As the number of Britons confirmed dead in the Sousse massacre continues to climb, David Cameron has again ruled out putting British troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria – but conceded that Islamic State (IS) is plotting “terrible attacks” on Western soil.
This is a sign that the attack in Tunisia has made the magnitude of the war against IS clearer than ever. Until now, the government has been able to downplay it – an official strategy reminiscent of the aftermath of July 7, 2005.
In the days after 52 people were killed in the 7/7 attacks, the Blair government was insistent that the war in Iraq had nothing whatsoever to do with the appalling massacre. That argument had to be rolled back eight weeks later when al-Jazeera screened a “martyr video” recorded by one of the bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, which drew an explicit link between the attack and UK foreign policy.
Khan said: “We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.” He went on: “Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people and your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters.”
In retrospect, the government’s insitence that these were simply evil men undertaking terrible actions that were utterly unconnected with the war is understandable, given the Iraq war went on to permanently contaminate Blair’s legacy.
Now, here we are again ten years later. This time the connection is more complex, but the link with Britain is clear enough. Yet the extraordinary element is that the great majority of people in the UK are hardly aware that this is a major war – and that Britain is at the centre of it.
On the march
It was clear some days before the attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait that IS leaders wanted to take the war to their external enemies, whether Shi’a communities in the region or elements of the more distant “far enemy” such as the UK. As the New York Times put it: “While officials in the three countries investigated the attacks, many noted that the leaders of IS have repeatedly called for sympathisers to kill and sow mayhem at home.”
It is now almost certain that the Sousse attack by the young engineering student, Seifeddiene Rezgui, was not a “lone wolf” operation but supported by a larger group and aimed specifically at a hotel in which most of those killed would be British. It may even have been directed from IS. The UK government has committed a huge force of 600 police to the investigation.
While one intention was seriously to wreck the Tunisian tourist industry, leading to higher unemployment and more anger and resentment, providing a better environment for recruiting young people to the IS cause, it was probably part of a much wider intention to bring the conflict home to the coalition of countries now engaged in the air war.
This makes for uncomfortable connections, especially as most people in Britain simply do not recognise that the country is part of a large coalition that has been waging a major air offensive on IS forces in Iraq and Syria for almost a year.
The Pentagon surprised the American public recently by reporting that there had been around 15,600 air sorties since the campaign started in August 2014, and that air and drone strikes are killing IS supporters at the rate of 1,000 a month. The US is the main actor but the UK is second in terms of the number of air and armed drone strikes.
Britain’s principal contributions are Tornado ground-attack aircraft and Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles. The Ministry of Defence is singularly cautious about releasing details of British involvement, especially of the two squadrons of Reaper drones, but it is known that more attacks have been carried out in recent months by the armed drones, which are “flown” from RAF Waddington south of Lincoln, than by the Tornadoes.
The ministry gives even vaguer details of casualties; on those few occasions when information about attacks is released, almost nothing is said about those killed and injured. This persistent obfuscation means there’s been surprisingly little debate about the true scale of the war and Britain’s part in it.
One of the grim ironies of the Sousse attack is that the appalling loss of life might alert more people in the UK to the true extent of the war. Equally, IS will no doubt encourage further attacks on the countries at war with it; counterterrorism forces in countries as far afield as the US, Australia, Canada, France and Britain will accordingly be intensifying their work.
It is just possible that the Sousse massacre will turn out to be an isolated attack on British nationals, but it’s very unlikely. The reality is that the war with IS in Iraq and Syria is beginning to extend beyond those countries and the region – even beyond the established battlegrounds of Afghanistan and Libya. What happened to the holidaymakers in Sousse may only be the beginning of a new phase.