Transitions

Our “fight” against terrorism is being shaped by modernity’s perfect storm: urbanization, economic inequality, corruption, political fragility, historical grievance and even climate change have seeded the grounds for an unwanted harvest. The topic seemed paradoxically too big to be, and not to be, a story. So, after months of reflection, I decided to be, and not to be, a “journalist”.

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I arrived in the United Kingdom —the first flight into Heathrow that day— on a cool (early) morning in late September. My destination, two suitcases in hand, was the town of Oxford, and my new home at the Department of Politics and International Relations.

As many readers will know, I’ve worked as a journalist for the last five years —a period which has seen stories (or the search for stories) take me from the jungles of Ecuador to the temblor-crumbled streets of Nepal. Between these assignments and adventures, like message heard in static, was a deepening interest among a suite of issues both increasingly relevant and difficult to tackle. One of these was the apparent rise in insurgent (or “terrorist”) groups in West Africa.

For me, this topic was being shaped by modernity’s perfect storm: urbanization, economic inequality, corruption, political fragility, historical grievance and even climate change were seeding the grounds for an unwanted harvest. Moreover, the topic seemed paradoxically too big to be, and not to be, a story. So, after months of reflection, I decided to be, and not to be, a “journalist”.

My return to the academy has been tricky. One of journalism’s great traits is its vitality —its steady, often straining, pulse that signals to readers that this world is alive. But my impatience is mitigated by a steadily increasing gravity in purpose. By this, I really mean a growing confidence in my own ability to identify (and commit) to a story I believe will demand tellers for the rest of my life’s years.

And today, re-checking the The New York Times site before signing off, I caught the following headline:

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Source: The New York Times

The piece, strongly reported by Carlotta Gall, makes clear a range of growing security concerns about the expansion and sustainability of insurgent groups across West and North Africa. It might not be a “scoop” in the traditional sense, but it ought to be read as a clarion call. The editors, deciding to put the piece on A1 (front page) ostensibly felt the same.

For now, however, I’ll leave the story link here for readers to explore on their own. And I will be addressing particular conclusions/assumptions/suggestions of this in an upcoming series of posts. In these upcoming installments, I will outline my present work —its potential value and its weaknesses, in the hopes of engaging readers to comment and converse. Above all, this is a (re-)commitment to this online web space so often ignored amid the noisy chambers of the internet.

So, finally, this site —which has served as home for more than four years— might soon shift to meet my current demands, and will ideally serve as a platform to stimulate a new set of conversations. These are tricky conversations to begin, but essential conversations to attempt. I’m also keen to experiment with new ways to engage with readers (and their significant questions). And, of course, it’s 2016. So we better get started.

The Good Fight

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.

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.

Medical science and the war against terrorism

This week on Beacon, I use Boko Haram as a test case for re-thinking the fight against terrorism.

This week on Beacon, I tackle terrorism through the lens of epidemiology. Inspired by a critical work from the academy (Stares / Yacoubian), I use Boko Haram as a case study for re-thinking the fight against terrorism. While the full-text is only for subscribers, I wanted to tease a couple of sections below:

The piece starts by opposing the knee-jerk reactions committed by some academics eager to conflate the presence of a failed states (the vacuum of power) with the birth and growth of terrorism.

The authors assert that all regions —even perceived vacuums— are governed by a variety of actors with interlocking and overlapping claims to power. Ignoring these informal structures leaves policymakers and practitioners reliant on pithy press statements and poorly-oriented policies, instead of actual strategies for confronting groups who react violently towards those who oppose their authority.

In the decade since America first declared its “Global War on Terror”, violence in terror’s name has defined our coverage of conflict, framed our understanding of ‘the enemy’ and pervaded our conversations about security.

Faced with the threat of Boko Haram, now labeled by the United States as a “terrorist organization”, perhaps it is time to to rethink how we address the cause, persistence and spread of modern terrorism.

The piece continues through the three phases of the epidemiological approach (Contain, Protect, Remedy) , before adding a final thought:

Finding a balance between securing territory and engaging with disillusioned communities lies at the heart of today’s fight against terrorism: Even the smallest steps towards improving the provision of basic services (between the government and its people) will knit individuals into the political landscape instead of marooning them outside of it. Expanding this kind of participation will likely open the well-spring of political dissent, but neither Goodluck Jonathan’s administration nor neighboring countries can afford the cost of Nigeria’s violent descent.

Read the full story here.

A Tunnel…And then Light.

To report with meaning, you need support. How much is journalism worth to you?

When I was completing my last degree at Columbia, I was fortunate to spend precious class time with one of the school’s most decorated (and hard-assed) professors. While discussing what it would take to make it in this business, he offered a simple conclusion: “You just have to feel like you couldn’t do anything else.” Because I can’t…

I’m excited to announce I’ve joined Beacon, a new service for freelancers like myself to gain added traction on the “tear-you-down-I’ll-give-you-a-penny-per-word” internet. Beacon was launched this year to connect readers with their favorite (and new) writers. The beauty of the service is that, even if you just want to read my work (#flattering), you’ll gain access to a wide stable of journalists on the front lines worldwide. I said yes to Beacon, because we all need to find some way to financially support reporters who devote their time and energy to keep this industry alive.

On Beacon, I’ve attempted to narrow my focus, and will be reporting/writing/opining and complaining about security issues in West and Central Africa. The end goal: to justify the time and energy needed for a large, non-fiction project —that secret is still mine.

So how do you help? Through my profile page, you will be able to subscribe ($5/month) to me directly. That contribution will provide the much needed income so I can keep doing what I’m doing. For you, it will open up the world of Beacon —a pastiche of national and international reporting presented aesthetically for you each and every day.

On Beacon, I’ll be posting regularly, whether real-time updates from the field, articles (featuring original and compiled reporting) or comments on current events (as they relate to the broader topic). Over time, the goal is to create a persuasive and compelling account of an international security space that is still largely misunderstood.

The first post on Beacon will tackle the issue of piracy (A topic I’ve written about in the past). As security topics go, piracy can be exceedingly nebulous, the recent Hollywood release of Captain Phillips, a film that dramatizes the real-life kidnapping of an American captain off the Somali coast in 2009, has brought the topic back into (temporary) vogue. The movie, which fails to tackle the myriad actors that effect, or are affected by, piracy or the context in which it persists. One benefit of greater awareness, however, might be a slight bump in interest, and a desire for new and balanced coverage. My first post on Beacon is a short brief of what the movie missed, and what reporters (like myself) might add.

My decision to cover West and Central Africa, and for a service like Beacon, is certainly strategic. I believe that any discussion of this region, specifically in so far as it relates to security, speaks to a growing concern among scholars, policymakers and anyone curious about the future of American foreign policy. If I had to wager, something I often avoid, I would risk a considerable sum on the claim that sub-saharan Africa —both its land and territorial waters— will be the landscape for “future wars” against organized crime and terrorism, and as a region of concern for lingering conflicts. The fact that the United States will play a leading role in this space whether it wants to, is capable of if, or likely to benefit from it, is incontrovertible.

So for those eager to see “what’s next” before that future arrives, I invite you to join me on the new platform. If you know someone who is interested in this space, might be interested in this topic, and wants to support the type of journalism that fuels many of us to keep working for little pay, I would appreciate your help in sharing the page: http://www.beaconreader.com/adam-mccauley.

If those people need further prodding, send them back here —which I’ll be updating regularly— to pique their interest.

Finally. For those who took the time to read, and who might now take a moment to contribute, I can’t thank you enough. Without you, I simply can’t do this.

Continued Erosion: The Central African Republic

Others are quick to note that all parties have avowed violence, and that using the genocide label (for political purposes or otherwise) isn’t as important as preventing it all together.

Hour-long drives through series of empty villages; an abandoned baby, left by parents who fled too quickly in fear of rebels: these are just two of the observations from the deteriorating Central African Republic. In a Foreign Policy article by Peter Bouckaert, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, CAR appears lost to violent rebel forces —known by their name, Séléka— since their overflow of the government last spring.

The photographs by Marcus Bleasdale, which accompany the FP article, deftly capture the country’s disintegration through the people shredded by it.

According to UN Dispatch, the violence has left 1.1 million struggling to meet basic needs (30 percent of the total population), 400,000 people waging the war of survival in the CAR’s dense forest, and have stewarded instances of “genocide talk” from a number of observers. The genocide tag, grows out of concern that Séléka —whose members are Muslim— has aggressively targeted civilians (Christian or otherwise). Others are quick to note that all parties have avowed violence, and that using the genocide label (for political purposes or otherwise) isn’t as important as preventing it all together.
Throughout the slow-burning conflict, many prominent talking heads have called for international response —Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Former Sec. General Kofi Annan, French President François Hollande, and US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, have all expressed impatience with the continued instability in the country. Ambassador Power, speaking in September, discussed the potential consequence of inaction:
“My government views recent events in the Central Africa Republic with anguish at the horrific degree of suffering, and we are deeply angered by the atrocities perpetrated by Séléka rebels against innocent civilians, including many children. We are also deeply alarmed by the prospect of CAR becoming a safe haven for violent extremists.”
In light of the recent US Department of State designation of Boko Haram and Ansaru, Nigerian-based extremist groups, as “terrorist organizations,” the crisis in the CARis even more important. With Boko Haram inciting “states of emergency” in Nigeria’s north, bleeding instability over into Chad, which is currently being affected by continued conflict in The CAR and Sudan, as Mali appears to serve as “safe haven” for violent, non-state actors in West Africa, we might be watching the dominos fall.
The question that remains, is what the US/Western response will be, given an tentative rapprochement with Iran (which is sucking-up valuable diplomatic resources), and the stale human disaster of Syria (which continues to generate little more than Tweets from Ambassador Samantha Power).

Our Lesser Evil

Reviled by some for supporting the Iraq War, Michael Ignatieff (who now teaches at the University of Toronto) wrote an often overlooked book during the mid-oughts, called The Lesser Evil. Tackling an ambitious question –how can a state address the threat of terrorism– the book outlines the weakness of democratic institutions in the face of asymmetric (and illegal) wars.

Ignatieff argues that democracies are liable to tear themselves apart by destroying their own systems of justice, curtailing their prized liberties, eroding their support for transparency, and morphing questions of criminality into forever wars against ideology –all in an effort to fight the ghostly others. Long story short, in responding to terrorists eager to harm their country, democratic leaders begin to do the terrorist’s work themselves.

This week, The Atlantic published the latest “recap” on some of the liberties the United States has lost in the fight against Al Qaeda (or other enemies unknown). While few will be shocked by the claims made, or the nefarious future that appears ever-closer, Ignatieff’s initial book is notable for its prescience, even if the man wasn’t with respect to Iraq. Today, The Lesser Evil might be worth a second (or first) look.