Isil’s culminating points

Foreign Policy has a piece on how Isil might be losing hearts and minds as it discovers how difficult it is to govern.

The ultimate, if not proximate, cause for this “culminating point” (to wax Clausewitzian) is in the inability to deliver basic public services and the failure to promote a more inclusive sense of civil society — the same sociopolitical and socioeconomic vulnerabilities the extremists exploited to begin with.

It reinforces my point about the rise and fall of Islamist movements.
Of course the problem with all of this is that so much analysis of Isil is essentially wishful thinking. But I do hope this is true.

Why I want a generous dotcom billionaire to buy Alan Turing’s notebook


Last year, the British government granted an export licence for a notebook that belonged to Alan Turing, the famed code-breaker and father of modern computing. It is an extraordinary artifact, a product of his wartime thinking on the concept of a universal language.

I have spent the past few days speaking to some of Britain’s most knowledgeable Turing experts. None of them even knew of the notebook’s existence until Bonhams, the auction house, announced earlier this year it was being sold in New York, much less had a chance to study it before it left the UK.

So the question is this: If mathematicians who have studied Turing’s legacy and relatives, such as Sir Dermot Turing who is a trustee of the Bletchley Park Trust, haven’t had a chance to examine its contents, how can the British government be sure it wasn’t losing a vital part of our history forever?

That is a question that Lord Sharkey raised in parliament. He was told the government had consulted experts – but their identities had to remain confidential.

And so it is that the most important Turing manuscript ever found – the only one in his own handwriting – was allowed to slip out of the country last year. On Monday it is expected to sell for “seven figures”, as the Bonhams people so coyly put it.

The only hope is that a generous and wealthy Turing fan does the decent thing and returns it to the UK for display, perhaps at Bletchley Park. (It has happened before.) Or at least scans it and makes it available for study.

The worst case is that it disappears into a private vault and is never seen again.

Now imagine this was a piece of art. Is it possible to imagine a painting of this importance slipping out of the country and then turning up for sale in New York without anyone even knowing?

Imagine the outcry. Imagine the public outrage.And then the fundraising. The Heritage Lottery Fund and Art Fund give out millions of pounds each year to save paintings for the nation – including a Van Dyck for £6.34m.

Now if we can afford that sort of money for a painting by a Dutchman, surely we can afford a measly million quid for a document that represents one of Britain’s most brilliant minds?

The two cultures live on.

Turing’s legacy was neglected for too many years. Now that we have woken up to his extraordinary contribution to the Twentieth Century (with The Imitation Game, for example), isn’t it about time that we did more to protect what is left of his scattered papers?

And in the meantime I’ll be hoping that a dotcom billionaire or a geeky banker does the right thing on Monday.

Hillary’s fashionable HQ

(Tweeted yesterday by the woman expected to be Hillary’s director of communications)

You will no doubt be reading today about Hillary Clinton’s new campaign headquarters. It is in the rather fashionable area of Brooklyn Heights. But let me make one thing clear. It is not the uber-hip bit of Brooklyn of beards and tattoos – that is to be found in Willamsburg, Dumbo or Bed-Stuy.

I should know. I live just around the corner. And I am not hip. At all.

So while Mike D of the Beastie Boys still lives nearby – like me in Cobble Hill – he is more of a property developer than a hell raiser these days.

The coolest thing though is that Hillary’s HQ backs right on to my street – Clinton Street. Named not for Bill or Hillary, but Dewitt Clinton, a long dead mayor of New York. He once ran for president too. But Hillary won’t want to know how it went…

You can hear more about Hillary’s campaign nerve centre in a piece I recorded for RTE’s World Report.

Grounded rises above the usual drone debate

The temptation when writing a play about America’s drone wars would be to make it big – a critique of US military strategy and Washington’s foreign policy. Or to make it a procedural, imagining the debate that goes on behind closed doors as targets are selected, lawyers consulted and orders dispatched.

The success of Grounded, written by George Brant, is to make it small and to make it personal. A new production is previewing at The Public Theatre in New York, following a successful debut at Edinburgh and an acclaimed run in London. And you should try to snap up tickets while you still can.

There will be no shortage of press coverage. This time around it stars Anne Hathaway. It’s something of an ambitious choice, casting a Hollywood actress who has seldom appeared on stage for a 75-minute single hander. The gamble pays off. With distinction. Her small frame holds the small theatre rapt as she energetically describes the story of Pilot, who is transferred from an F-16 to a Predator drone when she becomes a mother.

At the heart of the story is the notion of a warrior. What does it mean for a man or woman to go to war. For Pilot it is all for the love of the “blue”, the freedom she feels in the air, and the exhilaration she feels unloading her Sidewinder missiles. In her hands is the power to turn buildings back to desert, back to sand.

Or at least I think I do. I’m long gone by the time the boom happens.

And this is the crux of the tale. Once transferred to drones, her relationship with the target changes. She is invincible, the risk to her is eliminated. It becomes a mantra running through the lyrical script: “The threat of death has been removed.”

But now she can see the targets. Where before they were points on a radar, Xs on maps, surveillance cameras (another of the repeated motifs) mean she can see her handiwork up close. What was once the thrill of smiting the enemy – “I killed me some military age males” – begins to weigh more heavily.

The staging is extraordinary. The action is conducted in a sandpit – neatly tying together the Nevada desert where Pilot is based, and the scrub where her targets live and die. (OK, Afghan hands know that’s  a stretch. There’s not much desert in Afghanistan but I went with it.)


A complex lighting array beams scenery on to the sand and a mirror at the rear of the stage. It is at its most powerful when it shows Pilot flying her drone, giving a complete sense of human and machine as one.

The sand tells its own story. It starts the evening raked neatly into ridges, before being flattened and kicked into chaos as Pilot’s mental state deteriorates. When she has a chance to decompress it is smoothed back into shape.

In telling the story of Pilot – so deftly performed by Hathaway – Grounded avoids the temptation to make grandiose statements about right and wrong. Instead (and there’s a lesson here for those of us who have spent years reporting and thinking about these things) it picks out the most important question about drones. What are they doing to us?

Is it all about the cigarettes?

Cigarettes. Islamists don’t like them. But I wonder if they could yet prove fatal to Isil. With the Shabaab back in the headlines this week, I have been thinking of their stance on cigarettes. I have been reminded of it several times in the past few months as it has been reported (several times) that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has banned smoking – along with skinny jeans.

And while it is wrong to extrapolate too much across geographic zones –  most of these conflicts originate in and are driven by local factors – I tentatively wonder if there might be a hint of a pattern.

You see an oft forgotten aspect of the rise of al-Shabaab is what happened to the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), its forerunner as the main Islamist movement in Somalia. Before it was driven from power at the end of 2006 by Ethiopian troops, the courts were suffering from declining popularity and had alienated businessmen – for banning cigarettes. It had already banned qat and closed Mogadishu’s informal cinemas.  And as a result the moneymen in Somalia, who had initially welcomed the courts for the stability and security they brought, were close to abandoning the movement.

Of course, we will never know what might have happened. The ICU was pushed from Mogadishu at the end of December 2006, splintering and leaving its young footsoldiers of the Shabaab to launch their insurgency. Maybe they would have reigned for decades without Ethiopia’s intervention. Perhaps it is too optimistic to say they would have collapsed.

And Somalia is not Iraq or Syria.

But people in Afghanistan also describe the way the Taliban initially offered peace and security, but by the time they were chased from Kabul were resented by much of the population.

Is there a pattern? Along the lines of….

  1. Movement offers peace and security after years of turmoil and civil war
  2. Wins support of local population – and crucially business leaders who see opportunity to make money more easily
  3. Increasingly oppressive dictats alienate population and the money men, who find revenue streams cut off when alcohol, cigarettes or qat are banned
  4. Foreign intervention unites dying Islamist movement against foreigners
  5. Long running insurgency

The last two points are the more speculative. But the bottom line is that Islamist movements cannot govern without the support of the local population. And in Somalia and Afghanistan they appeared to have alienated supporters.

Me, oh I’m just slashing through the underbrush of unreadable facticity


I spent several hours debating the fine line between non-fiction and fiction, and what it meant for the search for truth, with HM Naqvi, the novelist, last year. Some of that was late at night. And some was at the Karachi and the Islamabad literature festivals. For both of us, it seemed, our favourite writers were those who played with the line: Novelists who approached their subject like a piece of non-fiction, or non-fiction writers who, erm, broke with convention.

It just so happens that I am currently reading Joseph Mitchell’s Up In The Old Hotel, a beautiful anthology of his New Yorker writings, chronicling life in a now disappeared city. And a new biography suggests those colourful New York characters are actually composites and include essentially distorted anecdotes.

Should I care? It is fantastic writing after all (and I have pondered frequently why I can’t find such characters). Janet Malcolm, in the New York Review of Books, says I shouldn’t, that I should celebrate the inventions that most of us mere journalists cannot even imagine. She riffs on Mitchell’s own statement that writers must retain the reader’s interest, and keep them from the bush and ditches….

Every writer of nonfiction who has struggled with the ditch and the bushes knows what Mitchell is talking about, but few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell. The idea that reporters are constantly resisting the temptation to invent is a laughable one. Reporters don’t invent because they don’t know how to. This is why they are journalists rather than novelists or short-story writers. They depend on the kindness of the strangers they actually meet for the characters in their stories. There are no fictional characters lurking in their imaginations. They couldn’t create a character like Mr. Flood or Cockeye Johnny if you held a gun to their heads. Mitchell’s travels across the line that separates fiction and nonfiction are his singular feat. His impatience with the annoying, boring bits of actuality, his slashings through the underbrush of unreadable facticity, give his pieces their electric force, are why they’re so much more exciting to read than the work of other nonfiction writers of ambition.

Which I think says more about the reverence that Mitchell is held in, and America’s extraordinary literary snobbery, than anything about how a young non-fiction writer should deal with a sceptical editor. “I’m just slashing through the underbrush of unreadable factacity,” is a sentiment I would struggle to use without breaking into giggles. But then everyone assumes that is what all British journalists do anyway.

If you don’t subscribe to the NYRB there is also a discussion in The Guardian.

Remember Darfur?


Rebels of the Justice and Equality Movement in Darfur, 2009


Probably not. I discussed the region, the conflict and forthcoming Sudanese elections on Monocle 24’s Foreign Desk show with Steve Bloomfield and Yosra Akasha, a Sudanese activist. Mukesh Kapila, who first warned the world of what was happening, also appears on the show.

You can listen to it here

Some brief points:

What does any of this mean? Who knows? But one thing seems clear, we are further than ever from finding any kind of solution to Sudan’s problems – further than we were in 2004-2009 when although the world was pursuing the wrong solutions we were at least pursuing something.

Now no-one remembers.

And if you notice a strange sound in the M24 broadcast, it is me trying not to say, “I told you so.”