Snow boots for Islamic terrorists

Sweden was the subject of a recent bomb plot gone wrong and five men were arrested in Denmark on 29 December on suspicion of planning a bombing raid. Has Islamic terrorism come to Scandinavia?

The chilly winds and blizzards of Sweden and Denmark are far-removed from the blasting sun and desert heat of the Middle East but Islam is a powerful and growing presence in Northern Europe. It has overtaken Catholicism to become Norway’s largest minority religion. There are approximately 500,000 Muslims in Sweden. After Lutheranism, Islam is the biggest religion in Denmark.

Mass immigration in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly from the Muslim south-east corner of Europe, Somalia and Pakistan, has prompted the development of Islam as a serious faith in the three Scandinavian countries. National reaction to the growth of Islam has courted controversy.

The Jyllands-Posten cartoons uproar in 2005 was the first major sticking-point to development between this part of Europe and Islam. The men arrested earlier this week in Denmark have been accused of wanting to kill “as many people as possible [at the newspaper’s offices]”, according to Danish officials. The fact that these alleged threats and confirmed arrests have occurred five years after the cartoons were published show that the reach of Islam is growing.

Cartoons were also at the centre of controversy three years ago. Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist, pictured Muhammad as a dog on a roundabout. Mr Vilks has since taken precautions against possible retribution.

Islam has not suffered the same level of inertia and religious apathy which has afflicted the Christian denominations across Europe. Young Muslims are born into a growing faith of potency and totality. Their non-Muslim peers simply do not worry about religion that much at all. And it is this perceived affront to the standard Scandinavian secular-based lifestyle by a popular and powerful minority religion that has caused an upswell in indignation towards Muslims in the region.

The traditional Scandinavian mentality may also be a root cause of the increase in terror plots. By attacking a liberal, less outspoken area of the majority-Christian and Western world, the direct opposite of the US, the UK and Israel, Islamic fundamentalists are demonstrating their capabilities to challenge religious and political ideologies across the globe, no matter how quiet and non-confrontational those countries appear on the surface.


Reporting the dead: Part Two

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the second part of a two-part blogpost. Here we analyse the figures since 2006.

  • 2006 – 2010 – Death toll: 529

a) The five most deadly countries

1. Iraq 127

The ongoing insurgency has caused the most problems for reporters but religious conflict between the different Muslim congregations and ethnic troubles towards the Kurdish north of the country have contributed to make Iraq the most dangerous nation for journalists in the last 5 years. The withdrawal of UK and US combat troops was meant to herald a change in the fortunes for Iraqis but the militancy has continued.

2. The Philippines 59

Developing fast with a mushrooming population, the Philippines is becoming a deadly platform for reporting. Inter-religious divisions and ethnic bonds spill over into the politics, which sees a number of assassinations every year. Journalists are regularly caught up in the shootings.

3. Mexico 47

Five years ago, Felipe Calderon was sworn into office as Mexico’s president. In the same year he launched his ‘war on drugs’, an aggressive policy of taking on the gangsters head-to-head with the military spearheading the campaign. Five years later and a staggering 28,000 people have died in the violence. The majority have been gang members, but thousands of policemen and soldiers have died too. And so have 47 journalists, unsure over what to publish and what to broadcast as the cartels’ media influence grows. As the war intensifies and continues, it becomes an increasingly deadly news story to report.

4. Pakistan 38

The NATO coalition’s war in Afghanistan has spread to Pakistan and although operations began in Afghanistan in 2001, over the last 5 years there has been increased activity in Pakistan; both by the Taliban and by mainly US forces. When the militancy is added to religious strife, the ongoing Kashmir situation and corrupt politics, it is clear that the journalistic atmosphere is particularly dangerous.

5. Somalia 23

A country without a full-functional government since 1993, Somalia has been the scene of fierce fighting and warfare mainly between government troops and Islamist militias, of which Al-Shabab is the most prominent. Recently, African Union peacekeepers have been trying to improve stability in the capital, but intimidation and violence from the militants have meant very little press freedom.

b) The rest of the world

Africa (18): DRC 7, Nigeria 7, Angola 4

Asia (70): Sri Lanka 15, Afghanistan 14, India 14, Nepal 9, Thailand 6, Israel/Gaza 5, Indonesia 4, Lebanon 3

Europe (26): Russia 21, Georgia 5

Latin America (44): Colombia 19, Honduras 14, Venezuela 7, Guatemala 4

Reporting the dead: Part One

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the first part of a two-part blogpost analysing the data.

In 2010, 105 journalists were killed. Since 2006, 529 have died. The risky countries are not surprising. However, there are different reasons for the dangers faced by reporters and cameramen out on the roads.

There are two main sets of figures the PEC has released: this blogpost will look at this year’s figures and the next blogpost will analyse the global total of journalists’ deaths since 2006.

  • 2010 – Death toll: 105

a) The five most deadly countries in the last year

1 = Mexico and Pakistan 14 dead in both

With more than 3,000 people killed in Ciudad Juarez, a northern border town, this year alone, it is no great shock that the ‘war on drugs’ has claimed journalists’ lives in Mexico. The reporting of drugs deals and violence is often accompanied by death threats and in September the newspaper ‘El Diario de Juarez’ published a frank editorial to the gangs titled ‘What do you want from us?’ and agreed to print what the gangs wanted after one of its photographers was shot dead.

More than 3,000 died in violence in Pakistan last year. Militancy, tribal wars, US drone strikes and the Pakistani armed forces’ battles against Taliban insurgents have contributed to the rising deaths. Journalists covering the militancy have been shot as political, religious and international tensions grow.

3. Honduras 9

Since the 2009 coup, which installed Porfirio Lobo as the new premier, politically-motivated murders have been on the rise. In addition, the contagion of Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has spread to the country and that has caused further problems for journalists in the field.

4. Iraq 8

US combat operations ceased in Iraq this year but thousands of troops are still in the country training troops and aiding stabilisation policies. The insurgency has claimed 8 journalists’ lives this year alone.

5. The Philippines 6

Religious conflict in the mainly-Muslim south and the ferocious and deadly politics, where ethnicity, party allegiances, family ties and religion meet in a lethal mix, have created an unstable environment in which to report.

b) The deadliest nations in the rest of the world

Africa (14): Nigeria 4, Somalia 3, Angola 2, Uganda 2, Cameroon 1, DRC 1, Rwanda 1

Asia (16): Indonesia 3, Nepal 3, Afghanistan 2, Thailand 2, India 2, Bangladesh 1, Yemen 1, Israel/Gaza 1, Lebanon 1

Europe (11): Russia 5, Belarus 1, Bulgaria 1, Cyprus 1, Greece 1, Ukraine 1, Turkey 1

Latin America (13): Colombia 4, Brazil 4, Venezuela 2, Argentina 1, Ecuador 1, Guatemala 1

A human side to Mexico’s gangs?

Protecting communities, building schools and now offering to avenge the death of a campaigning pacifist – is the seemingly human side of Mexico’s drug gangs hampering the government’s ‘war on drugs’?

In June 2009, Rubi Marisol Escobedo’s mutilated body was found in a bin in Ciudad Juarez. Her boyfriend, Sergio Arranza, was arrested but later released from custody, prompting Rubi’s mother, Marisela Escobedo Ortiz, to begin a campaign to ensure her daughter’s killers were brought to justice. On 19 December this year, Marisela was shot dead. On 21 December, Marisela’s brother-in-law was also killed and his timber business burnt down.

Mexico is reeling from this triple attack on a family. But help has arrived from an unexpected source: the Sinaloa gang. Arguably the country’s most powerful gang, led by Joaquin ‘Chapo’ (Shorty) Guzman, they have called on the public to denounce the killers. They have also offered to carry out justice themselves and punish the murderers in their own way.

It may seem incongruous but many of the gangs see themselves as upholders of public order. Many Mexicans agree. On 9 December, Mexican police shot dead Nazario Moreno, the leader of notorious gang La Familia Michoacana. Three days later, some 300 people held a peaceful rally in the Michoacan state capital Morelia in support of La Familia.

La Familia gang is seen as a way of life in the state and funds from the gang have been directed to road and school-building programmes. They are the most overtly religious of the cartels, promoting family and Catholic values. Mr Moreno wrote a book, The Family Bible, which contained the moral code used to train new recruits.

In Sinaloa state, locals can see the community developments which the Sinaloa gang have brought about. Generations of families are connected to the gangs in some way, through an uncle or a brother. When that relative is sending back huge sums of money to improve the family lot and the community, why would one say anything to the authorities?

Many recognise the inextricable links between gang and community up and down the country. Calderon is fighting more than the gangsters and will have to change the culture of villages and towns across his country to turn the tide in the war.

Policing the protests

As this blog noted at the start of October, (see ‘Europeans having to swallow some tough medicine – 09/10/10’) an autumn of strikes and public protests was just beginning in Europe. Italy, the UK and Greece have borne the full force of mass demonstrations and France and Spain have suffered large-scale strikes.

On Wednesday 22 December, more protests went ahead in Rome with demonstrators campaigning against cuts to the education budget. There have been nationwide demonstrations across Italy since November in response to the new education bill.

Students are up in arms, as they have been in Britain.The recent student demonstrations across the Channel were a reaction to the coalition government’s decision to raise the upper-limit of tuition fees which universities can charge from £3,000 to £9,000. Greece has also seen widespread protests; reactions to the economic austerity measures announced by Athens.

But eyebrows have been raised over the way that the police have managed the protests. Tear gas has been used in Greece to disperse the protestors and the UK has employed water cannon before in Northern Ireland. The tactic of ‘kettling’ was controversial. The police have a hard enough job to do already, but over-zealous baton-wielding has sparked a number of inquiries. In Italy there has been fierce parliamentary debate over the idea of preventative arrests of possible trouble-makers.

With Spain and Portugal not entirely economically secure yet, and after a year of intense pressure for the eurozone, internal departments in governments across the continent will have to investigate their chosen methods of dealing with protestors. As education budget cuts, austerity measures, pension reforms and the effects of weak currencies bite, strikes and widespread demonstrations will continue. Many of the campaigners have declared war on their respective governments; the police must be ready and prepared to uphold the peace.

Rivers run deep in Central America

The Organisation of American States (OAS) has voted in favour of a resolution ordering Nicaragua to remove its troops from the disputed Calero Island. Costa Rica and Nicaragua have been at odds since a confusing dredging incident took place near the island in the San Juan river on 22 October.

The problems began when there were suggestions that the Nicaraguans dumped the sediment they had scooped up on the Costa Rican side of the river. In addition, authorities in San Jose, the Costa Rican capital, claimed that the dredging had affected the nature reserve on Calero Island.

The Costa Rican government maintains that Calero Island was illegally occupied by Nicaraguan forces who set up camp there during the dredging. Officials from Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, simply state that Costa Rica is kicking up a fuss about nothing because the island is their territory.

Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega has stood firm. His counterpart in the row, Laura Chinchilla, has said she is ready to talk about the sovereignty issue as long as the troops leave. Ortega is saying nothing apart from stating that he does not believe the OAS is the forum to mediate the issue.

As ever in Latin America, there are shadows in the background behind each party. Venezuela and Bolivia dismissed the resolution but 24 other nations sided with Costa Rica. Nicaragua has had territorial disputes with Costa Rica before and Colombia (over the San Andres and Providencia islands).

Ortega is on the Washington radar, along with those two countries who voted against the resolution. The US likes the idea of Chinchilla ‘soft-socialist’ progressive politics, as opposed to the vociferous socialism advocated by Venezuela and Bolivia.

As we saw last year with the Honduran army’s removal of president Manuel Zelaya, events in these smaller countries of Central America can have larger ramifications across the Americas.

The OAS has now passed two resolutions to no effect. It will not advocate armed action, so as this issue gains significance (and as long as the Nicaraguans stay on Calero), expect those shadows to step forward to take a more prominent role in the debate.

Lula wading into choppy waters one last time

Never one to shy away from the chance to promote Brazil on the world stage – and try to reaffirm the country’s growing global stature – Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the outgoing Brazilian president, has angered the US once more.

The government in Brasilia has announced that the time has come for the country to recognise the Palestinian state, a move which has immediately drawn criticism from the US and Israel.

Lula has played this game before. In May, he refused to vote for energy sanctions to be placed on Iran. Only Turkey and Lebanon joined his call-to-arms. Many saw Lula’s decision as a signal of support for embattled Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who he had welcomed to Brazil on a tour earlier.

However, Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s chosen successor who will replace her mentor as president next month, has attempted to scupper claims that she is nothing more than Lula’s puppet. She has admitted that the Brazilian position on Iran was unpopular and warned that there will be a more ‘cautious’ foreign policy on her watch.

But Brazil is not the only Latin American nation to recognise Palestine: Cuba, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Venezuela have all formalised relations with the disputed territories.

Last month Uruguay joined the list and on 6 December Argentina added its name to the group. Latin American nations have powerful backers (Colombia – US; Venezuela – Iran) but are seizing the mantle more and more now to become outspoken defendants of global causes themselves.

They are still learning the trade, though. On 30 November, Ecuador’s deputy foreign minister, Kintto Lucas, made a forthright decision to offer the since-arrested Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder, the platform to speak publicly. President Rafael Correa then rubbished the idea that an offer of accommodation would be made (in all likelihood because Ecuador will not escape complicity in the compromising cables).

Ecuador’s confusion demonstrates its infancy on the vocal world stage. Lula is no such paddler; he has been swimming against the current for a while. It will be up to Dilma whether to maintain Lula’s defiant oratory or to change tack and go with the flow.

The trouble with two presidents

It is Christmas time but the feeling of goodwill to all men seems not to have extended itself to elections season in Africa.

Laurent Gbagbo, the outgoing president of Ivory Coast was defeated in the vote on 28 November but has chosen to swear himself back into office, causing friction in the capital, Abidjan. The main problem appears to be that his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, has also taken the presidential oath. So Ivory Coast currently has two presidents, from opposing camps.

The African Union has sent ex-South African premier Thabo Mbeki to sort the situation out. However, his laissez-faire attitude towards Zimbabwe’s electoral hurdles is not easily forgotten. There are worries that he is something of a walkover when confronted with persistent and vociferous fellow African leaders.

Gbagbo has the army behind him and there are fears that Mbeki may pander to Gbagbo’s sympathies over Ouattara. The latter has strong backing from the north of the country and Mr Mbeki will be mindful of the geographical civil war in Ivory Coast in 2002-3, when the nation was divided into North and South. Nigeria is a clear and present example of the problems that can arise when you have a country split obviously into northerners and southerners. Sudan is rupturing over the issue. Further afield, the Korean Peninsula provides another example of the problem.

It is also election time at the moment in Egypt but there are problems afoot. Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition party, withdrew from the vote over allegations of electoral corruption. It was hardly surprising then, that the governing National Democratic Party returned over 97% of the seats. Egypt is an international focus point for the continent, but eyebrows cannot keep being raised over its ‘democratic’ structure. Next year’s presidential elections will be key.

Back in West Africa, Niger is gearing up for local elections to be held on 31 December and the more significant contest to be the country’s leader on 3 January. President Mamadou Tandja is under pressure after the military grabbed power in a coup earlier this year. The head of the national electoral commission, Abdourhamane Ghousmane, has urged all politicians and parties to work together to try to achieve a nationally-recognised result in the New Year.

All hopes rest on his words being honoured. Otherwise Mr Mbeki could be off on another power-mediating placement sooner than he thought.

Mexican bicentenary year closing in familiar bloody fashion

This has been another violent year in Mexico and celebrations for the bicentenary of the uprising that led to independence and the centenary of the Revolution have been overshadowed by record numbers of deaths.

There was some slight relief for Mexican president Felipe Calderon this week as the National Security Council (CSN) released figures showing decreases in the weekly death toll for the country’s two most deadly states, the border regions of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon.

Furthermore, the death toll in Ciudad Juarez, the most dangerous city, was slashed by 50% last month. But, just as has happened in the past when promising data have been published about the city, the information has been rendered fruitless as this weekend (4/5 December) has been another bloody one. Gangsters shot dead 10 people in two separate attacks in Juarez, according to the state-run news agency Notimex. Firstly, a group of armed men ambushed four municipal policemen and six people at a local metal works shop were also killed when gunmen gatecrashed a barbecue, continuing gangsters’ penchant for committing multiple murders at parties and family get-togethers. There have been more than 2,500 deaths in Juarez so far this year.

There are two particular areas of growing concern for the government, which launched the US-backed ‘war on drugs’ four years ago. The first is the rising numbers of women who are involved in the war. On 19 October, a 20-year-old criminology student was sworn in as the police chief in the town of Guadalupe Distrito Bravo, in Chihuahua state. She was following in the unfortunate footsteps of Hermila Garcia Quinones, who was the first Mexican woman to take charge of a local police force. Last week, Mrs Garcia was assassinated.

The second area is particularly chilling: the children who work for the gangs. In the same week as Garcia’s death, Mexican soldiers arrested a 14-year-old boy on suspicion of beheading victims for a faction of the Beltran Leyva cartel.

But the encouraging figures from the CSN do not mask the truth: the drugs war is far from over and the strength and reach of the gangs shows no sign of abating. More than 10,000 people have been killed this year and the total figure since 2006 has surpassed the gruesome milestone of 28,000. There were massed parades and fiestas galore in September (Independence) and November (Revolution) but in this year of historical celebration, the drugs war ploughs on. With neither side backing down, it is hard to see how the situation can improve in 2011.