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Thoughts on an ISIS propaganda video “The End of Sykes-Picot”

These days, I’m pretty sensitive to the idea of Islamic militants, given that Al-Shabab seems to be successfully killing people not a stones throw from where I live and work. Honestly, as much as it pains me to say, I’d be more than happy to see some American humvees rolling into Kenya’s coast right now since the Kenyan government seems pretty useless when it comes to issues of security.

ISIS’s crusade, however, lies far from here, though ISIS’s successes could embolden Islamist groups elsewhere, though it’s difficult for me to gauge how deep the connections are between Islamist groups.

The video, however, was quite interesting. The first thing that strikes me is that the presenter is Chilean, speaking American English, representing the international nature of ISIS itself. It is not a home grown ethnic Islamist movement, struggling for historical territory and self-determination. Like it’s arch enemy Israel, it is an international movement of foreigners seeking to establish and ideological state in a foreign, based upon a self-created narrative of religious entitlement.

There are various scenes which show the host talking with other members of the group, who are clearly a hodge-podge of ethnicities and nationalities. The common language appears to be, in many cases, English, though at times it’s hard to tell.

The production values, outside of the sound, are excellent. Most striking is the use of symbols. Throughout the video, the host walks through a number of symbolic points, starting at the border of Iraq and Syria itself, to symbols of border checkpoints, military patches and signs. The message is that ISIS is exposing these symbols as empty illusions, positioning itself as the harbingers of Islam in a corrupt and empty landscape.

What’s interesting is that a young Chilean, likely raised in the US or Canada, is seen mocking much older and obviously local prisoners. He calls the Kurds Satan worshipers and mocks the Iraqi soldiers as cowards and fools.

So, how is ISIS, as an international terror group with roots in the West, any different from the corrupting Westerners they so hate? The video repeatedly appeals to Western sentiments that Sykes-Picot was the great destabilizing factor in the middle east, but it’s unclear as to how ISIS provides an avenue of self-determination to the ethnic groups who were broken up or forced to tolerate one another. Does taking the borders away liberate Sunnis and Shiites? Does ISIS respect the right of self-determination for Kurds? Clearly not.

Check out the video. It’s pretty surreal.

Movie review (super short): 永遠のゼロ (The Forever Zero)

04015dde6181377015fe977f56c94dd7I finally watched this on the plane. For those who don’t know, 永遠のゼロ is a right wing film production, which tells the story of a contemporary family seeking information on their grandfather, who signed up to be a part of the Kamikaze program at the end of WWII.

I learned a couple of things by watching this movie. First, the Japanese incursion into Asia never really happened. In fact, it’s never mentioned at all. No wonder kids don’t know anything about the war. The right wing is selectively erasing it from the history books.

Second, I learned that Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent war with the US wasn’t a bad idea. It was a great idea, but just need to be fought smarter. If only more people had been like the heroic main character of the, the Japanese would have won. The main character isn’t worried about fighting a senseless war and that millions are dying all around him, He’s really only worried that it’s being fought badly.

The right wing in Japan and in the State have a lot in common. They selectively pick snippets of history which they like, regardless if they actually ever happened, and ignore the parts they don’t like to create a new historical narrative. This movie, aside from the generally annoying dialogue and subpar acting, works as a great propaganda piece, but not for much of anything else.

US Bombing of Laos: 1965 -1973: I was there first

Actually, I was an infant, but as an adult, I wrote a blog post and made a cool video of the locations and magnitude of bomb drops in Laos from 1965-1973.

Now, Jerry Redfern & Karen Coates have written a great (I assume) book “Eternal Harvest”on the United States’ unbelievably devastating bombing campaign of neighboring Laos during the Vietnam War. I suggest that everyone go out and read this book immediately.

However, they created an accompanying video, which is eerily similar to a video I created, though theirs is embellished with narration and bookend explanations. I want to think that I helped inspire such a cool video. Or maybe this is wishful thinking. I don’t know. But it’s reassuring to know that this blog might have contributing something to the world.

Here’s theirs:

And here’s mine:

Central African Republic Gets a New President: Is there now hope for the CAR?

It has been announced that Bangui mayor Catherine Samba-Panza has been appointed the Interim President of the near anarchic Central African Republic.

Her ascension couldn’t come at a better time. The Central African Republic, fragile even in the best of times, has been slowly sinking into chaos. No one really knows how many people have been killed in the fighting between Christian and Muslim militias (though this shouldn’t be read as a religious conflict), but reports last year pegged more than 1000 civilian deaths within a two day span. Experts have started using the g-word.

From the NYT:

The interim president selected on Monday at a raucous, five-hour session of a “national transition council” of rebels, rivals and politicians was Catherine Samba-Panza, a French-educated lawyer with a reputation for integrity and no ties either to the Muslim rebels or the Christian militia. Her selection was greeted with cheers in the assembly hall and dancing outside. That she is a woman — the third female head of state in post-colonial Africa — was especially welcomed by many people who felt that men had done nothing but lead the country on its vicious downward spiral.

Though encouraging, it’s too early to tell if Ms. Samba-Panza will be able to contain the bloodshed in the CAR. Certainly, Liberia gained much under the leadership of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but it’s hard to say whether there’s been a great transformation in Malawi under Joyce Banda. Rwanda’s female majority Parliament is vastly preferable to Kenya’s (or the United States’) overpaid and corrupt boy’s club, however.

The conflagration in the CAR has been troubling for a number of reasons. First, it represents a general pattern of instability just below the Sahara. Neighboring South Sudan, which just recently obtained independence, is now facing a conflict ridden humanitarian crisis.

Second, the conflicts in South Sudan, the CAR, Northern Nigeria, Mali and Somalia rage on compromise the positive narrative of a newly prosperous and economically viable Africa. The 80’s and 90’s were a stain on the continent. Though I don’t foresee a return to the extended civil wars of Angola and Mozambique (for example), general regional instability compromises the ability to sustain development over the entire continent.

Third, even if the CAR manages to suppress the violence, there are few viable options for the long term economic future of this landlocked and historically marginalized country. Without a long term economic plan chances are high that tensions will flare up once more, setting the country back again.

Could Westgate Have Been Part of An Increasing Trend in Violence in Somalia?

SomaliaI’m sure it’s obvious that I’m still trying to process the recent events in Kenya. I became interested in knowing if the attack was perhaps part of a greater trend of violence in the region, particularly Somalia.

The Armed Conflict Location and Events Database logs all conflict events around the world in one location. Events are recorded from newspaper reports, NGOs and self reports from people on the ground. I downloaded the latest version of the data and restricted the dataset to only Somalia.

It turns out, that violence has been on the rise in Somalia since at least 2005, with a small break around the time of the global financial meltdown, then rising consistently from 2010. The Kenyan military, who have been blamed for the attack, didn’t arrive in Somalia until October of 2011. Sadly, their entry hasn’t been associated with a decline in events.

It’s worth noting that Doctors Without Borders exited Somalia last August due to kidnappings and violence, part of a greater trend of attacks on aid workers. Even before that, news reports were telling of increased attacks around Mogadishu.

The Economist reported increased numbers of attacks in Iraq and speculated that it was part of a wider, global trend. If this data on Somalia is to be believed, the world should start bracing itself for even more carnage. Again, I’m quite conflicted on what might be the causes of this violence, most of which is waged on targets that have little to do with Americans (despite what Ron Paul would like you to believe). I’m also at a loss as to what to recommend to do about it, but ignoring this worsening problem will not improve the situation at all.

Conflict Events in Somalis 1996-2013

Conflict Events in Somalis 1996-2013

More Reflections on the Nairobi Massacre

Westgate parking garage following the attack. Note baby strollers on the left...

Westgate parking garage following the attack. Note baby strollers on the left…

This one just hit far too close to home. It’s not known precisely, but there might be close to 70 people dead, and nearly 200 injured, and likely hundreds or even thousands more in mourning. Having grown to love Nairobi over the summer and having frequented places like Westgate and enjoyed them doesn’t make it any easier. Being personally connected to people who lost friends in the attack just makes it incredibly sad.

A second attack is likely. I can’t imagine that Al Shabab or any other terror organization is going to let this success lie. This was probably merely a test. And as Jeffrey Gettleman pointed out in the NYT this morning, a second attack will devastate the Kenyan economy.

If there is another major terror attack here, it will be devastating. Kenya will be branded as insecure and expatriates will leave in droves. The billion-dollar tourism industry will crash, and everyone from pilots to safari guides to the maids at the wildlife lodges will be jobless. Tourists eager to see spectacular game and life-changing vistas will go to other African countries, and thousands of Kenyans will go hungry.

I am also thinking of all the research projects that will shutter and move to safer Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi. Though those countries desperately need those projects, it will be a great loss of livelihood to all the capable and dedicated Kenyan researchers, survey workers, staff, drivers and security guards.. and their families. People sometimes become quite cynical about development and research dollars, but even the most uninteresting of projects means food for a family or education for their kids.

As awful as it is to say, I can’t help but reflecting on the political controversies surrounding the use of drone attacks to combat terror groups. Though drone attacks aren’t without their own civilian costs, I can’t help but wishing one of them might have killed the 10-15 individuals who stormed Westgate Mall before they had the chance to shoot toddlers gathered on the roof to make a childrens’ movie.

Al Shabab is a real threat to the world, to Kenyans, and particularly to Somalis. It’s hard to argue that letting them simply do what they like in Somalia in the name of isolationism and vague notions of anti-imperialism would have ever been a good plan, given that this massacre is precisely what they wanted to do. I don’t think there are any easy answers or solutions here, but to do nothing is an entirely misguided solution. Actually, it’s not a solution at all.

Photo by Karim

If a recent Economist article is to be believed, the Westgate attack is merely part of a worldwide trend of increased terror activity in 2013. After reflecting for a while, I realized that terrorists in 2013 are of a completely different generation than those of 2001. The complexities of global terror are well outside my field of expertise, however, so I will refrain from commenting further.

The upside of all this, is that the event may draw Kenyans together as they never have been before. The long lines to donate blood and outpouring of support from everywhere across the country are nothing short of inspiring in a nation as fractured and divided as Kenya. My friend Karim posted some great photographs of Kenyans queuing to give blood and voicing support.

Assault at Westgate Mall, Nairobi, Kenya

Today I’m reading the new reports on yesterday’s gun assault on Westgate Mall in Nairobi. The numbers killed and injured keep rising. Last I checked, there’s around 50 dead and nearly 200 injured.

This was a horrible, inexcusable event. Al Shabab, a Somali terror/warlord group aligned with the collection of groups we refer to as Al Qaeda, has claimed that the massacre was in retaliation for Kenya’s cooperation with the Somali Army to out Al Shabab from the territories it occupies. It is unclear how this strategy is to work, given that Kenya entered Somalia in response to a series of terror attacks by the group.

It is likely that As Shabab intend this as evidence of their continued existence and a way to obtain recognition from other groups that might support them. Admittedly, my knowledge of the complex dynamics of Islamic terror groups is lacking.

The shooting as Westgate was particularly depressing to me. I’ve spent time in Kenya, and grew rather fond of Nairobi this past summer. I have many Kenyan and Japanese friends and colleagues in the area.

In Africa, only certain people can go to upscale places like Westgate. On any given day in Westgate, Ya Ya Centre, or any of the other upscale malls, you might be sharing space with Kenyan politicians, a prize winning African literary figure, brave human rights and relief workers, corporate kings, diplomats from all around the world, and a host of others.

Kofi Amoonor, Ghanaian literary figure

It has already been announced that Ghanaian writer and former ambassador to the UN Kofi_Awoonor is among those killed.

It is really easy to be cynical about an upscale mall in a developing country from afar. I’m positive that disparaging comments have already been made, but I will not search for them.

Places like the Westgate Mall, however, are sanctuaries in a place like Nairobi. Though I only rarely visit malls in the United States, Westgate is a place where people like me can escape the stigma of “otherness” and constant objectification, be free of the constant touting and begging that unfortunately occurs far too often in Nairobi and be in a place where one doesn’t have to look over one’s shoulder at all moments. It may sound quite awful to hear a wealthy, educated and white American complain, but in Nairobi, sadly, all of these things are a given. It becomes extremely exhausting and places like the Westgate happily provide them (along with excellent bookstores).

The worst outcome of this shooting will be that security will become even more intense. The divisions between the wealthy and the poor will become ever clearer. On the one hand, a secured area creates safety, on the other, it creates awful divisions. Nowhere is this clearer than the United States, whose history is filled divisions.

I am wishing the best to all in Nairobi right now. I’m sure that everyone I know in Kenya knows one or more people that were in that mall yesterday.

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