Flames in the mountains

Islamist threats spread anxiety in Russia with the Winter Olympics just around the corner

The toothed peaks and rumbling glaciers of the Caucasus Mountains in Southern Russia, along the border with Georgia and Azerbaijan, are sharply beautiful. The view from the top of Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest point, was brilliant in the white light, far above the clouds when I summited it with two friends last August. Yet the region seemed quiet when I was there, the green glens of summer vibrant with wildflowers and the angled sun crashing off the snow caps onto green-domed mosques. All the people we met were friendly and very hospitable. But this can be a dangerous area, with worries not simply about the crevasse fields and exposed ridges. The Caucasus area has long been synonymous with an Islamist fundamentalism manifested irregularly by bombings and other atrocities, and carried out by militants who thrive in the region’s isolated backroads and labyrinthine valleys. This point was brought home to us by the border warning signs on peaks such as Mount Cheget that straddle the Georgian frontier and the fact that our mountain guide was not just responsible for our safety on the mountain, but also off the hill, as there have been kidnappings of foreign climbers in the area before.

In three weeks’ time, the Black Sea coast and mountain resort of Sochi, way out on the western fringes of the Caucasus Mountains, will host the Winter Olympics. Worryingly, the massive showpiece event has been subjected to terror threats from the extremists who are striving to create a Muslim Caliphate across the mountainous region. The self-styled leader of the ‘Caucasus Emirate’, Doku Umarov, has reproached Moscow’s staging of the Olympics in Sochi, saying the site for ‘Olympic revelry was built on the bones of Muslim brothers killed by the Russians’. That message came in a video posted in July but there was another video released last week in which he said “for those of you who are left, there is an obligation to continue this jihad until death itself.”

But is Umarov even alive? Last Thursday 16, the Chechen regional leader, said that he believed Umarov had been killed. The Interfax news agency quoted Ramzan Kadyrov in an eerie statement: “We have long been 99%-certain that D. Umarov was liquidated during one of the operations. Now there is evidence that he is not among the living”. But there has been no official announcement of this apparent operation, and it would be a timely coup for the security forces if it were to be confirmed.

One militant who has been ‘liquidated’ recently is Eldar Magatov, the alleged leader of an insurgent group in Dagestan. He was killed in a shootout on Tuesday. But security authorities are now looking for four so-called ‘Black Widows’ (whose husbands have been killed by the security services in the ongoing Caucasus skirmishes) who are believed to be either in and around Sochi now, or planning an attack of some kind on the Olympic site, possibly to avenge their spouses’ deaths.

The terror threats are certainly fresh in the Russian and international spotlight following the recent attacks in Volgograd. 34 people died in twin suicide bombings on 29 and 30 December in the southern city. Vilayat Dagestan, one of the regional militant organisations, claimed responsibility for the attacks. Vladimir Putin is certainly determined to face down the terrorists and pull off a successful Games. In the aftermath of the Volgograd bombings, he vowed to “completely annihilate” the terrorists. The Russian president has wagered a lot on being able to see off the threats coming from the region. He has also spent a lot: with a massive $51bn budget for the Games.

Troubled by the price tag, a furore over a ban on gay propaganda and now threatened by terrorist attack, the Russian government has had a controversial lead-up to these Games. It has spent a lot trying to promote these Games, bringing development to the West Caucasus region but the issue of security is certain to ensure a lot of hand-wringing in Moscow as the days count down to the start of competition. The Winter Olympic torch has been lit and has been travelling far and wide: across the Russian mainland, to the International Space Station and to the bottom of the deepest lake on Earth, Baikal. By the time of the Opening Ceremony, it will also have been to the top of Mount Elbrus. Next week sees the flame taken right through the heartlands of the North Caucasus region, reaching the pinnacle of 5,642m on Elbrus on 1 February. It would be a blessing if the Olympic torch’s view from the top of that huge mountain in a disputed region will be as hopeful and calm as the vista we enjoyed five months ago.

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Arab autumn woes

As the global wrangling over Syria continues, militant attacks go on in ‘post-Arab Spring’ nations

Two-and-a-half years on from the explosive revolutions that toppled dictators and forced deep re-organisations of countries’ politics from Morocco to Yemen, there seems to be no let up in the deadly instability that has rocked many of the nations that underwent upheavals.

Yesterday, the Egyptian air forces carries out raids on Islamist militant positions in the restive Sinai area – a double strike as part of an ongoing battle with insurgents in the region more generally and also in probable retaliation for two suicide car bombings on Wednesday 11. Six soldiers lost their lives and many more people were wounded in the twin assault: one targeted the intelligence building in the town of Rafah and the other hit an armoured personnel carrier. A little-known jihadist group called Jund al-Islam claimed responsibility.

There was another car bombing on Wednesday, to the east over the border in Libya. This time the device went off near the country’s Foreign Ministry in the city of Benghazi. There were no serious casualties but the explosion came on both the anniversary of the 9/11 attack in the US in 2001 and the attack on the American Consulate in the Libyan city. The U.S. ambassador and three others died as al-Qaeda-linked militants broke into the diplomatic mission last year.

At the start of the week, on Monday, the Tunisian security forces killed two Islamist fighters belonging to the Ansar al-Sharia extremist group. And just today there was another bombing of Yemen’s main oil pipeline in the central Maarib province. It is the fourth attack on the pipeline in a month.

Algeria has also been in the news over the last few days after the release of a report into a deadly siege attack in January on a gas plant in the country’s desert borderlands with Libya. 40 people were killed when Islamist extremists overran the In Amenas facility, which was home to many Western workers as well as Algerians. Statoil, the Norwegian company, published on Thursday the conclusions of an internal investigation into the militant assault.

But despite all this unrest across the region, the past seven days have been another week where the focus of the world’s media has been on Syria. There has now been an agreement between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov over how to address the 21 August use of chemical weapons, but there remains a nervousness, with the use of force by the US not totally ruled out for all contexts. The world powers may be trying to deal with the Syrian crisis, but they are only looking into the chemical weapons side of that conflict, not the deteriorating state of the nation itself, wrecked by a war that shows no signs of stopping, and is becoming ever more complex regarding the ethnic and religious alliances and hostilities at play.

What this past week encapsulates is the overarching worry of the examples now being played out by the countries ahead of Syria in the ‘Arab Spring’ transition ladder. The war in Syria seems a long way from ending (if it ever technically does, that is), but even if it were concluding, the extremist elements on both sides of the conflict point to an ominous future for the country. If terrorist bombings can continue in countries that are perceived to have already gone through the ‘Arab Spring’, then the outlook for Syria, (which has had the longest war of all those countries, and thus more time for militants to weave their extremist aims into the region), is bleak – despite the Russia-US negotiations appearing to start to bear fruit.

Living on a prayer

Trying to balance religion and politics in West Africa can be a hard game to play

France has been accused of stoking up religious tensions with its recent decision to ban full-face covering garments, such as the Muslim niqab and burka. However, in its former African colonial heartland, religion and the state are managing to carve a delicate balancing act.

The Francophone countries of West Africa tend to have huge Muslim populations. But in Mali, for example, Barcelona FC shirt-wearing men and bare-ankled women abound. Beer is brewed and drunk. Secularism dominates the constitutions of countries such as Niger, Senegal and Burkina Faso.

Far from the Maghreb and the Middle East, it seems that the customs and animism of the area has infused with Islam to breed a slightly different take on the faith. However, the people still faithfully queue outside the vast, mud Mosques on Fridays. There are millions of Christians also living in the area, although they are more numerous in Anglophone states such as Ghana and Nigeria.

There are exceptions, of course. The civil conflict in Ivory Coast, although primarily based on politics, had strong religious undercurrents. Laurent Gbagbo, the deposed former president, is a Catholic and his internationally-endorsed successor, Alassane Ouattara, is a Muslim.

Nigeria held the first-round of a presidential election on Saturday 16 April. According to exit polls, it seems that incumbent (Christian southerner) Goodluck Jonathan will head to a run-off against his main rival Muhammadu Buhari (Muslim northerner).

It is a country with a bloody record when it comes to religious and political balance. Recent years have seen regular fighting and hundreds of deaths in the central prefectures where the Muslim and Christian populations meet. There is a growing Islamist insurgency calling for sharia law to be imposed in the north. The radical group Boko Haram shot dead two people on Friday 15, the day before the presidential polls opened.

Nigeria has a rough agreement to rotate the presidency between the largely Muslim north and the mainly Christian south, although when Mr Jonathan assumed the presidential office last year on the death of his northern predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua that cycle was broken.

The balance of the stability of the region depends on similar domestic accords. Yet if such agreements can be broken without provoking resultant religious fury then the region will have be able to look forward again.

The region’s capability to forge nations out of the bubbling and potentially venomous cauldron of post-colonialism, animism, Christianity, Islam, strongmen and dictators, developing democracies, oil and cocoa, deserts and droughts, rivers and floods and linguistic differences must be lauded and the nations must strive towards growing co-operation and confidence in one of the main areas they have had some success and are trying to improve at the moment: balancing religion and politics.

Jihad in Juarez?

Fears are growing in Washington over organised and violent crime in Mexico but defiant rhetoric must be backed up by defiant actions.

US Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, issued a bold message to the gangsters south of the border recently:

“Don’t even think about bringing your violence and tactics across this border. You will be met by an overwhelming response. And we’re going to continue to work with our partners in Mexico to dismantle and defeat you.”

Napolitano also elaborated on fears that Al-Qaeda could get in contact with some of the gangs in efforts to exert more destabilising influence over the region.

However, Mexican Interior Minister Francisco Blake rejected the idea that, in particular, Los Zetas could start to get cosy with the Islamist terror group. He emphasised the differences between the situations, with Al-Qaeda driven by religious interpretation and the Mexican gangs by drug-trafficking and organised crime.

Jihad or not, gang members in Mexico won’t be too bothered by this latest challenge from Washington. Words have come and gone before. There have been some major bilateral policies, such as the Merida Initiative.

However, despite the help it offers Mexico, the lack of support that scheme gives for Central American nations tarnished by inflitrating Mexican gangsters is a problem. The US obviously takes its border security very seriously and major strengthening efforts have been concentrated in frontier states, although this is not an area free from controversy.

This is an important year for Mexican politicians, with the presidential election coming up in 2012. Gangs have been extending links into Central America and the US is still nervous. Napolitano’s call could be seen as a spur in the side of the politicians, reminding them that whoever moves into Los Pinos, the presidential residence, next summer must remain focussed on the war.

The US can help and it works closely with Mexican intelligence services, but this is a nudge to remind everyone where this all started. Mexicans prefer to highlight the incessant consumer demand in the US. Finger-pointing doesn’t help and dialogue often simply puts off substantial movements; meaningful actions must continue to be the main focus of both Mexico City and Washington.

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