Monday, May 17, 2004

Pell Grants for Kids?

Today at the New America Foundation, Senator Lamar! Alexander launched his “Pell Grants for Kids” proposal. As its name reveals, the program would be modeled on the successful Pell Grant program for college students, that is, federal dollars that follow middle and low income college students to the institutions of their choice.

Now Senator Alexander wants to create a similar program that would give low and middle income parents of school aged children a $500 a year scholarship that would follow the student to the learning institution of their choice. According the Senator’s plan, the $500 could be used within the public school system — for example to pay for more teachers and facilities to meet the specific needs of each school. The money could also be diverted outside the public school system to help parents offset the cost of private schools or private tutors, or other external educational institutions.

While I am naturally sympathetic to the idea of school choice, as a thought experiment, I tried to predict the effect of such a program on my home town of Brookfield, CT.

Each year, the residents of Brookfield (approx population 14,000) vote on the school budget, and just about every year, the elderly and conservative anti-tax residents of Brookfield defeat the first or second drafts of the budget. Once the budget is low enough (and once enough parents of school aged kids actually go out and vote themselves) a substantially lower version of the school budget will finally get the towns approval.

Should Pell Grants for Kids dollars be thrown into the mix, I can foresee a situation in which the town’s budget planer significantly overestimates—on purpose or not—the amount of Pell Grant for Kids dollars that remain the school system, and therefore drafts an unusually low school budget. If the towns voting pattern follows a similar trajectory as it has in the past, even that unusually low budget will fail so the school budget will be slashed even further. One can imagine a mindset among the Board of Selectmen who write the town’s budget that the (now tiny) school budget is not really a cause of concern because the federal government will pick up a large portion of the tab through Senator Alexander’s Pell Grants for Kids program. An enormous problem, however, would arise, if parents in a large enough number decide to use their Pell dollars outside the Brookfield public school system. The school would be starved even further of the dollars that in needs to function and the whole town could go belly-up.

Again, I am generally sympathetic to school choice, and I don’t have super-huge qualms about federal dollars going to parochial schools, but surely it can be done in such a way that doesn’t starve already famished public schools.


Monday, May 10, 2004

Why the Chalabi-azation of the Iraq Special Court dooms it to failure.

The Iraqi Special Tribunal that will prosecute former Ba’athist officials responsible for the worst human rights abuses of the Saddam era has great potential to offer to Iraqis one final convincing justification for the continued American presence in Iraq. The prosecution of Saddam and his hatchet-men will publicly expose the brutality and corruption of the former regime in a way that juxtaposes the rule of law against the arbitrary thuggery of a dictatorship. Furthermore, the court provides the United States with an unprecedented opportunity to retroactively justify its pre-emptive war in a manner that might restore at least some of America’s lost credibility throughout the Muslim world.

Yet since the Court’s inception, the Bush administration has steadily chipped away at its ability to succeed. From rejecting international expertise on war crimes prosecutions to refusing some European funding for the Court, the Bush administration is eroding the court’s potential to restore a legal order that will ease Iraq’s transition to democracy. The appointment of Salem Chalabi as the Court’s Director General is the final blow that will taint the court to its core.

This stunningly bad choice that exposes either, A) a dangerous degree of ineptitude on the part of the Bush administration or B) a fear held by many in the administration that the court will bring out certain embarrassing (or criminal) liaisons in the 1980’s. Either way, the Pentagon’s selection of Salem to lead the court is a quintessential example of the Bush administration’s myopic Iraq planning in which larger American interests are sold out to guarantee the welfare of a few. The Chalibization of the court will undermine its success, betray America’s longer interests in the region, and prove a big PR disaster for America. Consider the following examples:

1) He is his uncle’s nephew— the kangaroo court potential.

As Ahmed Chalabi’s relation, there is the very real possibility that court will be used to blackmail, or even prosecute, potential political rivals of the Chalabi clan. It must be noted that Salem has already appointed seven judges and four prosecutors who will try cases before the court. If past behavior provides any indication as to how Ahmed might behave when he has a modicum of political leverage, one can imagine a pattern in which Ahmed or his stooges systematically provide false documents or testimony to the court. Not surprisingly, the restricted international presence that was built into the Tribunal’s statute ensures that any procedural oversight or accountability is severely limited.

2) Feith has what amounts to the opposite of Midas’ touch.

As if being his uncle’s nephew wasn’t enough to diminish his credibility in the eyes of many Iraqis, Salem has his own personal ties to the Pentagon’s neocon cadre. Salem is the head of an Iraqi consulting firm whose director of international marketing—the Jerusalem based Marc Zell—was Feith’s former business partner at a corporate law firm called Feith & Zell. Not surprisingly, Zell is now a senior partner in a DC law firm that specializes in Iraq contracts. When a country’s chief judge and prosecutor is also a leading international business consultant, one can imagine countless possibilities for conflicts of interest. Whether founded or not, the mere appearance of impropriety that will necessarily follow will turn Iraqis away from the court.

3) He would be seen as an additional viceroy in Iraq’s Symbolic Sovereignty.

Salem Chalabi’s directorship of the Special Tribunal is almost certain to ensure that the court will become subsumed into the post June 30th popular narrative that Iraq’s public institutions are only symbolically sovereign. With Chalabi at the helm, the media in Iraq now have a legitimate reason to focus its attention on undue American influence over the process, rather than on the proceedings themselves. Chalabi’s presence will irrevocably undermine the court’s ability to restore the rule of law to Iraq.


Of course, this is probably what Ahmed’s backers at the Pentagon thought would happen. Salem would guide the court away from Regan and Bush era misdeeds, while providing great fodder for American media in the ensuing trials. The prosecution of Saddam has great potential to bring a tyrant to justice and restore some of America’s lost credibility — it’s too bad we are going to screw it up.


Thursday, May 06, 2004

The Duck Test

If it swims like a duck, flies like a duck, and quacks like a duck, than it’s probably a duck. Right? Well apparently not to Donald (the duck?) Rumsfeld.

Consider this particular exercise in denial, lifted straight from the jackass’ mouth by Josh Marshall:

DON RUMSFELD: "I think that -- I'm not a lawyer. My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture. I don't know if it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there's been a conviction for torture. And therefore I'm not going to address the torture word."

Now, if you have time, read the infamous Taguba Report, a highlight of which includes prison guards breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees.

A War Crime is a War Crime is a War Crime

Last summer, I worked at the War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague, the Netherlands. Working for the team of prosecutors trying Milosevic, my job was to summarize witness statements and depositions from the victims of torture and abuse in Milosevic’s prison camps in northeastern Bosnia. Those lucky enough to survive these camps told stories of the most horrific kind. In one prison camp alone, I read nearly a dozen accounts of men stripped naked and forced to sodomize each other, women gang raped, and routine beatings with a lead pipe by a cadre of particularly masochistic prison guards.

It was therefore with no surprise that I experienced a profoundly disturbing moment of déjà vu when the images of abuse and torture emanating from Abu Ghraib prison creeped into my living room. The details of physical and sexual abuse that have since been expressed by the prison’s victims could have been verbatim accounts of the horrors experienced by the Bosnian Muslim men and women illegally detained in some of Milosevic’s prisons. The stories are the same, but characters different.

But how could our fellow Americans apparently devolve into such masochistic beasts? There is no easy answer to this, but Anne Applebaum in yesterday’s Washington Post offers the best attempt to date that I have seen. Applebaum, who just won a Pulitzer Prize in general non-fiction for her book on the Soviet gulag system, knows a bit about prison torture. Essential to her argument, and I believe central to any attempt to make some sense over what happened at Abu Ghraib, is the understanding that being American does not offer some sort of immunity from what are fundamentally human flaws that enable us to descend into such cruel behavior.


Monday, May 03, 2004

The Humanist

An absolutely brilliant essay has been posted on the website of the Humanist magazine. The article, about international humanitarian law and the prosecution of war criminals, happened to win first place in the Humanist's annual essay contest. The Gospel will take suggestions as to what to do with the prize money. Please visit the article, and post your comments below.

The Gospel must warn readers however, that there is a rather bizarre series of articles in the same magazine about something called transhumanism, which as far as I can tell is a philosophy arrived upon through overly enthusiastic interpretations of Star Trek.


Sunday, May 02, 2004

Healthy Debate

Cindy Zeldin, the health policy program associate and all around health policy guru at the New America Foundation has launched a new blog, aptly titled "Healthy Debate." This is sure to be a valuable resource for all things related to health policy. The funny thing about Ms Zeldin is that, in more ways than one, she can be considered a subscriber to New America's health care plan.


Thursday, April 29, 2004

Check out the debate I have sparked!

A firery debate over my previous post on Waco and Najaf is underway in the comments section on Matthew Yglesias's sight. I shall try to answer some of these questions later in the day. For now, I just want to point out that yes, the political context of both situations are vastly different. My point, howeverm is that if nothing else, ending a conflict with an emabattled religious sect through violence can be avoided if the surrounding army understands the greater social forces that cause such a sect to want to separate itself from the rest of the world. Furthermore, in their respective standoffs, Sadr and Koresh were/are not being "instransigent." Rather, I would argue, that to them, their defiance is serving a grander metaphysical purpose.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Waco, Najaf, and how NOT to resolve a conflict with a highly armed Adventist religious sect.

In March and April of 1993, US federal law enforcement bungled their way into a standoff with David Koresh’s Branch Davidian religious community near Waco, Texas while trying to serve him a relatively inconsequential arrest warrant for some minor firearms violations. Over the course of a month, and after a series of failed attempts to reason with Koresh, the FBI became fed up with what they perceived as Koresh’s intransigence so they stormed the compound guns a-blazin’. When the dust settled, it was found that 80 people died in a mysterious inferno, many of them children.

The tragedy needn’t have occurred. FBI hostage negotiators operated under a typical maniac/hostage model and in the later days of the standoff, the FBI would simply cut off communications whenever Koresh started talking about the Seven Seals in the Book of Revelation. Federal agents were so caught up in their own misperceptions of Koresh and the Branch Davidians that they failed to understand that Koresh and his followers really did believe the “bible babble” that he was spouting.

In Najaf today, the US military has similarly stumbled into a standoff while trying to serve an arrest warrant. Moqtada al Sadr, leader of his own “Mahdi Army” militia, has been holed up in the holy city, almost taunting the US to enter. It would be a blunder of epic proportions however, if the US military ripped a page out of the Waco playbook and stormed the city.

To be sure Branch Davidians and Sadrists have substantive differences in their particular end of time beliefs. The former espoused your average chiliastic eschatology typical of many protestant Sabbatarian Adventist movements. (Translation: they believed in the imminent end of times, to be ushered in with a battle between the forces of the anti-Christ and the Godly forces of Jesus — and they followed the Jewish calendar.) For their part, the Sadrists have a complicated formation of the end of times that I understand less completely, but their use of the imagery of the “Army of Mahdi” gives some indication that they subscribe to a similar apocalyptic world-view. In standard Twelver Shia’ism the Mahdi is the mythical twelfth imam whose re-appearance will usher the end-of times.

In trying to resolve the standoff at Najaf however, it is less important for coalition negotiators to understand the substance of the Sadrist eschatology than it is to understand that like the Branch Davidians, Sadrists are most properly understood as a volatile religious sect, in the sociology of religions sense. The fact that they hold beliefs that are unconventional in the greater Shia milieu compounds with the high degree of discipline that is demanded of Moqtada’s followers to help Sadrists form a group identity that separates themselves from mainstream Iraqi Shia’ism. In other words, the Sadrist self-identity is formed only in opposition to the world at large.

This is typical sociology of religions stuff. However, as Waco taught us tragic consequences can result from improperly understanding the dynamics of a religious sect that perceives itself as an embattled group in extreme tension with a hostile outside world. Unfortunately, I am worried that American decision makers on the ground in Najaf and back home at the Pentagon are not skilled sociologists of religion so much as they are skilled military planners. I worry that like Waco, as the standoff continues the willingness to use force to resolve it will only increase.

If the American military decides to end the standoff unilaterally and raids Najaf, the lessons from Waco inform me of two likely outcomes. First, it will confirm the darkest fears of those Sadrists who believe that the end of the world is nigh — and there is no telling what kind of violence they will feel compelled to unleash. The Sadrists, however, are relatively small in number and could possibly be contained. The second, and most significant consequence of a raid would be the likely effect it had on Iraqi bystanders, a growing number of whom seem to be sympathetic to the idea of resistance. It is plausible to me that Iraqi bystanders would perceive a raid on the embattled cleric Moqtada as the embodiment of America’s nefarious intentions for Iraq as whole. Presumably, if the Americans are willing to enter one of Shia’isms most holy sites simply to arrest the leader of a movement whose religion seems odd and whose politics they oppose, there is no telling where the Americans will stop. Najaf today, Karbala tomorrow.

Should one think this second point is farfetched, I would point to the darkest legacy of the Waco fiasco: Timothy McVeigh. Two years to the day that federal law enforcement raided the Branch Davidian compound he parked a Ryder truck full of explosives outside the Murrah federal building for the stated purpose of avenging the needless deaths of an embattled religious community. I sincerely hope we don’t raid Najaf and create a thousand blooming McVeigh’s in the process.


Monday, April 26, 2004

Omar and Me

This fascinating NYT article about the growing appeal of militant Islam among today's Muslim youth in Western Europe deserves a great deal of attention. The author highlights the efforts of one Sheik Omar Bakri Muhammad, leader of the London based militant Islamic fundamentalist group al-Muhajiroun, to enlist young disaffected British Muslims to his cause. This latter point is worthy of its own post on the alienation of Muslim youth in Western Europe (I'll focus on the Netherlands)but for now I want to relay my short encounter with Bakri:

In the spring of 2002 (or 1423) * I had the dubious honor of meeting Mr Sheik Omar. At the time, I was studying new religious movements at the London School of Economics (under the wonderful Eileen Barker), and the Sociology of Religions department invited him, along with a host of other leaders of unconventional religious movements, to a panel discussion on religious recruiting on campuses in Britain. al Muhajiroun had become mired in some controversy about pressuring Muslim students to join their cause--that is, replacing Britain's parliamentary democracy with the rule of ulema and the imposition of sharia.

As it turned out, Bakri sat on a panel with the local head of the Nation of Islam and what ensued was pure and priceless madness. Barki, who was a remarkably eloquent speaker, was the first to take the stage. Within two minutes of speaking he challenged each and every person in the room to a theological debate. He dared anyone in the room that he could use ontological, teleological, transcendental, and cosmological proofs to show the existence of God. His demeanor suggested that anyone foolish enough to challenge him on these issues would note only suffer shameful embarrassment, but burn for it in eternity. Of course, for many in the audience (including yours truly) for whom metaphysics don't mean much, his menacing looking handlers gave the impression that they were ready to whop your ass in the here and now.

Next to take the stage was a timid looking representative from the Nation of Islam. I don't really remember quite what he said because I kept staring at the al-Muhajiroon crazies, trying to soak it all in, but immediately after the Nation of Islam guy left the stage Bakri stood up, grabbed the mike, and went on a 15 minute diatribe belittling the Nation of Islam and calling them the equivalent of apostates because they "believe in little green men and flying saucers." After he finished mocking the Nation, he turned his ire towards sufis and other so called "Muslims" who were not sufficiently devoted to his nuttiness.

* al Muhajiroun takes its name from al Muhajiroun--the group of particularly devoted emigres who traveled with Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD, the first year of the Muslim calendar.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Max Cleland for Veep?

Although I have not seen his name on any shortlists for the VP slot, the more I think about the prospect of a Cleland vice presidency, the more I become attracted to the idea. He seems to have a lot going for him: he is a southerner; his outspoken and direct rhetorical style might balance out Kerry's unfortunate affinity for circumlocution; and most importantly his one-limbed image on the news everyday would serve as a constant reminder that in this time of war, American's might be better off with an executive branch packed with war heroes than two chicken-hawks. Deeper still, a Cleland VP candidacy might cause the mainstream press to re-examine the ugly circumstances of his defeat in 2002.

One can imagine a narrative created in the mainstream press that goes something like, Cleland lost three limbs in Vietnam, Clelend returns from war, devotes his life to public service and gets elected to the senate. In a close race, Republican contender with Rove's backing questions Cleland's patriotism and juxtaposes his picture with OBL and Saddam in a slimy add. Cleland becomes an apocryphal example of the chicken-hawk's contempt for the real men and women sacrificing their lives and limbs overseas.

Lack of posts

I must apologize to my legions of fans for the lack of posts in the last couple of days. I'll try my best not to let it happen again. I was actually in NYC for Humanity in Action's Senior Fellows conference. The amazing Samantha Power and Daniel Goldhagen of Hitler's Willing Executioners fame addressed the conference attendees. They were both fantastic, and I must say that Power is one of my favorite public intellectuals around.


Thursday, April 15, 2004

Jew Watch

I don't know if many people have been following this story, but for the last few weeks, if one were to type the word "Jew" into google, the first link was an old-style run of the mill white-supremacist neo-Nazi website called "Jew watch." This ugly phenomenon was true as of yesterday afternoon, around 4, when I tested it out. I was alerted to this from an email petition that had been circulating the last couple of days to urge google from removing the site from the number one slot.

As of early this posting it would seem that the petition worked. Jew watch has been demoted to the number 2 slot, behind the online encyclopedia, wikipidia. Upon further inspection however, it seems as if an online activist group called "cyber squatters against hate" has hacked into the site. www.jewwatch.org now pays tribute to Gandhi and the anti defamation league.

I am deeply troubled by this, both as a Jew and as a researcher who depends on google to do his work. As a Jew, I am horrified that such hateful ideas exist and are so popular. As a researcher, however, I view the matrix that google employs to generate its rankings as essential to my work and a genuine benefit to humanity. I am deeply troubled by any attempts to influence google to change its ranking system, for I feel that the sanctity of the search engine should be guaranteed by principles of free speech. Google is more than just a search engine---by now, it is more like a public square. As odious as some of the content that searches might yield, we must remember that the ideal for which google stands-- unfettered and reliable search results based on a known and trusted formula--has become the newest manifestation of our longstanding principles guaranteeing freedom of speech.


Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Tools of the Trade

This interesting article in today's Wall Street Journal, aptly titled, "Crime Pays, Terrorists Find," illustrates the emerging phenomenon of Islamic terrorist groups funding themselves through the kind of ordinary criminal activity that is typical of organized crime. Apparently, ansar al Islam, the group that Spanish authorities now blame for the 3-11 attacks, funded its operations in Europe by selling forged travel documents to interested parties and by running a human smuggling ring. This provides further evidence of my ongoing thesis that Islamic terrorist groups are increasingly adopting traditional tools of organized criminal groups to support their terrorist activities.

From an operational perspective, traditional transnational organized criminal groups (like the Chinese triad, Russian Mob, and other ethnic or nationality based Mafia-style groups) and transnational Islamic terrorist groups like Al Qaeda are quite similar. Both exploit weaknesses in state power to their own criminal ends. Those ends, it must be stated, are vastly, wholly, and completely different. While Mafias are motivated to make a quick buck (and want to stay in business to make a few more) extreme Islamic terrorist groups have wholly political and religious ends and are not similarly motivated. The point I am trying to make is that while the two groups are vastly different, many of the tools that they use to advance own ends are strikingly similar.
People Smuggling

As I have already opined on the problem of fake travel documents, let me turn to the issue of the smuggling of human beings. After drugs and arms trafficking, people smuggling is the third most profitable criminal enterprise of transnational organized criminal groups. Not only do criminal organizations profit substantially from smuggling economic migrants across borders, but they use their underground networks to sneak their own criminal crew around the world.

Readers interested in learning more about the phenomenon of people smuggling, and what can be done about can click here for a public relations fact sheet i put together while working at INTERPOL.
For my readers out there who might have trouble with the english, here is an Arabic translation.

My 611 readers should expect a future entry on the nexis between intellectual property crime and terrorist financing.

Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and the need for strengthened international police cooperation (though INTERPOL)

Almihdhar and Alhazmzi have the dubious distinction of having both been under the watch of the CIA and killing dozens on people by flying a plane into the Pentagon. The 9-11 panel today highlighted this fact, which was compounded with the embarrassing public revelation that Almihdhar already had in his possession a B1 visa (that is, a regular tourist visa that enables multiple entries) by the time the CIA monitored him at a terrorist summit in Kuala Lampur in January 2000.

Needless to say, no border control agent stopped either Almihdhar or Alhazmzi when they entered the US. From a law enforcement perspective, the problem here is two fold: 1. No one stopped these two from entering the US, even though they were known threats. 2. No one arrested these people after they entered the US, even though they were known threats. Although these failures lead to such great tragedy in the US, it also highlights a greater imperative now facing law enforcement organizations throughout the world: To prevent criminals, known or wanted in other countries, from passing through state borders undetected.

Fortunately, there is an emerging solution to this problem. A new technology created by the International Criminal Police Organization--Interpol allows police from around the world to share criminal information on a real-time basis. As the only law enforcement organization with global reach, Interpol is quietly emerging as a valuable American ally in the world-wide struggle to dismantle transnational terrorist groups. In November 2003, Interpol announced that it will connect the New York Police Department to its new global database of criminal information, called I-24/7. Using this super-encrypted internet based database, law enforcement officials from around the world can relay data on all sorts of criminal activity — such as the trafficking of weapons and human beings and the counterfeiting of passports — to selected allies and colleagues in other countries on a real-time basis. Eventually, I-24/7 will be available to American law enforcement officials at borders and other points of entry. For this tool to be maximally effective however, the United States Government must also see to it that Interpol meets its goal of linking each of its 181 member states to I-24/7 by June 2004.

Through I-24/7, Interpol is creating a forum whereby police can instantaneously share emerging details of a criminal investigation with law enforcement officials around the world. The judicious use of Interpol’s criminal databases can keep national and municipal law enforcement organizations at pace with the ever-evolving modus operandi of transnational organized criminal groups. As more countries contribute to Interpol’s expanding databases, the amount of elucidative criminal information available to American law enforcement officials will increase exponentially.


Tuesday, April 13, 2004

International Arrest Warrants?

Not to beat a dead horse, but the same intriguing NYT article on the Madrid bombers mentions that Spain had issued international arrest warrants for six of the 3-11 bombers. I think that it is important to point out that, in fact, there is no such thing as an international arrest warrant. Rather, what the author was refering to were Interpol Red Notices. A Red Notice, while approximating an international arrest warrant, could more accurately be described as an international wanted persons notice. The two concepts can easily be confused, however, because many of Interpol's member countries consider a Red Notice a valid request for provisional arrest, especially when a country is linked to the requesting country via a bilateral extradition treaty or an extradition convention.

The legal basis for a Red Notice is an arrest warrant or court order issued by a member country of Interpol. If a country such as Spain wants to alert any of Interpol's 181 member countries that a fugitive for whom a Spanish magistrate has issued an arrest warrant is on the loose, Spanish authorities will contact Interpol. Lawyers at Interpol then judge the merits of the arrest warrant. Should they think that it was issued because of racial, religious, military, or overtly political reasons, Interpol will refuse the request (this prevents member countries such as Mugabe's Zimbabwe from abusing the system). Of course, the Spanish arrest warrants for the Madrid bombing suspects were clearly motivated by a legitimate need to apprehend dangerous criminals, and Interpol distributed the Red Notice to its member countries on April 4th.


Monday, April 12, 2004

Prediction from knowledgable source on this week's forthcomming 9-11 hearings

Steve Coll, author of the excellent new book Ghost Wars , which chronicles the secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to 9-10-2001, predicted to Peter Bergen's SAIS class today a likely line of questioning in this week's 9-11 panel hearings with Louis Freeh. According to Coll, when Freeh takes the hotseat later this week, we can expect that he will be asked by one of the Democratic commissioners to estimate number of agents that were assigned to investigate bin Laden and al Qaeda after the African Embassy attacks of 1998. Freeh, of course, will respond with a number somewhere in the low hundreds. As a follow-up, the commissioner will then ask "Eagle Scout Freeh" the number of agents that were assigned to the Lewinsky affair in the same time period, and his answer will range somewhere upwards of 500 agents.

Fake Belgian Passports

The same NYT article on the Madrid bombers reveals in passing an interesting detail. It seems that one of the conspirators who blew himself up was one Jamal Ahmidan, a 33 year old Moroccan drug dealer who traveled on a fake Belgian passport. This latter detail is rather significant: Fake Belgian passports have been a common criminal modus operandi for transnational criminals and terrorists for years.

In the mid 1990’s a most peculiar crime wave swept across Western Europe: Stacks of Belgian passports and visas that had yet-to-be issued or affixed with a photograph disappeared from Belgian embassies, consulates, and city halls at an alarming rate. Security at some of the municipal buildings in smaller cities was so lax that thieves were known to gobble down lunch—and leave their mess—while cracking the safes that held these so-called “blank” travel documents. In one robbery alone, thieves took nearly 3,000 blank passports from the municipal building of a small Flemmish border town.

Using simple printing equipment, criminals with an ounce of sophistication could create fraudulent passports that are virtually undetectable to border control agents. Though European law enforcement officials now believe that a criminal syndicate of Serbians living in Belgium were largely responsible for these thefts, through the nefarious dealings of the criminal underworld two of these stolen passports ended up in the hands of a pair of Tunisians citizens who had lived and studied in Brussels. Posing as journalists, these two traveled to London, then Pakistan, then to a remote Afghan mountain hideaway where they were to meet the famed Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. Shortly after the start of their “interview” they detonated a bomb hidden in their camera killing the legendary warrior. That was September 9t,h 2001 and investigators now believe that Bin Laden ordered the hit in anticipation of US-Northern Alliance collaboration in retaliation.

The point is NOT that the fake Belgian passport reveals an operational alliance between the Madrid bombers and al Qaeda. Rather, I would simply like to highlight an under-reported phenomenon of transnational terrorism: To operate internationally, terrorist groups depend on ancillary criminal tools such as fake travel documents, shadowy money transfers, and black market profiteering — all of which are specialties of various transnational organized criminal groups.

Madrid Bombers

Today’s New York Times piece on the Madrid bombers provides further evidence for Peter Bergen’s theory that al Qaeda is transforming from “al Qaeda the organization” to “al Qaeda the ideological movement,” the latter of which is not operationally connected to al Qaeda, but draws its intellectual inspiration from bin Laden, Zawahiri et al. Particularly disturbing is the emergence of Ansar-al Qaeda — a seemingly unaffiliated group that borrows the al Qaeda name.


Sunday, April 11, 2004

Pac Juif

On this Easter day, I think it's appropriate to point out a curious failure of the French language. Its seems that there is no word for Passover--rather it is called la Pac Juif, or Jewish Easter.
Good Intentions

When L Paul Bremmer III wished "Happy Easter" to George Stephanopoulos on This Week this morning, I thought: "What a culturally insensitive dweeb." You see, I was assuming that Stephanopoulos was Greek Orthodox, and in most years Eastern Orthodox's Easter falls on a different date than Western Protestant and Catholic Easter. However, in 2004, the two Easters actually coincide. To LPB3 I apologize.
A bit about me

At the urging of my friend and blogger-extrodinaire, Matthew Yglesias, I've decided to join the new wave of web savvy self-styled pundits. For those of you who don't know me, I am a research assistant at the New America Foundation--the most radical of all centrist think-tanks. I am also a fellow with the Humanity in Action foundation, a human and minority rights advocacy organization composed of Dutch, Danish, German, and American students and young professionals. In the past two years I've interned at Interpol and the ICTY which should give me plenty of fodder to write about.

The Word

Whether or not the aforementioned "Word" was actually God (as John, in his Gospel seems to think) is beyond my scope of inquiry. In any event, I would feel bad picking on a particularly devoted 1,904-1,914 year old man, especially on Easter. Although, if he were alive today, I would ask ole John (actually a composite figure of many redactors) what he thinks about the modern ritual of young Christians who celebrate the resurrection of God's son on earth by hunting for colorful chicken embryos?

A more appropriate list of possible topics for my future commentary might include: The Sociology of Religions, with a focus of Cults, Sects, and New Religious Movements. Transnational organized Crime and Interpol. International Humanitarian Law with a keen eye to the proceedings at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court. Al Qaeda and all its nefarious manifestations. And, of course, America's forthcoming middle-eastern Raj.

In the beginning was the Word. (John 1:1)

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