Jihad Jane is Media Catnip

March 25, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Dan Gardner, CanWest News Services

The name Colleen LaRose may not be world famous but the pseudonym LaRose allegedly used in an Internet-based terrorist plot certainly is. A Google search of Jihad Jane delivers 1,760,000 hits.

What makes that number especially impressive is that it was only last week that American prosecutors announced LaRose invariably described as a green-eyed blonde had been charged with conspiring to kill a Swedish cartoonist. To go from the obscurity to worldwide notoriety is no small feat. And Jihad Jane did it without actually committing a major act of terrorism. Or a minor act of terrorism. She did it, allegedly, by discussing a single murder.

Now contrast that with Andrew Joseph Stack. If you follow the news closely, the name probably rings a bell. He is the Texas man who became so enraged with the IRS and the American government that he climbed into the cockpit of his plane, flew to the IRS building in Austin, and nosedived. The building was mauled but, miraculously, only one person died along with Stack.

That was on Feb. 18. A Google search of Stacks name almost a month later came up with around 430,000 hits.

One person crashes a plane into a building in an attempt to commit mass slaughter and his crime gets some modest attention. Another expresses an intention to kill someone, is arrested, and gets vastly more reporting and discussion. That’s quite a discrepancy.

Is it because LaRose’s case is so much more important? Prosecutors suggested so. The arrest underscores the evolving nature of the threat we face, a U.S. Justice department official said. It shatters any lingering thought that we can spot a terrorist based on appearance, the chief prosecutor added.

But is that remotely true? Richard Reid, the bumbling shoe bomber, is half English and half Jamaican. John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, is a Caucasian Californian. So is Adam Gadahn, a longtime al-Qaeda spokesman who changed his name from Adam Pearlman.

So what exactly is new about Jihad Jane? That she’s a woman prepared to murder in the name of Islam? There are plenty of those, unfortunately. Thats shes blonde? Well, yes. That’s different. But somehow I don’t think her arrest means terrorists of the future will look like Jan Brady.

So if its not the intrinsic importance of the case that explains why Jihad Jane is walloping Joseph Stack on Google, what does? One might think its the fact that LaRoses views are shared by many others and so she represents something bigger than the crime she is alleged to have committed. Andrew Joseph Stack was just some nut with a grudge and a plane.

But that doesn’t work either. Stack left a suicide note which was essentially a long anti-government tirade that bore a striking similarity to warnings in a Department of Homeland Security report issued in 2009. Domestic anti-government extremism was on the rise, the report noted, and there were growing suggestions it could turn violent. The situation was similar to that of the early 1990s, the report concluded, when right-wing extremism culminated in the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more.

In the months and years after the Oklahoma City bombing, an immense amount of attention was paid to anti-government militias and other extremists. The Sept. 11 attacks erased that threat and replaced it with that of Islamist terrorism, but the reality on the ground didn’t change a great deal. It just wasn’t talked about. It still isn’t.

And that, I think, is what explains why Jihad Jane is winning the battle of Google.

The human brain is compulsive about making sense of things. It orders, categorizes, and systematizes. And once it thinks it decides something is settled, it works hard to keep it settled: It eagerly grabs onto anything that supports the existing understanding while avoiding, or waving off, anything that contradicts that understanding. Psychologists call this confirmation bias.

Now, what is terrorism? Mention that word and certain images come to mind, certain ideas and beliefs. That is the settled understanding of what terrorism is and who terrorists are.

In 1995, the horror in Oklahoma City shattered that understanding and created something new. After Oklahoma City, terrorism was about right-wing crazies. And in the years that followed, media reporting bolstered that understanding by seeking any tidbit of information, no matter how small, that supported it.

But then came Sept. 11, 2001, and the frame changed again. Terrorism was about Islamic religious fanatics.

If Joseph Stack had done exactly what he did for the same reason in 1996, the news coverage would have been massive and everyone in the world would know his name. But he did it in 2010, when he and his motives didn’t fit the popular narrative of what terrorism is.

But Jihad Jane fit the frame. Better still, she was superficially different. Thus, her story confirmed our fundamental beliefs about what terrorism is while it simultaneously delivered a delightful sprinkle of novelty catnip for the media. And that combination just happens to be a perfect formula for grabbing popular attention.

This is of more than theoretical interest, of course. Media coverage, and popular attention, is constantly distorted by the interaction of underlying assumptions and psychology. What we hear, read, and talk about is not a complete and objective reflection of reality.

Put it like that and anyone would say, well, no kidding. But ask people why they believe something to be true and, often as not, youll hear something like, its happening all the time. Just look at the news. See the problem?

As always, a little more skepticism is in order.

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Google Earth Reveals Secret History of US Base in Pakistan

February 26, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

 

google image
The original Google Earth picture:  The Shamsi airbase in 2006 with three drones apparently visible.

Courtesy Jeremy Page, The Times

The US was secretly flying unmanned drones from the Shamsi airbase in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan as early as 2006, according to an image of the base from Google Earth.

The image that is no longer on the site but which was obtained by The News, Pakistan’s English language daily newspaper shows what appear to be three Predator drones outside a hangar at the end of the runway. The Times also obtained a copy of the image, whose co-ordinates confirm that it is the Shamsi airfield, also known as Bandari, about 200 miles southwest of the Pakistani city of Quetta.

An investigation by The Times yesterday revealed that the CIA was secretly using Shamsi to launch the Predator drones that observe and attack al-Qaeda and Taliban militants around Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

US special forces used the airbase during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but the Pakistani Government said in 2006 that the Americans had left. Both sides have since denied repeatedly that Washington has used, or is using, Pakistani bases to launch drones. Pakistan has also demanded that the US cease drone attacks on its tribal area, which have increased over the last year, allegedly killing several high-value targets as well as many civilians.

The Google Earth image now suggests that the US began launching Predators from Shamsi built by Arab sheiks for falconry trips at least three years ago.

The advantage of Shamsi is that it provides a discreet launchpad within minutes of Quetta a known Taliban staging post as well as Taliban infiltration routes into Afghanistan and potential militant targets farther afield.

Google Earth’s current image of Shamsi about 100 miles south of the Afghan border and 100 miles east of the Iranian one undoubtedly shows the same airstrip as the image from 2006.

There are no visible drones, but it does show that several new buildings and other structures have been erected since 2006, including what appears to be a hangar large enough to fit three drones. Perimeter defences apparently made from the same blast-proof barriers used at US and Nato bases in Afghanistan have also been set up around the hangar.

A compound on the other side of the runway appears to have sufficient housing for several dozen people, as well as neatly tended lawns. Three military aviation experts shown the image said that the aircraft appeared to be MQ1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles the model used by the CIA to observe and strike militants on the Afghan border.

The MQ1 Predator carries two laser-guided Hellfire missiles, and can fly for up to 454 miles, at speed of up to 135mph, and at altitudes of up to 25,000ft, according to the US Air Force website www.af.mil

The News reported the drones were Global Hawks which are generally used only for reconnaissance, flying for up to 36 hours, at more than 400mph and an altitude of up to 60,000ft. Damian Kemp, an aviation editor with Jane’s Defence Weekly, said that the three drones in the image appeared to have wingspans of 48-50ft.

The wingspan of an MQ1 Predator A model is 55ft. On this basis it is possible that these are Predator-As, he said. They are certainly not RQ-4A Global Hawks (which have a wingspan of 116ft 2in).

Pakistan’s only drones are Italian Galileo Falcos, which were delivered in 2007, according to a report in last month’s Jane’s World Air Forces.

A military spokesman at the US Embassy in Islamabad declined to comment on the images or the revelations in The Times yesterday.

Major-General Athar Abbas, Pakistan’s chief military spokesman, was not immediately available for comment. He admitted on Tuesday that US forces were using Shamsi, but only for logistics.

He also said that the Americans were using another air base in the city of Jacobabad for logistics and military operations. Pakistan gave the US permission to use Shamsi, Jacobabad and two other bases Pasni and Dalbadin for the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.

The image of the US drones at Shamsi highlights the extraordinary power and potential security risks of Google Earth.

Several governments have asked it to remove or blur images of sensitive locations such as military bases, nuclear reactors and government buildings. Some have also accused the company of helping terrorists, as in 2007, when its images of British military bases were found in the homes of Iraqi insurgents.

Last year India said that the militants who attacked Mumbai in November had used Google Earth to familiarize themselves with their targets. Google Street View, which offers ground-level, 360-degree views, also ran into controversy last year when the Pentagon asked it to remove some online images of military bases in America.

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US Willing to Talk to Taliban

October 30, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Anwar Iqbal and Masood Haider

2008-10-28T144412Z_01_ISL12_RTRMDNP_3_PAKISTAN-AFGHAN

Head of the Afghan Jirga delegation Abdullah Abdullah (L) and Head of the Pakistan Jirga delegation Owais Ahmed Ghani talk during a news conference in Islamabad October 28, 2008. Pakistan and Afghanistan agreed on Tuesday to establish contacts jointly with Taliban militants through tribal leaders after two days of talks over how to end bloodshed in both countries.

REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood    (PAKISTAN)

Washington/New York, Oct 28: The US is willing to hold direct talks with elements of the Taliban in an effort to quell unrest in Afghanistan, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday, citing unidentified Bush administration officials.

The Washington Post reported that Taliban leader Mullah Omar had shown openness to the idea of repudiating Al Qaeda, which encouraged the Bush administration to explore the possibility of holding direct talks with the militia.

Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that the Taliban had conveyed this message to representatives of the Afghan government during a meeting in Saudi Arabia last month.

Amid these reports of a possible breakthrough in the search for a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict, Christian Science Monitor noted that on Monday the Taliban militia showed “a new potency” in the fight against coalition forces, bringing down a US military helicopter near Kabul, while a suicide bomber struck and killed two Americans in northern Afghanistan.

The Los Angeles Times on Tuesday highlighted the significance of the attack, noting that “choppers are a crucial mode of transport for troops and supplies” in Afghanistan.

Speculations about a possible breakthrough in the talks with the Taliban follow a series of meetings last month in Saudi Arabia between representatives of the Afghan government and the militia.

But even before the Saudis initiated the talks, the Karzai government had been putting out feelers to the Taliban for negotiating an end to its insurgency in exchange for some sort of power-sharing deal.

Though the US has so far been on the sidelines but at a recent news conference Gen David McKiernan, the commander of US troops in Afghanistan, grudgingly said he would support the Afghan government if it chose to go down the path of negotiations.

And now the Wall Street Journal is reporting that the US might get involved in those negotiations directly. “Senior White House and military officials believe that engaging some levels of the Taliban — while excluding top leaders — could help reverse a pronounced downward spiral in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan,” the report said.

Both countries have been destabilised by a recent wave of violence.

Senior Bush administration officials told the Journal that the outreach was a draft recommendation in a classified White House assessment of US strategy in Afghanistan. The officials said that the recommendation called for the talks to be led by the Afghan central government, but with the active participation of the US.

The US would be willing to pay moderate Taliban members to lay down their weapons and join the political process, the Journal cited an unidentified US official as saying. The Central Intelligence Agency has been mapping Afghanistan’s tribal areas in an attempt to understand the allegiances of clans and tribes, the report said.

WSJ noted that joining the talks would only be a first step as the Bush administration was still in the process of determining what substantial offer it could make to persuade the Taliban to abandon violence. “How much should (we) be willing to offer guys like this?” asked a senior Bush official while talking to the Journal.
Gen David Petraeus, who will assume responsibility this week for US military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan as head of the Central Command, supports the proposed direct talks between the Taliban and the US, the WSJ said.

Gen Petraeus used a similar approach in Iraq where a US push to enlist Sunni tribes in the fight against Al Qaeda helped sharply reduce the country’s violence. Gen Petraeus earlier this month publicly endorsed talks with less extreme Taliban elements.

Gen Petraeus also indicated that he believed insurgencies rarely ended with complete victory by one or the other side.

“You have to talk to enemies,” said Gen Petraeus while pointing to Kabul’s efforts to negotiate a deal with the Taliban that would potentially bring some Taliban members back to power, saying that if they were “willing to reconcile” it would be “a positive step”.

US Afghan experts outside the Bush administration have also been urging the White House to try to end violence “by co-optation, integration and appeasement”, as one of them said.

They urge the Bush administration to give the Taliban a positive reason to stop fighting. This, they argue, would allow Washington to separate hardcore militants from others within the Taliban and would also expose the extremists before the Afghan people.

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