Tom Stevenson

Tom Stevenson is monitoring Parliament’s ongoing inquiry into the UK’s ‘national security machinery’.

From The Blog
18 January 2022

A straight line can be drawn between celebrations of ‘precision’ air weaponry and airstrikes in civilian areas. The inability of US drone operators and targeters to find and identify individuals accurately has led to a strategy based on volume. Drop a lot of bombs, accept that many civilians will die, and occasionally you will kill someone you meant to.

From The Blog
20 December 2021

There used to be a joke in Cairo that Egyptian presidents had two stock responses to an emergency: close the central Sadat metro station and arrest Alaa Abd El-Fattah. An activist in the Tahrir Square movement in 2011 (as well as the son of an important communist dissident), Alaa first experienced Egypt’s prison system in 2006 as a result of his street activism. After the 2011 uprising he was arrested again. Since the military coup in 2013 he has spent most of his time behind bars. He was today sentenced to a further five years for ‘spreading false news’.

From The Blog
28 October 2021

Questions that ought to be asked of British foreign policy go unarticulated. Why did the ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ (to use the Cabinet Office’s preferred term) become a British priority? Why is the Royal Navy sailing ships through the Taiwan Strait? Why is Britain conducting military training programmes in the Persian Gulf and ten countries from Gambia to Somalia? Why did the UK become so heavily involved in the atrocities committed in Yemen?

From The Blog
29 September 2021

On 16 September the World Bank discontinued its annual Doing Business report. It had been one of the Bank’s flagship publications: a detailed index of the conditions for businesses in different countries around the world, along with an eye-catching league table. Countries could improve their ranking by cutting red tape, strengthening investor rights or making labour more ‘flexible’ – the standard neoliberal reforms. Following the prescription rarely made places richer or more developed, but that didn’t seem to affect the report’s influence.

From The Blog
6 September 2021

The first thing you notice is the smell. After a controlled fire – hearth, camp, pyre – the air smells dry, because firewood is dry. But wildfires burn living flora. Walking over land razed by wildfires you breathe resinous air, the fumes of combusted sap. During this summer’s record-breaking heatwave around the Mediterranean, wildfires broke out in Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Kabylia, Provence, Turkey, Sicily and across southern Italy. In August I went to Sardinia, where the fires had burned thousands of hectares of land and displaced hundreds of people. According to Sardinian apiculturists, millions of bees were killed.

From The Blog
26 July 2021

The decision to expand the UK’s nuclear weapons stockpile by 40 per cent was slipped onto page 76 of the government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy in March. The only reason to announce a major strategic decision in such a quiet way is to avoid attention, which is exactly what happened. The UK is now committed to maintaining a larger stock of nuclear warheads than China (according to US estimates) and there has been too little scrutiny of the policy.

It is one thing to station military forces around the world to maintain your empire, but quite another to do so for someone else’s. It’s not a new observation that those in power in Britain have become more culturally militarist as the UK has been shorn of actual global military influence. It’s harder to explain the persistence of imperial lackeydom after Iraq. Part of the reason is a refusal, in most parts of society, to confront the reality of the post-9/11 wars. An aphakic view of the British military’s role in the world persists. The UK remains a country in which the phrase ‘east of Suez’ is used without irony. A country that claims having soldiers in 46 countries is necessary to keep its citizens safe. A country where professing a willingness to use nuclear weapons is considered a precondition for political office. A country that passes legislation to protect itself from prosecution for torture and war crimes (the new Overseas Operations Bill was criticised by the UN special rapporteur on torture as ‘one of the most corrupt ideas the UK has come up with in modern times’). 

From The Blog
28 May 2021

Over the past week there have been daily demonstrations in towns and cities across Oman. Public protests are rare in the Persian Gulf monarchies. They last happened in Oman in 2019, when protesters demanded that the sultanate address rising unemployment. This was also a central concern of Omani protesters during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. The main demonstrations this time have been in the two main port cities, Salalah and Sohar, where unemployment has historically been highest. Activists have shared photographs of British-made tear-gas canisters used against them, similar to those used by police in Hong Kong.

Why use a Novichok?

Tom Stevenson, 6 May 2021

History​ is full of mysterious deaths in which lethal substances are alleged to have been responsible, but the accusation is often misplaced: the tenth-century Byzantine empress Theophano wasn’t responsible for the sudden death of her husband, Romanos II, or the historian Rashid al-Din for the death of the Ilkhanid ruler Öljeitü. Some poisoning stories are no more than...

From The Blog
12 March 2021

Unlike the US, the British government is continuing its military support for the war in Yemen. The latest government figures show that the UK approved $1.4 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia between July and September 2020. (There had been a year’s suspension of arms exports since June 2019, after the Campaign Against the Arms Trade took the government to court.) The UK has also cut its provision of humanitarian aid to Yemen by more than half, despite UN warnings that the country is facing ‘the worst famine in decades’.

Where are the space arks? Space Forces

Tom Stevenson, 4 March 2021

Unlike planets, asteroids have no atmosphere and much less energy is needed to lift materials off their surfaces. In December, a Japanese mission returned to Earth with the first samples taken from below an asteroid’s surface. Nations have fought plenty of wars over shitty little islands. Fighting over shitty little asteroids is not implausible.

From The Blog
23 November 2020

Last week, Egypt’s National Security Agency made a series of arrests targeting the country’s leading human rights organisation, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. On 15 November, there was a night raid on the home of the EIPR’s administrative director, Mohamed El Basheer. On 18 November, Karim Ennarah, a researcher, was taken from the beach-front in the town of Dahab, where he was on holiday. EIPR’s director, Gasser Abdel Razek, was arrested the following day at his home in Cairo. His lawyers say his head was shaved and he was kept in solitary confinement with only a metal bed to sleep on.

From The Blog
10 November 2020

Trump was often derided as an isolationist by the imperial bureaucracy, for whom the term is a stock insult. His opponents liked to say he was tearing down the US-led ‘liberal international order’. In the Washington Post, Josh Rogin wrote that Biden held the promise of salvation from the Trump days: ‘a return to a bipartisan, internationalist foreign policy that moderate Republicans and Democrats have long championed’. In fact the Trump administration’s foreign policy was more orthodox than is generally admitted. Many of his appointees were old regime hands. Having pledged to ‘get out of foreign wars’, he did nothing of the sort. He pursued the global assassination programme established under Obama. The US-backed war in Yemen, begun while Biden was vice president, continued. The military budget increased.

In the Grey Zone: Proxy Warfare

Tom Stevenson, 22 October 2020

That proxy wars are essentially anti-democratic goes some way to explaining the adoption of a proxy doctrine, traditionally the preserve of the intelligence services, by the conventional US military. Proxy warfare is officially condemned in Washington and London as a device of undemocratic enemies, but it is precisely for its anti-democratic possibilities that the West embraces it. For US allies, rejection of proxy warfare would be a contradiction. At the strategic level, the British armed forces and the armed forces of Australia and Canada have no discernible vision beyond serving as adjuncts to US power. Which in a sense makes them proxy forces too. The armies of many small states are available to the US as proxies under the justification of fighting ‘terrorism’, controlling ‘ungoverned spaces’ and other phantoms. The new model of local proxy ground troops backed by air power, global surveillance and special operations forces has become a fixture of the times. For political leaders, it’s tempting to see this type of military action as the Goldilocks option: neither the heat of full-scale war nor the cool of unmanly indifference. 

The US had other ideas: The Pipeline Project

Tom Stevenson, 10 September 2020

Western Europe –​ rich, populous, highly developed – has always been short of natural resources. The consequences have been felt by better endowed but poorer societies elsewhere for at least five hundred years. The industrial centres in the Seine-Loire basin, the Po valley, the Bavarian Danube and the Rhine-Ruhr metropolis require a constant supply of hydrocarbons that...

From The Blog
13 August 2020

For around a year, the Royal Navy has been drip-feeding news about the reorganisation of the Royal Marine Corps into what it calls a ‘Future Commando Force’. The programme has been widely reported in the national papers as the creation of a ‘lethal new unit’. At the end of June, the navy announced that the marines were getting new uniforms, which the Times described as ‘hi-tech’ because the material includes a small amount of spandex. In one promotional video a marine walks through smoke wearing night vision goggles and looking like one of the sand people from Star Wars.

From The Blog
22 April 2020

On Monday, 20 April, for the first time on record, oil prices went negative. Futures contracts for May deliveries of West Texas intermediate grade crude oil changed hands for -$40 a barrel. In physical markets in the United States today, Oklahoma Sour and Wyoming Sweet are trading for -$5.75 and -$8.50 a barrel. Oil companies are extracting crude from the ground and paying people to take it away. The immediate cause is that oil storage facilities are almost full and oil, unlike bulk natural resources such as sand or gravel, cannot be piled up in fields. The storage tank farms in places like Cushing, Oklahoma will soon reach maximum capacity. The problem is not unique to the United States. The Covid-19 pandemic means global demand for oil has fallen by around 35 per cent. At the same time, a war is being waged using oil flows.

From The Blog
29 October 2019

Baghdadi was born in the Samarra countryside in Iraq to a family of pastoral farmers who claimed they could trace their ancestry back to the prophet Muhammad. As a young man he had been an aloof theology student and football coach. After the invasion and occupation of Iraq he was imprisoned for ten months in Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca. He emerged a fanatic of the jihadist insurgency. In 2006 the US assassinated the former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi’s successor was assassinated by the US in April 2010. Baghdadi took control of the group a month later.

From The Blog
21 October 2019

Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria has displaced tens of thousands of civilians, most of them Syrian Kurds. As with the Turkish army’s forays into Jarabulus in August 2016 and Afrin in March 2018, its reliance on Syrian Arab militias for the assault has not lessened the impression of vengeful marauding. (Many of the militias were once supported by the United States and Britain in their abortive attempt to bring down Bashar al-Assad.) As before, there are multiple accusations of war crimes. The difference this time is that the incursion and its consequences for the Syrian Kurds have clearly been tacitly authorised by the United States.

How to Run a Caliphate

Tom Stevenson, 20 June 2019

The horrors of IS rule are well known: the killings of Shia; the choice offered to the Christians of Mosul (conversion, ruinous taxation or expulsion); the slaughter of polytheists; the revival of slavery; the massacre of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar. Less well known are the thousands of mundane regulations instituted by the caliphal bureaucracy. The claim to be a state, not just another band of zealous militiamen, was central to what IS stood for. In support of its statehood it operated marriage offices, a telecommunications agency, a department of minerals and a central birth registry. Its department of alms and social solidarity redistributed wealth to the poor. Its department of health brought in sanitation regulations that stipulated more frequent bin collections than in New York.

Anglo-American interest in the enormous hydrocarbon reserves of the Persian Gulf does not derive from a need to fuel Western consumption. Britain used to import considerable quantities of Saudi oil, but currently gets most of what it needs from the North Sea and hasn’t imported much from the Gulf since the 1980s; Saudi oil currently represents around 3 per cent of UK imports. The US has never imported more than a token amount from the Gulf and for much of the postwar period has been a net oil exporter. Anglo-American involvement in the Middle East has always been principally about the strategic advantage gained from controlling Persian Gulf hydrocarbons, not Western oil needs.

In Hewlêr: The Kurdish Referendum

Tom Stevenson, 19 October 2017

Almost everyone​ who lives in the city known to the rest of the world as Erbil calls it by its Kurdish name: Hewlêr. The Kurds in what is now Iraq – like the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran – have for decades been administered by a state that few of them think of as their own. The independence referendum held last month in Iraqi Kurdistan delivered the result everyone...

Flip-Flops and Kalashnikovs: In Libya

Tom Stevenson, 2 March 2017

‘Honourable​ was the swift and timely aid offered to them in their struggle by the West,’ the Times said of the Libyan rebels who rose up against Gaddafi during the Arab Spring in 2011; Western military intervention on behalf of the rebellion was ‘a good deed in a weary world’. Today, more than five years after Gaddafi’s fall in October 2011, Libya has been...

Diary: Human Remains 629667

Tom Stevenson, 19 November 2015

For most of US history no one much cared that Latinos were entering the country and driving the economy of the South-West. In the 1920s the US introduced restrictive immigration laws but it didn’t have Latinos in mind: the perceived dangers were ‘inassimilable’ Italians and Eastern European Jews. During the Second World War the government laid on trains to bring thousands of Mexican labourers across the border to work on farms and ensure food security. In the 1950s the US started deporting Latin Americans.

Sisi’s Way: In Sisi’s Prisons

Tom Stevenson, 19 February 2015

It’s no secret that Hosni Mubarak’s regime was repressive. Yet although in its treatment of prisoners and many other ways besides, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s is worse, statesmen around the world praise its role in Egypt’s ‘democratic transition’. When John Kerry visited Cairo last year he reported that Sisi had given him ‘a very strong sense of his commitment to human rights’. These issues, he said, were ‘very much’ on Sisi’s mind. For more than thirty years it was US policy to support autocratic government in Egypt as a route to ‘regional security’.

From The Blog
18 June 2019

Egypt’s former president Mohamed Morsi collapsed and died yesterday in the glass-enclosed dock of a jailhouse courtroom. No images have been published of his final moments: the authorities confiscated the cameras of everyone present. Morsi had spent years in the Scorpion wing of Cairo’s Tora prison, often in solitary confinement. He was denied medical treatment for long-term illnesses. His family say he was subject to a programme of medical negligence. They have not yet seen his body. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for an investigation but there is no chance of that.

From The Blog
3 May 2019

On 15 April, President Trump made an unexpected phone call to Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan military officer and former CIA asset who has launched an attack on Tripoli with the aim of overthrowing Libya’s nominal ruling authority, the UN-backed Government of National Accord. According to a White House statement, Trump ‘recognised Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources’, and the two men discussed their ‘shared vision for Libya’s transition’.

From The Blog
5 March 2019

The reporter Marie Colvin was killed in Homs in February 2012. A Private War, Matthew Heineman’s movie based on her life, begins with archival footage of Colvin being asked by an interviewer what she would want a young journalist to know about being a war correspondent. Her answer comes in two parts: first, that you should care enough to write in a way that makes others care; second, some tough-sounding advice on not acknowledging fear until the job is done.

From The Blog
8 October 2018

Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul on the afternoon of 2 October and did not come out. The local police think that Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist writing regularly for the Washington Post, was killed inside the consulate building and his body smuggled out by car.

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