Posts Tagged Foreign Policy

Boston Bombings: looks like Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were homegrown terrorists

Turns out the spurious-sounding rumours that I reported earlier were, in fact, incorrect – meaning that Alan Jones was wrong. Who saw that one coming?

The bombers were not actually radical leftists. It turns out to have been Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tzarnaev – two Muslim brothers from Chechnya.

As of writing, Tamerlan has been shot and Dzokhar is apparently holed-up in a house, surrounded by police and National Guard. There is not a huge amount of information out there about them, but it is coming in drips and drabs – and everything that I have seen so far points to homegrown terrorists.

One of the quickly cobbled-together reports comes from Foreign Policy‘s David Kenner (my bold):

Who is Tamerlan Tzarnaev? | FP Passport.

Tamerlan was apparently a boxer who hoped to gain citizenship by being selected for the U.S. Olympic team: “Unless his native Chechnya becomes independent, Tamerlan says he would rather compete for the United States than for Russia,” Hirn wrote.

Other captions paint Tamerlan as a devoted Muslim. “I’m very religious,” he says at one point, noting that he does not smoke or drink alchol. “There are no values anymore,” he says, worrying that “people can’t control themselves.”

Tamerlan also appears isolated and bewildered by American life. “I don’t have a single American friend,” he laments, despite living in the United States for five years. “I don’t understand them.”

At the time the photos were taken [2009], Tamerlan’s life did not seem all bad: Hirn writes that he was competing as a boxer, enrolled in Bunker Hill Community College and pursuing a career as an engineer, and had a half-Portuguese, half-Italian girlfriend that converted to Islam for him. “She’s beautiful, man!” he said.

At some point, though, it all went wrong. In 2009, Tamerlan was arrested for domestic assault and battery after assaulting his girlfriend.

Dzhokhar, meanwhile, was a second-year medical student.

I don’t have a link for this, but I just listened to an interview of their uncle and I picked up a couple of other facts. Their uncle claimed that it is likely that Tamerlan had been influencing Dzhokhar, and that Dzhokhar was a sweet boy but Tamerlan had problems. He also said that their parents worked extremely hard and were only concerned with putting food on the table, although they both returned to Russia a year ago.

Also of interest is Tamerlan’s social media page. There are not many posts, but one includes a video entitled “Chechnyan accents”, and another has this joke:

Inside a car sit a Dagestani, a Chechen and Ingush. Who is driving?

The police.

According to this photo by photojournalist Johannes Hirn – who did a series on Tamerlan – Tamerlan was not doing too badly for himself. At least according to the designer clothing and the Mercedes he was driving:

Tamerlan by Johannes Hirn

Finally (and most significantly), according to Adam Serwer at Mother Jones, Tamerlan had been consuming and distributing Islamist propaganda.

Putting this all together, we can build a profile of the two boys (well, more so for Tamerlan):

  • Second generation immigrants (they both went to high school in the US, so more or less second).
  • Relatively affluent.
  • Devout Muslims with an Islamist bent.
  • Well educated.
  • Socially isolated – had trouble integrating into America and did not really feel as though they belonged.
  • Viewed Western culture as amoral.

What you have right there is the textbook profile for homegrown terrorists. They tend to be young second or third generation Muslim immigrants feel like the don’t belong anywhere – they can’t relate to their new adopted country, but have grown up there, so don’t fit in back in their old country. They feel lonely and isolated, so begin searching for meaning – and find it in extreme Islamism. This requires that they are affluent/educated enough to read and understand the jihadi propaganda, and to navigate the complex online network that jihadi groups operate in.

The truth remains to be seen, but from what we do know, my bet is that this is more or less the story of the Brothers Tzarnaev.

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The line between NGO and Government

Good point by Robert Merry regarding American Government-funded NGOs working to “spread democracy” throughout the world:

Commentary: Unmasking the Democracy Promoters | The National Interest.

The Times reports that the United Arab Emirates has shut down the offices of the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit U.S. agency whose mission is to promote democracy around the globe. The NDI is often called an NGO, short for nongovernmental organization, which might leave some people a bit quizzical given that this particular NGO is funded to a significant extent by the U.S. government. But Wikipedia helpfully explains: “In cases in which NGOs are funded totally or partially by governments, the NGO maintains its non-governmental status by excluding governmental representatives from membership in the organization.”

… For anyone trying to understand why this anger is welling up in those countries, it might be helpful to contemplate how Americans would feel if similar organizations from China or Russia or India were to pop up in Washington, with hundreds of millions of dollars given to them by those governments, bent on influencing our politics. One supposes it would generate substantial anger among Americans if these groups tried to tilt our elections toward one party or another. But suppose they were trying to upend our very system of government, as U.S.-financed NGOs are trying to do these days in various countries—and have done in recent years in numerous locations.

Well… that actually does happen — hundreds of millions of dollars are spent by foreign governments on lobbying the US government every year — but that’s beside the point.

This is a problem that Israel is also dealing with — foreign governments fund organisations that operate within the country and have the express goal of bringing-down the current system. This is not to say that I disagree at all with what the organisations in Egypt are doing (I disagree completely with the ones in Israel), but if they are funded by the US government, the argument that they do not answer to the government directly does not hold much weight.

Whether or not the government actually has a representative on the board is not particularly important. Any organisation is beholden to its funders. The organisations in Egypt are in a position where they can only operate because of the US government and therefore the US government can shut them if it so chooses. That means that they pretty much have to do what the government tells them, it also means that the government is effectively sending them to Egypt. It is understandable, then, that the Egyptian authorities would be a little upset that the organisations are actively working against them.

Again, I completely support trying to bring democracy to Egypt, I just don’t like this “secret” diplomacy. It’s like the US give a wink and a smile to the Egyptians and say “don’t worry, we’re still friends, they aren’t really acting on our behalf. We’re just paying them to be there, that’s all.” It’s not fooling anyone.

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Occupy against occupation’s awkward activist snub


“Oh yeah… that anti-AIPAC thing… uhh… I have to see my… uhh… wife’s family. Yeah, that’s it… big reunion thing… on the other side of the country… sorry about that.”

Will Obama speak at AIPAC? | The Cable.

One can safely assume no administration officials will be speaking at the Occupy AIPAC rally, being organized by Code Pink, which is set to bring together lots of anti-AIPAC activists to Washington in a protest right across the street from the AIPAC conference.

According to their website, one of the speakers at that event will be Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council. Contacted by The Cable, Parsi said, “I’m not speaking there.”

Code Pink spokesperson Rae Abileah told The Cable that Parsi committed to speak at the event weeks ago but then cancelled last week, shortly after Code Pink announced his participation.

“Trita called us and said he forgot he had to attend his wife’s family reunion on the West Coast that day, but he was really sorry and would do his best to help us find a replacement speaker,” said Abileah.

We asked Parsi to confirm that but he didn’t respond.

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Aaaah, everything is back to normal!

So much for the “Arab Spring”. Blake Hounshell in Foreign Policy’s Passport on yesterday’s Palestinian riots:

Is the old Middle East back? | FP Passport

All of this sounds a bit like the old Middle East, doesn’t it? Arabs raging impotently at the Jews instead of their own brutal rulers? And yet the narrative that the Arab revolutions were never about Israel has always been wrong, or at least incomplete. For Arabs living under authoritarian regimes, Israel (and America’s support for Israel) has long been seen as an important reason for their subjugation. Nowhere is this more true than in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak bucked popular opinion by selling gas to Israel below market rates and enforced a widely reviled blockade of Gaza. In Tahrir Square, there were plenty of chants denouncing Mubarak as an Israeli and American agent, no matter what Thomas Friedman says.

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Bin Laden’s Death: Analysis

Now that the celebrations are dying down (and it’s not often that a death is such cause for celebration), we need to be a little more grounded about the implications of this assassination. There have been a lot of claims thrown-around recently – verging from a little naive to downright stupid. Let’s set a few of the facts straight here:

(Note: I’m not going to bother proving that Bin Laden was behind 9/11. If you believe this to be false, please seek help).

1) al-Qaeda is not finished

This is the unfortunate reality that we have to face. Bin Laden was the co-founder and leader of Al Qaeda, but he was not directly behind every terror attack in the world.

Unfortunately, the damage has been done already. Bin Laden’s “contribution” to the Islamic world was the idea of distinguishing between the “enemy nearby” and the “enemy far away”. To summarise a very complex history, Nazi propaganda attributing all of the world’s ills to the Jews was translated into Arabic and given Koranic justifications by the Grand Mufti of Palestine in the 1930s and 40s as part of his alliance with Hitler. This formed what is now Islamic Antisemitism – previously in the Islamic world, Jews had been viewed as weak and cowardly, but combined with Nazi ideology, there was now a European-esque notion of a global conspiracy to destroy Islam being orchestrated by a malicious cabal of Jews (for more on this, see The Flight of The Intellectuals by Paul Berman.)

These ideas then permeated the early Islamist ideology and gestated to the point where half a century later, Bin Laden used them to boost his ailing organisation by declaring a Jihad on the West (see al Qaeda In Its Own Words by Gilles Kepel and Jean-Pierre Milelli). He imagined a “Zio-Crusader alliance” controlling the (as he saw them) “infidel” regimes in charge of the Muslim states. He spread the idea that to truly re-establish the Caliphate (Islamic superstate), Muslims must strike not at their immediate enemies, but those allegedly pulling the strings – the US and their allies.

Al Qaeda has been decimated as an organisation since 9/11 and for many years has not been a centralised structure, but rather a “franchise” with offshoots in various regions (for a discussion of this, see How al-Qaeda Works by Leah Farrell for Foreign Affairs). The reality is that Bin Laden can be quickly replaced by his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Al Qaeda can continue to inspire and fund various partner organisations around the world.

So while this is a great symbolic triumph and may have some long term impact, we can’t start packing-away the metal detectors and arranging flights out of Kandahar just yet. In fact, in the short term, this assassination could well spark a series of reprisals around the world. We need to be weary.

2) Pakistan is dangerous

As Bruce Loudon observes in The Australian.

Pakistan a haven for enemy No 1 | The Australian.

But after years of the ISI double-dealing with terrorists and now the revelation that bin Laden was living in the heart of a garrison town virtually next door to the nation’s military academy and only a couple of hours’ drive north of the capital, Islamabad, Pakistani authorities cannot expect to escape the sort of questions that are now being asked.

There are conflicting opinions over whether or not Pakistan was actively harbouring Bin Laden, but I am pretty convinced that this is the case. Again from The Australian‘s excellent analysis, Greg Sheridan observes that:

Huge win for Obama and the Americans | The Australian.

Obama naturally praised Pakistan for its co-operation in the operation against Osama. Frankly, what else could he do? The Pakistanis have perhaps a hundred nuclear weapons. No US president can afford to alienate them altogether.

…It is utterly implausible that any international figure of note could hide in a mansion near Islamabad without the knowledge of the Pakistani intelligence services. Completely impossible.

If the Pakistani government did not know, it is the most incompetent government in the world. If it did know, then it was intentionally sheltering the most dangerous and infamous terrorist of our time.

The double-game being played by Pakistan is a major problem in the world today – it may even be the biggest threat to global security, given that Iran has not yet developed a nuclear weapon and America has not quite lost its dominant position. Pakistan is a nuclear power, so must be dealt with very carefully – but it seems to be slipping further and further into Islamism. If the Pakistani Taliban get hold of a nuclear weapon, the consequences don’t bear thinking about.

Bin Laden’s assassination had many benefits – it was a strong warning to all terrorists that the US can get them anywhere at any time. It was a symbolic victory for the West in general and the US in particular and will raise morale in dark times and vindicate our efforts to rid the world of the ideological plague that Bin Laden spread. Most importantly, justice has been served. That said, we can’t lose sight of the dangers still facing us and must continue to fight Bin Laden’s ideology of hatred and violence wherever it may be found.

(Photos: Foreign Policy)

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Gaza extremism: what’s wrong with this sentence?

According to Jared Malsin in Foreign Policy, the recent murder of an Italian in Gaza has created some new scrutiny on Salafi (ultra-conservative literalist Islam-ism) Islam in Gaza. Fair enough.

Now try and guess what’s wrong here:

Gaza’s Salafis under scrutiny by Jared Malsin | The Middle East Channel

At the root of these dynamics is the Israeli and Western policy of isolating Gaza and ignoring Hamas. The crippling four-year-long blockade of Gaza has created the conditions of human misery and desperation in which a handful of people have turned to extremism.

Did you get it?

The premise here is that there was no extremism in Gaza before the blockade. So apparently, thousands of suicide bombers willing to end their own lives and kill room-fulls of civilians weren’t extreme. I guess they were just misunderstood.

Read on:

Perhaps realizing that a heavy hand can create further radicalization, Hamas has also recently taken a more nuanced approach to the Salafis, including sending religious scholars into prisons in hopes of nurturing a more tolerant outlook among them.

So Hamas clerics are the moderate ones now? Let’s lok at something one of them said once:

Clip Transcript | MEMRI

[The Jews] want to present themselves to the world as if they have rights, but, in fact, they are foreign bacteria – a microbe unparalleled in the world. It’s not me who says this. The Koran itself says that they have no parallel: “You shall find the strongest men in enmity to the believers to be the Jews.”

May He annihilate this filthy people who have neither religion nor conscience. I condemn whoever believes in normalizing relations with them, whoever supports sitting down with them, and whoever believes that they are human beings. They are not human beings. They are not people. They have no religion, no conscience, and no moral values.

Sounds pretty moderate to me, right?

Ironically, Malsin did stumble across the point somewhere, but seemed to look past it and try to find it somewhere else.

This is the crux of Hamas’ dilemma: if it allows attacks on Israel, it risks massive retaliation from the Israelis; if it imposes too strict a ceasefire, it risks eroding its credibility among its political base in Gaza, particularly among its armed cadres. A U.N. diplomat, quoted anonymously by Crisis Group explained the problem: “How long can Hamas sustain a policy of not engaging in resistance, while this non-engagement doesn’t produce any results in terms of liberating Palestine, easing the blockade, or any other political goal for which the movement exists?”

Hamas here is reaping what it has sown. They have been spreading and practising this kind of extremism for years. The problem for them is that now they control Gaza, they have more responsibility than they had when they were just a militia and their policy determines what happens to the Gazans. If they continue to randomly target civilian populations, they will only escalate tensions and cause more harm to come to everyone – so they are finally beginning to realise that this is not an effective strategy, or finally starting to think at all strategically.

These Jihadi groups that they can’t control are Hamas’ legacy to the Palestinian people. Hamas paved the way for the extreme thought, the violent rhetoric, the weapons smuggling and the kidnapping of foreigners. They brought the idea of violence as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, to Gaza.

To reign-in these groups, Hamas would have to cooperate with Israel to a degree – as the PA have done to reduce terror in the West Bank. This, however, will be a complete reversal of everything that Hamas stand for – so unfortunately, I can’t see it happening.

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The Arab YouTube Revolutions

Sure, I’ve written quite extensively on why we should give credit to the protestors and not the internet and how everyone is overstating the role of Facebook in these revolutions, but that is not at all to say that the internet was in any way insignificant.

YouTube has been an incredible tool in building support for the revolutionaries, as well as distributing actual footage of the unrest. David Kenner has made a videoessay in Foreign Policy‘s photoessay section of their website, giving some great examples of these.

I can’t really say anything except you should all watch this, it shows you what has been going on in a way that thousands of articles, blog posts, tweets and status updates never could:

The YouTube Revolutions – By David Kenner | Foreign Policy.

(WARNING: some of these are quite graphic).

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Democracy is a long road, can the Arab world handle it?

It takes more than this to be Sweden

For those who have been following, a huge debate that is happening at the moment is over how democratic these Arab revolutions are/will be. Besides the Christofs and McGeoughs of this world, some have been actually considering what it would take to improve these societies.

James Richard, writing for Foreign Policy, makes comparisons to the fall of the “Former Soviet bloc” at the end of the cold war. He notes that, like those countries, the Arab dictators have maintained centralised economies, where most major industries are state-owned and the majority of employment is in the public sector. Comparing the transitions in Russia with the Eastern European states, Richard notes that it is better not to immediately privatise everything, as this advantages the educated class and results in Russia-style oligarchies. Rather, he argues, Arab states will need a process over several years to allow their population to appreciate the ins and outs of a free-market economy.

Liberté! Equalité! Economy! – By James Richard | Foreign Policy.

Before anything else, Arab publics need to be educated about their countries’ common economic realities and goals. Only after these countries have a clearer picture of the true underlying value of their businesses should they list firms on a stock exchange or allow privatization shares to be freely traded. Fortunately, to varying degrees, the region already has capable financial professionals and judiciaries who can help with the necessary procedures.

Richard also briefly observes that more than just economic improvements, these states will need to build democratic institutions to provide for rule of law and civil rights.

But other institutions may have to be created wholesale. Freedom of speech and the press requires a legal framework to foster transparency in these new economies.

In a strong rebuke of the “benevolent Orientalism” described my last post on the topic, writing for  the Wall Street Journal, Dennis McShane has outlined his idea for how Britain can help grow democracy through the use of “soft power” – sending representatives who speak the local languages to help establish political parties and the values necessary for engaging in a democratic process.

In the House of Commons on Monday Mr. Cameron told me: “I very much support the whole idea of greater party-to-party contacts and political contacts, and building up what I call the building blocks of democracy in terms of civil society and political parties. This is an area in which Britain has expertise and excellence.”

Mr. Cameron should ask employers and trade unions to release Arab-speaking experts to go and help the wannabe democracies along North Africa’s shoreline, as well as finding ways of helping the Iranian people striving for freedom. The model should be the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, which under different administrations has promoted democratic change around the world. It is soft power with muscle, unafraid in rejecting the cultural relativism that both the left and the advocates of stability-over-liberty use to argue that “Western values” cannot be imposed on the East. The values Mr. Cameron mentions are universal and as much the right of the poorest Nile farmer or Iranian student as they are of European intellectuals.

Finally, Lee Smith in Tablet magazine has made the controversial point that to be truly democratic, Arab societies will need to break-out of their oil-dependency in order to maintain functioning economies, and that Israel is an example of how this is achievable in the Middle East. His article spends a little too long praising Israel without explaining the policy reasons behind Israel’s success, but it is still worthwhile for that observation.

Democratic State – by Lee Smith > Tablet Magazine – A New Read on Jewish Life.

Democracy is not something that happens overnight. It took almost a millenium from Magna Carta for all Australians to have voting rights. The Arab world has a long road ahead, but hopefully, through this kind of advice, it can stay on course.

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And who said dictators were going out of fashion?


What a beautiful and happy Western-looking family

Joan Juliet Buck, from leading fashion magazine Vogue, wrote a longform profile on a high-profile Middle-Eastern lady, who, in Buck’s words, is “glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement.'”

Buck chronicles this woman’s high-level Western education, how she grew-up in London, went to Queen’s college, has an MBA from Harvard and worked at Goldman Sachs, but is down to earth, with an accent that is “English, but not plummy”. Buck details visits to the Louvre, impressing Brad and Angelina and even the charitable NGO that she runs to educate refugee children. She even fights extremism “through art”.

And who is this beautiful, caring, glamorous Arab leader, who sounds just like the Western celebrities that Vogue usually profile? None other than Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad. And Syria sounds great too:

Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert – Vogue Daily – Vogue.

Syria is known as the safest country in the Middle East, possibly because, as the State Department’s Web site says, “the Syrian government conducts intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Syrian citizens and foreign visitors.” It’s a secular country where women earn as much as men and the Muslim veil is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings, but its shadow zones are deep and dark. Asma’s husband, Bashar al-Assad, was elected president in 2000, after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, with a startling 97 percent of the vote. In Syria, power is hereditary.
“It’s a tough neighborhood,” admits Asma al-Assad

Huh. Let’s take another look at that passage for a second, shall we?

As the State Department’s Web site says, “the Syrian government conducts intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Syrian citizens and foreign visitors.”

To keep them safe, right? Sounds like something any kind, friendly leader would do. Like her husband, who won 97% of the vote – the people must love him! Just one thing that Ms Buck forgot to mention, he was the only candidate in the election. And why was he the only candidate in the election? Well, you see, these security forces that keep Syria “safe”, also keep his regime “safe”, but brutally crushing any dissent.

Reading on:

The country’s alliances are murky.How close are they to Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah?There are souvenir Hezbollah ashtrays in the souk, and you can spot the Hamas leadership racing through the bar of the Four Seasons. Its number-one enmity is clear: Israel. But that might not always be the case. The United States has just posted its first ambassador there since 2005, Robert Ford.

Might not always be the case, hey? Because the US broke-off and then re-established diplomatic relations, that means that Israel may no longer be its number-one enmity? Hold on a second:

Iraq is next door, Iran not far away. Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, is 90 minutes by car from Damascus. Jordan is south, and next to it the region that Syrian maps label Palestine. There are nearly one million refugees from Iraq in Syria, and another half-million displaced Palestinians.

Seems as if Syria doesn’t recognise that there is an Israel, funny that. And as the article already glossed over, Ms Assad and her husband harbour, support and train terrorist groups that attack Israel, not to mention being Iran’s strongest ally. Syria also militarily occupied Lebanon for years and is still meddling in Lebanese affairs. Neat, huh?

What else can we divine from Buck’s profile? Well, Syria is a great example of a tolerant, multicultural society:

Back in the car, I ask what religion the orphans are. “It’s not relevant,” says Asma al-Assad. “Let me try to explain it to you. That church is a part of my heritage because it’s a Syrian church. The Umayyad Mosque is the third-most-important holy Muslim site, but within the mosque is the tomb of Saint John the Baptist. We all kneel in the mosque in front of the tomb of Saint John the Baptist. That’s how religions live together in Syria—a way that I have never seen anywhere else in the world. We live side by side, and have historically. All the religions and cultures that have passed through these lands—the Armenians, Islam, Christianity, the Umayyads, the Ottomans—make up who I am.”
“Does that include the Jews?” I ask.
“And the Jews,” she answers. “There is a very big Jewish quarter in old Damascus.”

The Jewish quarter of Damascus spans a few abandoned blocks in the old city that emptied out in 1992, when most of the Syrian Jews left. Their houses are sealed up and have not been touched, because, as people like to tell you, Syrians don’t touch the property of others. The broken glass and sagging upper floors tell a story you don’t understand—are the owners coming back to claim them one day?

So the abandoned Jewish quarter tells “a story you don’t understand” then? I guess no one knows why there were 30,000 Jews in Syria in 1947 and only 200 today. Well at least Joan Juliet Buck, former editor of French Vogue, doesn’t understand, but then she doesn’t seem to understand much, otherwise this article would read a little differently.

It is, in fact, not a mystery what happened in 1992. This was when finally, after years of campaigning, 4,500 Syrian Jews were allowed to leave Syria. One person who does understand is Alice Sardell, president of the now defunct Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews.

Point of no return: How Syria’s Jews obtained their freedom.

Freedom for the Jews of Syria beginning in 1992 came about after a long and intense American and international human rights campaign led by The Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews, with the United States government at the forefront.

But they weren’t just fleeing for nothing:

Since 1948 with the establishment of the State of Israel, Syria’s Jewish community had been held as hostages living under Syria’s Secret Police and subject to arbitrary arrests and systematic torture.

Where were these little details in Buck’s profile?

Buck could have written about the brutal secret police, the sponsorship of terror, the alliance with Iran, the nuclear program and the decades of the despotic reign of terror that Assad and his fellow Allawite leaders have subjected the Syrian people to. She even could have mentioned that Assad and her husband prevented protests like the ones spreading through other Arab countries by shutting off the internet and suppressing protesters with beatings and arrests. Instead, she gave the guy a goddamn podium to speak from:

Neither of them believes in charity for the sake of charity. “We have the Iraqi refugees,” says the president. “Everybody is talking about it as a political problem or as welfare, charity. I say it’s neither—it’s about cultural philosophy. We have to help them. That’s why the first thing I did is to allow the Iraqis to go into schools. If they don’t have an education, they will go back as a bomb, in every way: terrorism, extremism, drug dealers, crime. If I have a secular and balanced neighbor, I will be safe.”

So now he’s against terrorism is he?

This article was disgusting to be honest. To read more, including Buck’s extremely underwhelming response, see the links below:

Vogue Defends Profile of Syrian First Lady – Max Fisher – International – The Atlantic.

Vogue’s ridiculous puff piece on Syria’s ruling family | FP Passport.

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How much influence did Facebook and Twitter have in Egypt? The full story

Leading on from this post, I may have an answer to Malcolm Gladwell’s question, “did social media solve a problem that actually needed solving?”

Writing for Foreign Policy, Reuters reporter Maryam Ishani has detailed the Egyptian “Twitter revolutionaries” and the role that technology played in the whole revolution. She seems to support Clay Shirky’s theory – social media did not bring down Mubarak on the strength of its pure Justin Timberlake awesomeness, but it did help long-term to facilitate the movement’s organising. The people that she says were behind the protests’ initiation seem extremely resourceful, dedicated and intelligent and were able to utilise social media as another tool in their kit in order to aid their project.

The Hopeful Network – By Maryam Ishani | Foreign Policy

The groundwork for the Egyptian uprising was set well before these high-profile figures and organizations [El Baradei and the Muslim Brotherhood] became involved. Nearly three years ago, a group of youth activists with a strong sense of Internet organizing and more than a little help from abroad was preparing for a grassroots, high-tech opposition movement.

I’m going to start by questioning whether these activists were quite as important as Ishani makes out – after all, the story sounds much better if this is the case. She puts a lot of importance on social media – she even says that the whole movement was sparked by Facebook:

Not surprisingly, it was another Facebook page set up by the April 6 youth — this one devoted to the memory of Khaled Said, a man brutally killed in police custody — that sparked the beginning of the current uprising in Egypt. Thanks largely to the legwork done by the April 6 movement and the Egyptian Democratic Academy months earlier, Egypt’s opposition had been integrated into a closely knit online community. The movement showed up in force on Jan. 25, when the protests began.

It’s funny, because everyone else seems to think that the protests were sparked by the events going on in Tunisia – where the Egyptian people suddenly realised that dictators can be taken down.

If we do accept her premise, there is still a lot to think about. I’m sure Gladwell would again take the line that they happened to use social media, but the revolution could have happened anyway. I made a list of the different ways in which these activists used social media, in an attempt to answer this point:

  1. To distribute a manual on protest methods.
  2. To form connections with other groups, such as Italian anarchists, who provided training and expertise.
  3. To quickly communicate information about arrested activists, so that they could be located and freed by a legal team, rather than languishing in prison for weeks without charge.
  4. To distribute videos of protests and brutality against protestors.
  5. As a map, to locate good areas for protests and goof photography vantage points.

Having reduced their use of social media to these points, Gladwell does seem to be on to something. None of these things couldn’t be achieved without the internet; pre-1990, you could still distribute manuals, have communications systems and use maps. The social media would make these things a lot easier, when used properly, but I’m not convinced that they were absolutely necessary.

In fact, the activists used a whole variety of integrated tools, not just social media. For instance, after noticing that the videos of Iran protests around the election last year created a massive stir, but were less effective than they could have been due to poor quality, some of these Egyptians went to the US for film training. Also, they had contingency plans for when the internet failed:

The activists acted quickly during the blackout to create workaround solutions. Within days, clandestine FTP accounts were set up to move videos out to international news outlets. While accredited members of the media struggled to communicate and coordinate, street protesters were using land lines to call supporters, who translated and published their accounts on Twitter for an international audience hungry for news of the unfolding events.

As I said before, this sounds like a very intelligent, very resourceful group of individuals, who used all of the tools and techniques available to them in order to achieve their goals. This is not to underestimate the role of social media in their effort – without these new means off communication, their job would have been far more difficult, we definitely do have a lot to thank Facebook and Twitter for. The question is whether or not they could have achieved what they did without the facilitation provided by social media. This is not as clear cut as social media’s best friends seem to think it is, there are definitely strong arguments for each side.

Speaking of Twitter quickly, Foreign Policy blogger Colum Lynch has written a piece that really illuminates the value that it does and doesn’t have for following current events. He points out that it has sped-up the news cycle in an unprecedented way, and that there is no better tool for following the news as it happens, as well as sourcing a huge variety of content. That said, he also observes that it allows disinformation from dubious sources to spread extremely quickly and possibly be picked-up by lazy journalists in well-regarded publications, allowing it to spread even further.

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