News & Current Affairs

September 18, 2008

Yemen faces new Jihad generation

Yemen faces new Jihad generation

Aftermath of attack on US embassy

New recruits actively target the Yemeni regime and its supporters like the US

The deadly car bombing outside the US embassy in Yemen represents an escalation in attacks against Western targets and shows al Qaeda-inspired jihadis are growing in ability and determination.

Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed at least 16 people, but it is possible that other groups will come forward in the next few days.

There is a complex network of over-lapping splinter cells and claims of rival leadership within Yemen.

Extremist violence in Yemen has been on the rise since February 2006, when 23 prominent militants tunneled their way out of a high-security jail.

Ten Europeans and four Yemenis have died in attacks on tourist convoys in the past 15 months.

In March, a misfired mortar strike hit a girls’ school next door to the US embassy by mistake.

A subsequent bombing campaign in the capital – against an expatriate residential compound and oil company offices – prompted the US state department to evacuate all non-essential embassy staff from Yemen.

US employees had just started to return to their embassy desks at the end of August – so the timing of the latest attack is significant.

Crackdown

During July, Yemeni security forces killed five al-Qaeda suspects, disrupted a second cell and arrested more than 30 suspected al-Qaeda members.

Map of Yemen

In August, a prominent Islamic Jihad figure was arrested.

But this attack shows that effective leadership remains intact and operational capacity has not been disrupted.

Two Saudi passports were found among documents seized in the July raids and interrogations were said to have uncovered plans to launch attacks in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Yemen subsequently extradited eight Saudi nationals to Riyadh.

The raids underlined the importance to Saudi Arabia of Yemen’s internal security. But Yemen is also paying the price for the northern kingdom’s muscular clampdown on its own insurgents.

In March, a Saudi militant fundraiser said al-Qaeda had been defeated in Saudi Arabia and he called on his remaining associates to flee to Yemen to escape capture or assassination by the Saudi authorities.

The current migration of Saudi jihadis to Yemen coincides with the emergence of a transnational structure calling itself al-Qaeda in the South of the Arabian Peninsula.

Yemen’s mountainous terrain and the weak presence of state structures outside Sanaa have long fostered close ties between jihadis in these neighboring states.

Public education

Cash-strapped Yemen lacks the financial resources to tackle terrorism in the same robust manner as the Saudis; its per capita gross domestic product of $2,300 is dwarfed by the $23,200 seen across the northern border.

The government is moving to a policy of direct confrontation with the younger generation
Analyst Ahmed Saif

In recent years, the Yemeni government has pioneered a dialogue programme and poetry recitals to influence violent jihadis and tribesmen.

The most recent initiative is a two-hour feature film intended to educate the public about Islamic extremism.

The film, called The Losing Bet, follows two Yemeni jihadis who return home after being radicalized abroad.

They are directed by an al-Qaeda mastermind to recruit new members and carry out a “martyrdom operation”.

News footage from the aftermath of a real suicide bombing is edited into scenes of this creative new drama – written and produced by a popular Yemeni director.

The film was launched in August, at a five-star hotel that has previously been an intended target of foiled terrorist plots.

It comes as the government faces a new generation of violent Islamists who are blowing the old, inclusive consensus apart.

The young generation appears to be immune to the standard tactic of negotiation and compromise that President Ali Abdullah Saleh used with the Yemeni mujahideen who returned home at the end of Afghanistan’s war against the Soviet Union.

The Afghan veterans supported the northern tribes against the former socialist South Yemen during the 1994 civil war in return for a reputed “covenant of security” deal – where the government guaranteed protection inside Yemen as long as violence occurred outside the boundaries of the state.

But new recruits are actively targeting President Saleh’s regime, citing as provocation the torture and humiliation of captive al-Qaeda members.

In July, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a police station in Hadramaut. In a subsequent statement, a splinter cell pledged to continue attacks against security and intelligence structures.

Such an explicit declaration means there is no longer scope for dialogue, according to Ahmed Saif, director of the Sheba Centre for Security Studies.

“The government is moving to a policy of direct confrontation with the younger generation,” he says.

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September 15, 2008

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev must agree policy decisions

Getting to the bottom of the shadowy depths of Kremlin decision-making is tricky. Machiavellian power struggles, dark paranoia of security chiefs and long fingers of corruption can turn seemingly rational and transparent explanations inside out.

But even public signals are instructive, and in the wake of the Georgia crisis, Russia’s leadership is taking stock and has several messages for the West.

The first key question about Russia is – who is really in charge?

The standard answer is President Medvedev as Commander in Chief. He, and only he, ordered Russian troops across the border to hit back when Georgia attacked on South Ossetia.

But presidential power is now the tip of an iceberg. What murky currents swirl beneath the surface is less clear.

Dmitry Medvedev says he was caught unawares and admits his relative inexperience.

“I was on holiday on the Volga when the defence minister called,” he said at a conference of the so-called ‘Valdai Club’ of foreign academics and journalists who specialize in Russia.

“I’ll never forget that night, knowing the consequences there would be when I gave the order to return fire… especially when I’d only been president for 95 days,” he said.

But what about Russia’s ex-president, now his prime minister, who was also at the conference?

“However much authority I have, whoever I may be talking to, none of the troops or tanks would have moved an inch until President Medvedev’s order,” was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to deny his own importance when we asked about his role, thereby indicating that his clout and involvement were considerable.

Bridget Kendall
1998 to present: BBC diplomatic correspondent
1994-98: Washington correspondent
1989-94: Moscow correspondent

What is more, at the outset of the crisis, when Mr Putin was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games, he was already thinking about Russia moving swiftly to recognize the two enclaves at the heart of the crisis.

He had taken the time, he told us, to inform the Chinese leadership that Russia would understand if Beijing chose not to react.

Double act

It begs the question – who is really driving policy, the president or the prime minister?

The choreography and timing of our audiences with both were instructive.

A pair of three-hour meetings, two elegant luncheon settings, two declarative statements for Russian TV cameras at the start, and even two carefully informal blue suits with matching ties.

All to signal, perhaps, that their status is equal – a dual leadership exercising power in tandem.

I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice
Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev

Indeed one senior government official made a point of emphasizing the duality, constantly referring to them in the same breath.

Policy decisions had to be cleared with both, he said. And what was wrong with that? A double act surely strengthened, not muddled governance, requiring a green light from two instead of one.

We met Mr Putin first. Almost the entire discussion was devoted to foreign policy.

He was burning to give his point of view. He seemed supremely confident, engaged and in charge. His anger at the way he felt Russia had been treated in recent years blazed through, as though it was his own personal animosity which is now firing and fuelling current policy.

It was hard to remember he was no longer president.

Economic policy, supposedly at the heart of his new job as prime minister, came up sporadically and he admitted he is still mastering his new brief.

When he did comment directly on Dmitry Medvedev, the impression he left was curious.

Mr Putin seemed to want to play up the differences between them, as though suggesting a “good cop, bad cop” routine.

He described himself as “conservative” and with an uncharacteristic flash of self-deprecation admitted his penchant for blunt speaking was sometimes a liability.

Whereas he described Dmitry Medvedev as bright, young and highly educated, with modern and – he stressed this twice – liberal views.

“He’s a good lad,” said Mr Putin a touch condescendingly, as though recommending his young protege to a would-be employer for a new job.

The aim, it seemed, was to send a signal to the West that Dmitry Medvedev is indeed more flexible and reformist than Putin himself – and was forced to act tough because the crisis left him no option.

Moral high ground

So the US and its allies should understand they had made a big mistake by allowing this conflict to happen – and they would make an even bigger mistake unless they made the compromises Russia now wants.

When we met Dmitry Medvedev he underscored the point.

“I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice,” he said.

“I very much don’t want the Caucasus crisis to destroy Russian co-operation with Europe and the United States,” he elaborated, and suggested he felt frustrated at his new role of “President of War”.

He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans
Vladimir Putin on George W Bush

“A whole month has been lost on this war… I’d rather have been doing other things,” he said. “Yesterday when I met the defence and finance ministers, instead of talking about car and tractor production, we had to discuss where to deploy the Russian army. Priorities have had to change.”

So what, then, at this juncture does Russia want from the West?

The first message is that the Russian government is in no mood to compromise.

It insists it occupies the moral high ground in this crisis and sees no reason to give way.

This was tantamount to Russia’s 9/11, President Dmitry Medvedev declared to us, a defining moment in national policy and in relations with the outside world.

That conviction was echoed from top to bottom in our discussions with government officials, mainstream academics and journalists, all of them insisting Russia had no choice but to respond militarily and take South Ossetia and Abkhazia under its wing.

Any suspicion that Russia cunningly laid a trap that Georgia rashly walked into was dismissed as an outrageous lie.

The idea that by deploying troops deep inside Georgia and unilaterally recognising the two disputed enclaves’ independence Russia had gone too far was rejected out of hand.

The suggestion that by invading Georgian territory, and asserting its right to redraw the map, Russia made itself look like a bully, was also thrown out.

Instead President Saakashvili was blamed for triggering the conflict.

The United States had nudged him into it and rashly armed and trained his men while Europeans had looked the other way.

Any Western criticism to the contrary was hypocritical, given interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, and yet another example of anti-Russian hysteria and unfair stereotyping, based on prejudices left over from the Cold War.

Red line

Curiously both Mr Putin and President Medvedev were carefully respectful when it came to President Bush.

“He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans,” said Mr Putin, at the same time complaining that he had twice tried to get the US president to intervene.

Instead it was Vice-President Cheney and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with their Soviet expertise, who were targeted as villains, suspected of fueling anti-Russian sentiment in the US administration and egging Georgia on.

“We need to get rid of stereotypes. The US president has too many Sovietologists in his entourage,” observed Dmitry Medvedev caustically.

A Russian tank crosses a main route in Georgia

Russia is keen to avoid accusations of annexing Georgian territory

The second message that came through clearly was that Russia’s “red line” – any move to extend Nato to Russia’s borders by seeking to incorporate Georgia or Ukraine – still stands.

What Russia really wants is a new discussion on European security arrangements to replace Nato with something else entirely.

But short of that, attempts by the United States or Nato to rearm Georgia or to extend formal invitations to either Georgia or Ukraine to join the alliance seem likely to prompt a furious Russian response.

“Russia has zones that are part of its interests. For the West to deny it is pointless and even dangerous,” said President Medvedev.

“It’s unjust, it’s humiliating, and we’ve had enough. It’s something we are no longer prepared to endure,” he said. “You have a very clear choice here. Let there be no doubt about it.”

What exactly Russia would do to try to prevent this further Nato enlargement was left unclear.

“We’ll do all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen,” said Mr Putin carefully, talking about Ukraine.

Although on Georgia he noted Russian tanks had been within 15 kilometres of Tbilisi and could have taken the capital in four hours.

Economic concerns

So the hints of a threat, but not exactly – and that is interesting. Because the third message that came through was that Russia would like to think a major East-West confrontation can still be avoided.

There may well be powerful forces in Russia’s military and security elite, ultra nationalists who would like to see their country retreat from global integration and rely once more on internal resources – economic and military – as in Soviet days, to reclaim influence geographically and show the outside world Russia’s might can no longer be ignored.

Roubles being sorted at the Goznak mint in Moscow

Russia’s stock market value has fallen by 50% since May this year

But diplomatic and economic isolation does not seem to be what the Kremlin leadership currently wants to embrace.

The haste with which both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev shrugged off the notion that Russia might have to pay a price for this crisis was telling.

They denied that the loss of nearly 50% of Russia’s stock market value from its all time high in May had much to do with the Georgia crisis.

A far more likely cause, they argued – with some justification, given what is happening on Wall Street – was the impact of global financial instability.

In comparison to many other countries, they insisted, Russia’s economy was in good shape – signs of capital flight were temporary. Foreign investors would be back. Russia’s energy resources were needed by everyone and it had weathered economic storms before.

The fact only Nicaragua had joined Russia in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia was also dismissed as unimportant, even if the glaring lack of overt diplomatic support for Russia’s actions appears to be a sensitive point.

When the leader of South Ossetia told us he intended to follow up independence by amalgamating his tiny republic with North Ossetia and becoming part of the Russian Federation, he was hurriedly slapped down. Within hours he had issued a retraction.

Outright annexation by Russia of what is, after all, legally speaking Georgian territory is an accusation Moscow seems anxious to avoid.

Yes, Russia wants to claim that the ball is now firmly in the court of the US and its allies – that it is up to them, not Russia, to decide how this geopolitical crisis plays out.

But behind all the moral outrage, I felt there was also a nervousness, a worry that if Russia’s bluff is called and further tensions with the West ensue, it might force a stand-off from which neither side could back down.

“There is a chill in the air and a loss of trust,” said Dmitry Medvedev, “but I don’t think this is a corner turn that will lead to a long confrontation. This is not what we want. And it’s not what you want either.”

September 4, 2008

Roman Empire ‘raised HIV threat’

Roman Empire ‘raised HIV threat’

Roman

The Romans spread their genes far and wide

The spread of the Roman Empire through Europe could help explain why those living in its former colonies are more vulnerable to HIV.

The claim, by French researchers, is that people once ruled by Rome are less likely to have a gene variant which protects against HIV.

This includes England, France, Greece and Spain, New Scientist reports.

Others argue the difference is linked to a far larger event, such as the spread of bubonic plague or smallpox.

We’re waiting for the big piece of evidence which will solve this
Dr Susan Scott
Liverpool University

The idea that something carried by the occupying Romans could have a widespread influence on the genes of modern Europeans comes from researchers at the University of Provence.

They say that the frequency of the variant corresponds closely with the shifting boundaries of the thousand-year empire.

In countries inside the borders of the empire for longer periods, such as Spain, Italy and Greece, the frequency of the CCR5-delta32 gene, which offers some protection against HIV, is between 0% and 6%.

Countries at the fringe of the empire, such as Germany, and modern England, the rate is between 8% and 11.8%, while in countries never conquered by Rome, the rate is greater than this.

Legionnaire’s disease

However, the researchers do not believe that the genetic difference is due to Roman soldiers or officials breeding within the local population – history suggests this was not particularly widespread, and that invading and occupying armies could have been drawn not just from Italy but from other parts of the empire.

Instead, they say that the Romans may have introduced a disease to which people with the CCR5-Delta32 variant were particularly susceptible. This tallies with some other theories of why some have the gene variant, and some do not.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool had suggested that the variant could have offered protection against pandemics such as the Black Death which swept Europe on a regular basis during and after the Roman era.

These, said the Liverpool researchers, were viral illnesses which were lethal to people without the gene variant, raising its frequency from one in 20,000 people to approximately 10% in Northern Europe.

Dr Susan Scott, one of the researchers, said that the idea of Roman occupation being the driving force behind this was another theory to be considered.

“We just don’t know. This is just another piece of the jigsaw, but we’re waiting for the big piece of evidence which will solve this.”

August 14, 2008

Europeans angry at Ryanair move

Europeans angry at Ryanair move

Ryanair planes

Ryanair says the move will benefit passengers in the long-term

Spain’s transport ministry has opened an investigation into Ryanair’s move to cancel thousands of bookings made via third party internet travel agents.

Ryanair says the sales, which represent about a thousand bookings a day, are illegal.

But the decision, in the height of the summer travel season, has been criticized by consumer groups.

Italy’s transport minister called it “another deplorable and incomprehensible move”.

Altero Matteoli said the decision not to honor Ryanair tickets booked by third party websites “damages its own clients,” in comments published in Italy’s daily newspaper La Repubblica.

The no-frills airline announced the move not to accept tickets bought anywhere other than on its website or via its telephone booking line last week.

‘Breaching copyright’

The news comes as the budget carrier posted a fall of 85% in net profits in the three months to the end of June.

A Ryanair spokesman said all tickets purchased from third parties after 11 August would be invalid and customers would be informed by email and refunded.

“We’re canceling these tickets because they are in breach of our terms and conditions. The third party is breaching our copyright,” Daniel De Carvalho.

The company said that up to 1,000 of the 200,000 bookings made each day on Ryanair flights were carried out via external websites, which it brands “screenscrapers”.

He said that customers were sometimes being charged a 200% surcharge on top of the value of the flight when not purchasing the ticket directly.

According to La Repubblica, a European Commission spokesperson said that if the company was found to be canceling tickets already sold it would intervene.

Reports suggest that tickets bought via sites such as V-tours, of Germany, Spain-based E-Dreams, Ireland’s Bravofly as well as some European versions of holiday booking website Opodo could be affected.

Italian consumer associations Adusbef and Federconsumatori have said the move “is in violation of the consumer code and passengers’ rights”.

E-Dreams has announced that it will take action against the firm for “irresponsibility and negligence”, Agence France Presse reports.

But Ryanair defended its choice.

“It’s a consumer-friendly decision,” Mr De Carvalho said. “We fight for our mission which is to deliver the lowest fares. We believe this measure, in the mid- to long-term, will benefit our passengers.”

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