France Was on Edge Over Terrorism Even Before the Charlie Hebdo Attack
We still don’t know much about the attackers who killed 12 people at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Wednesday, though the paper’s track record on poking at Islamic extremists and the video of the black-clad gunmen chanting “Allahu Akbar” as they made their escape makes their motivation pretty apparent.
France hasn’t seen an attack on this scale since seven people were killed in a shooting rampage against a Jewish school and French soldiers in 2012. And it comes at a time when the country is on high alert over French extremists fighting in Syria. (Though it’s worth keeping in mind that Hebdo’s offices had been bombed before and the paper had been a target of extremists long before the war in Syria started.)
France, a member of the international coalition fighting ISIS, is also one of the leading suppliers of foreign fighters to ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups. The French interior ministry stated in September that about 930 of its citizens are fighting with jihadist groups, including ISIS and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, in Iraq and Syria. France is one of a number of European nations that instituted policies last year aimed at preventing young people from traveling to the Middle East to take up arms, motivated in part by fears that these fighters could return to France to carry out attacks at home.
The concern is legitimate. Senior ISIS leaders have specifically called for attacks against citizens of France, as well as other countries involved in the coalition. Last May, Mehdi Nemmouche, a French jihadist of Algerian origin who had spent time fighting with ISIS in Syria, shot and killed four people in an attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels. A French journalist who was held captive by ISIS later recalled being beaten by Nemmouche. And in November the French government confirmed that two Frenchmen had appeared in the video depicting the beheading of American aid worker Peter Kassig as well as 18 Syrian prisoners.
Recent days have also seen a series of smaller attacks in France. On Dec. 20, French police shot dead a man who had shouted “Allahu Akbar” while stabbing three officers in a police station near the city of Tours. Just before Christmas, the country saw two attacks, one in Nantes and another in Dijon, involving cars hitting pedestrians, which fit a pattern of similar recent attacks around the world. In the car attacks, prosecutors specifically said the men were mentally unbalanced and that these were not instances of political or religious terrorism, though that definition seems a little hard to parse given that the Dijon driver was a recent convert to Islam who was reportedly upset over the treatment of Chechen children.
It is fair to say that these earlier attacks were almost certainly the work of self-motivated lone actors who may have been inspired by jihadist propaganda but weren’t acting under direct orders from anyone. These kinds of attacks are extremely hard to prevent—lone wolves leave less of a paper trail than organized terror cells—but tend not to be all that effective.
Wednesday’s attack was several orders of magnitude more sophisticated and deadly than these earlier efforts. One early eyewitness account suggests that Wednesday’s gunmen identified themselves as members of “al-Qaida in Yemen,” which is likely a reference to the Yemen-based chapter more commonly known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. AQAP isn’t linked to ISIS, though its compatriots in Jabhat al-Nusra have also been targeted by Western airstrikes in recent months. Whether or not it turns out that the gunmen were under orders from AQAP or another group, this was an attack that likely took extensive planning and coordination.
Last month Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that France was facing an “unprecedented” threat from terrorism. At the time it seemed a bit of an overstatement in a country that has sadly known its share of terror over the years. Judging by the fact that the perpetrators were able to carry out such a well-executed attack in a major European city, escape the scene, and reportedly did it speaking perfect French, he may have been right.
The Proud Provocateurs at the Center of Today’s Paris Terror Attack
Charlie Hebdo, the French publication that was the victim of a horrific terrorist attack Wednesday, is no stranger to courting controversy and even danger with its no-holds-barred satire.
Formerly known as Hara-Kiri, the paper first gained national notoriety in 1970 with a headline mocking the death of former President Charles de Gaulle—“Tragic dance at Colombey [de Gaulle’s home] - one dead”—that led to it being shut down by the government. Undeterred, the paper quickly reconstituted under its current name and has been taking shots at sacred cows ever since.
In the last decade or so, Hebdo has been needling the delicate sensibilities of Islamic extremists, with often tragic consequences. In 2006 it reprinted the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that had been originally published in a Danish newspaper several months earlier and had provoked rioting and attacks on Danish and European facilities throughout the Muslim world. The paper’s editors were charged with inciting racial hatred, which is illegal in France, but eventually acquitted.
In 2011 it published “Charia Hebdo,” a special issue “guest-edited by Mohammad,” whose cover promised readers “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing.” The paper’s offices were firebombed and its website hacked in response.
The following year, at the height of the controversy over the YouTube video The Innocence of Muslims, it again published cartoons of Muhammad, this time naked in mock advertisements for a film guaranteed to “set the Muslim world ablaze.” (Hebdo’s cartoonists are equal-opportunity offenders: One faced charges of anti-Semitism in 2009 for a cartoon suggesting that Nicolas Sarkozy’s son was converting to Judaism for financial reasons.)
Reactions to Hebdo’s provocations from other French media outlets and the political establishment has been mixed. In 2011, some newspapers stood up for the publication’s right to free speech, but others, including the conservative Le Figaro, criticized its “silly provocations,” saying that they play into the hands of extremists. During that controversy, France’s prime minister and foreign minister criticized the decision to run the cartoons at a time when tensions were already running high and lives could be in danger. The paper’s editor told Le Monde at the time, “I’m not putting lives at risk. When activists need a pretext to justify their violence, they always find it.”
That appears to remain true. It’s unclear at the moment whether Wednesday’s attack was a reaction to Charlie Hebdo’s past actions or whether it was linked to the newspaper’s latest issue, which features the satirical novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose newest book, according to the New York Times, imagines “a future France run by Muslims, in which women forsake Western dress and polygamy is introduced.” The issue’s cover features a picture of a cigarette-smoking Houellebecq with the caption: “In 2022, I will do Ramadan.” Like Charlie Hebdo, Houellebecq also does not shy away from controversy, particularly when it comes to Islam.
Houellebecq, probably the best internationally known French writer working today, first rose to prominence with his 1994 novel Extension du domaine de la lutte, translated into English as Whatever, a kind of updated French existentialist anomie for the digital age. In 2001, shortly before the 9/11 attacks, he released Platform, in which the protagonists open a profitable sex tourism business in Thailand before being gunned down at the end in a massacre by men in turbans.
In an interview surrounding the release of that book, Houellebecq described Islam as “the most stupid religion,” prompting legal charges of inciting hatred by Muslim groups in France that were eventually dropped. The affair inspired then-President Jacques Chirac to remark that “sometimes we should have these intellectuals spanked bare-arsed in the streets.”
While Houellebecq, whose feelings about Islam are more than matched by his publicly voiced disdain for his home country, is France’s most successful literary export in years, reaction to him is more mixed back home, where his books, Platform in particular, are often derided by critics as misogynistic and juvenile. In 2010 he was somewhat vindicated by winning the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, though it was a bit of a backhanded compliment since the awarded work, The Map and the Territory, depicts the brutal murder of a character named Houellebecq.*
Invariably fearless, sometimes excessively so, both Charlie Hebdo and Houellebecq are leading examples of an intellectual tradition that holds giving offense and provocation as both a right and a duty, even in the face of fanatical acts of violence like the one seen today.
*Correction, Jan. 7, 2015: This post originally misstated the title of Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map and the Territory as The Map of the Territory.
Xenophobia Is Going Mainstream in Germany
For the past several weeks, the East German city of Dresden has been the site of weekly demonstrations organized by a recently formed group called PEGIDA, the German acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. Yesterday’s rally was the largest yet, drawing 18,000 people.
PEGIDA’s presence is significant enough that it drew a denunciation from Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as from dozens of politicians and celebrities who published a petition in the country’s most popular tabloid, Bild, criticizing the rallies. PEGIDA’s supporters might be a minority, but they’re clearly effective at driving the conversation.
Why has this movement, founded by a previously unknown former publicity agent with several burglary convictions named Lutz Bachmann, caught on? Far-right anti-immigrant groups have long been a factor in German politics, despite laws preventing Nazi imagery or incitement of “hatred against segments of the population.” Authorities have been unsuccessful in attempts to ban the extremist NPD party, often described as a neo-Nazi organization, but despite some electoral successes, the group has been pretty adept at sabotaging itself.
So far, PEGIDA has been smarter. They are taking the same ideas that traditionally were only voiced by scary guys with shaved heads and armbands—the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments—and packaging them in a way that normal middle-class Germans can embrace. PEGIDA has banned neo-Nazi symbols at its rallies and declared itself non-xenophobic and against "preachers of hate, regardless of what religion." It’s platform supports the right to "sexual self-determination," and a speaker at one rally in December even quoted Martin Luther King. While a number of the demonstrators have been members of the NPD or far-right football hooligan groups, press accounts describe most of the marchers as ordinary citizens alarmed by what they see as an uncontrolled foreign influx. The movement has appropriated the chant “Wir sind das Volk!” (“We are the people”), a rallying cry of the opposition movement under East German Communism, much to the irritation of the East German-raised Merkel. The protests have also attracted those angry about seemingly unrelated causes ranging from factory farming to NATO’s “aggression” toward Russia.
The Guardian’s Kate Connolly has noted that PEGIDA members have a habit of beginning their sentences with variants of “I’m not racist, but…” Though it's been packaged for the widest appeal, much of the group’s rhetoric, from inveighing "cultural foreign domination of our country" to the "protection of Judeo-Christian culture" isn’t all that different from other far-right groups. And its got a captive audience.
Germany has one of the most liberal asylum policies in Europe and last year, around 200,000 refugees entered the country, many fleeing the war in Syria. The Syrian situation has prompted some legitimate security concerns in Germany, due to both the potential for pro-ISIS attacks like those seen recently in Canada and Australia, and the recent clashes between Kurds and ultrareligious Salafist groups in several German cities. All this has left the public primed for the emergence of a phenomenon like PEGIDA.
But even after successive waves of immigration from Muslim countries, Turkey in particular, dating back half a century, only 1.9 percent of Germans self-identified as Muslims in the 2013 census. The real number is thought to be higher than that—respondents aren’t required to state a religion—but it’s still a small minority and only a tiny fraction of Germany’s Muslims are religious extremists. In Dresden, the epicenter of the PEGIDA movement, Muslims are only .1 percent of the population. Foreigners as a whole are only 2.8 percent, compared to 14 percent in Berlin. Conditions are not exactly ripe for the emergence of a Dresden caliphate.
The German media has mocked the protesters’ chants of “potatoes not doner kebabs” and their fears that their daughters will soon be required to wear headscarves, but the marches clearly represent more than just an extremist fringe. One recent poll found that 34 percent of Germans share the view that Germany is becoming increasingly Islamicized and another found that one in eight people would join a PEGIDA march if it took place near their home. (Judging by the attendance numbers in offshoot rallies yesterday, which were not as strong in Berlin and Cologne as they were at the main demonstration in Dresden, a lot of these people weren’t quite willing to walk the walk.)
PEGIDA’s opponents so far have been trying to dismiss it as part and parcel of a movement that includes people who wave swastikas and try to burn down mosques. “They are clearly Nazis,” one observer in Dresden commented to the New York Times. But to a lot of Germans, that’s not so clear. PEGIDA has appeal beyond the traditional far-right fringe, and it would be a mistake for German leaders and the media to simply dismiss it.
Will Obama Press Mexico’s President for Answers on the Disappearance of 43 Students?
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is meeting with President Obama at the White House on Tuesday. Even under normal circumstances, trade, energy, and immigration issues would give the two leaders more than enough to talk about, and these are certainly the subjects Peña Nieto would prefer to have on the agenda.
But the big question going into the meeting is whether and how the presidents will address the ongoing controversy over the Mexican government’s handling of the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, in the southwestern state of Guerrero. The suspected involvement of local authorities along with drug cartels in the students’ disappearance last September—as well as the Mexican government’s ineffectual response—has prompted massive protests across Mexico, as well as some in the United States.
The case has deeply affected Peña Nieto’s public approval, which is at its lowest in his two-year presidency–lower than that of his predecesors, Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, and the lowest for any Mexican president in nearly 20 years. The U.S. government—the primary foreign backer of the Mexican government’s drug war— has been generally hesitant to weigh in on the case, though the State Department has faced questions over whether it will review Mexico’s human rights standing.
But what could be the most damaging blow to Peña Nieto’s administration came last month. An investigation conducted by the Mexican magazine Proceso with support from the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California at Berkeley claimed to confirm the Mexican military’s and federal government’s direct involvement in the disappearance of the 43 students.
The investigation from Proceso is based on more than 900 pages of official documents, on recently uncovered video from the attack and on student testimonies. It contradicts the government’s version of events, that this was a strictly local issue of corruption and collusion with drug gangs. According to the official version, on the night of Sept. 26, Iguala and Cocula police, without the federal government’s knowledge and under orders from the mayor of Iguala, attacked the students, killing three of them and delivering the other 43 to the local drug gang, Guerreros Unidos, who murdered them before incinerating their bodies at a nearby dump.
It took the attorney general’s office eight days to agree to investigate the case, after multiple requests from the students’ families and the press, and it only did so when it became known that organized crime, Guerreros Unidos, had been involved. But according to a previously unpublished report from the state of Guerrero dating back to October and that was delivered to the Ministry of Interior more than a month ago, federal forces not only already knew what had happened—they had been monitoring the students’ movements since they left Ayotzinapa that night and were waiting for them when they arrived at Iguala, where they participated in the attack. In cellphone videos of the attack, someone can be heard saying, “The police are leaving, the Feds are going to stay and try to bother us.”
Then, after more than a month of being involved in the investigation, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam announced at a press conference on Nov. 7 that three members from Guerreros Unidos had confessed to murdering and burning the students and had testified against the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and against the Iguala and Cocula police. But according to documents from the attorney general’s office obtained by Proceso, at least five of these gang members had been tortured by marines and federal police putting their testimonies in question.
Federal Police Commissioner Enrique Galindo denied any involvement from federal authorities, as did Murillo Karam during an interview with CNN en Español on Dec. 16. He stated federal police did know the students were traveling to Iguala, but denied any participation in the attack or having received a report from the government of Guerrero on allegations of torture, even though Proceso found medical opinions carried out by the attorney general’s office where the abuses are thoroughly documented. Only after the Proceso investigation was published did Murillo Karam admit there had been federal officers present in Iguala, contradicting his earlier statements from November.
But perhaps the most unequivocal and damaging evidence against the government’s narrative comes from scientists at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM, who put together a report that claims the government’s official narrative “has no basis in scientific fact.” To cremate 43 bodies, a space 10 times as large as the Cocula dump would’ve been necessary, as well as 33 tons of tree trunks 4 inches wide, equivalent to two trailer trucks full of wood. If they had used fuel, 117 pounds of fuel per body would’ve been needed, burning for eight days straight. If tires had been used, they would’ve needed 995 passenger car tires, burned at least 2,597 degrees, which would’ve left behind two and a half tons of steel wire and a column of smoke visible for several miles.
José Antonio Montemayor, head researcher at the Physics Institute at UNAM, told Univision that government officials are mocking the country by “creating a fantasy.”
“When we say it’s impossible, we’re not playing around,” Montemayor said, “We’re aware of the seriousness of the situation.”
This opens up a lot of questions regarding the entire investigation (on which the FBI has collaborated), and particularly about the only body that has been identified so far. One of the 43 students’ identities was confirmed by DNA tests run by Argentinian forensic experts. But they stressed they can’t confirm if the body comes from the Cocula mass grave since they weren’t present when that body bag was recovered, a statement that has helped stoke the controversy.
Peña Nieto’s handling of the case has only made matters worse. The Mexican president warned several times ahead of the Nov. 20 protests in Mexico City that the authorities would be well within their rights to use force against any attempts to “destabilize, generate social disorder and above all, in attacking the national project we’ve been constructing.” Seemingly acting on those warnings, federal police arbitrarily arrested and brutally beat 20 protesters and bystanders during the protests. Detainees were charged with criminal conduct, rioting, and manslaughter, held in isolation, and transferred to maximum-security federal prisons with abhorrent human rights records. They were released 10 days later with no charges for a lack of evidence. According to some of those detained, the police abused them and threatened to burn them alive—a clear reference to the Ayotzinapa students.
In light of all of these compounded events, and after a violent clash last month between federal police and teachers and family members of the Ayotzinapa students who were protesting in Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero, the students’ parents suspended dialogue with the government. Though the government is maintaining its version of the events, their credibility has all but vanished.
What precisely was the government’s role on the night the 43 students disappeared is still unknown. President Obama should take Peña Nieto’s visit as an opportunity to ask.
Special thanks to Humberto Beck for assistance on this post.
Two Americans Charged in Ill-Conceived Plot to Overthrow the Dictator of the Gambia
When Yahya Jammeh, the Gambian dictator best known internationally for calling gay people “ungodly vermin,” promoting his own herbal cure for AIDS, and promising to rule for “one billion years,” blamed an attempted coup d’état last week on “dissidents based in the U.S., Germany and U.K.,” it was easy to dismiss it as the ramblings of a paranoid strongman. The leader of one of the world’s most repressive countries, presumably, has more than enough enemies at home.
But for once, “his Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya,” as he prefers to be identified, may have gotten it right.
The U.S. Justice Department on Monday filed charges against two Gambian-American men with conspiring to overthrow Jammeh’s government. Cherno Njie, a Texas businessman, allegedly bankrolled the plot involving about 10 to 12 people, most of them British. (There’s no mention of Germans in today’s press reports.) He planned to lead the country after Jammeh was overthrown. Papa Faal, a Minnesota resident and dual citizen who served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, allegedly joined the plot in August, angry over vote-rigging and repression in his home country.
The criminal complaint filed in a court in Minnesota on Monday (via NPR) documents an almost comical lack of preparation. Njie and Faal had originally planned to ambush Jammeh while he was traveling across the Gambia. When they found out he was out of the country, they elected to attack the presidential palace in the capital, Banjul, instead. According to the suit, the conspirators believed the president’s troops would surrender rather than die for him, but instead the troops fired back, killing most of the attackers and sending the rest fleeing.
Faal, codenamed “Fox” during the operation, escaped to Senegal, where he turned himself in at the U.S. embassy. Njie returned to the United States and was arrested upon arrival at Washington’s Dulles airport. At Faal’s house, FBI agents found a manila folder with “top secret” written in black marker on it, containing Google Earth images of Banjul. Njie’s house contained a handwritten document laying out his vision for the Gambia’s political future, including such questions as “Do you have a budget?” “How many troops do you have?” and “what is your plan after takeover?”
Coup plots against brutal West African dictators tend to attract a certain kind of overambitious adventurer. Most memorable was the misbegotten 2004 “wonga coup” attempt against Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, a tangled mess involving British and South African mercenaries and—allegedly—Margaret Thatcher’s son. Faal, at least according to his statements, appears to have been a bit more idealistic than the wonga plotters, motivated by concern over the dire state of affairs in his country, even if he didn’t really think through the consequences of what he was getting involved in.
In case you’re wondering, it’s legal in many cases for U.S. citizens to fight in another country’s war, but plotting aggression against a nation “with whom the United States is at peace” from U.S. soil is prohibited under the Neutrality Act, which dates back to George Washington’s presidency.
America is “at peace” with the Gambia—here’s Jammeh with the Obamas at the White House during the U.S.-Africa summit last summer—but relations are pretty strained at the moment. The U.S. has been slower than some other countries to impose consequences on the Gambian government for its human rights abuses, which include a recent law imposing life sentences for “aggravated homosexuality,” but in late December, the U.S. dropped the Gambia, along with South Sudan, from a program giving African countries duty-free access to U.S. markets. After the coup attempt, a State Department spokesman made clear that the U.S. “strongly condemns any attempt to seize power through extra-constitutional means,” but even with these two in jail, Jammeh probably won’t be convinced.
He also probably won't appreciate the historical irony in a former U.S. Army soldier trying to overthrow him. Jammeh himself took power in a coup led by junior army officers in 1994, shortly after he attended a training course at Fort McClellan in Alabama.
Saudi Arabia’s Succession Time Bomb
On Monday, Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz al-Saud reassured the country’s Cabinet about the health of King Abdullah, who has been hospitalized for almost a week and diagnosed with pneumonia, but rumors that the 90-year-old king is on his deathbed are still swirling online.
Rumors of Abdullah’s death have been greatly exaggerated before, and I know nothing more than that he is old and ill, but one thing is certain: Saudi Arabia is an increasingly creaky gerontocracy.
Since the first king of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz, died in 1953, the country has been ruled by five of his sons in roughly descending age order. There were quite a few options available: Abdulaziz, who cemented alliances with tribal leaders by marrying their daughters, fathered 45 sons by at least 22 wives as well as an unknown number of daughters.
But the first generation of sons is getting up there in years. Salman, who is next in line for the throne and is thought to be Abdulaziz’s 25th son, is 79. In May, Abdullah took the unprecedented step of naming his youngest brother, Prince Muqrin, as deputy heir, making him second in line for the throne. The choice, which leapfrogged some older brothers, reportedly prompted some grumbling among palace insiders over the fact that Muqrin’s mother was a Yemeni concubine who was never formally married to Abdulaziz. But he’s a close adviser to Abdullah, has diplomatic experience, and at 69, is a spring chicken by House of Saud standards.
Sooner or later, of course, the crown will have to move to the next generation. At that point, things may get a little dicey. Under Saudi succession law, the king has to be a male descendant of Abdulaziz, but beyond that, the incumbent king has wide latitude to determine his successor. Given that many of the brothers took after Dad or even exceeded him—King Saud, the second king, had 53 sons—there are now thousands of these descendants, many of whom have senior government positions, and the potential for palace intrigue is high.
In the meantime, whoever sits on the throne will have his hands full, as the coming years have the potential to be among the most transformative in the nation’s history. The country’s longtime dominance of global oil markets is being challenged by new projects in Africa, the United States, and the Arctic, and the government is now pursuing a risky strategy of keeping oil prices low to discourage new exploration and preserve its market share. (This has the added benefit of making life miserable for petrostates Russia and Iran, opponents of Saudi Arabia in the proxy war over Syria, which has those governments smelling a Washington-Riyadh conspiracy.)
Saudi Arabia’s traditionally rock-solid relationship with the United States has also been tested by disagreements over Egypt, Syria, and the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran. The Saudis, skeptical that their Iranian rivals will adhere to a nuclear deal and wary of the prospect of a U.S.-Iranian rapproachment, have dropped vague hints about pursuing a nuclear program of their own.
There’s more: Saudi Arabia avoided the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring, for the most part, though the authorities have been cracking down hard on the slightest hints of political organizing among the country’s Shiite minority. There are also growing fears that Saudi Arabia, one of the leading backers of the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, could become a target of that rebellion’s unwelcome offshoot, ISIS. Just Monday, three Saudi border guards were killed by militants on the Iraqi border. No group has yet claimed responsibility, but one analyst told Reuters that it was likely “the first attack by Islamic State itself against Saudi Arabia and is a clear message after Saudi Arabia entered the international coalition against it."
Salman is thought of as a conservative, which is saying something in Saudi Arabia, and Muqrin is an Abdullah loyalist, so neither man is likely to rock the boat too much when it comes to domestic reforms if they take the throne, particularly when it comes to the kingdom’s notoriously repressive gender laws. Under Abdullah, Saudi Arabia instituted some tentative reforms, such as allowing women to work in a greater number of jobs, including retail positions, and vote and run in municipal elections. But as demonstrated by the news last week that two women arrested for driving would be tried in a special terrorism court, change only goes so far. Saudi Arabia is the only country on Earth where women are prohibited from driving.
It remains to be seen whether Saudis—both women and men—will continue to put up with the glacial pace of political reform. And whether a monarchy, facing unprecedented challenges from abroad and uncertain about its own plans and leadership for the future, will continue to be able to keep the situation under control. Once the torch is finally passed to a new generation, things will get much more uncertain.
Uncle Xi’s Astonishing Power Grab
Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a second annual televised New Year’s Eve address two days ago, establishing what seems to be a new tradition. The content of the speeches—this year, Xi told viewers that over the past 12 months, China had “pressed ahead with reform, cracked many hard nuts and introduced important reforms close to the interests of our citizens”—may be less interesting than the location: Xi’s office.
The public doesn’t usually get to peek inside the president’s workspace. It’s so unusual that, as Shanghaiist reports, Chinese media outlets and Internet users have been analyzing the décor of the tidy, computerless office, paying particularly close attention to the photos of family members and of his meetings with ordinary citizens placed behind him, some of which have changed since last year.
None of this seems particularly illuminating—stunningly, for a politician, Xi wants you to know he loves his family and cares about people like you—but these touches of humanity are notable in a Chinese politician. Since the personality cult excesses of the Mao era, the Chinese government has tended to emphasize the collective leadership of the party rather than individual leaders. A 1980 directive from the party’s central committee explicitly called for “less propaganda on individuals.” The emphasis on uniformity is such that former Premier Zhu Rongji was praised for his bravery last year when he appeared at a party congress with gray hair. Most of his compatriots dye theirs jet-black. For up-and-coming Chinese leaders, having a word like flamboyant attached to your name has tended to be a liability.
In contrast to his predecessors—the famously inexpressive Hu Jintao’s fondness for table tennis and ballroom dancing was erased from his official biography after he took over as party chief—Xi seems intent on demonstrating that he’s a real person with something of a personality. He likes to joke around with reporters and even engages in some (mild) self-deprecation. Last year he caused something of a sensation by visiting a Beijing lunch counter, waiting online, and paying for his humble lunch of pork dumplings himself. He’s been depicted in an unexpectedly playful cartoon. He’s often referred to on China’s tightly controlled Internet as “Uncle Xi” or “Xi Dada.” He’s comparatively relaxed in speeches, and his aspirational catchphrase, the “Chinese dream,” is a departure from Hu’s inscrutable public pronouncements.
Xi’s wife, folk singer Peng Liyuan, was already a celebrity before she became first lady and has become something of a fashion icon. Their marriage inspired a viral tribute song, titled, “Xi Dada Loves Peng Mama.”
This is still pretty mild stuff compared with some other-world leaders. Don’t expect Xi to starting playing miraculous golf games like Kim Jong-il or posing shirtless like Vladimir Putin. (For one thing, the censors seem a bit sensitive when it comes to his weight.) The Xi appeal is also a long way from Mao badges and little red books. But a study published over the summer by researchers at the University of Hong Kong found that China’s state media has mentioned Xi’s name more than twice as frequently as his predecessors during the first 18 months of their respective presidencies. According to the study, Xi has been the subject of more personalized attention than any leader since Mao and his immediate successor Hua Guofeng.
The emphasis on Xi as an individual is also noteworthy at a time when he is consolidating power on an unprecedented scale. As of October, nearly 75,000 Communist Party members had been investigated as part of Xi’s ongoing anti-corruption probe, according to the People’s Daily, with 27 percent of them receiving punishment. The worst punishment the party’s anti-corruption commission can mete out is expulsion, but if, as often happens, cases are transferred to the judicial branch, officials can receive a range of sentences including the death penalty.
Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has targeted both “flies”—low-ranking local and provincial officials who allegedly took bribes—and high-ranking “tigers.” The biggest tiger so far has been Zhou Yongkang, a former domestic security chief thought to be untouchable until he was placed under investigation last summer. Today, Zhang Kunsheng, an assistant foreign minister, became the latest “tiger” brought down by the probe when he was removed from his position on suspicion of having “violated discipline," a euphemism for corruption. Two influential generals also resigned in what analysts say is a sign of Xi’s increasing control over the military.
Opinion among China watchers is divided as to whether the campaign is motivated by a genuine concern about corruption and its impact on China’s economic growth or is cover for an old-fashioned party purge meant to consolidate power for Xi and his small inner circle.
It could very well be both. Amid the probe, Xi has also taken steps to increase his control over China’s vast foreign-policy and domestic security bureaucracies. State control over the Internet has been tightened, including most recently, the blocking of Gmail. Foreign news organizations, including Bloomberg, which ran an investigation on Xi’s personal wealth in 2012, have been punished.
Nearing the end of the second year of his presidency, it’s clear that Xi doesn’t plan on being an anonymous suit. He’s harnessed widespread public anger over corruption to consolidate control while carefully cultivating a public profile to match. Working in a system that normally prioritizes collective leadership, he seems intent on emphasizing personal influence. But with serious economic, military, and environmental challenges looming, what’s less clear is what he plans on doing with it.
Palestinians Continue to Pursue Statehood. Israel Continues to Rely on the U.S. to Stop Them.
Back in October, when U.S. officials were literally talking “shit” about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in off-the-record quotes, there was much speculation about the future of Israel’s crucial relationship with the United States. “There is a crisis with the U.S. and we should treat it as a crisis,” fretted then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who has since been booted from Netanyahu’s Cabinet.
But for now, regardless of what is said behind closed doors, U.S. officials still have Israel’s back in public. On Tuesday, Palestinians submitted a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council that would have set a tight deadline for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. It was defeated, receiving support from only eight out of 15 members.
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, whose past criticisms of Israel were a source of controversy during her confirmation hearings last year, cast the U.S. vote against what she called a “deeply imbalanced” resolution. Secretary of State John Kerry, an extremely unpopular figure in Tel Aviv whose attempted intervention in last summer’s conflict in Gaza was described by a senior Israeli official as a “strategic terror attack,” worked the phones, reportedly convincing Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan at the last minute to switch from supporting the resolution to abstaining, denying it the nine votes needed for passage.
This isn’t the first time the U.S. has gone out on a limb at the U.N. for Israel. In 2011 the U.S. cut off funding to the cultural body UNESCO after it admitted Palestine as a member. In 2012, 138 nations in the U.N. General Assembly voted to accord Palestine “non-member observer state” status, with just Israel, the U.S. and seven other countries voting against.
Tuesday’s vote total didn’t actually matter—as a permanent member of the council, the U.S. holds veto power—but getting nine votes would have been a symbolic victory for the Palestinian Authority, which in the absence of progress in negotiations, has been pursuing a strategy of confronting Israel in international organizations and seeking unilateral recognition from foreign governments. Following the vote, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today signed the Rome Statute, making the Palestinians members of the International Criminal Court, where they plan to charge Israel with war crimes. Israel, which is not a signatory to the statute, is extremely unlikely to cooperate with prosecutions launched in the court, and the ICC doesn’t try people in absentia. And the move could very well backfire for the Palestinians as Palestinian officials could also face charges over attacks on Israeli civilians. Compared with the ongoing push for U.N. membership, which seems to only have upsides for the Palestinians at this point, joining the ICC is a risk.
This latest Security Council vote was hardly an unambiguous victory for Israel. The U.S. and Australia were the only countries to vote against the resolution. (Australia abstained on the 2012 Assembly vote, but has been more vocally pro-Israel since the election of Prime Minister Tony Abbott last year.) Three of the five permanent members—Russia, China, and France—voted for it. Britain, whose parliament passed a non-binding resolution in support of Palestinian statehood in October, abstained. None of the four EU countries on the council supported Israel’s position (Luxembourg voted for the resolution, and Lithuania abstained), reflecting growing impatience in Europe with Netanyahu’s government.
In addition to the U.S. and Australia, Netanyahu expressed his appreciation to the governments of Nigeria and Rwanda, which had promised to abstain. “They stood by their words, and this is what tipped the scales,” he said. As Israel’s YNet reports, this will be seen as a vindication of a major diplomatic push by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to improve Israel’s ties with African governments. But all the same, this was a close one. It was unclear how Nigeria would vote until the last day. Going forward, if the composition of the council is slightly different or the U.S. is slightly less enthusiastic about lobbying on Israel’s behalf, things could easily go very differently and Israel and its primary backer could find themselves even more isolated. Its hardly the optimal course of action for Palestinian statehood, but it’s not as if there are many better options at the moment.
Who’s Afraid of Alexei Navalny?
Vladimir Putin’s government, often praised by both its defenders and its enemies for its toughness and decisiveness, rarely seems more vexed and uncertain than when dealing with opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Monday, in a surprising move, a Moscow court suspended Navalny’s three-and-a-half-year sentence on fraud charges that were widely seen as a laughably trumped-up pretext to punish him for his outspoken opposition to the Russian government. This isn’t the first time Navalny had gotten off with a warning: In July 2013 he was freed on bail after receiving a five-year sentence for embezzlement that prompted massive street protests by his supporters in Moscow. This time, however, the court didn’t just let Navalny go; it jailed his brother Oleg, a former postal worker, instead. Not only is the Russian criminal justice system blatantly being used to punish the Kremlin’s critics; courts are now apparently willing to take family members as hostages to get the point across. (The brothers are alleged to have masterminded a plot to overcharge a subsidiary of the cosmetics brand Yves Rocher for its shipping to Russia, though the French company never issued a complaint.)
If the intent in letting Navalny out but jailing his brother was to keep Navalny under control without turning him into a martyr, it appears to have backfired. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered despite freezing temperatures to protest Oleg’s fate in Moscow’s Manezh Square, including Navalny himself, who showed up in violation of his house arrest from his earlier conviction, apparently still wearing his court-ordered ankle bracelet, and was quickly rearrested along with more than 100 others. The demonstrators were also met by a large crowd of counterdemonstrators, who accused Navalny’s supporters of trying to turn Manezh into a “Maidan”—a reference to the “Euromaidan” protests that toppled Ukraine’s Russian-backed government in February. Even dissident performance artists Pussy Riot, who seem to have given up their DIY punk rock aesthetic for perfume-commercial glam, released a new video for the occasion in support of Navalny.
What is it about this 38-year-old lawyer that has given Russia’s recently lackluster protest movement a spark, and Russia’s leaders, normally master manipulators of public opinion, such a headache? Navalny first gained a following as an online muckraker, exposing corrupt officials and business leaders on his popular LiveJournal blog. In addition to his painstaking probes into powerful interests including major oil companies and ministries, he distinguished himself by being blunt. (His description of the ruling United Russia party as the “party of crooks and thieves” in 2010 became a rallying cry for the anti-Putin opposition.) When major street protests broke out in late 2011 after disputed parliamentary elections, Navalny emerged as the most visible head of the movement, organizing the marches and earning rapturous applause for speeches blasting Putin.
In 2012 the Russian opposition overwhelmingly elected him leader in an informal online poll. Last year he ran against a Kremlin-backed candidate for mayor of Moscow, earning an impressive 27 percent of the vote. A poll last year showed him with a nationwide name recognition of 37 percent, huge given the government’s tight control over the news media.
Navalny describes himself as a nationalist democrat, and his ideology can be a bit difficult to place, beyond being anti-Putin. Though he has earned comparisons in the international media to figures ranging from Julian Assange to Nelson Mandela, there’s a bit of Pat Buchanan mixed in there as well. Navalny has called for Russia’s liberal opposition to unite with far-left and far-right groups who share an antipathy to Putin but have very different ideas about who or what should replace him. He has unapologetically appeared at rallies with ultranationalist, xenophobic groups. He was expelled from Russia’s largest liberal party, Yabloko, over his nationalist ties in 2007. Fellow members of the opposition have also accused him of intolerance to criticism and compared his occasionally hectoring, macho tone to that of Putin himself.
But the fact that Navalny is difficult to pigeonhole is probably a large part of his appeal: He’s a street activist and a savvy political campaigner at the same time and is just as comfortable talking to Russian nationalists as with readers of the New York Times. He’s certainly a far more dynamic figure than most of the intellectuals, spurned ex-politicians, and oligarchs who have dominated the leadership of the marginalized Russian opposition in the Putin era.
Still, Navalny has a long way to go if he hopes to grab more than headlines. Navalny’s case has rallied his base—mainly educated, middle-class urbanites—to come out in the cold, but opposition to Putin is still a niche issue for most Russians and despite this month’s currency collapse, the president is still overwhelmingly popular nationwide. Navalny’s following is an irritation for the government, and it will be interesting to see what they do with him now that it’s clear he’s not going to stay quiet to protect himself and his brother. But the government has survived rounds of Moscow street protests before and will likely weather this storm as well.
The bigger question going forward is whether Russians will begin to blame Putin’s policies for the slumping economy and rising consumer prices. Based on recent experience, it’s far from clear that they will. But if Russians do start to turn on Putin, Navalny is certainly the opposition figure in the best position to capitalize. And so far, the authorities have been surprisingly incapable of shutting him down. Monday’s arrest did not help that cause.
Is America’s Longest War Really Over?
Americans have been trained not to expect triumphant treaty signings on the decks of aircraft carriers or ticker-tape parades at the end of wars anymore. But even by the diminished standards of 21st-century warfare, the conclusion of combat operations in Afghanistan on Sunday feels awfully anticlimactic.
For one thing, while the president may have assured the public Sunday that “the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion,” that verdict comes with considerable caveats. About 13,500 international troops, 9,800 of them Americans, will remain in the country thanks to a deal reached with Afghanistan’s new government in September. These troops will serve in non-combat roles, including training Afghan security forces and assisting in counterterrorism missions. A full pullout isn’t scheduled until the end of 2016.
Iraq saw a similar “noncombat” transitional period in 2010 and 2011, but the line between combat and noncombat isn’t always entirely clear. The Taliban certainly don’t recognize the distinction, and whatever U.S. troops may intend, they can sometimes find themselves under fire. As defense scholar Andrew Krepinevich told the New York Times in 2008, “If you’re in combat, it doesn’t make any difference whether you’re an adviser: you’re risking your life. The bullets don’t have ‘adviser’ stenciled on some and ‘combat unit’ on another.”
That potential is very real in Afghanistan, where recent weeks have seen a growing number of increasingly brazen Taliban attacks near Kabul, many of them targeting foreigners. Two American soldiers were killed just two weeks ago when a NATO convoy was bombed in eastern Afghanistan. An American general was killed in an attack on a U.S. base in August, the first time that has happened since the Vietnam War. He was shot by an Afghan soldier while making a routine visit to a military academy, one of a number of recent “insider” attacks against U.S. trainers.
It’s also not entirely clear that American soldiers are finished with more traditional combat. While Americans won’t be going out on regular patrols, a White House order issued in November authorized them to carry out attacks on the Taliban in response to threats against the U.S. military or Afghan government.
Recent events in Iraq, where the U.S. is once again carrying out airstrikes, are also an indication that the U.S. could still return to a more obvious combat role if the situation gets out of hand and local security forces turn out not to be up to the task. The Pentagon’s own recent assessments of the preparedness of these forces aren’t exactly reassuring.
As I discussed in a recent article, the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, the legal basis for the war in Afghanistan, is still in effect and Congress doesn’t appear to be in much hurry to rescind it or put limits on where or when the president can attack terrorists.
It’s not that hard to imagine a scenario in which American firepower is once again committed to fighting the Taliban in defense of a beleaguered Afghan government. Given the precedents of Syria and Iraq, it’s hard to imagine this aid taking the form of ground troops under the Obama administration, but who’s to say what approach his successor may take?
The only people who seem particularly enthused by this week’s milestone are the Taliban, who today issued a statement proclaiming the “defeat” of the U.S. and its allies, saying, “ISAF rolled up its flag in an atmosphere of failure and disappointment without having achieved anything substantial or tangible.” Neither they, nor the American public, should be so sure that America’s longest war is really over.