Threat from Islamic State


The barbaric video execution of British aid worker David Haines, accompanied by a threat to kill another hostage, will have only one effect: to harden British support for its government’s consideration of involvement in air strikes against Islamic State (IS).

Haines, a 44-year-old father of two from Perth in Scotland, was an experienced international aid worker, employed by the French agency ACTED. His murder, apparently at the hands of the same British jihadist who killed the US journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, in the past month, was, like them, preceded by his forced reading of a humiliating scripted denunciation of his own government for its support for the US-led campaign. An appalling shadow now hangs over every humanitarian worker in the countless dangerous war zones around the world where they voluntarily go to bring help to the most beleaguered.

To date, Britain has delivered humanitarian aid, carried out surveillance, given weapons to Kurds and promised training in Iraq. It supports US air strikes and prime minister David Cameron, who convened a security cabinet yesterday in emergency session, has said repeatedly that he has ruled nothing out except combat troops on the ground.

Britain’s full support for the international coalition against IS will be important to the US and President Barack Obama – it has not been easy to pull together a broad alliance for what is likely to be a complex and perhaps prolonged campaign. Turkey’s reluctance to do more than assist with logistics is particularly problematic given its proximity and military bases. Germany has said it won’t take part in air strikes. France has confirmed its commitment to use force in Iraq, but not whether it would join strikes in Syria. Australia, however, yesterday became the first state to detail troop numbers and aircraft: it will send a 600-strong force – some 400 airforce personnel and 200 special forces soldiers – to a US base in the UAE.

There are some concerns being expressed by security analysts, however, about the ostensible rationale for the international campaign: that IS poses a direct and serious threat to western countries. While IS does indeed pose a threat to regional stability and peace, no small strategic concern to the US and others, the suggestion is that, like with supposed WMDs in Iraq, the actual direct threat to the US or Britain is much more limited.

Analysts also argue that although new US intelligence estimates put IS numbers as high as 30,000, the group is perhaps less of a military threat than has been perceived. Where it has made substantial territorial gains has largely been in sympathetic, Sunni-majority areas and in the face, initially, of a crumbling, badly disciplined Iraqi army. Critics suggest that Obama may be overegging the case for US engagement to maintain political support at home.