Streetwise Professor

February 24, 2015

Incoherence on Display: The FSB Head Transformed From Interlocutor to Persona Non Grata in a Week

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:22 pm

John Kerry has criticized Russian actions in and lies about Ukraine. He hinted that further sanctions could be forthcoming, and that the head of the FSB could be targeted.

Wait a minute. Just last week the head of the FSB was considered a worthy participant in the debate on the subject of terrorism: he headed the Russian delegation to the Countering Violent Extremism Summit. How ludicrous, and schizo, is that? The guy goes from interlocutor to persona non grata in a period of mere days. To quote Casey Stengel: can’t anybody here play this game?

Any sanctions forthcoming will likely have the opposite of the intended effect. Putin will interpret them as demonstrating a lack of seriousness, a token response meant to keep up appearances, rather than as a serious challenge. He will view such actions as a green light, not a yellow let alone a flashing red. He will understand that he faces an irresolute, incoherent, and timorous opposition, and will act accordingly.

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Omar the Storyteller Edits His Tale Yet Again

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 3:02 pm

Omar the storyteller is back at it, with another eager scribe, this time from the Guardian. The basic contours of his tale remain the same, but a crucial detail has shifted yet again, and the story has gotten yet more elaborate. Most annoyingly, he still escapes any serious questioning about the problematic features of his narrative.

The crucial detail that changes relates to Kayla Mueller’s denial that she was his wife:

After being interrogated, beaten and released, Alkhani returned to Aleppo – not Raqqa, as previously reported – to try win Mueller’s release, claiming she was his wife for more leverage. When allowed to see her briefly, she appeared unhurt and a little plumper. She cried. Apparently unaware of his ruse, she denied being his wife, foiling the plot.

In previous tellings, al Khani and Mueller had planned the marriage ruse for the very purpose of using in the event that they were taken captive. So she forgot? That would be pretty remarkable. In another telling, Omar hypothesized that she denied being his wife to save him. In another telling, he didn’t know why she denied it. The many versions of this crucial detail in the story raise some serious questions about Omar’s veracity. Not that anyone from he steno pool has bothered to point out these inconsistencies to him.

The story of the reason for their trip to Aleppo has become more elaborate. Versions 1.0-3.0 (I work from memory: the story has more versions than Windows) had him going to repair the broken WiFi at the Medicins sans Frontiers hospital in Aleppo. This time is is not going to fix it, he’s installing the whole damn thing:

Instead of taking photographs, Alkhani says his mission was to bring and install internet equipment at a hospital run by aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), using IT skills he learned while working with foreign journalists in Damascus several years earlier, he said.

Funny that he never mentioned that before. It’s not like “bringing and installing internet equipment” is a small detail, and it certainly entails much more effort and planning that a quick trip to fix a connection. I also wonder whether he enhanced the magnitude of the task and dropped in the the stuff about his IT skilz  because of questions that some people (cough, cough) had raised about why MSF would have relied on him, and why he would have run such huge risks to be a repair guy.

Another key change in detail. In previous versions, he ventured to the center of the Isis snake pit-al Raqqa. In this version, he went to Aleppo. Something of a difference, and not the kind of detail one would forget. Why the change? Has someone expressed incredulity that he could waltz into Raqqa-which Isis runs with a  crazed, bloody grip-so he is backing off from that claim?

Further elaborations include Mueller venturing into Aleppo in a hijab to conceal her identity, which she discarded in the hospital because she felt so at ease there. Funny he left that out before.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Of course, like all of the other reporters hanging on Omar’s every word, the Guardian’s Rory Carroll apparently did not ask one serious question along the lines of what I posted earlier. Nor did he point out the inconsistencies and progressive growth in the tale, even though such increasing vividness is often a major tell of a fabrication.

Most importantly, Carroll did not ask how it was possible that al Khani emerged unscathed from the Isis snake pit not once, but twice, despite his high profile in the Syrian resistance and extensive contact with western journalists. Hell, Isis can’t even get along with Al Qaeda, let alone the other disparate branches of the Syrian resistance, and is deeply suspicious of westerners and contacts with them. What magic words did Omar utter to convince them that he wasn’t a spy? Must have been pretty powerful words, given the paranoia and hatred that characterizes Isis.

In other words, another story, and no sense of being closer to the actual truth. The reverse, actually.

One more word about the Mueller murder. Her family blames the Obama administration’s ransoming Beau Bergdahl for making Isis more obdurate in its negotiations for Kayla’s release. Not that you’ll see this get much attention, given how it makes Obama look bad in multiple ways.

And speaking about Bergdahl, a few weeks ago there were reports that the Army had reached a decision regarding a court martial. The Pentagon threw a fit, and since then there has been radio silence. The Army has more than enough time to decide how to proceed. The lack of action reeks of command influence and the subversion of military justice for political reasons.

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February 18, 2015

Ukraine Grieves: Putin Gloats

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:55 pm

Ukraine bowed to military reality and hastily withdrew its remaining forces from Debaltsevo. There are only so many Alamos that one country can survive. It was unwise in the extreme to have attempted to defend that salient for so long.

Yes, an earlier withdrawal would have damaged Ukrainian morale, but the flight under the current circumstances has harmed morale far more than would have been the case earlier. Not least because it has given Putin the opportunity to gloat. Twisted little man that he is, he seized upon it:

“Of course, it’s always bad to lose,” Putin told reporters. “Of course it’s always a hardship when you lose to yesterday’s miners or yesterday’s tractor drivers. But life is life. It’ll surely go on.”

Not only is this an unchivalrous swipe at Ukraine (which he despises as much as he covets), it is a gratuitous insult directed at Merkel and Obama and the West generally. The reference to “miners and . . . tractor drivers” implies that Russian forces had nothing to do with Ukraine’s humiliation at Debaltsevo, when he knows, and knows that everyone else knows, that they had everything to do with it. Putin is saying, in essence: “Yeah. I’m shamelessly lying about Russian troops and equipment being in Donbas. What are you going to do about it? I know exactly what you are going to do about it: nothing.”

And in that, he’s correct. Today “Germany said it was too early to call the broader Minsk peace plan dead or ratchet up sanctions against Moscow.” It’s not dead. It’s resting. It’s stunned. It’s pining for the steppes. Extend and pretend is the European response to Russian depredations, just as it has been to fiscal profligacy in the south.

One can only hope that these words come back to haunt him. That his hubris calls forth nemesis.

No eulogist will say of Putin: “He was magnanimous in victory.” Well, given that the eulogist will be Russian, and perfectly capable of saying up is down with the straightest of faces, he probably will.

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Obama Delivers Another Speech From the Banks of Denial

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:00 pm

Very early in his first term, Obama stood near the banks of the Nile and delivered a speech on the relationship between the west and Islam that was praised effusively. It was widely predicted that this speech would heal the civilizational rift that had long existed, and had been cracked wide open by the evil Bush and his tribe of neocons.

That’s surely worked out well, hasn’t it?

If you read the speech, it is full of banalities, bromides, false history, criticism of the west, and condescending portrayals of Muslims as victims of outside forces. And we are witnessing the consequences of that vision put into presidential action.

Not to be deterred by reality, Obama spoke at his Summit on Violent Extremism, and basically expounded the same vision, tweaked slightly to address the current situation. That is, it was yet another speech delivered on the banks of denial.

There’s no transcript yet, but you can get the idea from this LA Times oped that ran under his name. It’s what Marie Harf said, only longer, basically.

Obama’s diagnosis of the causes of “violent extremism” is fundamentally flawed, and predictably progressive and materialist. In his view, it is caused by economic deprivation, corruption, and poor governance. Economic development, the eradication of corruptionm and reforming government to allow the disaffected to “address legitimate grievances through the democratic process” are essential in combating terrorism.

A few comments.

First, this is a very dubious prediction as an empirical matter. Corruption, poverty, and undemocratic governments are the rule, rather than the exception, throughout a good portion of the globe. Most of these benighted areas are not afflicted by “violent extremism” of the kind that is threatening the Middle East, parts of Africa, and even Europe (although they may be violent places, e.g., Venezuela or South Africa). Thus, these variables have little explanatory power.

What does? The very thing Obama is at great pains to deny: Salafist strains of Islam tracing their origins to Ibn Taymiyyah.

Intra-country comparisons make this plain. Take Nigeria, a notoriously corrupt, wretchedly governed, poor country. These conditions prevail throughout the entire country, but although violence is ubiquitous, extremist movements are found almost exclusively in the Muslim north, and are Islamist. They are not found in the non-Muslim south, even though it is also poor, corrupt, undemocratic and abysmally governed.

Similarly, Thailand’s and the Philippine’s insurrectionary movements are concentrated in Muslim regions, and are Muslim supremacist in nature.

These intra-country comparisons show that holding governance, corruption, and poverty roughly constant, the variation in the prevalence of extremist political movements across regions is explained by variations in the religious makeup of these regions.

Second, it is beyond rich to claim that democratic reforms will tamp down violent political movements. Islamist movements detest democracy with a passion. In their minds, it is an un-Islamic “innovation” (in the formulation of Taymiyyah). It is something that they are fighting to destroy, not fighting to create. Attempts to democratize, or to impose democracy, would only spur these people to greater violence.

Islamists use democracy mainly as an instrument to destroy it, and to obtain power. The “Freedom and Justice Party” (aka the Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt is an excellent example. As soon as Morsi had been voted in, he and the Brotherhood began a systematic campaign to make sure they could not be voted out. Ditto with Hamas in Gaza. Democracy was purely a means to power, and something to be destroyed after power had been achieved.

Third, even if Obama’s diagnosis was correct, if success against terrorism requires making Middle Eastern nations democratic, uncorrupt, tolerant, and governed by the rule of law, we might as well give up now. It’s more likely that I will ride a unicorn to Mars than that these things will happen.

Fourth, Obama’s prescription is neocon to the core. Bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East, and peace and prosperity will flourish. How bizarre is that?

Obama hit all of his usual notes. All religions are violent: Islam is not unique in this regard. He even managed to bring Timothy McVeigh into it. Muslims have been “woven in the fabric of America since the founding.” Fun fact that I bet you didn’t know: Muslims helped build our railroads! And you just thought it was Irishmen and Chinese, you bigot you.

He also inveighed against Islamophobia, capped with a treacly story about getting a Valentine from an 11 year old Muslim girl who expressed fear that people hated all Muslims. (He didn’t mention that if the girl attempted to celebrate Valentine’s Day in ISIS territory, she risked a flogging or a stoning.) This is incredibly condescending, and insults hundreds of millions of Americans who are more than capable of judging people on individual behavior, and who do not lump all Muslims together.

He reprised his role as the determinant of what is and what isn’t legitimate Islam, effectively declaring ISIS and al Qaeda et al takfiri. Kind of presumptuous for a kafir, especially since takfir is reserved for Mohammed or the caliph.

In making this declaration he used his usual argument that most Muslims reject Salafism (though he did not use that word).  This is another of his straw men. Even if true, it does not change the fact that ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and all the other Islamist groups ardently believe themselves to be extremely faithful adherents to the truth revealed by Mohammed. They are fundamentalists in the truest sense of the word, and view those Muslims who reject their vision as blasphemers and apostates: anything that is not in the Koran, or which post-dates Mohammed and his companions, is un-Islamic. In their eyes, they are the true followers of Mohammed, and nothing Barack Obama says is going to convince them otherwise.  Put differently, Obama’s opinion on the legitimacy of their claims to be Muslims means exactly squat.

In practical terms, Obama endorsed restrictions on government surveillance of Muslims, thereby buying into an agenda being pushed hard by CAIR, which just happens to be a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot. In so doing, he knocked down another of his straw men, and in the process, slurred law enforcement: “Nobody should be profiled or put under a cloud of suspicion simply because of their faith.” Of course not. Who said otherwise? Is he suggesting that has happened? It sure sounds like it.

All in all, just what you should have expected. An exegesis on “violent extremism” that denies the fundamental nature of the threat, and denies the undeniable roots of movements that are ripping apart vast swathes of the Middle East and Africa in one specific religion, which posits causes that are present where the alleged effects are not, and which denies the cause that is as plain as the nose on your face. Such a fundamental-and willful-misunderstanding of the nature of the threat and its causes will inevitably undermine efforts to fight it. Indeed, it is already doing so.

As Mark Twain said, “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” No, it ain’t. It is the foundation of Obama’s beliefs about terrorism and how to combat it.

 

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February 17, 2015

Questions no journalists (like those at Daily Beast) are asking

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 8:32 pm

The Daily Beast has added to the Omar-Kayla story, with an interview with Omar. So has the AP. These pieces cannot be called journalism, really. They are just stenography. When journalists decide to go beyond being merely transcribers, and ask some serious questions, here are some that need answering. I am skeptical this will happen, because many journalists obviously know al Khani, and seem to be intent on protecting him.

I will update as ideas come to mind. And you all can feel free to play at home, and submit questions via the comments.

Someone purporting to be Omar al Khani dropped a comment saying that he would answer questions. Here’s your chance: some proof of identity is necessary to make answers credible.

  1. How many ISIS prisoners have been released just once, let alone twice?
  2. Did ISIS know Omar’s identity and previous activities? When he was initially captured? If not, did they learn during his period of captivity (perhaps through torture)? Was he questioned about his activities in Syria? What identification did he have in his possession?
  3. Is it really credible to believe that ISIS did not know his identity and activities, or would release him before they did? After all, al Khani was an extremely well-known and connected (not to say self-promoting) presence in Syrian opposition circles, and on social media in particular: Google searches turn up considerable information about him. (We know of ISIS’s intense interest in exploiting social media.) As a photographer he spent considerable time in Syria. Surely he attracted attention. He was not just some guy.
  4. ISIS is notorious for the ferocity with which it deals with any other group in Syria, be they secular (by Syrian standards) oppositionists, rival Salafist groups, or the Muslim Brotherhood. They are noted for takfir. They are also notoriously paranoid, and al Khani’s activities were certain to excite that paranoia. How was al Khani able to persuade them, not once, but twice, that he was not a spy, or a threat, or merely an apostate?
  5. During his work in Syria, did al Khani have any dealings with ISIS? With whom? What was the nature of these dealings?
  6. Who funded al Khani’s operations in Syria 2011-2013? He made an allusion to assistance from individual members of the Muslim Brotherhood but seemed at pains to deny an MB connection. He also referred to help from Turkey. Was ISIS interested in how he was funded?
  7. Were there other prisoners that were held with al Khani who were (a) released, and (b) could corroborate his story?
  8. The various articles (other than the AP) state he was held two months on each occasion. Yet he had Facebook posts less than one month after his capture in August of 2013. The AP article says he was held “about 20 days.” What explains the discrepancies?
  9. In some versions of the story, al Khani says he does not know why Mueller did not follow their pre-arranged plan to claim she was his wife. In another version, he says she denied she was his wife in order to save him. Why the different versions?
  10. Why would it have made a difference if they were married, or just engaged? If she wasn’t Muslim, wouldn’t claiming that he was married to her have put Omar into jeopardy with ISIS? Or had she converted?
  11. Omar claims that Kayla Mueller was the love of his life. But he alluded to her only once on Facebook prior to his recent statement, even though he was actively posting about his photographs and his film. Why the silence? Did he make any statements about her at his public appearances? Was he continuing to attempt to secure her release? What was he doing?
  12. In the recent articles, al Khani claims that he believed that it was too dangerous for Mueller to go to Syria but that she persisted and he relented. The most obvious inference to draw from these accounts is that she had not been to Syria before. But she had posted two photographs from “Souria” on Facebook. How can this discrepancy be explained?
  13. The various articles contain chronologies of Omar’s life from 2010-2014 that are not consistent. Exactly when did he go to Sudan? When did he leave Sudan for Cairo? Where did he go when after leaving Cairo? Where/when was he with Mueller? Did he participate in, organize, or assist in the Tahrir Square protests?
  14. Why would he, of all people, be recruited to fix an internet connection in Aleppo? Aleppo was one of the most dangerous cities on earth at the time. Why would someone run such a huge risk to perform such a trivial task? Why would someone endanger their girlfriend in the bargain? Or was there another reason to go to Aleppo?
  15. Is al Khani in discussions with anyone for a book or movie deal?
  16. Ruth Sherlock of the Telegraph says she knew Kayla Mueller. Moreover, she quoted Omar frequently.  Does she know his real name? Why conceal it? Rebel groups must know. Did she attempt to verify any of his claims, about the periods of captivity, the attempted rescue, or his biography more generally? Sherlock included al Khani in a book, which she states is “a collaboration with a BBC journo & a theatre director for a play. Not all is literal.” Is there anything in the book about al Khani that is fictionalized (i.e., not “literal”)? If so, what? Is it really a good idea for a journalist to include people she interviewed frequently in a semi-fictional book?

Like a say, just a start. But it’s necessary to start somewhere.

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February 16, 2015

ISIS’s Eschatology Is Its Greatest Vulnerability, Not a Reason to Shrink From Confronting It

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 11:09 pm

I am a distant relative of William Tecumseh Sherman: we share a common ancestor (a Puritan who settled in Connecticut n the 1630s). I like to think that my red beard and slightly crazed look is a reflection of that genetic connection. Be that as it may, I do share something of a philosophic affinity for him. Ruthlessly practical and unromantic (even though he lived in a decidedly Romantic era). Nothing demonstrated this better than his views on war, including in particular this quote:

War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen, and I say let us give them all they want.

@libertylynx reminded me of this quote when she was debating a wannabe wonk on Twitter. Said wonk claimed that ISIS should not be confronted militarily, because that is what they want. He therefore condemned the Egyptian bombing raids on ISIS in response to its latest atrocity, the slaughter of 21 innocent Copts for the crime of being Christian “crusaders.” (Copts have been in the Middle East since hundreds of years before Mohammed. Just who are the invading holy warriors here? Continuing its craven refusal to acknowledge the reality of ISIS’s religiously inspired rampage, the White House condemned the murder of “21 Egyptian citizens.” The words “Copt” and “Christian” were absent.)

It is becoming a idée fixe on the Left that confronting ISIS militarily is futile. There will be civilian casualties! Yes, those are inevitable: but how many civilian casualties will there be while such monsters are on the loose? Attacking them will rally recruits to their standard! Apparently the killing ISIS fighters is akin to sowing dragon’s teeth: it will just make more enemies. So we might as well just give up, until their blood lust is sated. Or something.

This meme reached the levels of absurdity in the hands of State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, who apparently strives daily to make a box of rocks look like John von Neumann by comparison to her, and largely succeeds in her mission:

HARF: We’re killing a lot of them and we’re going to keep killing more of them. So are the Egyptians, so are the Jordanians. They’re in this fight with us. But we cannot win this war by killing them. We cannot kill our way out of this war. We need in the medium to longer term to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups, whether it’s lack of opportunity for jobs, whether —

MATTHEWS: We’re not going to be able to stop that in our lifetime or fifty lifetimes. There’s always going to be poor people. There’s always going to be poor muslims, and as long as there are poor Muslims, the trumpet’s blowing and they’ll join. We can’t stop that, can we?

HARF: We can work with countries around the world to help improve their governance. We can help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people…

Memo to Marie: when Chris Matthews makes a lot more sense than you do, it’s time to give up.

And yeah. It’s all about jobs and governance.

It’s not really, as this excellent article from the Atlantic demonstrates. ISIS is not of this age, or even of this world. Materialistic concerns projected by western leftists are completely irrelevant to it. Obama’s and other western leaders’ denials to the contrary, it is a fanatical religious movement imbued with a fervor totally alien to comfortable western minds, and progressive minds in particular, who believe that such forces were left behind several turns of the dialectical wheel ago.

In particular, as the Atlantic piece brings out, ISIS has an apocalyptic vision, and crucially, its adherents fervently believe in an imminent eschatology, culminating in a climactic battle against the “Romans” on the Plains of Dabiq in Syria. (Note that the latest ISIS snuff film documenting the beheading of the innocent Copts included a warning that they were coming to Rome.)

So yes, they want a battle. In the worst way.

So why not give it to them? Now usually, one tries to avoid doing what the enemy wants. But when the enemy’s firmest desire is based on delusion, that rule no longer applies. ISIS has no real conception of how militarily mismatched it is. Yes, Kobane gave them something of an inkling, but even there the US deployed and displayed only a fraction its capabilities. Nothing like an Arc Light raid of the Vietnam War, or the kind of power unleashed in Desert Storm.

This does not mean rushing in to fight on their terms. It means forcing or maneuvering them into a position where they have to stand and fight in a way that makes them vulnerable to a pounding. To use their eagerness to fight a climactic battle to lure them into a fight they cannot win.

The closest historical analog to ISIS is the Mahdist War of 1881-1899. This conflict culminated in the Battle of Omdurman, in which a massive Islamist army was lured into attacking a much smaller British-Egyptian army equipped with the latest in small arms, machine guns, and artillery, which resulted in the Mahdists’ utter destruction: they lost over 50 percent casualties. The very fanaticism that had carried the Mahdists to victory after victory was the cause of their utter ruin. That could be a model for the war on ISIS.

We only defeated the fanatical Japanese and the fanatical Nazis in WWII by killing them in vast numbers. That is the only way to defeat the current breed of fanatic. And fortunately, ISIS is neither so numerous, nor militarily capable, as either such foe, and current American capability makes the forces of the 1940s look like toys by comparison.

So rather than being a reason to shrink from fighting it, ISIS’s eschatological vision and mad thirst for battle against the New Romans is its greatest vulnerability. The smart thing for them to do would be hit and run: but we can use their fanaticism to get them to stand and fight. American strategy should be focused on making their dearest wishes come true. As Sherman said, War is the remedy ISIS has chosen, and I say let us give them all they want, but on our terms, exploiting our advantages.

ISIS needs to be introduced to the America of Billy Sherman and Andy Jackson. But we have Barry Obama.

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February 15, 2015

Who Is Kayla Mueller’s Boyfriend, Omar Al Khani?

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 5:41 pm

Last week the Arizona Republic released a story detailing the fate of Kayla Mueller, an ISIS prisoner whose death was announced a few days earlier. The most novel part of the story (and the reasons for my choice that word will become evident shortly) is that her Syrian boyfriend, who had been abducted with her in Aleppo on 4 August, 2013 before being released, attempted to secure her freedom by returning to an ISIS camp and pretending to be her husband. The ruse was uncovered, and she was not liberated. The boyfriend was detained for a time, before being released again.

The Republic withheld the boyfriend’s name:

The Arizona Republic is withholding the name of Mueller’s boyfriend out of caution for his safety. At least one friend says the name is an identity he assumed to lessen the risk of reporting in Syria.

This is rather odd, because said boyfriend was quite voluble in an interview with the Daily Mail. He goes by the pseudonym Omar Alkhani (or al Khani). And he tells a rather dramatic story:

It was the moment Omar Alkhani believed he was about to secure the release of his girlfriend, the last American hostage held by Islamic State.

Kayla Mueller stood before him in her dimly lit cell dressed in a traditional long black abaya cloak, her face covered.

At great personal risk, Omar had ventured into the heart of the terror group’s power base in Syria to try to bring her home.

Naively, perhaps, he was convinced that all Kayla had to do was confirm their cover story that they were man and wife to the IS ‘judge’ standing between them.

He spent two months there before being freed.

In the five months after his release, Western hostages including Britons David Haines, 44, and Alan Henning, 47, would become victims of the British executioner known as Jihadi John, whose voice Omar heard every morning interrogating Western prisoners.

Speaking for the first time about his four-year relationship with Kayla, 26, and the events that led to her capture and his own incarceration, Omar told MailOnline and the Mail on Sunday: ‘To this day I don’t know why she didn’t go along with the story.

‘Because I am Syrian and not a spy, and she was my wife, they would have let her go. I came to get Kayla out but that was the last time I saw her.’ 

He added: ‘She once asked how much I loved her and I said that I would risk my life for her. And I did. I tried for her. She was the most beautiful thing that happened to my life. We were planning our future together.’

Quite dramatic, no? Quite romantic, no? Quite touching, no?

Adding to all this is his farewell Facebook post to her.

Dear Kayla…
I’m not writing her to say goodbye, this is a thank you. Thank you for coming into my life and giving me joy, thank you for loving me and receiving my love in return.
You were everything I wanted. You were so beautiful and charming, and you supported me in everything I did, even if it was extremely stupid.
You came into my dream nights ago, with that charming smile, All l remember from the dream is a feeling of peace. l woke up with that feeling , and tried to keep it in my mind as long as l could. l’m writing to tell you l’m sorry about so many things. I’m sorry l didn’t ‘t take better care of you , ”I’m sorry I didn’t try harder to find the words , to tell you what I was feeling. And how much I loved you.
I’m sorry for all our nonsense fight and argue we ever had before , I just wanted to love you for ever , I’m sorry I didn’t hold on to you with so much strength. That even God couldn’t take you away. ”
Koki habibi
You Left our world for a bigger and better place now . . .
You were the shining light that gets me through my darkest hours, you were the most beautiful thing that happened to me once, and you ll always be…
Always & Forever. . .

For all of this, we have the uncorroborated word of al Khani. Period. Color me skeptical.

Why? For one thing, how many people does ISIS release not once, but twice? And it’s not as if al Khani was some random Syrian guy who was getting it on with a kafir (which is not exactly something that ISIS condones). As I will detail below, he was a very well-known Syrian in opposiiton circles. Further, I have not been able to find any statement by ISIS hostages that were ransomed, and who gave interviews about hostages including Sotloff, Foley, and Mueller, mention al Khani, who claims he was held in the same place at the same time.

For another, despite his expression of undying love last week, he said precious little about her on Facebook while she was in ISIS’s hands. His Facebook page is replete with images from Syria and Istanbul taken as a Reuters photographer, mentions of publication of his photos in Vanity Fair, and touts of his film. He does have one post that alludes to her on 21 September, 2013, about 3 weeks after he posted a statement that he had been released from ISIS captivity. (Since he had been captured on 3 or 4 August, the Daily Mail claim that he had been imprisoned for 2 months is obviously wrong.) Then nothing. He says nothing about her after his purported rescue effort in November, 2013-January, 2014. This hardly screams undying love.

(It is also somewhat odd that the story of this trip is treated now as a revelation, as it was reported in the region at the time-again based on what al Khani said.)

Something also doesn’t ring true about his account of how he met Mueller. He claims she answered an ad for a roommate in Cairo, where he’d moved after spending several years in Sudan working as “events marketing” executive, and where she’d traveled on a short vacation. (Who knew there was a market for event planning in Sudan?) The Sudan connection jumps out, because at home in Arizona Mueller had been actively engaged in Darfur-related protests. Maybe the story in the Mail is accurate, but it is also plausible that they had been in contact online regarding Sudan before, and that’s why she went to visit him in Cairo.

Al Khani was in Cairo when the Arab Spring broke out. Soon the ferment spread to Syria, and he went back there to participate in the anti-Assad movement. He soon became a “coordinator” of a “Facebook battalion of revolutionaries” that facilitated communications among anti-Assad forces. He claims the title of “Secretary General of the Syrian Revolution Coordinators.” Before long, he was a go-to guy for western media, being quoted about Syrian events in the Telegraph, Financial Times, Die Welt, Public Radio International, and other publications. He also worked as a photographer for Reuters, and his photos were run by Vanity Fair, AFP, and other media. He was regularly traveling to rebel-held areas of Syria as a photographer.

Most bizarrely, he wrote a profile of ISIS leader Al Baghdadi while Kayla Mueller was in ISIS captivity. (The article was originally written by al Khani, and Maya Gebeily, but their names were not on the byline of the piece as it ran in Newsweek. Another odd thing.)

In other words, al Khani was pretty much a celebrity in Syrian revolutionary circles, with considerable familiarity with ISIS. It is almost inconceivable that ISIS did not know who he was. But in the Daily Mail interview he presents himself as just some Syrian guy, and plays down his activism: indeed, that isn’t mentioned at all. Why so shy all of a sudden about describing his work? He was General Secretary, after all, and had been quite assiduous in promoting his role as an activist in print and film. Now all of a sudden he hides his light under a bushel basket.

And of course Syrian revolutionary circles are rife with Islamists of all stripes, from the Muslim Brotherhood to numerous varieties of Salafists. Al Khani navigated in those circles for years. He did not mention much about religion from what I’ve seen, though an acknowledgement of receiving funds from Muslim Brotherhood members and  an expression of gratitude to people in Turkey for help are tantalizing clues.

That all raises questions about his relationship with ISIS, and their treatment of him. He obviously had deep connections in the Syrian opposition. That had to have mattered.

Again, his word is the sole basis for reports that ISIS held him captive and tortured him, and then freed him. Twice. Maybe it happened, but maybe it didn’t.

The story of the reason for his fateful trip with Mueller in August, 2013 also strains credulity. He supposedly made the trip to one of the most dangerous cities on earth to fix the wifi at the Medicins Sans Frontiers office in Aleppo. Events marketing executive, photographer, activist, filmmaker, and . . . wifi repairman? Quite the Renaissance Man.

The Daily Mail story also suggests that Mueller insisted that al Khani take her to Syria with him on this trip, and insinuates she hadn’t been there before. But she posted pictures from “Souria” (a tell that she had been radicalized) she had taken earlier, so why the suggestion that she had to pester al Khani to take her along?

Finally, I don’t find the story of Mueller ruining her chance at freedom by refusing to acknowledge that she was his wife to be credible. Stockholm Syndrome? Maybe. But it sounds like a convenient tale to explain why he could not bring her out. Again, we have only his word that he tried.

I can’t but conclude that there is much more to the story of Omar al Khani that what is being breathlessly repeated today. There are many loose ends, which no one wants to pull, apparently being content with the romantic tale of tragic love. Many questions, but nobody is asking him to answer them. His story is being taken as gospel.

What makes this particularly infuriating is that despite the fact that al Khani was widely known among western media for his activism, this is not being mentioned at all today. It appears that even the media that used him as a source on the revolutionary movement is conspiring to support the tragic love narrative.

Finally, this all sheds some light on Kayla Mueller. She cannot have been unaware of al Khani’s opposition activities. Her biography suggests that those activities would have been a great attraction to her. Her short video (linked in the Daily Mail story) expresses solidarity with the struggle of the Syrian people, and that is a piece with her involvement with the International Solidarity Movement which unabashedly supports the Palestinian “struggle” against Israel: Rachel Corrie was an earlier American in ISM, and Mueller seems to have much in common with Corrie. And like Corrie, she put herself in harms way in connection with an opposition movement. And like Corrie, she paid for this with her life.

On one level, this was Kayla Mueller’s decision. She ran the risk, she paid the price. You can admire her or question her as you will. But there are broader issues involved. Policy issues.

What got me chasing this rabbit was a story in the Washington Post describing the extreme risks the US ran to mount a rescue raid for Mueller and the other hostages. This means that the decisions of people like Mueller and Foley and Sotloff did not just affect them. They put other Americans at mortal risk. They also put the lives of Syrians (whom they professed to want to help) at risk. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries or fatalities in the US special operations direct action to attempt to release them. But that wasn’t inevitable. It was training, planning, skill, and luck.  Sometimes bad luck can undo the best training, planning and skill in the world.

Given the pronounced narcissism and romanticism that characterizes all of those Americans who have been kidnapped and killed by ISIS, I wonder about the prudence of a policy that risks American soldiers, sailors, and airmen to rescue the reckless. People should be on warning: swim at your own risk. No lifeguard on duty. If you want to engage in entrepreneurial activism in very dangerous places, without the official sanction of the US government or any credible NGO, more power to you, but you are on your own. Risking lives to rescue American military captives, or those seized while engaged in official aid missions, is one thing. Risking lives to retrieve romantic free-lancers (including love struck ones who may have fallen in with the company of questionable characters) is something else altogether.

Note: h/t to @libertylynx for all of the links and research.

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As An Oil Analyst, Mullet Man Igor Sechin Makes a Better KGB Agent

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 11:10 am

Igor Sechin, he of the ape drape, has taken to the pages of the Financial Times to diagnose the causes of the recent collapse in oil prices. I am sure you will be  shocked to learn that it is those damned speculators:

In today’s distorted oil markets, prices do not reflect reality. They are driven instead by financial speculation, which outweighs the real-life factors of supply and demand. Financial markets tend to produce economic bubbles, and those bubbles tend to burst. Remember the dotcom bust and the subprime mortgage crisis? Furthermore, they are prone to manipulation. We have not forgotten the rigging of the Libor interest rate benchmark and the gold price.

. . . .

Financial bubbles, market manipulations, excessive regulation, regional disparities — so grotesque are these distortions that you might question whether there is any such thing as an oil “market” at all. There is the semblance of a market: buyers and sellers and prices. But they are performing a charade.

What is to be done? First, financial players should no longer be allowed to have such a big influence on the price of oil. In the US, Senators Carl Levin and John McCain have called for steps to prevent price manipulation, though whether they will be implemented, and when, remains an open question.

In any case, the authorities should go further, ensuring that at least 10 or 15 per cent of oil trades involve actually delivering some physical oil. At present almost all “oil trades” are conducted by financial traders, who exchange nothing but electronic tokens or pieces of paper.

No, condemnations of speculation are not the last refuge of scoundrels attempting to assign blame for sharp movements in commodity prices: they are the first and only refuge. Prices going up? Speculators! Prices going down? Speculators! Poor, poor little companies like doughty Rosneft and even international cartels like OPEC are mere straws at the tossed before the speculative gales.

Sechin’s broadside is refreshingly untainted by anything resembling actual evidence. The closest he comes is to invoke long run considerations, relating to the costs of drilling new wells. But supply and demand are both very inelastic in the short run, meaning that even modest demand or supply shocks can have large price impacts that cause prices to deviate substantially from long run equilibrium values driven by long run average costs.

It is also hard to discern a credible mechanism whereby diffuse and numerous financial speculators could cause prices to be artificially low for a considerable period of time. (It is straightforward to construct models of how a local market can be manipulated downwards, but these are implausible for a global market. Moreover as I showed years ago, markets that are vulnerable to upward manipulation by longs are relatively invulnerable to downward manipulation by shorts.)

And the empirical implications of any such artificiality are sharply inconsistent with what we observe now. Artificially low prices would induce excessive consumption, which would in turn result in a drawdown in inventories. This is the exact opposite of what we see now. Inventories are growing rapidly in the US in particular (where we have the best data). There are projections that Cushing storage capacity will be filled by May. Internationally, traders are leasing supertankers to store oil. These are classic effects of demand declines or supply increases or both that are expected to be transient.

Insofar as requiring some percentage of oil contracts (by which I presume he means futures and swaps) be satisfied by delivery, the mere threat of delivery ties futures prices to physical market fundamentals at contract expiration. What’s more, the fact that paper traders are largely out of the market when contracts go spot means that they cannot directly affect the supply or demand for the physical commodity.

Sechin’s FT piece is based on a presentation he gave at International Petroleum Week. Rosneft thoughtfully, though rather stupidly given the content, posted Sechin’s remarks and slides on its website. It makes for some rather amusing reading. Apparently shale oil companies are like dotcoms, and shale oil was a bubble. According to Igor, US shale producers are overvalued. His evidence? A comparison of EOG and Hess to Lukoil. The market cap of the EOG is substantially higher than Lukoil’s, despite its lower reserves and production, and lack of refining operations. Therefore: Bubble! Overvaluation!

Gee, I wonder if the fact that Lukoil is a Russian company, and that Russian company valuations are substantially below those of international competitors, regardless of the industry, has anything to do with it? In fact, it has everything to do with it. Sechin’s comparison of a US company with a Russian one points out vividly the baleful consequences of Russia’s lawless business climate. It’s not that EOG and other shale producers are bubbles: it’s that Lukoil (and other Russian companies) are black holes.  (It was the very fact that Russia’s lack of property rights, the rule of law, and other institutional supports of a market economy that got me interested in looking at the country in detail in the first place almost a decade ago.)

I was also amused by Sechin’s ringing call for greater transparency in the energy industry. This coming from the CEO of one of the most opaque companies in the most opaque countries in the world.

Reading anything by Sechin purporting to be an objective analysis of markets or market conditions is always good for a chuckle. His FT oped and IPW remarks are no exception. As a market analyst, he makes a better KGB operative. Enjoy!

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February 12, 2015

Merkel and Hollande: Insane. Putin: Very Sane. Poroshenko: Sane and Screwed.

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 9:39 pm

Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

By that definition, there were two insane participants in the “negotiations”over the war in Ukraine held in Minsk, and two sane ones.

The insane ones were the Euro “leaders”, Merkel and Hollande. They went to Minsk to negotiate a new deal with the man who flagrant violated the last deal then lied shamelessly about it, apparently in the hope that he’ll adhere to a new deal. Only the insane would expect that.

The man on the other side of the round table, Putin, is clearly not insane. He did the same thing as he did last time, but very much expected the same result. And he got it. That’s not quite true: he got a better deal this time.

Ukrainian president Poroshenko clearly went into the meetings with no illusions. He could see that Putin was implacable, and that his erstwhile benefactors were intent on playing the roles of Chamberlain and Daladier in a reprise of Munich!, and that he was cast in the role of Eduard Benes, watching his capitulation being negotiated over his head.  He gamely dragged things out, but in reality it was three against one, and that one was in dire straits with a crumbling economy and a desperate military situation. He did the same thing he did in September, out of necessity, but I am sure he expects the same outcome.

The cease fire does not begin until Sunday, and therefore it is inevitable that there will be a flurry of fighting in the next days, especially around Debaltselvo. Putin made it plain today that he expects the 8000 or so Ukrainian soldiers in the pocket to surrender. The implicit threat is that they will be crushed if they do not.

Even if a cease fire takes hold after Sunday, it will not last. Putin has learned that violations have no adverse consequence, and that after some interval the fighting will start again and he will take another slice of Ukraine. And Merkel and Hollande will harrumph and express grave concern but when push comes to shove they will scurry back to Minsk to do it all over again. Insane.

Wash, rinse, repeat. The low, dishonest decade grinds on.

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February 10, 2015

A Whole Lot of Shaping Going On

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:52 pm

The shaping of the battlefield in northern Iraq that I have discussed over the past several months continues. Most notably, the peshmerga are moving to isolate Mosul:

U.S. and allied warplanes conducted airstrikes in support of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Iraq who retook main routes into Mosul from Islamic State forces, officials with the international coalition said Monday.

Coalition officials said the Peshmerga forces seized three strategic corridors that defense officials called bridgeheads north of Mosul along the Tigris River in territory formerly controlled by extremist forces with Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and its Arabic acronym Daesh, military officials said.

This puts them in position to cut off the roads connecting Mosul to Syria.

ISIS is clearly transitioning from an offensive posture to a defensive one. It has vacated Kobane, and is retreating from the surrounding villages as the Syrian Kurds advance. It has withdrawn from its more distant outputs east of Aleppo. It is digging a trench line surrounding Mosul, though it is unlikely that it has the manpower to fill all of it, which makes it rather useless in the face of an enemy that can see every unmanned section. It has undertaken some offensive operations, in Anbar and Kirkuk, but these seem to be spoiling attacks meant to prevent the peshmerga and the Iraqi army from concentrating. In Kirkuk in particular, it was pounded hard from the air when it came out to play. They had bee able to make some progress when attacking in a fog, but when that cleared they were hammered.

This is their fundamental problem. They cannot maneuver. They would have been similarly vulnerable last summer, but that opportunity passed.

The Kurds are anxious to increase the pace, but the US is counseling patience while elements of the Iraqi army are trained up enough to undertake offensive operations. While that happens, I would anticipate further local attacks by the peshmerga in the north, the cumulative effect of which will be to cut off Mosul from supply and reinforcement. After that, a grind it out battle in the city, most likely. The gradient is apparent, but it is not steep.

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