On the Road: Detangling ISIS (Updated)

An important review, by an unidentified author, in this week’s New York Review of Books, argues that ISIS’s resurgence cannot be explained by much more than the availability, suddenly, of “a territory available to attract and house” it’s motivated members. That ISIS exists because it can exist is a tautology the author admits, but their otherwise competent description and analysis leaves few other explanations of ISIS’s rise.

Lacking adequate information/rationales about/for ISIS’s causes/rise -as a group or phenomenon- the author believes “Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS” and that this won’t necessarily be rectified by “the accumulation of more facts.” 

Unsatisfying as his/her conclusion is — that “we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled”— it is crucial to accept what isn’t known, instead of hiding behind “theories and concepts that do not bear deep investigation.”

This shouldn’t preclude the important work of investigation and analysis, but inspire a commitment to the lengthy and laborious task of understanding modern extremism (in all the corners of the world it now mars.)

UPDATE: Pankaj Mishra has written his own riveting and riotous review (in The Guardian) of our current historical moment —one dealing with marginalization and disappointment colored with violence and vitriol. He tackles both ISIS and the shootings in Charleston —not as counterpoints, per se, but as diodes across a network of international actors as they deal with the erosion belief systems, particularly as it relates to future prosperity (or their expectations of such prosperity). As always, Mishra builds his commentary with uncommon depth. Agree or disagree? You should read it. 

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To Make It Matter

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We linger on the flesh.

The “we” in that sentence is the journalist, of course. But it’s also you — or the version of “you” that “we” might be writing for.

On my last day in Kathmandu, six days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook 7,500* people to death in this small, landlocked country, I decided to return to the waters of the Bhagwati. This river slows to a trickle as it passes one of the country’s treasures, the Pashupatinath Temple.

I had been here before — my first day in Nepal — and had stood watching grieving family members cremate loved ones. Flecks of ash, particles of the once-living, floated across the warm winds, catching in the fine hairs of my arm. Acrid smoke stung the back of my dry throat.

Looking back, my notebook seems chaotic. The words are mere triggers for observations, fragments of sights each straining to fit a story I might tell.

Goats walk the riverside
Spare bricks crowd the footbridge
Bodies wait in garbage bags
They [the men tasked with cremating] drop the fire into the mouth first.

Arriving in the hangover of a natural disaster encourages this kind of struggling. There is a searching for sense amid signals too broad and significant. The stories one longs to find, to record and mark as their own, seem instead to linger, trapped somewhere just beyond touch.

So I was there, my final afternoon, at the river. My sleepless body wired to failure on caffeine, the sun’s scratching heat on my bare neck. I just wanted to sit. I wanted to feel still in a place made nervous by sudden movement. I wanted to understand, through mere presence, what grievous loss might feel like.

I wanted to be more heart rate monitor, less tape recorder.

Some say death is supposed to tell us something about this life. That, perhaps, these stories of the living are only complete when coupled with stories of the lost. To avoid this would be like trying to trace a circle with only half the ink you need.

But I worry. I worry that true artifice lives in a misheld belief: that we might understand tragedy through broad and ill-timed questions asked of the agrieved.

We forget that questions are always easier. They are the hard-shelled armor we shelter behind. Questions are what make our world stop shaking. Not theirs.

I tried to remember this.

I did.

But my eyes drifted downstream to the scurried activity, the cooing of an amassing crowd, and the shimmer of light as it reflected off strange, new, naked bodies.

So I went.

I lingered.

I bled news from this flesh.


*The Times of India has reported casualties in excess of 8,000 (as of Friday, May 8, 2015)

Half Century

For the last two weeks, I’ve been in Vietnam reporting on the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam War. The product of this trip will be apparent in the days and weeks to come, but I wanted to mark an important anniversary today. On March 8, 1965, the US 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade landed on Red Beach, a crescent-shaped stretch of land in Danang, Vietnam. The date is somewhat arbitrary, of course, as US “Advisors” had been humping through Vietnam since at least 1959, but the marine landing signaled a clear escalation in the use of American power —an escalation that would lead America and Vietnam into a decade-long cycle of violence.

For this generation (and my generation) Vietnam has become little more than an anecdote —a reference, often trite, used to highlight a government’s penchant for military and political mistakes (i.e. Iraq or Afghanistan). Over the past weeks, and with the help of countless sources, guides, historians, and witnesses of this history, I have tried to color in that crude outline of the war in Vietnam. Not just because anniversaries demand reflection, but because wars linger long after the final shots are fired. For the two men pictured below (and for millions more) the war continues to shape their lives.

In the coming weeks, I’ll try and explain why.

Tan Hau, 17, was born both physically and mentally disabled, complications attributed to his father’s exposure to Agent Orange —the chemical defoliant sprayed by the US military across Vietnam.© Adam McCauley
Tan Hau, 17, was born both physically and mentally disabled, complications attributed to his father’s exposure to Agent Orange —the chemical defoliant sprayed by the US military across Vietnam. © Adam McCauley
Tuan, 29, lost his right arm and damaged his left hand at age 16 when a cluster bomb, dropped by the US military between 1965 and 1975, exploded.© Adam McCauley
Tuan, 29, lost his right arm and damaged his left hand at age 16 when a cluster bomb, dropped by the US military between 1965 and 1975, exploded. © Adam McCauley

On the Road: Updates on West Africa

While I’m traveling at the moment, I wanted to send a quick update on one of 2015’s steadily developing stories.

As Boko Haram gobbles up more airtime and political talking points, interested readers should keep their eyes in the upcoming AU Summit in Addis Ababa. Defense One has a helpful overview here.

For context on point three (AU efforts to address Boko Haram) Defense One also has a recent discussion with AFRICOM’s commander on the potential role for US forces in the battle to contain the regional terrorist group, with leadership calling for a full counterinsurgency plan.

This, however, comes just two weeks since my last piece tackling the changing role of US engagement in West Africa. Read the full treatment here.
With the Nigerian elections just over two weeks away, there is much more to come.

The Good Fight

In defense of liberty, all battles appear worthy. As the world reacts to last week’s mass murder in the office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine based in Paris, questions of “what next?” abound. News today, reported in TIME, suggests the politics of security have transmuted France’s official narrative:

Yves Trotignon, a former top counter-terrorism official in DGSE, France’s equivalent to the CIA, told TIME on Monday, “There is a strong feeling that this is not over.” Trotignon, now a private terrorism consultant, says he was in close contact with French intelligence officials investigating last week’s attacks. He says most believe that although the instigators of last week’s attacks might all now be dead, “there is a strong feeling that maybe something more dangerous is ahead.”

A shift from grief to vigilance is only predictable. But as British authorities framed the Paris attacks against the background of expected terrorist operations, specifically “a group of core al-Qaeda terrorists in Syria … planning mass-casualty attacks against the West“, one gets the sense that “Je suis Charlie” might become the means instead of the end.

“Emergencies demand rapid action,” wrote Michael Ignatieff, in his book The Lesser Evil, which explores the challenges for democracies in responding to terrorism. “Presidents and prime ministers have to take action first and submit to questions later. But too much prerogative can be bad for democracy itself.”

In emergencies, we have no alternative but to trust our leaders to act quickly, when our lives may be in danger, but it would be wrong to trust them to decide the larger question of how to balance liberty and security over the long term. For these larger questions, we ought to trust to democratic deliberation through our institutions.

But in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, government actions often leave the citizen fearful of enemies unknown and unknowable, and unable to discern just what is being done in his or her name. At the very moment when a state should engage its demos directly, it appears least likely to do so. Sadly, that nagging sense of being ignored stirs the very marginalization that makes violence—as nihilistic and destructive as its expression can be— more likely. For France, Europe and the rest of the world, let’s hope our support for the liberties of speech and expression do not hasten actions that curtail those same liberties for others.

Weekend Reads

This weekend’s recommendations both come from The New Yorker:

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 10.33.03 AMGeorge Packer enters the privacy-obsessed world that surrounds Laura Poitras, the filmmaker and first collaborator with Edward Snowden. Her new documentary, Citizenfour (which takes its name from Snowden’s first pseudonym) opened on Friday in New York but Packer’s profile takes the reader back to the final few days of editing in Berlin, Germany. Packer writes: From the first e-mail she received from Citizenfour, she disappeared into a world of secrets from which she is only now emerging. “I was sucked into the narrative in a way I have never experienced before,” she said, “and probably will never experience again.”

 

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Patrick Radden Keefe’s stunning reporting and construction carries the reader deep into the underworld of insider trading. Reconstructing the relationships between a doctor with information, a trader looking for leads, and a billionaire (Steven A. Cohen) looking for profit, Radden Keefe’s piece unravels like a novel. I’d include a short quote from the piece, but seriously: just read it.

New violence, unknown future: This is Hong Kong

As Hong Kong’s #OccupyCentral protests crept into a second week, demonstrators in Mong Kok were attacked by unknown anti-occupy activists. While the origins of the attackers remain unclear (rumor and allegations continue to circle) their penchant for violence surprised many of the protestors in attendance. To make matters worse, Hong Kong police seemed unable, or —according to some— unwilling to step in and protect the demonstrators.

These attacks drove leaders of the Hong Kong Federation of Students to reject Chief Secretary Carrie Lam’s offer to meet and discuss their demands. For now, Hong Kong residents (and the many who have their eyes fixed on this increasingly restive island) can only wait and see.

*Earlier this week, I reported on the generational differences between the protestors in Hong Kong’s streets. Read the full piece here (via Al Jazeera America.)

To Catch a Pirate

After five months of work, and some careful legal pruning, TIME has published my latest long-read: The Most Dangerous Waters in the World.  According to the UN’s latest study (spanning 1995-2013) the high seas and commercial channels of Southeast Asia are home to the world’s most active pirates. While the location might surprise some (What about Captain Phillips?) piracy’s persistence shouldn’t.  Piracy is the world’s oldest international crime and has confounded even the world’s strongest (and most adept) navies for more than 500 years.

In June, I spent time with the Indonesian marine police. Based on the northern edge of Batam Island, the police outfit was tasked with patrolling a seemingly endless coastline —stretching from the Port of Singapore out into the deep waters of the South China Sea.

Towards the end of one patrol, the crew spotted a wooden skiff angling across our intended path, headed to Belakang Padang. In the 1980s, that small group of islands was a pirate haven. On sight of the vessel, however, the second in command, an officer named Borish, decide to investigate.

Indonesia's marine police stop a vessel during their afternoon patrol off the coast of Batam Island. When asked why, officers noted the ship "looked wrong" and wanted to investigate. Beyond piracy, marine authorities contend with high rates of international smuggling in Southeast Asia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Indonesia’s marine police stop a vessel during their afternoon patrol off the coast of Batam Island. When asked why, officers noted the ship “looked wrong” and wanted to investigate. Beyond piracy, marine authorities contend with high rates of international smuggling in Southeast Asia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

As we pulled alongside the ship, Borish walked to the bow of the police vessel, tossed an anchor rope across the void and called out to the captain. With the boats steadied, captain of the skiff, carrying a small, dust-worn backpack, climbed aboard. He pulled out a series of permits —required by Indonesian law for any vessel transporting cargo— for Borish to review. The documents checked out, but Borish wasn’t convinced. “It just looks wrong,” he said, as he walked out of the cabin.

Indonesia's marine police stop a vessel during their afternoon patrol off the coast of Batam Island. When asked why, officers noted the ship "looked wrong" and wanted to investigate. Beyond piracy, marine authorities contend with high rates of international smuggling in Southeast Asia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Before leaving the ship, officers uncovered a hidden compartment in the bow of the ship. It was empty —on this day. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

The skiff was crudely crafted out of raw wood, sporting multiple cracks. The crew’s wet laundry was hung to dry over a taut, rusty wire strung between two wooden pillars that propped up the boat’s slanting roof. Making his way past a stack bagged cement sand, Borish checked the engine hold, looked at the motor, and then rooted through various storage compartments. These were the easy locations to hide contraband, he later said. Finding little of interest, Borish walked to the bow of the boat, shifting empty crates to reveal a large, concealed stowage area —empty, save some residual sand and paper refuse. “Not today,” he said, as he stepped back onto the police vessel.

A member of the Indonesian marine police jumps from the deck of a moored, confiscated, Thai-registered fishing boat to the dock outside police headquarters in Sekupang, Batam Island in Indonesia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
A member of the Indonesian marine police jumps from the deck of a moored, confiscated, Thai-registered fishing boat to the dock outside police headquarters in Sekupang, Batam Island in Indonesia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

On each patrol, Indonesian officers estimate they stop between two and five boats —few registering anything more exciting than some expired permits. But traveling for hours, transfixed by the crystal blue of the open water, I tried to comprehend just how difficult the search for pirates is. Even months later, I’m left with a clumsy metaphor:

Pretend you are in the middle of a pitch-black football (soccer) stadium. Hundreds of people are walking in various directions, silently, around you. Among them are a handful of criminals, largely indistinguishable, who intend to rob others on the field. Your job is to track and stop them. But instead of a flashlight, you carry a lantern, casting weak light in all directions.

How many could you catch?