‘Lone Wolf’ killers and terrorism


I’ve blogged about this before (here) but I’m a bit concerned by the determination of many within political and media circles to label ‘Lone Wolf’ killers, like Thomas Mair, as ‘terrorists’.

Here’s the thing: we do not know why Mair murdered Jo Cox.  We know that as he was committing his repellent crime, he shouted something like ‘Britain first!’ and we know that he had a collection of books about Nazi Germany.  We know that he had accumulated magazines produced by American white supremacist groups and that he apparently had a collection of Nazi regalia; and he seems to have been involved some years ago with a pro-Apartheid group in the UK.

But we also know that Thomas Mair has not communicated in any meaningful way with the police since he was arrested and, as far as I’m aware, nobody has yet come forward who has any special knowledge of his political views beyond what has been inferred from his reading habits.  His half-brother has been quoted saying that:  ‘He has never expressed any views about Britain, or shown any racist tendencies…  I’m mixed race and I’m his half-brother, we got on well’.  According to the Daily Mail:  “Rosemary Surman, 61, who is a friend of Mair’s mother, even remembered him saying he said there were good reasons for both staying and leaving the EU.”

In fact, the books on his bookshelf are broadly either mainstream histories or illustrated books aimed largely at collectors of Third Reich artefacts.  I don’t recognise any of them as being pro-Nazi or white supremacist*.  In fact, I wrote one of the books he had: ‘Patriot Traitors’ is a comparative biography of Sir Roger Casement and John Amery, men sentenced to death for High Treason in the First and Second World Wars respectively, which amongst other things discusses whether their sexual alienation from the then norms of British society may have led to their rejection of it.  Published by Penguin, it is hardly a pro-Nazi tract.

The neo-Nazi magazines are doubtless pretty unpleasant but they are not evidence that he was affiliated to any kind of ‘movement’ even if he agreed with their ideology.  In the absence of any context from Mair,  they strongly suggest he has white supremacist sympathies but we really don’t know for sure.  As it happens, I have quite a substantial collection of Fascist, Nazi and, indeed, Marxist literature in my library but I’m a fairly squishy liberal Tory.

We also know, and I think this is quite important, that Mair has had mental health issues.  A psychiatrist examined him whilst he was in detention before trial and effectively pronounced him ‘fit to plead’ – that is, that he understood the difference between right and wrong – but we don’t really know how much Mair engaged with the process.  He is alleged to have had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and, by his own account to a local newspaper before the murder, to have been treated for unspecified mental health problems at a clinic in Yorkshire.  All the descriptions of him that have emerged so far are of a deeply solitary man who did not form personal relationships easily.

So can we really say – as many are insisting – that Mair is a ‘neo-Nazi terrorist’ rather than an obsessive, cranky and unstable loner who developed a tragically murderous obsession with Jo Cox?  I’m really not sure that we can.

If we take a working definition of terrorism as ‘the committing of acts of violence with the aim of achieving a political goal’, it seems a stretch to make Mair’s murder of Jo Cox into an act of terrorism based on the actual evidence there is, rather than our suppositions.  Obviously she was a political figure who stood for many of the things that Mair probably disliked but did he actually think he would be achieving some kind of goal by killing her?  We don’t know.

According to the police,  there is some evidence, from his web-searching before the murder, that he was also contemplating killing his mother – on the grounds of ‘miscegenation’ (marrying outside her race) – and may have been intending to do so after he had killed Jo Cox.  This strikes me – and I accept that this is pure speculation – as more like the pattern of behaviour of a wannabe ‘spree killer’ like Michael Ryan or Adam Lanza, albeit one who was only able to arm himself with a clunky sawn-off .22 rifle and a reproduction fighting dagger.  It is by no means unknown for psychopathic murderers to want to shoehorn their crimes into a political narrative as a way of justifying themselves.  Anders Breivik certainly did.  Maybe Mair was  contemplating attacking other victims?  We simply don’t know.

So in the absence of evidence, I do not believe that we should try to impose our own political narrative on Mair’s crime, based simply on his reading matter.


*There is a copy of David Irving’s book about the Nuremberg Trials on his shelf.  While Irving is broadly sympathetic to Hitler, his books do not generally praise – or particularly dwell on – Nazi ideology.

Review: Jurassic World


I think I could be described as a ‘pragmatic optimist’.  If you ask me if glass is half-full or half-empty, my response is likely to be that it’s the wrong size.  So having lashed out my £13.99 on iTunes to download ‘Jurassic World’ (it’ll be cheaper here when it comes out on DVD in a week or so), I wasn’t really expecting much more than a couple of hours of dinosaur-based thrills and spills, not unlike the previous entries in the ‘Jurassic…’ genre.

Which turned out to be a wise thing.

(Do be aware that there are some – sort of – spoilers down below)

You can sort of imagine the script conference at the Steven Spielberg Jurassic Division offices on a smoggy LA Monday morning just before principal photography started.  There’d be a long conference table, strewn with dog-eared copies of the script and those irritating take-out coffee cups with lids, and perhaps the odd 500ml Evian bottle for the more health conscious.  Sitting slumped around the table is a small gaggle of casually dressed movie execs, some of whom are wearing baseball caps and at least one of whom – who has a beard – is wearing his cap backwards.  There’s a small flurry of activity as two men arrive and set up a big flip-chart thing on an easel at the head of the table.  Then Steven Spielberg himself comes in and they all kind of sit-up a bit.

Steven:  OK guys, we’re about to start shooting so let’s just check that this script is ready to go.

He flips up the cover of the pad to reveal ‘Check List’ written at the top in black sharpie.

Steven:  We’ll just go through the list of script elements.  Sing out if you have the answer.  First: hunky hero?

Exec 1:  Yup, Chris Pratt.

Steven:  Great.  Spunky but quirky heroine?

Exec 2:  Bryce Dallas Howard: she’s ginger and she wears high heels while running through the jungle.

Steven:  Brilliant.  Evil corporate mo’fo?

Exec 3:  Vincent d’Onofrio.  He gets eaten by a Velociraptor

Steven:  Fantastic – great casting by the way!  Corrupted clever guy?

Exec 1:  We went with that Chinese-American geneticist from Jurassic Park 1.

Steven:  Wasn’t he a good guy then?

Exec 1:  He did some sympathetic eyebrow work in Act 1 but it was kind of undeveloped.

Steven:  OK, well let’s see how it goes.  What about annoying kids?

Exec 4:  Yup.

Steven:  How many?

Exec 4:  We went with two: both boys.

Steven:  Great, well that’s new.  Anyone I’ve missed?

Exec 5 (with hat on backwards):  Yeah, we got an Indian billionaire who seems to own the Park and flies a helicopter; and we got the annoying kids’ parents who may or may not be getting divorced.

Steven:  I like the sound of the billionaire, what does he do?

Exec 5:  He crashes the helicopter and dies in the middle of Act 2.

Steven:  That’s a shame.

Exec 5:  Yeah but it was hard to see where we’d take him.  We’ve left him there as ‘lead token ethnic’.

Steven:  So we got some other ethnic minorities?

Exec 5:  Yeah, Chris Pratt has a black assistant: he’s a good guy.

Steven:  Does he make it?

Exec 5:  No idea: we don’t see a lot of him after he’s made his point.

Steven:  OK, what about the annoying kids’ parents?  What’s the story?

Exec 6:  We kind of left that hanging.  The audience can kind of fill it in for themselves.

Steven:  OK.  How about new dinos?

Exec 7: We got two: a T-Rex/Velociraptor genetically-engineered hybrid – he’s a bad dinosaur, representing global capitalism and the military-industrial complex – and a great big aquatic one which eats the bad dino and represents the awesome power of mother nature.  It eats a Great White Shark too – it’s pretty cool.

Steven:  Love it!  So what’s the story?

Exec 1:  We wanted to turn the franchise around.  So we asked the question, what happens when the military industrial complex gets interested in astonishing possibilities offered by the science of genetics, and what would the sociological impacts be, at both the macro- and micro-levels?

Steven:  So what’s the answer?

Exec 1:  It turns out it’s the same as before.  The dinosaurs escape and eat a bunch of people while the hunky hero saves the annoying kids.

Steven:  Damn right!  Let’s roll.

The Glittering Prizes


I can’t imagine that David Cameron is particularly delighted that Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott’s new and ‘unauthorised’ (I’ll say!) biography of him suggests that he might have indecently assaulted a dead pig’s head during a Piers Gaveston Society party at Oxford in the 1980s.  No Prime Minister wants to walk into the Commons for PMQs to a chorus of pig-grunts.

I suppose the big lesson in this – apart, obviously, from keeping your schlong away from the mouths of deceased livestock if you have any political ambitions at all – is that it is unwise to piss off vengeful billionaires who have donated millions to your political campaigns and have time on their hands.  I certainly try to avoid it.

Oddly enough, nobody has ever invited me to a ‘sex-with-dead-pigs’ party and I never heard of any happening at the university I did attend (York, as it happens: a nice place and a very good university, but lacking the cachet of Oxbridge).  I expect it was all taking place in secret.

The journalist and educationalist Toby Young tweeted a link today to a piece he wrote back in 2009 about Oxford’s Secret Societies which does seem to offer some insight into the rise of pig-fucking parties.  Young characterises the Oxford social ‘elite’ in his day (he was at Oxford at the same time I was at York, and overlapped with Cameron) as being  young, rich but essentially middle-class ‘wannabes’, aping the fantasy idea of the aristocracy and Oxford that had inspired Evelyn Waugh particularly, but also P G Wodehouse and others.

In 1981 Granada TV ran a hugely successful dramatisation of Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited‘ and Harper’s and Queen published ‘The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook‘ in 1982.  These had a significant impact on some students of the time.  Public school was cool and, all of a sudden, a tranche of ex-public school types (and wannabes) at universities across the country swapped their disguise of skinny black jeans, ear-rings and Clash t-shirts, for tweed, corduroy and Barbour jackets.  I would mock them more if I hadn’t, to my shame, been mildly caught up in it too.

Students at British universities have always done stupid things like get drunk, take drugs and flash their nether regions at inappropriate times but in the 1980s, there was a period when it was cool to do so whilst dressed in white tie and implausibly claiming that your grandfather was an Earl.

Of course, whilst students like David Cameron were striving to appear to be languid but debauched aristocrats to their fellow undergraduates, they were actually working their arses off to get ahead.  In the job I currently do, I get to see raw ‘aptitude’ (i.e., IQ) scores for a range of young people, mostly undergraduates and recent graduates, and it’s noticeable that those for candidates who are, or who have been, at Oxbridge, aren’t significantly different from those who have attended less prestigious institutions.  A couple of years ago I was chatting with Tony Little, then Headmaster of Eton (one of my sons went there: aren’t I grand?) and he told me that Etonians were like swans: they appear to glide along effortlessly but under the surface they’re pedalling away like the clappers to succeed.

What I suspect this means is that the kids who get in to Oxbridge – and the other top universities – are those who discovered their work ethic in the early-to-mid teens and  acted on it.  This is certainly true now and was also the case in the 70s and 80s.  Back in 1982, I thought about applying to Oxford but an unusual – at the time – wave of reality washed over me when I thought about how much work I would have to do to convince any half decent college to take me, so I didn’t waste my time.

So what is the significance of the alleged pig’s-head molestation?  Zero, I think.  It will doubtless be acutely embarrassing for David Cameron, particularly if the alleged photograph does emerge, but it was something that happened when he was a pissed kid.  I have no doubt whatsoever that at the same time that the future Prime Minister was pretending to be a louche aristo, others at Oxford, from a similar background, were smoking dope in evil-smelling squats plotting the imminent downfall of the bourgeois hegemony, or drunkenly dressing in SS uniforms; whilst spending the rest of the week assiduously attending lectures and tutorials, writing essays and polishing their CVs for the graduate milk-round.

That’s just what some students do.

After I graduated, I went to Sandhurst to learn how to be an army officer.  One of the student officers in my company was an Oxford graduate who had been a member of ‘The Assassins’ as an undergrad.  He was one of the most startlingly dull and stodgy twerps one could imagine: more Rotary Club than Hellfire Club.  It had clearly been a big moment in his life but it had passed.  I don’t know what he does now – like me, he didn’t stay in the Regular Army – but accountancy or chartered surveying wouldn’t surprise me.  I wonder how many pigs he abused?

Edited to add:

It’s worth mentioning that I strongly doubt that the pig story is true.  As the ex-Political Editor of the ‘News of the World’ points out in a blog for the Spectator the provenance is incredibly weak. ‘An anonymous source knows a bloke who has a picture but we haven’t seen it…’ would get laughed out of any news conference outside of Exaro News.  No publisher I’ve ever worked with would have allowed me to put this in a book without some rock-solid corroboration.  I suspect that it’s there for three reasons:

  1.  David Cameron’s career would abruptly end if he was to go to court to force the authors, publisher etc to prove that he had had sex with a pig’s head.  So he can’t sue.
  2. Even if he did, Lord Ashcroft has deep enough pockets to fight the case to the bitter end.  He is richer than Cameron by several orders of magnitude.
  3. And, of course, Ashcroft is co-owner of the publishing house.

As it happens, I was an intelligence officer in Belize, where Ashcroft is based, in the early 1990s.  All sorts of stories used to circulate there about the supposedly nefarious ways in which he had made his money, none of which, so far as I could tell, had an iota of truth to them.  But chat with an ordinary Belizean and they would assure you that Ashcroft was the biggest gangster in the country. Unsubstantiated rumours are a very cheap and effective way of trashing someone’s reputation.

Why Sepp Blatter won’t resign.

I’ve read a lot of the British and some of the US coverage of the current FIFA imbroglio and while there’s no doubt that the whole organisation stinks like a week-old halibut, I’m not in a position to form an objective judgement on whether Sepp Blatter, the current FIFA President, is an evil mastermind or an innocent victim of wicked men.

But what I am absolutely sure of is that there is no real prospect of him resigning anytime soon.  Why would he?

Whether Blatter has done anything wrong or not, if he quits now he relinquishes any control he might have over the situation.  The miasma of corruption that is surrounding the upper reaches of FIFA is such that any successor elected now would have little choice but to throw Blatter to the wolves.  Whatever the eventual outcome is, Blatter can be reasonably sure that he would have to spend many more years defending himself and his conduct without any kind of organisational backup.  He’s 79 now; and I can’t imagine he wants to spend his remaining years and financial resources fighting off corruption allegations and everything else that goes with it.

On the other hand, and seeing how FIFA appears to conduct its activities, Blatter can be reasonably sure that there are a substantial number of delegates who don’t have much of a problem with how he is alleged to have run things and will continue to support his Presidency.  If he hangs on, he retains some ability to influence how the investigations are conducted and he continues to have the corporate weight – and financial muscle – of FIFA at his back.  And who knows?  Something may turn up to get him off the hook.

The historical parallels are with authoritarian dictators.  Men like Bashar al Assad and Robert Mugabe don’t necessarily cling on to power against all the odds because they want to, but because they’ve got nowhere else to go.  Once the powerbase has gone, they’re pretty much finished, however carefully they’ve tried to plan their exit from the scene.  Think of Mubarak in Egypt, Gadaffi in Libya, Ceausescu in Rumania; the list of dictators who have managed a quiet and peaceful retirement in recent years is pretty short.

Which is not to say that Sepp Blatter is anything like those men, but he’s in a similar position.  He’s unlikely to be able to walk away from FIFA now without any consequences, so why do it?

The Sydney Siege


The death of two innocent and evidently heroic individuals in the Sydney Siege is a terrible tragedy and one cannot feel anything but deep sympathy for their families and friends, and indeed those of everyone affected by this appalling crime, including the police and/or soldiers who brought it to an end.

A couple of points spring to mind.

Firstly, it strikes me as a bit of a stretch to regard it as an act of ‘terrorism’.  From what has emerged about the killer, Man Haron Monis, he seems to have been a disturbed and disorganised individual who did not fit in anywhere.  No doubt in his own mind he was an heroic representative of the Islamic State but the reality is that he was an unstable and grandiose attention seeker whose actions were not carried out for any particular purpose beyond that.  I don’t know, of course, but it’s my suspicion that that is why the Australian security authorities didn’t regard him as a genuine threat and took their eye off the ball in his case.

Secondly, and related to my first point.  Describing him as a ‘Lone Wolf’ attaches a romantic ‘Hermann Hesse-ian’ drama to his activities that might encourage others to do the same.  ‘Marginalised Nutcase’ would be a better and more fitting description.

The sad fact is that there are people like Man Haron Monis on the fringes of every society, slowly working themselves up into a murderous state, and some of them will use the existence of groups like ISIS to lend purpose to their insanity.  We should think very carefully before we accept their deranged narrative.

Interrogation and Torture

The contents of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report into the CIA’s use of torture in interrogation make grim reading, not least because it doesn’t appear to have worked in any significant way.  It so happens that, back when I was serving in the regular Army, I trained as an interrogator on the course that was, back then at least, regarded as pretty much the ‘gold standard’ amongst western intelligence agencies.

As you might expect, there was some discussion about the utility of torture and physical ‘pressures’ and the broad consensus was that they were not as useful as is often imagined.  In any case, the point was moot: we Brits didn’t use it and we weren’t about to start.  What we did seek to do was apply psychological pressure to start a dialogue which could deliver information which we could analyse and collate.  A detailed interrogation can be a slow process and I’m not sure that torture would speed it up very much.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example:

Mr X is a suspected terrorist and a suspected associate of Mr Y – who is believed to be a senior member of the same organisation – with some knowledge of his intentions.  We have Mr X at our interrogation centre and we’ve wired up his testicles to our torture machine.  It happens that we know very little about Mr Y, including what he looks like, but we’re keen to know.

‘OK X, I need a detailed description of Y.  Everything you know’

‘Fuck off, I’m not talking’

‘Don’t give me that attitude or I’ll hurt you’



‘You don’t want me to do that again, do you?’

‘Aaargh! No! Please don’t!’

‘So what colour is his hair?’

‘He has purple hair’

‘Purple eh? You’re lying!’


‘Aaaaaaaargh!  OK, OK, it’s green!’

‘So it’s green, is it?  You just told me it’s purple’


‘Aaaaaaaaargh!  It’s purple, it’s purple!’

‘Are you sure?’

‘No, I’m not sure, I’ve actually never met him’


‘Aaaaaaaargh!  OK, I did meet him’

Etcetera etcetera.

In other words, people being tortured will tell you what they think you want them to say, if you give them enough clues.  If you don’t, they’ll just try stuff out.  It may be accurate or it may not, but that doesn’t really make any difference because none of it is intelligence yet, it’s just information that needs to be checked against other sources, and that will take time.

But also, and this is quite important, if Mr X was who we thought he was and did know important information and was fully committed to his cause, every time you hurt him you remind him that he is your enemy and you are his, and that it is never going to be in his long-term interest to help you.

As an interrogator, I would, from time to time, attend the lectures on an annual ‘combat survival tour’ that was organised for the UK Military.  Typically, this involved American former prisoners of the North Vietnamese talking about their experiences attempting to evade capture and then in captivity.  The ordeal that these men went through, over many years for the most part, was wretched.  Torture was frequent – sometimes a daily event – and sustained.  Many – if not most – of these men did give away information, although for the most part it was of a fairly trivial nature by the time they ‘broke’ (the military, like intelligence and, indeed, terrorist organisations, try to compartmentalise information so few individuals know enough to cause serious damage).  However, the conditions in which they were held and the horrors they were subjected to left them in no doubt that they should not be helping their captors and, as far as possible, it seems they tried to return to first principles during every torture session, giving away only the ‘Big Four’ – name, rank, number and date of birth – until their pain became unendurable.  Their courage and fortitude was beyond heroic – one of the reasons the US Military gets very upset by false claims of Vietnam POW status.

There is a lesson to be learned here.  I would not put Al Qa’eda terror suspects in the same moral universe as the Vietnam POWs but I have little doubt that in their own minds, most of these angry, sexless thugs think exactly that: that they are heroic warriors fighting for a just cause.  I wonder how much mistreatment by the CIA helped to fortify them and strengthen their resolve to resist.  There can be little doubt that many of them were ‘true believers’.

The reality is that good intelligence is usually a gradual process of building up a picture from a multitude of different sources, of which interrogation is one.  The general view when I was trained, and subsequently as a practitioner, was that an induced state of anxiety, disorientation and isolation was pretty much as effective as torture in getting a prisoner to talk, and that this could be done through psychological pressure without resorting to violence.  A weak prisoner is likely to start talking if he thinks he’s going to be tortured without the need to actually do it.  These pressures aren’t a pleasant experience – I’ve been through it in training – but they don’t kill or maim people.

I personally think that one of the key weapons which will defeat Islamic fundamentalism is the moral superiority of the plurality of those who oppose it, whether Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, secular or whatever, and what the Senate Intelligence Committee has told us today suggests that, for a time, the CIA gave up that superiority.  How can we now claim that we are better than they are?

Dad’s Army

Dad's Army

There has been much chuntering in the UK media this morning over the the announcement that the Army Reserve is planning to raise the age limit for recruiting ex regular soldiers from 45 to 52 and for specialist officers (like medics and linguists) to 50.  There’s a good example here.

Personally, I can’t see the problem.  The age limit is being changed but the entry standards are not: 50-52 year olds will still have to meet all the other requirements for entry and if they don’t, they won’t be allowed to join.  The anonymous army reservist who told the Telegraph that the Army Reserve will ‘take anyone with a pulse’ is wrong.  I happen to know this because, in my military role (as a 50 year old army reservist), I’m directly involved in the selection of potential officers for both the Regular Army and Army Reserve and standards have not changed.  I agree with Julian Brazier MP, Minister for the Reserves: casting the net a bit wider is simply a more flexible and intelligent approach to take in a difficult recruiting environment.

A lot of the angst stems from a fundamental misconception of the principles of the current programme of Army reform.  The intention is not to recruit reservists as ‘one-for-one’ replacements for regular personnel but to create a more streamlined regular force with a wider reserve which can be utilised as needed to supplement the Regular Army.  It really goes back to the principles of Haldane.  Without a significant ‘existential’ threat, and notwithstanding the activities of Putin’s Russia we don’t have one, we do not need a large regular army.  The pre-1914 regular army was of the same order of magnitude as the modern regular army but was responsible for garrisoning an Empire covering nearly a quarter of the earth’s surface and we managed OK back then.  If a serious threat does arise from Russia or elsewhere, the Army Reserve can be the basis of regeneration for larger regular forces but we are a long way away from needing that.

The key to making the reformed Army work will be political will.  Politicians need to develop the cojones to mobilise and deploy reserves in good time to get them trained and ready for future requirements, a lesson we ought to have learned from the fiasco of 2003.  The US Army doesn’t have a problem mobilising the National Guard and our politicians should learn from them.

What we seem to have lost as a society is the idea that membership of the Reserves brings with it a social good.  In many ways, the Territorial soldiers of 1950 up into the 1980s were the successors to the ‘Pals’ of the First World War.  I went on Exercise Lionheart in 1984 (I was a university student and a member of the OTC back then) – a huge exercise in Germany involving many thousands of TA soldiers – and was attached to the 2nd Battalion of the Yorkshire Volunteers.  They had whole sub-units comprising workers from Rowntrees in York, the ‘Northallerton Slaughterhouse Platoon’ and so on.  The Commanding Officer was Headmaster of a local primary school.  The old TA was a part of the community and it generated its own recruits from within that community.  It was what they did because they thought it was right to do so.

The difficulties we are facing in recruiting for the Army Reserve now come, at least in part, because we have lost that link with local communities.  Since the end of the Cold War, the TA has been repeatedly cut, reorganised and centralised: many small to medium sized towns have lost their TA Drill Halls and reservists often have to travel forty or fifty miles to get to their ‘Army Reserve Centre’, usually after a hard day’s work, and that is a disincentive to joining in itself.  It isn’t the fault of the current government or Army leadership but it will take a while to reverse the trend and if that means we should take a look at a few fit and motivated fifty year-olds, well, great, bring ’em on.