Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Aaron Mannes in Policy Review: Tribalism, Islamism & Women

The October-November issue of Policy Review published an article I wrote reviewing a pair of impressive books: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror by Nonie Darwish.

They are a pair of impressive books which shed important light not only on the nature of radical Islam, but also the way it along with tribalism pervade the societies of the greater Middle East and stifle freedom for women, but also for men.

My review is below.

Policy Review
October & November 2007, No. 145

BOOKS: Infidel Tales


From sources as diverse as Bernard Lewis and the un’s Arab Human Development Report we hear the argument that improving the status of women is essential to reform in the Muslim world. But understanding what this entails demands more than statistics about female literacy rates. The memoirs of two exceptional women, born into very different circumstances in the Muslim world, provide a glimpse into the scale of this problem. Chief among the many virtues of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel and Nonie Darwish’s Now They Call Me Infidel, is that they show the cruelty and banal petty oppression that encircles Muslim women.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has become a figure on the international stage and an outspoken critic of radical Islam. In Infidel she tells the dramatic, almost unbelievable, story of her life so far. She was born into a prominent Somali clan, the daughter of a leader in the opposition to Somali dictator Siad Barre and something of a modernizer. Her father instructed that his family break with tradition and not excise the genitals of his daughters. While he was imprisoned his children were in the care of their maternal grandmother, who arranged the procedure. The Islam practiced by the Somalis was relaxed and combined with local traditions, but it remained central to the Somali identity. When political pressure forced the family to leave Somalia, Hirsi Ali’s mother refused at first to go to Ethiopia, both because it was Somalia’s longstanding enemy and because it was a predominantly Christian country. Instead they relocated to Saudi Arabia, where Hirsi Ali endured the difficulties of functioning in a country where women are not permitted out of the home without a male escort. They then moved briefly to Ethiopia, where she saw, first-hand, the impact of clan loyalties on the Somali opposition. Hirsi Ali’s mother, unhappy with barracks life, eventually took her three children to Nairobi, where the family survived on aid from wealthier Somali exiles.

Hirsi Ali grew to adulthood in Nairobi, where she was educated at a Western school and swept up in the rising Islamist tide. As a teenager she was an adherent of the rapidly expanding Muslim Brotherhood. She wore a hijab and attended prayers. But she could not reconcile the internal contradictions of the Muslim Brotherhood’s interpretation of Islam, particularly the inequality between men and women and the vilification of the West and non-Muslims. At the same time, she was going to films, reading English literature and Harlequin romance novels, and even dating surreptitiously. Her friends began to enter arranged marriages. Their descriptions of married life, particularly the passionless sex, horrified her. She put off her own suitors, but her father, though in many ways a liberal modernizer, had three wives himself and ignored his daughter’s objections to an arranged marriage with a prominent clan member. Her prospective husband was in Canada, and in 1992 Hirsi Ali was sent to live with relatives in Germany while she waited for a Canadian visa. Stunned by the order and cleanliness of the West, she also found herself quite able to navigate it. She began plotting her escape: She traveled to the Netherlands under the guise of visiting a family member, hoping to make her way to England. On learning of the lax asylum standards in the Netherlands, she decided to stay there instead. She was accepted as a refugee under false pretenses, having claimed that she was fleeing from Somalia’s civil war and given a false name and birth date.

If the book had ended with Hirsi Ali’s building a new life in the Netherlands, it would have been a fitting end to an amazing story. But the story does not end there. Seeking to discover why some places had governments that worked well and others did not, she obtained a university degree in politics. She also worked as a translator for Dutch police and social services agencies with Somali immigrants, and here she saw the ills of her native society — particularly the abuse of women — being imported into her adopted country. She was disturbed to find the Dutch acquiescing to immigrant demands to establish enclaves, rather than assimilating the immigrants into Dutch society.

Hirsi Ali entered politics as a researcher with a think tank. In the wake of 9/11, as Dutch elites insisted that terrorism was an aberration from Islam, Hirsi Ali argued the opposite — that Islam justified terrorism. As her criticisms of Islam became more pointed, Dutch elites recoiled from her message and Muslims began threatening her life; but she had touched a popular chord. She was elected to the Dutch parliament, where she pressed for Dutch police to track honor killings. With Theo Van Gogh she made the short film, Submission, about the treatment of women under Islam, which scandalized Muslims. In November 2004, Van Gogh was stabbed to death in broad daylight by a young Muslim. Dutch authorities, unprepared for this kind of terrorist threat, whisked Hirsi Ali out of the country and kept her confined under harsh and occasionally surreal conditions in rural locations in the United States and Germany. At the same time, as part of a political power play, there was an effort to strip her of her Dutch citizenship based on the false information she had provided when applying for asylum. Ultimately, seeking time to write and think, and finding the security requirements and constant moving in the Netherlands too onerous, Hirsi Ali resigned from the Dutch parliament and accepted a position at the American Enterprise Institute.

This bare summary does no justice Hirsi Ali’s page-turning memoir. From her harrowing description of her excision, to the details of life in Saudi Arabia, where little boys can turn off their mothers’ television programs, Hirsi Ali’s book illustrates the world of her origin, the values and principles that drive it, and the astounding level of violence that permeates it. Her wide-eyed descriptions of her first encounters with Western life are touching: police who are courteous and helpful, a religion that emphasizes dialogue and love rather than fear and submission, and marriages that are entered voluntarily and consist of two equal partners.

The life of Nonie Darwish, as she chronicles it in Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror, lacks the drama of Hirsi Ali’s experience, though there are many parallels. Darwish’s father was a highly regarded Egyptian military officer who was killed in Gaza by the Israelis just before the 1956 Suez War. (She describes growing up singing songs praising martyrdom in the battle with Israel as the state-controlled press churned out anti-Semitic diatribes.) Born into Egypt’s elite, Darwish was not directly touched by the worst aspects of the oppression of women, but she was not unaware of it. Honor killings were a regular theme in Egyptian literature and cinema, and the family’s maids told terrible stories of being raped by previous employers. A raped woman is considered to have dishonored the family; the only way for the family to restore its honor is to kill her. Darwish’s widowed mother could not remarry — it would have been dishonoring the memory of the shahid (martyr). At the same time, not having a male head of the household left the family vulnerable to rumor. The outgoing Darwish was warned by her mother to watch her behavior; otherwise the family might be suspected of improprieties. Dating and normal mixing between the sexes was simply impossible for young Egyptians, and marriages were arranged. Darwish relates the poignant sight of her mother walking, fully clothed, along the shoreline during beach vacations. Her mother joked about being young again and donning a bathing suit and swimming, but actually doing so would have been scandalous.

What is remarkable about Darwish’s narrative is that by the 1950s Egypt had been attempting to modernize for nearly a century and a half, and Nasser, who crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, was supposedly a great progressive figure. Yet, even at the very apex of Egypt’s secular elite society, the heavy hand of tradition trapped women. At the same time, while few Egyptians were devout, no one would criticize Islam. Darwish gives a sense of the extent to which Islam and tribal traditions saturate Muslim societies with most of the region’s ostensibly secular political movements and politicians, including Fatah, the Baath Party, and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, emerging from this milieu.

Like Hirsi Ali, Darwish possessed an innate sense that allowed her to see through her society’s shibboleths. As a young woman she found Egyptian bravado prior to the Six Day War unbelievable and was unsurprised when Nasser’s adventure ended in a tragic defeat. And she realized early that she needed to leave Egypt, though her exodus in 1978 was more prosaic: She followed her Copt boyfriend, who had family in Los Angeles, to the United States. She was impressed by the general order and cleanliness she found there, and equally so in the message of love and tolerance she heard in Christianity. Still, like Hirsi Ali in the Netherlands, Darwish found that the Middle East had followed her to the West. Not a regular mosque-goer, when she did attend she was surprised by the vitriol and dogmatism. She noticed more and more Muslim women at malls and on campuses in full hijab.

On a visit to Egypt more than two decades later, Darwish was shocked by the poverty and anger (particularly at the United States), and the growing religious extremism. She was grateful when her plane landed in Los Angeles. It was September 10, 2001.

She was doubly shocked when the responses of her friends and relatives in Egypt vacillated between denying that Arabs had perpetrated 9/11 and assertions that the United States had had it coming. She began writing and speaking, trying to warn Americans of the nature of the terrorist threat and providing a different Arab perspective. She was even moved to defend Israel, and came to understand that it was Nasser and the mad ideologies that dominated the Muslim world that took her father’s life, not Israel.

While Hirsi Ali hews closely to her life story, Darwish addresses the broader impact of the traditions and restrictions that bind Muslim women. She explains how the tradition of polygamy reduces the status of Muslim women, by making husbands masters over their wives. A husband can easily, under the law, take a second wife if his first one displeases him, and she will have no legal recourse. This creates unhealthy alliances between mothers and sons, as mothers rely on their sons to protect them and advance their fortunes. Darwish points out that Arab men also suffer under this system. They are deprived of the joys and emotional depth of the voluntary monogamous marriage, which has been a cornerstone of western civilization. Of course, many Muslim couples love each other and remain monogamous, but this is not a central value of many of the societies of the greater Middle East.

Many of the worst customs prevailing in the Muslim world (honor killings, female genital mutilation, polygamy), as well as the general practice of restricting the sphere of activity of women, existed before Islam and are characteristics of tribalism. Although this social structure evolved as a response to the requirements of desert life, aspects of it have remained strong and it continues to define settled life in towns and rural areas throughout the greater Middle East and parts of Africa. The overwhelming centrality of extended family in daily life defines politics and has stifled the growth of civil society and entrepreneurial commerce. Hirsi Ali describes her relief at life in the Netherlands, where clan affiliation does not matter.

Westernized Muslims may reach into Muslim tradition and craft a modern Islam that is in accord with liberal democratic values. Alternately, tribal societies may develop mechanisms to change in the face of modernity. But Islam fused with tribalism creates an all-encompassing worldview and provides a theological framework reinforcing ancient customs. Islam permits, but does not require, female circumcision. Nevertheless, in communities where it is prevalent, most people, including local religious authorities, believe the procedure is required. This presumed fusion of Islam and tribalism was exemplified during a parliamentary debate in Jordan over establishing harsher sentences for men who killed female relatives who had violated family honor, when one Senator argued, “whether we like it or not, women are not equal to men in Islam. Adulterous women are much worse than adulterous men because women determine the lineage.”

In What Went Wrong Bernard Lewis writes that when buying Western weapons was insufficient to reverse Middle Eastern military decline, Middle Eastern nations adopted Western uniforms and martial music. But the systems and principles underpinning Western success were not imported. Women’s rights may follow a similar path. Some Muslim nations may be adopting reforms on behalf of women’s rights, but without changing the underlying value system. Egypt has made strides against female genital mutilation, and polygamy has been outlawed in several Muslim nations and is being redefined as socially unacceptable in others. Some states, responding to international pressure against them over egregious acts against women in the name of family honor, have begun to take steps against honor killings. These reforms, welcome though they are, are enacted under Western pressure and to maintain a veneer of modernity. It is not clear that the underlying principles of equality and personal liberty are also being adopted. Efforts to expand women’s education in the Muslim world appear more promising, although considering the generally poor quality of education in the region this initiative may also have a limited impact.

Muslim societies, trapped between religion and culture, have changed only slowly over centuries. But the lives of Darwish and Hirsi Ali offer a few possibilities for change. Both women were educated at Western schools, giving them the skills, particularly fluency in English, they needed to fend for themselves in a modern society. Darwish worked for a U.S. company, helping her achieve a certain measure of financial independence. Improving the educational and economic opportunities open to women, along with the attendant legal reforms, would give women greater autonomy. But the economies of the greater Middle East have been essentially stagnant for decades, and deeper changes will be necessary.

Other possibilities lie in the realm of ideas. Western literature and films, and even romance novels, inspired both women. These stories fostered a longing for romance and planted the seeds of individualism. In discussing reform, Hirsi Ali claims that Islam needs a Voltaire, and Darwish observes that creating the freedom to leave Islam is essential — only then, she says, will Islam be forced to compete equally for adherents. Today an individual who openly leaves Islam is an apostate and, as Hirsi Ali can attest, marked for death.

Fostering reform in the Muslim world is the great challenge of this century. But it is a challenge that cannot be evaded. Both Darwish and Hirsi Ali give warning that radical Islam is on the rise within the West itself and that immigrant communities are bringing tribal social structures with them. But their books are more than jeremiads. They are both also love stories of a sort: Two impressive, able women from backgrounds that squelched their talents came to the West and fell in love with the values espoused by Western societies and the opportunities and freedoms they provide. This message is also vital. If the West is to aid efforts to reform the Muslim world, it will need to believe in itself first. Darwish and Hirsi Ali provide a timely reminder, from people intimately familiar with the alternative, that Western societies and liberal democratic values are good and worth defending.

Aaron Mannes (, author of Profiles in Terror: The Guide to Middle East Terrorist Organizations (Rowman & Littlefield 2004), is a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory of Computational Cultural Dynamics and a doctoral student at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.

Concerns about Mobile Phone Smuggling

Since Slate was kind enough to cite my thoughts on Syria’s attendance at the Annapolis Conference in its daily feature Today’s Blogs I thought I might return the favor.

Yesterday Slate’s Hot Document section published a PowerPoint briefing given by the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Infrastructure Threat and Risk Analysis Center to a Department of Agriculture workshop on Animal & Plant Biosecurity. The document is unclassified, but For Official Use Only (which in practice means very little.)

This slide stuck out.

Cell phone smuggling is the sort of dual-use criminal activity that can both raise funds, but also increase a terrorist group’s other capabilities. Cell phones have been used as timers in bomb attacks, most notably in the Madrid bombings of March 11, 2004. One of the attack’s ringleaders, Jamal Zougam, ran a cell phone shop (which supplied the devices). But practically speaking, IED timer is not the main use of cell phones.

Jimmy Breslin once wrote (I paraphrase) that criminals need two things – guns and stolen cars. That list can be up-dated to include many cell-phones. While they offer tremendous advantages for coordinating activities across time and distance (which is why so many of us are now attached to them) they can also be monitored by law enforcement. Spanish security services tracked the Madrid bombers through their cell phone activity.

Criminals of all sorts, such as neighborhood drug chiefs, go through large numbers of mobiles to evade surveillance. Al-Qaeda has also long been concerned about electronic surveillance of its communications. In September 1998, OBL stopped using his satellite phone. Before his training in Afghanistan, Ahmed Ressam’s voice had been recorded in nearly 400 conversations by Canadian security services – after his training Ressam (who planned to bomb LAX as part of al-Qaeda’s Millennium plot) used stolen phones and low-key personal meetings. Although they were aware of Ressam’s return to Canada and his probable intentions Canadian intelligence was no longer able to eavesdrop on his conversations.

Finally, the DHS briefing to the Department of Agriculture is quite sober. It discusses DHS’ structure and role, the nature and targets of the major terrorist threats to the United States. It examines recent terrorist activity in the United States and documents terrorist efforts to infiltrate U.S. critical infrastructure, while admitting that the government labors under incomplete information – which has occasionally sparked false alarms. Because it is a briefing for the Department of Agriculture it discusses possible plots against the U.S. agriculture. While granting that al-Qaeda training manuals discuss “agro-terrorism” DHS claims it has no credible information that any such attack is likely. This dovetails with my own assessment. An attack on the food supply would require substantial technical skills and access. But even if successful it would probably amount to little more than a big expensive hassle. Few would notice. This is not to say the U.S. should not monitor food safety (which has plenty of other, non-terrorist threats), but dramatic mass murder has been al-Qaeda’s preferred tool for attacking the psyche and soul of its enemies.

That being said – the slide on cell phone smuggling is an outlier and doesn’t seem to belong or be relevant to the Department of Agriculture’s areas of responsibility.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Annapolis Conference & Syria's Truth

If Syria switched teams, from its current alignment with Iran to the U.S. aligned Arab states led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf states, it would be a diplomatic masterstroke. It would isolate Iran and cut loose its key terrorist proxies: Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the lesser Damascus-based groups. If it could be done, it might even be worth paying Syria’s price – return of the Golan Heights and wiping the slate clean on past Syrian support for terrorism, including the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

For decades American foreign policy realists, most recently in the Iraq Study Group, have called for engagement with Syria in order to achieve this aim. The news that Syria will send an emissary to the upcoming conference in Annapolis has raised hopes that this maneuver is possible.

But it won’t happen and anyone who believes that it will doesn’t know the truth about Syria – literally. They must not have read The Truth About Syria by Barry Rubin.

Rubin, director of the GLORIA Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal is the author of 20 books, primarily on Middle East politics. In The Truth About Syria argues that both the regime’s past behavior and its very nature make it impossible for this much desired switch to occur.

By any practical measure, switching sides should be in Syria’s interest. Western investment and aid could quickly dwarf the Iranian assistance that keeps the Syrian economy from complete collapse. Plus the deal would almost certainly bring the Golan Heights back to Syria, and allow Syria to reduce its military spending. These are huge gains, merely for taking off the tarnished crown of pan-Arabism (here is an article by Rubin on Syria’s role in that failed ideology’s current renaissance) and kicking out some loathsome terrorists. But the Middle East is a region of Agamemnons for whom honor trumps prudence time and again.

First, there is the history – Rubin shows how the Syrians have, time and again, rejected Western offers and played Western diplomats for fools (except in situations where Western interests fit their own interests.) There is ample documentation for this phenomenon. Daniel Pipes wrote an article nearly a decade ago debunking the myth that long-time Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was a respectable adversary who could be relied on to keep his word. His son, Syria’s current President Bashar al-Assad is not substantially different. Fellow CT-Blogger David Schenker writes that the Bush Administration made exactly this effort from 2001 through 2005 (when Schenker was an advisor to the Secretary of Defense.) Syria said no. It is difficult to imagine that now, with U.S. leverage substantially reduced and Bashar allied with the most popular figures on the Arab street (Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, Hamas Secretary-General Khaled Mashal, and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah), what incentives the Syrians could possibly have to ally with the U.S.

The more interesting question is why the Syrian regime takes this uncompromising stance. Rubin, in explaining Syria’s history reminds the reader that the Syria is ruled by a despised minority, the Alawites, a sect that is not considered Muslim by mainstream Sunnis. The key to their continued survival and rule (in addition to harsh political repression) has been to place Syria at the forefront of the pan-Arab, pan-Islamic, anti-Western, and anti-American cause. A prosperous, peaceful Syria would almost certainly discard the Assads and their courtiers – which in the Middle East is usually a brutal process.

This leaves many follow-up questions, including:

Why are supposedly clear-eyed realists so enthralled with this regime? Is it because Damascus is so deeply associated with dramatic conversions?

If this regime is intransigent, what are the best policies to adopt in dealing with Syria?

Both questions require extensive answers. But to the second question, one thing should be clear. If the regime is set on its course, then begging it to attend the Annapolis peace conference is, as Rubin wrote in his most recent column, akin to “inviting Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida to an anti-terrorism conference.”

Monday, November 19, 2007

Human Trafficking & North Korea: Rotting from the Inside

Organized crime has had a corrosive effect on democracies around the world. Now, North Korea, long an actor on the trans-national criminal scene may become a victim of it. The Washington Post reported yesterday on the growth of organized networks that smuggled North Koreans into South Korea for cash. Previous escapees were prominent regime members for whom the escape was relatively easy. The networks were run by human rights groups. But now ordinary North Koreans are paying cash to get out. Of course North Koreans don't have much cash, but South Korea pays a stipend to North Koreans who can make their way south. So a North Korean with a relative in the south might receive sponsorship, knowing that there will be funds to repay their expense if the journey is successful. Although the crime rings are growing, the escape journey remains a harrowing touch and go affair.

Still, it is becoming a cause of concern for the regime. People attempting to escape used to be assigned to a labor camp for a a few years. Now being caught can lead to a life-time of forced labor deep in the country's interior. Officials who are caught facilitating these escapes are being executed.

But these harsh penalties are unlikely to staunch the flow, and as more officials become dependent on the human smuggling business they will become more able to bribe higher-ups and escape punishment. Could this phenomenon eventually hollow out the regime from inside? In addition, the more things smuggled out - the more things will be smuggled in.

This is a unique case where a trans-national criminal network might be able to do some good. Of course these networks could also become the safety valve that allows the loathsome North Korean regime to stay in power. At this point the networks are tiny (about 2000 people are smuggled out annually) but hopefully South Korea and other concerned nations are monitoring this development carefully.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Video-Games & Public Diplomacy: Aaron Mannes in the NY Sun

Today's New York Sun has an op-ed I co-authored with my boss, University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies director, V.S. Subrahmanian on incorporating video games into the war of ideas against Islamist extremism.

Gaming: Tactical Advantage

November 14, 2007

When Hezbollah released the second version of its video game "Special Force" in August, it demonstrated, yet again, how quickly terrorist groups have taken advantage of technology in order to propagate their worldview. While America dominates the fastgrowing multi-billion dollar video game industry, there has not yet been an effort to develop video games that counter Islamist extremism.

"Special Force 2" updates the 2002 video game with scenarios based on last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah: players kidnap Israeli soldiers, fire missiles at an Israeli gunboat, and launch Katyusha rockets into Israel. When the game was released a Hezbollah press official, Sheikh Ali Dahir, described it as a recruiting tool stating, "The Lebanese child has the right to know what happened in the south so as to imitate the jihadist action and the act of liberating the land."

Mr. Dahir also showed Hezbollah's sophisticated understanding of communications when he described "Special Force" as "an alternative to the Western patterns that are presented to us in names, language, and tones that are sometimes devoid of content and at other times for not so innocent aims."

Hezbollah is not the only organization using video games as a strategic communications tool. There is a growing movement to develop video games to educate the public on various issues. The U.S. military has long used electronic simulations for training. In 2005, the Army released an online game, "America's Army," as a recruiting tool. But this understanding of the power of video games has not penetrated American efforts to reach out to moderate Muslims.

True, Hezbollah's game designers have the easier task. Hezbollah's anti-Israel message resonates throughout the greater Middle East and last summer's war provides a ready-made narrative. Games that are blatantly pro-American will only come off as ham-handed propaganda.

The point of waging a war of ideas is not to make America more popular. It is to foster attitudes and ideas that marginalize extremists. Increasingly sophisticated and supporting complex narratives, video games could be an ideal platform for the subtle transmission of values and an essential component in the war of ideas.

The best propaganda doesn't look like propaganda, and for video games to be successful they must be fun. Fun is a worthwhile value in and of itself, particularly for people caught in the midst of terrible circumstances, but it can also be a tactical asset.

Nations have come to virtual standstills for crucial episodes of beloved television shows. Violence in Baghdad dipped during Saddam Hussein's trial, as Iraqis were glued to their televisions to watch their former tormentor face justice. In particular, video games could be a crucial tool for reaching young men, the same demographic targeted for recruitment by terrorists.

The possibilities for video games targeted at Muslims throughout the world that marginalize extremist ideologies are limitless. Shoot-em-up games that give players the chance to rescue their countrymen from bloodthirsty terrorists could reinforce the message that Muslims themselves are the primary victims of Islamic extremists.

Other values can be fostered in more complex games modeled on popular strategy games like "Civilization." These games can help introduce players to the workings of open political systems and modern economies, and even make the subtle case for the education of women. Different games could be developed for different regions. A soccer game based on the venerated Iraqi national soccer team could help foster national consciousness among Iraqis, whereas a different game could be designed for cricket-mad Pakistan. Battery powered handheld games could be developed for areas where computers are scarce or electricity is inconsistent.

Video games can be funny as well. Popular sitcoms like "The Simpsons" have inspired video game spin-offs. Humor is an essential communications tool for building bridges and for ridiculing shared enemies.

Since September 11, policy-makers have been calling for a war of ideas. Terrorists have consistently and quickly adapted their message to the most popular and accessible media. To win the war of ideas, America must adapt to the new forms of spreading their message as well. Video games are one of the great communications tools of this century; it is time to take them seriously. The extremists already do.

Mr. Mannes, a researcher at the University of Maryland's Laboratory of Computational Cultural Dynamics, is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy. Mr. Subrahmanian, a professor of computer science, is the director of the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Justice for AMIA: Interpol & Argentina vs. Iran

There is a country and an international organization willing to stand up to the Iranians. Earlier this week Interpol voted overwhelmingly (74-14 with 26 abstentions) to issue a red letter calling for the arrest of five Iranians accused by the Argentine government of orchestrating the 1994 bombing of the Jewish communal offices (known as AMIA) in Buenos Aires. This move may not bring real justice to the AMIA victims, but it is a small step in the right direction and it sheds important light on the nature of the Iranian regime.

Interpol’s red letter placed five Iranians and Hezbollah’s notorious director of external operations on its most wanted list. This move will probably not bring the perpetrators of the bombing to justice. Interpol has no power to enforce these arrests. Countries that abide by international standards are likely to comply; countries that evade international standards do not comply. Iran is notorious for evading international standards, on issues large (such as the nuclear program) and small (such as keeping politics out of the Olympics).

Unsurprisingly Iran lobbied heavily against the decision and accuses Interpol of bowing to U.S. pressure.

The Argentine investigation of the AMIA bombing, which killed 85 people and wounded over 200 got off to a rocky start and has been dogged by allegations of corruption and incompetence – leading Interpol to deny previous Argentine requests. However, the Interpol vote endorses the latest investigation as “highly professional” and thorough. (A summary translated into English can be read here.)

The Argentine government and deserves full credit for taking Iran to the mat on this issue. This was done despite the ongoing fear in Argentina that Iran will strike them again. There was also substantial political pressure. Outgoing President Nestor Kirchner was close to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who bailed Argentina out when it reneged on its international debt. Chavez has a burgeoning relationship with Iran, but despite this multi-billion dollar favor, Kirchner supported the investigation and refused to attend events where Iran’s President Ahmedinejad was also in attendance.

The investigation shows both operationally and politically how Iran incorporates terrorism into its foreign policy. Operationally the attack was planned out of the Embassy in Buenos Aires and featured seamless cooperation between Iran and Hezbollah. The attack was carried out both to punish Israel and Argentina (for reneging on deals to provide Iran and Syria nuclear and missile technology.)

Perhaps most significantly are the two figures not included in the Interpol red letter, Rafsanjani and Khameini, the President and Supreme Leader of Iran when the attack was launched. They were not included because heads of state and government are exempt from Interpol warrants for actions carried out in office. However, these gentlemen are the “moderates” who will hopefully check Ahmedenijad’s eschatological ambitions.

As the recent arrests of Hezbollah operatives in LA shows, Iran’s reach remains truly global. The Interpol decisions should be a wake-up call to the entire world about this regime, before they put this network to use yet again.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Competing Narratives: The Women of the FARC

Latin America’s most deadly terrorist organization, the FARC, cultivates an image of romance and revolution. To emphasize their revolutionary egalitarianism they highlight the importance of women in the ranks. Approximately a quarter to a third of the FARC fighters are women, and pictures on the FARC’s website nearly always include a few FARCettes. Sympathetic journalists have gushed over the guerilleras and the FARC’s own descriptions of FARC life verge on pornography (I’ve excerpted examples of both below). The reality is of course quite different (see this excerpt from a report by Human Rights Watch.) A recent dramatic demonstration of this unreality came when a FARCette named Angelica hijacked a plane in order to escape her life with FARC and surrender to Colombia authorities.

Nonetheless, FARC propaganda works and occasionally attracts international recruits such as Tanja Nijmieijer, a young Dutch woman who, filled with revolutionary fervor joined the FARC. Portions of her diary were found when Colombian forces raided a FARC camp in August. The picture is not pretty, not frightening, more banal. But a far cry from the egalitarian image the FARC seeks to project. Based on Tanja's description, it is a movement of petty tyrants.

Terrorist groups need to be defeated by arms, but also in battle. Destroying the FARC’s progressive image and splitting it from its connections with the international left is a key component in neutralizing it overall and perhaps bringing some peace to Colombia.

Compare and contrast, excerpts below:

Here is a fawning piece in which life with the FARC is portrayed as an Outward Bound personal growth experience:
…there was little doubt that the guerrillas in that particular camp had achieved an impressive degree of gender equality. It was not just evident in their activities and words but, more importantly, in their way of being.

…The softness of the energy exhibited by the male rebels towards their female colleagues, their absolute lack of machismo, their acceptance of them as equals, was actually quite astounding. And for the women, they also exhibited many feminine qualities for a group of females living a traditionally male lifestyle. In fact, maintaining their femininity was important to the female guerrillas. During off-duty hours we often observed female rebels getting together to apply make-up or to braid each other’s hair. Evidently, equality in that FARC camp was not about women acting like men.

This innocence hardly compares with FARC’s own writing about the FARCettes. LOVE BENEATH THE INTIMACY OF THE MOSQUITO NETTING, which reads like a bad undergrad imitation of Gabriel Garcia Maquez style magical realism, is no longer on the FARC’s website, but can be read in its entirety here:
To form a couple they talk to the commander: "We want to be partners." The commander calls them both in and explains: "you have to behave in such-a-such way, respect each other, be with this person only, not with one and then another because if there is not respect, they don't let them be together and they separate them..." Sonia expanded her observation….

"There are no marriages here, there are loving Associations," stated Diana. There are very intense relationships. The intimacy of any relationship follows: they join their tents and their beds. Intimacy is born beneath the intensity of the mosquito net, the neighboring tent doesn't matter. Cries are stifled, you learn how to stifle the passionate outburst of orgasm in complete silence, in the silence of mingled sweat and the pleasure that invites blissful sleep, intertwined. "The couple shares the same tent and you get used to intimacy with other tents close by. It is not like intimacy in civilian life. For example, there are also places where they are in general quarters, so you sleep in one bed on one big frame or blanket. Sometimes they put a couple beside you, or a single compaƱero/a, and then you could say that privacy is the mosquito net. This is intimacy in the guerrilla." said Eliana.

Commander Sonia, long my favorite FARCette, is now serving a 16 year sentence for conspiring to produce and import cocaine.

Here, for a different perspective are some excerpts from Ms. Nijmieijer’s diary. One of these three things doesn’t belong (but which one is closest to the true):
21 July 2006: …I almost forgot the big news: two comrades have AIDS, and there may be more. No one here uses contraceptives. The girlfriend of one of them has no idea what it means. She told me the news with a big grin and her boyfriend seems totally unconcerned. Another girl, who used to have a relationship with the man, is really worried.

24 November 2006: I'm tired, tired of the FARC, tired of people and tired of living in this commune. I'm fed up of never having anything of my own. All of this would have a purpose if you knew what you were fighting for. I don't believe in it any more. What sort of rebel movement is this? Only a few people have money or cigarettes or sweets and the rest of us have to beg for a share, but you know the higher-ups will just be nasty and say no. It was exactly the same four years ago when I joined, nothing has changed. A girl with big tits and a pretty face can totally undermine a unit that has worked together for ages (...) I don't know if I'll ever get out of this jungle (...) I want to get out of here, at least out this unit. But you know that you're a sort of prisoner here (...) It's not the FARC so much as this unit.(...) but had enough of all that blah blah blah about being a Communist (...)

(No date): Dear Jans, there's a party today. But of course the commandants and their women have had their own private party. It's so corrupt. And now all the lower ranks are allowed to drink whatever the head honchos couldn't manage to pour down their throats yesterday (...) Yesterday that idiot Margaret offered me some sweets. That bitch had a great big bag of sweets. I felt so humiliated. A woman who is with one of the commandants is in a totally different class. They have privileges and they give orders. But they also have to produce children.