The Police need to be routinely armed

PC Keith Palmer had a split second decision to make on the afternoon of 22 March 2017.  A big man with a shaven head and a ‘Hand of Allah’ beard was running towards him, waving at least one knife.  Did he run and hide; or did he confront him?  Heroically, PC Palmer tried to stop Khalid Masood.  In the struggle that followed, Keith Palmer received multiple stab injuries and subsequently died; Khalid Massood was shot three times by a ministerial close protection officer, who happened to be standing nearby, and also died.

Keith Palmer was one of the police officers on duty at the perimeter of the Palace of Westminster – the British Parliament – in effect the first obstacle to anyone attempting to gain entry to the parliamentary estate.  He was not armed, neither was any police officer normally stationed there who was close enough to intervene.  Had it not happened to be a Wednesday, when ministers converge on the House of Commons for Prime Minister’s Questions, there would have been no armed response within reach.  As it was, an armed officer happened to be standing by the Secretary of State for Defence’s car and moved in.  Keith Palmer still died.

Any infantryman or sapper – in fact any soldier – will tell you that an obstacle that is not covered by both observation and fire is not an obstacle.  Keith Palmer was not an obstacle to anyone attempting to make a forced entry into the Palace of Westminster, although in his hi-viz jacket he might have looked like one to his complacent commanders.

It is no longer good enough to look like an obstacle. Islamist terrorists are, by and large, expecting to die during their attacks.  They are hoping to inflict as much damage as possible during the course of their attack. They are unlikely to be deterred by an unarmed copper in a hi-viz vest. They will try to kill him or her and carry on with their business until someone actually does physically stop them.  Had an armed officer not been – coincidentally – present, we can only imagine what further carnage might have been inflicted.

Our police need to be able to stop attacks and ultimately the only way they can do that is by killing (or, I suppose, incapacitating) the terrorists.  Realistically, the only way they can do that is by shooting them.  They cannot shoot them if they are not armed.

And it isn’t just the once-in-a-blue-moon terrorist scenarios we need to be worrying about.  This is no longer the 1930s.  British society has changed. Many criminals operating in the UK today come from places where armed criminal violence is commonplace.  And to add to this, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact has created a glut of illegal guns in Europe.

What this means is that police officers in the inner cities are regularly going in to potentially armed situations with no means to resolve them.  Of course we have armed response vehicles circulating around but they are rarely likely to be the first responders. Instead it will usually be unarmed coppers, like Keith Palmer, who have to put themselves in harm’s way.  That means that some of them, like Keith Palmer, will be killed or seriously injured.

92% of Metropolitan Police officers are not routinely armed.  Many, of course, do not need to be because they are not in roles where they are likely to confront armed criminals but the fact is that police officers who may find themselves in a situation in which they are confronting terrorists or armed criminals should be able to defend both themselves and the public.  To do that, they must be able to deploy more than a truncheon, a pepper spray and harsh language.

Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Tunisian Islamist terrorist who killed 86 people and injured more than 400 by driving a truck along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on 14 July 2016 was eventually stopped by ordinary French Police shooting at him with their sidearms.  Khalid Masood ran down three unarmed police officers as he crossed Westminster Bridge.  We don’t know if they were trying to stop him but if they were, they would have had a better chance if they had been able to shoot at him.

This is no longer a hypothetical situation.  The threat of Islamist terrorism in the UK, and particularly in our major cities, has been assessed as ‘severe’ for some time and is likely to remain so.  It is not unreasonable to suppose that Masood’s actions will inspire other terrorist self-starters to have a go.  The list of potential targets is more or less infinite.  Putting more armed officers around the Palace of Westminster won’t help much if an attack takes place in Cardiff, Glasgow or Coventry.  We cannot afford this level of complacency; police patrols need to be routinely armed.

 

 

Sebastian Gorka and the Vitézi Rend

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In my last blog I wrote about how Sebastian Gorka, Deputy Assistant to President Donald Trump, appears to have tried to suggest that a short period in a British Army reserve intelligence unit in the early 1990s adds to his credibility as an ‘expert’ in counter-terrorism.  In fact it seems extremely unlikely that Gorka would have gained any operational experience during his service and in reality the unit that he was a member of had no counter-terrorist role  – in Northern Ireland, mainland Britain or anywhere else –  at that time.

Perhaps more troublingly, recent reports have highlighted Gorka’s habit of wearing the insignia of the Vitézi Rend, a hereditary order of military merit created by the Hungarian ruler Admiral Miklós Horthy in 1920. In 1941, Horthy took Hungary into the Second World War on the side of Nazi Germany and was still Head of State in the summer of 1944 when Adolf Eichmann began deporting Hungary’s Jewish minority to Auschwitz for extermination. Membership of the  Vitézi Rend continued to be awarded until Horthy was deposed, at gunpoint, by Nazi German intelligence and special forces personnel in October 1944.

At the end of the war, the Vitézi Rend was abolished along with a number of other organisations and political parties  which had been entangled with both Admiral Horthy’s government and the subsequent fascist ‘Arrow Cross’ puppet government of Ferenc Szálasi.  At this time it was listed by the US State Department as an organisation linked with Nazi Germany.  The Vitézi Rend has not been reconstituted by the Hungarian state and nowadays exists in the form of a number of competing private associations of a broadly right-wing, nationalist – and in some cases anti-semitic –  character which seek to claim the heritage of the order, and the prestige, if that is the right term, of the Horthy era.

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Miklós Horthy (left) and friend.

Admiral Miklós Horthy (1868-1957) was appointed Commander in Chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy in February 1918 and led it until the defeat of the Central Powers in Europe and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the autumn of 1918.  In 1919, Horthy was asked by the government of Hungary to take command of a counter-revolutionary army to help put down a Bolshevik coup, led by the revolutionary Bela Kun.  This was accomplished, with the help of Romanian forces, by the autumn of 1919 and Hungary was re-established as a parliamentary monarchy, with the odd proviso that it had no monarch, as the victorious allies would not allow the King – the former Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Emperor Karl IV – to return to the country to take up the throne.  Consequently, the Hungarian parliament elected Horthy as Regent and Head of State.  A position that he held until he was deposed by the Nazis who were unhappy that he was trying to extricate Hungary from the war against the Soviet Union.

Doubtless, Miklós Horthy was not a nice man by current standards.  He allied Hungary – albeit reluctantly – with Nazi Germany, instituted anti-semitic laws and did far less than he could and should have done when the Nazis began to deport Hungary’s Jewish population to Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.  But he was neither a fascist nor a Nazi, except in the rather crass sense that the modern left applies to right-wing people whose views or actions they particularly dislike.  Instead he was a reactionary, irredentist, monarchist, nationalist conservative whose primary motivation in co-operating with Hitler and Nazi Germany was to recover territory lost by Hungary at the Treaty of Trianon in 1920.  He was certainly personally anti-Semitic but his record suggests that he made efforts from time to time to protect Hungary’s Jewish minority from the worst excesses of the Hungarian radical right.  It was nowhere near enough of course and he shamefully failed to prevent the Nazi extermination of Hungarian Jews in 1944 but his relationship with Nazi Germany was sufficiently ambiguous that he was not prosecuted by the Allies at the end of the war and died in retirement in Portugal in 1957.

So does Gorka’s wearing of the medal and use of the title ‘vitéz’ imply that he has neo-Nazi or anti-semitic links as some commentary has suggested?  Well possibly.  Gorka certainly has links to the Hungarian nationalist right and within that spectrum there are some more or less open anti-semites and neo-Nazis.  Although Gorka has denied any connection with the extremist right it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to suppose that he came into contact with them, but that certainly doesn’t mean he shared their views and I don’t think there is any actual evidence to suggest that Gorka is a fascist or Nazi.  On the other hand, Gorka’s own explanation suggests that a different interpretation of the significance of his wearing the Vitézi Rend might be a better fit.

Gorka told the London Daily Telegraph that: “My father was nine years old when the Second World War started… I was born in 1970. Neither of us could be guilty of what they’re stating.”

Which is perfectly true.  Realistically, neither can be associated with the crimes of the Horthy era.  Equally however, neither can be associated with the actual Vitézi Rend, which was abolished in 1945.  At best, the medal that Gorka wears is something that he (or his father, as the award is supposedly hereditary) was either awarded by one of the several competing non-state groups which claim to be able to award the medal, or he simply awarded it to himself.

Naive soul that I am, I was unaware, until a few years ago, that there is a thriving market in bogus titles of chivalry and nobility.  The scales were lifted from my eyes when I followed the unmasking – on the British ‘Army Rumour Service‘ website (a raucous and very unofficial discussion forum for serving and ex-members of the British Army) – of James Shortt, an ex-nurse and martial arts instructor who constructed a glorious military history for himself and then seems to have spent much of the 1990s selling military training to the newly emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. Shortt claimed, amongst other things, to have been awarded a Papal knighthood for his contribution to bringing the Cold War to an end and also, surprise, surprise, to be a Vitézi Rend. Further poking around the grubby recesses of the internet throws up all kinds of examples of people who have awarded themselves titles of nobility and knighthoods, whilst the fraudulent wearing of military decorations with the intent to obtain tangible benefits led the US Congress to pass the Stolen Valor act in 2013 (a British version is also under discussion).

Why do people award themselves medals and titles?  Ironically, I suspect, it’s to gain respect which they wouldn’t otherwise receive and which they don’t deserve.  A bit like claiming operational counter-terrorist experience.  Oddly enough, soon after I published my first blog on Gorka, I was contacted by a former schoolmate of Gorka’s from St Benedict’s in Ealing.  He told me that Gorka hadn’t played ‘Number 8’ for the school rugby XV as he’d claimed in one interview.  It does all seem to fit into a pattern.

Sebastian Gorka and his distinguished military career.

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Sebastian Gorka is on the right.. badoom-tish!

One of the curious paradoxes of the Trump administration is that, at the very top, there is a mixture of supremely competent professionals – James Mattis and HR McMaster spring to mind – working in the same national security space as quirky ideological warriors like Stephen Bannon.  Sebastian Gorka, the British-born commentator of Hungarian extraction, who was named as a Deputy Assistant to President Donald Trump in January 2017, seemed to straddle this divide:  an academic specialist in counter-terrorism with some radical ideas about how to defeat Jihadi Islamism.

I took a mild interest in Gorka because he had apparently served in an Intelligence Corps unit of the British Territorial Army (TA) in the early 1990s.  For non-British readers, the Territorial Army* was the name of the part-time British Army reserve established in the early years of the 20th century primarily for home defence but which became, during the Cold War, an integral part of the British orbat in our plans to defend western Europe from Soviet aggression as part of NATO; it was and is similar to the US National Guard in many respects.  As it happens, I was commissioned as a regular army Intelligence Corps officer in 1985 and it’s always nice to see chaps from the Corps doing well for themselves.

Last month, someone on twitter posted a link to this profile of Gorka in the Washington Post and my ‘spidey senses’ immediately began to tingle.  It’s a throwaway sentence:  “He went to college in London and spent three years as a reserve intelligence soldier in the British army, focused on the conflict in Northern Ireland”.  This struck me as extremely unlikely: no part of the TA, to my knowledge, was ever committed to the conflict in Northern Ireland.  The only part-time soldiers to be directly involved were members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and their successors in the Home Service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment, who had a different legal status to the TA.

A little digging revealed that Gorka had actually been a member of 22 Intelligence Company, of the Intelligence and Security Group (Volunteers) between 1990 and 1992, as he told a Hungarian newspaper.  22 Company was a unit I knew well from my own service. Back then, in the dying days of the Cold War, it was a specialist unit of interrogators and ‘tactical questioners’ with a NATO role.  It was an eclectic group of people, recruited largely on the basis of their language skills, who were trained under the auspices of the Joint Service Interrogation Wing at Ashford in Kent.  As the son of Hungarian exile parents and a Hungarian speaker, Gorka would have been a good fit.  But it had nothing to do with Northern Ireland, so if Gorka was claiming this in the US, he was being somewhat economical with the truth.

In itself, this is kinda, sorta understandable.  Gorka took a first degree in Theology and Philosophy at a theological college of London University and his subsequent transformation into a counter-terrorism theorist seems to have taken place whilst he was studying for a Master’s degree, and subsequently a PhD, in Budapest which might be seen by some to lack the credibility of equivalent qualifications from, say, Harvard or Cambridge.  I can see why he might want to have credentials as an operational counter-terrorism specialist from one of the world’s leading armies.  It doesn’t make it true though.

A week or so back I asked a friend, who was in 22 Company at that time, whether he remembered him.  “I don’t recall Gorka immediately, but that’s not to suggest that we may not have collided at some time in the great Venn diagram of life”, was his response.

As it happens, Gorka was profiled (paywalled) today by the Sunday Times in London.  It’s a soft piece, written as a kind of ‘hometown boy makes good’ story, but interestingly, it presents a new version of his military service.  According to the Sunday Times:  “Gorka spent three years from 1990 as a part-time soldier with the Territorial Army. Part of 22 Military Intelligence Company, he used his language skills (he speaks German and some French as well as Hungarian) to collect evidence for the war crimes tribunal set up after the collapse of Yugoslavia”.

Once again, the spidey senses twitched.  Would members of 22 Company really have been collecting war crimes evidence between 1990 and 1992 when Gorka was a member?  It seems unlikely to me: their role was collecting intelligence, a very different task to collecting evidence that could be used in a court.  A couple of other easily checkable facts also seem to suggest this isn’t true: firstly, there were no significant deployments of British military personnel to the former Yugoslavia until September 1992 when 1 Cheshires Battlegroup deployed under the command of Lt Col Bob Stewart (now a Conservative MP) on Operation GRAPPLE as part of UNPROFOR; secondly, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia wasn’t actually set up until May of 1993.

It seems to me possible that Gorka might have been employed interviewing – ‘debriefing’ in intelligence jargon – individuals returning from the former Yugoslavia to gain snippets of information from them.  Members of 22 Company certainly did this with returnees from Iraq and Kuwait at the start of the Gulf War in 1990 (I know this because I was one of the people who organised it) and I’m told the ‘Defence Debriefing Team’ was put on a more formal footing thereafter (by which time I’d moved on).  Even so, at this stage it wasn’t about acquiring war crimes evidence but rather basic situational awareness, so he is evidently dramatising his role, if indeed he ever did this work.

So what?  In the grand scheme of life an individual exaggerating his military service is no big deal. It’s kind of distasteful, I suppose, but it happens an awful lot and most military veterans I know find it funny, more than anything else.  But there are special circumstances in Gorka’s case.  He is a senior advisor to the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful armed forces that have ever existed.  Gorka’s views appear to have been formed by his studies at a university that is not renowned as a centre for the study of counter-terrorism and, despite his attempts to suggest otherwise, he has never been an operational practitioner of counter-terrorism.  By all accounts that I have read, Gorka has never done any academic fieldwork in counter-terrorism either.  His real expertise seems to be in getting gigs as a ‘talking head’ on right wing news media, the rest is pretty much flim-flam.

It’s up to President Trump to decide who he wants to advise him, of course, but my experience over the years has been that proven bullshitters are rarely a good choice.

*Now renamed the ‘Army Reserve’