all-time high in Europe, with what an approximate 8,000 refugees reaching European shores every day, according to recent UNHCR statistics (5). Throughout the last few months, European citizens have stood by and watched as new barbed wire fences and barriers were (and continue to be) built along Europe’s most ‘vulnerable’ spots (6). Refugees on their way to Germany and the UK have been retained under regrettable conditions in train stations and migrant camps such as the infamous Calais jungle. Some leaders (most prominently Angela Merkel) have reiterated their desire to maintain an ‘open-door policy’ in their countries, but “it is unclear” how long they will be able to carry on with such practices “amid heightening political opposition” (7). Furthermore, given the failure of the proposed quota system to share refugees across the different EU member-states last August, it seems unlikely that the EU will come up with an alternative common strategy in the near future.

In this dark context, it is perhaps not surprising that one of the proposals heard at the Valletta Summit last week was indeed the suggestion that refugees should be divided into two categories (skilled and un-skilled), and that European countries should be allowed to prioritise the former over the latter (8). As for the Emergency Trust Fund, large NGOs such as Oxfam EU have been quick to point out that there’s something inherently wrong in attempting to couple structural aid aimed at eradicating poverty and readmission procedures designed to cap migration flows. In an official statement released shortly after the summit, the highly influential charity expressed their firm view that: “further aid provided in the context of migration must be in alignment with the development needs of the recipient country and its people … not aimed at addressing a perceived problem for Europe” (9). Members of African civil society have also commented on this ‘package deal’ put forward by the EU leadership, arguing that the heads of state might be more interested in coming up with quick, short-term strategies to manage Europe’s share of the migrant crisis, rather than establishing long-term solutions designed to combat systemic poverty in Africa (10).

A further paradox has been highlighted by Jones Nhinson Williams, President and CEO of the New Liberia Foundation. After all, how can  “poverty-stricken, unemployed and hopeless young people” crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Europe be denied entry into the EU when banks throughout the European continent (the Swiss case being particularly outrageous) store “billions of dollars” kept there by corrupt and tyrannical African leaders such as former Congolese (Zaire) President Mobuto Sese Sekou? In fact, according to Mr Nhinson Williams, “European banks keep stolen wealth for an array of corrupt West African leaders and economic criminals from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria, Togo, Mali, Ghana, Senegal, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, The Gambia, Cameroon, Mauritania, Cape Verde, and of course the epicenter of naked corruption, Liberia.” (11) If the European Commission and Mr.Tusk really wish to improve the situation in African countries, and one can assume that their intentions are not completely surreptitious or dishonest, they should perhaps target corruption and bad governance, instead of shifting their focus to “peripheral issues” in the form of “idealistic programs” that will be practically impossible to undertake (12). Then again, those who stand to lose the most from a war against corruption are not defenceless refugees with little or no means to fight back, but huge vested interests that might be inconceivably hard to surmount.

It will be interesting to see if the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa will actually have meaningful outcomes in the long term. Still, it should be clear that no amount of aid will solve the refugee crisis. As long as key regions remain unstable, people will continue to put their lives on the line and those of their children to bring their families to safety. It would be incredibly inhumane to turn our backs on them.






Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Divided European Society and Why Defeating ISIS is Not Good Enough

by Nora Bohlin Andersen and Millie Radovic, both second year BA International Relations students at the War Studies Department of King’s College London.

12272922_10207768361387820_1583723157_n (1)Radical. The Oxford Dictionary has many definitions for this term, but arguably one is most appropriate here: ‘A person who advocates thorough or complete political or social reform.’ If you agree with the OD, and think we fit into this category, please feel free to expose us for what we are.

It is radicalisation, the process of adopting extreme political, social, and/or religious ideals and aspirations, that we want to discuss. According to some scholars this word is arguably “code for ‘that which cannot be spoken about’”. It is precisely this taboo-like character that arguably drives it in the first place, which is exactly why we feel it must be addressed.

In contrast, terrorism, or ‘the unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims’, according to the OD, is notoriously the most easily thrown around word, associated blindly by ill informed civilians with concepts and practices not related to it.

Evolution of threats

Frankly speaking, terrorism is a physical consequence and manifestation of radicalization itself. Terrorism in our (Western) societies is today almost exclusively a practice employed by the radicalized, whether these are islamic fundamentalists or right wing extremists. Originally it was conceptualized as a practice of asymmetric warfare, most often used by inferior actors in a conflict. It is indeed easy to see it is a tactic employed by insurgents, separatists, and even some civil rights movements as it still at times is. But, today, from where we’re standing – yes here in London, terrorism used by radicalized individuals is the largest danger our society faces today.

We’ve seen this in 2004, 2005, 2011, 2015, and frankly in smaller doses in every other year of the 21st century.

Following the Paris attacks last week, it is more clear than ever that our policy, to defeat ISIS because of its zero-sum fundamental aspiration of eradicating all that don’t comply to its extremist practices and views, moreover our general policy to ‘destroy terrorists’, is simply not good enough.

We have been right to recognise socio-economic problems as factors that breed terrorism.

But, we must remember not to geographically associate terrorism in our back yards with issues in the Middle East. Yes there are domestic problems in Iraq, Syria,Yemen, Libya, Egypt and many other countries that breed terrorist action there (whether by the so called Islamic State, separatists, or insurgents).

However, this is not the case with Europe. Our chief threat in terms of terrorism comes from within. It is homegrown terrorism that has been most prominent in the form of lone wolf attacks. And problems in our society are the ones we must address to deal with this, not just those abroad. Not because issues abroad are less important or European lives are more ‘valuable’, but because action abroad can only get us so far. ‘Destroying’ ISIS as a physical entity would arguably not be difficult. But it certainly would not destroy the idea it champions and how much it resonates with individuals in Europe. It might as well just increase its prominence. We have to look within our societies and examine the reasons why someone ends up conforming to a radical ideology, whether it’s right wing extremism or islamic fundamentalism.

Switching off

Arguably, “radicalization starts from social disengagement” and hence “a rejection of mainstream culture, ideas and norms”. How so?

Kenan Malik has convinced us in arguing that detachment of individuals from society has lead to the loss of an identity and hence those without a feeling of belonging to their communities identifying themselves with radical movements in the darkest possible ways. Radicalization does not happen within the epicentre of society, it happens somewhere else. Within the walls of someone’s apartment, on forums in social media, or maybe in complete solitude on a farm somewhere in rural Norway.

Radicalization can most certainly spread in different directions. The most prominent example of right wing radicalization follows the same narrative as the ones described by Malik. It starts with a man living his life largely isolated and interacting mostly with others over the internet develops a fucked up view on society. He writes a manifesto calling for putting a stop to multiculturalism, opposing Islam and getting rid of all immigrants. He then decides to translate his views into action and goes on a rampage ending up killing 77 innocent people.

How did we get here?

Whether through aggressive assimilation, overt political correctness, or crude separatism – we, Europeans, have collectively made mistakes with our social policies. The failure of multiculturalism as a policy is seen in: ‘fragmented societies, alienated minorities, and resentful citizenries’. This is most certainly not a critique of Europe’s multicultural body, but of the social policies its governments have put in place to manage it and the resulting process within civil society that has left Europe as a society divided. This tension connected to an increasingly pluralistic society only seems to get reinforced every time an act of violence occurs.

And hence, right wing populism is on the rise in Europe. Recently, we have seen an increase in support for PEGIDA, increased violence where refugees are the victims or actions like setting reception centres in Sweden on fire.

While the aims of their violence appear political, certainly Kenan is right in saying that ‘politics of ideology have given way to politics of identity’. Society has become more about individuals defining ‘who they are’ and conforming to one already set out identity instead of moulding their own.

But again, why are we talking about all of this?

It is easy to see that these deep-rooted problems in the region we call our home are helping the so called Islamic State, even Boko Haram, recruit foreign fighters; they are spurring lone wolf attacks such as the above (which make up most of the terrorist attacks within the Western world) all because they facilitate if not breed fundamentalism.

Increased air strikes, reform within our intelligence communities, and especially multilateralism in terms of our policy on Syria’s civil war, are all justifiable concrete steps in dealing with what is becoming a defining problem of 21st century’s international relations. But they are not good enough on their own. We must look within our own back yards too. If not first, then simultaneously.

Ok, so we’ve identified radicalisation as the key cause of homegrown terrorism in Europe. What will blocking borders, increasing surveillance, and censoring anything we deem politically incorrect do to address this? Nothing. What we need for starters is more openness and dialogue.

We understand that contemporary efforts at fairly controversial counterterrorist practices such as mass surveillance, mass censoring, profiling of potential state enemies and much more are human responses to the feeling of perpetual insecurity. But surely, it is not difficult to notice that suppressing radicalisation simply breeds more of it, which breeds more populism and so on in a vicious cycle.

Speaking freely, debating ideas, expressing grievances, and protesting inequalities – whether they are political, economic, social or cultural for that matter – are what modern day Europe was built on. Turning our back on these liberal practices is what facilitates the dark process of detachment and radicalization in the first place. This is exactly why we must not allow for it to keep happening and why we must encourage dialogue, arguments, criticism, and all that comes from completely natural diversity.

Fixing a broken society?

Malik argues that ‘Europe needs not so much new state policies as a renewal of civil society’. He recognises mistakes in different states’ immigration and social policies, yet puts the responsibility not only onto governments, but those that they serve. We, those that make up the civil society, and especially we, the generation of social networks, globalization, and third culture prevalence, are most responsible for our society’s future path.

We don’t need to reiterate that migration is not just an inescapable, but a fascinating and impressive consequence of globalization worth celebrating. That we hope those reading are aware of by now. It is not the process which we must halt or fix, but how it is managed, and concretely how societies are justly integrated. Successful integration, Kenan argues, is shaped by ‘the individual bonds that people form with one another, and by the organizations they establish to further their shared political and social interests’.

The only way these bonds may begin and continue to form in such a way that strengthens our society, and decreases the room for radicalization is through open dialogue, through policies celebrating multiculturalism’s actual diversity (not its tendency to institutionalize differences), and harnessing assimilationism’s resolve to treat everyone as equal citizens, not generalised groups, (not its tendency to construct national identities by marking certain groups as alien to nations).

It is certain that globalization has unintentionally fostered the current identity crisis on individual, local, and international levels. Social media has facilitated detachment from society of those who feel they don’t belong, financial crises have left some feeling hopeless, and the Internet has opened up a Pandora box giving all those using it access to all the good, and all the horrible that faces of humanity have to offer. But this does not mean that we should reject it. Let’s harness the products of globalization that have divided our society and use them to create a U-turn and some sense of legitimate civil society that can withstand the perils of the likes of ISIS.

Lastly, we realise our article does not come with outlined policy recommendations. Frankly, no scholar we follow has come up with any concrete ones, and countless hours of talking about this have still left us without much. However, here we seek to point out these deeper societal issues, to encourage a dialogue that can eventually lead to policy recommendations and progress we speak of above.



Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I Wonder

By Sarah Isal, a second year student of War Studies and Philosophy at King’s College London. Sarah is currently studying abroad in Paris at Sciences Po University.


Allons ! Enfants de la Patrie !
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L’étendard sanglant est levé !
L’étendard sanglant est levé !

I wonder. I wonder a lot since Friday evening. Immediately after witnessing the absolute horror, I have adopted a warrior-like attitude: my head straight up, fearless eye contact, my fist ready to knock down any “playing with fire backfires” kind of comments. And the sound of the grandiose Marseillaise fuels my eagerness to live, the candles in the wind lightened on the sound of Imagine give me hope, and the colourful roses deposed by generations of survivors and survivors to come trigger in me the compulsive need to say and shout “I love you”!  

​Yet, I cannot pretend that everything is fine and that everything is going to be alright. I am terrified, and the warrior attitude vanishes the moment I see tears on a mourning face.


So I wonder.


How can we possibly win a war against shadows of death eaters, whose ideology finds its roots in the mere annihilation of civilisation? How can we respond to so-called God fighters, whose lethal weapon is their own conception of truth?


I’ve started thinking that perhaps the frenetic and tremendous aim to cherish and protect one’s life was not transcendental in the blurred light of these dark murders.

So once again I wonder.

How can we possibly promote universal values when our world is polarised between both fanatic secularists and the communitarian religious that have failed in creating a worldwide vivre-ensemble?


Indeed, the former tries hard to mask diversity when the latter simply rejects it. Wandering in the sublime streets of Paris crowded with undefeated individuals sitting outdoors was my revelation. An irrational probably epiphanic revelation, yet it was so damn inspiring. The funny part, I tell you, is that I didn’t find the answers to my questions, but something extremely more precious. What people will never take away from me are my feelings. I am alive because I love, I am alive because I fear for my future and the future of my loved ones, I am alive because I laugh, because I cry, I am alive because I am angry. Feelings have no boundaries, no religions. I feel so I am. Those who seek to kill us have lost their ability to feel, but we shall not lose it ourselves.


And today, I feel the fundamental need to ensure immortality of the values that do transcend us: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Eventually, my feelings go to the families and friends of the victims, that have left us too soon, but that shall not be forgotten and gone in vain.

Rest in peace Angels, because peace will come at last.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dear Isil

By Elise Lauriot dit Prévost a first year International Relations student in the War Studies department at King’s College London

Dear Isil,

Is the term dear appropriate? I don’t know but maybe if I address you with respect you will listen.

My generation used to be told that we were the second generation to not live through a war in Europe. We should have come to the conclusion a long time ago that this was not true, but after the events of this weekend we cannot deny the truth any longer. You have declared war on our generation.

Attacking a concert hall, a stadium, and bars you have declared a war on our youth, on our freedom, and on our optimism. You have declared a war on the things we enjoy the most. You have declared that being young, going out, having a drink, smoking a cigarette, laughing with our friends, enjoying life is punishable.

We cannot and will not take up arms against you, we will not stoop down to your level. We will not cower and fear, we will continue laughing, continue going out and most importantly we will continue living. Nobody, especially not you, can steal our youth, our optimism and our idealism. You cannot steal our laughter or our smiles and I hope that wherever you are now, you can hear our inextinguishable laughter resonate all around you.

Generation Y, that will never stop living.  





Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

International terror breaks loose- are the Paris attacks the first of many to come?

By Andrei Popoviciu. Andrei is a first year Romanian student reading BA International Relations at the War Studies Department of King’s College London, he’s the Social Media Editor for IRT and has always been passionate about foreign policy and current affairs. He got to discuss such topics during European Youth Parliament (EYP) sessions, a project he’s been involved in for the past 3 years.

It was a vibrant Friday night full of events, concerts and parties in the European capital of France. A friendly football match between France and Germany was going on in a packed stadium in Paris with people cheering and having a good time, the heavy metal band Eagles of Death Metal were performing at a popular venue in Paris called Bataclan for more than 1,000 fans, restaurant and pubs were packed, everyone was out having a good time. No one predicted such an unexpected turn of events and such a dreadful night.

Just before 10 pm the newsflashes began to report a “series of gunfire outbursts” in the French capital. It appeared to be a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in which dozens of people lost their lives and hundreds were wounded. By midnight it was confirmed that several hundred people at the Bataclan concert were being held hostage by an unknown number of armed and dangerous men. The band had been on the stage for an hour and the music was extremely loud, but not loud enough to drown the sound of gunfire. In this dystopian, almost impossible scenario, the French Special Forces launched an assault on the concert venue in an attempt to free the hostages and capture the gunmen. By 1 pm they succeeded in killing the three men who started the assault but it was too late for the 87 people that had died inside the club. The police, emergency services, military armoured vehicles, ambulances and helicopters were mobilised and people were using social media for updates of the incidents.


After the Bataclan attack, two gunmen marched down a popular street where the pubs, cafes and restaurants were located and opened fire with Kalashnikov-type rifles spreading terror. Another suicide bomber blew himself up on Boulevard Voltaire managing to kill one person and spread panic in the crowded street which was close to the Bataclan concert hall.

Moreover, there was a suicide attack near the national stadium where the France-Germany football match was taking place. Spectators were evacuated from the 80,000 seat venue after they were held there for some time due to what was happening outside. President François Hollande who was at the game left during the match because of the shootings in central Paris. The official death count at the stadium is yet to be released.


There were 6 zones targeted by 8 terrorists who are thought to have used Kalashnikovs, hand grenades and suicide vests, five in the 10th and 11th arrondissements and one close to the Stade de France. One of the gunmen at the Bataclan concert venue shouted: “It’s for Syria” and “Allahu Akbar”, making François Hollande hold ISIS responsible for the dreadful attacks.

The streets of Paris were smudged with blood and covered with bodies, the city had become a war zone. People were petrified of what was happening even if they weren’t in the affected zones. News stations, print media, the internet and many other media outlets covered the experiences of those who had witnessed the tragedies and shared them with the world.

“It was a bloodbath”

“They were not moving, they were just standing at the back of the concert room and shooting at us. Like if we were birds.”

“It was a scene from hell. The concert stopped and everybody lay on the ground and they continued to shoot at people.”

Media outlets all over the world are trying to settle the death count but no one has the final numbers yet. The following is believed to be the closest one to the true figures:

Bataclan theatre- 87 people killed

Stade de France- unknown number killed

Bouleverd de Charrone – 18 people killed

Boulevard Voltaire- one killed

Rue de la Fontaine-au-Roi- 5 people killed

Rue Alibert- 14 people killed


On Saturday morning, the President said: “I pay homage to the country’s defenders who fought the terrorists yesterday. Everyone has given their upmost and will be putting in their best efforts in the day to come.” He also called the attacks “cowardly” and said every measure would be taken to fight what he called the terrorist threat. “In this most serious and uncertain time, I call for unity and courage. Even if France is wounded, she will rise.” He assessed the death toll at 127. In a TV address to the nation, he also declared a state of emergency closing the country’s borders and promised the people he is taking the necessary measures in such a situation.

There was an immediate response from the world’s leaders like Barack Obama who called the incidents “an attack on all humanity and the universal values we share”, Angela Merkel who said she was “deeply shaken by the news and pictures that are reaching us from Paris” and even David Cameron who declared that he was shocked by the events and that “our thoughts and prayers are with the French people”. On top of the official responses key monuments have been lit up with the colours of the French flag in solidarity


But what could this mean? This not only shook France but the international system as well. As a result, states are taking measures to prevent this event from happening whether they live on the left part of the Atlantic or the right one. It is now said that this is the first attack from a series of premediated ones to come throughout the world. The Washington-Rome-London attacks are the ones who are supposedly thought to come next and this causes distress in the international system. Hence David Cameron’s speech where he declared that the UK is prepared for any terrorist attacks and that he is taking the right measures to avoid them. This also affects other countries throughout Europe and throughout the world. Due to these concerns states have become increasingly anxious about being part of the international scene.

It deeply affected the international society and its view on European and national security. There is fear roaming amongst people and questions about their security are still to be answered so people are yet to recover from this disturbing carnage irrespective of what part of the world they are living in. Their everyday lives have changed due to these worries, leading them to second guess even the most insignificant daily decisions. People are experiencing difficulties in carrying on with their usual routine because of such a current and ongoing event that is so emotionally unsettling.

What is disturbing is that the attacks come 10 months after 20 people died during the Islamist attacks on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, located close to the Baclatan theatre. One of the magazine’s artists, Joann Sfar, has weighed in on the disaster and responded with an emotional drawing.


Our hearts go to those who lost their lives and their families, the wounded and everyone affected by the horrific incident that happened in Paris last night.


Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

The incredible battle of Aung San Suu Kyi – transforming Myanmar from Military junta to a democracy

Sam Wyatt is a second-year student at King’s College London reading BA International Relations. He is also the East Asia and Pacific Editor International Relations Today.

It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.

The news this week that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy have won majorities in both the upper and the lower house can be seen as a fantastic leap forward in Myanmar’s liberalization process (that started after the opposition boycotted the 2010 election). It can also be seen, and indeed must be seen, as the ultimate reward for Aung San Suu Kyi (henceforth Daw Suu), who since 1988 when her mother died has given her life towards the quest for democracy. The following article will explain the political ups and downs of this incredible woman, showing the personal toll she has had to bear because of the love of her country.

Born in 1945, Daw Suu was struck with tragedy from an early age when in 1947 her father Aung San, who had negotiated Burmese independence from the British and founded the Burmese army was assassinated by political rivals. Indeed this tragedy played a big part in Daw Suu’s quest for a free and fair Burma, longing for a world where political rivals could co-exist.

Between 1960 and 1988 Daw Suu actually spent very little time in Burma, instead residing in India, the USA and the UK where she worked for the UN and the India institutes once she’d completed her degree from Oxford University. However, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and more specifically by Buddhist concepts, Aung San Suu Kyi entered politics in Burma to work for democratization, and helped found the National League for Democracy on 27 September 1988, quickly gaining attention from major officials who put her under house arrest on 20th July 1989. Offered freedom if she left the country, she refused showing the extent to which she cared about democracy. All the fervor Daw Suu created led to one of the most scandalous elections of all time. Having not held an election in over 30 years, the military junta decided to call an election, believing that a decisive victory would nip this hunt for democracy in the bud. However, the result was not anticipated. In fact, the NLD won a staggering 59% of the votes and 80% of the seats. Obviously the junta did not want to give up power and consequently the results were nullified and Daw Suu was put under house arrest again, where she would remain for 15 of the next 21 years. Indeed this house arrest had a very personal toll, when her husband, Michael Aris, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1997 and she could not visit him in the UK for fear of being excommunicated and banned from coming back to Myanmar.

Daw Suu’s eventual release from House arrest in 2010 came 6 days after a widely criticized election, which the opposition boycotted as they saw it as an unfair election. However, when by-elections were held in April 2012, to fill seats vacated by politicians who had taken government posts, she and her party contested seats, despite reservations. “Some are a little bit too optimistic about the situation,” she said in an interview before the vote. “We are cautiously optimistic. We are at the beginning of a road.”

She and the NLD won 43 of the 45 seats contested, in an emphatic statement of support. Weeks later, Ms Suu Kyi took the oath in parliament and became the leader of the opposition. And the following May, she embarked on a visit outside Myanmar for the first time in 24 years, in a sign of apparent confidence that its new leaders would allow her to return.

All this has led up to the historic moment this week where the military rule have accepted the results saying they have lost by a significant margin. We do not know what the future holds for Daw Suu, especially as a constitutional clause means she cannot become president (her sons hold British passports giving her ‘allegiance to a foreign power’) but we do know that she has played a big role in creating a more open and democratic Myanmar.

Tagged , , , ,

November marks Argentina’s elections – will it also mark an end to Kirchnerism? What implications could this have on the country itself but also the entire region?

By an Argentinian student in London.

Certain elections command international attention as a result of the corresponding country’s preponderance in global affairs. Certain elections command a sporadic spotlight as a result of the corresponding country’s “news headline” status. Certain elections, however, happen in the dark, with the world hardly noticing outside the country’s own borders and neighbors. On October 25th of 2015, Argentina held its presidential elections, and for the first time in thirty-two years of a democratic regime, the elections should be more than just a side note on page 8 of global newspapers—the elections should command international attention.

The Argentinian electoral system, of proportional representation for the legislature, is a two-round system for the president. Being a presidential system with generous powers held by the presidential office, the elections for the president are seemingly all-important. For a candidate to win outright, they must hold 45% or more of the vote. Otherwise, if they more than 40% of the vote and a 10% difference with the runner-up in the election, they will win outright. If neither of these occurs, a ‘ballotage’, or second round, happens in which the first is pitted against the second placed candidate. The ‘ballotage’ has always been a distant possibility for the electorate—no election since the fall of the third and last military junta in 1983 has gone past the first round. October 25th marked an important date: for the first time, a ‘ballotage’ is imminent, and will be held on November 22nd.

For anyone familiar with Argentinian politics of the 21st century, the name Kirchner will only seem redundant—the story of a husband and wife that have held office ever since 2003, compounded with the tragic death of husband Nestor Kirchner in 2010. Cristina Kirchner, the current president, has already served her two four-year terms and is constitutionally barred from running again. Teenagers in Buenos Aires may only recall the name Kirchner as the country’s leader, and for the first time, a new name must appear. Kirchner’s successor and current vice-president and Buenos Aires Province Governor, Daniel Scioli, was favored to win the elections outright, with 65% of people of a survey believing he would be the next president. Election day came, and Scioli attained 36.86% of the votes, insufficient for a first-round victory. Runner-up Mauricio Macri, ex-Boca Juniors president and current Governor of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, collected a surprising 34.33% of the votes. Meanwhile, third-placed Sergio Massa picked up a substantial 21.34% of the votes, with the remaining votes held by Del Caño, Stolbizer, and Rodríguez Saá. On November 22nd, Macri will head into a ‘ballotage’ against Scioli.

Interestingly, 55% of people of a survey now believe that Macri will obtain office. Part of this belief is grounded on Macri’s party, Cambiemos, and its success in the Buenos Aires provincial elections, where for the first time since 1987 the Partido Justicialista, ie. that of the Kirchners and past political heavyweights such as Carlos Menem and most importantly, Juan Domingo Perón, has lost. Eugenia María Vidal won by 4%, and Scioli’s political footing has been at risk since then. The question really is, why does this matter, and why would anyone outside of the football, meat, and mate loving country care?

The answer lies in political change. Some may say that both Nestor and Cristina Kirchner were democratically elected in their offices, but some may argue that the simple reality of a country spending twelve years under the same family can be assimilated to a non-democratic system. Furthermore, some may say that the fact that only two presidencies since the introduction of democracy in 1983, the first under Raúl Alfonsín and the latter under Fernando de la Rúa that led to the default of the Argentinian economy in 2001, have been held by a party other than the Peronist Partido Justicialista means that a change in ruling party might mean much more than a simple exchange of power between Gordon Brown and David Cameron. As Macri’s party name suggests, “Cambiemos”, which literally translates to “let’s change”, political change could follow if Scioli were to lose the presidency. That is not to say that political change could not occur if Scioli were to become a president—it is just a more doubtfully skeptic claim, knowing his close ties to Kirchner and the Partido Justicialista.

And how does this matter to the outside world? Argentina is neither a member of BRICS nor the newly named MINT, yet a member of the G20. When its name appears on the news, chances are it is most likely related to Lionel Messi and football or potentially the Pumas and rugby. But we must remember two key events in the past year that did reach the page 1 headlines, namely the Argentinian economic technical default to US hedge funds stemming from the 2001 crisis bonds given out and the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman in the investigation of the more than controversial bombing of AMIA, one of Argentina’s largest Jewish institutions, in 1994 that could have effectively resulted in Kirchner’s impeachment. These two events led Kirchner’s popularity to decrease nationwide, but it also led people to question the government internationally. And yet, Scioli, her direct successor, was predicted to win the elections without any preoccupations about fellow candidates Macri and Massa. It seems that something important is happening in this Latin American nation, and it seems that the world should not just simply turn a blind eye. Latin America is more than an exotic land of historic empires and natural beauties; it poses great economic possibilities in every one of its corners. Dare we mention that Argentina is rich with natural resources and is also the second largest Latin American nation after Brazil?

The Argentinian economy is one that could bring great economic prosperity to global powers, and maybe American political scientists Acemoglu and Robinson’s famous denunciation that Argentina is not developed as a result of its exclusive political and economic institutions can be modified with political change. Political scientists love experiments, and maybe Argentina will take a central role in one. The degree of change is for the Argentinian people to decide on November 22nd—will it be a simply inevitable change of presidential last name from Kirchner to Scioli? Or will it be an eradication of the Peronist ideals that have grasped Argentinian politics since Perón’s accession to power in 1946 with Macri in the Casa Rosada? Whatever it is, change will come, and the world must watch.

Our message to the world: “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.”

Tagged , , , , , ,

When apologies won’t do anymore – the consequences drawn from the “Colectiv” catastrophe

By Tabby Urban and Andrei Popoviciu.

Tabby is a second year German student reading BA International Relations at the War Studies Department of King’s College London. She’s the editor of the MENA Section at IRT, interned for the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Bucharest and has lived in Romania for 8 years.

Andrei is a first year Romanian student reading BA International Relations at the War Studies Department of King’s College London, he’s the Social Media Editor for IRT and has always been passionate about Romanian politics and current affairs. He got to discuss such topics during European Youth Parliament (EYP) sessions, a project he’s been involved in for the past 3 years.

It was the beginning of the Halloween weekend in Bucharest when a metal rock concert turned into a real-life horror show. The band was playing at “Colectiv”, an underground nightclub in Bucharest, when a fire broke out, killing at least 32 people and seriously injuring another 180 making the days of 31st of October, 1st and 2nd of November days of national mourning.

This catastrophe could have been avoided, and many things went wrong that night. First of all, “Colectiv” didn’t have a licence to host the several hundreds of people that were at the concert that night, due to there being only one emergency exit. Second, the pyrotechnics used during the concert, and which started the fire, were not admissible under the safety regulations of the venue. Thirdly, there were not sufficient medical personnel to treat the vast amount of burn and smoke-poisoned people at the scene.

This has led to protests in Bucharest, and in several other cities across Romania, which have called once more for the increased fight against corruption and the reform of the health care system. Corruption, which is still widespread in Romania even though the National Agency for fighting corruption (DNA) has increased the fight against it in the political and social realm, is seen to be at the basis of this catastrophe. The claims are becoming reality that the owners of “Colectiv” paid bribes in order to attain the licence to host the concert on October 30th, which hence caused the deaths of at least 32 people. In response to this, the owners of “Colectiv” were arrested on the suspicion of manslaughter and involuntary bodily harm.

This is followed by several clubs across the country closing for a period of time in order to “bring their venues up to EU standard.” It leaves us to wonder as to why a horrible event like the one that took place at “Colectiv” has to occur before other venues decide to update their security measures according to “EU standard.” This is also ironic and painfully overdue, since this should have happened at least 8 years ago when Romania joined the EU.

The shock and sorrow that followed the fire was soon transformed into anger in the Romanian population, with 20,000 people gathering at the University Square in Bucharest on November 3rd to protest against corruption and the PM, Victor Ponta, the only sitting prime minister to stand trial for corruption. People were seen waving Romanian flags with holes in them, re-embodying the protests that toppled the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. This was just the tip of the iceberg, with the majority of Romanians having been deeply unhappy with Ponta as PM because of the thick layer of corruption and political misconduct that covered him throughout his term. Ponta faced serious accusations since 2012 when he first took the role of Romania’s PM, such as forging expanse claims worth 181,000 lei (£29,000), tax evasion and money laundering. He received countless calls to resign his position but he refused to give it up until the end of his term in 2016 until the events that happened at “Colectiv” and the protests in University Square. This massive accumulation of people at University Square shouting for him to step down finally had the desired impact, and Ponta resigned as PM on November 4th.


President Klaus Iohannis, who had been in political rivalry with Ponta after he won against him in the presidential elections in 2014, welcomed Ponta taking the political consequences for the recent events. Who will be the new PM is yet unclear, but Iohannis hopes that his former Liberals (PNL) will be able to re-gain the majority in parliament.  In the challenging search to assign a new PM, Iohannis decided he needs to get the public’s opinion not only the one of the political parties. On the 5th of November he released a statement saying “I have seen you, I have heard you and I will take all your solicitations into account”. The Romanian president also added that he needs the public’s opinion to help him assign a new PM so on the 6th of November he will “convene a group of citizens that will represent the public opinion and the streets”.

The protests have also had a backlash on the Romanian Orthodox Church, which is a strong political and social force in Romania. Especially the head of the Church, Patriarch Daniel, has been criticised and demanded to step down after he accused the people at the concert that fateful night as being “Satanists” for attending a metal rock concert. Protestors have hence pointed out the unfathomable proportion of churches supported by government funds to the number of hospitals in Romania: 18,000 to 425. This accompanies demands that the health care system is in serious need of reform, and that at least 10% of Romania’s GDP should be spent in this sector.

The fire at “Colectiv” has shown to create some serious waves of revolt in Romanian society. This tragic incident, where dozens have been killed and hundreds harmed, has resulted in the ultimate push that Romanians needed to show some real commitment in expressing the need for change in the country. However, what will come after these protests is yet to be decided. Romanians know that they want to change the system from the bottom up, but with what distinct end is unclear to many.




Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,