Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, is a place of extremes. It’s a sprawl of one- and two-story mud-brick houses that lack power lines and running water, but it’s also home to the garish, McMansion-style estates of Cocainebougou, or “Cocaine Town,” a deserted neighborhood that once belonged to Arab drug lords who controlled the region’s smuggling routes for hashish and cocaine but fled, fearing reprisals from local citizens who blamed them for the Islamist invasion. The city has few high schools and no universities, but many of Mali’s leading guitarists and percussionists learned their craft in Gao’s decades-old youth orchestras; it is a proudly secular city that also houses the Tomb of Askia, one of the oldest mosques in Africa, built in the 15th century to honor a regional ruler. Gao was for centuries best known as the capital of the ancient Songhai Empire, which once controlled a region larger than present-day Mali. In the summer of last year, an al‑Qaeda affiliate known as AQIM, for “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” took over Gao and made it the capital of the rump state the group created after forcing the Malian army out of the north. Months earlier, the Tuareg, a separatist minority long bent on independence, had laid the groundwork for AQIM and its Islamist allies when they captured the city. When I visited northern Mali in March of this year, a black-metal billboard the extremists had erected on the main road leading into the city was still welcoming visitors to the “Islamic City of Gao.”
French air and ground forces reconquered the north this past January, bringing the region back under the nominal control of Mali’s fragile central government. Camouflage pickup trucks full of Malian soldiers now rumble down Gao’s otherwise empty streets, and a handful of small bars and restaurants have reopened. Castel and other Malian beers, strictly forbidden under the Islamists, are freely available, though they’re usually served warm because of the city’s frequent power outages. I walked through the main bazaar one afternoon with Baba Douglass, an affable, rotund man who works as a top adviser to Gao’s mayor, Sadou Diallo. Teenagers hawked Nokia cellphones and women in brightly colored blue dresses and head scarves peddled warm bread and cake, calling out prices as we passed. Douglass pointed to a pair of canary-yellow bulldozers looming over a fenced-off expanse of dirt and stone. “That’s where the new central market building is going,” he told me. “If things stay quiet, it will be open by the end of the year.”
That’s a big if. Mali’s central government now runs Gao, but many locals believe that the jihadists who controlled the city last year have melted away into the surrounding countryside, where they are waiting out the French. France launched its military campaign on January 11 with a series of air strikes on insurgent targets. Thousands of French ground troops poured into the country later that month and began pushing north. At the peak of the campaign, more than 4,000 French soldiers were in Mali, but the French military has announced plans to withdraw about 3,000 of them by the end of the year. Paris will pull out the remaining troops next year, leaving behind an unspecified number of special forces and trainers to mentor the Malian security forces, and will also support a new United Nations peacekeeping force of 12,600 troops drawn from other African countries. But many ordinary Malians still fear that their country’s armed forces won’t be able to fill the void.
After saying goodbye to Douglass, I made my way through the remains of a walled compound that once housed the mayor’s offices. About a dozen militants had snuck in days before and lobbed grenades at a convoy of passing Malian military vehicles, kicking off a fierce gun battle that raged for more than seven hours. French forces relieved the overmatched Malian soldiers and eventually killed all the attackers, but the fighting left the compound in ruins, two of its yellow walls reduced to piles of scorched concrete and rebar. The ground was littered with spent cartridges, scraps of clothing, and razor-sharp shrapnel. The compound’s custodian, Hasan Haidara, led me into a garage and pointed to a splotch on the floor that looked like brown paint. “Blood from one of the jihadis,” he told me. Haidara, who’d been trapped in the compound during the attack, said several of the fighters were Arabs. “They were not from Mali,” he said emphatically. “They were not from here.”
I heard a similar refrain from an array of Malian and American security officials. Gao’s central jail is housed in a defunct two-story health clinic a short drive from the mayor’s compound. When I visited, the warden, Captain Ballo Banfa, told me that many of his prisoners had come from Algeria, Tunisia, Nigeria, and other neighboring African countries. Captain Ibrahim Sanogo, an intelligence officer at a nearby Malian military base, told me that he’d listened in on radio conversations between rebels speaking English, Fulani, and Hausa, three of the primary languages of neighboring Nigeria, and personally interrogated captured fighters from Burkina Faso and Chad. France captured two of its own citizens allegedly fighting alongside the Islamists in northern Mali and is holding them on terrorism charges. U.S. officials say foreign fighters from across Africa have been flowing into Mali to earn their jihadist bona fides and gain tactical experience battling a well-armed Western military. “Northern Mali has become a jihad front,” said a U.S. official familiar with the region, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “People think of northern Mali like they thought of Chechnya in the late ’90s—as someplace where you can go and do your part to restore the caliphate.”
The foreign militants battling Malian and French troops across northern Mali are part of a little-noticed but hugely important shift.
Read more. [Image: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty]
Don’t miss Amanda Ripley’s cover story on the case against high-school sports, Gregg Easterbrook on how the NFL fleeces taxpayers, Richard Florida on the boom towns and ghost towns of the new economy, Tina Rosenberg on Malcolm Gladwell, and much more.
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“Eerie and remarkable.”
Those are the words that Robert Bartholomew used to describe this past winter’s outbreak of mass hysteria in Danvers, Massachusetts, a town also known as “Old Salem” and “Salem Village.”
Bartholomew, a sociologist in New Zealand who has been studying cases of mass hysteria for more than 20 years, was referring to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693, the most widely recognized episode of mass hysteria in history, which ultimately saw the hanging deaths of 20 women.
Fast-forward about 300 years to January 2013, when a bizarre case of mass hysteria again struck Danvers. About two dozen teenagers at the Essex Agricultural and Technical School began having “mysterious” hiccups and vocal tics.
“The Massachusetts State Health Department refuses to say publicly,” Bartholomew wrote in an email in late August, “but I have heard from some of the parents privately who say that the symptoms are still persisting.”
The location might be eerie, but Bartholomew is not surprised by the outbreak in the slightest. He said that there has been a “sudden upsurge” in these types of outbreaks popping up in the U.S. over the past few years. It starts with conversion disorder, when psychological stressors, such as trauma or anxiety, manifest in physical symptoms. The conversion disorder becomes “contagious” due to a phenomenon called mass psychogenic illness (MPI), historically known as “mass hysteria,” in which exposure to cases of conversion disorder cause other people—who unconsciously believe they’ve been exposed to the same harmful toxin—to experience the same symptoms.
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BERLIN — On a warm August night, inside a meeting room at the Berlin House of Representatives, American digital privacy activist Jacob Appelbaum pulled a small electronic device from his backpack and issued a challenge to parliament: The member who agreed to run the device, a custom WiFi node, from an office in the building could have it for free.
"If someone from the parliament here really believes in free speech, I’m happy to give this to them," said Appelbaum. The node boosts the signal of a worldwide encryption network called TOR. Short for The Onion Router (think protective layers), TOR software provides a web browser that cloaks IP addresses, granting anonymity to Internet users. The National Security Agency’s controversial PRISM program is thought to be using Internet nodes in foreign countries for espionage. TOR nodes create a blanket that shields Web content — emails, instant messages, metadata and browser histories, for example — from the government’s gaze. Without anonymity and privacy, Appelbaum argues, freedom is a fallacy.
“Fundamentally, it’s a very old idea that you should be free to read and free to speak and you should be free to do this without having to identify yourself,” Appelbaum told a packed room of concerned faces — about 60 in all. Appelbaum, a young man with thick-framed glasses and impeccably clear annunciation, acted as a de facto spokesman for WikiLeaks in 2010 after the group released intelligence cables handed over by Chelsea Manning. With TOR, he explained, “instead of the 20th and 21st century surveillance state, you’re returning to a state where privacy is the norm.”
Appelbaum’s audience, a mix of programmers, off-duty journalists, and concerned citizens, leaned forward in their chairs and listened closely. Promoting encryption is a key part of Appelbaum’s agenda. Only a small substrata of Internet users currently go to such lengths. But the more people encrypt, the greater grow the hurdles to the kind of widespread government surveillance brought to light by former intelligence contract Edward Snowden. And an effective way to recruit new members to the encryption movement is through public events like the one in Berlin — what have become known as “cryptoparties.”
Read more. [Image: Morris Mac Matzen/Reuters]
My father, Terry Anderson, was kidnapped during the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s. Now, history is repeating itself as members of Lebanon’s various sects escalate tit-for-tat abductions.
Read more. [Image: Khalil Hassan/Reuters]
A serial killer finds a newly vulnerable class of victims: white, working-class men.
Read more. [Image: Akron Beacon Journal/AP]
On Thursday, October 25, 2012, as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney crisscrossed America in a final mad scramble along the campaign trail, three officers from Yemen’s elite Republican Guard were holding an unusual meeting half a world away, on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. That day was Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, which in the Islamic tradition commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Eid al-Adha is one of the holiest days on the Islamic calendar, but the men had likely forgone the traditional meal with their families to join the meeting that evening.
Standing in front of them was the reason for their clandestine gathering: an 8-year-old boy. Shy, frail, a little grimy, and in need of a haircut, he looked as vulnerable as he would several months later while describing this meeting on video.
At the time of the meeting, the boy didn’t know that the United States had decided to kill a man named Adnan al-Qadhi, and had turned to its allies in Yemen for assistance. Now the Yemeni government needed the child’s help. The Republican Guard officers told him what they wanted him to do: plant tiny electronic chips on the man he had come to think of as a surrogate father. The boy knew and trusted the officers; they were his biological father’s friends. He told them he would try. He would be their spy.
By the time President Obama gave the order to attack Adnan al-Qadhi, the U.S. had been killing al-Qaeda fighters for years, in places ranging from the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the deserts of Yemen and Somalia. The strikes had taken a toll on the terrorist organization. More than a decade after September 11, Osama bin Laden and many of the most obvious targets were already dead.
Qadhi, a burly Yemeni military officer, was a less obvious target. But as the U.S. entered the second decade of its war against al-Qaeda, it increasingly found itself going after men like Qadhi, who were targeted not so much for what they had done as for what they might do.
The most ardent case against drone strikes is that they kill innocents. John Brennan has argued that claims of collateral carnage are exaggerated. In June 2011, he famously declared that there had not been “a single collateral death” due to a drone strike in the previous 12 months.
Almost no one believes this. Brennan himself later amended his statement, saying that in the previous 12 months, the United States had found no “credible evidence” that any civilians had been killed in drone strikes outside Afghanistan and Iraq. (I am using the word civilians here to mean “noncombatants.”) A fair interpretation is that drones unfailingly hit their targets, and so long as the U.S. government believes its targets are all legitimate, the collateral damage is zero. But drones are only as accurate as the intelligence that guides them. Even if the machine is perfect, it’s a stretch to assume perfection in those who aim it.
For one thing, our military and intelligence agencies generously define combatant to include any military-age male in the strike zone. And local press accounts from many of the blast sites have reported dead women and children. Some of that may be propaganda, but not all of it is. No matter how precisely placed, when a 500-pound bomb or a Hellfire missile explodes, there are sometimes going to be unintended victims in the vicinity.
Foul deeds will rise, though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes. — William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Watergate remains the greatest political scandal in modern American history. It culminated not only in President Nixon’s announcement of his resignation, 39 years ago Thursday, but in the conviction and imprisonment of his three most senior aides. Attorney General John Mitchell, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman were found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury in the three-month Watergate cover-up trial, which ended on January 1, 1975.
I saw it all unfold. I was a young lawyer working on the White House staff and assisting in Nixon’s defense efforts. It is true that we failed spectacularly. Of course, I’m disappointed we weren’t more successful. But whether the defendants were innocent or guilty, I’ve always worried on a more basic level that the heightened emotions of the times denied them the due process of law envisioned by our Constitution.
As a result of some recent discoveries I made while researching a book on the Watergate trials, my concern has been vindicated. It turns out that the notion that “no man is above the law” somehow didn’t apply to judges or prosecutors involved in the cover-up trial. Documents I have uncovered indicate that the efforts to punish the wrongdoings of Watergate led to further wrongdoing by the very officials given the task of bringing the Watergate defendants to justice.
Read more. [Image: Associated Press]
Any good criminal-defense attorney will tell you to say four words if you are about to be arrested for murder: I want a lawyer.
This is simple advice and should be easy to remember during an interrogation, but not everyone recalls it under the pressure of police questioning. Some people make matters worse for themselves in the face of strong evidence by providing an alibi or identifying another person as the perpetrator. Many succumb to the wiles of homicide detectives and implicate themselves to some lesser degree in the crime, heeding the admonition that a partial loss is better than going down for the whole thing. Some accused people are tricked into confessing, and some confess to crimes they did not commit. A certain percentage, worn down by conscience or questioning or the simple desire to get the interrogation over with, provide a detailed and honest explanation for what they did.
And then there’s Anthony Sylvanus. He came to the attention of Philadelphia homicide detectives in March 2001 while minding his own business at the State Correctional Institution at Albion — a stone’s throw from Lake Erie, and as far away from his crime as the geography of Pennsylvania allows — where he was serving a sentence of 10 to 20 years. While someone doing that much time can’t be said to have much luck, whatever small amount he did possess was about to run out. Two events would cause this turn: the advent of the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, and a random conversation between a police captain in Philadelphia and a murder victim’s granddaughter.
Read more. [Andrey_Kuzmin/Shutterstock]