Colum McCann: American Mother

35 min listen

My guest on this week’s Book Club podcast is the award-winning novelist Colum McCann, whose new book takes him out of the territory of fiction and into something slightly different. American Mother is written in collaboration with Diane Foley, mother of Jim Foley, the journalist killed by ISIS in Syria in 2014. He tells me how he came to reinvent himself as (not quite) a ghostwriter, why he thinks you can use the tools of the fiction-writer to get at journalistic truth, and about what it was like to sit in the room with Diane Foley and the man who murdered her son.

Isis is wreaking havoc in Afghanistan

The bomb tore through an examination hall in Kabul on Friday, where students – mostly minority Hazara, mostly young women – were sitting a practice test in preparation for university. Thirty-five were killed, dozens more injured. An unspeakable human tragedy. We don’t formally know who did it, but we can guess. Under the Taliban’s leadership, Afghanistan is a haven for terrorists. And the terrorists compete. The Taliban is, in my judgement, indistinguishable from al-Qaeda. Its eyes are still firmly placed on international terrorism: a campaign of domestic terror within Afghanistan against ‘enemies within’ – be they former members of the internationally-recognised Afghan government, or religious minorities, or campaigners for liberty

Is Christianity about to end in the place it began?

Janine di Giovanni’s book begins in a Paris apartment during the first lockdown. She’s at a friend’s home, which she leaves for the odd shopping trip wearing a homemade mask and rubber kitchen gloves. Covid has made her anxious and she worries that we may lose things about our way of life forever. They need to be written down so we don’t forget. As she thinks about how her faith has comforted her during the pandemic she decides to tell the story of Christians in the Middle East who have experienced troubles of a different kind. She feels that Christianity is vanishing there, and if we don’t make a record

Don’t be fooled: the Taliban hasn’t changed its spots

Has the Taliban really changed its spots? Those who advocate talking to the Taliban make the case that they have. The organisation, they say, has recognised the mistakes it made in the years culminating in 9/11. Others claim that the organisation is now committed to local and national aims, not international terrorism, and that the Taliban have – or can be moderated – via the tool of engagement. All of these approaches seem to share the view there is a disconnect between the west’s reaction to events in Afghanistan, and the reality. But is this really the case?  Pakistan’s national security adviser, Dr Moeed W Yusuf, has suggested the time has come to

Britain isn’t ready for the next wave of returning jihadis

Ever since British jihadists flocked to join Isis in Iraq and Syria, the government has attempted to keep the terrorists away by killing them on the battlefield and stripping the survivors of their citizenship. Those who have slipped through the net and made it back home have faced mandatory deradicalisation programs, or – in the most extreme cases – constant surveillance. But this costly, ineffective strategy has prioritised the rights and freedoms of returning jihadists over the safety of innocent people. And the approach is now likely to face another test, as the 425 or so Isis fighters and spouses who have returned are expected to be joined by their former twisted

Looks lovely if nothing else: Craig and Bruno’s Great British Road Trips reviewed

To its huge credit, ITV has managed to find perhaps the last two television celebrities who’ve never before been filmed travelling around Britain while exchanging light banter and using the word ‘iconic’ a lot. In Craig and Bruno’s Great British Road Trips, the Strictly judges are driving a Union flag-bedecked Mini through such telegenic staples of heart-warming TV dramas as the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the Scottish Highlands. For the opening episode, the choice fell on the Cornish coast, which certainly helped the programme achieve its primary aim of looking lovely. But this, as it transpired, was just as well — because for a fair amount of the

The Afghan withdrawal will only embolden the West’s enemies

‘How many thousands more Americans, daughters and sons, were you willing to risk?’ Biden asked critics of the decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan last week. He has the support of the American public – most of whom also wanted to see troops leave Afghanistan after 20 years of fighting and 2,400 fatalities. This risk aversion is one of the reasons America decided to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. There’s a diminished appetite in the US for prolonged military involvement in the Middle East, especially large-scale deployments of ground troops that inadvertently cost lives. In the UK, the Ministry of Defence’s integrated review, which advocates reducing the size of the

Boko Haram’s demise will only strengthen Isis in Africa

Multiple reports have confirmed that the Boko Haram chief Abubakar Shekau is dead. Shekau’s demise came after Boko Haram last week clashed with Isis in Sambisa forest in northeast Nigeria. Some reports suggested that the Boko Haram leader detonated a suicide vest rather than be captured by the Isis militants. Isis’s West African Province (ISWAP) is often characterised as being under the Boko Haram umbrella, but the two factions have become deadly rivals in the region. And with terror engulfing the continent, along with the rise of an African Islamic State, it is Isis that is now the beneficiary of Shekau’s death. In 2009, Shekau took over the group founded

How terror took over the African continent

Eight law enforcement officials, including three policemen and five members of a local anti-jihadist force, were killed in a jihadist attack in Burkina Faso on Tuesday. Jihadist raids on two military bases in Somalia, using suicide car bombers, killed 23 on Saturday. On Friday, South Africa decided to deploy its troops in bordering Mozambique, days after Islamist militants took over the town of Palma, killing dozens of locals and forcing thousands to flee. The past week is only a sample of the jihadist peril currently engulfing Africa. These terror attacks reaffirm the growing strength of the world’s deadliest jihadist groups, including al-Shabaab, Isis, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and their affiliates. The

Isis’s weakness is now its strength

As coronavirus swept the globe a year ago, Isis began issuing pronouncements. ‘God, by his will, sent a punishment to the tyrants of this time and their followers,’ said one such; ‘we are pleased about this punishment from God for you.’ With the world on lockdown, Isis followers were urged not to sit around at home but to ‘raid the places’ of the enemies of God. ‘Don’t let a single day pass without making their lives awful.’ The virus might have begun as God’s punishment to China for persecuting the Uighurs but, as one Isis video put it, the pandemic was a chance to attack Americans, Europeans, Australians and Canadians.

How can we save youngsters from getting radicalised?

Arrests for terrorist-related activity give a worrying insight into the rate at which young people are being targeted and radicalised. All age groups witnessed a fall in terror-related arrests for the year ending September 2020, except for one: those under eighteen, which doubled to account for eight (and subsequently 10) per cent of all such arrests. This is the highest proportion ever seen in any annual period to date. We also know that, all too often, the friends and relatives of those who are in danger of becoming radicalised are failing to act on their concerns. Referrals to Prevent, which aims to ‘stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism’, saw

Why is it so difficult to prosecute female terrorists?

For decades, terrorist organisations have targeted women for recruitment. Deployed as suicide bombers for Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Tamil Tigers, and Hamas – to name but a few – women have also died serving in frontline roles. Yet we are now faced with a new group of female terrorists that are proving difficult to prosecute. These are the women who joined Isis and now want to return home, often with their children in tow. New pictures of Shamima Begum, released this week, serve to underscore this point. Begum’s story captivated the British public when she left the UK with her two friends to join Islamic State in 2015, aged

We shouldn’t forget the horrific crimes of Isis returnees

Summer 2015. A five-year-old girl is chained up and left outside in the desert sun in Fallujah, Iraq – a punishment for wetting the bed while feeling unwell. The little girl slowly died of thirst in temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius. Condemned to the same inhumane punishment was the girl’s mother, made to endure the additional and unimaginable horror of helplessly watching the life drain from her daughter’s tiny body. The mother and child were members of Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority. Their captors, members of Islamic State (IS), are said to be German and Iraqi. At the time, Islamic State recruits felt invincible. They taunted the West and ruled over

The twisted logic of Shamima Begum’s defenders

Shamima Begum is back in the news. Firstly because she’s had a makeover. She can be seen on the front page of today’s Telegraph sporting long, flowing locks, trendy shades and Western clothing. Is Shamima the Islamist now aspiring to be Shamima the celeb? Perhaps she’s angling for her own reality TV show: The Real Housewives of Raqqa. But the second reason she’s in the news is because the British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor has expressed sympathy for her. He says she’s a victim of British racism. I really wish Sir Anish would stick to what he’s (very) good at — public art installations — and leave the Shamima business alone.

Relative values: how extremism spreads through families

Isis supporter Sahayb Abu has been convicted of plotting a sword attack on the streets of Britain. But the 27-year-old isn’t the only member of his family who has succumbed to extremist ideology. In 2015, two of Abu’s half-brothers joined Isis in Syria; both are believed to have died in the fighting. In 2018, another half-brother Ahmed Aweys and half-sister Asma Aweys and her partner were jailed for terror offences, including sharing Isis material in a family chat group The case of Abu is just one of a number in the UK in recent years which have seen multiple family members committing terrorist offences together, or who have committed separate

Shamima Begum is not a victim

A dark cloud hangs over the Al Hol Camp where Shamima Begum is being held in North-Eastern Syria. She is said to be ‘angry and upset’ at the decision of the Supreme Court to not allow her to return to the UK to contest the loss of her citizenship. This bleak picture stands in stark contrast to the feelings of the vast majority of the British public that will be raising a toast to the Supreme Court and thanking them for putting their interests ahead of an ISIS terrorist.  Ever since Shamima Begum was ‘discovered’ in a Syrian Democratic Force holding camp by the Times Journalist Anthony Lloyd, the UK

Denying Shamima Begum a return to Britain could backfire

Today’s decision by the Supreme Court to prevent Shamima Begum from returning to the UK and mounting a legal challenge to the removal of her citizenship sends a strong message to other hopeful Isis returnees. But it might not be a victory in every sense. Begum’s return to the UK was described by the Home Office as a move that would create ‘significant national security risks’. The government argued that it would expose the British public to an ‘increased risk of terrorism’. They’re right to do so. We know that just one in ten Isis returnees have faced prosecution. The challenges faced by authorities investigating offences committed in overseas conflict zones, such as

James Forsyth

Shamima Begum’s citizenship should never have been taken away

The Supreme Court has today upheld the ban on Shamima Begum returning to this country to contest the Home Secretary’s decision to strip her of her citizenship. The judges ruled that her right to a fair hearing did not trump national security considerations. But Begum should never have been stripped of her citizenship in the first place. She was born in this country, grew up here and was educated here. This makes her British. To pretend otherwise is absurd. Stripping her of her citizenship allows us to ignore the fact that someone from this country – a liberal democracy with the rule of law – went to live in a self-proclaimed caliphate

A high-end car-boot sale of the unconscious: Colnaghi’s Dreamsongs reviewed

In 1772 the 15-year-old Mozart wrote a one-act opera set, like The Magic Flute, in a dream world. Il sogno di Scipione was based on an account in Cicero’s Republic of a dream experienced by the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus while serving in North Africa in 148 BC. In the dream the younger Scipio is visited by his adoptive grandfather Scipio Africanus, who foretells his destruction of Carthage, dishes out advice on dealing with populist politics and shows him ‘the stars such as we have never seen them from this earth’. Scipio’s is a recurring dream: it inspired Dante’s vision of Heaven and Hell and it returns to haunt us

Macer Gifford: My fight against Isis

In mid 2015, Macer Gifford, the City trader who went to Syria to fight Isis, got an unexpected phone call. He was in London for a break and busy doing media interviews as the unofficial spokesman for the Kurdish YPG militia. The caller, though, wasn’t just another hack after a quote. Instead, it was a lawyer whose client was on the ‘other side’. Tasnime Akunjee said he was working for the family of Shamima Begum, the teenager from Bethnal Green who had run away to join Isis. ‘He said they were looking at trying to get her out of Raqqa,’ remembers Gifford. ‘He asked if there was any way the