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Rethinking Narratives of Bin Laden's Death

Posted by Jacob Jacob on May 14, 2011 at 7:02 AM Comments comments (1)

It is interesting listening to students’ views about the death of Osama bin Laden. It is amazing the number of people that believe there is something sinister about the commando raid on the Abbottabad lair of the Al Qaeda kingpin. I do not blame them. I place the whole blame on the doorsteps of President Obama’s Communication handlers. The problem, I believe is not with the raid itself but with the narratives of the raid.

 

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Inconsistencies

There have been quite a few inconsistencies on the raid including how bin Laden was actually killed - ‘during’ or ‘after’ a firefight. During those crucial first 12 hours of the announcement, there was confusion over the most basic details of the operation – how bin Laden was killed. In his address, President Obama used the word ‘after’. He said “After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body”. This connotes that bin Laden was killed, not ‘during’ or ‘in’ a firegfight but at the end, or some time ‘after’ the firefight had finished. It can also be interpreted to mean that Bin Laden was involved in the firefight, but survived it and was killed thereafter. In the 1,387-word speech, the President only used the word ‘firefight’ once. It is significant that the only time he used the word was in the same sentence he announced the killing of bin Laden and the other very significant factor – custody of the corpse. Including 'firefight' in that critical sentence, I believe was a very carefully deliberated choice, although (as we have now come to realise) bin Laden may not have been armed and was not involved in the firefight that preceded his death. I believe the speech was carefully designed to associate the killing with a firefight but in a form that leaves room for ‘manoeuvre’ if facts emerge. But other senior Whitehouse officials in subsequent press appearances went a step further and said bin Laden was killed ‘in’ a firefight. Beyond what Fox’s James Rosen has interestingly described as a botched storyline, the Whitehouse’s narrative is an own goal on many fronts. In addition to creating avoidable distractions on the storyline of one of the most significant commando operations in history, it also gives Islamists a rallying point – that bin Laden fought gallantly to the death. When intensified and supported with strong rhetorical accompaniments, it can provide an inspiration for suicide attacks.

 


 

Does it matter?

Maybe I’m nitpicking, but in the absence of visual witnessing of a historically significant event of this nature, every word is important. In the postmodern world visual forms of media are dominant. Where they are absent, words become the greatest signifiers and can weigh significantly. If there were videos of the raid, the President and his communication handlers could probably have been spared much of the embarrassment of retracting and re-explaining. President Obama’s censorship of images of bin Laden’s corpse after CIA Chief Leon Panetta had earlier indicated that they would be released is not helpful. Personally I think the argument that releasing pictures of bin Laden’s corpse would somehow convince sceptics or conspiracy theorists that bin Laden was killed during the raid actually misses the point, at least from a communications point of view.

Increasing social, cultural and technological shifts from the verbal and textual to the visual makes a visual narrative of the raid as important as the raid itself. It is critical to the way people will remember and even engage with the exit of the bin Laden Factor. Bin Laden was not only a character or a person, he was an entity, a symbol. He represented (and still does) an ideology that seeks to challenge a civilisation and everything it represents. Bin Laden symbolised a belief system that the US, ‘the great Satan’ could be humiliated, harassed and taunted – a system of belief appropriated by radical Islamists across continents. For a decade, bin Laden remained a ‘dangling modifier’ of some sort – disrupting states, modifying foreign policies, inspiring radicalism. Merely announcing the exit of this ‘modifier’ and leaving the media to come up with various animated versions of the raid is simply not good enough. Indeed, the media have had to come up with a plethora of animations and graphics to enhance and indeed support the ‘dry’ report of the raid. There have been countless speculations and shadow accounts of the raid. This should never be the case for an operation of this significance.

 


 

Between McLuhan and Abbottabad

A few friends have argued that images of Hitler’s corpse were not shown to the world, so why should it be different with bin Laden. Well, that was then. Today, (to sound off Marshall McLuhan) our senses have evolved along with the kind of technology we have been socialised to. Our senses have evolved along with the technological enablements of social media, live images and animations. We have new innate desires to witness and even narrate events, even far-off events, as they happen. One of my most admired media scholars, Marshal McLuhan has written substantially about how media technologies affect the society, notably arguing that the technological medium itself is the message. Effects are delivered not only via the messages, but also via the very characteristics of the medium itself. Prior to television for example, we engaged with news and other media contents based on the unique capability or characteristics of the medium – we listened to radio, the literate also read newspapers. But with the advent of television, our visual culture has evolved, so have our perspectives. In today’s convergence culture, we engage with various dimensions of the media. I agree with McLuhan that how we perceive, witness and believe has been transformed significantly. After 10 years of our senses being socialised to the sights, sounds and narratives of bin Laden, we cannot get over the spectre of his entity and his symbolic representations with a mere verbal accomplishment of his exit. A visual witnessing of his exit is critical to the way audiences will re-negotiate their awareness of his symbolic representations and his ideology. Maybe someday, soon, there will be a Hollywood story-telling of the raid, like Jerry Bruckheimer’s re-telling of Operation Restore Hope in ‘Black Hawk Down’ or the various re-tellings of America’s adventures in Vietnam. But no matter how well scripted and how close to reality the storyline would be, Hollywood will not be able to pull this one good enough.

As odd as it sounds, I think President Obama's decision to censor pictures of the mangled and bleeding face or even the cleaned-up corpse of bin Laden is prudent. Still images grow to have a life of their own and can be interpreted to inspire different forms of meaning. However, it is different with moving images. If I was to advise President Obama, I would strongly recommend that selected helmet cam shots of the raid be released. Debates should not be merely about the possible violence and radicalisation such a release may cause. Rather, it should be about the strategic communication imperatives thereof. The way we interpret reality has evolved along with communication technology. Our awareness has evolved beyond a speech or press briefing about the death of the biggest terror mastermind in history. Still images do not come with pre-packed narratives and thus may be appropriated for different meanings and purposes, but moving images tell a story in a unique way and when accompanied by verbal explanations, it conveys a narrative that can be strategically directed and focused. Releasing selected videos of the raid – including the confrontation of bin Laden and the bundling of his corpse into a body bag, ending with its conveyance into a waiting helicopter, will convey a very powerful message. At the short-term, it may fray a few nerves, but for the long term, it will convey a visual signification of an endgame for a vicious symbol and his brand.

 


Is the West Losing the Information War in Libya

Posted by Jacob Jacob on March 28, 2011 at 11:55 AM Comments comments (0)

I recently presented a paper on the new outsourcing of UN strategic communications at a forum organised by Political Communications Research Group at the ICS, University of Leeds. Somehow, discussions shifted from Somalia and the DRC where my lecture was largely drawn to the ongoing international intervention in Libya. One of my guests Professor Gary Rawnsley made a very interesting comment. He spoke about the need for the allies to deploy a strong Information component in Libya. He said the US should consider using Commando Solo to broadcast into Libya and help counter some of the anti-Western and pro-Gaddafi propaganda currently swirling the Libyan media space. I couldn't agree more. At the moment, Commando Solo is among the air assets deployed by the US over Libya however its messages are targeted only at the Libyan military using Libyan military frequencies. The messages call on Libyan soldiers to quit fighting and return home. Bryan Herbert, a self described amateur radio operator in Newhall, California, apparently intercepted some broadcast transmissions on Sunday March 27. Here is a transcript of some of the intercepted transmission:

"The Gaddafi regime forces are violating a United Nations resolution ordering the end of hostilities in your country. Do not take part in any further hostilities. Refuse any orders to harm your fellow countrymen or Libyan facilities." The male voice breaks intermittently for another male voice to speak in Arabic, and then continues, “Return to your homes and families. Your family needs you. Return home safely. Lay down your arms and refuse orders from your current illegitimate government. ... Stop fighting. Abandon your equipment and weapons and return home safely. Libyan ships or vessels remain anchored. Do not leave port. ... If you attempt to leave port you will be attacked and destroyed immediately."

It is still too early to say how effective the messages are - in terms of the number of pro-Gaddafi fighters that have actually quit fighting as a result of these messages. And we may never know. But I think the real psyops challenge is not necessarily with pro-Gaddafi troops because they do not need much reminding that they do not stand a chance under coalition air power. The real challenge I believe, is convincing Gaddafi supporters in Tripoli that it is in their own interest for Gaddafi and his sons to leave power. The mistake would be to presume that it is unnecessary to target psyops at the Libyan population, because a sit-tight dictator as Gaddafi is unlikely to have many supporters. The exact opposite seems to be the case in Tripoli. Indeed, Tripoli residents are becoming more assertive if not vociferous in their public support for Gaddafi and in some cases voluntarily standing at potential targets as 'human shields'. One can never tell how much of these are derived from actual support for Gaddafi’s policies and how much are drawn from their belief that Benghazi rebels are linked to Al Qaeda and that Britain, France and America are desperate to turn Libya into Iraq so they can “steal” the country’s oil.

Currently, Col Muammar Gaddafi rigidly controls the media space in Libya particularly in Tripoli. It is unsurprising that mainstream media in Tripoli is filled with pro-Gaddafi rhetoric and invectives against the West. Indeed, only recently a newscaster on a pro-Gaddafi television station brandished an automatic weapon during a newscast and pledged to fight until his last breath to defend Gaddafi. As curious as it sounds, the Libyan media frames rebels as Al-Qaeda terrorists and the West as their backers. He has repeatedly claimed that coalition bombs have hit nothing but civilians and that the “crusader” is carrying out war against the Muslim people. The power of these narratives, when repeated and reinforced even with the most basic verbal and visual intensifiers should not be underestimated.

So far the allies have failed to properly inform Libyans why their country is being bombed. This is a basic first step that should have preceded the Libyan operation. During crises, Information becomes a humanitarian need - as important as food and water. What people want most times is plain, simple information about what is going on and what to expect so that they can understand their vulnerabilities and negotiate their resilience. When objective information is missing, any available information including rumours becomes the lifeline. In an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty people hold on to the available information as if their life depends on it – sometimes it actually does. Gaddafi seems to understand this and is doing everything to fill up that Information gap with narratives that push his strategic and operational objectives. It is needful for the coalition or the UN itself to quickly deploy an Information Operations capability to counter Gaddafi's narratives and explain the rationale for the no-fly zone, what it seeks to achieve and why it is important for Gaddafi to desist from using armed mercenaries to attack civilians in the east.

 


Tweet-Mapping the Libyan Crises

Posted by Jacob Jacob on March 12, 2011 at 12:20 PM Comments comments (0)

This is a dynamic mapping of the crises in Libya compiled from tweets from trusted accounts on Twitter. Due to the difficulty faced by international journalists in their coverage of the Libyan crises, regular tweets from trusted sources on ground are invaluable. The open source protests in North Africa has been markedly leveraged by the open source reporting of the protest itself!

Libya on My Mind

Posted by Jacob Jacob on March 11, 2011 at 12:23 PM Comments comments (0)

While the EU, the UN and the US are wondering what to do with Libya, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is digging in. He's taken back the key town of Zawiyah and pushing relentlessly to take back the oil town Ras Lanuf. The EU in its meeting on Friday in Brussels seemed to be unable to reach a common position on the imposition of no-fly zone in Libya. If Gaddafi is determined to use violence against Libyans, there is nothing much a no-fly zone can do to stop him. A no-fly zone as a stand-alone intervention mechanism under the current circumstance may not be robust enough to solve the crises. Former head of British armed forces Baron Richard Dannatt has called for caution and warned that a no fly zone is not the answer. Indeed, historically, no-fly zones never really work – they are more of political than military statements. A no fly zone over Iraq did not prevent Saddam Hussein's ruthless persecution of those he considered to be his political enemies. On its own, Operation Sky-Monitor never really worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina until a more robust mandate enabled a full deny-flight operation and protective air support for the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in the course of its mandate. Doubtless, both cases – Iraq and Bosnia-Herzegovina are totally different from Libya. The majority of Libyans and indeed, the international community want to see the back of Gaddafi and it is difficult to see how a no fly zone would cause that to happen! To topple the Gaddafi regime, a full military intervention is required. But is the West ready to commit to what might be a long drawn out war in Libya - at the front door of Europe? Besides, what would be the human and material costs of such intervention? I'm not convinced that Libyans, even protesting Libyans, would come out and receive Western 'liberators' with kisses and bouquets of flowers. Lessons from Iraq are still fresh on the mind. As a way out, Crisis Group International has argued for a comprehensive ceasefire and negotiations to secure a post-Gaddafi regime. Negotiations with Gaddafi would no doubt be long-drawn and potentially problematic. Moreover it would be such an about-face both from the Libyan rebels and from an international community that has been ‘loose-talking’ about military options ever since the crises started. At the moment, Gaddafi's forces are having the upper hand and they would likely see calls for negotiations as an indication of a stand down by their Libyan political enemies and the West. He will no doubt see an opportunity for grand-standing. Further compounding the situation is that France, against every reason, has recognised the Libyan rebels, the National Libyan Council, as the legitimate government in Libya. In as much as it is useful to encourage the Libyan rebels I think it is premature and even perilous to recognise them at this moment as the legitimate government in Libya.

 

The situation has become even more complicated with the earthquake and Tsunami that have devastated Japan. The attention of the international community and the international media will now shift from Libya. While we all commiserate with the Japanese, Gaddafi and his sons will be pushing as far as they can go into the east to take back as much control as possible. They may take back Ras Lanuf but I don't see them taking back Benghazi. The international community should be prepared for a divided Libya. Gaddafi will keep control of the West and the rebels will control the east. And it may remain that way for a quite a while The solution will ultimately lie with the UN. A buffer zone may need to be created to keep both sides apart. The major trouble would be with deciding who controls Libya's oil and gas resources. The negotiation table at this point, would be a good opportunity for the political intervention Libya needs.


Philip M. Taylor: Musings of the Mind

Posted by Jacob Jacob on December 7, 2010 at 12:44 PM Comments comments (0)

 

Phil, the finest, the best

 

I first read ‘Munitions of the Mind’ in 1997. I was in the final year of my undergrad in Nigeria. The book was in the Special section of the library and could not be borrowed. So I had to keep a date with it every morning 7.30am to 8.30am before attending the day’s lecture. It was like attending an interesting talk every morning. Every new chapter was intriguing. I was fascinated not just with the contents but also with the free flowing style of the writing. The Author was authoritative. He knew what he was talking about and did not hesitate to show it. And he did so masterfully – with poetic ease. Then I never knew I would eventually meet him and be supervised by him. When I was admitted in 2006 to study for a PhD at the ICS, I was extremely fascinated to have Phil as my supervisor. I had the options of LSE, Lancaster and Royal Holloway. I knew that my research may be served better in a full Peace and Conflict department, but I could not let the opportunity of working with Philip M. Taylor slip. By this time I was a lot more familiar with his work and more excited about the prospect of meeting him, knowing him more and working with him.

 

Our first meeting

 

I felt like a teenager preparing for a first date with his heartthrob. I remember walking down the corridor of the third floor of Houldsworth Building (as it then was), my heart racing. Phil’s office was towards the end of the long ICS corridor. He was a bit taller than what I had imagined he would be. And had more furrows on his face than the image on his staff page. He said he was fascinated with my proposal and thought it would make an interesting study. He said it was just the right time to study the nature of the UN’s ‘peace propaganda’ and that it would be the very first study of its kind in the world! He said if we got the project right, I would be famous. “It’s the kind of research that would make you stand out from the crowd”, he said. I walked out of his office that day feeling larger than life. This was it! The job was half way done! But over the weeks and months that followed, discussions with him and more critical readings gradually shaped my thinking. My Supervision meetings with him were very unusual. They were more like debates. I have very strong views almost on everything. He would get up and draw process maps or models on the chalk board in his office then to buttress his point. By the time I was ready for my Upgrade, my research had taken on a totally different direction and colour. I realised then like I do now that my proposal was not that good after all! Phil was only getting me to believe in myself more and in the quality of what my work could be. That was Phil. Inspiring. Motivating.

 

PhD fatigues and Hiccups

 

During the course of my PhD, there were plenty of hiccups along the way. But Phil stood by me through it all. At some of my lowest moments – and there were plenty of them, he kept faith in me and kept encouraging and spurring me on. There were times I felt I had had enough and couldn’t continue, but his interest in the work, a brief email and a nice word made so much difference. I needed to suspend my PhD at a point. When I returned, Phil was happier than I was and I couldn’t help but wonder what was in it for him! He pushed the work as if he knew he had little time left. I remember once telling him I was preparing to attend a conference in the US, he said to me, “look Jacob, we don’t have much time, you need to work your sucks off. You don’t need the conference now, sit down and get the job done”. One would have thought that I had only a few days left to submit. I had extended my submission date and it was at least a year away. But that’s Phil. He had a personal interest in my research like he does with all his students and was keen to ensure it was successful.

 

Phil’s ill!

 

I’m accustomed to seeing Phil as a war horse – vibrant, charismatic, audacious. But in August, after returning from a trip to Malaysia, he looked less than himself. I knew he was ill. His health deteriorated in September. But the doctors, he said, didn’t know what was wrong with him. He complained of the invasive nature of some of the tests and even made jokes of them. He also said he was less than comfortable with the intellectual curiosity of the doctors at the General Infirmary in Bradford and said he would write a newspaper article about the NHS when he returned to work.

 

Even while he was ill, Phil won’t miss any of his lectures. In October when he was admitted in hospital, Dr. Robin Brown and Professor Gary Rawnsley had to make arrangements to take over the module. But to everyone’s surprise, Phil showed up and said he would teach on the next lecture day as scheduled. The hospital didn’t know what was wrong with him and they had asked him to go wait at home. He said he’d rather be at work – doing what he loves best, than sit at home. That was Phil. In his last lecture, though going through pains, he spoke of Information Operations and Information Warfare and why the Americans were having it so tough and so wrong in areas that really mattered. Sitting on the front row of that lecture on Tuesday 26th October I could not help but feel the effort he was putting into every word. He spoke with extra-ordinary passion. One could see he was frail. But the strength of his speech was not diminished. Phil’s lectures were not like the usual lectures of a typical British Professor. They were more like speeches. He would gesticulate, pace up and down the teaching area. His PowerPoint slides were extraordinary – full of images, animations and colour. So fascinating were his lectures that one of the MA students brought his mother who was visiting from abroad to attend Phil’s lecture. Unfortunately however, it was the first day ever that Phil did not show up for his lecture because of ill health.

 

The Vanity of Death

 

What really is death? Is there life after death? I hope there is, cause it would be so unfair if this life is all there is. It would be such a waste. Such vanity. But death on its own is vanity. Death is news. Death is money, big money. The higher the number of deaths, the bigger the money. The higher the personality that’s dead, the bigger the money too. The Media thrive on deaths. 240,000 killed in a Tsunami! 10 US Marines killed in a Week! Princess Diana Killed in a car crash! Front page news of deaths sells newspapers. When it is statistics or front page news, death is distant. It is faceless. It is news. It is circulation and money for an editor and the newspaper owner. But when death crashes through the roof of your own home, it takes on this dark, ruthless face. It takes away sleep and leaves a puff of thick silent smoke that numbs. We all know that the friend, the parent or grandparent we love so dearly would leave us someday. For Phil, I knew he had only months to live – his doctors had told him so about two weeks before his death and he graciously shared it with a few of his friends. In his email to me, he wrote “I have a secondary tumor from a (as yet unknown) primary cancer source. It is aggressive, advanced and terminal. I have been told that I will live for a 'matter of months not years'”. The email was a reality check because we were all hoping he would be strong and would return soon. I was keen to see him and I told him so. But he replied almost immediately and said he would attend the convocation ceremony (planned for third week of December) and that we should see then. I imagined, Phil would prefer not to be seen on a helpless hospital bed. I had to respect that and was indeed looking forward to seeing him on December 14th and taking a few pictures and maybe having a drink. How naïve I was! He died on Monday 6th December 2010 – exactly two weeks after my viva, a little over week before we were due to see again. Although I had prepared myself for an academic career without Phil, I never thought it would happen so soon. The news hit me in the midriff and then caused a nauseating feeling I’ve never felt before. I wept like a child. Writing this now, I can’t believe Phil is dead, just like that. He’s gone. He’s simply ceased to exist. He will never sit in his office anymore. Phil Taylor is gone.

 

Phil, the Man

 

People have different opinions of Phil. Some would say he would have lived longer if he had smoked fewer cigarettes. Maybe that’s true. But there are many things we do in life that are life-shortening yet they are part of who we are – the chocolates, the late-night pizzas, the extra pints of beer, the late nights just to complete that paper! For my grand-dad it was snuff. He was addicted to raw tobacco. We tried to discourage him when he was getting really old and frail. “Leave me alone” he would say. Then, using his index finger to stash the brown substance inside his nostrils, he would say “look, this is who I am. I cannot think well, or say what I want to say well without a snuff. Snuff makes me to be myself!” Indeed, we knew he was right. It was part of his identity – the peculiar way he opened his snuff box, the particular finger he used to pack the snuff, the angle he kept his face and nostrils for the insertion and the near choking sneezes that would follow. It was pretty much the same with Phil. He loved his cigarettes. He puffed with a smile up his brows. That was Phil. Smoking was part of the Phil Taylor we knew, loved and admired. Maybe he would have been less of himself if he had quitted smoking. A PhD colleague at the ICS, once told me of her first meeting with Phil. She said Phil told her then that he was a bit grumpy because he had recently quit smoking. That was over five years ago, obviously he did not quit for very long. But we loved and adored him for who he was, and smoking was part of the package.

 

Phil, the Nurse Log

 

Phil once said he knew every word of every sentence of his every book. He said his computer was mangled with the blood from the birth pangs of every word he’s written in all his books. For him, words weren’t just words, they were tiny pellets of meaning. He never wrote just for the sake of writing. His articles and books were authoritative and written not in a bombastic or verbose style but in beautiful prose that would make an interesting reading even to the non-specialist. I think that’s why ‘Munitions of the Mind’ is so popular from Africa to Asia, from Europe to North America. In my academic writings, I have unashamedly drawn from his style. Several scholars that he supervised and mentored have in one way or the other drawn from Phil’s style – either in the way they talk or in the way they write or in some other way that they borrowed from Phil. For many of us Phil has given us more than a shoulder to stand on. He’s a nurse log. Nurse logs are generous. They provide needed nutrients, a home, a base for new seedlings to grow. Mushrooms nourish and flourish from nurse logs. Tender plants get their feet from nurse logs and then spread the palm of their leaves toward the sky and grow until they reach that turning point in their lives when they need to reach out for their own soil. But some do live on their nurse logs for however long it takes. As the last in a long and illustrious line of scholars Phil has supervised I feel passionately close to him. I feel a sense of duty to carry on from where he left. I feel really blessed that he stayed to see my viva and the happy outcome. He sent me a congratulatory message and said how proud he was. He had sent me an email earlier that day to say he would have loved to attend my viva but that he was still in hospital, "be yourself, be brilliant", he wrote. A giant tree has fallen to the ground, and several mushrooms will continue to sprout and grow. He is a nurse log to many. There are many of us and I think there is something special about us – those of us that have sat in his lecture rooms and soaked his passion. A nurse log never dies. It lives on in the gills and caps of sprouting mushrooms, in the frond of every fern and in the roots of every tree it has nursed. So shall it be with Phil.

 

Someone once said that our calling when we are born is to live, to learn, to love and to leave a legacy. Only a tiny minority tick all these boxes. Phil is among that tiny minority. He’s left a legacy – a nurse log from which we can grow and be nourished. Standing on this nurse log now, I can taunt death with the old Biblical dictum: ‘O death where is thy sting, O grave where is thy victory?’


Who will Save Somali Media from Islamists?

Posted by Jacob Jacob on October 6, 2010 at 12:47 PM Comments comments (0)

 

The situation in Somalia is becoming more troubling. Al-Qaeda linked Islamist groups Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam have intensified their operations against independent Somali media institutions. They recently seized two radio stations and will now use them to broadcast their ideology.

 

Even more troubling is the international community’s dithering over Somalia. The African Union (AMISOM) deployment in the country is too feeble (in terms of mandate, troop number and equipment) to make any meaningful impact. Quite frankly, I don’t think higher troop numbers or even a more robust mandate will help at the moment. Besides, which country would send its troops to a potential hole that is as deep if not deeper than Afghanistan and Iraq combined. As it stands, Somalia is a ‘no-go area’ for all that matters. Africa's most prolific peacekeeper, Nigeria wont touch it with a mile-long pole. It is not just about sorting out a bunch of drugged militias (as the Americans realised in 1993) but sorting out a whole system of domestic and foreign shadow networks that have ultimately taken over a failed state including its territorial waters, seaports, airports, trade routes, law enforcement systems - almost every apparatus of state. Sea Ports such as the one in Kismayo have been taken over by Islamic militants and it is a key route through which key assets (including weapons, cash and drugs) are brought in.

 

Now the battle turf has entered the airwaves. Before now, Al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam were contented with censoring the media. They had since banned the re-broadcast of BBC and Voice of America by local FM stations. They had also banned radio stations from playing ‘un-Islamic’ songs! And in April, radio stations were ordered to stop referring to foreign Islamic militants as ‘foreigners’ but as ‘Muhaajiriins’ or Islamic emigrants.

 

The UN’s attempt at information intervention in Somalia is rather curious . The UN Support Office for AMISOM (UNSOA) last year awarded a multi-million dollar contract to a consortium of strategic communication consulting companies (led by Bell Pottinger) to carry out some strategic communications functions in support of AMISOM. A key element of this outsourced UN PIO is the Radio component. Radio Bar-kulan, operated by Okapi Consulting, has been broadcasting from its studios in Kenya since March 2010. The station seeks to promote peace in Somalia by reporting the news, interviewing key actors and providing a forum for Somalis to phone in and make comments. Refreshingly, it also plays music!

 

I have immense respect for David Smith, the head of Okapi Consulting. He formerly headed MONUC’s public information operations in the DRC. Although Radio Bar-Kulan would prefer to downplay its association with the UN, most people in Somalia do know that radio Bar-Kulan is associated with AMISOM or at best with the UN anyway. Frankly, I think it does not do the radio station any good if it keeps underplaying its UN links. It is imperative that Bar-Kulan’s purpose and mission be made clear forthrightly. Somalis may actually engage more deeply with a UN-backed radio. The most important thing for folks in crises states is credibility of the news source. In 1993, Radio Manta – the radio mission of UNOSOM was explicit about its source and routinely announced itself as Halkani wa radio manta, codka haulgaladha qaramatha midhoobey, ee Somalia (the voice of the United Nations Operations in Somalia). Audiences engaged with the station as such. Granted, the strategic situation is different now, but what remains the same is that in crises situations, the deepest needs of households and communities are informational. Socially transmitted information or rumours swirl like desert dusts in crises societies particularly so in a case where insurgents have taken over means of information. Rumours are prevalent because people need some kind of information to negotiate their resilience - interpret the crises and understand their vulnerabilities. For Radio Bar-Kulan, one of the few Radio Stations that are untouchable by Somali Islamists (at the moment), its responsilities have become humanitarian in nature. Radio Bar-Kulan needs to step up and assert its position as an information purveyor. Somalians need objective and accurate information now more than ever before, and as the situation unfolds, they would be looking to Bar-Kulan to fill what has now become a major humanitarian need.


Rape as an Instrument of Total War in Congo

Posted by Jacob Jacob on September 10, 2010 at 12:56 PM Comments comments (0)

 

Rape is not uncommon in times of war. During the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia for instance, tens of thousands of women were raped in an organised and systematic manner. In the Rwandan genocide of 1994 several thousands of women were also raped. There are cases also in Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Vietnam, Biafra and in several other conflicts where rape was used for the purpose of humiliating, shaming, degrading and even terrifying the enemy society. Indeed rape in warfare is as old as war itself. There are several early and classic accounts of conquering tribes taking away goats and women as spoils of war.

 

But the case of rape in the DRC is different. It is uniquely impelled by two different factors – what I would prefer to call the Total War factor and the Progenitization factor. I will explain.

 

In the DRC, the combatants have borrowed a leaf from the doctrine of Total War and have extended warfare to the society of perceived enemies including their resources, supplies, bodies and every other aspect of life. The objective is to terrorise and cause a form of ‘collateral damage’ on the entire population. But the difference between the DRC case and conflicts in history where Total War or scorched earth strategy were used (such as Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea or in Lord Kitchener’s second Boer War, 1899–1902), is that in the DRC the militants do not have a clearly defined ‘enemy’ population. They seem to attack and rape any female that come their way – it does not matter if the women are ‘autochthons’ (indigenes) or ‘allochthons’ (foreigners/newly arrived). Rapes committed by FDLR militants alongside local or autochthon mai mai militias appear to be random, not systematic or organised. They attack villages on their paths for food and spoils and rape all the women in the process, before going on to the next village or town. So the intention goes beyond breaking the spirit of an ‘enemy population’ because in most cases, women raped are not necessarily on the other side of the conflict divide – they are not Banyamulenges or Banyarwandas (ethnic Tutsis) but local Congolese women and sometimes Hutu women. So while they randomly terrorise and humiliate societies with rape, the militants do not have a strategic objective of inflicting shame and degradation on a defined enemy society as in other conflicts such as Yugoslavia. In Yugoslavia, rape was systematically used by the Bosnian Serb armed forces as an instrument of Total War on the society of Bosnian Muslims (or Bosniaks). I believe that there is another factor to war rapes in the DRC – in the Kivus in particular.

 

In January 2009 a former AFDL commander in South Kivu told me something I believe adds up the puzzle. He said the real purpose of rape in the Kivus is progenitzation. The combatants want the women to procreate after their own kind so that the children born would take up the struggle in future years. It sounded really crazy and I told him so. He then explained: “a Hutu blood is a Hutu blood no matter how the baby came to be – whether from a sexual relationship by the married or from rape. As far as the baby has a Hutu blood, that is the most important thing”. In the Kivus, it is common to hear local folks talk about increasing population of Banyamulenges (or ethnic Tutsis) or increasing population of Rwandan Hutus or some other tribe as a threat. Also most Rwandan Hutus I’ve met believe that they too have suffered a genocide and that their population is increasingly endangered. For Hutu extremists Progenitization is their way of countering genocide which they believe have been committed against them. Essentially, when FDLR militants attack and mass rape in most cases, they do so, not only to inflict shame and degradation on the enemy body but also to procreate after their own kind. For them (FDLR Hutu extremists), generational resilience is essential even if it means using methods of forceful procreation. This is a factor that has so far not been critically looked into by scholars, the UN and other humanitarian organisations working in the DRC.

 

The sad fact is that crimes of rape are committed only few kilometres from UN’s operational bases. This has been the case mainly because there are extremely poor communication channels between local communities in the Kivus and UN bases even those that are closeby. The UN has a very robust deployment in the DRC. Part of the UN’s overall stabilisation strategy in the DRC is the synergisation of humanitarian and military components of the mission in a way that is unprecedented in UN PKO history. Three new peacekeeping concepts have been developed to deal with the unique terrain and nature of the Congolese conflict. These are the Joint Protection Teams (JPTs), the Company Operational Bases (COBs) and Temporary Operational Bases (TOBs). While COBs and TOBs are quick response military operational bases brought closer to vulnerable communities in the Kivus, the JPTs represent a novel addition to MONUC’s civil-military strategy. It is aimed at improving community relations in order to enhance information flows within operational environments. The JPT is part of the Civil Affairs Unit of MONUC and comprise Civil Affairs, Human Rights, Information and Child Protection experts deployed in vulnerable communities. Despite these new peacekeeping concepts however, mass rape remains endemic in the Kivus and peacekeepers’ responses have been anything but prompt or robust. Granted it would be impossible for the UN to man every inch of this vast country, but more regular daytime and night-time patrols in the hinterlands can make a lot of difference.

 

In addition to regular patrols and improved communications with communities, the UN as a matter of doctrinal change must enhance its intelligence gathering capability. At the moment, Intelligence is not a fully developed UN peacekeeping asset and at doctrinal level, it is not taken very seriously. As a result, surprise attacks or ambushes on peacekeepers in the DRC are common. Recently three Indian peacekeepers were killed and seven others badly injured in a late night attack by militants. Several arms and ammunitions were carted away in the attack. While I acknowledge that intelligence gathering needs a robust and most times long-term engagement in order for the outputs to be reliable, I believe it is not very difficult for the UN to build a network of reliable human intelligence channels close to its bases in the DRC. Information comes relatively cheap in the Kivus. With greater engagement and a more robust intelligence gathering capacity, mass rape and other acts of violence against civilians in the DRC can be stopped before it happens.


Another Rwandan Genocide?

Posted by Jacob Jacob on August 29, 2010 at 1:03 PM Comments comments (0)

 

When I conducted field studies in South Kivu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo at different periods between 2008 and early 2010, I met and discussed with several Rwandan Hutus. They repeatedly told me (across four towns in Uvira, Mwenga, Fizi and Walungu) that a genocide has been and was still being committed against Hutus by the Rwandan army and the Tutsi-led CNDP, generally believed to be backed by the Rwandan Government. A number of Congolese autochthons in those towns felt the same way. I was told about several cases of civilians being deliberately targeted by the Tutsi dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front after the 1994 genocide and by several other armed assemblages ever since. My PhD thesis, which will soon be available online (after my viva) contains detailed transcripts of focus group comments by Rwandan Hutus on this subject.

 

Now, a leaked UN draft report has more or less corroborated this claim. The draft report has accused the Rwandan Tutsi dominated army of killing tens of thousands of ethnic Hutus that fled into the DRC (then Zaire) after the genocide. I have seen extensive excepts of the leaked report and to say the least, I am not very surprised because I have heard the stories in detail several times from about a hundred Rwandan Hutus in Congo. But the worrying aspect of it is that it would be a huge blow to a Rwandan Government that has recently been struggling to defend their human rights policies before some of its biggest donors. They have now threatened to withdraw their soldiers from international peacekeeping engagements because of the leaked document.

 

I think when published, it would be the most extensive report yet to document the events of 1993 - 2003 in the great lakes region which was sadly ignored by the international community. It documents 600 separate incidents of violence, interviews with 1280 witnesses and 1500 documents. The report states that the massacre of Hutus was "not a question of people killed unintentionally in the course of combat, but people targeted primarily by AFDL/APR/FAB forces and executed in their hundreds, often with edged weapons". It adds that the majority of victims were children, women, elderly people and the sick who posed no threat to the the attacking forces. The draft report also documents cases of Hutus shot, raped, burnt or beaten. Very large numbers of victims were forced to flee long distances to escape, the report adds. In Congo I met with at least 15 Rwandan Hutus that said they ran through jungles from Goma in North Kivu to forests in Shabunda - think of running from Leeds to London! Unfortunately, they said, many did not survive the journey.

 

Section 513 of the report will make an interesting reading:

 

"At the time of the incidents covered by this report, the Hutu population in Zaire, including refugees from Rwanda, constituted an ethnic group as defined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Moreover, as shown previously the intention to destroy a group in part is sufficient to be classified as a crime of genocide. Finally, the courts have also confirmed that the destruction of a group can be limited to a particular geographical area. It is therefore possible to assert that, even if only a part of the Hutu population in Zaire was targeted and destroyed, it could nonetheless constitute a crime of genocide, if this was the intention of the perpetrators. Finally, several incidents listed also seem to confirm that the numerous attacks were targeted at members of the Hutu ethnic group as such".

 

I fervently hope that this report, when published will bring the world's attention to the plight of Rwandan Hutus in the Congo. Granted a horrible crime of genocide against Tutsis was committed by Hutu extremists in 1994, but two wrongs never make a right. Till date, Hutus are still being hunted as preys in eastern DRC by the Congolese army and Tutsi-led militias. But despite joint military efforts against them, the Hutu-led FDLR has endured and are increasingly forging stronger alliances with local Congolese Mai Mai militias in the Kivus to commit horrifying atrocities such as the recent rape of over 200 women and boys. This unwholesome alliance with local Mai Mai groups suggests the FDLR are increasingly enjoying the support of some members of the local Congolese population - either out of sympathy for their course or out of fear. The FDLR claims to be fighting to protect Hutus in the Congo and local Congolese populations from raids by Tutsi-led militias. These and more, I believe combine to make the DRC conflict one of the most complex and intractable conflicts in recorded history.

 

I believe the UN needs to engage more with the Hutu situation and make concrete efforts to understand if and how a genocide has been committed against them. That can be a starting point for the creation of a restorative and retributive justice mechanism and a process of healing for the great lakes region.


Aid Aint Free: Britain's New Securitization of Aid

Posted by Jacob Jacob on August 29, 2010 at 12:59 PM Comments comments (0)

 

Talking about leaked documents, I came across this interesting article in today's Guardian Newspaper. A leaked document from the Department for International Development (DfID) lays out plans by the British Government to create a more intimate link between aid and security. The opposition Labour party has protested against what it sees as a new securitization of aid. Basically, the National Security Council will now control how parts of the Oversees Development Assistance budget is spent. Previously the DfID handled British overseas aid and targeted developing country's specific needs when disbursing aid.

 

I wonder what has now become of the international and public humanitarianism that saw the emergence of the concept of human security and the progressive values of the 1990s. Doubtless, while the concept of human security on its own represents the merging of development and security, today, the balance has overwhelmingly tipped against development in favour of homeland security. One of my lecturers then in the Department of Politics & International Relations at Lancaster University, Professor Mark Duffield has written and spoken extensively on the merging of development and security. His book, 'Global Governance and the New Wars: The merging of Development and Security' makes a compelling reading. Though written in 2001, the book talks about an increasing radicalisation of the politics of development. Reading it now, it looks eerily prophetic.

 

Essentially, for the British government, strategically important areas of instability will be the focus of development interventions in order to stem terrorist recruitment, protect livelihoods and promote opportunities for personal development of vulnerable groups there. In the Cameron years, we should expect greater development aid to countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia etc from the British government. Aid agencies and other critics would rightly see this as a death knell for international financial support for sustainable people-centred development particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

 

Conceptually, debates on the subject and object of security will need to do a U-turn (again), this time from Human Security and all the non-state assemblages that supported it back to State Security with a more radicalised control by the Defence and Foreign Ministries of states in the global north.

 

Beyond all the rhetorics, it shows that the global war on terror, though renamed, has now moved on to a totally different turf. American and British tanks may be on their way out of Iraq, but it is only the combat element of the war that is going along with it. A multidimensional battle space is opening up with increasing emphasis on issues of information, governance, livelihoods, poverty and want in strategically important fragile states. Interventions would almost certainly include commitments to transforming conflict societies as a whole - including attitudes and beliefs of populations. Development resources of British and indeed other Western Governments will increasingly go into targeting specific groups in 'important states' to change, not only their livelihoods but also their beliefs and attitudes in order to achieve stabilisation. Information intervention efforts would seek to 'discipline' or 'tame' populations in such states to be productive members of their own societies.

 

Aid agencies, Christian Aid for instance, has already spoken of a new cold war with 'terrorism' as the new bogey for 'communism'. They may have a point somewhere. 29.08.2010


The Killing of Indian Peacekeepers

Posted by Jacob Jacob on August 18, 2010 at 1:13 PM Comments comments (0)

 

It was another sad day for the UN last Wednesday when three Peacekeepers were killed in North Kivu, eastern DRC. Seven others were seriously wounded in a pre-dawn attack by militias suspected to be members of the Mai Mai armed group in Kirumba. The attack took place in one of MONUSCO's Company Operating Bases (COB) - the 19 Kumaon Regiment in Kirumba. The base which has about 130 peacekeepers was attacked by about 60 militias with matchetes, spears and locally built guns. The militias attacked from the base's surrounding forests while guards were being distracted by a group of rebels who were pretending to be in need of assistance. The rebels succeeded in snatching away ammunitions and escaping into the nearby forests.

 

The attack demonstrates the unstable situation in the DRC. The UN Mission has recently entered a stabilisation phase, but the situation in the east of the country is still very dangerous. There are a number of strongholds controlled by armed groups. I think there is a fundamental error when the DRC's conflict is calibrated by the UN, aid agencies and the media as a post-conflict case. A post-war constitution and a democratically elected government are not enough reasons to re-calibrate a crises state as having entered a post-conflict reconstruction phase. The DRC case has again and again demonstrated this. Granted there is relative stability in the capital Kinshasa. But localised violence and armed group activity persists in the eastern region of the country - particularly in the Kivus. Technically and indeed factually, the DRC is still in a state of war. Africa's so-called New Wars never ends with the mere signing of a peace accord or election of a new government but by the ability of the government to control its national borders, enforce law and order in all parts of the country, demobilise all armed groups, create and support effective institutions of governance and justice. This is far from being the case in the DRC.

 

The killing of the three Indian peacekeepers calls to mind the difficult job of policing crises states and the danger of a hurried draw down of UN troops. Moreover, it questions the wisdom and intention of the DRC government in its demand for a pull out of UN troops. The DRC situation is still too precarious to risk a draw down of peacekeepers let alone ending the mission. 



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