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Terror

RT is not TV. It is Russia today.

Monday, 3 March, 2014 0 Comments

Early in his presidency, the ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin took control of Russian television, forcing out the media magnates Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, taking over their channels and creating a climate of fear and sycophancy in which his actions are always praised and never criticized. He is now attempting to do the same in a global fashion with a propaganda platform called RT, the abbreviation of Russia Today.

“Our team of young news professionals has made RT the first news channel to break the 1 billion YouTube views benchmark,” declares the Russia Today YouTube arm. Adding, “RT news covers the major issues of our time for viewers wishing to question more.” But “more” what? Well, RT specializes in presenting “truther” interpretations of the 9/11 terror attacks and it even ran a lengthy exploration called “911 reasons why 9/11 was (probably) an inside job”. Today, it is broadcasting bare-faced lies such as “675,000 Ukrainians pour into Russia as ‘humanitarian crisis’ looms” and “Tea, sandwiches, music, photos with self-defense forces mark peaceful Sunday in Simferopol.”

Having achieved absolute power within Russia, Putin has negated all hopes of making it a civil society, and he seems determined to reduce his neighbours to the same grim level. With the help of RT, he also wants to convince the world that every country is just as awful as Russia today.


The final tragedy of Philip Seymour Hoffman

Tuesday, 4 February, 2014 0 Comments

Ten days ago, Associated Press film writer Jessica Herndon spoke to Philip Seymour Hoffman in Park City, Utah, and here’s the opening sentence of her report: “Philip Seymour Hoffman’s new movie is a psychological thriller about terrorism, but he says it also has something to do with hitting a midlife crisis — and that’s what really drew him to the role.” The midlife crisis turned out to be more destructive than most of its kind and the actor was found dead on Sunday morning in his New York apartment, after a suspected drug overdose. He was 46.

The reason that Jessica Herndon interviewed Philip Seymour Hoffman in Park City was that his most recent film, A Most Wanted Man, had premiered at the Sundance Film Festival there. Hoffman plays a rogue German counter-terrorism expert, heading up an anti-terrorism team in Hamburg, the former home of the 9/11 hijackers. The film is based on John Le Carre’s 2008 thriller, which is marred by the author’s didacticism. The US has now replaced the USSR as the le Carré adversary of choice and his portrayal of Americans is too close to caricature to be considered seriously. It is a tragedy that this would turn out to be Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final serious film.


Shia and Sunni and the Thirty Years scenario

Monday, 27 January, 2014 0 Comments

“This is a conflict which is not only bigger than al-Qa’eda and similar groups, but far bigger than any of us. It is one which will re-align not only the Middle East, but the religion of Islam.” So writes Douglas Murray in the current issue of The Spectator in a piece titled “Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East’s 30 year war.” Murray contends that the slaughter in Syria is, in reality, a proxy war between Saudi and Iran, between the Shia and Sunni factions of Islam. “There are those who think that the region as a whole may be starting to go through something similar to what Europe went through in the early 17th century during the Thirty Years’ War, when Protestant and Catholic states battled it out,” he says, warning that the current savagery will be exceeded in barbarity when the “gloves come off.”

The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is sounding a similar alarm. “Religious difference, not ideology, will fuel this century’s epic battles” he claimed in yesterday’s Observer. Citing a “ghastly roll call of terror attacks” in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Russia, Burma, Thailand and the Philippines, he declares that these “are perpetrated by people motivated by an abuse of religion. It is a perversion of faith. But there is no doubt that those who commit the violence often do so by reference to their faith and the sectarian nature of the conflict is a sectarianism based on religion.”

If there is to be peace, we need to study faith and globalisation and agree on the place of religion in modern society. With this in mind, in collaboration with Harvard Divinity School, Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation, will launch a website later this year that will provide “up-to-date analysis of what is happening in the field of religion and conflict; in-depth analysis of religion and its impact on countries where this is a major challenge; and basic facts about the religious make-up and trends in every country worldwide.” It’s not a solution, but it is a sign and it’s a necessary sign because the latest Pew report on global religious Hostilities doesn’t make for pretty reading. “The sharpest increase was in the Middle East and North Africa, which still is feeling the effects of the 2010-11 political uprisings known as the Arab Spring.”

Meanwhile, a glance at the devastating history of the original Thirty Years’ War should encourage everyone to work to prevent a modern-day re-enactment.

War


Book of the Year: “Submergence” by J.M. Ledgard

Tuesday, 31 December, 2013 0 Comments

J.M. Ledgard leads a double life. As a journalist, he covers East Africa for The Economist, but he’s also a novelist and the multitasking narrator of Submergence, James More, reflects Ledgard’s twofold career. Ostensibly, he’s a water engineer based in Nairobi, but that’s just a cover for his activities as a British intelligence agent. When we meet him, he’s been captured by a Somalian affiliate of al-Qaeda, which keeps moving him back and forth across the bleak African terrain, trying to hide from American drones while planning jihad. James is sustained in his suffering by the memory of a brief affair in a hotel on the French Atlantic coast with Danielle Flinders, a brilliant and carnal bio-mathematician, who studies the luminous creatures of the ocean floor. As James sinks deeper into the desolation of his captivity, Danielle prepares for a dive that will take her to the extreme depths of the Atlantic. Submergence mixes language, science, politics, geography and love in a superb story about deserts, oceans, desire and terror.

Saif, the leader of the jihadist group, constantly talks of martyrdom. At one point, he says, “I expect to die soon. I welcome it. I expect you’ll be killed too. That is why I want you to convert to Islam.”
“No,” James said, firmly.

This exchange is followed by a truly extraordinary lyrical passage:

“There was no chance he would convert. It was not just a question of Islam, it was the way life was constructed. A man lived his threescore years and ten, less than a whale, less than a roughy fish, and the only way to come to terms with his mortality was to partake in something that would outlive him: a field cleared of stones, a piece of jewellery, a monument, a machine. Every man was a loyalist for what he knew. Even tramps fought for the tramping life. Life was too short for him to renounce the English parish church, once Catholic, with their knights’ tombs, prayer cushions, flower arrangements, the brass lectern in the shape of an eagle. No, the quiet of those places — the ancient front door, the graveyard, the meadow, the damp — gave him a sense of belonging. He was loyal to them. It was too late to abandon the English canon, from Chaucer to Dickens, the first World War poets, Graham Greene typing through the smog and the drizzle… He had said it before: he was an intelligence officer who reached out, spoke Arabic, read widely, but if the Crusades were invoked — and Saif was invoking them — then he was a Crusader. If he had to die at the hands of fanatics, he wished to remain familiar and coherent to those whom he loved and who loved him.”

J.M. Ledgard has partaken in something that will outlive him and he’s to be congratulated for writing such honest and moving prose. If, in 2014, we are to suffer pain and loss, let us remain familiar and coherent to those whom we love and who love us.

desert


Word of the Year: littoralization

Wednesday, 20 November, 2013 0 Comments

We have to admit that “selfie” is not just a more popular choice, but it’s also easier to spell than “littoralization”. The phenomenon of people snapping smartphone self-portraits and then uploading the photos to social media websites is very much in synch with our narcissist times and research shows that the frequency of “selfie” in English increased by 17,000 percent in the last year. By choosing “selfie”, the Oxford Dictionaries were reflecting the reality of a language that’s being driven by innovation.

And “littoralization”? It means the tendency of things to cluster on coastlines. Today, 80 percent of our planet’s population lives within 100 kilometres of a coastline, and of the world’s ten largest cities, all but two are on a coastline or a coastal delta. The term came to our attention when reading Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla by David Kilcullen, and he gives it a central role when explaining the origins of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, when Pakistani terrorists killed 164 people in a merciless crime against civil society. Kilcullen writes, “the attack could only have occurred in a highly networked, urban, littoral environment — precisely the environment that that’s becoming the global norm.” After Mumbai, Kilcullen turns his attention to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, located on the Indian Ocean coast, and he introduces the reader to the word “urbophobia”, which was used by the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah when describing the state of the city. “If Mogadishu occupies an ambiguous space in our minds and hearts,” Farah wrote in 1988, “it is because ours is a land with an overwhelming majority of pastoralists, who are possessed of a deep urbophobia. Maybe this is why most Somalis do not seem unduly perturbed by the fate of the capital: a city broken into segments, each of them ruthlessly controlled by an alliance of militias.”

Further up the coast, another alliance of militias turned the town of Eyl into a pirate haven at the beginning of this century. The raiders would sail their hijacked ships to Eyl, take their hostages ashore and hold them until a ransom was paid. That was the piracy strategy for the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama but the crew thwarted the plan and the result is now showing in cinemas near you. Both Tom Hanks as the eponymous Captain Phillips and Barkhad Abdi as the pirate leader Muse deliver fine performances in the film of the story. At one point, Captain Phillips says, “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people.” And Muse replies, “Maybe in America, maybe in America.” Which brings us back to littoralization and David Kilcullen, who lists the megatrends — population growth, urbanization, littoralization, and connectedness — that will “define the environment for future conflict, and for every other aspect of life, in the next generation. How do we react to this? How should we think about the coming environment, how can we prepare it, and what can we do about it?”


In the old man-killing parishes

Monday, 14 October, 2013 0 Comments

A recent outbreak of savagery in Northern Ireland brought to mind the work of the late Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney, who wrote a series of poems inspired by the discovery of the 4th century Tollund Man, whose mummified corpse was found in a peat bog on the Jutland Peninsula in 1950. In his poem, Heaney compares the ritual sacrifices of ancient Celtic Europe to the “sacrifice” of those murdered by the Irish Republican Army, which had the barbaric habit of burying its victims in peat bogs.

Heaney was in top form when composing this poem and the imagery of his language is startling: “She tightened her torc on him / And opened her fen / Those dark juices working / Him to a saint’s kept body.”

The Tollund Man

I

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters’
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.

II

I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.

III

Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names
Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,
Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.
Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

Seamus Heaney (1939 — 2013)

Tollund Man


The urban battleground

Thursday, 10 October, 2013 0 Comments

This just in via the BBC: “Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has been seized by armed men from a hotel in the capital, Tripoli.” Attacks such as this and like that on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi underline what we’ve already seen in other cities: urban environments with their hotels, shopping centres and restaurants will be the battlegrounds of the future. And the siege, with its commando-style tactics and penetration of the city’s systems, is increasingly the tactic of choice for the enemies of civilization.

In his new book, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla, counterinsurgency strategist Dr. David Kilcullen examines conflicts in Benghazi, Kingston, Mumbai and other cities to explain the changing face of warfare. Given the major trends of the 21st century — population growth, coastal urbanization and increasing digital connectivity — he predicts a future of savage cities, and increasing intersections between crime and conflict in the real and virtual urban environments. Kilcullen argues that dealing with these challenges will require insight and expertise outside the military realm — from urban planning to systems engineering to alternative energy technology.

How countries can diffuse urban conflict was the theme of a discussion with Dr. Kilcullen hosted last month by The New America Foundation. It’s excellent. By the way, we end our urban-themed week here tomorrow with a look at Big Data and the City.


Kofi Awoonor, victim of Islamism

Thursday, 3 October, 2013 0 Comments

There’s a page on Wikipedia that lists “mortalities from battles and other individual military operations or acts of violence, sorted by death toll.” When it comes to the section titled “Terrorist attacks,” we can see that eight of the top 10 life-destroying atrocities are attributed to “Islamism”. With 67 victims, the 21 September massacre in the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi doesn’t make the top 100, but it is attributed to “Islamism” and among the victims was Kofi Awoonor, the Ghanaian poet and author who was attending a literary festival in Kenya at the time. These lines from his Songs of Sorrow are tragically prescient:

I have wandered on the wilderness
The great wilderness men call life
The rain has beaten me,
And the sharp stumps cut as keen as knives
I shall go beyond and rest.
I have no kin and no brother,
Death has made war upon our house;

When death, in the form of Islamism, made war upon the house of civilization in Nairobi and claimed the lives of children, women and an old poet from Ghana, the liberal elite could not bear to call out the culprit. The perpetrators cannot be called “terrorists”; we must use “militant” instead and rather than blame their religious perversion, the absurd Simon Jenkins writing in the Guardian claimed that shopping malls are responsible for their murderous hatred:

“The modern urban obsession with celebrity buildings and high-profile events offers too many publicity-rich targets. A World Trade Centre, a Mumbai hotel, a Boston marathon, a Nairobi shopping mall are all enticing to extremists. Defending them is near impossible. Better at least not to create them. A shopping mall not only wipes out shopping streets, it makes a perfect terrorist fortress, near impossible to assault.”

Followers of Islam must finally confront and denounce the extremists who kill in the name of Allah. Until that happens, innocents will continue to suffer. Blaming shopping malls, hotels and marathons for the actions of the jihadists offers a cowardly fig leaf for terrorism and insults the memory of Kofi Awoonor, who once wrote: “On such a day who would dare think of dying? So much Freedom means that we swear we’ll postpone dying until the morning after.”


Frederick Forsyth has al-Shabab in his Kill List

Thursday, 26 September, 2013 0 Comments

The Kill List “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” said Woody Allen, famously, but what about the critical remainder? Success is tied to timing so which part of good timing is due to good luck? Or is good timing a function of hard work? These questions are worth discussing in light of the latest thriller from Frederick Forsyth, The Kill List. What makes its appearance right now so uncanny is that much of the story plays out in Somalia, home to the terrorist group al-Shabab, which provides sanctuary for the fanatical Islamist at the centre of the novel. Following the weekend slaughter at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, the name al-Shabab, meaning “The Youth” in Arabic, is now associated with butchery and horror as fact intersects with fiction.

In Forsyth’s novel, the evil sermons of the wicked “Preacher” are being broadcast in immaculate English from a command centre in the Somali port of Kismayo, and in the real world on Monday a man identifying himself as Abu Umar, an al-Shabab commander in Kismayo, spoke impeccable English as he offered details on the identity of the terrorists and the siege that suggested a command centre inside Somalia was running the operation. Forsyth is concise on the tragic story of this wretched place, which once had comprised French Somaliland, British Somaliland and the former Italian Somaliland. Snippet:

“After a few years of the usual dictatorship, the once thriving and elegant colony where wealthy Italians use to vacation had lapsed into civil war. Clan fought clan, tribe fought tribe, warlord after warlord sought supremacy. Finally, with Mogadishu and Kismayo just seas of rubble, the outside world had given up.

A belated notoriety had returned when the beggared fishermen of the north turned to piracy and the south to Islamic fanaticism. Al-Shabab had arisen not as an offshoot but as an ally to Al-Qaeda and conquered all the south. Mogadishu hovered as a fragile token capital of a corrupt regime living on aid…”

Frederick Forsyth provides much more than a page turner when he writes thrillers. The Kill List is history, geography and a warning to the civilized world as well. As events at Westgate Mall have shown, the barbarians are at the gates.


Obama and that Chamberlain feeling

Thursday, 12 September, 2013 1 Comment

Sir Henry “Chips” Channon was an American-born British Conservative politician, author and chronicler. Here’s his diary entry from 12 September 1938:

Chamberlain “Towards the end of the Banquet came the news, the great world-stirring news, that Neville [Chamberlain], on his own initiative, seeing war coming closer and closer, had telegrapher to Hitler that he wanted to see him, and asked him to name an immediate rendezvous. The German Government, surprised and flattered, had instantly accepted and so Neville, at the age of 69, for the first time in his life, gets into an aeroplane tomorrow morning and flies to Berchtesgaden! It is one of the finest, most inspiring acts of all history. The company rose to their feet electrified, as all the world must be, and drank his health. History must be ransacked to find a parallel.

Of course a way out will now be found. Neville by his imagination and practical good sense, has saved the world. I am staggered.”

A year later, the situation was very different. No way out had been found, the world had not been saved and the name of Neville Chamberlain became eternally synonymous with that dreadful term, appeasement.

“I believe it is peace for our time,” said the hapless Chamberlain upon his return from the despot’s Alpine eyrie, and one could not but feel a shiver of déjà vu while listening to the awful speech delivered by President Obama on Tuesday night. Here was a leader who casually drew a red line in the sand, and then found he had to do something about it. Faced with a humiliating defeat in Congress, he has now decided to let the Russians, steadfast allies of Assad, set the agenda on the international stage. And he admitted all this with an air of boredom. “It is hard to believe such a chill man has such warm feelings about the sad end of strangers far away,” wrote Peggy Noonan. “I think this has been one of his big unspoken problems in the selling of his Syria policy.” With her “sad end of strangers far away,” Noonan was deliberately echoing Chamberlain, who said: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Knowing that the US president will grasp at any straw to avoid taking military action against Damascus, Vladimir Putin, now writing op-eds for the New York Times, is thrashing Obama in this global PR game. Having presented Obama with the meaningless option of weapons inspection, Russia has saved Syria from immediate attack and ensured that Assad can continue merrily upon his murderous way. It’s all very Chamberlain like.


9/11 at 12

Wednesday, 11 September, 2013 0 Comments

Today is the twelfth anniversary of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks on Manhattan and Washington. What has entered folk memory as “9/11” was our young century’s introduction to totalitarianism, in its most brutal form. On that day, a murderous, criminal gang dedicated to maximizing civilian deaths seized airplanes filled with innocent passengers and then used their victims as part of a wicked plan to gain notoriety. In the wake of the tragedy, the civilized world woke up to the reality that the West was now at war with a medieval death cult driven by a racist, religious hatred of Jews, Hindus, Christians, Shi’a Muslims and all other “unbelievers”, especially those who placed their faith in democracy, tolerance and individual liberty. Out of the blue on 11 September 2001, those who trusted in modernity were confronted with the evil resolve of people dedicated to the restoration of a vanquished dictatorial empire. Two worlds collided on 9/11 and the repercussions are still being felt. As always, our thoughts are with the families whose loved ones were torn from them on that day.

The Twin Towers