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Two Decades Later, Algeria Protects Mystery of Bentalha Massacre

Twenty years ago tonight, around sunset, masked gunmen approached the village of Bentalha, on the outskirts of Algeria’s capital, Algiers. They infiltrated quietly, clad in black and wearing hoods to hide their identities, and proceeded to murder anyone they encountered. They used guns, knives, and machetes to butcher the unarmed, in a terrible slaughter that lasted nearly 10 hours.

By daybreak, the extent of the massacre became evident. The exact number of dead has never been agreed upon, but the best estimates place the toll of the butchered north of 400 – many of them women, children, and the elderly. Something like one-fifth of Bentalha was dead, many of the victims having been slaughtered ritualistically, even decapitated. Some of the women had been raped before being butchered, while babies had been bashed to death against walls.

The horror of the Bentalha massacre briefly captured the world’s attention – an iconic photo of a local woman discovering her family’s dead, proclaimed as “the Madonna of Bentalha,” won awards – but that soon faded. Five years into Algeria’s hideous civil war, massacres had become so commonplace that it was difficult to keep track of them. Less than a month before Bentalha, at the village of Rais, only a few miles down the road, mysterious masked butchers had murdered hundreds of civilians in a similar fashion.

While massacres of civilians grew depressingly routine in the bitter fight between the Algerian military regime and Islamist rebels, they peaked in 1997, and Bentalha was a rare example that got some attention abroad, fleetingly. In truth, Algeria’s fratricide never got much Western press outside France, with its long colonial history with the country plus a considerable Algerian diaspora. Even though the death toll of the civil war that engulfed Algeria for years beginning in 1992 claimed some 200,000 lives, most of them civilians, that bloody conflict got a mere fraction of the Western media attention showered on the concurrent Bosnian war, which killed half as many people.

In fairness to journalists, the junta in Algiers didn’t want foreigners looking closely into what was happening in the country, and when responsibility for the Bentalha massacre was claimed by the Armed Islamic Group, the notorious GIA, the blood-thirstiest jihadist gang on earth in the mid-1990s, not many Westerners were eager to dig more deeply – particularly when both sides in Algeria’s civil war didn’t care about protecting journalists asking unwanted questions.

Read the rest at The Observer…

Harvard’s Bizarre Chelsea Manning Debacle Exposes Academic Bubble

For centuries, Harvard has been our country’s most prestigious university, while its rather newer John F. Kennedy School of Government serves as mecca for graduate students seeking entry to the elite halls of power – especially in Washington, D.C. The K-School, as it’s known to Cambridge cognoscenti, also provides sinecures for veteran pols and Beltway hangers-on, who are ideal faculty to teach the ways of American governance to the rising generation.

The K-School doles out fellowships as well, including to visiting fellows. These are hardly more than honorifics, not actual jobs, yet they are undeniably prestigious. They are also a way for  Harvard to remain au courant with trendy issues of the day. However, an unusual firestorm erupted last week when the K-School announced its new crop of visiting fellows – roughly ten are selected annually – and the list included Chelsea Manning.

Manning – then Bradley — became a celebrity of sorts back in 2010 as an Army private who, while serving in Iraq, stole some 750,000 classified documents and passed them to WikiLeaks. In so doing, Manning became an icon to anti-American activists everywhere, yet Washington was far from amused.

The lion’s share of what Manning purloined and WikiLeaks revealed to the world consisted of State Department cable traffic – which isn’t highly classified yet is enormously sensitive. This represents the nuts-and-bolts of diplomacy – conversations between Foggy Bottom and our embassies worldwide about what foreign emissaries say to them, and vice versa – and it’s kept secret with good reason. Foreigners speak frankly to our diplomats because they expect, reasonably, that those conversations will remain private. Manning blew all that up.

The cost to American power and prestige that followed was difficult to enumerate yet very real. Our friends, allies, and interlocutors, witnessing WikiLeaks dump their secret chats with Washington online, understandably wondered if America could keep secrets any longer. This was a humiliating experience, especially for the nation’s top diplomat at the time, Hillary Clinton.

She took the Manning case personally – who, in Hillary’s shoes, would not? – and wanted justice to be served. The Defense Department and our Intelligence Community were equally livid about Manning, since plenty of their secrets were embedded in the vast trove of stolen files which Manning gave to Julian Assange. Although the Pentagon’s official public assessment is that these revelations cost no lives, that is widely considered to be a pleasant fiction in intelligence circles. Unquestionably the personal information that WikiLeaks dumped online, care of Manning, endangered foreigners who were working for the American government.

Read the rest at The Observer …


How 9/11 Changed America: For Better and for Worse

Today we commemorate the 16th anniversary of what Al-Qa’ida termed its Planes Operation, the most consequential terrorist attacks in history. That operation left 19 dead jihadists, 2,978 dead innocent victims, plus thousands of injured. Not to mention the World Trade Center complex annihilated, four jetliners destroyed, the Pentagon badly damaged, and a nation changed forever.

In Lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon – all rebuilt with appropriate memorials to that day – the usual solemn 9/11 remembrances will take place. Those who recall may think back, briefly, to that sunny Tuesday morning when the world changed. Some will speak of it. Just as my parents and their friends once bored me with their exact memories of where they were on November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, now my friends and I bore our children with precise recollections of 9/11.

With the passing of time we can see the Planes Operation and its impacts with a clarity that was previously out of reach. In the months after 9/11, when shock turned to an outrage that birthed a national unity which proved as intense as it was fleeting, a new era dawned for America in a long-term struggle against Islamist terrorism and extremism. How has that conflict panned out over the last 16 years?

In the first place, it ought to be noted that our Intelligence Community has done a commendable job of keeping mass-casualty terrorism away from our shores since 9/11. In particular, FBI-NSA teamwork, in near-seamless collaboration with close foreign intelligence partners, has foiled hundreds of terrorist plots “left of boom” as they say in the spy trade. Jihadists have executed exactly zero “big wedding” attacks in the United States in the last 16 years – and it’s not for any lack of trying.

Indeed, since 9/11 the FBI-NSA counterterrorism partnership has grown so effective at stopping jihadists before they kill that civil libertarians routinely complain that many of these would-be terrorists are harmless ne’er-do-wells and fantasists entrapped by government informants. This is a by-product of the success of our domestic counterterrorism in recent years.

Although jihadists, usually self-styled, have killed Americans at home since 9/11, most of these terrorists have been inspired – not directed – by violent co-religionists overseas. In a typical case, the worst of these attacks, the June 2016 slaughter at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, killed 49 innocents; yet their murderer, Omar Mateen, a native-born American citizen, despite clearly being inspired by the Islamic State, was not directed by them except in his own diseased mind.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Ukraine Accuses Russia of the Unthinkable: Terror Attacks Against Its Own People

Secret service bosses are a notoriously tight-lipped bunch, particularly in Eastern Europe, where the Soviet legacy of complete state secrecy lingers. In the former Soviet Union, where the KGB ruled for most of the last century, spy chiefs give few interviews, and when they do they say very little of interest. Such is the nature of the espionage business there.

It was therefore something of a shock this weekend when Vasyl Hrytsak, Ukraine’s secret service chief, gave an interview jam-packed with bombshells about the nasty SpyWar being waged between Kyiv and Moscow. That clandestine struggle is an appendage to the low-boil conflict being waged in Eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian forces and “rebels” who are in fact the Russian military.

Casualties are generally modest – a couple soldiers here, another handful there – yet they are constant. Shelling, sniping, and patrolling take a steady toll of Ukrainian defenders who are holding the line in the country’s east, keeping the Russian invader at bay, and the conflict shows no signs of abating anytime soon. Roughly one-third of the 10,100 dead in the Russo-Ukrainian War have fallen since the so-called Minsk II cease-fire was hashed out in February 2015.

The espionage portion of this conflict is seldom mentioned in the media, so Hrytsak’s comments were highly unusual. It should be noted that Hrytsak isn’t a political hack, rather a career intelligence officer who’s worked for the Security Service of Ukraine or SBU since the early 1990s and has been its head since mid-2015.

In a TV interview, Hrytsak minced no words, calling out his Russian counterpart, Aleksandr Bortnikov, head of the Federal Security Service, the powerful FSB. Having previously explained three weeks ago that the SBU knew that the Kremlin had dispatched spy-saboteurs to undertake terrorist attacks inside Ukraine, Hrytsak now made a direct appeal to Bortnikov:

I appeal to you as an officer. There are rules even in war which should not be broken by secret service agents. You have transgressed all these rules.

Read the rest at The Observer …


How to Avoid America’s Coming Years of Lead

Violent extremism constitutes a real threat to public order and safety — it’s time to cool it

In the aftermath of the Charlottesville fracas between far-right and far-left protestors, which left one dead and dozens injured, America has undertaken a self-examination of sorts regarding our homegrown extremism problem. The public now realizes that our country possesses violent fringes which, though small in numbers, display an ardent desire to create mayhem in the public square.

The far-right element, with its Nazi and Confederate flags, is catchier on camera, displaying transgressive desires and frequently absurd attire. They seem better at shocking than fighting, however, considering how Charlottesville played out. Few have noted that the kook-right, despite making a nationwide push to get everybody to come to Virginia for the “unite the right” rally, managed to gather only a few hundred followers. In a pattern that’s familiar in Europe, the far-right was significantly outnumbered by left-wing counter-protestors in Charlottesville.

Not to mention that America’s far-right has fallen on hard times after the Virginia debacle. While neo-Nazis managed to get the attention of the nation, indeed the world, in Charlottesville, the repercussions in its aftermath have been severe. Since said movement exists more online than in the real world, post-Charlottesville efforts to get them off the Internet have hit the kook-right hard indeed.

Their most noxious website, The Daily Stormer, infamous for its incantations of violence against Jews and others, has been run off the Internet. After multiple shutdowns, the avowedly Nazi site now resides on the Dark Web, where its site traffic is surely far lower than before Charlottesville. Similarly run off the Internet is Stormfront, an online message board that’s been a focus for the far-right since 1995, when it was founded by Don Black, a former KKK leader.

The far-left has faced less public scrutiny than their sparring partners after Charlottesville. Part of this is the habitual double-standard about genocidal totalitarianisms in our country: carrying a Nazi flag is considered unthinkably offensive, while brandishing a Soviet one is viewed as much less awful – and possibly only quirky – notwithstanding that Stalin murdered more people than Hitler did.

Indeed, in recent weeks quite a few mainstream liberals have gushed about the “anti-fascists” on the left who engage in violent street theater with the far-right. It’s easy to detect more than a whiff of envy among some liberals for Antifa fighters, who get to punch Nazis whenever they feel like it. Even before Charlottesville, some on the mainstream left positively gushed about black-clad Antifas and their eagerness to do battle with the evil forces of Trumpism.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Can Trump Be Trusted With Nukes?

America’s future is perhaps in the hands of the generals in his inner circle

Having access to the nuclear “football” is the ultimate power of the American president. With it, you can kill millions inside an hour and perhaps even end the world as we know it. Only one president, Harry Truman, had to exercise that authority when he dropped our first two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 to end the Second World War.

Truman did so with a heavy heart but as a veteran of the last world war – Harry was our only president in the last 100 years to have seen ground combat up-close, in the hell of the Meuse Argonne in the fall of 1918 – he knew he had little choice. Every president since Truman has accepted that he, too, might have to sign off on nuclear release. There is no weightier possibility for any White House.

For months, commentators have wondered if Donald J. Trump is up to such an enormous burden. His sometimes bizarre and combative public utterances have rendered this question in-bounds for the fair-minded. This hardly seems like a man who is mentally configured to take the stresses of, say, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when Washington and Moscow came alarmingly close to nuclear release on each other.

Now prominent national security mavens are saying publicly what they’ve been musing privately since Trump’s inauguration seven months ago. This burst into public view in response to Trump’s barn-burning speech in Phoenix on Tuesday night. As the White House circles wagons in the face of mounting inquiries about his ties to the Kremlin, the president has pandered to his hard-core base of supporters that will stick by his side, come what may.

The Phoenix rally therefore witnessed fiery oratory even by Trumpian standards. The president threatened to shut down the Federal government to pay for his promised “wall” on the Mexican border. He misrepresented his controversial response to the bloody fracas in Charlottesville, presenting himself as the innocent victim of media bias and its “sick people.” He attacked the “fake news” in a combative and rambling manner throughout the speech. He repeatedly lambasted “the elite,” which the president explained “are trying to take away our history and our heritage.” In a classic Trumpian outburst, the president compared his housing to theirs:

They’re elite? I went to better schools than they did. I was a better student than they were. I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment, and I live in the White House, too, which is really great.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Getting Déjà Vu From Russia’s Military Exercises, Poland Readies to Resist Putin

Moscow rattles its saber on NATO’s doorstep

Right now, the Kremlin is preparing to mount major military exercises on its border with NATO. Termed Zapad — meaning West in Russian – and slated to take place in mid-September, these exercises have unnerved the Atlantic Alliance and caused concern in Western capitals about what the Russians are really up to.

Moscow has not shared much information about Zapad, which will include troops from Russia and Belarus, and estimates of its size range from a low figure of 12,000 personnel, based on official statements, to as high as 100,000 – which would make Zapad the biggest Kremlin military exercise since the Cold War.

There’s bad history here. Moscow has termed major western-focused exercises Zapad for decades, and the 1981 war games under that name, the biggest ever held by the Soviet military, seriously rattled NATO. Zapad-81, aside from its military mission, had the clear intent of showing the Kremlin’s Polish neighbor – which was then a Soviet client under domestic siege by the Solidarity movement – that Moscow could not be trifled with.

Today Poland is a free country and a bulwark of NATO, having shaken off the Kremlin’s shackles at the Cold War’s end, but Warsaw remains concerned by this latest iteration of Zapad. The exercises are slated to take place in Belarus and in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, right on the Polish frontier.

Then there’s the tricky matter of what Zapad’s actual intent might be. Is it to intimidate Belarus, whose ramshackle regime no longer wants to be Vladimir Putin’s pawn? Might Moscow leave several thousand troops in Belarus after Zapad’s end to keep Minsk on-side? Could the exercises actually be a cover for aggression? The Kremlin has repeatedly used war-games to obscure build-up for an invasion, most infamously of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968. More recently, Putin’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008 was preceded by military exercises, a dry run, only weeks before, right on Russia’s border with Georgia.

Most analysts doubt Putin plans to invade a NATO country this September, which would mean war with the Atlantic Alliance, but Warsaw is preternaturally cautious, knowing the Russians as well as they do. The strategic Suwałki gap in northeastern Poland, a narrow sliver of land between Belarus and Kaliningrad, remains tempting for Moscow. In the event of war, there can be little doubt that Russian forces would charge through that gap – where they would meet the Polish military.

Read the rest at The Observer …