Hard Brexit, hard border, hard men

Photo by Kevin Kosi on Pexels.com

Overlooking the Lunch Lounge cafe on Castlereagh Road in Loyalist East Belfast, three gunmen pose with automatic weapons and offer their unwavering support ‘For God and Ulster’. The mural is a reminder of darker days; the Troubles, when Northern Ireland was riven with sectarian hatred.

Amid the talk of no deal and hard borders, does Brexit really have the power to hand Northern Ireland’s future back to the gunmen?

History shows what would likely happen to any fixed infrastructure on the border. “If something looks like a target it will be treated as such,” says a spokesman for the Police Service for Northern Ireland (PSNI). A former Special Branch Officer agrees: “Any infrastructure on the border will be a target, without a shadow of a doubt.”

Rancour and division remain in Northern Ireland. The imperfect peace has left “a disappointing variety of normal” compared to the rest of the UK, in the words of one security expert. Certainly levels of violence are down: in 2018 there were 39 shootings and 17 bombings, both down slightly from the previous year, resulting in 50 casualties and two deaths. But while the allure of paramilitary groups has dimmed, as their capability and calling has reduced, they haven’t gone away you know, and the polarisation of politics means they have a greater audience for their messages. Young hot-heads will always listen to war stories.

Such talk is quickly dismissed by locals in the Lunch Lounge cafe.

“Brexit won’t make any difference to us,” says an octogenarian diner buttering a fruit scone. But not everyone is so sanguine. A lot will depend on whether Unionists perceive a threat to the union, says a security source. If they feel disenfranchised, Loyalist paramilitaries could be encouraged to take to the streets.

Those keen on maintaining, and defending, the link between Northern Ireland and Great Britain work in areas of national infrastructure – such as power generation and transportation – to a much greater degree than those with Nationalist sympathies. Concerted industrial action, albeit short of actual civil disobedience, could still cause headaches in Westminster.

Doug Beattie, a member of the Stormont Assembly for the Ulster Unionist Party, describes himself as an optimistic pessimist. Speaking in Portadown, a town once under the spell of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, he expresses support for the teaching of the Irish language, same-sex marriage and abortion. But his sunny disposition soon darkens.

Pointing out that 56 per cent of people in Northern Ireland voted for Remain in 2016, he fears both the DUP and Sinn Féin see advantages in whipping up tensions. “They’ve both done it before,” he says. The DUP play on the sovereignty issue, he believes, and Sinn Féin, a party historically cool towards the EU, senses another opportunity to push for a united Ireland, so gripes about leaving. They may even orchestrate civil disobedience in border towns such as Newry, Crossmaglen and Londonderry so as to agitate for a referendum, he warns.

“If we exit on a no deal basis then [Sinn Féin’s] call for a border poll will really take off. And it’s difficult to say they can’t have it. And if we do it for Northern Ireland, there’s a chance we may have to do it for Scotland. A no deal Brexit could see the breakup of the union.”

The Falls Road in Republican West Belfast holds a totemic position in the history of Britain’s involvement in the Troubles. Locals are wary of outsiders, and the Sinn Féin offices, still sporting the mural to Republican hero Bobby Sands – proclaiming ‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children’ – are only accessed after much explanation and the unlocking of doors.

The party says there are only two ways to avoid a hard Brexit on the island of Ireland. First, the north (it does not use the term ‘Northern Ireland’) should be given special status and stay within the EU structures. The second way would be to unite the island after a referendum. Neither are remotely palatable for Unionists.

Sinn Féin’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, said in a statement to the Telegraph: “Ireland’s people, Ireland’s economy and Ireland’s peace process all need to be protected as we go forward.

“We need to say clearly to the British that if they wish to Brexit then that’s a matter for themselves but any Brexit agreement needs to recognise, understand and protect the people, the economy and the peace process on this island.”

The British government is keen to dampen any speculation of increased security preparation. The PSNI currently grades the threat from Dissident Republicans as ‘severe’ and says the government gave permission for an extra 300 officers to be recruited as a one-off because of the uncertainty around Brexit. Beyond that all the spokesman would say was “it’s a political decision. Everyone’s watching with bated breath”. The army and Northern Ireland Office would not discuss the issue.

However, security insiders suggest that rather than fixed infrastructure or a greater presence by the police or military, the security response to a no deal Brexit is expected to be more subtle. Intelligence-led work by the police, MI5, National Crime Agency and others is likely to increase in intensity, if not visibility. The check points were there to tackle terrorism, says Mr Beattie, “and even then they didn’t work”.

Like the rest of the UK, whichever way Brexit goes there will be people left feeling hard done by in Northern Ireland. The difference is that with the Stormont Assembly suspended for the last two years there are few political mechanisms through which the inevitable issues can be resolved. Border infrastructure in the event of a no deal Brexit is most unlikely, but civil disobedience, with the attendant risk of spiralling into greater violence, is not. Agendas abound, hidden and otherwise, and paramilitaries still lurk. As one security source says: “The devil continues his work in the shadows”.

Alex through the looking-glass

Alex Younger (right), the head of MI6, and his European counterparts Germany's BND President Bruno Kahl (centre) and France's DGSE chief Bernard Ernie (left), met in public for the first time today (pictured) to stress the necessity of their close ties

Old school intelligence collection still matters in a digital world

THE spy business is rooted in traditions. Sir Mansfield Cumming, the founder of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (better known as MI6), wrote in green ink. “C”, the real-life head of the foreign-intelligence agency, continues this quirky rite, even in emails. Technology is upending established practices in James Bond’s industry. Some spooks think online spying is the future and the flipped-collared alleyway whispers of human intelligence should be bumped off.

But old spies die hard. On February 16th, gurning for the cameras at the Munich Security Conference, the head of MI6, Alex Younger, posed with Bernard Emie and Bruno Kahl (respectively the heads of the French and German intelligence agencies; the DGSE and BND). Each had their reasons for stepping out of the shadows. Britain is a net exporter of intelligence to the EU; Mr Younger’s instructions were to dispel fears of Britain killing off post-Brexit cooperation. Mr Kahl hoped to improve his agency’s reputation with a sceptical German public. A less enthusiastic Mr Emie could not afford to be left out. An off-the-record chat with assembled journalists, bureaucrats and politicians added to the air of unreality.

The unprecedented display was more than Brexit window dressing, according to Gabi Siboni of the Institute for National Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. Alliances, whilst important, are not everything. (Israel has cooperated with Egypt, Jordan, Australia and Saudi Arabia on intelligence matters without formal arrangements.) Humans are the critical feature, Mr Siboni believes. “You have to trust your agents if you want to make them whistle,” he says, “and that cannot be done with a computer.”

Meeting face to face though, is fraught with danger. Digital footprints are hard to conceal and working under assumed identities is almost impossible. Spies risk being exposed by their wider network, a threat known as digital contagion. Better to stay well away then, say proponents of cyber-spying. Distance has the added benefit of deniability. Autocratic regimes often close down internet infrastructure to snuff out grass-roots movements. Hosting proxy servers in disagreeable states enables opposition groups to organise via social media, whilst obfuscating the source of such help. Political influence can be wielded from afar. The power is in the mystery, says one former spy.

But a big problem for cyber-spies is that it is easy to lose the cultural context. Witness the failure on social media of the American government’s “Think Again Turn Away” initiative. In seeking to challenge jihadist ideology online, the State Department instead provided extremists a platform and conferred legitimacy on their hate-filled messages with gaffe-prone tweets and missed cultural cues.

Ultimately though, spying is about providing options to politicians. When the smoke clears, is the intelligence used wisely? Apparently not always. GCHQ, Britain’s signals-intelligence agency, is based in Cheltenham. Residents of the town, an old joke goes, are either spies or cheese-makers. The agency’s cyber-capabilities were seen as an easy option for people who didn’t want to make a decision, says a non-cheese-making native of the town. “They would say ‘should I bomb this place or just do a cyber-attack?’”

But there is no point spying if governments will not act, according to a former MI6 officer. “If you were a nuclear scientist in Iran today,” he asks, ”why risk your life-and your family-spying for Britain, if the country is not prepared to do anything with your information?” Mr Bond lives on, just, and is posing for photographs. But he may not be the man of action he once was.

Gambling on US morality

antigua-wto-uncle-samI spoke this week at a fringe meeting of the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) annual forum in Geneva. The Democracy Institute, a public policy think-tank based in Washington DC and London, launched a report titled “Do as I say, not as I do” into a 14-year old dispute between the United States and the tiny Caribbean nation of Antigua & Barbuda. I was invited to attend as a panel member to explain why free trade and the integrity of the WTO is so important, and why the current US position regarding compliance with WTO rulings puts at risk the entire international order of trade arbitration. You can see the discussion here.

The issue revolves around America’s suggestion that Antigua’s sizeable online gambling industry threatens the morals of US citizens.  I have never been to Las Vegas, but I believe they have a bit of a thing for casinos there, so I was intrigued at their stance.

In 2003 online gambling overtook tourism as the main revenue driver for Antigua. For a nation of barely 70,000 people that is a big deal. Added to which, half the world’s online gamblers, in an industry worth US$10 billion, are American. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, believes US authorities have tried to snuff out the industry in Antigua more from a desire to protect the domestic market than from a concern about morality.

The US had relied on the 1961 Wire Wager Act, designed to stop gambling money won by bets placed over the telephone, crossing state or international lines. But the world has moved on since then and the internet, as if jockeyed by Frankie Dettori, has ridden a coach and horses through that piece of legislation. It is no longer relevant, but is a convenient ace up the sleeve for US authorities.

So in 2003 Antigua took the case to the arbitration panel of the WTO. No sooner had Antigua won the case when the US, employing the bureaucratic equivalent of a croupier’s chummy shuffle, appealed and threw up a myriad reasons why it need not change policy. The WTO looked at it again in 2007 and found in Antigua’s favour for a second time. Once more, the US continued to do nothing. Antigua, recently devastated by Hurricane Irma, is still out of pocket by, at the government’s estimate, US$3.44 billion (against a GDP of US$1 billion).

The broader concern is what the case says about America’s attitude towards the WTO. Antigua’s beef started under President George W Bush and extended through Barack Obama’s tenure, so this is not party political. In some respects Donald Trump’s administration has actually sought to resolve aspects of the case in ways his predecessors never did. But by so obviously flouting WTO judgements – whilst seeking redress through the same systems for alleged bad behaviour by China, for example – the actions by the United States serve only to undermine the credibility of the organisation as a whole.

Added to which is the US policy towards the WTO’s court of appeal. It is supposed to have seven judges but currently has only five, and by the end of the year could be down to four. A further three are due to retire by 2019. The US refuses to engage with the process of electing new judges, hoping to cajole the WTO into adopting a more US-friendly attitude. With any judgement needing three panel members it is a distinct possibility the WTO’s remit of international arbitration will be simply impossible to carry out in the very near future. That is unlikely to be allowed to happen, but America’s action is widely seen as attempting to hold the WTO to ransom; hardly an endearing quality in the world’s economic superpower.

The WTO consists of 164 nations, but without the moral and political backbone of the United States, what reason is there for other members to abide by any rules they don’t like? This case has global ramifications. Little old hurricane-smashed Antigua is still fighting to highlight US hypocrisy and seek redress. Even when the chips are down.




Recruiting for jihad

hussain_imageWhat’s more surprising: that a narcissistic if charismatic recruiter for Islamic State (IS), known to the security authorities, was allowed to operate freely, to the point a young convert was killed in Syria, or that he allowed himself to be filmed by a journalist for years, seemingly untroubled that he was gifting material to his eventual prosecutors?

Based in Norway, the film in question, Recruiting for jihad by producer and director Ulrik Rolfsen (that I had the great privilege of helping out on), has just been released. It made its international debut at the HotDocs documentary festival in Toronto on April 30th and has been well received. For three years Mr Rolfsen and fellow journalist Adel Farooq followed jihadist missionary and Norwegian citizen Ubaydullah Hussain, who was jailed on April 4th for nine years for supporting IS and grooming recruits.

The film shows Mr Hussain arranging for a number of Norwegian men to travel to Syria and Iraq for what he describes as humanitarian work. He consistently denied he was an IS recruiter but clearly delighted in the group’s existence and purpose. “No country, apart from IS, is ruled by the laws of Allah,” he says, “I’m happy that we finally have a country where we can practice Islam and live by the laws of Allah.”

We see him travelling to Denmark to pray over the grave of the 22-year old gunman killed by police in Copenhagen after he shot into a café that was hosting a meeting on free speech. He murdered one person and injured three more. “What do you think about what he did?” a Swedish journalist asks Hussain’s associate at the graveside. “Well what do you think about what is going on in Israel?” comes the reply.

The film is full of such obfuscations and contradictions. But underneath is the steady drumbeat of hatred and division. “It’s very important to have a community where you belong,” he explains at one point, to a potential recruit, “you’ll never feel at home in this country or this society.” Five weeks after being filmed handing out leaflets in Oslo, Norwegian convert Thom Alexander Karlssen was killed in Syria fighting for IS in March 2015. Hussain had bought his ticket out from Oslo.

The film shows that in 2014 Hussain visited Britain and met with Anjem Choudary and a number of associates. Among them was Brunsthom Ziamani (convicted shortly afterwards of planning the beheading of a British soldier), Siddhartha Dhar, also known as Abu Rumaysah and Mohammed Reza Haque, known as The Giant. Dhar and Haque subsequently went to fight for IS in Syria and have featured in images posted online of prisoner executions (they have both, at various times, been dubbed ‘Jihadi John 2’).


In a bizarre twist, Mr Rolfsen’s home was raided by Norwegian security officials as he filmed Hussain and his material was seized. Benedicte Bjørnland, Head of Police Security Service in Norway, said they had compelling reasons to believe Mr Rolfsen’s material included proof of the intention of an 18-year old we meet as ‘Peter’ to travel to Syria to join IS (as well as other material).

However, as Frithjof Jacobsen, a security commentator countered, “if the police don’t have evidence to imprison this 18-year old without confiscating material from people who make documentaries, then they have a problem”.

After a number of legal challenges the Norwegian Supreme Court ruled that Mr Rolfsen did not have to reveal his sources to the authorities. The presiding judge said that Mr Rolfsen’s film was “the essence of investigative journalism [and] addresses a central and urgent problem of society where the general public and authorities need to have knowledge and insight”. He said the protection of sources was “crucial to be able to make this film”.

Mr Rolfsen saw the verdict as having wider importance. “It is very significant,” he said, “it means that we can work to uncover things in society. We have different roles. The police have their role. It’s their job to prosecute and I respect that. Our job is to expose things and enlighten the public.”

The privacy debate is a live one right now, and in the UK the new Investigatory Powers Act, dubbed the Snoopers Charter, has been controversial. Mr Rolfsen’s film highlights the fine line police, prosecutors and journalists have to tread in this area: at what point does a journalists responsibility to society overrule that to his subject?

We hear a lot about extremist recruiting these days. For anyone interested in understanding quite what that looks like I commend this film. As for why Hussain never travelled to Syria himself? “I’ve been exempted from carrying out jihad,” he says just before his arrest. “I have a chronic illness and in my state of health I can’t go on long trips.”


‘Peter’ was arrested by Swedish police trying to board a plane in Gothenburg bound for Turkey. He was convicted of trying to join a terrorist organisation and sentenced to two years and ten months.

Missing the (Hinkley) point

gatwick-gusher-020816“If a country doesn’t produce its own energy it deserves to have the lights turned off and be invaded.” So says the reliably straight-talking David Lenigas, entrepreneur and energy-investor. The green light to build the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset, to be financed by France and China, was a decision based primarily on politics; energy security was little more than an afterthought.

Announcing the decision today in parliament (ironically 16 years to the day after the fuel protests of 2000 ended) the Right Honourable Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, warned that the 19% of UK electricity currently provided by nuclear power will drop to 2% by 2030 if the plants are not renewed. 64% of the value of all contracts in the supply chain supporting the build will be spent in the UK, he claimed, and he was delighted to say it would be constructed at no risk to the UK taxpayer. (Such bonhomie was not universally shared around the chamber and Barry Gardiner, Shadow Secretary of State, grumbled that he had been given only 13 minutes advance notice of the statement.)

But after many years of dithering over energy strategy (by successive governments since the 1990’s), such that the total capacity of energy production in the UK today is only 60% what it was in 2012, the options available to the government were so narrow as to make the decision virtually inevitable. Dr Paul Dorfman Senior Research Fellow of the Energy Institute at University College London, said that Tony Blair consistently failed to make a decision on nuclear energy.

Add to that the minor matters of Brexit and the migrant crisis and the need to shore up Britain’s somewhat bruised relationship with France meant a spat over a contract worth £12billion to Électricité de France (EDF), the state-owned firm, was unwelcome. And China’s proposed £6billion stake (plus investment in HS2 and a possible future post-Brexit free-trade deal) would be a welcome jolt to a British economy that, if not still on life-support after the financial crisis, was only just sitting up in bed complaining the room smelt funny.

Which is why Theresa May’s pause in the approval process, announced in July, shortly after she took over from David Cameron as Prime Minister, was so odd. At the time it looked like a bold new broom had entered Downing Street. Never mind the jitters, here was a premier willing to risk the geopolitical consequences of sticking up for Britain.

So to climb down so rapidly, with vague references to a renegotiation that means the government will have a greater say over “the ownership and control of critical infrastructure”, looks a bit woolly. The US has recently accused China of stealing US nuclear technology and Australia likewise has had concerns.

But China General Nuclear Power, the state-owned company planning to invest in Hinkley, said it was “now able to move forward and deliver much-needed nuclear capacity at Hinkley Point, Sizewell and Bradwell”, despite the government announcement saying nothing of the latter two plants.

Sovereign control over energy supplies is a controversial issue. Fears of Chinese hackers holding the UK to energy-ransom abound. How big a stake should one country allow another to hold in such a vital sector? Mr Dorfman warns that Britain runs the risk of depending on Russia for gas and China for nuclear energy.

Mr Lenigas (pictured above, riding his ‘gusher’ in southern England) has a refreshingly no-nonsense attitude to this kind of thing. “It would be like me popping round to my neighbour’s house every time I wanted to boil the kettle,” he told me. He has taken great delight recently in championing the unlikely-sounding oil find under the South Downs around Gatwick. Confounding critics and baffling experts, it seems the Horse Hill site may actually be a viable UK-owned addition to Britain’s energy sector. If only all of Britain’s energy solutions were so straightforward.

As a comment on The Independent’s website pointed out, the ideal solution to modern energy production is a methodology that is cheap, reliable and low carbon, and with modern technology you get to pick two. At £92.50 per megawatt hour Hinkley Point C won’t be cheap. Hopefully though it’s bought time for other renewable solutions to come on line. By all sensible economic reckoning it’s a rubbish deal: expensive, inflexible and reliant on unproven technology. It has been widely criticised as such. But in terms of international political positioning at a time when Britain needs friends, despite sovereignty concerns, it was a no-brainer.