Monday, November 23, 2015

Putting the "Wonga Coup" Investors on Trial

The Daily Mail reports that Sir Mark Thatcher, son of the late Margaret Thatcher, is to be the subject of a private prosecution in the United Kingdom for his role in the 2004 coup plot against Equatorial Guinea's dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Simon Mann, who was captured in Zimbabwe while en route to Equatorial Guinea with sixty mercenaries, will be the prosecution's star witness.

Private prosecutions, possible in some common law systems, involve allegations of criminal conduct brought by an individual or organization rather than the public prosecutor. In some cases (including this case involving the failed "Wonga Coup"), evidence may be developed by private investigators. Obiang has engaged a prominent British human rights attorney, Jason McCue, to present the case. (McCue's profile on states, "Jason McCue litigates against terrorists, dictators and others who seem above the law, using the legal and judicial system in innovative ways.")

Mann served four years in a Zimbabwean prison before being turned over to Equatorial Guinea for trial. He was convicted and sentenced to a 32-year prison sentence but released after a year and a half. He maintained at his trial and in a memoir published after his return to the United Kingdom that he was the front man for a group of British investors including Thatcher and Ely Calil. Obiang has long been suspected of making a deal with Mann for his release from prison in the expectation that Mann would help him make the case that the British, Spanish, and U.S. governments were behind the coup plot.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Those who are looking for absolute security are on the wrong planet. This one has life.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What You Should Be Reading After Paris

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, those with the least intelligent things to say seem to be shouting the loudest. Some are trying to get attention in the still overcrowded field of those running for the Republican presidential nomination. Others have airtime to fill and ratings to worry about. Then there are those who are simply way too inclined to express their deepest fears on social media. The mix is toxic and, in a democracy, it threatens to affect policy in some truly harmful ways.

Let us suppose you would prefer some reasoned analysis over feverish diatribes. Let us suppose further that you value knowledge as much as a high decibel level. What (and whom) should you be reading? Here are a few suggestions:

Will McCants is the author of the recently published book The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (St. Martin's, 2015) and a fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His brief essay for FP ("How the Islamic State Declared War on the World") is a good starting point for understanding what ISIS is. McCants makes the important point that ISIS is not just a terrorist organization. It is a state--and a state-sponsor of terrorism (much as North Korea is a state and a transnational criminal organization, an insight I owe to this excellent monograph). For McCants' view on the warrant for ISIS-style violence in Islam, see this brief piece on the Washington Post's "Acts of Faith" blog.

Robert Pape, professor of international relations at the University of Chicago and co-author (with James K. Feldman) of Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It, suggests that ISIS attacked Paris because of the role France has played in a successful military campaign against the Islamic State. "The group," Pape writes, "is lashing out against the states that are now posing crippling blows to its dreams of a caliphate in the Middle East." Pape's Boston Globe op-ed is titled "Why Paris? The Answer Can Be Found in Syria and Iraq."

Andrew J. Bacevich, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and author of the forthcoming book America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, is more pessimistic about what the U.S. or France can do to defeat Islamic extremism. In this Boston Globe op-ed--"A War the West Cannot Win"--Bacevich argues for a defensive posture that leaves those in the Middle East to sort out their political and religious differences without external involvement. 

Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University, takes the rhetoric about the response to the Paris attacks down several notches in an essay--"Don't Give ISIS What It Wants"--for FP. Walt argues that ISIS has a long-term strategy and that the first priority of the U.S. should be "not to fall into the obvious trap the Islamic State has set." That was my point in yesterday's post.

Daniel Drezner, professor of international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, also urges everyone to "take a deep breath" before acting in the wake of the Paris attacks. His comments on the Washington Post's "PostEverything" blog--"Formulating a Policy Response in Anger Is Probably Not the Best Way to Defeat the Islamic State"--remind us that, among other things, "the Islamic State is not winning in the Middle East."

Olivier Roy, professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and author of Globalized Islam and Holy Ignorance, offers a helpful overview of the many conflicting state interests in the Middle East in this op-ed for the New York Times titled "The Attacks in Paris Reveal the Strategic Limits of ISIS." One cannot read this piece and come away believing there are simple solutions to the conflict in Syria or the broader problems of the Middle East.

In offering this reading list, I am not endorsing all of the views expressed by these individuals. In fact, one couldn't coherently endorse everything each one says for the simple reason that there are some clear differences of opinion among them. I am suggesting, however, that these brief essays--none will take more than about five minutes to read--are better informed and more carefully reasoned than most of what you will get from the twenty-four hour news networks, the vast wastelands of the Internet just on the other side of click bait, or your Facebook friend Earl who has strong opinions about everything.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Chess Lessons

Experienced chess players understand gambits. Politicians should, too.

What, exactly, is a gambit? In chess, it's an opening--a sequence of moves at the beginning of a game--designed to entice the opponent to make a move that will leave her in a weakened position. Typically, a gambit involves leaving a pawn vulnerable to capture, but in a location on the board that requires the opponent to cede control of the center squares or to make some other tactical concession. A gambit, in other words, involves baiting a trap and waiting for the opponent to walk right into it.

Terrorist attacks should generally be understood as gambits. They are intended to provoke a particular response that the terrorists believe will benefit them, at least in the long run. The response the terrorists desire is probably the one that, for the victim and the wider audience, is the easiest to rationalize and the hardest to resist. As a rule of thumb, if you don't know what the terrorists are trying to goad you into doing, you might be better off not doing anything rather than choosing to follow your gut.

So, what is it that the Islamic State might want? Let's start with an even bigger conflict in the Middle East--one that draws in a variety of powers that are distrustful of one another. Let's add a more visible presence of French, U.S., and Russian military forces. And then let's add an end to the open door for Syrian refugees.

Why might the Islamic State want these things? Because its appeal is based on two things: first, its ability to provide better governance than the weak and corrupt governments of Iraq, Syria, Libya, or parts of Egypt, and, second, its ability to present itself as the best defender of Islam against an implacably hostile West.

Those who have reflexively called for widening the war in Syria and Iraq on the one hand while excluding Syrian refugees from the United States and Western Europe on the other might do well to learn something about gambits.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Urbanization of Insecurity

Tonight Paris has been the scene of an unspeakable atrocity. As President Obama said just a few hours ago, "This is an attack not just on Paris, it's an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share." It is also, once again, an attack on a city--one in a growing list of examples of the urbanization of insecurity.

Cities have long been subject to attack. The burning of Washington in 1814 and the destruction of Atlanta in 1864 provide examples familiar to Americans. But prior to the twentieth century, cities were generally targeted at or near the end of a successful military campaign; they were not generally attacked as a desperate tactic of the weak in an attempt to turn the tables on the strong. Urban terrorism, like the aerial bombardment of cities that preceded it (also called "terrorism" by those who experienced it), is a form of asymmetric warfare--a mode of attack that avoids the adversary's strengths and zeroes in on its vulnerabilities, even if such a mode of attack is considered barbaric or "an attack on . . . the universal values that we share."

Consider the pattern that has emerged in recent years.

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, appeared to present a new form of terrorism. After all, roughly nine times more people died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 than had died in the January 1985 Air India bombing over the Irish Sea, which had previously been the deadliest terrorist attack in history. What made the 9/11 attacks different from the many terrorist attacks that had gone before were their sophistication and their manifest intent to kill as many people as possible. But there were precursors to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The unsuccessful effort in 1993 to bring down the World Trade Center in retrospect appears to have been a harbinger of things to come. It was an attack intended to inflict mass casualties, as was the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo attack in Tokyo. In the latter case, an apocalyptic Japanese cult calling itself Supreme Truth attempted to spread sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system. The attack, motivated by the group's belief that it was destined to rule Japan, was preceded by a multimillion-dollar effort to manufacture and test biological weapons. Ten times between 1990 and 1995, Aum Shinrikyo attempted to spread biological agents in and around Tokyo. For various reasons (some illustrating the difficulty of working with biological weapons), not a single person was killed in any of these attacks. Consequently, Aum Shinrikyo turned its attention to chemical weapons. In the Tokyo subway attack, twelve people were killed and over a thousand were injured. Still more experienced some form of severe psychological trauma.

An incident similar to the deadliest part of tonight's attack in Paris occurred in Moscow in October of 2002 when fifty Chechen terrorists seized a Moscow theater during a performance, taking approximately 700 hostages. The terrorists, who wired themselves and the building with explosives, demanded that Russia end its war against separatists in Chechnya. At least 129 people died in the theater, most from a toxic gas Russian forces pumped into the building prior to the raid that brought the ordeal to a conclusion.

On the morning of March 11, 2004, ten bombs exploded on commuter trains in downtown Madrid. The detonation of the bombs was a coordinated effort, with all ten exploding within minutes of 8:00 a.m. In addition to the ten bombs that exploded, police located and safely detonated three other bombs. After the attack, it was determined that 191 people died and approximately 1,800 people were injured in the blasts. Initially, the attack was thought to be the work of the Basque separatist group ETA, but it was later found that Islamic extremists, inspired by an al Qaeda call for attacks on Spain, were responsible.

A little over a year later, on July 7, 2005, three bombs exploded in the London Underground while a fourth bomb exploded on one of the city’s iconic red double-decker buses. These explosions all occurred at the height of the city’s morning rush hour, effectively bringing the city to a standstill while rescue crews rushed to help those trapped both above and below ground. After extensive rescue efforts and searches, the final count was fifty-two people dead and more than 950 injured. The attacks, suicide bombings executed by four British men, all of whom had no known terrorist background or affiliation, highlighted the danger cities face not only from foreigners but from their own citizens as well.

On November 26, 2008, the Pakistan-based terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba launched a brutal and carefully planned attack on multiple locations in Mumbai, India. The attack spanned three days as ten gunmen indiscriminately killed Indians and foreigners alike in highly populated areas, including a hospital, a Jewish center, a cafĂ©, and two hotels. The attackers, all well prepared, continually eluded capture by Indian police and counter-terrorism units. Indeed, in the aftermath of the attacks, there was much controversy over how ten gunmen could cause so much destruction and fight off Indian forces for three days within a single city. Overall, 164 were killed and 308 were injured.

What these cases tell us is that cities are vulnerable--and thus are tempting targets for extremists. While an effective response by well-prepared police or military units can mitigate the impact of urban terrorism, there seems to be little that can be done to prevent attacks like those that have occurred in Paris, Mumbai, London, Madrid, Moscow, and other cities. Governments seeking answers where there are few to be found are likely to use more military force abroad and more electronic surveillance at home. And they will face pressure from their most reactionary citizens to turn away refugees, notwithstanding the fact that refugees, far from being the problem, are themselves fleeing terrorists.

The world's most vibrant and prosperous cities are places of great diversity with the tolerance needed to match and nurture it. They are threatened most by intolerance, whether homegrown in the form of racist policemen or imported in the form of religious extremists. Unfortunately, the very qualities--diversity and tolerance--that make a city like Paris so attractive are also the ones that make it so vulnerable. And this fact, I fear, leaves us little to work with in trying to address the urbanization of insecurity.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Saints . . . and Sinners

In many of the churches of Western Christendom, yesterday was All Saints' Day, or the Feast of All Saints, a day set aside to remember those who have died in Christ. It is ironic, then, that word of Willis Carto's death came yesterday. And it may be perplexing that I would break a long (unintentional) silence on this blog to note his passing. But to note his passing is not to mourn it.

Six months ago, I would not have known who Willis Carto was. But in the course of conducting research at the Reagan Library on the ratification of the Genocide Convention, Heather Odell and I came across a large number of letters sent to the White House (primarily in April 1985) to express opposition to U.S. ratification of the 1948 treaty that defines genocide and obligates states to prevent and punish its commission.

The letters came mostly from people who were members of or were influenced by a right-wing organization called the Liberty Lobby. Willis Carto founded the Liberty Lobby in 1958 as a means of promoting his extremist views. According to his obituary in the New York Times, "Mr. Carto raised funds to finance a right-wing military dictatorship in the United States, campaigned to persuade blacks to voluntarily return to Africa and, most influentially, started newsletters, a journal and conferences of academics and others to deny the scale, and even the existence, of the Holocaust." It is not hard to understand why his organization would have campaigned against ratification of the Genocide Convention. What is hard to understand is why so many Americans would have joined the campaign--the Times notes that there were 400,000 people on the Liberty Lobby's mailing list in the 1980s--and why eleven Republicans in the Senate would have opposed ratification to the bitter end.

Carto's views were, according to his friend Louis T. Byers, "those of a racial nationalist." He magnified his influence by keeping himself and his views out of the limelight and enlisting supporters through appeals to the Constitution (the Genocide Convention would supposedly require the U.S. to turn over its citizens to a World Court in violation of their constitutional rights), to historical objectivity (Carto's Institute for Historical Review and its journal published "scholarly" articles that questioned the accuracy of existing research on the Holocaust), and to American exceptionalism (the Liberty Lobby suggested over and over that America's greatness would be undermined by any form of obeisance to international law). Without understanding the larger narrative represented by the Liberty Lobby and the Institute for Historical Review, many Americans lent their names to Carto's worldview. The same sort of thing happens today when people argue that dominant groups--not racial minorities or women or the poor--are the primary victims of discrimination or that climate change is not happening because there was a harsh winter or, on the basis of a headline or two, that immigration endangers our society.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that support for racist organizations is always and only a product of ignorance regarding the larger narrative. After all, there are racists among us and, if we are honest with ourselves, we each harbor our own evil impulses. Carto's life should remind us of what evil impulses look like when given full expression. His obituary is repulsive. But the history of the Liberty Lobby and the Genocide Convention should also remind us that "principled opposition"--to civil rights, to help for refugees, to the right to health care, to conservation of the Earth--may sometimes be, in reality, nothing more than a rationalization of evil.