war on the rocks

The Tunisia Attack and Cameron’s Phony War Against the Islamic State

July 13, 2015

On June 26, 2015, Seifeddine Rezgui shot and killed 38 tourists, 30 of them British, in a resort in Tunisia before he was himself killed by local police. The attack was the second-worst terrorist attack against British citizens, behind the July 7, 2005 attacks in London, which had killed 52 civilians. Targeting European holiday-makers, the attack recalled the infamous al Qaeda attack in Bali in 2002, which killed 202 people. The strategic and political implications of the attack are likely to be significant, therefore.

However, one of the most interesting aspects of the attack was not the political, and still less the military, response of the United Kingdom to this atrocity, but rather Britain’s cultural and specifically lapidary response. How did Britain choose to honor and memorialize the victims?

All of the victims were civilian tourists, but the bodies were transported back by the military. They were carried on a Royal Air Force (RAF) C-17 to RAF Brize Norton in the United Kingdom. On arrival, each coffin was carried from the aircraft by a military honor guard to a cortege of awaiting hearses which drove solemnly away, escorted by police outriders along streets lined with the public.

The use of the RAF to repatriate the dead from Tunisia was at one level plainly uncontroversial; it merely expedited their return to their families. The armed forces have often been employed in extremis to support the civilian powers, and the RAF’s role in returning the bodies seemed to be just another example of this use.

Yet, it would be difficult to miss the deliberate symbolism of the mortuary rites for the Tunisian victims. During the wars in Iraq and especially Afghanistan, the bodies of fallen service personnel had been returned to RAF Lyneham, simply because RAF Brize Norton did not have the capacity for repatriation. As a result, in order to reach the M4 motorway from RAF Lyneham, the hearses had to pass through the small, market town of Wootton Bassett. From 2006, initially entirely spontaneous, civilians in Wootton Bassett high street had stood in silent respect as the military corteges passed through the town. Very quickly, the observation of the corteges became a major commemorative ceremony. The corteges were paged by a cane-bearing funeral conductor while the streets were lined with hundreds of observers including the families of the repatriated soldiers and veteran associations who showered the hearses with flowers and lowered flags. As a result of the respect accorded to the fallen, Wootton Bassett was itself honored with the designation of “Royal” by the Queen in 2011. The ceremony at Wootton Bassett was a brief and poignant episode, but it has remained an intense memory in British national imagination. No Briton who watched the civilian coffins of the Tunisian victims driving slowly away from RAF Brize Norton could have failed to be reminded of the Afghan War, its 455 casualties, and Wootton Bassett.

Clearly, the murders in Tunisia were tragic — and outrageous — and some collective recognition of these civilian deaths was necessary. Yet, the conflation of military and civilian deaths, observable last week, was both surprising and unwise.

First, but perhaps least important, by imitating the lapidary ceremonies of the Afghan war, the deaths of civilian tourists who were the victims of a gunman while relaxing on holiday have been equated with the combat deaths of military personnel who have volunteered for military service and chosen to put themselves in danger on military operations. The militarization of the Tunisian deaths potentially denigrates the sacrifice of service personnel and the strategic objectives they died pursuing in Afghanistan. At worst, it reduces soldiers to victims. At best, it confuses the two categories.

Yet, there is a potentially far more serious implication. By militarizing the victims of the Sousse massacre, the United Kingdom have implicitly accorded Rezgui the status of a warrior and dignified his terrorist attack as an act of war. The symbolism of their repatriation tells us the civilians who died at Sousse were not so much murder victims but were rather casualties in a war, no less than those soldiers who were killed in Helmand by the Taliban. Indeed, following the attack, David Cameron, the prime minister, described the Islamic State as “an existential threat” to the United Kingdom. Cameron seemed to be drawing on a Huntingtonian idea of a clash of civilizations; for him, the victims of Sousse were battle casualties in a global war of values. Indeed, in response to this threat, he declared that the powers of the security forces would be enhanced, and that the United Kingdom would “deal with the security threat at source” and, crucially, would be “stronger at standing up for our values.”

In light of these comments, the British government’s decision not just to use the RAF to repatriate the victims of Sousse, but specifically to accord them honors reserved for soldiers, seems to have been no accident. The funereal ceremonies at Brize Norton signified that, in this “war,” civilians are as much on the frontline as soldiers.

There is no doubt that the so-called Islamic State represents a serious threat to the geo-political order of the Middle East. Islamic fundamentalism has also established itself as the most serious current internal threat to Western states. Groups claiming affiliation to al Qaeda or the Islamic State have committed the largest and most spectacular terrorist attacks — not only in the United Kingdom but also in Spain, Italy and France — in the last decade. The threat is serious. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to describe the struggle against small groups of Islamic extremists, many acting alone as rogue attackers, as a war.

Indeed, even if the threat posed by these groups coalesced into a coherent insurgent or terrorist movement with clear political goals, it would be unwise to conceive of the conflict with them as a war. It is surprising that the United Kingdom, having been involved in a long struggle against the Irish Republican Army (IRA), should have made this mistake. Cameron’s declaration of war ignores a central lesson of that campaign.

The British approach to the IRA threat in the early 1970s had been badly misconceived and over-militarized. These policies were gradually revised. Notably, from 1979, Margaret Thatcher rejected the claims of IRA prisoners held in the Maze prison that they were combatants in a war against the British state who deserved prisoner-of-war status. She insisted that they were criminals and would be subjected to the same penal system as any other convicted inmates in British prisons. In the short term, her legendary intransigence provoked dirty protests, hunger strikes, and political unrest but it demonstrated to the IRA that they could not defeat the British government militarily or even be acknowledged as military actors. This approach played a significant role in the ending the Troubles — and ultimately in achieving the Good Friday Agreement.

David Cameron has adopted a quite different strategy to his Conservative predecessor. Paradoxically, while declaring an existential war against Islamic fundamentalism, he has refused to commit any more forces even to the operation against the Islamic State. The United Kingdom has currently committed only six Tornadoes to the international effort against the group — the same number as the Netherlands, a country with less than a third of Britain’s gross domestic product and about a quarter of its population. The Cameron government has limited military strikes to Iraq, even though the Islamic State does not recognize the Syrian border. With the militarized repatriation of the victims of Sousse, Cameron has unwisely announced a war against a diffuse terrorist movement while simultaneously refusing to commit the United Kingdom to an actual war against the Islamic State where it actually holds territory.

It is a double failure; he is fighting a phony war on two fronts.


Anthony King is a professor of sociology at the University of Exeter. His most recent publications are The Transformation of Europe’s Armed Forces: from the Rhine to Afghanistan (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and The Combat Soldier: infantry tactics and cohesion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Oxford University Press, 2013). His new edited book, Frontline: combat and cohesion in the twenty-first century (Oxford University Press, 2015) is out in August. He is currently working on the evolution of the divisional headquarters from the First World War to the present.


Photo credit: Mark Harkin