A lesson in how to hype an unquantifiable threat with bogus numbers.
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Until this autumn, Volgograd was a relatively quiet Russian city, known best for its legacy as a World War II battlefield. But that changed in October, when a female suicide bomber blew herself up on a city bus, killing six passengers, most of them teenagers.
Now, two back-to-back suspected suicide attacks just ahead of New Year celebrations—a December 29 bombing at the city’s main train station followed by a December 30 trolleybus blast—have claimed more than 30 additional lives and left many to wonder why Volgograd has become an unlikely insurgent target.
With the Winter Olympics less than six weeks away, the security spotlight has been focused on host city Sochi, nestled uncomfortably close to Russia’s volatile North Caucasus republics and their ongoing Islamic insurgency.
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Ever since the death of Osama bin Laden, President Obama and his senior lieutenants have been telling war-weary Americans that the end of the nation’s longest conflict is within sight. “Core al-Qaeda is a shell of its former self,” Obama said in a speech in May. “This war, like all wars, must end.” That was the triumphal tone of last year’s reelection campaign, too.
The truth is much grimmer. Intelligence officials and terrorism experts today believe that the death of bin Laden and the decimation of the Qaeda “core” in Pakistan only set the stage for a rebirth of al-Qaeda as a global threat. Its tactics have morphed into something more insidious and increasingly dangerous as safe havens multiply in war-torn or failed states—at exactly the moment we are talking about curtailing the National Security Agency’s monitoring capability. And the jihadist who many terrorism experts believe is al-Qaeda's new strategic mastermind, Abu Musab al-Suri (a nom de guerre that means “the Syrian”), has a diametrically different approach that emphasizes quantity over quality. The red-haired, blue-eyed former mechanical engineer was born in Aleppo in 1958 as Mustafa Setmariam Nasar; he has lived in France and Spain. Al-Suri is believed to have helped plan the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 2005 bombings in London—and has been called the “Clausewitz” of the new al-Qaeda.
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Conservative parliamentarian Liam Fox, Britain’s former defense secretary, is urging his country’s top prosecutor to investigate whether The Guardian and its journalists violated The Terrorism Act 2000 while handling Edward Snowden’s leaks.
He is focused on the newspaper’s decision to partner with foreign publications like The New York Times. “There have been further accusations that The Guardian passed the names of GCHQ agents to foreign journalists and bloggers. Would such activities, if true, constitute an offense under the Terrorism Act 2000 or other related legislation?” Fox asked in a letter to the director of public prosecutions, adding a question about how a prosecution might be initiated.
These actions are ominous.
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MOSCOW—Critics say a new law designed to quell the insurgency in Russia’s restive North Caucasus region revives the Stalin-era principles of collective guilt and collective justice.
President Vladimir Putin signed the legislation on November 3, requiring “close relatives and acquaintances” of those who commit acts of “terrorism” to pay damages—both material and moral—resulting from those acts. It also empowers authorities to seize property from friends and relatives of suspected militants and provides for prison sentences of up to 10 years for those convicted of receiving training “aimed at carrying out terrorist activity.”
"This is absolutely not normal. It’s a return to the 1930s, when Stalin advocated collective responsibility for crimes which were carried out," Mairbek Vatchagayev, a North Caucasus analyst for the Jamestown Foundation and head of the Paris-based Center for Caucasus Research, says. "Once again, we’ve ended up there when Putin regards himself a supporter of Stalin and the Stalin period."
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It is long past time for Barack Obama to show that he understands this truth.
The occupation of the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya by the militant group Al-Shabaab is now over, leaving at least 60 civilians dead. The standoff lasted for four days and is likely to boost the image of the militant group in the region. Here’s what you need to know about the group and what it means for Africa’s terrorism landscape:
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Islamists are able to take advantage of porous borders, weak central governments, undertrained militaries, and flourishing drug trades.
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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]