Afghanistan: No Viable Goals and No End in Sight

With confirmation from United States officials earlier this week that an additional 4,000 troops will be sent to buttress the training and advisory mission in Afghanistan, one is forced to consider what to make of the state of affairs in that country. Frankly, it’s time the public started asking the hard questions, especially in light of Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne’s pledge that “[Australia] will always consider requests from the United States — our most important ally — for assistance”.

So what long-term national security interests are likely to be achieved by the US and its allies in Afghanistan in the future. Is the task to “defeat the Taliban” an impossible mission guided by a skewed sense of what the military can realistically accomplish? Is the current training mission “a bandaid for a bullet wound”, as one US combat advisor described it? A boulder to be rolled uphill by the military for all eternity, with an ever-so-slightly different campaign plan every four years?

According to Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, one of the chief architects of Donald Trump’s “new” strategy, the plan announced earlier this week draws on lessons learnt by the combat advisory teams who deployed alongside the Iraqi Army in the fight against Islamic State. The main takeaway, apparently, is that embedding Western military advisers with forward units is better than leaving them behind at base.

With a “frontline” emphasis for Trump’s campaign plan, you can see similarities to another “new” campaign plan recently outlined by Senator John McCain, who applauded Trump’s speech as a “big step in the right direction”. In his strategy, McCain argued that a “long-term, open-ended counter-terrorism partnership” with the Afghan government and the deployment of military adviser-trainers with the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces at the kandak (battalion) level instead of the higher corps level was the key to victory. What this means is that more troops are wanted to achieve a set of goals that a much larger force in 2011 could not achieve either.

To the uninitiated, a strategy that splits hairs over minutiae in mission structure instead of having a frank discussion about the mission’s fundamental problems might seem a little beside the point, especially when one considers that violence in Afghanistan derives less from non-desirable teacher-student ratios in US-Afghan training camps than it does from complex feuds over tribe and religion.

“There’s always more you can do — more advisers you can send, more capabilities you can develop for the Afghans,” says Dr Mike Martin, a Pashto-speaking former British army officer and research fellow at King’s College London.

“The Afghan government will take the support gladly because they would prefer that foreigners do the fighting for them. If you are an Afghan faction this is the game: get some foreigners to fight for you”.

Rather than being dragged into the conflict every time a new feud erupts between the Afghan government and its local enemies, Dr Martin argues, what is needed is simply a “minimum viable force” — the smallest possible training and support mission and a small counter-terrorism force — to keep the government afloat. This would prevent both mission creep and everybody’s worst case scenario — the fall of Kabul.

With such calls for minimalism seemingly sidelined in the President’s new strategy, however, the question that arises is what are an extra 4,000 troops going to do that the 100,000 deployed by President Obama in 2011 could not?

One begins to wonder if the emphasis on numbers and mission structure is a distraction from more basic problems looming in the background. Problems such as, say, the possibility that the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces might not be a viable fighting force without a permanent US military presence to buttress it.

The looming likelihood of a permanent war-footing for America in Afghanistan is worthy of consideration, not least because a core theme of Trump’s speech revolved around the idea that “conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy [from] now on”.

There’s a strong whiff of McMaster and Mattis in this phrasing because it’s indubitably correct that wars do not conform to neat timescales. It’s also true that this rhetoric can be interpreted as an attempt by Trump to distance himself from Mr Obama — a man strongly criticised for announcing his withdrawal timeline and giving the Taliban cause to “wait the US out”.

At the same time, even if Trump is right, that conditions instead of preferred timeframes should dictate decisions, it does nothing to allay the public’s concern that Afghanistan has become a case study in “endless war”.

But this is what makes the way Western governments formulate Afghanistan policy so frustrating. While a vague set of goals are well-known to the public — “disrupting and dismantling the neo-Taliban insurgency” or “denying sanctuary to jihadist groups” for example — never has a single campaign plan shown signs of permanently achieving any of these goals.

Preferred though they may be, they just don’t seem particularly achievable.

If jihadist ideology cannot be wholly eradicated on the Afghan-Pakistan border, is there a point at which we can call its outreach successfully contained? If “the Taliban” cannot be militarily defeated then at what point should other options be explored?

If Trump is good to his word that “perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban”, then what are the conditions in which this settlement could occur? At what point does the US President seek conflict termination over conflict perpetuation?

Trump needs to outline as clearly as possible by what quantifiable metrics his mission would be deemed a success. At present, we have none.

All in all, too many questions remain unanswered. With no tangible goals, no maximum spends and no body count cut-offs provided in Trump’s strategy-free strategy for Afghanistan, the public cannot but keep guessing how, when or even if Western military involvement in the country will come to an end. And that is exactly the problem.


A Blueprint for Asphyxiating Jihadism

The Problem

By now it should be obvious that the application of brute force, by itself, is insufficient in the effort to defeat jihadism. Similarly, while state intelligence organs have proven effective at disrupting threats to domestic security and adding new names to shiny-white balls in the drone strike lottery, the jihadist problem still persists. It persists. And it persists because we have failed to apprehend the nature of problem.

In more ways than one, this non-apprehension stems from our tendency to glean information through computer screens instead of through people – a symptom of our preference for technologism (as exemplified by the “death from above” problem-solution continuum) instead of humanism (an in-depth understanding of old mate Akhmal and his problems). As a result, and in light of the fact that jihadist terrorism is much worse (by several orders of magnitude) then it was even five years ago, it seems that we still don’t know why cultural facts on the ground in faraway places are manifesting as effects elsewhere.

Indeed, what our misadventures attempting to defeat insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated is that our inability to understand the cultural environments in which we operate renders instantly useless any and all efforts we might make as counter-insurgents.

In this war, knowing who to kill can be less important than knowing who not to kill. A given target on the Joint Prioritized Effects List might yield indices of “1” on a threat association matrix but that same target might also be a swing-voting imam, siding with the jihadists not because of any ideological affinity he has with them but because he is engaging in a survival maximisation strategy – collaborating out of necessity. 

If we had only known this before we droned him into oblivion, we might have slipped him a few greenbacks, done his speech-writing for him and used his sermons against the bad guys.

By contrast, the current industrial killing machine approach, as exemplified by the upthrust in direct action raids conducted by JSOC et al, has yielded limited results cohering with Stan McChrystal’s characterisation of “insurgent algebra” as “ten minus two [insurgents] equals twenty, or more, rather than eight (10-2≥20)”.

In many ways then, the logic for being better-informed (and perhaps more selective) in our bomb-dropping is numerical – we have a limited amount of ordnance to fire at any given location and we know we can’t and don’t want to kill everybody in that location because our desired end-state is neither genocidal nor Sisyphean. Ergo, it follows that we need to be better informed. But we cannot be better informed until we go and get informed.

Likewise with the view that aid dispensation is a cover-all panacea, we cannot expect the mere building of infrastructure in Afghanistan’s mountainous “land of unrestraint” (yaghistan) to capture the hearts and minds of a tribal population who have a culturally-engrained suspicion of cities (shahr) .

Neither can we expect the Sunni of Anbar to fight for us “out of gratitude” for the armed social work we once conducted in the past. “Hearts” (and well-building) can be valuable to us, yes. But hearts are not nearly as valuable as minds. Furthermore, without observing and understanding the “cultural mind” that is driving the phenomenon of militant jihadism, as it is occurring on the ground, the best strategy we will ever be able to hope for in our hopeless war of attrition is two 5.56mm in the heart and one in the mind.

It is clear then that what is required to defeat jihadism is a detailed, even ethnographic, understanding of any future terrain where this ideological conflict is likely to take place. It is not enough to simply draw causal links between jihadism and incorporeal factors like “grievances”. Nor is it enough to attribute the blame for jihadist recruitment on vaguely-defined ontological states like “poverty” or vaguely-described “charismatic recruiters” and “madrassas”.

Further questions need to be asked by people involved in field research. What are these “grievances”? Where did they come from? What is the nature of local “poverty”? If there are “charismatic recruiters” in Saudi-funded madrassas on the AfPak border, which ones in particular are churning out the bad guys? Why these ones? What is the cultural terrain in which these “bad madrassas” are ensconced?  In short, what are the “roots” of the so-called “roots of terrorism”?

Female CST-2 member speaks with Afghan child

“Right, but before we blew up your school did you like to go?” (Source:

Up to now, we have largely relied on arcane computer-plotted metrics like “significant kinetic effects” to tell us what the violence looks like rather than walking around, talking to people and finding out what the violence is actually doing. By relying on the quantitative data we are missing out on the qualitative description – the somatic inputs which inform us about the totality of cultural life and the dispositions and allegiances of the people.

The Practitioners

As far as seeking to better understand the problem, the US Army Human Terrain System represented a step in the direction. But it was a dismal failure. Putting uniforms on social scientists and asking them to “do anthropology” in the context of a military operation-cum-occupation is laughable. One can not be a “participant-observer” if one is dressed like Terminator in a town where the favoured dresscode is a kaftan or a dashiki.

Once the boots are on the ground stamping out a big footprint, it may actually be too late for anthropologists to do traditional ethnography. Indeed, if Iraq is anything to go by, it may be too late to do anything at all (2017 update: I take that back. Send in the anthropologists to survey the mess in Mosul and Raqqa).

Having said that, let me be clear. In and of itself, counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) is, at the very least, theoretically sound. Clear, hold, build. It does work – or it least, it can work. But it only works if it is executed by a group of practitioners who are well-informed enough such that it can be said they have a mastery of the cultural terrain and a thorough understanding of the socio-political forces driving the conflict. The agents of British empire were only able to execute successful counterinsurgencies after hundreds of years of deep immersion in the cultural environments they occupied – much of which involved sending explorers and ethnologists like Francis Younghusband and Richard Burton out to the periphery of imperium in order to bring back the cultural information and whispers of rumblings in the hills. Comparatively, 6-month military rotations whose aim is to work through a list of people to kill is pathetic.

This century has seen the US leading the ham-fisted fight against jihadism. But if the rise (or perhaps, “the scent”) of Donald Trump is symptomatic of a necrotic rot and general decline of a once great America, the responsibility for preserving Western civilisation against the very real threats which menace it will increasingly fall into the hands of smaller powers – Australia, Canada, The Netherlands, Denmark, even New Zealand.

Everyone knows the UN is broken but other multilateral institutions, like the International Criminal Court, can be leveraged and incorporated into the defence policies of small powers. We now have an international legal instrument to prosecute our enemies (war criminals all of them) – what need is there to have the Americans lock them up in Guantanamo? We now have a refuse station to deposit the trash – so why not bring Ahmad Al-Mahdi and “Caliph” Al-Baghdadi and Abubakr Shekau (and Joseph Kony, for that matter), kicking and screaming to the Hague where we can handcuff them in their underpants to the handrails outside.

There’s some argument to be made that local judiciaries function as better truth and reconciliation mechanisms than bureaucrat-heavy global courts – but what better proof can we provide to Muslim victims of suffering that we are on their side then by dressing-down the jihadists of the world before the international press? (2017 update: we might also dress down the Rohingya-killing Aung San Suu Kyi’s of the world, too).

In all likelihood, small powers will be crucial in the next phase of this war even if an examination of recent history shows that the foreign policy decisions of countries like Australia are symptomatic of a delusion where a small power thinks itself a great power. We are the truck drivers and logisticians for America’s theme park in Iraq’s Emerald City. We supplement our big cousin’s Air Force with a few extra fighter jets (which we buy off him for exorbitant prices). Secretly however, we all know that a country like Australia (with a population of 20 million) or Canada (whose landmass is largely a frozen waste) will never be able to join the global superpower club.

And really, we don’t want this anyway. We don’t want to conquer Afghanistan and install a glorious empire which will last a thousand years. We don’t want to occupy Iraq and raze all the mosques and make barbecues and the production of maple syrup mandatory. In principle (and I stress “in principle”), our main interest is in self-defence while peace-keeping and atrocity-prevention is also a shared goal. We are really just pre-emptive isolationists. For all intents and purposes, the “pre-emptive” component of this outlook involves surgically removing the little cancers in the world which are threatening to spread. In order that these cancers will never bother us.

Jihadism is one such cancer. And as with any cancer, it can be treated early or treated too late. One can cut the polyp out with a scalpel or one can wait till it becomes carcinogenic. One can pre-empt the spread or one can wait until it spreads, choosing instead to confront the problem with a bag-full of toxic chemicals (hyper-conventional military force) which is just as likely to destroy the rest of the body as it is to force the body into remission.

So how to cut out the cancer? Here’s a blueprint.

The Blueprint

A few years ago, a popular model was put forward to describe why complex adaptive systems like terrorist networks are so difficult to destroy – a model which juxtaposed decentralised systems with other systems whose command is centrally-controlled. The metaphor used was “the starfish and the spider”.

A spider, as we know, is reasonably easy to kill. Crush its invertebrate body between your fingertips and all its legs – its subsidiary parts – will cease to function. The hierarchical institutions of nation-states often look like spiders. Kill the mad king, his knights surrender. Or, in the world of today, if a drone is ready to be fired and the President is in a meeting the whole operation comes to a standstill because the chain of command is temporarily paralysed.

The starfish however, doesn’t need centralised command and control (C2). There is no singular brain running the show but a series of nerves running along the ambulacral surface of each individual arm. If any individual arm is cut off the arm regenerates. Each arm is, in effect, autonomous – decentralised.


A starfish regenerating an arm

Unlike with the spider, there is not one nerve centre to destroy but many waiting to grow back. And the biological analogy holds true to reality – organisations like Al-Qaeda and the “lone wolf” cells operating at the periphery of the Islamic State are demonstrative of the starfish model.

To unpack this further there are other congruent examples we could take from Greek myth – eg: if we were to contrast the regenerative heads of the Lernean Hydra with the single-minded Delphic Python (the classic mythological serpent – “cut off the head and the body dies”). There’s plenty of images to thickly-describe this phenomenon.


Guess who the terrorists are in this picture.

With this model in mind our task is thence to figure out ways in which to kill these “starfish” given that our current strategy (the drone-strike lottery) is having a limited net effect on the battlespace. As stated earlier, the fundamental problem with our approach to this conflict, has been our inability to understand the taxonomy, the anatomy and the reproductive capacity (that is, the nature) of the starfish – so, in many ways, the problem comes down to a problem of information and intelligence collection.

The nature of the information-space today is different to what it was during the Cold War. This is because unlike during the Cold War (when information was scarcely-available and jealously-guarded by those who held it) today’s “globalised” world is defined by what the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls “trajectories of disjuncture”. Information is no longer hidden, here and there, it is everywhere, available to everyone. It is no longer the purview of spies in the employ of the government. It is ripe for the picking by anyone – journalists, lobbyists, soldiers with blogs, hobbyists surfing the internet. Small Wars Journal, after all, is run part-time by a retired Marine out the back of his food truck. Much of the information (but not all) is already out there, at one’s fingertip, waiting to be apprehended.

Traditional intelligence organisations still fulfill a set of vital and specific functions. They collect high-level information which circulates through diplomatic circles; they analyse specific sets of information as it pertains directly to government policy; and, crucially, they deliver advice to policy-makers. But the world is far too big, the desertscapes and mountain ranges where jihadism is metastasizing are far too expansive for a bevy of urbane and taciturn bureaucrats to apprehend the nature of the problem as it appears on the ground. There is simply not enough paper in the Amazon to write all the risk assessment summaries.

Michael Nagata, the Japanese-American general who was until recently the head of the US Army’s program to fund Syria’s rebels, argued that in the fight against jihadism it will “take a network to defeat a network”. Following this logic then, the government (a centrally-controlled spider) is going to need help from the outside. This is where the private sector will likely be of some use.

Unlike a modern nation-state, there is no inevitable form which an entity in the private sector need adopt. Businesses like eBay have made billions by wresting control from central authority figures and placing it in the hands of the masses – by becoming thriving profitable starfish. Others, like Apple, have come to symbolise innovation in transcendental ways.

In general, and for good reason, there is a healthy suspicion of handing any kind of role in the War on Terror to the private sector. Indeed, apart from the problem of accountability there is a similar suspicion (if not a lack of trust) of the motivations of those in the business world. Just look at the controversies surrounding the free-reign that private military corporations like Blackwater have had over diplomatic security in Iraq. On this point, Machiavelli said “the lion”‘s share of what needed to be said about the problems posed by mercenaries in his writings on the condottieri in 16th century Italy.

In some cases however, specific and limited outsourcing of government war-time tasks to the private sector might be indispensable rather than inimical. Contractors are profit-minded which means, if they are paid according to outcomes, increased efficiency in the use of time and resources. Consider, as a heuristic comparison, the time it might take an individual military contractor to board a plane to the UAE and take up a job training Arab forces (as many retired Western soldiers have done) versus the time it might take an Australian military unit, even a special forces unit, to do the same. There’s almost no comparison.

The main problem with outsourcing, of course, will always be the issue of accountability. But insofar as the government holds the purse strings the private sector will always be behind to its pay-masters. Ultimately, contracts can be written how governments want. And laws still apply to individuals. Furthermore, with a degree of separation between the public and private sectors comes an additional, and useful element of deniability for the government. A condottiere does not carry a government ID card – therefore the government cannot be burned at the stake for the condottiere‘s shortcomings.


The condottieri, the gentlemen-mercenaries of Italy

Ultimately then, given what has been discussed about our cultural knowledge-gap and given the future role which smaller, devolved, government-affiliated but private entities might play, one could conclude that our order of battle (particularly in the sphere of information-gathering and intelligence-collection) needs a complete restructure. And it starts, of course, with government itself.

The current force pitted again jihadism behaves much like “the spider” – where a single-minded body controls eight independent and often knock-kneed arms (*cough* Sovereign Borders). But as the war evolves, it is increasingly clear that what is required to asphyxiate jihadism, once and for all, is an organism that more closely resembles a jellyfish.

To biologists, jellyfish are known as medusae, named for the chthonic snake-haired monster from Greek mythology. A medusa typically takes the form of an umbrella. In this metaphor, the upper surface (the exumbrella) is the figurehead of governance (an influencer but not necessarily a decider of the mundane and everyday) which encompasses everything. The exumbrella is in turn supported by a pulsating hydroskeleton (a more efficient, flexible bureaucracy) and a tangle of toxin-delivering stingers (the military, especially the special forces).

The key distinguishing feature between the jellyfish and its older arachnid self is obnoxiousness of presence. While the spider is intrusive – a blot in one’s surroundings, a menace, something to be feared – the jellyfish is confidential, cordial almost, barely noticed as it pulsates seamlessly through the environment. In battle, however, a medusa is just as lethal as the spider. The semi-transparent Australian Irukanji, the smallest of the box jellyfish, is also the most deadly of the box jellyfish, despite being the size of a fingernail.

Again, and crucially, the jellyfish is not intrusive – it does not meddle, disrespectfully and contumeliously, in the same way that the spider does. Jellyfish do not hide behind the fortress walls of the Camp Russell’s of the world (see SOTG-Afghanistan), hunkering down in a maze of HESCO, browbeating those caught in its web about the virtues of democracy. Jellyfish simply “bloom” – reproducing seasonally and in large numbers when the sunshine increases – in a way which, crucially, never disrupts the ecosystem.

Instead of hiding and occasionally killing – like stonefish consuming bottom-feeders on the seabed – they replicate. The focus is not on opportunistic consumption but ally-creation

Still though, the bloom hunts. And there is yet prey to hunted.

So, the bloom goes forward. And swimming with, amongst and at the vanguard of this bloom will be other carnivorous hydrozoa – sworn into the service of the medusan public but privately employed – at an arm’s length. Hydrozoa like the Portuguese Man o’ War. The Man o’ War distinguishes itself from the bloom jellyfish in that it is not one organism comprised of many cells but colonial organism made of many individual organisms called “zooids”.

the fleet

The fleet moves

In principle, the privately-contracted Man o’ War is independent from the bloom and this independence can be useful to the bloom. The Man o’ War remains accountable to the bloom, who feed it the bloom’s scraps, but it complements the bloom because its structure – with its many “zooids” – is different to the bloom. These zooids can produce themselves at random through a process called “direct fission” – redeploying copies of themselves instantaneously.

As the bloom and the Man o’ War approach the juvenile starfish, teams of these zooids break away and descend upon the prey. The zooids attach themselves to the prey’s exterior – problematising the nature of the prey, fissioning further to create more zooids – “local” zooids – who can map the prey’s centre of gravity, assisting with the uncreation of the prey by thickly describing the prey. The zooids prepare the battlespace for the rest of the bloom by showing the bloom where the prey’s weaknesses are; what the prey subsists off; contextualising the prey as the right prey within an entire seabed of prey in a way which complements the inputs gathered by the bloom’s sensory organs – the bloom’s spooky spy-feelers.


A zooid. Microscopic. Deadly.

Having colonised the prey’s crusty back, the zooids weigh the prey down and the prey is consumed by the bloom. Then, the bloom moves on, in search of more prey, with the auxiliary zooids swimming in front, disappearing silently into the deep.

This is the blueprint for the slow asphyxiation of jihadism and one need get behind it, before the chronology overtakes us. It does, of course, require money. Or more precisely, the reallocation of money away from direct-action, droney-droney, pointy-shooty measures.

In a statement directed at his government pay-masters, General James Mattis, the Warrior-Monk of the US Marine Corps put the issue of allocation of resources rather succinctly: “if you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.

Applying Mattis’ logic, if Western governments with vested interests in the problem of terrorism don’t properly fund ground-based, human-conducted research which seeks to grapple with the problem in the places where it is metastasizing then those same governments are going to need greater funding for missile research. In any given location, by the time the jihadist problem requires a military intervention, then it is too late.

The key to “defeating jihad” is a re-structuring of the intelligence sector and in part a devolution of certain functions to the private sector (getting behind the mercenary zooids) to assist with collecting more information about the problem. A knowledge gap persists. And we need to fill it.

Take the rise of jihadism in Mali for example. Jihadism has been spreading, and rapidly so, over the last two years. Right now, of course, everyone is paying attention to ISIS  because ISIS is in vogue. ISIS are the badass bandidos with all the fancy videos and media attention. But while Iraq and Syria are now firmly in the clutches of jihadism, a new group – the  Force de libération du Macina (FLM) – is growing in central Mali. Before, jihadism was just a problem in the far north of Mali, a fad amongst a few Arab traders and disaffected nomadic Tuareg. Now, for the first time, FLM is targeting settled Fulani in Mali proper, wooing them to jihadism with nostalgic dreams of long-since forgotten caliphates. This is where the zooids will prove indispensable. Send in the zooids. Let them find out what’s happening in the Sahara. Indeed, what is happening in Fulani Mali? What is the problem? Why is the cancer spreading?

james mattis

James Mattis

Ashley Dyball Should Do Time

This morning, Ashley Dyball, an Australian foreign fighter assigned to rear echelon duties with the YPG, touched down in Melbourne airport to cheers from ecstatic friends and family and ululating from the Australian Kurdish community.

For some months, it seems, Mr Dyball has been party to the conflict in the Northeast Syria, having taken up arms with the Kurdish YPG in their battle against ISIS for a free Kurdistan. He went with no military training and no prior knowledge of the region and returned with a suitcase full of keffiyeh and an iPhone-full of #warselfies. Lawrence of Australia has returned from Rojava.


Once a benchpress champion, now a stone-cold badass. Mr Dyball is noteworthy for his simultaneous wearing of two keffiyeh (one worn around the neck and one tucked into his underpants).


Elsewhere and under the eyes of the law, it seems that Mr Dyball’s overseas adventure saw him in contravention of the recently-passed Foreign Fighters bill which has it down as an offence to partake in hostilities in a “declared area”. Inevitably, there will be calls for amnesty – given who he was fighting with (the Kurds) and who he was fighting against (ISIS). But though the laws of the land should reflect what is morally right, there will remain, as ever, a distinction between “what is good” and “what is lawful”.

If someone breaks into my house and kills my entire family, for example, it might be understandable for me to seek vengeance by killing that person right back. The law however must see things differently. Leniency might be granted during my sentencing (given the circumstances) but I should still go to jail for murder. Why? Because our society has moved beyond “an eye for an eye” as a cornerstone in our justice system.

Equally, even though Ashley Dyball was engaged in a war effort against a very tangible evil (ISIS), the recently-passed Foreign Fighters bill has made possible “the prosecution of people who intentionally enter an area in a foreign State where they know, or should know, that the Australian Government has determined that terrorist organisations are engaging in hostile activities and the person is not able to demonstrate a sole legitimate reason for entering, or remaining in, the foreign State”.***

The so-called Lions of Rojava might not be a proscribed organisation, but the PKK, alongside whom they fight, areThe Kurds might be one of the few reasonably-palatable allies we have in “Syraq” but they still commit atrocities – they still employ suicide bombers and post gruesome images to social media. One of these slaughters, during the Tel Hamis offensive, was committed in my dead friend’s name. There is every indication that the YPG and the rest of the Kurdish militias are the lesser of all the evils in the Middle East but regardless, these are still violent non-state actors with serious shortcomings in the domain of human rights. Taking up arms alongside any party in the Syrian conflict should be and is an offence unless that person is in an Australian Army uniform with an Australian Army-issued rifle doing what the Australian government told them to do.

Mr Dyball’s parents have indicated that the laws were unclear when Ashley Dyball pranced off to Syria. Regardless of the actual date these laws were passed it is ridiculous to argue that he was unaware of his actions being in a legally-grey area. Did he even bother to check what international law already said about “mercenaries” for example? I for one, know that Ash Johnston, while in Syria, was very concerned about the consequences he might face should he return home – and this even in the natal stages of the Foreign Fighter bill debate.

Finally, there is the issue of setting a legal precedent. If the Australian legal system lets this one slide what does that say about our tolerance for people who would travel overseas to become foreign fighters? Draw the line now and anyone crossing it will be punished. Deterrence. Punitive redress. This is how the issue will be resolved.

It will, quite rightly, be argued that I am just another keyboard warrior, pontificating about a Syrian reality in which I have not taken part. Mr Dyball, unlike me, was witness to the atrocities of ISIS. Mr Dyball saw, firsthand, the suffering of the Kurdish people and, unlike me, decided to do something about it. Mr Dyball, unlike me, was there. But this is exactly the point. Regardless of whether Mr Dyball was fighting on the side of good or of evil (if we are to incorporate this Manichean dichotomy into our worldview), Mr Dyball was there when he should not have been. According to law.

Mr Dyball, to borrow a phrase from an abusive Army corporal I once had yell at me, “signed his name on that dotted line”. No one forced him to go to Syria. Choices and consequences. Now it’s time for Mr Dyball to face the consequences. In the meantime, at least he’s gotten rid of that terrible Nike bumbag.

ashley dyball

En route to Syria… via Paris


ash dybll home

Ashley Dyball reunited with his parents in Melbourne airport

*** Correction: a colleague informed me that Mr Dyball is unlikely to be charged under the above-mentioned clause since the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop only announced declared areas in Raqqa and Mosul (presumably to specifically target foreign fighters with ISIS). If we take the Jamie Williams case as a model for future legal proceedings it seems more likely that Mr Dyball would be charged for “preparing for incursions into foreign countries for the purpose of engaging in hostile activities” or a similar, more general, offence under anti-terror legislation. But I’ll leave the ins-and-outs to the DPP. Thanks for the correction mate.


Hajj Al-Sahara – A Ride on The Iron Ore Train of Zouerat

Some train journeys take place in rolling green countryside. Some trains have air-conditioning and some trains have snack carts. Some trains have seats and benches and bathrooms with toilets that flush. Some trains are smooth and fast and sterile, like space shuttles moving between orbital stations. The train I was on was nothing like that. I was in the middle of Mauritania on top of a freight train bucket cart piled high with iron ore.

Supine and covered in fine black dust, I gaze up at the night sky. Like every night I’d spent in the Sahara it is black and it is forever and it is filled with uncountable stars. My glimpse of purity is unimpeded by the contours of a landscape. The desert is dark and flat and silent and the train is long and noisy and dusty.

Encased, mummy-like, in my thin, discount-bin sleeping bag, I close my eyes. A gust of wind blows along the train, whipping spindrift off the iron mounds and I am blanketed in dust. I can taste the faintly ferrous texture of mineral grit between my teeth. No, I wasn’t travelling first class across the French countryside. But I was travelling for free. There are a lot of superlatives that can be said about the iron ore train of Zouerat. The longest train in the world on the longest railway in West Africa. The least clean train in the world. The cheapest train ride in the world. But with dust blowing in my face and the endless night above me and the empty desert all around me and the wheels of the carriage rattling and sparking beneath me, only one superlative comes to mind – this has to be the most adventurous train ride in the world.


I arrive in Choum, a railroad outpost at the heart of the Mauritanian desert, in the tray of a pickup truck. I’ve been travelling through the desert for almost a month now and a deep fatigue, a primal exhaustion the likes of which I’ve never experienced has begun to set in. In the last few weeks I’d slowly made my way across the Sahara by foot, by hoof and by wheel. On the horrendous bus rides between African capitals, I had been privy to more ear-splittingly loud African gangsta rap than I cared to remember. I haven’t showered in two weeks and I haven’t seen a Western toilet in six. My clothes are torn and filthy – the sleeves of my once-blue shirt are brown and the legs of my hiking pants are little more than an array of threads without patches.

The driver, a wiry Berber man in a tan-brown turban unloads my baggage and shakes my hand. He knows very little French and the Arabic (called “Hassaniya” here) he speaks is different to any of the Arabic I recognise. I look around at the tiny town – little more than an unpaved, sandy plaza girded by a few cuboid middens. I spy a railway track and the carapace of a decommissioned train carriage. Beyond that, there is only desert. Interesting spot. I look back at the driver and point at the ground.


He nods. “Choum.”

I shake his hand again and watch as he sidles back into the truck, revs the engine and speeds off across the sand. He’s in fifth gear by the time he’s spanned the railway track, and that is the last I see of him.

I return to my surroundings. Bienvenue à Choum. I’d read somewhere that Choum was the stepping off point for “the most adventurous train ride on Earth” and since riding in one of the iron-ore carriages was supposed to be free, it seemed like a logical way to cross the Western Sahara on a shoestring budget.

I walk across the dusty square to a small mudbrick building where everybody seems to be congregating. The word “restaurant” is written in Arabic on a placard out the front. A bowl of rice with a sloshing of brown sauce awaits me within. I hazard an attempt at speaking in my high-register Arabic to see if anybody knows what time the train will be coming. Just as English is the result of a tryst between the Germanic tongues and The Romance, Hassaniya is not so much a dialect of Arabic as it is a conglomerate of many Saharan languages with some loan words thrown in by the descendants of Mohammed. Being a linguistic universe away from the formal Arabic I learned in the classroom, I wonder if I’m the equivalent of a new arrival to a Western country trying out Shakespearean prose in the queue for a bus ticket.

Everybody seems to have a different opinion about the arrival time of the train. I take an average. If I’m at the train station before five o’clock I should be on time. But where do I board? Everybody seems to have a different answer for that too. I’d read somewhere that the train, depending on how much iron ore it is carrying can be up to three kilometres long, so I don’t want to ruin my chance at getting a free ride to Nouadhibou by waiting in the wrong place.

Presently, after a short game of mimes where I’m playing the part of a failed Arabic linguist, an old man comes along and speaks to me in what seems like perfect Parisian French. I learn that the tiny shelter-like structure which serves as the train station is three kilometres east of town and up-track, just “au-delà des arbres”… “beyond the trees”.

I shoulder my bags and begin walking down the railway tracks to the little building in the distance. I pass a small hut where a gendarme sits with his Kalashnikov in his lap, smoking reds. Behind him, his friend is asleep on a small cot. He asks for my passport and I hand him a photocopy. He nods and I continue on my way. I can’t help but notice there are no radio antennae exuding from their little outpost, unlike the others I’d seen. I suppose their commanders in Nouakchott weren’t very interested in what was happening in Choum.

As a country built by the descendants of Bedouin who had wandered in from as far as Arabia, Mauritania today resembles not so much a “state” but a “confederacy” – a group of tribes who got together for the sole purpose of agreeing on a name for the desert in which they dwelt. On paper there is a small country called Mauritania in Northwest Africa. But in the real world, though the government had recently made the notable decision to become the last on earth to abolish slavery, Mauritania is anything but a centrally-governed country.

Ruling from Nouakchott, a city which in itself has been described as an exercise in “capital-building nomad style”, the government seems to have very little actual interest in what is happening in the desert. The police, the military and the gendarmerie had all formed their own little mini-tribes out here. They formed just another clan in the confederacy – the Ouled Militaire.

Despite this, in piecing together just the bare essentials of a state, Mauritania had succeeded in its search for peace – an island of security compared to the Nietzchean tragedy playing out elsewhere in the Sahara.

A Typical Gendarmerie Outpost in Mauritania

A Typical Gendarmerie Outpost in Mauritania

I arrive at the little shelter where I meet Saidou, Alioune and Moustapha – three Reguibat fellows from the Adrar on their way to Nouadhibou by the Atlantic. In the late-afternoon shade, they sit around brewing sweet yellow tea (the traditional way, over coals) as they hum to Phil Collins swooning from the speakers of an MP3 player. The coals are glowing red as the song reaches its crescendo.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life,” Monsieur Collins is singing. Drumbeat. The pot boils. Tea’s ready.

I am invited to sit with them and they pour me a glass and we chat in French about our favourite music. It seems that the lads are fans of the classic sounds of Francis Cabrel and Rod Stewart. And Phil Collins is their favourite.

The Railway

The Railway “Station”

Everywhere across the Sahara, I am met by these fusions of two worlds – the Western with the Islamic; the Old with the New; traditional society with encroaching modernity. I’ve met goatherds with smartphones; tribesmen who’ve visited Paris; imams in Real Madrid jerseys. The anthropologist Ines Kohl writes that the Tuareg often refer to their Toyota pickup trucks as “alam n japon” – “Japanese camel”. This 80s-pop-rock-themed nomadic tea party is just another snapshot of the truly global village that is the Sahara.

Indeed, it is in the very existence of tea here, that we can see globalisation at work throughout Mauritania’s history. In the 15th century, tea came from China in the cargo holds of the Portuguese fleet. The mint came from Morocco and the sugar from Senegal. The objects of the tea-making ritual – the tiny glasses, the teapot, the pyx in which the sugar is kept are all venerated and are all foreign. Everything about mint tea, a centrepiece of Mauritanian society, is imported. But all the same it has been indigenized, such that the Mauritanians have made tea and its cultural meaning their own.

A cloud of dust appears on the horizon, followed by the serpentine form of a diesel-powered train. It approaches quickly and the lads reach for their smartphones to snap a few pictures. The conductor is hanging half out the window as he rolls past, heralded by the hiss of pistons and the screech of scrap-iron. The bucket carts trail behind, slag-heap upon slag-heap. The train shows no sign of slowing. I shoulder my bags as the carriages roll by. Hundreds of them. In the time it takes to see the back of the train I could have savoured another glass of tea.

Finally, with the sun dropping lower in the sky, the train comes to a stop, all three kilometres of it. People start running, frantically shouldering big sacs of food aid and scrabbling for prime position in the passenger carriage. The passenger carriage – where the luxury traveller can scrabble for a bench – costs about $9 but we’re travelling for free.

The train arrives in Choum

The train arrives in Choum

Arrival in Choum-3 Arrival in Choum-2

I’d read of travelling in the ore cars that they were dusty “on the way into the interior” and “impossibly dusty on top of the ore heading to the coast”. As we sprinted along the tracks looking for a vacant cart, the shapes of soot-clad riders were profiled against the sky, kings of their castles, staking claim to their own little black mound.

We find a free cart and clamber aboard. The train begins to move and we carve out foxholes for ourselves amongst the ore. We pass a chain of sun-baked mountains on our left. Shrouded by dust coughed up from the parched earth, the sun appears not as an orb but as an expanse of brilliant light. Sunset happens in hues of orange and white, hovering over the mountains for a moment, before sliding below the horizon, leaving behind the purple night. Moustapha, headphones-on-turban, lights up a cigarette.

Bound for the Atlantic!

Bound for the Atlantic!

Mustapha smoking reds

Mustapha smoking reds

Sunset from a bucket cart

Sunset from a bucket cart

With the going down of the sun, Saidou and Alioune unroll a little prayer rug, and, sharing half each, they inch in close to conduct their maghrib (evening) prayers. I look to my left towards the mountains where the sun disappeared. Soused now in the cool darkness, the earth and its inhabitants, have finally found reprieve from the burning heat of day. I give thanks for this as I reach for my water bottle. The intonations in Saidou and Alioune’s prayer give thanks for this too.

Of course, Islam cannot be thought of in isolation to the stark and inhospitable desert from which it sprang. Indeed, as the geographer William Norton reminds us Mecca itself was once but a lone, alkaline well amongst barren mountains. Even in the pages of the Qur’an we see not only an image of Mohammed the Prophet but also of Mohammed the Bedouin – the mirage as the faith of the unbelievers; the rain as a reward for Submission to His Will and thirst as His Reckoning. And finally, there is Allah himself, seated on the throne of the universe as the cameleer at the head of his caravan. The essence of the desert is travel because to linger in one place for too long is to die. Thus, the essence of Islam is also that of travel – a religion for the eternal pilgrim, ever on the road, ever on his hajj to Mecca.

At some point near midnight, we pass by the lights of a rail-side resthouse. A pair of bleary-eyed Mauritanians board the bucket cart behind us and dig out their sleeping spaces beneath the light of a lantern. The A-carriage is changed, and the train, with a new engine and driver ploughs on. Wearing all my clothes and with my face tightly wrapped in an indigo turban, I roll over and shiver in the nighttime chill. Beneath a layer of black silt, I sleep very little.

Dawn breaks in colours of pink and I emerge from my foxhole. I take a #selfie, and, after reviewing it, realise that I am covered head to toe in black soot.

#Selfie #Mauritania

#Selfie #Mauritania

Saidou and Mustapha after a dusty night

Saidou and Mustapha after a dusty night

The train veers left and passes between two tall sand dunes and then, with neither pomp nor warning, the ocean reveals itself before us – my first view of the Atlantic. I feel like Xenophon emerging from the deserts of Persia, gazing upon salvation in the blue beyond.

Thalassa, thalassa. The sea, the sea. It was Xenophon who said that right? I’m sure it wasn’t Phil Collins.

Later, on the shores of the Cap de Beguin, I gaze out at a graveyard for abandoned ships, hundreds of them dragged up on the beach. From the different makes and sizes, the ships had been sailed from all around the world to be disposed of in the nautical grey area that is Mauritania. Their rusty hulls are illuminated by the early morning light, shades of russet brown against the white sand. I wonder what this beach would have looked like in an age before fraudulent insurance claims. I look across the bay as the sandcastle wall of a crumbling cliff falls into the sea. This was the end point of my desert journey. My own little hajj. My hajj al-Sahara.

The train turns south towards Nouadhibou

The train turns south towards Nouadhibou

The essence of the desert is travel

The essence of the desert is travel

For your own Hajj Al-Sahara on the iron ore train:

Train Information: The iron ore train runs from the mines at Zouerat to Nouadhibou on Mauritania’s Atlantic coast and stops in Choum where all desert travellers should get on and off.

Getting There: From Atar, after you’ve been on your camel ride through the Adrar desert, reserve a spot in a vehicle travelling to Choum (minibuses and 4WDs are available. From experience, don’t travel in the tray).

Departure Times: For west-bound travellers heading to the coast, the train leaves Zouerat at noon and stops in Choum at about 5pm. For those on their way into the desert, the train leaves Nouadhibou at around 2pm for a journey of around 12 hours.

Onward Travel: Onward connections to Atar and Chinguetti are available in Choum’s main plaza. From any of the local garages in Nouadhibou you can take a bush taxi across the Moroccan border to Dakhla.

Seating Arrangements: A bench in the passenger carriage is UM2500 (about US$9). “Berths” are also available for UM3000. Or, you can ride in the ore carriage for free!  

Soqotra – A Reconnaissance of Girhimitin

The morning after our return from Mashanig, Ben emerges from his tent with a swollen red foot, open sores soused in iodine solution – a garish scene. We spent most of the previous two days, adding nicks and cuts to our limbs and ankles, and with the granite flanks of the mountain’s north face a shady breeding ground for an array of plantlife, dirt and greenery had clogged our wounds.

Coming down off the mountain, I had made a point to wash vigorously in the stream by the campsite, thorough in my efforts to scour the dirt from the open wounds on my hands and feet. Ben it seems, despite the best efforts of his travel medical kit had missed a spot”.

After lunch and a few rounds of fire-boiled shai, Abu Maryam and I slip off into the thick foliage on a mission to explore the western approaches of Girhimitin – the shining wall of granite looming to the left over the campsite. A proud face of vertical rock, it is big, intimidating, awesome, embroidered by dragon blood trees at its shoulders with a circlet of cloud, a coronnade for the summit.

Girhimitin rises in the distance from a rest stop on the way into the Hajhir Mountains

Girhimitin rises in the distance from a rest stop on the way into the Hajhir Mountains

Abu Maryam boils tea and goat in camp

Abu Maryam boils tea and goat in camp


Abu Maryam in his mountain domain

Ahmed Abu Maryam is a goat herd. He has ten daughters and a wife in a tiny village on the other side of the range … honorific “Abu Maryam”(eldest daughter is Maryam) after the mother of the prophet Issa – “Mary” in English… he wears a blue furtah and a red-and-white keffiyeh – the pattern distinctly Jordanian. He is nimble and lean with a strong weathered face – dark and bearded in a repose which belies years of enduringh the harsh elements of the Hajhir mountains. We communicate in classical Arabic but where my linguistic ability reaches the limits of its complexity, his thick jabali  Soqotri begins and so often communication becomes jumbled, riddled with aphorisms and punctuated by befuddled smiles.

The day previous after sampling the leg shanks of one of his goats, I had asked if he knew of a way to get to the base of Girhimitin from camp. Descending from Mashanig I had looked west to see if the grassy meadows at the base of the west face could be reached on foot. Like some inviolable altoplain – Soqotras answer to the Nanda Devi Sanctuary (of Tilman and Shipton fame) – the way looked difficult and treacherous – a thickly forested base surrounded on all sides by steep fluting peaks. The wadi flowing away from the mountains base also looked like it would be difficult to access. A negotiable boulder-stream up high, it was flanked by thick vegetation (the kind you might want to bring a machete for) and at its terminus, where it met with the main approach wadi for the Hajhir it dropped into a steep limestone cliff; riven by a small waterfall.

From the summit of Mashanig, the west face of Girhimitin looked like it would have to be a rappel-in, climb-out affair – abseil on a fixed rope from the col to the north which can then be used as a bail option if the granite folds of the mountain proved too much for a single push.  But as I discussed my thoughts on how to reach the mountain’s base, Abu Maryam is insistent.

“Fi tareeq! Fi tareeq! Bess neruh ala al-tareeq lil-hawanat wel-genem.” There is a road, he tells me. But it is an animal track, and we will be following in the footsteps of the herd. Indeed, the steep limestone cliffs, hide a narrow route, a thin goat track moving between the trees, which weaves its way up and onto a plinth of rock to follow the river-boulder moraine to the mountain’s base.

I don my sandals, wincing as my infected toe rubs against the  footstraps. He goes barefoot, as he Always goes, the soles of his feet a tough leather, gleaming grey and impenetrable as he boulder-hops the stream – the underfoot like the hide of a musk ox at the turnstile. He moves swiftly and surely through the trees, adamant that he knows the way, ducking beneath the low-hanging branches, weaving between the vines of coiled, impenetrable scrub. O

n the moraine he is light and fast, hopping delicately from rock to rock like a ballet dancer bouncing across a stage. As I lumber clumsily behind, ham-footedly picking my way through the loose scree I observe him, marvelling at his speed in this kind of terrain. Every mountaineer could learn a valuable lesson of moraine navigation from him – I turn rocks, he doesn‘t… and in watching, learning and mimicking, my body learns why. He stops from time to time spotting a root he knows well. He rips it from the ground, excitement writ across his face.

“Al-ud hina,” he says, pointing at with a long-nailed finger. “Good for cleaning the teeth.”

We continue on. Within a few minutes however, he has spotted something else – a root he knows well. He reaches for a stick and begins to dig. Within a minute he has uncovered a brown-white bulb.

“Seefid! Seefid!” he shouts. Soqotri potato. He rips it from the ground, splits it in half, swallowing his part whole and offering the rest. I chew thoughtfully. It is indeed a potato. The thought suddenly occurs to me that if Ben and I were lost up here for a month we would probably starve. It also occurs to me that he most certainly wouldn’t.

Abu Maryam locates a familiar root.

Abu Maryam locates a familiar root.

A sign to begin digging

A sign to begin digging


Seefid (Arabic:  سيفد). Soqotri potato

Seefid (Arabic: سيفد). Soqotri potato

In Ahmed Mohammed Abu Maryam I see all the traits of a traditional mountain culture that has survived the sweeping changes of the modern world. He walks barefoot – always – and moves faster over the stream-scattered boulders than I do even after years of moving over this sort of terrain as a climber and a soldier. He is a goatherd and lives a simple life, almost totally moneyless.

He asks for nothing as he guides me to the base of the mountain, and I know he will not accept it, perhaps be insulted, if I offer him something at the end. He drinks his tea, he does his salat, he sings his mountain songs, he tracks his goats across the granite hinterlands and thinks little (though not nothing) of what goes on in the world of below. But we would would be wrong think him a man from a lost past – a Noble Savage – a primitive in-portrait.

Indeed far from cut off completely, far from a man without a stake or an interest in modernity, Abu Maryam is an example of globalisation personified, a reminder that as the core of urban culture expands into the periphery, the mountains, the deserts and their peoples respond in kind. He wears a red keffiyeh in a style known from Jordan; he owns a mobile phone and he is deft with the camera when I ask him to take photos tourist snaps of me; he wears a cotton shirt, a gold watch made in China and talks of the Houthi iin Sanaa as if he tunes into Al-Jazeera 24. Indeed, as we flow up the wadi towards the base of Girhimitin I muse that just as this Soqotri goatherd moves from mountain pass to mountain pass, so moves culture – for culture is fluid not static.

Abu Maryam holds a root traditionally used by Soqotri Bedu for cleaning the teeth. He wears a cotton shirt, blue furtah, Jordanian keffiyeh, Chinese counterfeit watch

Abu Maryam holds a root traditionally used by Soqotri Bedu for cleaning the teeth. He wears a cotton shirt, blue furtah, Jordanian keffiyeh, Chinese counterfeit watch

Abu Maryam models Black Diamond's latest 200 lumen head torch.

Abu Maryam models Black Diamond’s latest 200 lumen head torch.

When the cliché emerges of “untouched culture” (indeed, I’ve read this cliché in the context of Soqotra) I am reminded that in Abu Maryam we see not only the survival of the past in the present but proof of the dynamism of human behaviour – to adapt, to shift, to respond to changes in the environment, in the world beyond – a true being of ecology. Culture is a behaviour and like all animal behaviours it coheres to the rules of biology. Man exchanges what does not fulfil a vital function and ingests what will fulfil the function best. Why send a messenger when a mobile phone will do? Why wear rags of olive-tree twine when the workings of an Indian sweat shop are cheaper and stronger? But then a mobile phone will not feed Maryam and his other nine daughters…. and cheap knock-off shoes from China will not grip and smear to a sloping granite slab the way a toughened leathery bare foot will do.

He drinks his goats milk and eats his seefid because a change in diet, even a turn to reliance on footwear would mean a requirement for money – sacrificing one’s autonomy, one’s autarky and a reliance of provisions from outside. It would mean dependence on a system which may not be so accomodating to a drift-in from the mountains. (I would later see this difference starkly illustrated in the Malian villages of Garmi and Daari some weeks later).And so life persists – as i it always has – with only the amount of change that makes living the same life the much easier.

We arrive on top of a wide granite plinth overlooking the boulder stream. Abu Maryam stops and turns and like a pair of wanderers from a Caspar Friedrich painting we gaze out over the hills and plains below, a view of Hadibo and the Indian Ocean in the distance. A stream of water spruces from a crevice above us forming a little pool in a bowl-like indent in the rock before the trickling to the edge and dropping off into the void.

Abu Maryam, taking note of this little trickle-eddy dammed into a little wash basin, looks at his watch, stops and turns to me. “Salat,” he says. It is time to pray. He conduts wudu, washing his hands, his mouth, his feet, his faxe, purifying his soul before the sacred rite. A muezzin unto himself atop his minaret of rock, he sings out the call to prayer, nasal, loud with the same vice that shouts to his goats and sings round the campfire. Then he performs his rakaát p- the sacred movements the standing, the heeding to his lah Lah, the bowinng, the kneeling and ultimately sajadeh – the culminion of hjis prayers – his forehead touches the bare granite – submission to God.

Sans titre

Ruku “Bowing” (Arabic: رُكوع‎). The second major position of Islamic prayer

Sujud "Prostration" (Arabic: سُجود‎). The culminating act of Islamic prepare in touching the forehead to the ground and submitting to God.

Sujud “Prostration” (Arabic: سُجود‎). The culminating act of Islamic prepare in touching the forehead to the ground and submitting to God.

Tashahhud (Arabic: تشهد‎). After submitting, the worshipper kneels, facing Mecca, and bears witness to his Creator

Tashahhud (Arabic: تشهد‎). After submitting, the worshipper kneels, facing Mecca, and bears witness to his Creator

We continue up the wadi and he asks me about my ascent a day previous of Mashanig – the highest point in Soqotra. He is curious about what we found up there, about the mysterious cairn and stories that the skull of a cow is still up there, wondering if we have seen sign of the mythical Nazouzeh.

He tells me a story of how Ali, one of the goatherds down in camp, had found himself halfway up the smaller Mashanig and unable to climb down. Ali had been chasing a goat, near the col beneath Mishifo, the bridge, and when they had fled up the sides of the smaller Mashanig he had given chase. He scrambled up the steep sides until the goats, realising they were being hunted, continued always to the summit, leaving him precariously hanging from the cliffside.

Here, he descended, leaving the goats for another day. I imagined Ali returning to Hadibo for his supper, before hiking back up the next day with an expedition-worth of supplies wrapped up in the folds of his amameh like a haversack. No goat, no food and no food would bring the goatherd back to town.

I ask Abu Maryam if he visited Hadibo, the main coastal town, very often. He shook his head citing problems between the goatherds of the mountains and the black piscatorial groups (technically of Somali descent) inhabiting the fish-rich seaside. “Fi qariyatee, ma shee – al-aswad,” he says. There were no black people in his village. “Until today, if I go to Hadibo there will be problems and I must return to the mountains”. This conflicting dynamic between peoples of the mountains and peoples of the plains (elsewhere I have described this as the dialectic between the core and periphery) is common across the Islamic world and I don’t doubt that some of his concerns are valid.

I ask him about his family. His wife, his ten daughters, and his eldest daughter, Maryam, from which he gets the honorific Abu Maryam (Arabic: أبو مريم) – “the father of Maryam”. She is a rather naughty child it seems. Remembering having read somewhere that fathers who are physically powerful or extra-macho like mountaineers or Special Forces soldiers often tend to have lots of daughters (perhaps for some hormonal reason), I tell him that perhaps he is very manly for only having daughters.

He responds that in Soqotri culture he is viewed as weak for having borne no sons, that others in his village think him far from strong. But I can tell he loves his children, and he tells me about his happiness when Maryam (Mary in English) was born.

“My mother‘s name is Mary,” I tell him. “The odds!”

“Mashallah,” he says. “How old is she?”

“Tabarak allah,” I intone. “Still young,” I say.

“And may she live many more years,” he says. “The secret to a long life is in the tea and the meat of a goat. And walking… lots of walking.”

Then he tells me about the special properties in the sap of the dragon’s blood tree – the mystical remedy which brought centuries of traders, merchants and medicine men to these fabled shores. The drqgon’s blood sap stops bleeding, he tells me. And is a wonderful remedy against female bleeding. With mortar and pestle he mixed up a solution for his wife to stop the post-natal bleeding after Maryam’s birth. He casts a hand towards the summit, at a pair of goats moving up the gentle north ridge. Goats eat the young saplings of the dragon’s blood trees, he tells me. But they stop once the umbrellaing of the tree begins.

“Maybe you will find the sapling of a dragon’s blood tree growing on the summit.”

Dragon's blood trees (Soqotri: Aharia) are difficult to age as they are pulpy with no concentric rings inside. Instead botanists measure age using the number of branches, a few other features and a complex algebraic formula

Aharia. Dragon’s blood tree.

With our thoughts turned skyward, we crouch together on a rock beneath the mighty face. Girhimitin (Soqotri: جرهمتين, “the sure throw”). In a previous age, so goes the story that Ali and Abu Maryam had told me in camp a few nights before, two warring tribes* waged battle in the plain between Hawari and what is now Hadibo. The story goes that a Bedouin shepherd scaled Girhimitin and launched a spear at an oncoming host of marauders from the south. The height of the mountain and the observation it provided made the volley from the summit a sure thing – a ”sure throw”.

The plain beneath Girhimitin with Hadibo, the town, and Hawari, the mountain we had earlier climbed, in the distance.

The plain beneath Girhimitin with Hadibo, the town, and Hawari, the mountain we had earlier climbed, in the distance.

The West Face, unlike the gentler summit approaches on the back side, was anything but a sure thing. Immediately, as I gazed up at it, I knew I would need three days and a portaledge to complete this route, even if Ben was in good health. Chatting with Abu Maryam, I point out a potential line up the face – not a direttissima – but a mind blowing line up the face no less. An offwidth crack and a foliage-clogged chimney on the left side of the mountain leading into a series of rooves then into the west face proper.

“Shoof al-kitab al-muftuh,” I say, pointing out the next section. I trace my finger up a proud granite corner, a dihedral, the shape of an open book – a Quran with a path writ to Jennat. “This is where we will do our climb,” I say to him… This is where we will write our words. “Bess hada al-tereeq khetr,” he replies. But this way is dangerous.

“La,” I shake my head. “Hatha al-tareeq mitl hadiyet min Allah.”  This route – its like a gift from God. I know he will appreciate the religious undertones. He nods knowingly.

Abu Maryam looks up at the West Face of Girhimitin

Abu Maryam looks up at the West Face of Girhimitin

The descent gully off to the right

The descent gully off to the right

The opening chimney and offwith at the base of the wall

The opening chimney and offwith at the base of the wall

A set of rooves and complex slabs bar access to the Quranic corner

A set of rooves and complex slabs bar access to the Quranic corner

The splitting corner topping out near the top of the South Ridge

The splitting corner topping out near the top of the South Ridge

The West Face of Girhimitin (~400m)

The West Face of Girhimitin (~400m)

We are not ready for the West Face of Girhimitin. This big wall will not be going down on this trip. We have no portaledge, no time and Bens foot resembles something I mightve read about in my grandfathers war diaries (he was a surgeon). But this is what the reconnaissance is for. For looking and for pondering. For dreaming and deliberating… Is it possible?

Finding the goat trails to the base of the approach wadi was the first step. Then, with Abu Maryam, I had penetrated the limestone cliff blocking access to it. Then, together, we had scoped the line, pondered the descent, considered the bail options, an itinerary and a time frame. This is the history of how mountains are climbed.

When Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman penetrated the Nanda Devi Sanctuary (being arguably the pairs finest exploratory achievement, summit or not) they laid the path for future climbs, future success on Nanda Devi. Tilman‘s return and lightweight first ascent. Will Unsoeld‘s ascent of the difficult north buttress. And finally the return to a pristine state with the Sanctuary declared an inviolable reserve by the Indian Government.

And so too with the West Face of Girhimitin. All that remained now was a strong team and a portaledge. Then it would be climbed. Then one day the same route would be free-climbed. Then, after that, some long-haired, loping Californian would come along and climb the thing without a rope…

On the way down we stop at a small shepherd‘s shelter and he asks me when I will climb the big wall we have just recced.

“Not on this trip,” I tell him. “My friend is sick and we need more supplies. When I return to Soqotra”.

He nods, getting up to move. “When you return I will show you the way again.”

Abu Maryam at a goatherd shelter near the entrance of the wadi

Abu Maryam at a goatherd shelter near the entrance of the wadi

One the way back, as he bounces down the moraine, he pauses, turns and looks back up the stream of boulders, piles of littered granite leading to the base of the West Face of Girhimitin. He mutters something to himself in Quranic Arabic and, curious, I ask him to repeat it slowly, word-for-word so I can translate.

He is quoting from hadith, the collected sayings of the Prophet. “Inn al-jebal min al-hasa.” (Arabic: ان الجبال من الحصى)*

“And from rock upon rock, a mountain is made.”

I ponder this for a moment, thinking about the meaning of this reconnaissance and of exploration – to build knowledge, to bring Man forward to new frontiers. This expedition was my first true expedition abroad and I had learnt a great many things – about logistics, about airline baggage policies, about the importance of time in the mountains, about weather, about bivies, about suffering and about the people of this remarkable island. I was growing, bit-by-bit as a climber.

“And from rock upon rock, a mountain is made.”

So too like the climber, I muse. So too like the Man.

Abu Maryam spinning his stick

Abu Maryam spinning his stick


* = perhaps the two tribes were the Somali fishermen and the Arab goatherds, but this is conjecture

** = the whole quote in hadith reads: “Do not belittle the small things (e.g. small sins, little things in life) for is not a mountain made from small stones?” (Arabic: لا تحقرن صغيرا ان الجبال من الحصى )

Soqotra – Mountains, Myths and Heroes

(Warning: Images of halal slaughter)

“One day we reached a strange desert island… many of the passengers decided to go ashore and I sat down on the bank of a river and fell fast asleep. When I awoke there was not a soul in sight. The ship had sailed, for the captain had forgot about me… The sun had not yet set and the sky was a fiery pink. Suddenly, everything went dark as though night had fallen. I looked up and saw an enormous bird with outstretched wings, shutting out the sunlight. I remembered then of hearing about a bird so huge it fed its nestlings elephants. The bird’s name was Rukh” – The Second Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor, 1001 Nights

Bad weather on my last night in Canberra. Thongs of lightning lashing the tops of Mt Ainslie as a rose sunset mixes with the gunmetal greys of a storm cell. The storm follows us north to Sydney. Isolated showers. Patches of clear. Then heavy thick globules of water, orbs of wet hammering against the windshield.

All the standard tourist traps on my last day in Australia. Darling Harbour. Circular Quay. Another sunset over the Harbour Bridge. Seats for the ballet at Sydny Opera House. The Nutcracker. Christmas theme. I hold Ellie’s hand as Drosselmeyer, the dark magician, presents the children with their gifts. No Christmas for me this year. No birthday either. Then, the airport. The rain persists. I hold Ellie close. She cries. Rain runs down the windows of the terminal building like tears on a cheek, a thousand trails of racing water framed against the grey darkness of a gathering evening. I check in. Clear customs. Wait. Board. Fly.

I meet Ben in Kuala Lumpur. He’s in loose clothes, light threads. His hair is long and he ties it in a top knot. Not quite hippy – not quite clean either. He looks like he’s about to go on a holiday to Thailand. Which he is. In a few weeks time. For now though the sullied paradise of South East Asia – the dirty beaches crowded with backpackers; the seaside karsts bustling with climbers-on-holiday; the busy, polluted streets full of leering touts – that can wait.

Today we’re in search of an escape from that. An island of unclimbed summits lost in the clouds and coral reefs girt by azure water. A distant paradise perched between the heel of the Arabian peninsula and the horn of Africa. We’d heard tales of teetering granite towers and remote wadis brimming with bizarre flora and fauna. Endemic species of snakes and “dragon’s blood trees”. An evolutionary isolate. A lost piece of old Gondwanaland, left adrift, like an oceanic breadcrumb, in the wake of the last split of the continents. A geologic and biologic anomaly.


The name itself hinted at wonders. Like that of some fictional kingdom ripped from a Schezerzadian sura. “Suq al-qutra” – “the frankinscence market”.

A bare-faced Orientalist had been awakened in me, shamelessly beckoned by the allure of the exotic. In my mind, I had already made myth of the place, positioned it “lovingly on stage”. A colonialist fantasy, perhaps. The dispassionate anthropologist in me would have been unimpressed.

But there we were. Off to partake in the drama of our own imagining. Myths, after all, will keep being written, with or without our participation in them.

Where the island’s past theatrics were concerned, the cast of the “History of Soqotra” was long and storied. Sinbad, the fabled sailor of Sindh came here on his fifth voyage; Thomas the Apostle; Abu Muhammad al-Hamdani, the astronomer for the Abbasids. Throughout time the island has changed hands over and over. A fleet of Portuguese venture capitalists captured the island’s “soq” in the early sixteenth century. Then came the Mahra sultans. Then the British. With independence the Russians arrived, lining the beaches with dug-in tanks – specimens of realpolitik to be left to rust in the aftermath of the Cold War.

Alone in the rolling waters of the Indian Ocean, the Soqotra of today lies in the eye of a regional political conflagration of veritably cyclonic proportions. Marauding fisherman-turned-pirates scour the nearby Somali coasts at the helm of skiffs full of Kalashnikovs and on mainland Yemen a failing government lies at the centre of an ethnic maelstrom of competing insurgencies – a Shi’a uprising borne out of the dry and rocky hills of Sada’ah and an Islamist insurgency cresting a wave of Sunni discontent away and beyond in the Hadramawt. Yemen’s history is one of turmoil – a constant to and fro between a shakey peace, isolated gunbattles and brutal violence capped by terrorism, suicide bombings and drone strikes.

Despite the rough neighbourhood, however, Soqotra has found solace in its geographic isolation. A lost paradise in a rough neighbourhood. Misty mountains. Unclimbed big walls. A distant island culture waiting to be apprehended.  The choice was ready-made for us – me, an Arabist with an interest in remote places and remote people, and Ben a geologist with a penchant for rocks more generally.

We board our Yemen Airways flight to Sana’a. Trudging into the metal tube, the hostess double checks our boarding passes.

Ben, in tropical-patterned boardshorts, sweeps a lock of hair behind his ear.

“Sana’a?” she asks him.

He nods.

She gives him back his ticket and laughs. Take-off happens without event but later, as the plane passes through a thick bank of cumulus it jumps and rattles – long drops through air pockets punctuated by violent lurches through turbulence.

Sana’a International Airport lies in a varying state of disrepair – torn down walls, roof panels missing, stolen or broken, exposing the raw cabling within. An eerie late night quiet lies over the terminal building. A tense calm, punctuated by the omnipresent assault rifle. Had we been wrong to exoticise our destination? A flatscreen television hangs from a beam in the centre of the room. Behind a pall of cigarette smoke, the screen broadcasts images of a Yemen fit for a luxury travel magazine. Sandy beaches, palatial hotels, ancient medinas.

“Hodeydah – the Cinderella of the Red Sea,” reads the ticker tape on one television set. No mention of how she fares after midnight.

“Your first impressions are false,” it all seems to say.


Arrivals lounge at Sana'a International Airport

Arrivals lounge at Sana’a International Airport


A mixture of uniformed military and leather awaits us at the immigration desks – vague jacketed types with stern, sullen faces. A month ago, the capital had been seized by the Houthi and now it all seemed very unclear just who at the airport was an agent of the ancien regime and who was an out-of-towner taking up a new post behind the immigration desk.

We have our visas stamped, and pass through to the baggage claim. One bag, two bags… they float down a decrepit conveyerbelt unloaded from an open-backed ute on the other side of a broken wall – the luggage handlers like fish-mongers tossing crates of frozen mackerel around a soq. One of the bags – Ben’s bag – never comes. It contains ropes, borrowed climbing hardware, a harness and Ben’s rubber shoes. It also contains all of his spare clothes.

I begin hounding the airport staff in white guy Arabic, stumbling on my “ayns” and stuttering with my “alifs” as my brain does its best to re-enter third language mode again. The bag is in transit in Jakarta, I am told.

“Is it really in Jakarta?” I ask.


“You’re sure?”


I’ve learnt from other travels in the Arab world to treat any declaration of certainty with healthy suspicion, so I probe further. “Wal shunta, ana beheselha bukara?” “So the bag, it’ll be here tomorrow?”

Inshallah”. If God will’s it.

In the Middle East, nothing happens unless He has willed it – luggage reaching its intended destination included.

Later, of course, I learn that the bag was never lost in transit in Jakarta… it never left Kuala Lumpur.

Finding a corner in a nearby mushollah, I wriggle into my sleeping bag, hand Ben a prayer rug and my other pair of trousers, an overnight transit between us and our flight from the Mainland. We board our flight with promises the bag will reach us in Soqotra. I hold no high hopes, so my brain begins troubleshooting. The plane is full of stern-looking Arab men in business suits on the way to a half-way stop in Mukalla. When they are gone the plane is suddenly flooded with laughing chattering dark-faced men sporting a colourful array of gowns, headdress and the traditional dress worn by Soqotri men, the “furtah“.


Flying over the canyon-riven “badlands” of the Hadramawt

The plane taxis along the desert runway takes off and an hour later we are soaring over Soqotra. An unknown granite scylla during the wet season, the high peaks of the Hajhir massif lie hidden amidst a swath of burgeoning rainclouds, a mystery mapped by NASA but unseen as our plane circles. Below, a fierce northerly blows powerful waves against the island’s sandy shores. On a quiet day the azure water is a tourist trap for snorkelling – today the island is like a weather-beaten lost world – something out of a Michael Crichton novel.

We land and meet our guide Issa. Issa is short and wiry with dark curly hair and a cheery smile. He carries himself nimbly through the crowd in the arrivals lounge, plucks one of my bags from the carousel and leads the way to the car. Our driver Ahmed, always in blue, is warm and portly, his hair ever-encircled by a tribal amameh – the headcloth known elsewhere as “keffiyeh“, “shemagh” or “dish-dash“. “Ahlan we sahlan ila Soqotra,” he says. He speaks only Arabic and Soqotri and it is in the former tongue that I will piece his story. The road from the airport to Hadibo runs abreast the cliffs of a rocky shore. Ahmed, deft behind the wheel of the rickety vehicle, navigates the turns with precision. There are no number plates here, no road rules. The only people in uniforms we see are a pair of soldiers, one of them stripped down to his undershirt, the other, on Kalashnikov duty. Both of them seem to be soaking up the warmth of the island sun. Everything here feels beyond the reach of the mainland – beyond the reach of the State. We are in the Periphery, and it feels free.

Hadibo is dirty, squalid, Third World. Mud roads choked with piles of rotting rubbish crawling with skinny bleating goats chewing cardboard. We will return intermittently to the island’s population centre but for the most part we stay away from the hub of Soqotri life. We move to an “eco-campsite” on the outskirts of town. I dump my bags and Ben dumps what he has left in our reed huts, then we move to a larger reed hut, a sitting area, for tea.

Food comes and as we nibble of the thin, many-layered Soqotri khobz we gaze up at the dramatic west face of Hawari, a prominent limestone peak to our east, looming over the coast. I turn to Issa who notes me marvelling at it. “Bukara nehnu netsleq hada al-jebel,” I say. We want to climb that mountain.

The afternoon, we assess the lot we’ve been cast. Without Ben’s bag we are down a harness and Ben’s climbing shoes. But we still have my harness, a rope and a rack (hardware to keep us attached to the cliff). With about 20 metres of tubular webbing at the bottom of my backpack, I start fashioning a diaper sling rig, a makeshift harness designed to be used in an emergency – say if a hiker without climbing equipment falls from a height and needs to be extracted by rope and pulley.

Reared in the sterile environment of the indoor gym, we are initially skeptical of the integrity of our system. Freedom of the Hills (the mountaineering textbook) recommends 2 inch webbing for a diaper sling harness. We’ve used 1.5. Our variant has all the hallmarks of a Tillman-Shipton tie-a-bowline-around-your-waist adventure, which puts us in a category where a fall isn’t really an option. But with Ben lacking shoes to climb in we know we won’t be climbing anything particularly difficult. With one actual harness between us we decide that the person climbing in “the good harness” will lead all the pitches and the diaper sling-wearer will follow along, trying not to fall.

We set off the next morning on an exploratory climb, a cruisey foray up a set of cliffs below Hawari to test the system. Ben gets first dibbs on the diaper sling. The climbing is easy enough so on the second pitch, I swing the lead over to Ben, who, with his sandals clipped to his belt and the rack hanging from his chest leads away on a pleasant barefoot traverse. Another wandering pitch and a half follows and topping out we realise that we might have pioneered a unique climbing style, albeit one definitely not worth emulating. Climbing barefoot, in a home-made harness with sandals for approach shoes. We call it Bedouin-style and name our fun little climb “Sandals and Scimitars”.

Ben leading away barefoot on Sandals and Scimitars (5.7, 70m) with a diaper sling harness fashioned from 1.5 inch tubular webbing.

Ben leading away barefoot on Sandals and Scimitars (5.7, 70m) with a diaper sling harness fashioned from 1.5 inch tubular webbing.


A lonely jetroufah tree (used as a medicinal coagulant) arcs over the Indian Ocean

Our system adequately tested, we set our sights on the longer routes up Hawari

Our system adequately tested, we set our sights on the longer routes up Hawari

An early lunch of spiced fish, bread and rice follows and with the hours of the day running away from us we retrain our sights on our main objective – Hawari (~400m). Slinging Issa along as a guide and rope-carrying sidekick, we trudge off through a thick of forest of jetroufah trees to the base of the technical climbing.

It is my turn to wear the dodgy harness and peering up at the overhanging “choss” (loose, horrid-looking rock) above, a part of me is kind of thankful Ben gets to be the lead climbing guinea pig for this one. Indubitably, three metres off the ground on the first pitch, Ben takes a groundfall when he plucks out a handhold like a kid pulling smarties off a cupcake. Unphased however, he continues up, moving industriously.

A short time later, I hear a garbled shout from Ben some way up the wall and it is my turn to climb. I stem up a corner, pulling over a small overhang and gain a steep slab of smooth rock, riven here and there with small pockets for handholds.

When I reach Ben on the belay ledge I assess the anchor he has built for us. Nearing the stretch-limit of the rope, the ledge was the logical place to stop. But Ben’s anchor is less than ideal. A thin sapling girth-hitched by a sling, a camming device plugging the gap between two wobbly boulders and a tricam (a horned chock of metal shaped like a rhino skull) lodged in a small flaking pocket of rock. Three negatives don’t make a positive, even in mathematics. So I guess falling wasn’t really an option anyway, with or without the makeshift harness.

The next section leads Ben left on a sparsely-protected traverse into a wide chossy chimney. I hold my breath as Ben climbs on. Above us, a rookery of vultures, yellow-necked and sharp-beaked, circle our perch, wondering if the strange hominids passing through their vertical world will soon be but carrion. An endemic sub-species of Egyptian vulture, they are large and cruel-looking, probing us hungrily with low swoops. Their wings whoosh loudly as they dive past. As Ben disappears out of view, I study the birds, paying out rope slack as he climbs.

In the story of Sinbad the Sailor, the eponymous hero tells of having sailed to Soqotra and being abducted by a huge and monstrous bird, who, depositing him in its nest on top of a high mountain, set off in search of snakes to garnish its supper. Forced to fashion a rope from his turban, Sinbad descended into the valley only to discover that it was full of posionous snakes. With the huge vultures circling us on our mountain perch, I felt a strange affinity with Sinbad’s lot, although, climbing “Bedouin-style” or not, I was thankful that we were as yet some way off using a turban for a rope. With another garbled shout from Ben above, I traversed off the ledge and into the gully, picking my way through the conglomerate ruin. We pitch on.

Hawari in the distance rising out of a forest of jetroufah

Hawari in the distance rising out of a forest of jetroufah


Our perch on the first ascent of A’sh Al-Rukh (The Rukh’s Nest)

Ben contemplates a factor two fall off a poor belay as he commits to the choss gully from the belay ledge. A'sh Al-Rokh (The Rokh's Nest), 5.8X, 110m

Ben contemplates a factor two fall off a poor belay as he commits to the choss gully from the belay ledge. A’sh Al-Rokh (The Rokh’s Nest), 5.8X, 110m

Cresting the summit ridge, we are blasted by the cool ocean wind, surrounded on all sides by the strange Soqotri bottle trees and a troop of Egyptian vultures gazing over their domain. Met with a three-sixty view on top, we take in the horizonless Indian Ocean on one side and the mysterious cloud-covered hinterland of the Hajhir range on the other. With the loose limestone climbing behind us we descend on foot down the other side, naming our route “A’sh Al-Rukh” (Arabic: عش الروخ), meaning “The Rukh’s Nest”.

The peculiar bottle tree (Soqotri: triymu). One of many endemic arboreal species on the island

The peculiar bottle tree (Soqotri: triymu). One of many endemic arboreal species on the island)

The next day is a reconnaissance day as we still await the rest of our gear. We speed east along the coastal road to the wind-blown limestone cliffs of Homlil. We spy kilometres of limestone cliff faces, capping impossibly white sand dunes topped with the mysterious, umbrella-shaped dragon’s blood trees. The faces look amazing – featured, looming but utterly unprotectable except with artifical bolts. We loop around the escarpment and onwards into the green hinterland. We spy a prominent mountain in the distance, below the cloudline in the lower Hajhir. A spindly old man from a nearby village spits out a name… “Tjouf” (Arabic: تجوف )… A limestone fin on the horizon. Unclimbed. Endless potential on this island.

We lunch in a hidden oasis called Wadi Boraq, a wide canyon of blocky red limestone terminating in a swimming hole. It sits beneath a tall waterfall running fast and swift down a wall of lichen and we sample the rail-featured limestone, climbing barefoot for a few metres before leeping back into the deep, cool water. The secrets of this Lost World are slowly but certainly coming into view.

We head off in search of dinner, passing by a qariyat to barter for a goat. The right price and right kid materialises and we take it back to Hamri to be devoured. With Issa holding the goat’s head back at an an angle, Mohammed, a local fisherman runs a long sharp knife along its neck.

“Bismillah al-rahman al-raheem” I hear Issa utter as a torrent of dark red blood gushes from the goat’s neck. As the kid struggles for air in its final throes, it coughs its gizzard from the gash in its throat. The act of slaughter can be brutal, unsettling, to watch sometimes. But in taking the life of the kid, life will be renewed and the goats haunches will be seved with a sauce of onion and persimmon.

As Mohammed peels back the kid’s hide, exposing the pink hanging corpse one knows well from a Queensland pig hunt or the back room of a butcher’s shop, I muse that alot can be learned of a cultural group from the way it kills an animal – from the process of converting life into food. “Bismillah ar-rahman, ar-raheem,” Issa had uttered. In the name of God, the beloved, the merciful. “Into his hands you will go”. What seems unsettling to the outsider is only so because one sees not where the meat which sustains daily life come from. In my world, the act of converting life into food is simply a process, an industry… a conveyerbelt where an assembly line turns a calf into a Big Mac. Here, it is a spiritual act. An act of committing the kid into the hands of a deity so that other life may be sustained. There is no hierarchy in the diversity of culture – one custom is neither better nor worse – it is only context that matters and for a small-scale society living a life between pastoralism and the sea, everything about this practice makes sense. For us in the cities perhaps our way works best, but I don’t really know.

"Bismillah al-rahman al-raheem". Words uttered as the knife slides across the goat's neck

“Bismillah al-rahman al-raheem”. Words uttered as the knife slides across the goat’s neck

Mohammed prepares the knees for skinning

Mohammed prepares the knees for skinning

Alhamdu lillah lil'tai'm

Alhamdu lillah lil’tai’m

Over our meal, I talk culture with the Soqotri. I raise the topic of the veil. In the West, the subject of female dress in Islam is contentious – a heated debate infused with stereotypes about female subjugation and assumptions that modes of fashion are indicators of gender equality in human societies. In talking with Issa about his marriage, we learn that it is customary in Soqotri society to only see the face of one’s wife after one is married. While traditionally, daughters were effectively trade goods, Issa sees a certain equanimity in the veiling practice since the relative attractiveness of one’s potential spouse would remain a mystery until after the wedding. The argument here is that all Soqotri daughters are of equal value – since hidden behind the veil, all women look the same.

Alien as this logic might seem to a Westerner, I had never before considered that the veil, rather than hiding a woman’s “shame” could actually enable her to be desired, loved and respected in a way which goes beyond the physical. While in the West a hierarchical conception of beauty is used as a calculus of a woman’s reproductive fitness, Soqotra’s veil may in fact decouple “beauty” (the trait) from the female (the object). Here, a suitor falls for a woman’s personality and not her appearance.

On Thursday, we return to Hawari to climb another route on the seaside cliffs (an aesthetic crack we call “The Whip of Issa” [5.9]) but, hesitant to take our Bedouin-style system to the high peaks of the Hajhir, we hold out for hope that the bags will come on the Saturday flight.

We head west to Qlansiyet, a coastal fishing village and a similar size to Hadibo but devoid of the rubbish-choked streets. A boat ride to a remote beach on a gharab (Arabic: كارب ), brings us through rolling swell and violent lurching from the wind. A sheltered bay. A pod of dolphins. A scramble along the limestone cliffs and tea in a shepherd’s cave.

All rather idyllic really. Ben deep-water soloing near Shu'ab

All rather idyllic really. Ben deep-water soloing near Shu’ab

Then, the bags arrive. Finally. We crane our necks towards the Hajir mountains – the mysterious granite massif always in the back of our minds. We stop at a small village at the base of the mountains. Three men sift around in a narrow thoroughfare between the mosque and a small house. Issa yells out something in thick Soqotri and the three approach the car, attach themselves to the passenger step, skitching off the roof rack. We trundle on up the rocky road. This is how you get work in Soqotra.

We reach the end of the road and look upon the Hajhir mountains in all their grandeur, an incisor skyline, clear and cloudless. The walk in has all the hallmarks of high adventure – a pilgrimage to the sky. With every new peak that winds into view I ask it’s name, drawing a map in my mind… Girhimitin (Soqotri: جرهمتين, “the sure throw”), Herem Hajhir (Arabic: هرم هاجهر, “the Hajhir Pyramid”), Hazrah Muqadriyoun (Soqotri: هزرة مقادريون, “the false tooth”) and finally, Mashanig (Soqotri: مشنيغ, “the split one”) – two perfectly formed towers of perfectly vertical granite, the higher of the two being the highest summit on the island, rising some 1500+m above sea level. A new route on Mashanig is the ultimate objective for this expedition. If we can climb nothing else, we would climb this peak.

We follow Abdullah, his two sons and Fahad, a Bedouin shepherd who guides us up a precipitous boulder-strewn path. Abdullah, shirtless and lean, is the senior the group – a Bedouin born of the mountains who truly speaks his second language when I communicate with him in Arabic.

Ben, at the end of the road, racking up for a foray into the Hajhir

Ben, at the end of the road, racking up for a foray into the Hajhir

Ben and the porters walking into the Hajhir Mountains

Ben and the porters walking into the Hajhir Mountains

Lost in the Hajhir with Hazrat Muqadriyoun on my left and Mashanig on my right. Note the prominent fallen pillar, Mishifo, acting as a bridge between Mashanig's twin peaks

Lost in the Hajhir with Hazrat Muqadriyoun on my left and Mashanig on my right. Note the prominent fallen pillar, Mishifo, acting as a bridge between Mashanig’s twin peaks

We sit around the campfire long into the night and Abdullah is chatty, curious about these foreigners in his mountains. He asks many of the same questions one comes to expect in the Islamic world, lyrical in his jabali Arabic. “Are you religious? Do you have a wife? Children?” He is kind, curious and I am just as curious as he. I want to learn from him.

Between cups of sweet, red tea and fistfuls of potato and khobz, he tells us stories of the mountains. Our objective on the morrow is the north face of Mashanig, so Mashanig is foremost on our minds. In his rich Soqotri Arabic, Abdullah tells the story of the mountain’s origins, a single peak struck in two by a bolt of lightning.

Many years ago, he recounts, an old Bedouin woman named Naziyeh carried her baby to the base of the mountain and suspended a cradle between the two peaks. The child, Nazouzeh, grew to become a fearless man, unphased by the dangers of the mountain. When as a shepherd, his herd of cattle ceased to eat the grasses beneath the mountain, Nazouzeh carried his cows, climbing one-handed to the summit of Mashanig in order that they could feast on the fresh grasses there. After this, the story goes, with superhuman strength, Nazouzeh toppled a pillar of rock from the mountainside to make a bridge between the twin peaks, known as Mishifo (Soqotri: مشفو, literally “bridge”) so that his mother, Naziyeh, could milk the cattle from the col between the two peaks. Every few days thereafter Nazouzeh would return to the summit and take a cow down to be milked by his mother.

In 2011, when Mashanig was first summited by Mike Libecki, an accomplished American climber known for his exploratory ascents of remote big walls, he and his partner discovered a mysterious rock cairn. After the lichen between each stone was dated to be hundreds of years old Libecki concluded that either the cairn was placed by a real historical Sinbad (after being abducted by the Rokh) or a pre-modern shepherd must have scaled the peak. The rock pile as one shepherd, Abu Maryam, would later surmise, may have been the remnants of an old retaining wall, constructed to keep the cattle from wandering off the precipitous mountainside. With the tale of Nazouzeh and Naziyeh now coming from the mouths of the shepherds, the mystery of Mashanig became all the more captivating.

We leave with Fahad, the local guide, early the next morning and Abdullah, awaking to eat the small green fruits dropped from a sheger during the night shouts out to us. “Yallah!” he says. “Be safe! Dangerous there!”

We ply our way amongst the boulders upstream and before long we stare up at our objective – the unclimbed north face of Mashanig – an ever-steepening wall intercut with networks of cracks and tree-choked ledges. We waste no time with roping up.

A light daypack for the leader, filled with sachets of energy gel and an alpine climbing pack for the follower, replete with all the luxuries – water, rain jackets and an emergency space blanket (just in case). Ben leads away. He charges up a bushy chimney to gain the sleek stone above. We move efficiently for the first three pitches or so, route-finding quickly, following the path of least resistance up the north face. We swing leads one-for-one, and while Ben seems to get the crux pitches, I always seem to end up with the strange wandering traverses, zig-zagging and balancing my way between ledgelets.

The opening pitches of our new route. The Young-Elliott Route, Nth Face of Mashanig. 350m, 5.11 (or 5.10+ A1)

The opening pitches of our new route. The Young-Elliott Route, Nth Face of Mashanig. 350m, 5.11 (or 5.10+ A1)

Some way up the face, I pause at the base of a long line of rooves, pulling Ben up as I spy a line through. A crack is visible to gain a little ledge and after that the climbing appears to relent. The clouds swill around us. The weather is turning against us. Time is running out. We need to get through the difficult climbing as soon as we can. Ben storms up to the roof. At the crux he plants a left foot high, commits for a reachy handhold, misses, and takes a fall, a long arching plunge back to a ledge at half height. He pulls on a cam to save time, unholstering his aid ladders to mount the ledge above.

Ben unlocking the crux pitch with alpine aiders. I freed the pitch on second at 5.11.

Ben unlocking the crux pitch with alpine aiders. I freed the pitch on second at 5.11.

A few hours later we exit the face and move up the last pitches of the east ridge towards the summit. We are running out of daylight. Time gnaws at the hems of our cotton t-shirts. I route-find into a south-facing corner and mind’s eye a route to the top. A squeeze chimney, a few tricky mantles and we begin simul-climbing, chewing up terrain by climbing together, roped but not on belay. But as the rock tower goes on, the hours melange together and we know that tonight will not be a night spent sharing stories with shepherds back at camp.

We have been simul-climbing for many pitches now, chewing up terrain in a desperate bid to summit before dark.

I reach the top of another pitch and fiddle a tiny sliver of wire aluminum into a crack, cobbling together a hasty belay. The wind howls. The clouds hang heavy with rain. The rock becomes slick. Ben seems not to have moved very far and I am taking in only very little amounts of rope. I begin shouting into the wind, hoping he will hear something, urging him to climb faster. I hear a response – a few syllables, garbled amidst the roar.

Finally, he reaches me at the belay and we have just two short pitches to go. I cruise my pitch and he burns through, charging up a corner, slab and the last few metres to the summit. We’ve arrived. My watch says it’s sunset, but with the clouds all-surrounding, we won’t see anything. The howling wind is heightened by the folds in the granite. Acoustics in our alpine opera house.

Uponed by cloud after gaining the East Ridge

Uponed by cloud after gaining the East Ridge

When he finally reaches me at the belay we have just two short pitches to go. I cruise my pitch and he burns through, charging up a corner, slab and the last few metres to the summit. We are there… We are finally there. From lookng at the time I know it is sunset, but with the clouds completely over us, we would never know it. The clouds swirl darkly with the gathering night and the wind howls around us – the roar heightened by the folds of the granite like the acoustics in an opera house.

We contemplate the descent. The rappels. The boulder-hopping back to camp. Somehow, Ben has forgotten his head torch. “Without light, progress stops”. We aren’t going anywhere. We settle in for a cold one. It is often said that there is no sleep in an open bivy – only suffering. Indeed, when your perch is the summit of a granite spire in a mountain range in the middle of the Indian ocean and all you have to sleep in is a rain jacket, the skin of an ultra-lite backpack pulled over your legs, a space blanket between two and rocks and a wet rope for pillows, sleep seems an anathema – a diametric opposite to the cold, discomfort, fear and doubt that only a bivouacee can know. But sleep, like the wind and clouds circling round the tops comes and it goes.

Sometimes I awake to a cloudless sky filled with stars and the glimmering lights of Hadibo and Qlansiyet, far away and below. Other times I awake to a grey darkness and a bitter chill – the wind making a crackling sail out of our moonlessly-silver space blanket, threatening to blow everything away. We to and fro against the cold, spooning where no man has spooned before. A part of me hates the bivouac. But a part of me knows that the bivouac is crucial to the experience – the cold, long hours of a red-eyed night marking the difference between leisure and adventure. Ivano Ghirardini, the great soloist, called it “the essential ingredient”.

Summit of Mashanig and the highest point of Soqotra. The mysterious cairn behind (first documented by Mike Libecki on the FA of the peak up the W Ridge) may have been placed by the mythical Naziyeh, a super-strong Bedouin shepherd who it is said carried his cows to the summit (a vertical rock tower) with one hand.

Summit of Mashanig and the highest point of Soqotra. The mysterious cairn behind (first documented by Mike Libecki on the FA of the peak up the W Ridge) may have been placed by the mythical Naziyeh, a super-strong Bedouin shepherd who it is said carried his cows to the summit (a vertical rock tower) with one hand.

As Ben uncoils the rope to wrap around his legs, I settle in for a cool night on the summit of Mashanig

As Ben uncoils the rope to wrap around his legs, I settle in for a cool night on the summit of Mashanig

The night winds on and then, verily, it is over – first light uponing us. We take off in the early morning, locating some old rappel anchors. Back at the col on the east ridge we run a rope between us and down-climb an exposed gully into the gray depression. We wade through bushes, encircle a boulder and traverse across a slab for a clean run to the ground. On our way downwards. Ever downwards. The time has come to return to the World of Man. Down. Down. Down. Finally earth.

The harness come off, the ropes go away and a bag of fruit emerges from our cache. A pair of oranges are swallowed almost whole, plastic bag and all.

Going down

Going down.





And down

And down

And finally down

And finally down

Issa has picked his way upstream to see what had happened to us when we didn’t return last night. He worried through the night and expecting this when the skies were clear this morning I made a point to shine my headtorch towards what looked like the red glow of a campfire far and away below. He says he saw the glimmer of light amongst the swirling clouds and this makes me happy. Issa guides us down the river boulders back to camp, the clock striking midday.

When we arrive at the little glen by a tiny stream, an old Soqotri shepherd, black bearded, donning a red keffiye and blue furtah looks at me and begins speaking in fast, colloqiual Arabic as if no one else in the world could possibly speak something different.

Rohteh ila al’jebel?” he asks. “Mashanig?”

“Ah,” I nod.

Nazalna ala al-qemet khalal al-leel,” I say, miming the half-sleep of the night before and the wind-blasted cold. “You climbed the mountain? From bottom to top? Khatr. Dangerous. Keyf? How?”

Bil-aqdam min tehet we bil-hebel min fewq,” I say. By hands and feet on the way up and by rope on the way down.

His lips purse thoughtfully between sips of hot cinnammon tea, taken fresh from a boiling kettle. “Leysh?” He asks. “Why?”

I shrug, knowing not the answer and begin shovelling handfuls of rice, meat and olives into my mouth, happy at last to be back at camp.


Apres-climb meal. Freshly-slaughtered goat for dinner!

Testing the strength of an aharia branch

Testing the strength of an aharia branch

Dragon's blood trees (Soqotri: Aharia) are difficult to age as they are pulpy with no concentric rings inside. Instead botanists measure age using the number of branches, a few other features and a complex algebraic formula

Dragon’s blood trees (Soqotri: Aharia) are difficult to age as they are pulpy with no concentric rings inside. Instead botanists measure age using the number of branches, a few other features and a complex algebraic formula

Have you ever abseiled off a dragon's blood tree?

Have you ever abseiled off a dragon’s blood tree?

The North Face of Mashanig (the higher of the twin peaks on the right) at sunset. A storied peak in the oral traditions of the Soqotri Bedouin. Our line begins on the bottom right of the face, moving up and left to finish up the East Ridge just above the shoulder.

The North Face of Mashanig (the higher of the twin peaks on the right) at sunset. A storied peak in the oral traditions of the Soqotri Bedouin.
Our line begins on the bottom right of the face, moving up and left to finish up the East Ridge just above the shoulder.

Stay Calm but Be Afraid: On Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

A few weeks ago I published a long-winded rant about why the West should embark on a military campaign to unseat the Islamic State from its current rabbit’s warren (just to add another buzzword to the list of “safehaven”/“hotbed”/”breeding ground”/”Tora Bora” synonyms) in the Middle East. Within a fortnight this had magically happened.

Western special operations forces already operating on the ground in Iraq and Syria were thence declared forces, Royal Australian Air Force assets were re-assigned to the MEAO and military partnering has begun with the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi military. The good fight appears to be being fought. The very latest developments in the Middle East appear to be promising.

laser guided

Coming to a Muslim-majority country near you

The very latest developments on the home front, however, appear to be the exact opposite. In the wake of a speight of brutal beheadings conducted by ISIS against Western citizens in Syria and Iraq, groups of copycat Islamists and disturbed “lone wolves” have begun plotting similarly-styled acts of violence elsewhere throughout the world.

A beheading of a talented French mountain guide by a group of ISIS fan-boys calling themselves “Jund Al-Khilafah” (Soldiers of the Caliphate) was carried out in a usually-more urbane part of Algeria; an Australian soldier was attacked by unknown assailants in Sydney; and a bomb/beheading/baddie plot was unveiled in a string of counter-terror raids in Brisbane.

The response to the proliferation of ISIS’ methods and ideas in the West has been swift and decisive. Counter-terrorism operations have been stepped up a notch, new legislation has been introduced in parliament to give more powers to the counter-terrorism services and many of these services, particularly policing and intelligence services, have embarked on a media blitz publicising details of every terrorism-related raid in the past fortnight. ASIO and the AFP are at the forefront of the domestic push against Islamist extremism. Overseas too, the war against ISIS carries on.

The secret world is a vital component in the fight against violent Islamist extremism. This is indisputable. The ability for special forces and intelligence agencies to utilise selective violence in a secret manner (or pseudo-secret manner if we look at the Bin Laden raid in Abottobad as an example of what over-publicised secrecy actually means today) is crucial to ultimately purging the world of Islamist extremism.

Unfortunately however, while in a perfect world, the extremist problem would be a problem that the West could kill its way out of, this war is a war against an idea and, as history has shown, ideas can be very hard to kill. Herein lies the problem, and here too also lies the reason why this war seems not to have shifted much in either direction for the last thirteen years.
Most people are probably aware that ideas (and not just political ideas) can be very contagious. Indeed, as even Hollywood has caught on with Leonardo di Caprio’s highly cerebral comment in the movie “Inception”: “the most resilient parasite is an idea”. The waves of political change throughout history are driven by the rolling spring tides of new and infectious ideas. One man’s “dream” paves the way for another man’s presidency; a German sociologist writes a treatise that sparks a revolution in Russia; videos about some strange Pied Piper of child soldiers in Uganda go “viral” on Youtube and idealistic edicts about jihad and the ummah cause young men in the West to go and fight for a violent terrorist group in Iraq.

This is what the biologist Richard Dawkins was talking about when he coined the term “meme” which he conceived of, borrowing from evolutionary theory, as any cultural idea which might be considered a “replicator” – something which creates copies of itself in suitable environments.
Clearly, some of ISIS’ ideas and activities have struck a chord with groups and individuals outside of Iraq and Syria. Influenced by its emancipatory and pseudo-religious rhetoric, young Muslim men in the West are now beginning to answer the call to arms. ISIS has become a meme. In turn, Western governments like ours here in Australia have embarked on hard-hitting operations to root out these individuals and lock them away.

All of this makes for a great news story, and media organisations, as they must (for the function of the media is the reporting of a story), have lapped it up like kittens at the milk bowl. Suddenly, Australian public discourse is now dominated by “the ISIS threat”, by images of Westerners being beheaded in faraway Syria; by police raids in Brisbane and Sydney and declarations by prominent politicians regarding the presumed guilt or innocence of those facing terrorism charges.
While ISIS’ ideas are catching on with misinformed young men the world over, the current media cycle is causing another idea to catch on in the non-Muslim Western population.

Indeed, what this constant news reportage and speight of police press meetings does is reinforce the idea (shall we call it a “meme”) that 1.) “modern terrorism is predominantly caused by people who are Muslim.” Empirically speaking, it is true that the majority of terrorist attacks today (at least in the context of a peacetime Western country) are caused by fighting aged males indoctrinated into a radical political permutation of the Islamic faith. As such, as long as we are careful to use the adverb “predominantly”, the above statement is probably true.
The second thing the TV-watching public is reminded of with the constant reportage of counter-terrorism operations is that 2.) “terrorism is a threat”. This also, is true. Acts of terrorism constitute a direct threat to the lives of civilians in the areas where these acts occur.
While, as noted, both statement 1 and 2 are correct, we can also see from the police’s recent media blitz how the general public can, when thinking about Muslim people and terrorism in the context of the above two truisms, arrive at a very dangerous type of conclusion which logicians call a “syllogistic fallacy”.
“What on earth is a ‘syllogism’?” You might ask. “And how does a syllogism end up becoming fallacious?” Well, I’m glad you asked.
A syllogism, according to a dead Greek guy named Aristotle is an argument that uses logical reasoning to arrive at a conclusion based on two or more propositions that are assumed to be true. To enlighten us, Aristotle gave the following example of a “syllogism”:

All men are mortal. (This is the first proposition called “The Major Premise”)
Socrates is a man. (This is the second proposition called “The Minor Premise”)
Therefore Socrates is mortal. (This is the “Conclusion”)

This syllogism involves three terms (men, mortal and Socrates), which logicians will tell us is a prerequisite for a syllogism to be true. We might replace these three terms with the letters “A”, “B” or “C” just like swapping numbers for letters in high school algebra.
Thus, with Aristotle’s help we have the following structure.

The Major Premise: All A are B
The Minor Premise: C is the same as A
Conclusion: Therefore, all C are B

While the first syllogism about Socrates is true, if we ever-so-slightly tweak its wording we can end up with a syllogistic fallacy – a gross untruth or at the very least an unspecified truth. Let’s replace the word “all” with “some”, for example.
The Major Premise: Some men are mortal
The Minor Premise: Socrates is a man
Conclusion: Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
While you and I know that Socrates is (and was) mortal – the conclusion arrived at in this context is in fact unclear (it’s a syllogistic fallacy) because if the major premise is assumed to be true (that some but not necessarily all men are mortal) than Socrates’ mortality can neither be proved or disproved based on the information we have available.

A bit confusing? Well deal with it, because this is exactly what is wrong with the whole “Muslim-Terrorist” equivocation in the public imagination.

For starters, let’s take A, B and C, replace them with terms like “terrorism”, “threat” and “Muslim” and then, like dirty laundry in the wash, put them through a logical spin cycle and wait till the machine regurgitates them all twisted up. What is likely to occur if the media-police machine keeps on spinning in its current cycle (the cycle of mixing and mashing imagery of Australian Muslims, ISIS beheadings and counter-terror raids) is the emergence of a syllogistic fallacy in Australian public opinion.
The Major Premise: Some Muslims are Terrorists
The Minor Premise: The Man is a Muslim
Conclusion: Therefore, The Man is a Terrorist
Most people of reasonable intelligence can immediately see the syllogistic fallacy being employed here. The major premise explicitly uses the word “some” and yet the person has jumped to a false conclusion. The threat that this syllogistic fallacy poses to public law and order (in the form of new Cronulla-style race riots or tit-for-tat backlash between Muslims and Anglo-Saxon Australians) is the reason why Tony Abbott constantly reminds us on television (immediately after a counter-terrorism raid is made public) that “not all Muslims are terrorists”. People need to know that only some Muslims are terrorists because otherwise bad things would happen.
With the insertion of a 24 hour media cycle flashing words like “terror plot revealed” or “mosque raid” on our TV screens the public is constantly reminded that terrorist attacks are being planned by Muslims. The two terms are epileptically-flickered, transposed and ultimately confused until we end up with an even more dangerous fallacy which logicians might call a “fallacy of the illicit minor”. The fallacy is structured as follows:
The Major Premise: Terrorism is a threat
The Minor Premise: Terrorism is committed by Muslim people
Conclusion: Therefore, all Muslim people are a threat

Why is this conclusion and our thinking about Muslim people wrong? Because while the major and minor premises are correct, the conclusion is wrong because the minor term “Muslim people” is undistributed in the minor premise but distributed in the conclusion. That is to say, the conclusion refers to “all Muslim people” but the minor premise refers only to a vague, ill-defined and selective group of Muslim people who are committing the terrorist acts.
An anti-government conspiracy theorist using the format of “the ilicit minor” might look at the above media laundry cycle and, in tying it to some insidious plot being brewed up in the Orwellian dungeons of ASIO, start believing similar falsehoods:
The Major Premise: Conspiracies are evil
The Minor Premise: Conspiracies are committed by governments
Conclusion: The Government is evil
In this context, the minor premise talks about “governments” (that is, some and not all governments) so there is no proof for arriving at the conclusion that “The Government” – that is, this particular Government – is necessarily evil.
Finally, the fallacy of the illicit minor is also seen being employed by the at-risk demographic that is most affected by this media hoo-hah – the young, socially-aware Muslim male looking at the recent mayhem – the publicised raids, the trials by media and the inferences being made when the terms “terrorism” and “Muslim” are included in the same sentence in “breaking news” headlines. He too arrives at his own conclusion driven by a similar fallacy.
The Major Premise: Targeting Muslims is unjust
The Minor Premise: Police and the media are targeting Muslims
Conclusion: The police are unjust.
Here, we can probably guess what would happen to ISIS’ recruitment numbers if this easy-to-arrive-at syllogistic fallacy continues to be reinforced again and again.
It is perhaps necessary to emphasise that all of the above syllogisms are categorically false and their falseness stems from the absence of the word “all” in the minor premise (the first phrase doesn’t say “terrorism is committed by all Muslim people” nor does the last syllogism’s minor premise indicated that “all” Muslims are being targeted by police). But often the problem with syllogistic fallacies is that, at first glance, they often seem to make perfect sense, despite their inherent falseness.
When most people think really hard about it, they are fully aware that the idea that “all Muslims are terrorists” is false. There are 1.6 billion Muslims on Earth and the number of people involved in terrorism is, quite obviously, far less than that. But when press releases from police commissioners, from politicians and from attorney-generals are constantly updating the public about every minutiae of a particular counter-terrorist raid then it is easy to see how Islamophobia can become memetic in a hyper-aware, over-the-shoulder-looking public.
The unfortunate thing here is that with an increase in reportage about the latest “Muslim” bomb plot we are likely to see an increase in retaliatory violence targeted against Muslims. We are also likely to see an increase in young Western Muslims going overseas to participate in brutal, bloody conflicts. Any demand for the public to “remain calm” will have little influence as the media barrage increases.
While the violent ideology of the Islamic State is memetically replicating itself amongst disaffected Muslim youth in the Western world, we are seeing, in turn, the memetic replication of Islamophobia in the Western world as a response to this. This, in turn, creates more disenfranchised Muslim youth prepared to travel to Syraq to fight in the jihad which, in turn (again), fuels further anti-Muslim sentiment. Thus we see the formation of a vicious cycle, or, as I would term it, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the legislative domain, we see the emergence of a parliamentary push for greater powers for intelligence and police agencies. More than likely, ASIO and the police are pushing hard for these powers in the wake of the ISIS threat and are using these publicised raids to drive public opinion for the desired new powers in their favour.
It’s not necessarily conspiracy theory-esque to arrive at this conclusion either. If an organisation working in the interests of a public good wants more of something, it publicises its good works and then is rewarded with more of that something. ASIO and the police want more powers (and likely more money) to conduct domestic counter-terrorism operations.

It follows, therefore, that by publicising their counter-terrorism successes they will be given more powers (and $$$). The irony is that by publicising a raid, these government organisations are effectively negating the gains made by the raid. By publicising a raid, the police are unintentionally (through the media) reinforcing the Islamophobic syllogism being made by the public which leads to more hatred against Muslims and ultimately more angry Muslims.
Which leads us to our final syllogistic fallacy, the fallacy being committed by the government agencies involved in the fight against domestic terrorism. The structure of this fallacy is as follows:

Major Premise: Terrorists plots make people afraid.
Minor Premise: The government must keep the people calm.
Conclusion: Publicising terror plots will keep the people calm.
The police and intelligence organisations have worked long and hard to maintain a veil of secrecy by arguing that if the public were to get a hold of some of the details of these operations, the operations themselves would be compromised. Ironically however, the police, while arguing that the parliament should give them greater powers and greater secrecy, have in publicising the details of their own operations, compromised the efficacy of these operations.
The use of secrecy is necessary in the fight against Islamist extremism. The police and intelligence organisations should make the most of this hard-won secrecy. Maybe they should button-up a bit more.