The United States’ military of the 21st century will be leaner, not by strategic choice but rather fiscal necessity. The new US defense budget aims to reduce army personnel to levels not seen since before World War II. While a heavily indebted US must learn to do more with less, its strategic partners around the globe, including in Asia, must likewise downgrade their expectations and boost their burden-sharing.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a research institute focused on global security issues, 4.4% of US gross domestic produce was spent on defense in 2012, a slight dip from the decade-high 4.8% spent in 2009 and 2010. Even at this reduced level, military spending was still US$689 billion, or about 19% of the total federal budget. Under the new budget proposal, spending will be reduced to $496 billion.
The public is war-weary after the extended and inconclusive campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and defense is widely seen as a budgetary line item conducive to savings. In a 2012 survey conducted by the Stimson Center think tank, respondents were unanimous in their desire to slash military spending, with proposed cuts amounting to an average of $103.5 billion, or about 18% of the 2012 budget. Those cuts were far higher than those put forward by either Republicans or Democrats in congress.
Unveiled on February 24, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s new defense budget goes beyond cutting back on wasteful spending. Budget reductions will force lawmakers to consider how best to spend limited resources. Lawmakers came under fire in 2012 by allocating funds to build new M-1 Abrams tanks the army neither requested nor needed. The army said at the time it could save taxpayers $3 billion if the Pentagon held off on repairing, refurbishing or making new tanks for three years.
The army, which will bear the brunt of the announced cuts, will be reduced from 522,000 soldiers to 440-450,000 by 2019, slightly lower than the standing levels before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Air Force will also be required to retire some of its aircraft, including the U-2 spy plane of Cold War fame and A-10 Thunderbolt II ground-attack aircraft. Other outmoded equipment will also likely be retired under the cuts.
With fewer troops and equipment, America’s military and political leaders must chart a new course for their armed forces and role in the wider world. The US military will have to learn how to do more with less, in a belt-tightening challenge that is already being studied by army planners. But while the US learns to live with a leaner fighting force, what will the lower outlays mean for its allies and partners, particularly with respect to Washington’s so-called “pivot” policy towards the Asia-Pacific?
A smaller standing army should not necessarily be construed as a decline in military capability or effectiveness. Future battles will be fought and won through the greater use of technology as opposed to brute strength and overpowering numbers. Recent improvements to drone technology have allowed US forces to dispatch unmanned aerial vehicles greater distances and strike targets at lower cost than conventional aircraft.
Still, there are certain new strategic realities that the US and its allies must face. For those Asia-Pacific countries that had hoped Washington’s refocus towards the region – outlined in “pivot” policy plans to shift 60% of US naval assets to the Indo-Pacific by 2020 – would shield them from China’s increasing assertiveness, the new reduced budget will no doubt have given them pause.
One example: the US Navy will have to make do with 32, instead of an earlier proposed 52, of its new Lockheed Martin-built Littoral Combat Ships (LCS). Designed to operate close to shore, the LCS USS Freedom was deployed to Singapore from April to November 2013 with plans to deploy up to four more of the vessels by 2016. This shift was made despite Hagel’s reservations about the vessels’ effectiveness in combat. The USS Freedom developed technical problems in Singapore just hours before it was to participate in a joint naval exercise in Brunei last November.
Despite that glitch, it is expected that 16 LCS will be assigned to the Navy’s Pacific Fleet by 2021, a deployment aimed at maintaining the US’s forward posture in the region. Moreover, the Navy will continue to maintain its global fleet of 11 aircraft carriers.
With any conflict in the Asia-Pacific, especially the hotly contested South China Sea, likely to take place on the high seas, America’s naval might is still undisputed though increasingly challenged by China. Although not yet matching in capabilities, China’s construction of a second aircraft carrier in addition to the Liaoning it purchased from Ukraine demonstrates Beijing’s resolve to one day contest the US Navy’s current free roam of the Western Pacific.
Just as Washington must re-evaluate its military’s future missions and commitments, so too must its regional allies and partners adjust their strategic expectations of the US. Under the presidency of Barack Obama, the US has shed the previous George W Bush administration’s aggressive “follow me” posture for one more reserved and founded in consensus-building.
For countries like the Philippines or Vietnam, whose disputes with China over territorial and maritime possessions continue to fester, the new reality is that they can no longer sit on the sidelines hoping to hide under a US security umbrella. Rather, they will be expected to shoulder a greater share of the burden in preserving security and stability in their claimed waters.
The US has already goaded Japan in that direction. Additionally, although not considered a traditional Pacific power, Canada has joined the US in increasing security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific by signing on to the Asia-Pacific Cooperation Framework at the 2013 Halifax International Security Forum.
Streamlined American armed forces may not be a bad thing over the strategic long-run. The trickle-down effect coming from a leaner US military could be the formation of new coalitions of like-minded nations that together assume greater responsibility for their own security while at the same time bolstering familiarity among US regional allies.
Such a process is already underway with Japanese Prime Minister’s Shinzo Abe’s proposed “democratic security diamond”, a multilateral strategic alliance ultimately aimed at encircling China. To secure the high seas between the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific and to curb China’s increasing assertiveness in the region, Abe encouraged greater cooperation among Australia, India, Japan, and the US through its bases in Hawaii.
In his statement at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels, Hagel remarked that European leaders must renew investment in their respective militaries. The US has not abandoned Europe, but an indebted Washington is increasingly encouraging erstwhile allies to contribute more to defense. In light of the impending military budget cuts, America’s allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific would do well to take note.
Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. Duvien Tran is a special research associate at VDK Law Office in Ottawa focusing on foreign policy, planning, and South China Sea security issues.
Nearly four years after implementation in India of the Right to Education Act (RTE) in April 2010, the situation remains as grim as ever. Although India currently spends less than 4% of gross domestic product on education, there has been a steady increase of allocation of funds towards free and compulsory education to the 6-14 age group, especially since RTE came into existence. Yet, a rising proportion of students in rural areas choose private schools over government ones. The dependence on private tuition is also growing, with as much as 26% of students continuing with paid private tuition.
What is of an even bigger concern is that the learning outcome in
the public schools has not improved since the introduction of RTE. Rather, it has deteriorated, as shown by the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER).
ASER assesses the reading and basic arithmetic skills of students by having them read or do simple mathematical problems that are two or more levels below their current standard. For example, a Standard 5 student is given Standard 2 material to read. Among Standard 5 children enrolled in government schools, the percentage of children able to read Standard 2 level text declined to 41.1% in 2013 from 50.3% in 2009. There is some improvement in the percentage when the performance of private school children is included – thereby providing further evidence of the lackluster learning outcome of government schools.
The ASER 2013 data indicates that the level of basic arithmetic skills in government school “is lagging behind several years”. Assessing the ability of the student to solve problems that pertain to two to three years lower; a paltry 20.8% of Standard 5 children in government schools could solve Standard 3 problems, compared with 38.9% students from the private school.
This deplorable quality of outcome does not come as a surprise given the general quality of the public school teachers. Attending school where the teachers’ knowledge level is negligible does not make much of a difference for students other than getting a free meal. With 99% of aspiring teachers failing to clear the Central Teachers’ Eligibility Test (CTET) in 2012 (a test made mandatory by RTE for recruitment in government funded schools), we may end up with no new teachers in the near future.
Even more worrying is what will happen if the test is conducted among existing teachers? In fact, given this shocking result, the Central Board of Secondary Education could not enforce the bye-laws to make it mandatory for teachers in their affiliated schools to be CTET certified. Hence poor-quality educators will continue to dominate, and an even poorer quality of students will come out of the system.
In order to bring a balance, the states conduct an eligibility test that is easier than the CTET to ensure a supply of certified teachers even from the rural and tribal areas. Whether this compromise is acceptable is definitely debatable, but for a state that has to take the multiple responsibilities of creating employment, recruiting people, and establishing a basis for developing a capable generation all to be handled simultaneously, they are left with very little room to maneuver.
Unfortunately, public schools have become virtually irrelevant in India. According to information in the RTE forum, only 8% of schools are compliant with RTE norms for infrastructure and teacher availability. One also has to contend with high rates of absenteeism (25% per cent of teachers at India’s government primary schools absent themselves from work on any given day, and only 50% of teachers present in schools are actually engaged in teaching, says a recent World Bank research project on teacher absenteeism) and poor quality of teachers.
In fact, while these teachers fail to answer questions based on the primary section syllabus they send their own children to private schools, epitomizing the rot that has set in in the public school system in India.
Clearly, there is a failure of the mechanisms to provide equitable, quality education to every child. In fact, among the nations with a good demographic profile, especially the South East Asian nations, India not only spends less on education, it has a very high inequality in education. In fact, as per the latest available Human Development Index (HDI) study, India’s HDI loses 40% of the value once it is adjusted for inequality in education.
According to figures from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, “Countries will need an extra 1.6 million teachers to achieve universal primary education by 2015 and 3.3 million by 2030.” The consequences of the deficit are explained well by the 2013/14 UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report.
What could be a way out? Last November, former education and current Communication and Law Minister Kapil Sibal stressed that reforms in education need to be child-centric. In fact, referring to India’s first mission to Mars, he said that, “When we talk about launching a satellite to Mars, we have more than 220 million satellites in the country, our children and each satellite has its own trajectory. We should help them in finding their orbit and shine.”
Essentially, he believes that education needs to concentrate on the child and not the curriculum. Its efforts should be to bring out the brilliance in the child. If the government turns toward embracing technology, it may indeed find pertinent solution for all these problems.
One such solution is the Self Organized Mediation Environment, or SOME. It is an environment wherein experienced teachers from all over the world take sessions through Skype with children in remote areas. Not only has this been practiced successfully in various parts of India for several years now, its usage is spreading fast even globally.
When the revolutionary idea of a Self Organized Learning Environment (where the students teach themselves with the help of technology), showed success, there was a felt need for someone to encourage and keep the enthusiasm of the children alive. This resulted in SOME where the mediators help these children with reading and navigating through the Internet.
Seeing the robustness of this educational design and its effectiveness over the years, the Technology, Entertainment, Design conferences – better known as TED – in 2013 awarded the US$1 million annual TED prize for the idea of “The School in The Cloud”, proposed by Calcutta-born Sugata Mitra, now an academic in the UK. This joins the two concepts of SOLE and SOME and surely could be a solution to The Education for All movement, a global commitment to provide quality basic education for all children, youth and adults.
At this point in time, two facilities under “Schools In The Cloud” (referred to here as SITC) are operational in the UK, and India’s first has opened recently in New Delhi. Three more are planned to be opened shortly, one in the UK and two in remote villages in India by March this year.
SITC’s success can cause a paradigm shift in education. On one hand it can reach every individual who wishes to learn despite the remoteness of a student’s village and scarcity of resource. Secondly it is child-centric, creativity-boosting learning environment that guides the children to learn by sifting information from the Internet. This surely is a leap towards the 21st century learning despite the odds faced by our public schools.
And why else is SITC appropriate in India? It is free.
Apart from the cost of the infrastructure, there is no other cost involved. It can work as effectively in the single-room schools (still 5% of public schools have single rooms according to the RTE Forum survey) as in bigger ones. The mediators teach for free. Therefore the focus of resource allocation should shift to an uninterrupted and cheap power supply. Setting up solar panels and towers to catch required bandwidth should become the priority.
It is also equitable and inclusive.
India has long consisted of two worlds. One is affluent, tech savvy, gadget-using; the other (for whom there are the public schools) lives on a bare minimum. The increasing preference of private schools over public ones amplifies this dichotomy.
SOLE and SOME are learning hubs that can be set up anywhere, in schools, at home, in clubs, in affluent schools and in schools with a paucity of resources or in nooks of “teacher shunned” villages. These labs can connect and interact with each other across borders. This way of sharing of knowledge, overcoming geographical borders, social and cultural barriers, is the best possible way to address inequity.
UNESCO believes that education for sustainable development requires far-reaching changes in the way it is often practiced today. I believe that SITC can be a potential solution to India’s perennial problem. However, for this, the government needs to shift the focus towards learning, critics stop prolixly discussions on road-map for RTE while cynical academic administrators permit a change from fossilized to a technology enabled system. This can help produce self-sufficient generations – the real demographic dividend that India aims to reap.
Swati Lodh Kundu is an independent consultant in New Delhi.
2014 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd
The Cold War is history. For those growing up today, the Cold War is as distant in time as World War II was for those came of age in the 1970s. In both cases, empires collapsed and maps were redrawn. Repugnant ideologies were laid bare and then laid to rest, though patches of nostalgia persist.
Surely the Cold War has been consigned to the textbooks as irrevocably as the Battle of the Bulge. The Berlin Wall is in pieces. The US president speaks of the abolition of nuclear weapons. The “common European home” from the Atlantic to the Urals – a conceit embraced by such odd bedfellows as De Gaulle and Gorbachev – beckons on the horizon, with the OSCE in place and the European Union creeping ever eastward. Tensions inevitably crop up, but they’re nothing worth exchanging inter-continental ballistic missile’s over.
What was once confrontation has turned into joint efforts to address global challenges: stabilizing the world economy, negotiating nuclear agreements with Iran, ending the war in Syria. A long article in The New Yorker on a multi-billion dollar nuclear fusion project being constructed in France reminds us that this quest for a sustainable replacement for fossil fuels began as a late-Cold War agreement between Moscow and Washington. Impending environmental catastrophe is gradually uniting all sides in much the same way that Ronald Reagan once imagined that a Martian invasion would.
And then there’s Ukraine.
Just when you thought it was safe to get back into geopolitics, the Cold War has reared its ugly head once again. All your favorite characters have returned to the footlights – the iron-fisted Russian leader, the thundering American secretary of state, troops of multiple nations on alert, and lots of cloak-and-dagger intrigue behind the scenes. And starring in the role of Prague 1968 is that new and untested actor: Crimea 2014. We can only hope that history is repeating itself as farce, not as a tragic tale told twice.
But there are some crucial differences in this restaging of the Cold War classic. The West has not been practicing containment of Russia so much as rollback of its influence by expanding NATO and the EU up to the country’s doorstep. And Moscow is not invoking some form of internationalism in support of ideological compatriots but nationalism pure and simple to safeguard its ethnic brethren. Moreover, this is a democratic age: Russian military intervention now comes with the Duma’s imprimatur. From the West, so far, has come much sound and fury, including the threat of economic sanctions and other penalties, but a military response remains off the table. There is still time to find a diplomatic solution that can preserve Ukrainian sovereignty, address the concerns of Russians on both sides of the border, and revive that old vision of a common European home that treats Russia as a member, not a mobster.
When people speak of “Russia’s doorstep,” they mean Ukraine. No one aspires to be a doorstep, because that’s what people walk on with their muddy boots. As Timothy Snyder has detailed in his book Bloodlands, Ukraine has suffered incalculable losses because of its location, first as a locus of potential resistance to Soviet control and then as a battleground during World War II. War pushed the country’s boundaries westward to incorporate what had once been parts of Poland. Changing the map only further emphasized Ukraine’s centrality to the fate of Europe, particularly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. The western sections have leaned Europe-ward while large numbers of Russian speakers in the east feel some measure of allegiance to Moscow.
It’s not just language that pulls Ukraine in two directions like the poor baby in King Solomon’s parable. It’s also a question of which collective entity to huddle in for shelter. Ukraine joined Russia and Belarus to create the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in December 1991 as the Soviet Union fell to pieces around them. But Ukraine was also the first CIS member to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994. Fifteen years later, Ukraine signed up for the European Union’s Eastern Partnership. Russia has not been happy about either of these partnerships. Moscow put together its own partnership, the Eurasian Economic Community, more than a dozen years ago, but Ukraine is only an observer.
A clash of partnerships is now threatening to break out on the peninsula of Crimea. This semi-autonomous region is the only part of Ukraine with a majority of Russian speakers, and it also hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet. In Crimea’s 2010 parliamentary elections, Viktor Yanukovych’s Russophone Party of Regions scored a huge victory. But a large population of Crimean Tatars – 15% of the 2 million people who live on the peninsula – has rallied in support of the new government in Kiev. The sympathies of Crimeans are clearly divided.
And now, it seems, Crimea itself is divided. Armed men stormed the Crimean parliament last week and forced the appointment of Sergei Aksyonov as the new prime minister of the peninsula. Aksyonov immediately appealed to Russia for assistance and set a date for a referendum on Crimean independence. Russian troops have spread throughout the peninsula to secure both civilian and military installations. Russian guards are posted outside Ukrainian military bases. The peninsula is divided between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian forces, with Aksyonov already declaring a new Crimean army that he insists Ukrainian soldiers must join. Russian troops conducting exercises at the border recently returned home, and Vladimir Putin has said that his country has no intention of swallowing Crimea. Indeed, absorption might not be his goal, for even the tastiest morsels have a habit of sticking in the throat.
Crimea is not the only challenge to Ukraine’s unity. Kharkiv, located a scant 40 kilometers from the border with Russia, is the country’s second largest city. Earlier in the week, a group of Cossacks seized control of the city hall and hoisted a Russian flag. But the new Ukrainian authorities eventually reestablished control. Places like Crimea and Kharkiv could swing either way in their sympathies. Russian troops plus separatist sentiment could produce an Abkhazian or Transnistrian scenario: breakaway provinces recognized by only a handful of countries around the world. Only compromise – a free-and-fair referendum, the preservation of minority rights, a moratorium on NATO expansion – can prevent fracture.
The continuing crisis in Ukraine has generated its share of Cold War-style inanities. One favorite trope of that period was the “mote in your eye” accusation. Secretary of State John Kerry, who apparently only lives in the present, recently intoned that “you just don’t invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests.” Then there’s the “if they only had nukes” argument. John Mearsheimer thinks Ukraine shouldn’t have given up its nuclear arsenal back in 1994 because those weapons would have made Russia think twice about sending troops into Crimea. Will the MAD scientists never learn? The situation in Ukraine is bad enough without adding WMD to the mix whether in the form of deliberate attack, accidental use, or loose nukes.
But the chief inanity is the one that has governed Western policy since 1991 – that there would be no costs to the expansion of NATO and the European Union. Leaders in Washington and Brussels have been repeatedly warned by those with even just a passing familiarity with Russian history and culture that encroachment in Moscow’s sphere of influence – its “near abroad” – is tantamount to poking the bear. Yes, it’s true that both institutions are responding to genuine interest “on the ground.” But the stakes here are very high. It’s not just about “losing Ukraine.” It would be an even greater catastrophe to “lose Russia.” And here I mean not the Cold War game of winning and losing but the more universal struggle between a liberating order and a debilitating chaos.
Indeed, with the rise of Putin and the freeze that has settled over freedom of expression and assembly, Russia is already being lost by degrees. It can’t be allowed to drift further into the politics of reaction. But the traditional approach to “saving Russia” has been a dual strategy of rolling back its influence externally and funding democracy initiatives within the country. However much I would love to see Ukraine in the European Union one day and however much I support civil society initiatives inside Russia, enthusiasts for these projects must recognize that they strengthen the hands of those who argue the West is only interested in neutering Mother Russia. Backlash is almost inevitable.
Policymakers in Washington and Brussels should take a much longer view. Instead of concentrating on “partnerships” that put Russia beyond the pale, they have to revive a much more encompassing vision of European security. As long as we continue to shave away at the habitat where the bear lives, it will swipe at its encroachers and defend its ground. “Some days you’ll eat the bear,” goes the old Joan Armatrading song, while “some days the bear will eat you.”
It might seem ridiculous to talk about grand partnerships with Russia at the very moment when the international community wants to put Putin in the penalty box. But Russia is much bigger than just Vladimir Putin, despite the man’s penchant for self-aggrandizement. Making a place at the table for this vast country is a chief challenge for the 21st century. So, even as we condemn the introduction of Russian troops in Crimea and decry the narrowing of democratic freedoms in Moscow, we have to remember that the Cold War is over, it should never return, and both sides must act that way.
John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.
This article is a joint publication of Foreign Policy In Focus and TheNation.com.
JAKARTA: Indonesia’s top Islamic clerical body has issued a religious fatwa against the illegal hunting and trade of endangered animals in the country, which the WWF hailed on Wednesday as the world’s first.
The fatwa by the Indonesian Ulema Council declares such activities “unethical, immoral and sinful”, council official Asrorun Ni’am Sholeh told AFP.
“All activities resulting in wildlife extinction without justifiable religious grounds or legal provisions are haram (forbidden). These include illegal hunting and trading of endangered animals,” said Sholeh, secretary of the council’s commission on fatwas.
“Whoever takes away a life, kills a generation. This is not restricted to humans, but also includes God’s other living creatures, especially if they die in vain.”
The country of 250 million people is the world’s most populous Muslim nation, but it remained unclear whether the fatwa would have any practical impact.
Indonesia’s vast and unique array of wildlife is under increasing pressure from development, logging and agricultural expansion.
The government does not typically react to fatwas by implementing specific policy changes.
However, a Forestry Ministry official who asked to remain anonymous told AFP the ministry and the religious council would make a joint announcement regarding the fatwa on March 12, without elaborating on its content.
The WWF called the fatwa the first of its kind in the world, and said the use of religion for wildlife protection “is a positive step forward.”
”It provides a spiritual aspect and raises moral awareness which will help us in our work to protect and save the remaining wildlife in the country such as the critically endangered tigers and rhinos,” WWF Indonesia communications director Nyoman Iswara Yoga said.
The fatwa was the result of months of dialogue between government officials, conservationists and other stakeholders, said Sholeh, the fatwa commission official.
Acknowledging it was not legally binding, Sholeh said in English: “It’s a divine binding.”He said the fatwa was effective from January 22. It was only made public late Tuesday.
The fatwa urges the government to effectively monitor ecological protection, review permits issued to companies accused of harming the environment, and bring illegal loggers and wildlife traffickers to justice.
The clearing, often illegally, of Indonesia’s once-rich forests for timber extraction or to make way for oil palm or other plantations poses a severe threat to critically endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger, orangutan, and Sumatran elephant.
Poachers also target wild elephants for their ivory tusks, for use in traditional Chinese medicines
Under Indonesian law, trafficking in protected animals can result in a maximum of five years in jail and 100 million rupiah ($8,700) fine.
The Bear’s Lair: Gold is libertarian, cyberspace isn’t
by Martin Hutchinson
Assessing the sustainability of Bitcoin amid recent controversy.
The disappearance of the Bitcoin trading website Mt. Gox caused consternation among younger libertarians, who had seen cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin as a vital weapon in the struggle against Big Government. For those like myself with almost as much suspicion of the tech sector as I have of Washington, it caused a smile of grim satisfaction. In reality, Bitcoin represents the world of Mikhail Bakunin more than that of Adam Smith; for true libertarians, it fails on a number of criteria that sound money must fulfil.
I wrote about Bitcoin in December in a piece “Mississippi Bitcoin” comparing it to John Law’s 1718 Mississippi Scheme (another radical new monetary invention). An open source “crypto-currency” devised in 2009, Bitcoins are created by solving algorithmic problems that get progressively more difficult, with a finite overall all-time limit of 21 million. This restricts the overall Bitcoin money supply and is supposed to ensure that their value will over time increase, since their creation cost also increases.
The a priori attraction of Bitcoin to libertarians was obvious, as was its attraction to speculators. If the supply is limited and the price has a strong upward trend as its finite supply attracts new users, libertarians see Bitcoin as an exciting technological equivalent of gold. Speculators such as the Winkelvoss brothers see it as an investment asset with the odds stacked heavily in the investor’s favor. Bitcoin reached an outstanding capitalization of $10 billion late last year, and the only question seemed to be whether it would become a true rival of gold, which has an outstanding capitalization at present prices of some $7 trillion.
The Mt. Gox fiasco indicated both the economic and philosophical disadvantages of Bitcoin. Economically, it must be an iron law of computer programming that any program which can be written can be hacked, and hence there is no completely secure store of value in cyberspace. Furthermore the barriers to entry for new cryptocurrencies are laughably low, so there are now more than 60 such items, each sucking up some of the potential support for Bitcoin. In spite of the best endeavors of Bitcoin’s creators, the supply of Bitcoin is not truly limited, holdings of Bitcoin are not truly secure and, since the currency is as attractive to scam artists as to anyone, it will inevitably attract scams, at least so long as it appears to represent substantial value.
Philosophically, Bitcoin fits nicely into the anarchism of Bakunin (1814-1876), the great rival of Karl Marx, who advocated for the state to wither away and be replaced by federations of self-governing workplaces and communes. Unlike gold, Bitcoin is not self-organizing. It and its cryptocurrency competitors are classic examples of self-governing communes, which create their own laws and customs.
Bakunin fell out with Karl Marx at the fifth congress of the International Workingmen’s Association, held at The Hague in 1872, which resulted in Bakunin’s expulsion from the workingmen’s movement. Indeed there is no question that Bakuninism isn’t Marxism and likewise that Bitcoin isn’t Marxist. But neither of them bears much resemblance to the free market, to libertarianism or to freedom in general.
Bakunin’s communes organized their own laws and practices, like cryptocurrencies. They contained no system of private property so, as in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” in its early stages, each commune generated an increasingly complex system of rules governing usage and maintenance of items of value. To create an effective cryptocurrency, complex rules of money creation are likewise required, as are even more complex algorithms to prevent the system being hacked and “bad guys” removing much or all of the Bitcoins’ value.
A gold standard is quite different. Gold is gold; there are no special rules required to create it, and ordinary property rights cover the ownership and transfer of gold. It cannot be “hacked” and there are no complex algorithms regulating the amount of it available. If the price of gold rises, then mining activity will naturally increase.
A gold standard imposes no rules on society. You can either have a central bank managing the financial system or, like Scotland and Canada before 1932, you can do without one. In practice, imposing too many rules of monetary policy, in an attempt to smooth out market fluctuations, imposes costs of its own. The Fed discovered that in 1927-32, when it first fought the natural market tightening from the Wall Street boom, then imposed too tight a policy artificially during the crash.
Unlike gold, Bitcoin is created artificially and must therefore be subject to rules as to its creation, and to its management when hiccups occur. Each cryptocurrency is a Bakuninite commune, with common ownership of the means of currency production and complex artificial rules governing its exchange. You can see the effect of this in the values of the currencies, or properly their exchange rates against the dollar. Not only do crypto-currency values fluctuate wildly, but some like Bitcoin have a tendency to appreciate, whereas others like Dogecoin are governed by a crazed algorithm apparently inspired by Rudolf von Havenstein (the central banker of the Weimar Republic). Dogecoin’s value has thus collapsed to $0.00096 as of this writing, so that even with 54 billion Dogecoin outstanding, more than any other crypto-currency, their total value is only $52 million.
The problem for Bakunin’s communes comes in their relations with the outside world. Unless each commune is going to have a gang of thugs who can beat up other communes if necessary, the communes will need an outside third-party regulator who governs relations between communes and inevitably affects relationships within them. Even if a particular commune wants to exist in a state completely without property rights and with wives/husbands equally held in common, the state will have an interest in that commune’s business dealings with the wider world and will want to ensure that nobody’s rights in the commune are being repressed and that the children of the commune are being looked after and to some degree educated.
You end up with two sets of laws, one within the commune and one imposed from outside the commune, with the outside set imposing restrictions on what laws can operate within the commune. You are in other words further from libertarianism or indeed true governmentless anarchy than you started. The model is unworkable.
Similarly in a world of cryptocurrencies, outside authorities will want to impose restrictions on how they work. They will want to ensure that the currencies are not being used to finance terrorism or organized crime. When a collapse occurs, such as that of Mount Gox, the authorities will want to investigate whether crimes against their own laws were committed, and whether fraud was involved. Those injured in the Mt. Gox collapse are now calling for outside regulation of cryptocurrencies as a whole, and even—heaven help us—bailouts. Indeed, that is not entirely unreasonable. If Bitcoin had a market value of $1 trillion instead of $10 billion when the Mt. Gox collapse happened, its failure would have been seriously destabilizing to the global financial system as a whole, and “bailouts” might (wrongly!) have been thought necessary.
Bad luck, Millennials. Your new and clever scheme to replicate the old-fashioned virtues of gold in the cybersphere appears to have fallen apart. Like other Millennial enthusiasms, such as Edward Snowden and Wikileaks, your “libertarian” creation has turned out not to increase liberty and well-being at all, but simply to destabilize a gimcrack, Baby-Boom-designed system that was already in deep trouble because old-fashioned virtues had been ignored for too long.
There’s one consolation for us old-fashioned types: the collapse of Bitcoin, if it fails to recover, will be good for the gold price. Unlike Bitcoin, gold requires no complex computer management systems to measure it, just an accurate scale. Unlike Bitcoin, gold is not subject to seizure by the NSA (or the KGB’s successor the FSB, which sensible non-Millennials worry about much more). The Fourth Amendment is quite clear on the point: If I have gold buried in my back garden, the Feds do not have the right to dig it up without a warrant. Unlike Bitcoin, gold does not require an ersatz central bank, setting artificial rules of money creation; it is created by mining and smelting in the free market and ideally requires no central bank at all. Unlike Bitcoin, gold is not subject to destruction by a solar flare, an EMP attack or even the 1666 Great Fire of London, wiping out the precious code in which it is stored.
In short, the free-market solution to the awful mess which self-indulgent Keynesian Baby-Boom monetary policies have created lies not in cyberspace but in the mountains. Millennials wishing to make their fortune should don not the neck-beard and hunched posture of the software developer, but the hard hat and confident, athletic stride of the mining engineer and head for the nearest gold-bearing mountains.
It will be better both for their physical health and for the world’s financial health.
Martin Hutchinson is the author of Great Conservatives(Academica Press, 2005) – details can be found on the website http://www.greatconservatives.com – and co-author with Professor Kevin Dowd of Alchemists of Loss (Wiley, 2010). Both are now available on Amazon.com, Great Conservatives only in a Kindle edition,Alchemists of Loss in both Kindle and print editions.
Here’s the US’s exceptionalist promotion of “democracy” in action; Washington has recognized a coup d’etat in Ukraine that regime-changed a – for all its glaring faults – democratically elected government.
And here is Russian President Vladimir Putin, already last year,talking about how Russia and China decided to trade in roubles and yuan, and stressing how Russia needs to quit the “excessive monopoly” of the US dollar. He had to be aware the Empire would strike back.
Now there’s more; Russian presidential adviser Sergey Glazyev told RIA Novosti, “Russia will abandon the US dollar as a reserve currency if the United States initiates sanctions against the Russian Federation.”
So the Empire struck back by giving “a little help” to regime change in the Ukraine. And Moscow counter-punched by taking control of Crimea in less than a day without firing a shot – with or without crack Spetsnaz brigades (UK-based think tanks say they are; Putin says they are not).
Putin’s assessment of what happened in Ukraine is factually correct; “an anti-constitutional takeover and armed seizure of power”. It’s open to endless, mostly nasty debate whether the Kremlin overreacted or not. Considering the record of outright demonization of both Russia and Putin going on for years – and now reaching fever pitch – the Kremlin’s swift reaction was quite measured.
Putin applied Sun Tzu to the letter, and now plays the US against the EU. He has made it clear Moscow does not need to “invade” Ukraine. The 1997 Ukraine-Russia partition treaty specifically allows Russian troops in Crimea. And Russia after all is an active proponent of state sovereignty; it’s under this principle that Moscow refuses a Western “intervention” in Syria.
What he left the door open for is – oh cosmic irony of ironies – an American invention/intervention (and that, predictably, was undetectable by Western corporate media); the UN’s R2P – “responsibility to protect” – in case the Western-aligned fascists and neo-nazis in Ukraine threaten Russians or Russian-speaking civilians with armed conflict. Samantha Power should be proud of herself.
Don’t mess with Russian intelligence
The “West” once again has learned you don’t mess with Russian intelligence, which in a nutshell preempted in Crimea a replica of the coup in Kiev, largely precipitated by UNA-UNSO – a shady, ultra-rightwing, crack paramilitary NATO-linked force using Ukraine as base, as exposed by William Engdahl.
And Crimea was an even murkier operation, because those neo-nazis from Western Ukraine were in tandem with Tatar jihadis (the House of Saud will be heavily tempted to finance them from now on).
The Kremlin is factually correct when pointing out that the coup was essentially conducted by fascists and ultra-right “nationalists” – Western code for neo-nazis. Svoboda (“Freedom”) party political council member Yury Noyevy even admitted openly that using EU integration as a pretext “is a means to break our ties with Russia.”
Western corporate media always conveniently forgets that Svoboda – as well as the Right Sector fascists – follow in the steps of Galician fascist/terrorist Stepan Bandera, a notorious asset of a basket of “Western” intel agencies. Now Svoboda has managed to insert no less than six bigwigs as part of the new regime in Kiev.
Then there are the new regional governors appointed to the mostly Russophone east and south of Ukraine. They are – who else – oligarchs, such as billionaires Sergei Taruta posted to Donetsk and Ihor Kolomoysky posted in Dnipropetrovsk. People in Maidan in Kiev were protesting mostly against – who else – kleptocrat oligarchs. Once again, Western corporate media – which tirelessly plugged a “popular” uprising against kleptocracy – hasn’t noticed it.
Once again, follow the money
Ukraine’s foreign currency reserves, only in the past four weeks, plunged from US$17.8 billion to $15 billion. Wanna buy some hryvnia? Well, not really; the national currency, is on a cosmic dive against the US dollar. This is jolly good news only for disaster capitalism vultures.
And right on cue, the International Monetary Fund is sending a “fact-finding mission” to Ukraine this week. Ukrainians of all persuasions may run but they won’t hide from “structural adjustment”. They could always try to scrape enough for a ticket with their worthless hryvnia (being eligible for visa on arrival in Thailand certainly helps).
European banks - who according to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) hold more than $23 billion in outstanding loans – could lose big in Ukraine. Italian banks, for instance, have loaned nearly $6 billion.
On the Pipelineistan front, Ukraine heavily depends on Russia; 58% of its gas supply. It cannot exactly diversify and start buying from Qatar tomorrow – with delivery via what, Qatar Airways?
And even as 66% of Russian gas exported to the EU transits through Ukraine, the country is fast losing its importance as a transit hub. Both the Nord Stream and South Stream pipelines – Russia not on-the-ground but under-seas – bypass Ukraine. The Nord Stream, finished in 2011, links Russia with Germany beneath the Baltic Sea. South Stream, beneath the Black Sea, will be ready before the end of 2015.
Geoeconomically, the Empire needs Ukraine to be out of the Eurasian economic union promoted by the Kremlin – which also includes Kazakhstan and Belarus. And geopolitically, when NATO Secretary General, the vain puppet Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said that an IMF-EU package for the Ukraine would be “a major boost for Euro-Atlantic security”, this is what clinched it; the only thing that matters in this whole game is NATO “annexing” Ukraine, as I examined earlier.
It has always been about the Empire of Bases – just like the encirclement of Iran; just like the “pivot” to Asia translating into encirclement of China; just like encircling Russia with bases and “missile defense”. Over the Kremlin’s collective dead body, of course.
Let’s plunder that wasteland
US Secretary of State John Kerry accusing Russia of “invading Ukraine”, in “violation of international law”, and “back to the 19th century”, is so spectacularly pathetic in its hypocrisy – once again, look at the US’s record – it does not warrant comment from any informed observer. Incidentally, this is as pathetic as his offer of a paltry $1 billion in “loan guarantees” – which would barely pay Ukraine’s bills for two weeks.
The Obama administration – especially the neo-cons of the “F**k the EU” kind – has lost is power play. And for Moscow, it has no interlocutor in Kiev because it considers the regime-changers illegal. Moscow also regards “Europe” as a bunch of pampered whining losers – with no common foreign policy to boot.
So any mediation now hinges on Germany. Berlin has no time for “sanctions” – the sacrosanct American exceptionalist mantra; Russia is a plush market for German industry. And for all the vociferations at the Economist and the Financial Times, the City of London also does not want sanctions; the financial center feeds on lavish Russian politico/oligarch funds. As for the West’s “punishment” for Russia by threatening to expel it from the Group of Eight, that is a joke. The G-8, which excludes China, does not decide anything relevant anymore; the G-20 does.
If a wide-ranging poll were to be conducted today, it would reveal that the majority of Ukrainians don’t want to be part of the EU – as much as the majority of Europeans don’t want the Ukraine in the EU. What’s left for millions of Ukrainians is the bloodsucking IMF, to be duly welcomed by “Yats” (as Prime Minister Yatsenyuk is treated by Vic “F**k the EU” Nuland).
Ukraine is slouching towards federalization. The Kiev regime-changers will have no say on autonomous Crimea – which most certainly will remain part of Ukraine (and Russia by the way will save $90 million in annual rent for the Sevastopol base, which until now was payable to Kiev.)
The endgame is all but written; Moscow controls an autonomous Crimea for free, and the US/EU “control”, or try to plunder, disaster capitalism-style, a back of beyond western Ukraine wasteland “managed” by a bunch of Western puppets and oligarchs, with a smatter of neo-nazis.
So what is the Obama/Kerry strategic master duo to do? Start a nuclear war?
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007), Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge (Nimble Books, 2007), and Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).
He may be reached at email@example.com
First They Attacked A Mall, Then They Repelled SEAL Team Six: The Rise of Al Qaeda 2.0
In a series of exclusive interviews, Business Insider spoke with members of Al Shabaab — the newly emboldened Islamic militant group that attacked the Westgate mall and repelled a raid by SEAL Team Six — to ask how the mall assault was planned, how members are recruited and trained, and what their ultimate goals are.
Few Americans had ever heard of al Shabaab before the fall of 2013. That changed on Sept. 21, when gunmen armed with AK-47s entered the Westgate Mall, a suburban-style shopping center in an upscale neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya, and began calmly, methodically hunting down and murdering shoppers, one by one. As seen on surveillance cameras, the killers are remarkably calm and unhurried, betraying not a hint of anxiety as they go about their grim work.
Meanwhile, the organization boasted about the attack on its Twitter feed, announcing, “The Mujahideen entered #Westgate Mall today at around noon and are still inside the mall, fighting the #Kenyan Kuffar [infidels] inside their own turf.”
The massacre claimed the lives of at least 67 civilians and injured 200, including several participants in a children’s cooking competition sponsored by a local radio station. The Kenyan military surrounded the mall and initiated a rescue operation, but it was four days before the siege ended, by which point al Shabaab — often translated as The Youth — had made a definitive and bloody mark on the international consciousness.
A gunman points his rifle near an injured man during the attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi.
Even months later, there are conflicting accounts of how the attack was conducted, who was involved, and whether the perpetrators escaped, were captured, or died in the assault. Kenyan authorities, the FBI and the New York Police Department have offered diverging and evolving versions of what happened. After initial reports claiming there were up to 15 militants in the mall, Kenyan police and American investigators later said that the attack had been carried out by just four gunmen who were later killed by Kenyan troops. If just this handful of gunmen were involved, their ability to hold off the Kenyan Defense Forces for days — not to mention Israeli security advisors — was a stunning example of the power of asymmetric warfare.
However, sources suggested there is more to the story than official accounts have let on. Interviews with five al Shabaab members in Nairobi indicate that the group is both better organized and considerably more dangerous than news reports would suggest. And the group’s proven ability to recruit new members from around the world, including the Somali expat community in Minnesota, has American officials worried that the group could mount an attack on a domestic target — for instance, the Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minn.
Meanwhile, just a week after the mall attack, al Shabaab’s renown received another major boost. On Oct. 4, members of SEAL Team Six, the storied commando unit that killed Osama Bin Laden, mounted a predawn raid on a small house in the Somali fishing village of Barawe. The town had been effectively under al Shabaab’s control for years, and one of the group’s senior commanders, Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, also known by the nom-de-guerre Ikrima, had taken up residence there with a group of fighters.
After being spotted as they crept toward the house, the SEALs came under heavy fire, eventually withdrawing after an hour of intense fighting without apprehending Ikrima. The Pentagon later attributed the retreat to the SEALs’ reluctance to endanger the women and children they encountered in the compound, but it was also clear that the militants’ fiercer-than-expected resistance played a role.
In all, it was quite a heady week for the militant group. Having riveted and horrified the world and turned back a mighty superpower, al Shabaab saw its reputation transformed from that of a disciplined local militia and crime syndicate — ivory poaching and the charcoal trade are two of their primary funding sources — fighting for influence amid the chaos of Mogadishu, to a serious geopolitical player and regional force be reckoned with.
Parents flee with their child as gunmen go on a shooting spree at the Westgate shopping mall.
Shortly after the raid, an al Shabaab spokesman crowed about repelling the American commandos, declaring, “We know you are sharpening your knives to cut our heads off. … We are always vigilant and your cowardly attacks will end in failure.”
But a number of questions remained about the group’s aims, its organizational structure and in particular how it had pulled off the mall attack, not to mention the threat it might pose to Americans.
So in October, I traveled to Nairobi to meet with a handful of al Shabaab members — not the leadership, who are often quoted in the press, but foot soldiers of the sort who have flocked to join the group in recent years, swelling its rank and file. Their stories often contradicted official accounts in significant ways, raising questions about potential corruption in the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) and indicating that the mall attack was not simply an improvised bloodbath carried out by four gunmen but a meticulously executed military operation, years in the planning.
It may also be a harbinger of attacks to come — devastating, high-profile and exceedingly difficult to prevent.
Meeting al Shabaab
On a warm Tuesday morning, I sat in the back seat of an old station wagon with tinted windows as it made its way through the slums on the city’s outskirts, past camels and donkeys pulling loads of scrap metal. Behind the wheel was Charles, my driver, a tall, broad man with a shaved head like a fist. On the passenger side sat John, a local contact who had agreed to help connect me with an al Shabaab member by the name of Jamal. John, a fixer who came highly recommended by an acquaintance in the Kenyan press, has worked in a similar capacity for numerous NGOs and media organizations, and his contacts among local militants are well established. (John and Charles, both of whom asked to be identified by pseudonyms, are longtime friends: Charles used to drive for an orphanage where John was a resident.)
Al Shabaab’s military spokesman, Sheik Abdul Asis Abu Muscab, issues a statement south of Mogadishu Oct. 19, 2011, during the AMISOM incursion into Somalia.
We arrived at our destination, the Mathari Mental Hospital, around noon and drove slowly through the campus past the women’s facility, a cluster of low, cinder-block buildings with cages open to the air. Mathari is Kenya’s only mental hospital, and conditions there are deplorable. As we passed, patients dressed in rags, seemingly drugged into oblivion, pressed against the bars, hollering for a visitor’s help.
A half hour later, I found myself sitting with John and Jamal on a small hill overlooking Eastleigh, a neighborhood known as “Little Mogadishu” due to its large Somali population. A breeze from a nearby field carries the scent of mint, temporarily masking the smell of the sewage canal below. Jamal, a slight man in his early twenties, wore a long white robe over jeans and skinny white sneakers popular with young Europeans. His head was shaved and he had pale, yellowing eyes and dark brown skin. Identifying himself as a courier for al Shabaab, he eventually dropped a bombshell that helps to explain how just a handful of militants pulled off such a large-scale attack on the Westgate.
“One thing that the media does not tell,” he said, “is some of the weapons had to be sneaked inside Westgate before the attack. Everyone has to be searched by security. There was a connection that helped get the weapons in.”
Law enforcement has been eager to paint the attackers as an amateurish group of opportunists who took advantage of lax security at the mall. By contrast, Jamal told me the attack had been under discussion for three years, since the African Union Mission to Somalia, AMISOM, which includes troops from Kenya, Ethiopia and several other African nations, initiated an incursion, known as Operation Linda Nchi, into Southern Somalia in an effort to drive Shabaab militants from the area.
Jamal confirmed that only four gunmen entered the mall on Sept. 21, as Kenyan officials later determined by examining closed-circuit video footage. But he added that the reason the attack was so successful and lasted so long is that other members of al Shabaab were already positioned inside, having infiltrated the Westgate as vendors, bribing police and mall security to look the other way.
The killers, he said, were carefully selected by way of a deliberative process of nominations and votes. One key goal was to field a multinational group, as a way of emphasizing al Shabaab’s global reach. Reports indicate that Ikrima, who speaks six languages, has actively recruited for al Shabaab in Europe, and at least one of the alleged Westgate militants, Hassan Abdi Dhuhulow, was a Norwegian national of Somali origin. Another al Shabaab member I interviewed, Abdul, insisted that the team involved in the attack included Yemeni, Turkish, Kenyan, Somali, American-Somali, British, and Norwegian nationals, though this assertion has not been confirmed by Kenyan or American investigators.
Neither the FBI, which is assisting in the investigation, nor the Kenyan embassy, returned emails seeking comment.
Jamal claimed that bribes were paid to both private security guards at the mall and Kenyan police — “no less than 100,000” Kenyan shillings (about $1,156) all together — to get the weapons through. “There was C-4,” he added. “It was already inside before the attack.”
Thick smoke poured from the besieged Nairobi mall where Kenyan officials said their forces were closing in on Islamists holding hostages. The explosions may have been caused by C-4 smuggled in by al Shabaab.
The mention of C-4 — or plastic explosives — helped explain the collapse of three floors inside the mall during the siege — an event that a top Kenyan official quoted by the Guardian attributed to the military’s firing of rocket-propelled grenades inside the mall.
Jamal then added an interesting detail. Al Shabaab, he says, infiltrated the Westgate well in advance — planting accomplices at a retailer inside. “There was a package that had to be delivered to a certain shop,” he told me. Asked what store, he said, “Mobile.”
Business Insider was not able to independently verify this claim, but another al Shabaab member in Kenya told a similar story. “They set up a shop inside the mall and rented a house nearby,” Abdul told me, adding that he’d known fighters were pre-positioned in the mall for nearly a year. “I didn’t know the exact date they were going to attack but I knew the plan,” he said.
We were sitting in the back of a bar in a shanty on the edge of Eastleigh, a neighborhood which The Norwegian Council for Africa has described as a “country within a country with its own economy.” Along the neighborhood’s main boulevard, multi-story buildings with roof satellites tower over rows of shanties made of tin and mud. Luxury SUVs snake along pockmarked roads, avoiding carts of scrap pulled by donkeys, camels or men. There are mosques on almost every block. The area’s poverty provides a fertile recruiting ground for al Shabaab.
Abdul was short and slight, wearing a camo T-shirt with a bullseye on it, a choice that gave the driver, Charles, a laugh. But despite that dash of brazen humor, Abdul seemed nervous, even in familiar surroundings, and he changed his phone’s SIM card repeatedly as we spoke.
Like Jamal, Abdul was adamant that bribes were paid to members of the security force at Westgate. “Some of them received as much as 50,000 Kenyan Shillings (about $580) to make sure the vehicles carrying these arms were not searched,” he told me.
A written confession posted on a Kenyan website in October and widely circulated by local bloggers, tells a similar story. In the account, the author, who identifies himself as Omar Abdi, says he spent years simultaneously serving in the Kenya Defense Forces and helping to train Islamic fighters for al Shabaab.
The field behind Kenya’s Mathari Mental Hospital where we met Jamal.
Not long ago, Abdi writes, a contact asked him to “help them attack a big shopping building where lots of Europeans and Americans go.”
Eventually Abdi was taken to a safe house by a handler named Yusef. Pictures of the Westgate had been pinned to the walls, with Quranic verses scrawled across them.
“Yusuf explained how the attack would take place,” Abdi recalls. “Several weapons were already inside Westgate. He also said the fighters already knew the inside of the building after going through training.”
Yusef then gave him a briefcase containing 5 million shillings in cash. “He told me that if I have a family at Westgate then I should find ways of making them not go there on Saturday. He also said two other attackers and more weapons were brought in across the Somalia border using a helicopter belonging to a very senior person in government.”
Abdi goes on to detail his role on the day of the attack:
Yusuf told me that I was to drive one vehicle to Westgate then drive away. … At around midday, both Yusuf and the other intelligence man were constantly talking on their phones. They seemed to be talking to people inside Westgate because they asked if things are ready at the building.
Yusuf asked on the phone if the important people have been removed and said it would go on even if those people are not removed because we had agreed to stick to the agreed time. I didn’t know who these people were but I later came to know that some members of the president’s family were in the building. [In fact, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s nephew was among the victims.]
We left the house about twenty minutes later in two vehicles. I drove to the front of the building and stopped and the fighters jumped off, then I drove away. That night at around midnight, someone called me to say that I should change my phone number and throw away the phone.
His account concludes, “I write this in good faith. If I betray someone may Allah have mercy on my soul.”
It’s important to note that this confession cannot be authenticated, but many of the details matched the stories told by sources I spoke with.
NEXT: How al Shabaab Operates
How al Shabaab Operates
Al Shabaab is one of four groups officially affiliated with al Qaeda, and it shares the better-known jihadi organization’s Islamic orientation, ruthlessness, and flair for attention-getting operations. Its goals, however, are more local in scope. While al Qaeda’s aims include the eventual establishment of a global Caliphate based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law, al Shabaab is primarily focused on its battle with the Somali transitional government and the Kenyan military.
The Kenyan campaign in Somalia, which began in 2011, has been a powerful recruiting tool for al Shabaab in parts of Kenya with large Somali populations. But the group has been drawing new members from around the world. According to Seth Jones, associate director of the RAND Corporation’s International Security and Defense Policy Center, al Shabaab has already recruited 40 Americans to its ranks. This includes Jehad Serwan Mostafa, a Wisconsin native who is al Shabaab’s de facto foreign policy coordinator. He’s on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list.
The extent to which al Shabaab should align itself with al Qaeda’s global jihad has been a contentious issue that in the years before the Westgate operation split the group into factions: one that pledged its allegiance to al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al Zawahiri and adopted the name Al Qaeda in East Africa, and another that opposed the merger. Some observers have theorized that the mall attack was part of an attempt by the al Qaeda-aligned faction to assert its dominance.
Members of al Qaeda-linked militant group al Shabab are paraded at Maslah square after their surrender to the authorities in the north of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu Sept 24, 2012.
As the group has expanded, it has attracted members who seem motivated less by ideology than more practical concerns. None of the al Shabaab members we spoke to were radical Islamists. While they expressed outrage at the Kenyan military’s involvement in Somalia, they were not supporters of global jihad.
Abdul, for instance, was not even born a Muslim; he was approached by leaders from his local mosque at a young age and was persuaded to convert, before eventually being introduced to al Shabaab.
Like many of the group’s newer members, he says he joined the group primarily because he needed a steady paycheck. “I didn’t want to be a Muslim,” he said, “but because of financial stability I turned.” Both Abdul and Jamal earn 10,000 Kenyan shillings per month, or $117 dollars. They are told that if they’re killed fighting for al Shabaab, their families will continue to receive money, but two female members I spoke with reported that such payments dried up after their husbands left to fight in Somalia.
Abdul added that “being in al Shabaab is like any job. They can call me at any time, send me at any time and give me orders any time.”
After his initial recruitment, he was sent to Mombasa, where he studied under Sheikh Ibrahim Omar, the top-ranking al Shabaab leader in Mombasa who was killed in the aftermath of Westgate. He was later sent to Somalia by boat, where he trained for three years in military techniques, working with foreigners from as far away as Norway. Some of those he met claimed to be connected to al Qaeda.
Abdul said he remained in Mogadishu until the Kenyan Defense Force and troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) took the city in 2011. He was sent back to Eastleigh and currently acts as an enforcer for al Shabaab where he “watches, investigates, follows group members” to make sure they remain loyal. His job was especially hard, he said, given growing concerns that any one of the 300 people he oversees could turn on him to save their own skin.
Kenyan police typically stay out of Eastleigh, allowing the neighborhood to police itself. Now, Abdul said, people connected to the group — even those only rumored to be connected — are disappearing. As we parted, Adbul said he is “very, very worried” that the same thing would happen to him. Then he walked off into the maze of shanties.
Jamal told me a similar story. A native of Mombasa, a resort city on Kenya’s coast and an al Shabaab stronghold, he said he was “recruited eight years ago, while [playing] soccer on a beach.”
Jamal said he joined the group for financial reasons, a motivation common to all the al Shabaab members I spoke with. He was told stories at his local mosque about the evils of America and Europe, which turned him against the West, he said. He soon fell under the influence of Sheikh Ibrahim Omar, and is waiting to go to Somalia to train. After two years studying in the mosque, he was given a job as a courier, delivering messages to group leaders there. This position put him in contact with some of the most prominent figures in the movement. He claims to have met the “White Widow” Samantha Lewthwaite, a British national and al Shabaab luminary, whose husband killed himself in the 2005 suicide attack on the London subway.
Living on the coast, Jamal seemed especially rattled by the SEAL raid. Al Shabaab’s leadership was apparently rattled too; Jamal told me that all meetings had been canceled for the foreseeable future. The group was going into hiding.
Of all the al Shabaab members I met, Jamal was the most radical; his contempt for me was apparent throughout our conversation, and he seemed to have accepted the interview request in order to make a political point.
“Tell the world that Kenya has been a peaceful country,” he said. “When they took the military to Somalia, that’s when everything became worse. [Al Shabaab] recruited more youths, they recruited more officials and they started to plan more attacks to send a message. Not until the Kenyan army is out of Somalia will [we] stop.”
A view of the Mathare slum in Kenya.
Harsh Discipline and Broken Promises
Not every al Shabaab member has found his experience with the group rewarding. Just after noon one day, I met 24-year-old Hassan Omar Kalondi in a bar in Mathare, a six-square-mile slum with a population of 500,000 — about the size of Denver’s. Nervous sitting outside, Hassan seemed to relax after we retreated to a table in the corner and the waitress brought us a pint of vodka. A floor below us, a welder’s torch cut scrap metal, making it hard to hear. It didn’t matter; Hassan spoke only in short sentences, often replying to queries with just a nod.
He said his brother was a member of al Shabaab, who participated in the group’s July 2010 bombing attack in Kampala, Uganda, which targeted a pair of bars during the World Cup final and killed 74 people. He said he’s unsure of his brother’s fate, but has heard he was tortured and killed by the Ugandan army.
Hassan took after his sibling, studying at the local mosque before being sent to Mombasa and then Somalia for training. His experience was similar to that recalled by Jamal and Abdul, but unlike them, Hassan did not excel. He claims commanders beat him repeatedly on the legs and back with sticks. He said he escaped the camp and eventually made it back to Mathare. Now, he was hiding from his erstwhile comrades as well as the Nairobi police.
I doubted the veracity of his story until we stepped outside into the midday sun. His legs and neck were covered in scars. Some wounds appeared to still be healing. After we drove a short distance, he hopped out of the car and disappeared into the crowd.
I also met a pair of female members. Amina, 25, has been with the group for two years. She joined at her husband’s insistence shortly after their wedding, because they needed the money. As we spoke, she turned away, lowered her black robe and nursed her year-old daughter. She drank Fanta and stroked circles on her daughter’s head as she told me how her husband had been sent to Somalia to fight. Soon after, a man she called Hassan Juma, who had been delivering their regular pay, disappeared.
“We were promised a good life if he went to Somalia,” she said. “I regret everything.”
Asha, 21, told me a similar story, sitting in her home in Mathare, a tiny dwelling no bigger than a Western bathroom, with a tin roof and walls made of mud and cardboard. I perched on a small chair in front of a broken TV. She sat on her bed under a picture of Rihanna.
Like Amina, Asha joined al Shabaab when she married her husband. Soon after, he was taken to Somalia to fight.
“After he left, he never came back,” she said. Then the money stopped coming. “He’s ok, he’s safe, he’ll come back,” she said.
NEXT: Al Qaeda 2.0
Al Qaeda 2.0
Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in 2011 in the wake of Osama Bin Laden’s death, Admiral Eric T. Olson, the commander of U.S. Special Operations forces, predicted that the jihadi movement would “morph” and “disperse,” becoming “in some ways more westernized, [with] dual-passport holders” and “fewer cave dwellers.”
As al Qaeda has declined in influence and operational strength, smaller groups like al Shabaab, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram — which just last week butchered 43 students at a Nigerian secondary school — have been growing quickly and are pursuing various regional goals under the banner of Islamic fundamentalism. These groups, which have been dubbed Al Qaeda 2.0, pose a more decentralized and in some ways more vexing challenge to counterterrorism officials. Unlike the 9/11 attack — a complex operation against powerfully symbolic Western power centers — the new generation of terror groups favor so-called soft targets and attacks designed to sow maximum terror. The question increasingly preoccupying government officials is to what extent such groups — or lone-wolf types acting in support of them, like the Tsarnaev brothers behind the Boston Marathon bombings — will seek to bring the fight to American shores.
Following the death of Bin Laden, a eulogy released by Al Shabaab contained a message for the U.S.: “So, let them rejoice for a few moments,” it said, “since they will cry much afterwards, because the lion Osama left behind him huge armies of mujahideen.”
Such bluster is to be expected, perhaps, but a 2011 investigative report by the House Committee on Homeland Security detailed concerns about American-born al Shabaab members, asserting that “Shabaab has the intent and capability to conduct attacks or aid core Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, with striking U.S. interests and the U.S. homeland.”
Noting that the U.S. had become the top source of Western recruits to Al Shabaab, the report added that “no Al Qaeda-allied group … has attracted anywhere near as many American and Western recruits as Shabaab has over the past three years.” It said officials had identified no fewer than 21, who “pose a direct threat to the U.S. homeland.”
U.S. House of Representatives
According to government officials, Al Shabaab has recruited as many as 40 Americans to its ranks. Here, a few sought by government investigators.
Perhaps the most fertile Western recruiting ground for al Shabaab is Minnesota, home to the largest Somali expat community in the U.S. More than half of young Somali-Americans living in Minneapolis are unemployed, and since 2007, more than 22 have left Minnesota to join the terror group. Two have become suicide bombers, and at least six more have been killed in fighting. Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax, who was recruited by the group in 2005 through the Abubakar Islamic Center in Minneapolis, is now a leader of al Shabaab who has been indicted on nine terror-related felony counts.
In 2012, a federal trial jury convicted Mahamud Said Omar, a janitor at the Abubakar center, of helping facilitate the travel of young men from the Twin Cities to fight with al Shabaab in Somalia.
And last year, shortly before the mall attack, the FBI drew attention to a 40-minute recruitment video attributed to al Shabaab, which had been posted to YouTube. Entitled “Minnesota Martyrs: The Path to Paradise,” the video, which was quickly deleted, glorified three area men who had joined the fight in Somalia and encouraged others to join them.
Given such developments, the Westgate mall attack immediately stoked fears that the Mall of America, the behemoth shopping center located in Bloomington, Minnesota, with more than 520 stores and upward of 40 million visitors each year, could present a tempting target should an al Shabaab group or its supporters wish to carry out its threat of avenging bin Laden’s death.
This is one reason the owners maintain their own private counterterrorism task force and released a statement after the Westgate siege aimed at dispelling visitors’ fears.
“Mall of America has implemented extra security precautions,” Triple Five Group, the center’s owner, said in the statement. “Some may be noticeable to guests, and others won’t be. We will continue to follow the situation, along with law enforcement, and will remain vigilant as we always do in similar situations.”
A scuba Santa at the Mall of America, which some fear could present a tempting terror target.
For now, Seth Jones tells Business Insider that he doesn’t “see a blinking red threat to the United States.” But he cautioned that the situation is fluid.
“The challenge is, its hard to predict when a group changes its focus and when individuals who have been associated with the group decide to change targets,” he said. “There was a lot of concern a couple years ago when there were Americans who blew themselves up in Somalia. When you have American suicide bombers, that increases concern.”
W. Anders Folk, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Minnesota who was a member of an FBI-run task force investigating al Shabaab activities there, added that it’s impossible to know the true threat level to an American target.
“A lot of those folks [who trained with al Shabaab] are from Minnesota,” he said. “What are the chances of returning after being trained in Somalia? Are there people out there who have gone over, gotten trained and got the ideology put into their heads and who aren’t in the scope of law enforcement? That’s my fear. That is the biggest potential threat. Clearly a mall like the Mall of America is susceptible to a [Westgate] kind of attack.”
“Although weakened as an insurgency, al-Shabaab remains a lethal terrorist organization,” a U.S. counterterrorism official told Business Insider. “The group today is less preoccupied with controlling and administering territory, which may have freed up additional resources for operational use. The Westgate assault was the most brazen in a string of attacks over the past two years.
“While individual Shabaab members may aspire to attack the West,” the official added, “the group probably will remain focused on local and regional targets, particularly those in Somalia and Kenya.”
A Determined Adversary
According to the al Shabaab members I spoke with, the failed SEAL raid did have a detrimental impact on the group’s operations. Meetings were cancelled. Communication ceased. Plans were put on hold.
But not for long.
With new assaults on the group apparently being planned by the African Union Mission to Somalia, al Shabaab seems determined to play offense.
In February, the militant group claimed responsibility for a series of suicide bombings in Mogadishu. One, aimed at a U.N. convoy, killed seven Somalis. And on Feb. 21, a car bomb ripped through a gate of the nation’s fortified presidential compound, Villa Somalia. According to Somali police, Shabaab commandos wearing uniforms resembling those of the palace guards then attacked the nearby house of Somalia’s top military commander, fighting a fierce gun battle with forces stationed there and killing the prime minister’s chief of staff and a former intelligence chief, among others.
Al Shabaab claimed credit for the attack, and made its aims clear: “The main objective of attacking the palace on Friday was to assassinate the so-called Somali president or kidnap him,” a spokesman told Reuters, speaking of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. “We sent well-trained mujahideen from our special forces to bring us the president dead or alive.”
The nine attackers were killed in the assault, but as Abdul and Jamal are well aware, there are many more where they came from.
David Francis is a freelance journalist specializing in international affairs, conflict and the global economy. He has reported from around the world, most recently as the Richard Holbrooke Journalist-in-Residence at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He has written for Foreign Policy, Atlantic Cities, Business Insider, the Christian Science Monitor, Financial Times Deutschland, and Deutsche Welle. He is a contributing writer to World Politics Review, SportsIllustrated.com, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, among others. Follow him on Twitter here.