Bombing Syria is not the whole solution – but it’s a good start

In June, a 17-year-old from Dewsbury became this country’s youngest home-grown suicide bomber – again, after he travelled to Daesh-held territory in Syria. You only had to listen to the appalling delusions of the four women who were filmed in east London by Channel Four for the documentary ISIS: The British Women Supporters Unveiled, to see the effect of what is happening in Syria on the minds of impressionable and alienated young people. These women spoke of filthy Jews; they scorned democracy as being un-Islamic; and above all they looked with fascination and approval at the supposedly new holy kingdom that has been carved by violence from Syria and Iraq. “Nobody would have thought in our lifetime we would see the establishment of the Khilafah,” said one.

This so-called Caliphate is not only the origin of an increasing number of plots against this and other countries – two of the Paris bombers, at least, were jihadis returning from Syria. It is a landscape of the imagination for the western would-be jihadis and those at risk of radicalisation. We rational people can see it for what it really is: a kind of Mordor, or the brutalised realm of Colonel Kurtz – where children play with decapitated heads, where prisoners are burned alive in cages, where gay people are thrown out of windows and where elderly women are shot and put in mass graves because they are deemed to have no use as sex-slaves. We see it as the home of an evil death cult. But in the minds of these potential recruits it has a dark charisma; a place whose very racism and viciousness somehow indicate a fascist purity.

As long as it exists, the so-called Islamic Caliphate will exercise a death-star pull on the mind of those who are willing to be deluded. The longer we tolerate the existence of this vast feculent breeding ground of hate – with a captive population of 10 million – the worse it will be for the world; and the more spores of terror will waft over the web and lodge in the minds of young people in European cities.

That is why this vote is not like the 2003 debate on the Iraq war, and those evanescent weapons of mass destruction. This time no one seriously doubts the threat. In the last few days, the UN Security Council has voted unanimously that “all necessary means” should be used to remove this haven for terror; and that is because every member of the security council – indeed every member of the UN – shares David Cameron’s reasonable ambition: to degrade and ultimately to destroy this gangster statelet.

If you ask, very sensibly, how exactly we are going to achieve that objective by bombing from the air, then the answer pretty obviously is that we can’t, or certainly not immediately. But that does not mean that aerial bombardment is pointless: it has helped to drive Daesh back in Iraq; and it will enable us to be of more use to those terrestrial forces willing and able to take them on in Syria.

Who are they? Whose boots will be on the ground? The only way to work that one out is to build on that international consensus, to create a coalition in which everybody – Putin included – lives up to their rhetoric and turns their fire unequivocally on Daesh. That means more than just the 70,000 non-Daesh rebels, including the Free Syrian Army and others. It probably means brokering a ceasefire between Bashar al-Assad and the non-Daesh rebels, as well as agreeing a timetable for the eventual removal of Mr Assad, and gradually ensuring that all are focused on the common foe.

Of course it will not be easy; not when Mr Putin was yesterday bombing some of the anti-Daesh, anti-Assad rebels, and not when Mr Assad is actually buying oil from Daesh. The place is a writhing bag of snakes. But just as no British military action can be a substitute for a political deal, so no British diplomacy can be effective if we are only half engaged. How can we be taken seriously, if we fail to join a coalition of some of our closest allies?

To those who say we risk blowback, I say we already face a systematic terrorist threat; and it is wrong to contract out the fight. You cannot say the do-nothing option has worked: we have seen 240,000 people killed in Syria; we have seen millions displaced; the biggest refugee crisis in our lifetimes and terrorist plots emanating from the ideological cesspit of the so-called Islamic state. Of course bombing alone will not solve the problem; everyone can see that. But the military and political effort must go hand in hand, and Britain must be part of both. I hope Parliament votes resoundingly to join our allies in taking the fight to the enemy.

Paris terror attacks: This was a 9/11 moment for our sister city – this was an act of war

The answer is that even though I think an attack of that particular type is unlikely, and even though we are doing everything in our power to prevent it, I am afraid that it would be impossible – and irresponsible – to rule it out completely.

How could we rule it out? Yes, of course the police and the security services are doing an amazing job – with the resources they have – in monitoring the thousands of potential suspects (perhaps 3,000-4,000), some of them clearly more dangerous than others. They foil all sorts of plots, half-baked or otherwise. They make arrests with great frequency. But it is plainly no use hoping that the problem of Daesh-inspired terrorism is going away.

Just in the last few months we have seen appalling loss of British life on the beach in Tunisia; we have seen a Russian passenger jet blown out of the sky; and now 129 people killed in Paris, in the most vicious and shocking fashion, and many others seriously wounded.

Several people over the weekend have echoed the sentiments of the excellent French ambassador to London, Sylvie-Agnes Bermann, who said that this massacre was qualitatively different from the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January. This, she said, was a 9/11 moment. This was an act of war. I agree. And as we deliberate on how to respond, it is essential to be cautious, and to be pragmatic – and yet to use every weapon at our disposal.

First of all we need to catch the bastards before they strike; and I am afraid that I have less and less sympathy with those who oppose the new surveillance powers that the government would like to give the security services. To some people the whistleblower Edward Snowden is a hero; not to me. It is pretty clear that his bean-spilling has taught some of the nastiest people on the planet how to avoid being caught; and when the story of the Paris massacre is explained, I would like a better understanding of how so many operatives were able to conspire, and attack multiple locations, without some of their electronic chatter reaching the ears of the police. I want these people properly spied on, properly watched – and I bet you do, too.

Second, we need to be able to intercept them at frontiers. I know Molenbeek, the melancholy Brussels suburb that is said to have produced some of the Paris killers. I remember happy hours walking its bemerded and frituur-smelling streets, and alas I am not surprised to find – a generation later – that some of those scampering North African children have grown up to become jihadis. What are the implications for the security of Europe, if you can load your car with Kalashnikovs in Molenbeek, and drive unimpeded not just to Paris but to any EU capital you please?

The Paris massacres – as the French have implicitly confirmed, by trying to control their own frontiers – have greatly strengthened the hand of David Cameron as he argues for better control at the borders. And yet it is not enough just to spy on them. It is too late to try to catch them, once they have pupated into proto-terrorists. We must intercept them before the metamorphosis begins. We need to get the antidote down their throats before the poisonous death-cult takes over their minds. That means working ever harder to enlist the vast majority of Muslims who despise Daesh (so I propose to call them, since it is a shame to play their game and use the word Islamic in their title), and who can help most powerfully in differentiating their abominable doctrines from the teachings of the Koran.

"We need to be much faster and much cleverer in beating the absurd propaganda from Raqqa"

It means working with the families, and coming down hard on parents who – all too often, alas – are allowing their kids, of both sexes, to go online and imbibe the jihadi madness: the ranting sermons, the home-made hydrogen peroxide suicide belts, and all the rest of the claptrap.

We need to be much faster and much cleverer in beating the absurd propaganda from Raqqa. How hard can that be? Their “caliphate” is savage, dysfunctional, and so scary that many British would-be jihadis end up pleading to come home. But there it is – a breeding-ground of terror; and it looks very much as if at least one of the Paris killers actually came from Syria, via Leros. And so we come to the last of our possible responses – the military one. All the generals I have talked to are leery. They want to understand the mission, and how we propose to achieve it. Would we go in with Putin? Would we effectively be backing Assad? No choice looks attractive; no plan is perfect. But is doing nothing any better? It is more than two years since the government was defeated in its plan to intervene in Syria, and the rhythm of terror would appear to be increasing. These people avowedly want to destroy us, and in those circumstances no military option can be off the table. This is a fight we will one day inevitably win – because in the end our view of the human spirit is vastly more attractive and realistic than theirs. But we won’t win if we don’t fight back.

Sorry Benedict Cumberbatch, but you’re wrong about politicians

It might have been instructive to put that question to the audience, once they had calmed down. If 20,000 is too little, what is the right number for Britain? Cumberbatch spoke of 11 million refugees from Syria. How many should we take, in all decency? 200,000? Half a million? I think at that point there might have been a certain amount of shuffling in their seats. Some people might have discovered some fascinating and overlooked detail in their theatre programmes.

The truth is that good people are capable of two inconsistent desires in their hearts. They are perfectly capable of being simultaneously indignant at the slowness of politicians to take more migrants fleeing Middle Eastern war zones, and alarmed at the failure of politicians to cope with the consequences of the rapid and unforeseen growth in UK population. As we learnt last week, the population of this country is set to grow by another 4.4 million just in the next 10 years. It is going to hit 74.3 million by 2039 – 80 million by 2050.

That is an astonishing change, when you consider that Britain was only about 54 million when I was born. This boom is in many ways a compliment to this country – the most dynamic economy in Europe, the place people want to be, where ambitious and energetic people can see a future for themselves. And yet you could not argue that this fundamental change represents the settled will of the British people – and especially not when 51 per cent of that demographic expansion is to be caused by immigration.

The reason people get so aerated about this issue is that they feel politicians have somehow tricked them. First there was the Labour Party that decided in the late 1990s to take the brakes off immigration, and to turn a blind eye to illegals, for the utterly cynical reason that they believed that immigrants were more likely to vote Labour. That conspiracy, for obvious reasons, was not explained to the public at the time, though some Labour people have since fessed up.

Then there has been the general failure of government since to get a grip on the numbers – in spite of repeated promises to do so. It is a painful truth that we said we could cap immigration in the “tens of thousands”; and yet this year alone we have had net immigration at 330,000. It is no wonder, when you have your natural fecundity rate turbo-charged in this way, that we have been struggling to catch up with the homes and the transport infrastructure that we need.

Now, I am not remotely pessimistic about our future, and with care and imagination we should be able to find the space. For all the talk of a Northern Powerhouse, Manchester is still a third smaller than it was in 1931. And I am not sure that we want the opposite problem – a falling population. In Japan they are going to plummet, over the same period, from 125 million to 90 million. They buy more nappies for old people than for babies, and have more pet dogs than kids under 15. People understand the problem of an ageing population, and the need to pay for pensions and to keep the economy moving; indeed, most people are prepared to support some level of immigration, provided it is controlled.

But it feels at the moment as if there is a giant plot – abetted by big business and tacitly supported by the forecasters in the Treasury – to use the excuse of EU rules to keep immigration beyond democratic control, so that the numbers keep rising, and so British companies get the skills they need; and all the while politicians can limply claim there is nothing they can do, except perhaps for some misguided and counter-productive restrictions on student visas. It won’t wash. There may be a case for immigration; there is no case for a lack of control. Cumberbatch was right to bash us politicians – but not for the reasons he gave.