Hunting down the world’s most notorious fish poacher

The New York Times reports: As the Thunder, a trawler considered the world’s most notorious fish poacher, began sliding under the sea a couple of hundred miles south of Nigeria, three men scrambled aboard to gather evidence of its crimes.

In bumpy footage from their helmet cameras, they can be seen grabbing everything they can over the next 37 minutes — the captain’s logbooks, a laptop computer, charts and a slippery 200-pound fish. The video shows the fishing hold about a quarter full with catch and the Thunder’s engine room almost submerged in murky water. “There is no way to stop it sinking,” the men radioed back to the Bob Barker, which was waiting nearby. Soon after they climbed off, the Thunder vanished below.

It was an unexpected end to an extraordinary chase. For 110 days and more than 10,000 nautical miles across two seas and three oceans, the Bob Barker and a companion ship, both operated by the environmental organization Sea Shepherd, had trailed the trawler, with the three captains close enough to watch one another’s cigarette breaks and on-deck workout routines. In an epic game of cat-and-mouse, the ships maneuvered through an obstacle course of giant ice floes, endured a cyclone-like storm, faced clashes between opposing crews and nearly collided in what became the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in history. [Continue reading…]

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The conservative billionaire who wants to turn his 500-square-mile cattle ranch into the world’s largest wind farm

Gabriel Kahn writes: In 2006, Bill Miller was about to sell his boss’ cattle ranch, a 500-square-mile high-desert expanse in south-central Wyoming. A buyer was prepared to pay roughly $50 million for it. But something was gnawing at Miller. Every time he visited the place, called the Overland Trail Ranch, the wind there blew so fiercely he had to brace against it just to stay upright.

Miller’s boss, Philip Anschutz, had become one of the richest men in America—with a fortune of nearly $12 billion—by figuring out an abundance of ways to churn wealth out of real estate, from oil wells and railroads to sports arenas and cattle ranches.

Born in the midst of the 1930s oil boom in central Kansas, Anschutz had a wildcatter for a father and a mother who taught history in a one-room schoolhouse. In the early 1960s, when he was just a few years out of college, he bought his father’s oil company and re-named it the Anschutz Corporation. In the 1970s, land he owned in Utah became home to the largest United States oil find since Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay. In the 1980s, he chased leases on immense tracts of land in a geological formation in the Rockies called the Overthrust Belt, amassing oil-drilling rights on more than 10 million acres. He diversified, buying the Rio Grande railroad, then the Southern Pacific, later merging them, then selling them again.

Today, Anschutz is the largest shareholder in the nation’s biggest movie-theater chain, Regal Entertainment, and owns the film company Walden Media (they produced the Chronicles of Narnia movies and The Giver). The Anschutz Entertainment Group owns the Los Angeles Kings hockey team and a minority stake in the Lakers. It also owns the Staples Center, the complex where both teams play, along with dozens of other big-city venues. Anschutz owns a company that runs the hotels and concessions in major U.S. National Parks. In the past decade, he has expanded his media holdings to include the Weekly Standard, which he purchased from Rupert Murdoch, and the Washington Examiner, both of which toe a conservative political line. He donates millions to charity every year.

Though Anschutz’s collection of properties is eclectic, his approach to business is straightforward. “Mr. Anschutz’s view of the world,” explains Miller, “is that the basis for all wealth and all opportunity is land.” This year, Anschutz co-authored a book titled Out Where the West Begins, about pioneering businessmen, many of whom also made their fortunes off the land by trapping, trading, mining, or ranching.

One morning in 2006, as Miller stood on the barren bluffs of the Overland Trail Ranch, thinking about the sale of the property, he sensed an opportunity.

Miller was soon sitting in Anschutz’s 24th-floor office, which has a sweeping view of Denver, the high desert, and the Rocky Mountains beyond. The two of them knew that the market for wind energy was growing, and that other oil and gas companies had been poking around Wyoming’s windy corners. “I know we’re trying to sell this ranch,” Miller told his boss, “but we may have something here. So why don’t we peel this orange and see what we get?”

Anschutz, who reads widely about energy markets, seized on the idea at once. Though the pair didn’t realize it at the time, they were about to hatch plans for the largest single onshore wind farm in the world. [Continue reading…]

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How one U.S. soldier blew the whistle on a cold-blooded war crime in Iraq

William Langewiesche writes: Jess Cunningham was a staff sergeant in a mechanized unit of the U.S. Army—Alpha Company, First Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, First Infantry Division—during the intensified fighting that accompanied the surge of American troops in Baghdad in 2007. This was his second tour in Iraq, and his first with Alpha Company. He had been a high-school football star in Bakersfield, California, before heading off to war. He had excelled in the army, rising rapidly through the ranks. Now 26, he was strong, alert, and accustomed to battle. He had a bright future.

But he also had a problem. Although Alpha Company appeared from the outside to be like any other infantry unit, neatly integrated into the larger American force structure, on the inside it revolved to an unusual degree around a single personality—that of an imposing first sergeant, a hard-charging 18-year veteran named John Hatley, who dominated the company. Hatley was a burly Texan who spoke with a drawl. He carried his 240 pounds on a six-foot frame, and at the age of 40 still achieved a perfect 300 on the army’s physical-fitness test. He had been the company’s first sergeant for three years and had delayed a promotion to sergeant major in order to return with his men to the fight. He reveled in his power. He made it clear that the rules of engagement that mattered were the ones he alone defined. Cunningham had never encountered such a sergeant before. He himself was a team player and not immune to Hatley’s leadership qualities, but over the first few months in Baghdad he began to struggle privately with doubts. The company called itself Wolf Pack and sometimes seemed to act like one. Cunningham did not question the war itself, but he wondered about the treatment of Iraqi detainees and the actions of certain gunners who seemed to be playing loose with their justifications for killing.

Alpha Company’s area of operations lay in southwest Baghdad, one of the most active battlefields in Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites were fighting over the neighborhoods, and insurgents from both groups were warring on American patrols. The U.S. mission was to promote stability. This boiled down to convoys of recent American high-school graduates lumbering around in Bradley troop carriers and armored Humvees from which they could barely see, struggling to distinguish combatants from civilians in an indecipherable city, and waiting to get attacked. Cunningham served as a squad leader in the company’s Second Platoon. They were based with Hatley’s headquarters platoon at a fortified combat outpost called Angry Dragon, which also housed the company’s Tactical Operations Center, an office and briefing room known as Wolf Den on the radios. Wolf Pack, Wolf Den, Angry Dragon—the bravura was probably useful, given the youth of the soldiers. The engagements were frequent and anything but child’s play. They resulted in uncounted numbers of Iraqi deaths. By contrast, the accounting of American losses was carefully done. During Alpha Company’s 14 months on the ground, six soldiers were killed and three were gravely wounded—a toll that amounted to a casualty rate of about 15 percent in Cunningham’s platoon alone. The first soldier died four months into the fight, on February 27, 2007. He was a tall, 22-year-old staff sergeant named Karl Soto-Pinedo, who was shot in the head by a sniper after he rose too high above the hatch of his Bradley. Three weeks later, on March 17, 2007, a 30-year-old specialist named Marieo Guerrero was lost to a jerry-rigged land mine, an I.E.D. [Continue reading…]

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An American banker, a Saudi billionaire, and a financial collapse that stunned the Middle East

Nicholas Schmidle writes: When Glenn Stewart enrolled at the University of Oxford, in 1975, he was not a typical first-year student: a twenty-year-old American with mediocre grades, he had taken neither A-level exams nor Oxford’s entrance test. But he had an unusual degree of confidence, and, after securing a strong reference from an English grammar school that he’d attended for a year, he persuaded an Oxford admissions officer to let him in.

Stewart had grown up in the Washington, D.C., suburb of College Park, Maryland, where his father taught chemistry at the University of Maryland. An enterprising kid, he made money on weekends by selling soda in the bleachers at college football games. After Stewart’s junior year in high school, his father went to England on sabbatical and took the family along. As Stewart later wrote in a self-published memoir, “A Gentleman and a Player,” he loved being among foreigners: “I could tell they were bemused by my brashness, never having met a Yank up close before.” After a year at the grammar school, he reluctantly followed his family back home, received his diploma, and completed a couple of semesters at the University of Maryland. America bored him, however, and he sought his fortunes abroad.

At Oxford, Stewart, who was tall and lean, with long brown hair, exuded what one classmate called a “sense of adventure.” He joined a clique of theatre enthusiasts who included Rowan Atkinson, of “Mr. Bean,” and Pierre Audi, a student from Lebanon, who now directs the Dutch National Opera. Audi told me that Stewart had seemed unusually attuned to other cultures. The tumult in the Middle East—the Yom Kippur War, the opec oil embargo — made a strong impression on Stewart. Where others saw a crisis, he glimpsed opportunity. He began intensive study of Arabic and Islamic history. His thesis explored Byzantine-Hamdanid relations in the tenth century and the evolution of the Christian concept of holy war. While Audi was trying to “run away from the Middle East,” he told me, Stewart was charging toward it. [Continue reading…]

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Saadallah Wannous and the war on stories

Matthew McNaught writes:

In a souq in the center of Damascus, a crowd has gathered. In the center of the crowd stands a man dressed in rags, a child huddling close to him. Word has spread he is a refugee from Aleppo. “Were you there?” asks a man in the crowd. The stranger nods. “What have you left behind?” asks the man. The stranger replies: “Starvation and horror.” Another voice in the crowd asks: “What has become of Aleppo?”

“Nothing remains standing but towers of skulls,” says the man. [From Historical Miniatures, by Saadallah Wannous.]

I started my Arabic lessons with Mazen in early 2007. Twice a week, I would take the microbus from my home in the center of Damascus to Yarmouk Camp, five miles south of the center. I’d get off by the hospital, cross the busy main road, head down an alleyway, pass the corner store, and take a short and winding path to the high metal gate of Mazen’s house. If the weather was good, we would sit at a table in Mazen’s small courtyard, crowded in by climbing plants and hanging laundry. Other days we would sit inside his one-room flat, surrounded by his vast library: the hundreds of books, journals, plays, and multivolume dictionaries that covered his walls.

Munamnamat Tarikhiya, which is best translated as Historical Miniatures, was the first reading assignment Mazen gave me. Written by Saadallah Wannous, a contemporary Syrian writer, it is a play set in Damascus in 1401, when the armies of the Mongol leader Tamerlane were heading toward the city. The armies have reached as far as Hama, leaving a trail of destruction behind them, and it will be only a matter of days before they arrive in Damascus. The Sultan and his army are absent, having left the city to deal with an uprising in Egypt, and there is panic among the remaining political leaders and religious authorities.

The towers of severed heads in Aleppo, Mazen told me, were a Tamerlane trademark. There was a logic to these massacres; the news of a city’s destruction would soon spread, leaving the wider population terrified into submission. But Tamerlane did not kill everybody in the city. The finest artists and artisans were often spared the slaughter and sent to Samarkand, the imperial capital. There they would set to work decorating Tamerlane’s palaces, painting pictures of his victories and paying tribute to his glory. [Continue reading…]

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Did Sierra Leone’s hero doctor have to die?

Joshua Hammer writes: Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, the head of the Kenema Government Hospital’s Ebola ward, didn’t want his head nurse moved into the main isolation unit. Called Ward A, it consisted of eight small rooms lining a dingy corridor of exposed wiring, peeling paint, and grimy cement floors. It was narrow, stiflingly hot, and crowded with as many as 30 patients. Nurses squeezed between beds, injecting antibiotics, emptying buckets of diarrhea, hosing down vomit with chlorine. Some of the sick were delirious; others catatonic, with a stony-eyed stare that usually signaled that death was imminent. All of them were hooked up to intravenous fluid bags; in a state of disorientation, some would rip the needles out of their arms, spraying their blood in all directions.

So Khan had bent the rules and moved the Ebola-stricken nurse to a private room in the observation wing, which was normally set aside for those awaiting their diagnostic test results. It was more comfortable and dignified — befitting the nurse’s status, Khan thought, as the most beloved figure at the hospital. Khan and Mbalu Fonnie had been each other’s family for much of the past decade. He called her “mom.” She thought of him as her son, and she took maternal pride in his accomplishments. A round-faced man who had been born poor in a village near Freetown, Khan had become a hero in Kenema, a backwater town of 130,000. As the head of the Lassa fever ward, he had treated more cases of hemorrhagic fever than anyone else in the world, helping thousands of patients recover their health. He attended conferences from New Orleans to Nigeria, published studies in major medical journals, and was soon headed to Harvard on sabbatical to work at the cutting edge of tropical disease research — mapping the virus genome. But now Khan was facing the greatest challenge of his life. [Continue reading…]

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My last day in Yemen — escaping from kidnappers

Gregory D. Johnsen writes: [E]arlier this spring I decided to go back one more time. I pitched it to my editors as a three-story trip. But in my mind, it was a final farewell. I was getting married in a few months, and I wanted to move on and write about other things. I’d quit smoking years earlier and my twenties had slipped into my thirties. I was ready for a change. On March 6, I boarded the plane for my last trip to Yemen.

Sixteen days later I was done. I had my three stories, or at least the notes and interviews to write them. But I didn’t want to leave, not yet. Something was still missing. Instead of flying home early, I compromised: One more story.

I already knew the one I’d do. The ghost story every writer has, the one they obsess over and worry about; always researching, never writing. Mine was a tragedy that started with a Guantanamo interrogation.

Detainee: I am from Urday City in Yemen, not a city in al-Qaeda… My city is very far from the city of al-Qaeda… That is not my name and I am not from that city…

Tribunal President: al-Qaeda is not a city. It is the name of an organization.

Detainee: Whether it is a city or an organization, I am not from al-Qaeda. I am from Urday City.

Tribunal President: Are you from Yemen?

Detainee: Yes, I am from Urday.

Tribunal President: Did you travel from Yemen to Afghanistan?

Detainee: I went from Yemen to Afghanistan.

Tribunal President: Did you do that in the year 2000?

Detainee: I don’t know the time.

Tribunal President: Was it the year 1421?

Detainee: I am from a village, I cannot tell time.

The detainee, Adnan Abd al-Latif, was a mentally unstable man who had suffered severe brain damage as a result of a car crash in 1994. Twice he had been cleared for release, but each time something went wrong and he remained locked in his cell, counting the days until there was nothing left to count. On Sept. 10, 2012, he committed suicide. He had been in Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade.

Latif’s case seemed to get at all the horrors of that lost decade: a handicapped man who confused al-Qaeda with a Yemeni village of the same name, locked up as the worst of the worst. For 10 years, while Latif befriended the iguanas and banana rats that wandered into his cell, the U.S. and Yemen fought for custody. Neither side would give in. The U.S. had him but wouldn’t let him go; Yemen wanted him but couldn’t get him.

Then Latif killed himself with a fistful of pills and positions changed. Now neither country wanted him. The U.S. needed him gone, but Yemen wouldn’t take him. In death, just as in life, he was in legal limbo — neither here nor there. Instead of Guantanamo, Latif was sent to Germany, where his body was frozen and stored at Ramstein Air Base while the two countries argued over who had to take the corpse.

Latif’s story was sad, but mostly it was just human. He wasn’t nameless or faceless, an abstract stand-in for our fears. He was a man with a history and a family, and I wanted to write about them, to tell his story. In my mind it was less about Guantanamo Bay than it was about the withering of hope and how a single man had been ground down to nothing by a pair of bureaucracies. But no one else seemed to see it this way. Obama had already ordered the prison closed. He just hadn’t succeeded. Guantanamo was still open, and indefinite detention was still the law of the land. But the country had moved on; a collective forgetting that let us pretend everything had changed when nothing had. [Continue reading…]

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In West Africa, a model for worldwide conservation takes root

Anna Badkhen writes: An hour before sunup the Bani River uncoils through the dark Sahel in bright silver curves, a reflection of a day not yet dawned, hardships not yet known, hopes not yet broken. Onto such a magical surface the Bozo fishermen of Sindaga shove off with bamboo poles and float downstream in redwood pirogues, one silent man per boat. The fishermen work standing up: solitary Paleolithic silhouettes keeping perfect balance against the river’s luminescence, each man one with his boat like some pelagic centaur, performing one of mankind’s oldest rites. They cast their diaphanous seines into the night. Handmade sinkers kiss the surface, pucker it lightly, drag the nets under.

By the time daybreak trims burgundy the sparse savannah, the fishermen row their day’s first catch back to the village. In squat banco houses that crowd the river, the men take breakfast of rice and fish sauce. They patch up the nets while their wives and mothers sort the morning haul into giant wicker baskets and lug it to the nearest market town. After midday prayer, the men cast off again.

Such has been their fishing schedule for centuries, aligned with the orderly procession across the West African sky of 26 sequential constellations. Each new star signifies the advent of a windy season, of weeks of life-giving drizzle or days of downpour, of merciless heat or relentless malarial mosquitoes dancing in humid nights. Each star announces the arrival of the blue-tinged Nile perch, of the short-striped daggers of clown killi, of the lunar disks of the Niger stingray, of the toothless garras that like to nibble the bare ankles of laundresses, and that, in the West, are used for pedicures in foot spas.

Or so it used to be. Mali has been growing drier and hotter since the 1960s. For the past three decades, the weather has been chaotic, out of whack with the stars. The rainy season has been starting early or late or not arriving at all. Droughts throttle the land and wring dry the river. Flash floods wash away harvests and entire homesteads hand-slapped of rice straw and clay. Acres of deforested riverbank dry out and blow away, or collapse into the water. The fish run off schedule. “The river is becoming broken,” said Lasina Kayantau, a Sindaga elder. [Continue reading…]

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How broken sleep can unleash creativity

Karen Emslie writes: It is 4.18am. In the fireplace, where logs burned, there are now orange lumps that will soon be ash. Orion the Hunter is above the hill. Taurus, a sparkling V, is directly overhead, pointing to the Seven Sisters. Sirius, one of Orion’s heel dogs, is pumping red-blue-violet, like a galactic disco ball. As the night moves on, the old dog will set into the hill.

It is 4.18am and I am awake. Such early waking is often viewed as a disorder, a glitch in the body’s natural rhythm – a sign of depression or anxiety. It is true that when I wake at 4am I have a whirring mind. And, even though I am a happy person, if I lie in the dark my thoughts veer towards worry. I have found it better to get up than to lie in bed teetering on the edge of nocturnal lunacy.

If I write in these small hours, black thoughts become clear and colourful. They form themselves into words and sentences, hook one to the next – like elephants walking trunk to tail. My brain works differently at this time of night; I can only write, I cannot edit. I can only add, I cannot take away. I need my day-brain for finesse. I will work for several hours and then go back to bed.

All humans, animals, insects and birds have clocks inside, biological devices controlled by genes, proteins and molecular cascades. These inner clocks are connected to the ceaseless yet varying cycle of light and dark caused by the rotation and tilt of our planet. They drive primal physiological, neural and behavioural systems according to a roughly 24-hour cycle, otherwise known as our circadian rhythm, affecting our moods, desires, appetites, sleep patterns, and sense of the passage of time.

The Romans, Greeks and Incas woke up without iPhone alarms or digital radio clocks. Nature was their timekeeper: the rise of the sun, the dawn chorus, the needs of the field or livestock. Sundials and hourglasses recorded the passage of time until the 14th century when the first mechanical clocks were erected on churches and monasteries. By the 1800s, mechanical timepieces were widely worn on neck chains, wrists or lapels; appointments could be made and meal- or bed-times set.

Societies built around industrialisation and clock-time brought with them urgency and the concept of being ‘on time’ or having ‘wasted time’. Clock-time became increasingly out of synch with natural time, yet light and dark still dictated our working day and social structures.

Then, in the late 19th century, everything changed. [Continue reading…]

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How ISIS corporatized terror

Businessweek reports: During a routine January 2007 patrol in Anbar province, in a town along the Euphrates called Tuzliyah al Gharbiyah, a unit of U.S. Marines stumbled on a cache of nine documents in a roadside ditch. They included financial records, payrolls, supply purchase records, administrative records, and other details of fund flows into and out of a single local cell in Anbar of a group then calling itself the “Islamic State of Iraq.” Not long after, Iraqi militiamen working with the U.S. stormed a home in a town farther down the Euphrates. They found a computer hard drive holding ledgers with 1,200 files detailing the finances and operations of provincial-level managers overseeing the cell and others like it across Anbar province.

Taken together, the Anbar records allowed for a forensic ­reconstruction of the back-office operations of a terrorist ­insurgency from its local level up to its divisional headquarters. The data were handed over to the National Defense ­Research ­Institute of Rand Corp., a U.S. ­Department of Defense-funded think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif. Seven researchers set out to ­determine what the ledgers, receipts, memos, and other records meant. What they concluded in a 2010 report, written for then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, should be ­familiar to students of business management: The group was ­decentralized, organized, and run on what’s called the “multidivisional-­hierarchy form” of management, or M-form for short.

It’s the structure that started taking root in the corporate world in the 1920s, thanks to Alfred Sloan’s decision to reorganize General Motors. After becoming GM’s president in 1923, Sloan began transforming the company by creating semiautonomous divisions ordered largely around geography, freeing him and other top leaders from daily decision-making so they could focus on strategy and overall performance. Divisions also were largely self-­financed. Scholars credit his model for the company’s extraordinary growth in the early 20th century. It contrasted sharply with what had been the dominant “unitary form” of management, where control is centralized. In a pioneering study, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Harvard business professor Alfred Chandler Jr. held up the success of GM and others as a triumph of the M-form structure of corporate management, as did Oliver Williamson, winner of the Nobel Prize for economics in 2009.

According to the Rand study, Islamic State of Iraq was set up along the lines of the best multinationals studied by Chandler and Williamson. (The researchers even cited the Nobel Prize winner’s work.) The Anbar provincial division offered ­influence, oversight, and some financing to smaller, semi­autonomous cells within the province, closely monitoring their books and their results. But it left day-to-day decisions to the local commanders. The cells carrying out the group’s daily functions were organized into units such as finance, intelligence, military, medical, media, logistics, and even a courier arm called the “mail” division. Bosses for each specialty at the headquarters for Anbar province monitored performance of their local ­divisions, sometimes relying on detailed reports from the field. But command ­decisions appear to have been left largely to the locals, Rand found.

The seized hard drive containing 1,200 files was especially valuable. It appeared to belong to the man who was akin to Islamic State of Iraq’s divisional auditor. The group maintained strict ­accounting procedures, and its financial functions were organized in the same semiautonomous model of the M-form structure. [Continue reading…]

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Is Britain ready for an activist king?

Robert Booth writes: On 15 September, while President Obama was meeting with his advisers in the White House and deciding how to unleash the world’s most powerful military machine on the Islamic State in Iraq, his ambassador to Britain, Matthew Barzun, was spending the day in a field in Gloucestershire, learning about nitrogen-fixing plants and the dangers of sub-clinical mastitis in cows’ udders. The reason was simple: Barzun was visiting Prince Charles’s organic Home Farm. Wearing boxfresh Hunter wellies, Barzun picked his way around some cowpats to take a close look at a field of organic red clover. He snapped a photo on his smartphone.

For the past 34 years, the farm has been one of Charles’s chief passions. It has become the agricultural embodiment of his beliefs about everything from the natural world to the globalised economy. On winter weekends, he can be found – wearing his patched-up tweed farm coat – laying some of the farm’s hedges to keep alive one of his beloved traditional farming techniques. (Charles is such an enthusiast that he hosted the National Hedgelaying Championships here in 2005.) The farm closely reflects Charles’s likes and dislikes. In one field, there is a herd of Ayrshire cattle. Charles bought them after he declared that he didn’t want yet more common “black and whites”.

That morning, the ambassador was not the only influential figure invited for a private tour of the royal farm. Alongside Barzun was Professor Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), George Ferguson, the elected mayor of Bristol, and Sir Alan Parker, the chairman of Brunswick, the public relations company that advises Tesco. They were accompanied by civil servants from Defra and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and shown round by the Prince’s friend, Patrick Holden, an organic agriculture campaigner, and Charles’s farm manager, David Wilson.

The day was organised by Holden’s Sustainable Food Trust, but the talking points faithfully echoed Charles’s view that industrialised agriculture is a big, dangerous experiment with our environment and a threat to the livelihoods of small farmers. Here was a branch of Prince Charles’s power network in action. Away from the public glare, issues that matter intensely to him were being discussed in front of some of the most powerful people in Britain. In an echo of his famous comment of 1986 that he talks to his plants – he joked more recently he actually “instructs them” – there was even a brief exchange on whether oak trees communicate with their relatives through the soil. Holden and Wilson raised a few eyebrows with some of their scientific claims, not least about the danger of antibiotics in meat. On the whole, though, the guests seemed receptive.

Over the past four decades, Charles has carved out a unique position for himself as an elite activist, tirelessly lobbying and campaigning to promote his concerns. From farming to architecture, medicine to the environment, his opinions, warnings and grumbles are always heard. He spreads his ideas through his writings and speeches, his charities and allies and, behind the scenes, in private meetings and correspondence with government ministers. His interventions matter. Peter Hain, the former cabinet minister who lobbied with Charles for NHS trials of complementary medicine, summed up his influence in this way: “He could get a hearing where all the noble, diligent lobbying of the various different associations in the complementary medicine field found it hard.” [Continue reading…]

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Theo Padnos, an American writer, recounts being kidnapped, tortured and released in Syria

In a New York Times magazine feature article, Theo Padnos is described as a journalist, but his form of inquiry has gone far beyond the terrains explored by conventional news gatherers.

In 2004, when the United States was mired in the war in Iraq, I decided to embark on a private experiment. I moved from Vermont to Sana, the Yemeni capital, to study Arabic and Islam. I was good with languages — I had a Ph.D. in comparative literature — and I was eager to understand a world where the West often seemed to lose its way. I began my studies in a neighborhood mosque, then enrolled in a religious school popular among those who dream of a “back to the days of the prophet” version of Islam. Later, I moved to Syria to study at a religious academy in Damascus. I began to write a book about my time in Yemen — about the mosques and the reading circles that formed after prayer and the dangerous religious feeling that sometimes grew around them.

At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, I wrote a few articles from Damascus, then returned to Vermont in the summer of 2012.

One of those articles was a fascinating piece that appeared in The New Republic in October 2011.

In the New York Times, Padnos now recounts the last two years in which he was held in captivity by Jabhat al-Nusra after being kidnapped in late 2012 shortly after returning to Syria. Towards the end of his article (read the whole piece), he writes:

Earlier, in March [this year], the Nusra Front commanders in Deir al-Zour put a pair of Islamic State commanders in the cells on either side of mine. Because their religious learning was beyond question, the jail administrators allowed us to speak [previously Padnos had been forbidden to speak to fellow captives], provided it was about Islam. During this period, I occasionally brought up the “You killed my men, I must kill yours” logic in which the Muslims of the region seemed trapped. My cell neighbors were well placed to have an opinion. Abu Dhar, on my left, previously of Al Qaeda in Iraq, subsequently of the Nusra Front, lately of the Islamic State, had been a weapons trafficker. Abu Amran, on my right, had the same credentials and bragged of having been responsible for explosions that killed dozens — perhaps hundreds — of Syrians and Iraqis.

“But surely,” I said, “this violence is not good for Islam.” They temporized. In their view, the fight between Baghdadi [the leader of ISIS] and the Man of Learning [Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, a high commander in the Nusra Front] amounted to mere childishness. Abu Dhar and Abu Amran were almost too embarrassed to speak of it. Yet the explosions and sniper killings that both groups espoused were justifiable — even wise. Assad was bound to slink away into the undergrowth. The battle against his forces was just a skirmish in the great global combat to come, in which the believers would prevail against the unbelievers.

“After we conquer Jerusalem, we will conquer Rome,” Abu Amran told me.

“No one is trying to conquer you,” I said. “Why do you want to conquer everybody?”

The conquerors had come to Syria in the past, Abu Amran answered. “They are sure to come again.” He spoke of the oil fields over which the West slavered, the archaeological treasures and the rise of Islam, which the world’s governments — all of them unbelievers, especially the Middle Eastern ones — could not abide.

“If Obama bombs the believers here, we will bomb you there,” Abu Amran told me. We have our Tomahawk missiles too, they said, referring to human beings. Over the last 22 months, I had stopped being surprised when Nusra Front commanders introduced their 8-year-old sons to me by saying, “He will be a suicide martyr someday, by the will of God.” The children participated in the torture sessions. Around the prisons, they wore large pouches with red wires sticking out of them — apparently suicide belts — and sang their “destroy the Jews, death to America” anthems in the hallways. It would be a mistake to assume that only Syrians are educating their children in this manner. The Nusra Front higher-ups were inviting Westerners to the jihad in Syria not so much because they needed more foot soldiers — they didn’t — but because they want to teach the Westerners to take the struggle into every neighborhood and subway station back home. They want these Westerners to train their 8-year-olds to do the same. Over time, they said, the jihadists would carve mini-Islamic emirates out of the Western countries, as the Islamic State had done in Syria and Iraq. There, Western Muslims would at last live with dignity, under a true Quranic dispensation.

During my discussions with senior Nusra Front fighters, I would force them to confront the infinity of violence that this dream implied. “O.K., perhaps you have a point,” they would say. “Anyway, we only want to dispense with Bashar. We must build our caliphate here first. Provided the West doesn’t kill us, we won’t kill you.”

“Will your caliphate have schools?” I would ask. “Hospitals? Roads?”

“Yes, of course.” But not one of them seemed interested in repairing the mile after mile of destroyed cityscape encountered during any voyage in Syria. Not one seemed interested in recruiting teachers and doctors — or at least the kinds of teachers and doctors whose reading ventured beyond the Quran. They wanted bigger, more spectacular explosions. They wanted fleets of Humvees. Humvees don’t need roads. [Continue reading…]

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My childhood friend, the ISIS jihadist

Jakob Sheikh writes: Amir and I are childhood friends. We grew up in the same estate in Western Copenhagen. We played in the same courtyard, played football together at the street pitches in Saxogade Road, bought slush-ice and small blue chewing gums with stickers of American wrestlers in the same tobacconist on New Carlsberg Road.

We are both 27 years old — Amir was born four months before I was. During our childhood we shared the same interest in sports and computer games. Like me, Amir has a Danish mother and a Pakistani father. Our fathers even come from the same region in Pakistan, the military city of Rawalpindi.

Yes, Amir and I have had more or less had the same upbringing, a path to ease in Danish society. We have been formed by the same institutions, saw the world through the same eyes.

But our lives have taken completely different paths. How did that happen? I find it difficult to understand. In fact, I had no idea what had happened to Amir before I met him by chance on Istedgade Road a few weeks ago.

“Hi Bro. What gives?” he asked and gave me a friendly hug.

It was warm outside but Amir was wearing a big, black down jacket drooping loosely over a pair of dark Adidas training trousers. He had a crew cut, his eyes had a warm glow and he looked as if he compensated for his small stature with regular visits to the training centre. His stubble was not much longer than mine, and while we were talking Amir had his hands politely behind his back, to show he was listening with interest to my story.

I, on the other hand, was more interested in his. And a few minutes into the conversation it took a more interesting turn.

“I’ve been in Syria, my friend,” he said, adding, “I’m going back soon.”

Amir, my childhood friend had become a jihadi. The polite man full of empathy, had killed in God’s name. I, on the other hand, have been employed as a journalist. I write about jihadi just like Amir.

Soon Amir was to embark on yet another crusade. This time for what is arguably the most violent terrorist group of all: Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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Maybe better if you don’t read this story on public WiFi

Maurits Martijn writes: The idea that public WiFi networks are not secure is not exactly news. It is, however, news that can’t be repeated often enough. There are currently more than 1.43 billion smartphone users worldwide and more than 150 million smartphone owners in the U.S. More than 92 million American adults own a tablet and more than 155 million own a laptop. Each year the worldwide demand for more laptops and tablets increases. In 2013, an estimated 206 million tablets and 180 million laptops were sold worldwide. Probably everyone with a portable device has once been connected to a public WiFi network: while having a coffee, on the train, or at a hotel.

The good news is that some networks are better protected than others; some email and social media services use encryption methods that are more secure than their competitors. But spend a day walking in the city with Wouter Slotboom, and you’ll find that almost everything and everyone connected to a WiFi network can be hacked. A study from threat intelligence consultancy Risk Based Security estimates that more than 822 million records were exposed worldwide in 2013, including credit card numbers, birth dates, medical information, phone numbers, social security numbers, addresses, user names, emails, names, and passwords. Sixty-five percent of those records came from the U.S. According to IT security firm Kaspersky Lab, in 2013 an estimated 37.3 million users worldwide and 4.5 million Americans were the victim of phishing — or pharming — attempts, meaning payment details were stolen from hacked computers, smartphones, or website users.

Report after report shows that digital identity fraud is an increasingly common problem. Hackers and cybercriminals currently have many different tricks at their disposal. But the prevalence of open, unprotected WiFi networks does make it extremely easy for them. The Netherlands National Cyber ​​Security Center, a division of the Ministry of Security and Justice, did not issue the following advice in vain: “It is not advisable to use open WiFi networks in public places. If these networks are used, work or financial related activities should better be avoided.”

Slotboom calls himself an “ethical hacker,” or one of the good guys; a technology buff who wants to reveal the potential dangers of the internet and technology. He advises individuals and companies on how to better protect themselves and their information. He does this, as he did today, usually by demonstrating how easy it is to inflict damage. Because really, it’s child’s play: The device is cheap, and the software for intercepting traffic is very easy to use and is readily available for download. “All you need is 70 Euros, an average IQ, and a little patience,” he says. I will refrain from elaborating on some of the more technical aspects, such as equipment, software, and apps needed to go about hacking people. [Continue reading…]

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Low expectations, like garbage, are a resource that Egypt has in great abundance

Peter Hessler writes: In Cairo, my family lives on the ground floor of an old building, in a sprawling, high-ceilinged apartment with three doors to the outside. One door opens onto the building’s lobby, another leads to a small garden, and the third is solely for the use of the zabal, or garbageman, who is named Sayyid Ahmed. It’s in the kitchen, and when we first moved to the apartment, at the beginning of 2012, the landlady told me to deposit my trash on the fire escape outside the door at any time. There was no pickup schedule, and no preferred container; I could use bags or boxes, or I could simply toss loose garbage outside. Sayyid’s services had no set fee. He wasn’t a government employee, and he had no contract or formal job. I was instructed to pay him whatever I believed to be fair, and if I pleased I could pay him nothing at all.

Many things in Egypt don’t work very well. Traffic is bad, and trains get cancelled; during the summer, it’s not unusual to have five electricity blackouts in a single day. One year, we couldn’t buy bottled water for months, because the plant that produced the water somehow caught fire. Since we moved into the apartment, the country has cycled through three constitutions, three Presidents, four Prime Ministers, and more than seven hundred members of parliament. But there hasn’t been a single day when the trash wasn’t cleared outside my kitchen door. As a whole, Cairo’s waste-collection system is surprisingly functional, considering that it’s largely informal. In a sprawling, chaotic city of more than seventeen million, zabaleen like Sayyid have managed to develop one of the most efficient municipal recycling networks in the world.

At first, I never saw Sayyid working, because he cleared my fire escape before dawn. After three months of this invisible service, he approached me one day on the street and asked if I had previously lived in China. I wasn’t sure how he knew this—we had chatted a few times, but never for long. He said that he had an important question about Chinese medicine.

That evening, he arrived at eight o’clock sharp, dressed in his work clothes. He’s not much taller than five feet, but his shoulders are broad and his legs are bowed from hauling weight. Usually, his clothes are several sizes too large, and his shoes flap like those of a clown, because he harvests them from the garbage of bigger men. At my apartment, he produced a small red box decorated with gold calligraphy. The Chinese labelling was elegant but evasive: the pills were described as “health protection products” that “promoted development and power.” [Continue reading…]

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‘I am not a spy. I am a philosopher’ — 125 days in an Iranian prison

Ramin Jahanbegloo writes: The heavy steel door swung closed behind me in the cell. I took off my blindfold and found myself trapped within four cold walls. The cell was small. High ceiling, old concrete. All green. An intense yellow light from a single bulb high above. Somehow I could hear the horror in the walls, the voices of previous prisoners whispering a painful welcome. I had no way of knowing whether they had survived. I had no way of knowing whether I would. So many questions were crowding my mind. I heard a man moaning. It was coming through a vent. I realized that he must have been tortured. Would I be tortured, too?

I was, and am, a philosopher, an academic. Life had not been easy for Iranian intellectuals, artists, journalists, and human-rights activists since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2005. As a thinker on the margin of Iranian society, I was not safe, and so, rather than stay in Iran, I had accepted a job offer in Delhi, India. I had come back to Tehran for a visit. On the morning of April 27, 2006, I was at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport to catch a flight to Brussels, where I was to attend a conference. I had checked in my luggage and gone through security when I was approached by four men. One of them called me by my first name. “Ramin,” he said, “could you follow us?”

“I’ll miss my plane,” I said.

“We just want to ask you a few questions.”

People around us were watching, but nobody moved. I realized that I had no choice but to go with them.

I was placed in a car. Two of the men got in the front; the other two climbed in the back with me between them. They pushed my head down, and the car headed toward an airport garage where another car was waiting. With fewer witnesses around, the men were more aggressive now, pulling me out of the first car and throwing me into the second. They pushed my head down again, and this time one of them covered it with his jacket, which smelled of rotten onions. It had a hole in it, so that I could see out of one of the side windows. As the car sped away, one of the men said into a walkie-talkie: “We have the package. The package is arriving.”

For the first time, I realized that my life was in danger. I knew that in the early years of the Islamic regime, many people had been taken away and executed without notice or trial. Their mutilated bodies were found in the suburbs, and the police pretended to look for the assassins. Those abductors were similar to the men surrounding me—intelligence officers who picked up intellectuals and activists and killed them on the spot. I panicked. An agitated voice kept escaping me, though I was not aware of speaking. It echoed, bouncing around the car, falling back into my throat and escaping again. “Where are you taking me? Where are you taking me?” And the simple, hollow reply, “Shut up!” over and over again. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s first responders  —  the last hope for civilians caught in the chaos

Matthieu Aikins writes: The dawn found them sprawled like corpses around the cramped station room, atop a collection of soiled floor mats and a metal bunk that listed heavily to one side. They lay close together, some still wearing their uniforms from the night before. On a typical day in Aleppo, they would soon be woken by the sound of helicopters and jets roaring in to drop the first bombs on the rebel-held side of the city, which the regime has sought to pound to dust. But it was quiet this morning, and so they slept.

Standing outside his office next door, Khaled Hajjo, leader of the Hanano Civil Defense team, dragged on the first of many Gitanes and surveyed his small domain. The one-story, cinderblock station house was set in the corner of a large concrete lot the size of a soccer pitch, its perimeter hemmed by a 12-foot stone wall. At the far end of the lot was a mass of stacked old tires and a broken-down lifting crane. It had once been a car impound, but like so many buildings in Aleppo it had been repurposed for the war.

The station wasn’t particularly sturdy. The neighborhood it was in, Hanano, was close to the front line and exposed not only to bombing but to artillery fire. Even a mortar round would probably cave in the roof, never mind the big howitzer shells that sometimes crashed into the lot. But the station had its advantages: It was set on a rise, with only a few low buildings surrounding it, and from here they could quickly spot the telltale smoke and dust pillars that mark the sites of bombs, and then rush to the rescue. They had been in this station since the very beginning, more than a year ago, when the team was first formed, and they had stayed in it through the long winter of massacres, through the worst times when the population had desperately fled the city, so that now Bashar al Assad’s bombs fell as often as not on abandoned buildings. This was their home. [Continue reading…]

In the video below, Aikins describes being inside a building when a bomb destroyed the building next door:

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Israel’s worst-kept secret

Douglas Birch and R. Jeffrey Smith write: Israel has a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Former CIA Director Robert Gates said so during his 2006 Senate confirmation hearings for secretary of defense, when he noted—while serving as a university president—that Iran is surrounded by “powers with nuclear weapons,” including “the Israelis to the west.” Former President Jimmy Carter said so in 2008 and again this year, in interviews and speeches in which he pegged the number of Israel’s nuclear warheads at 150 to around 300.

But due to a quirk of federal secrecy rules, such remarks generally cannot be made even now by those who work for the U.S. government and hold active security clearances. In fact, U.S. officials, even those on Capitol Hill, are routinely admonished not to mention the existence of an Israeli nuclear arsenal and occasionally punished when they do so.

The policy of never publicly confirming what a scholar once called one of the world’s “worst-kept secrets” dates from a political deal between the United States and Israel in the late 1960s. Its consequence has been to help Israel maintain a distinctive military posture in the Middle East while avoiding the scrutiny—and occasional disapprobation—applied to the world’s eight acknowledged nuclear powers.

But the U.S. policy of shielding the Israeli program has recently provoked new controversy, partly because of allegations that it played a role in the censure of a well-known national-laboratory arms researcher in July, after he published an article in which he acknowledged that Israel has nuclear arms. Some scholars and experts are also complaining that the government’s lack of candor is complicating its high-profile campaign to block the development of nuclear arms in Iran, as well as U.S.-led planning for a potential treaty prohibiting nuclear arms anywhere in the region. [Continue reading…]

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