War and Strife News

India to Send Tank Brigades to the China Border

India’s military recently announced that it would deploy two tank brigades to guard the country’s border with China, one to be stationed in Ladakh (in northeastern Kashmir), and the other in the north Sikkim Plateau. As Business Standard reports, “Such formations, equipped with main battle tanks and BMP-II infantry combat vehicles, are traditionally used for striking into enemy territory.” The report also notes that India’s decision was based on the fact that “China’s People’s Liberation Army … has deployed armoured and motorised formations in both their military regions across the Line of Actual Control, as the de facto Sino-Indian border is called.” It goes on to claim that if China attacks and grabs a section of Indian territory, India will now be able to launch a counter-offense to take over a different piece of Chinese territory. As this is the 50th anniversary year of the Sino-Indian War of 1962, which cost India the Himalayan territory of Aksai Chin, Indian military officials are keen to argue that their country’s territorial integrity will never again be violated in such a manner.

Despite such talk and actions, the Indian government, like that of China, hopes to avoid any actual conflict. As a result, the two countries are “planning to set up hotlines between army commanders in-charge of their respective border areas along Jammu and Kashmir and Northeastern states in the next three to four months,” as reported in the Economic Times. Meanwhile, economic ties between the two Asian giants continue to grow. As reported by NDTV, “India and China have entered into a five-year economic cooperation plan to strengthen the trade relationship between the two countries. Trade between China and India is expected to reach USD 100 billion by 2015…”

Map Source: Paksoldiers


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Puntland’s Security Offensives and the Growing City of Galka’yo

The most recent version of the ever-changing and always excellent Wikipedia map of the political situation in Somalia shows the internationally recognized Federal Republic of Somalia controlling roughly half of the country, with most of the rest falling either under the power of the Islamic Emirate of Somalia, closely aligned with the Al-Shabaab radical Islamist Group, or that of  the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. What the map fails to adequately convey is the fact that several of the regions that acknowledge the Federal Republic are actually fully autonomous political entities. Polities such as Puntland support eventual Somali reunification, but tense relations between the country’s different autonomous regions make such a scenario unlikely, at least in the short run. Puntland and neighboring Galmudug, for example, have tussled over a number of issues, although the two governments did agree in 2011 to “cooperate on security, economic and social matters.” Yet in July of this year, the airport in the important city of Galka’yo came under mortar shelling, which the Puntland-based management blamed on “a local armed militia from Galmudug state.”

The situation in Galka’yo, a regional metropolis of more than half a million people, is complicated by the fact that city is divided between Puntland, which controls the urban core to the north of the airport, and Galmudug, which controls the suburbs to the south. Overall, the city has prospered since the fall of the Mogadishu warlords to the now-defunct Islamic Courts Union in 2006; money and resources that previously flowed to the Somali capital of Mogadishu now remain in the region. According to a 2011 article in Africa Review:

Hotels, guest houses, supermarkets, restaurants, and new office blocks for NGOs and the government compete in height with the newly-erected, tall minarets of the mosques. The city [of Galka’yo] also boasts of social services like hospitals, schools, police stations and petrol stations. Even the former Somali army barracks in the city has been renovated and is kept in good condition.

Tensions between Puntland and Galmudug, however, are not the only threats to Galka’yo’s stability. The Puntland government had been widely been seen as acting in concert with pirate captains; a January 2012 BBC report claimed that the Puntland economy overall had reaped substantial benefits from piracy. More recently, however, Puntland has apparently been taking on the pirates of its coastal strip, and at some cost. The reach of the pirates evidently extends well inland. On August 13, Garowe Online reported that:

Puntland forces repelled an attack by armed pirates on the Galkayo central jail station early Sunday afternoon. Pirates equipped with automatic guns attacked the Galkayo central station in a bid to forcefully free fellow pirates who were apprehended in a raid by Puntland security forces that netted over 40 people related to insecurity in the region.

More recently, Puntland security forces have also taken on Al-Shabaab insurgents who seek to destabilize the region and impose their own exceptionally harsh version of Islamic law. On August 23, Shabelle News reported that the Puntland military had “detained dozens of armed men carrying explosives, whom the officials are accusing to have links with Al Shabaab militants and are now being held at a prison northern Galka’yo.”

Puntland’s military is evidently relatively well run and well equipped. Even its paramilitary division, the Puntland Dervish Force, controls its own battle tanks (T-54/T-55) and armored personal carriers.


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Fighting Flares in Bodoland

Eastern Assam in northeastern India has been engulfed in ethnic violence for the past five days, with the indigenous Bodo (pronounced BO-RO) pitted aginst Bengali-speaking Muslims. Fighting flared July 20th after four unidentified men killed four Bodo youths; in retaliation, Bodo gangs attacked local Muslims. Before long, tit-for-tat carnage resulted in some 32 deaths and the burning of approximately 60 villages.  The death tolls will surely mount, as many shooting victim and casualties of knife and sickle attack are currently in critical condition. As many as 70,000 people have fled, but evacuation has been hampered by attacks on trains, severing rail links with the rest of India. A curfew was imposed, with shoot-to-kill orders against those violating it.  Four alleged rioters were subsequently shot down on July 24. Reports say that one of the main towns of eastern Assam, Kokrajhar (population 31,000), “looks deserted.”

Tensions in the region go back many years. The Bodo, a Tibeto-Burman-speaking community of some 1.2 million, have long demanded their own state, seeking separation from Assam, dominated by the Assamese. Bodo insurgent groups have sought full political autonomy if not outright independence. The National Democratic Front of Bodoland, founded in 1986, aims to: “Liberate Bodoland from the Indian expansionism and occupation; Free the Bodo nation from the colonialist exploitation, oppression and domination; Establish a Democratic Socialist Society to promote Liberty, Equality and Fraternity; [and] uphold the integrity and sovereignty of Bodoland.” Since 2005, however, the group has maintained a cease-fire with the governments of both India and the state of Assam.

Although the Bodo struggle against the state has receded in recent years, interethnic strife has intensified. For decades, Muslim immigrants have been moving from densely populated Bangladesh into relatively sparsely settled tracts in northeastern India. In much of eastern Assam, Muslims now constitute almost half of the population. The Bodo are mostly Hindu, having converted in relatively recent times from their indigenous animism. A Christian minority of some 10 percent is reportedly expanding.










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Strife in Ethiopia over an Anti-Radical (or Is It Radical?) Muslim Sect

The Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa has been recently shaken by violent clashes between the police and Muslim protestors. According to Shabelle News, “The protesters, some wearing masks, blocked the entrance of the Anwar Mosque in the west of the capital and hurled stones at riot police who had surrounded the compound after noon prayers.” The protestors were angered by the government’s alleged interference in the practice of their religion, claiming that it has been trying to foist the Al Ahbash sect on the Ethiopian Muslim community. According to the Shabelle News story, the infuriated protestors view Al Ahbash as “an alien branch of Islam.” The Ethiopian government denies promoting the sect while insisting that “is determined to prevent Islamic militancy spilling over from neighbouring Sudan or lawless Somalia.”

Although Al Ahbash grew on Lebanese soil, it was founded by an Ethiopian cleric (Abdullah al-Harari)—as is reflected by its Arabic name, which literally means “the Ethiopians” (although the group officially calls itself the “Association of Islamic Charitable Projects,” or AICP). According to the Wikipedia article, Al Ahbash is noted for blending “Sunni and Shi’a theology with Sufi spiritualism into a doctrinal eclecticism that preached nonviolence and political quietism.”

The organization’s own website stresses its Islamic orthodoxy: “The A.I.C.P has as guides the Qur’an and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad and the path of the Islamic scholars like Imam Ash-Shafi^iyy, Imam Malik, Imam Ahmad and Imam Abu-Hanifah.” In an interesting twist, it claims that that it is actually the Islamists who are guilty of bid’ah, or of concocting novel, heretical doctrines. In particular, it singles out the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabi movement of Saudi Arabia for censure: “Unlike the followers of Sayyid Qutub [spiritual founder of the Muslim Brotherhood] who deviated from the right path by following an erroneous idea that sprung fifty years ago, and unlike the followers of Muhammad ibn adbil-Wahhab who deviated from the right path by following an erroneous idea that sprung two hundred years ago, unlike them we are following the right path of the prophet, his companions and their followers.”

Al Ahbash stresses charity, which it says must be followed regardless of the religion of those in need. As its website specifies: “The A. I. C. P. urges Muslims to help each other and share responsibilities, such as encouraging the wealthy to console and relieve the poor—whether Muslims or non-Muslims.”

Street fights and other conflicts pitting Al Ahbash against Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood have broken out on several occasions in both Lebanon and Jordan. Mainstream Muslim groups tend to be skeptical of Al Ahbash, which many clerics regard as a cult that seeks to undermine Islamic unity.  In 2011, the Australian National Imams Council tried to shut down the group’s Sydney-based radio station, claiming that it was run by a ”radical cult” that promoted “sectarian fringe views.” A scathing IslamicWeb article on the group, which ranks third in a Google search for “Al Ahbash,” relies on crude anti-Semitic characterizations. In regard to the founder of the sect, it states that, “Some people said he is Jew man, however there is no clear evidence for that, but at least he has a lot of the Jew’s characteristics.”

Although Ethiopia is a Christian-majority country, its eastern half is solidly Muslim, as can be seen from the detail of an M. Izady map posted here. Some 28 million Muslims live in Ethiopia, a figure roughly equal to that of Saudi Arabia.


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The Nasa (Páez) People Take on the Colombian Military and the Leftist Rebels

A recent article in the Chinese news site CRI notes that the indigenous Nasa people of southwestern Colombia have “lashed out at a Colombian Army outpost in southwestern Cauca province, as the military refused to leave their land as requested.” The report goes on to note that some 1,000 people surrounded a military outpost and literally tried to drag the soldiers away. As reported elsewhere, Colombian riot police soon evicted the Nasa demonstrators, and later shot and killed a member of the movement who allegedly refused to stop at an armed checkpoint.

Other articles on the conflict provide a more nuanced understanding. As the Washington Post reported, the Nasa are simultaneously taking on the Colombian military and the leftist guerillas that form the army’s main target in the region. According to the Post, indigenous leaders have vowed to “put on trial before tribal elders four alleged leftist rebels they accuse of attacks on civilians.” As the article goes on to note, the “Nasa say they are fed up with being in the crossfire of Colombia’s long-running conflict.”

Nasa leaders frame their actions in non-violent terms. As stated on a website run by the indigenous peoples of the region:

No vamos a agredir a nadie, pero utilizaremos la fuerza de nuestra comunidad reunida, de nuestra palabra y de nuestros derechos para recuperar nuestros territorios.  (We will not attack anyone, but we will use the strength of our united community, our speech and our rights to reclaim our territories.)

The Wikipedia article on the Nasa (found under the older term for the group, the  Páez), highlights as well their non-violent orientation. It also notes, however, that “they have about 7000 men and women who stand guard in their territory armed with nothing but ceremonial three-foot batons. They persuade the fighting forces of both sides to leave their land” (in light of the recent reports, however, the more accurate wording would be “try to persuade…”). The article also notes that while the Nasa generally avoid fighting, they do apply harsh corporeal punishments to those who break their tribal rules.

Nasa culture seems to be strongly rooted in the highlands of south-central-western Colombia. Out of a sizable ethnic population of some 140,000, an estimated 80,000 speak Páez, or Nasa Yuwe (“Nasa language”), roughly half of whom are reported to be monolingual. The language is evidently an isolate, although it may be related to several extinct tongues of the southern Colombian and northern Ecuadoran highlands. Most language maps, such as that of the Ethnologue, show the Páez speakers occupying a doughnut-shaped block of territory, in the center of which lies the lands of the Guambiano Indians.

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Flood and Political Conflicts in Northeastern India


The seven states of Northeastern India make up a diverse, historic, and (as GeoCurrents has previously noted) unstable region. Recent flooding and landslides have claimed at least 81 lives around the Brahmaputra River (map at left from Wikipedia), forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate, and garnered worldwide attention. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has gone to Assam, perhaps the worst hit state, and promised at least Rs 500 crore (~$90 million) in aid. The floods are a major humanitarian crisis, and they may help to deflect attention from recent escalations in the long-simmering border dispute between Assam and its neighboring state, Meghalaya.

On June 30, over six-hundred Khasi[1], members of a tribal group located primarily in Meghalaya but also in parts of Assam and Bangladesh, began a hunger strike aimed at encouraging the two Indian states to resolve the quarrel over the status of twelve disputed areas that has kindled years of violence. The unresolved issue has also kept rural villages along the Meghalaya-Assam border from receiving the benefits of government electrification programs. Since a January, 21, 2010 GeoCurrents post cautiously observed the “declining violence in Northeast India”, violence has continued to stay at a relatively low level compared to the 2000s. However, most of the underlying issues remain unresolved, and the potential remains for future clashes.

Map of Northeastern India

Entailing much more than the border dispute between Meghalaya and Assam, strife in Northeast India has been a function of ethnic and tribal rivalries playing themselves out against a background of nationalist and antinationalist agitation. For example, the militant Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), based in Meghalaya, continues to vociferously oppose what it sees as attempts by India’s national government to “Indianise or else to Hindunise the Hynniewtrep race”. The HNLC also sets itself up in opposition to the Garo, a largely Christian group that is the second largest ethnic formation in Meghalaya after the aforementioned Khasi.

The people of Northeast India also face many wrenching challenges as both a globalized economy and outside social norms gain a foothold hold in their land. The Khasi and the Garo remain, for the most part, matrilineal societies where property and clan membership is passed down through female descendants. This certainly adds a measure of stability to womens’ lives, and female defenders of the system are able to point to the plight of women in other nearby groups and remark favorably on the status and safety of women in societies adhering to matrilineal traditions. Men who oppose the system claim that it “breeds a culture of men who feel useless”, feeds social problems like alcoholism, and denies men the inheritance they need to build their lives. The debate has been going on for years, and seems unlikely to end soon.

With flooding now the dominant issue in the Brahmaputra watershed, it remains to be seen whether the chaos and disruption that follows will bring more violence in its wake. Most of the Indian outposts along the border with Bangladesh have flooded as local officials express concerns about national security. Living near some of the rainiest places on earth, as the people who make their homes along the Brahmaputra do, can be a dangerous proposition.

Readers interested in a fantastic satellite image of the Brahmaputra flooding should see this one from the NASA Earth Observatory.

[1] GeoCurrents readers would be interested to note that the Khasi are the northernmost speakers of an Austro-Asiatic language.

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Heightened Unrest in Venezuela’s Zulia State

Northwestern Venezuela, especially the state of Zulia, is an anti-Chavez stronghold, noted for its “oppositional “ culture.  As explored in a previous GeoCurrents post, the northwestern Lake Maracaibo area stands apart from the rest of the Venezuela; even consumer products that sell well in Caracas often fail to find a market in Zulia.

In recent weeks, Zulia has experienced mounting troubles. Several leaders of the indigenous Yukpa and Wayuu communities were murdered, reportedly by wealthy ranchers infuriated at indigenous peoples moving into their prime grazing lands (Zulia is a major beef and dairy—and oil—producer). The indigenous movement has occurred with the blessing of the national government, which in 2009 gave communal land titles to 103,000 acres (41,600 hectares) to a number of Yukpa communities. The state-oriented Venezuelan press lays the blame for the recent violence on the U.S., Colombia, and Zulian intransigence, highlighting “the U.S.-funded Plan Colombia, as well as a large, historic, rightwing in Zulia state.” International organizations, however, have reported that the Venezuelan military itself has attacked the Yukpa and other local indigenous groups within the past three years.

Northwestern Venezuela is a resource-rich area in a geopolitically precarious environment. Besides oil and pasturage, the region contains some of South America’s largest coal reserves. Owing in part to tensions between Venezuela and neighboring Colombia, Zulia has been a focus of rebel activity and smuggling. Survival International notes that the Colombian leftist insurgent groups FARC and ELN “have been settling along the border areas of the Bari and Yukpa indigenous communities, bringing in weapons and drugs, and enticing young people to join them and squat on indigenous lands.” Colombian authorities have accused Venezuela of offering sanctuary to FARC rebels, charges that Venezuela steadfastly denies, officially stating that “any rebel groups found in Venezuela would meet with the “iron fist” of the Venezuelan military.” In early June, four Colombian men claimed that they had been tortured by Venezuela police who falsely accused them of belonging to the FARC.

The FARC funds its rebellion in part by drug transshipment, which is a major business in the region. Some sources estimate that roughly 200 tons of cocaine pass through the regional annually. Just this week, the Venezuelan police raided a ship bound from Zulia to Mexico carrying 20 tons of liquid cocaine. A recent article in The Economist summarizes the current narcotics situation in the region:

Venezuela has become the main transit point for Colombian cocaine headed for the United States and Europe. Because of Venezuela’s price controls on fuel—a litre of petrol costs two American cents in Venezuela, compared with up to $1.30 in Colombia—smuggling is another lucrative business. Such opportunities have lured the Zetas, a violent Mexican mob, who have teamed up with a Colombian outfit called the Rastrojos. Together they control much of Colombia’s La Guajira department and Venezuela’s Zulia state.

Media outlets in Zulia are also coming under attack. Earlier this month, the offices of Versión Final were racked by gunfire and those of Qué Pasa were hit with a grenade. Two days after the latter assault, the television channel Catatumbo TV was shot-up. Press freedom in Venezuela has recently been severely restricted, and critics charge the government with failing to protect journalists. The recent attacks in Zulia, however, do not seem to be linked to the Chavez regime. As recently reported in InSight: Organized Crime in the Americas:

While critics of President Hugo Chavez accuse his administration of stifling the media by abusing its regulatory powers or by presenting trumped-up criminal charges against media workers, there is little reason to suspect the state is behind this rash of attacks. The government has previously tried to limit media coverage through legal means; what’s more, the Catatumbo TV network is linked to the state. As such, there may be reason to suspect organized crime is behind the attacks.


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Religious and Racial Strife in Western Burma

Although Burma (Myanmar) has seen substantial reform over the past few months, several deeply entrenched conflicts create major obstacles for the country’s transition. According to The Irrawaddy, tensions in the western Arakan region recently exploded into violence when “300 people stopped a bus carrying Muslims from a religious gathering, dragged out the 10 occupants, beat them to death and burned the vehicle in Taunggup…” The attack occurred in retaliation for the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist girl by three Muslim youths.

Burmese Muslim leaders were incensed not only by the actions of the mob, but also by the descriptions of the incident carried by the state-run media. In several report, the victims of the bus attack were referred to as “Kalars,” a pejorative Burmese term used for foreigners, especially those of South Asian extraction. Democracy advocates in Burma are also upset by the use of the term, which was quickly denounced by leaders of the 88 Generation Students group.

Most of the Muslims of Arakan are Rohingyas, a people of South Asian origin who speak a language closely related to Bengali. The Rohingyas of Burma have been victims of discrimination and worse for some time; a recent Times of India article describes them as “among the world’s most persecuted people,” noting that in the early 1970s they were stripped of their nationality and more than 200,000 were forced out of the country. Most of those displaced from Burma have been languishing in dismal camps in Bangladesh ever since, although many have sought refuge, often unsuccessfully, elsewhere. In 2011, however, the Burmese government agreed to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees.

Prejudice against the Rohingyas in Burma is both religions and racial in nature. Racial animosity, as well as opposition to it, can easily be gleaned from the comments posted on articles about the issue. One commentator on The Irrawaddy website, for example, opined, “Asians look like Burmese, Chinese, Thai, Japanese. These people look like middle eastern and indians. They don’t Belong in Myanmar, so GET OUT. We should have Nation wide Votes to kick them out before they convert everyone of us to Musilims” – to which the next commentator responded, “If you do not like Indian face, how would you love holy lord Buddha!!!”


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Rioting Threatens Zanzibar’s Tourist Economy

Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous island in the country of Tanzania, is still reeling from widespread rioting in late May. At that time, members of an Islamist separatist movement allegedly set fire to two churches and clashed with the police. The Zanzibar government accuses the leadership of Uamsho, or the Islamic Revival Forum, of ordering its followers into the streets to cause havoc. Uamsho leader Sheikh Farid Hadi Ahmed denies the charges and has condemned the rioting, but also insists that he will not rest until Zanzibar is liberated from Tanzanian rule. Ahmed claim to be following a peaceful path to separation, stating that “We need a referendum about the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Let the people decide whether or not they need this union.”

Zanzibar’s secular government is concerned that the unrest will damage its tourism industry. Tourism is currently responsible for roughly a quarter of Zanzibar’s gross domestic product (GDP) and generates almost three quarters of its foreign currency. Some 200,000 foreign tourists visit the island each year, about 70,000 of whom are British. Officials in Zanzibar’s government were thus distressed when the “British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) issued an advisory statement, cautioning British tourists visiting Zanzibar to be cautious in the places hit by violence, telling them to keep away.” In response, the island’s President Ali Mohamed Shein intensified security and then “banned public gatherings that are bent on discussing the future of the Union, advising the people to wait for the Constitutional Review Commission which is entrusted with the task.”

Zanzibar was long linked to Oman but became a British protectorate in 1890. It was briefly an independent state in 1963 and early 1964 before joining Tanganyika to form the new republic of Tanzania. Relations between the mainland and the semi-autonomous island have long been strained. Zanzibar’s leaders stress the island’s autonomy and its status as a state, irritating Tanzania’s leadership. The resulting terminological debates can be intricate. As the Wikipedia reports, “In 2008, Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete tried to silence the matter when he addressed the nation in a live conference by saying that Zanzibar is a state internal but semi-state international.”

Religious tensions exacerbate Zanzibar’s problems. The island’s population is reportedly 95 Muslim and five percent Christian, and Islamist organizations are increasingly influential. Christian leaders claim that their followers are under pressure to leave the island, and they allege that plots have been established to destroy all Zanzibari churches. Islamists youths have on occasion have attacked bars, further jeopardizing the tourism economy. Under Islamist pressure, Zanzibar’s government outlawed homosexual relations in 2004. Two years later, a major controversy erupted when the Islamist group Uamsho threatened to hold massive demonstrations after rumors began to circulate that the island’s government would officially commemorate the birthday of the late Freddy Mercury, the gay leader of the British glam band Queen. Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara to Parsi (Zoroastrian) parents in Zanzibar in 1946.

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Flame Malware Spreads through the Middle East

In 2010, the Stuxnet worm made global headlines as it attacked the Iranian nuclear program. Described by the Wikipedia as “the first discovered malware that spies on and subverts industrial systems,” Stuxnet was identified by the Belarussian antivirus software vendor, VirusBlokAda. Currently, a vastly larger and more powerful malware program called Flame (or sKyWIper) is infecting computers in Iran and neighboring countries. Flame, recently identified by the Russian anti-virus firm Kaspersky Lab, is so sophisticated that it might have been present, undetected, for years. According to a recent article in Wired, Flame’s “complexity, the geographic scope of its infections and its behavior indicate strongly that a nation-state is behind Flame, rather than common cyber-criminals — marking it as yet another tool in the growing arsenal of cyberweaponry.” The Wired article goes on to state that Flame is “designed primarily to spy on the users of infected computers and steal data from them, including documents, recorded conversations and keystrokes. It also opens a backdoor to infected systems to allow the attackers to tweak the toolkit and add new functionality.” According to another recent article, Flame has hit at least 600 computer systems thus far.

Speculations about the origin of Flame focus mostly on Israel and the United States. The fact that it is so large— 20 megabytes—has led to some interesting observations. One commentator on the Wired site (Lan8) joked about “Bloatware for malware, I LOVE it! Probably written in Redmond [home of Microsoft]. I wonder if you get a trial version of Warcraft with it?” Yet the same observer goes on more seriously to speculate that:

 [I]t’s the American version of the Israeli Stuxnet/DuQu … It seems to me that all the various components that do all the nifty little spy tricks seems like an American approach to spying (“give me everything you’ve got on….”) rather than the lean mean spying machine that was Stuxnet/DuQu, a more targeted and specific Russian/Israeli approach to similar ends.

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Smuggling Children into Somalia for their Safety?

The notion of smuggling toddlers into Somalia in order to enhance their safety and increase their opportunities in life might seem utterly ludicrous, yet such an event seems to have recently occurred. According to a credible news report, nine toddlers were brought into the country from Yemen by a couple that was “apprehended … when they failed to produce proper documents for the all nine toddlers.” Several of the youngsters are believed to be the biological children of the couple in question.

The story makes sense, however, when one realizes that the children were brought into Somaliland, a relatively stable and secure country that the international community regards as an illegitimate break-away state from Somalia, a non-functioning but nonetheless officially recognized country. Also significant is the fact that the children had previously been languishing in a refugee camp in Yemen—a country currently being overwhelmed by multiple rebellions and a massive refugee crisis.

The couple in question are neither Somali nor Yemeni, but are rather Oromo, the largest ethnic group of neighboring Ethiopia. Oromia is also the site of considerable geopolitical tension, as several insurgent groups there are fighting against the Ethiopian government.


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Continuing Tension in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip

Namibia is generally regarded as one of the most successful states of sub-Saharan Africa, with a stable, relatively democratic government, a high degree of press freedom, and a political-economic system that successfully translates wealth in natural resources (diamonds particularly) into broad-based gains in human wellbeing. Just this month, for example, Namibia announced that that it will be able to bring electricity to all rural schools in the country within five years, which would be a significant accomplishment in such a large, sparsely settled country.

Namibia, however, suffers from a major political dilemma in the Caprivi Strip, its long northeastern “panhandle,” a legacy of the European partitioning of Africa in the late 1800s. The people of the Strip are relatively isolated from the rest of country, and many have long held secessionist aspirations. A major push for independence was crushed in 1999, but fall-out from the event continues to generate tension. Trials of secession advocates continue, hundreds of suspects languish in prisons, and many Caprivian activists continue to advocate their cause from exile.

Such tensions intensified in mid April, as activists planned peaceful demonstrations, circulated petitions calling for the unconditional release of all political prisoners, and demanded a referendum on the political status of the Caprivi region. Such demands were rebuffed by the Namibian government, which refused permission for the planned demonstrations. Activists denounced the prohibition as unconstitutional, and vowed to continue the struggle through peaceful, legal means.

The upsurge in secessionist activities in the Caprivi Strip has been linked to recent events elsewhere in Africa, especially the proclamation of the new country of Azawad by the Tuareg movement of northern Mali. It has also been connected with the independence movement in Barotseland in neighboring Zambia, where “2,000 chiefs, indunas and headmen recently had a meeting where they demanded the secession from Zambia of the Western Province – formerly a British Protectorate.”

Meanwhile, villagers in the Caprivi Strip have been demanding help from the national government to protect their maize fields from rampaging elephants herds. According to a recent allAfrica article, neither the beating of massive drums nor the use of “chili bombs” have been sufficient to keep the elephants at bay. Locals are therefore asking for the instillation of electric fences to protect their crops and villages.


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Airlift of Tourists from Gilgit in Pakistan

Until recently, remote Gilgit-Baltistan (formerly the Northern Areas) was regarded as the safest part of Pakistan, a place where foreign tourists could still travel. Peace came to an end earlier this year with violent Sunni-Shia sectarian clashes. Mounting tension led to the establishment of an “indefinite curfew” in the town of Gilgit on April 3, as well as the suspension of traffic on the Karakoram Highway that links the region to the rest of the country. As a result, 120 tourists were stranded in Gilgit, most of them from Japan. The government of Pakistan responded by airlifting the travelers to safety last week, using a rugged C-130 aircraft, designed to land on unprepared runways.

On April 9, officials relaxed the curfew in Gilgit between the hours of 2:00 pm and 5:00 pm, stating that “people would not be allowed to wear jackets or chadar during this time period” (a move designed to prevent suicide bombings). On the same day, opposed protest rallies in the city by the Shia group Majlis Wahdat-i-Muslimeen (MWM) and the Sunni organization Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASJ) almost resulted in open bloodshed, due to “fiery speeches … from both sides with speakers blaming the other party for committing atrocities against people of their side.” The ASJ is now demanding that Gilgit-Baltistan be merged with Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir region, a move that would dilute the power of the region’s Shia (mostly Ismaili) establishment.

(map courtesy of Daniel Feher, at Free World Maps.Net. The map in question is available here.)

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The Ethnic Diversity of the Self-Declared State of Azawad

On April 6, 2012, the Tuareg rebels declared the independence of the territory under their control in northern Mali, deeming the country “Azawad.” Within hours, the Wikipedia had posted an article on The Independent State of Azawad, which it describes as “an unrecognised state that was unilaterally declared in 2012 after a conflict in which the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and other groups drove the Malian Army out of the territory claimed by Tuareg-led separatists.” Maps of Azawad immediately began to appear in numerous internet sites. On April 7, the New York Times ran an informative article by Lydia Polgreen on the break-way state, noting parallels with other unrecognized states and separatist movements in Africa. Without a doubt, Tuareg Rebellion and its self-declared state of Azawad have gained the attention of the global media.

Unmentioned in most reports, however, is the fact that the relatively densely inhabited southern part of “Azawad” is occupied largely by non-Tuareg peoples, which complicates the political situation considerably. As in-depth reporting, such as that of National Public Radio’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, shows, the Songhai, Fulfulde, and other indigenous residents of the middle Niger region are not happy with the self-declared country. As she reports:

[W] e think of the north and the Sahara Desert as being Tuareg country, but there are many, many other tribes who live there, the biggest being the Songhai, but there are also the Bella who used to be the slaves of the Tuaregs, and other smaller ethnic groups also live in the north. They held a meeting, those living in Bamako, the capital, yesterday to say, no. We are – we don’t want independence. We are part of Mali. We want to remain part of Mali.

To illustrate the situation on the ground, I have taken a Wikipedia map of Azawad and added the main non-Tuareg linguistic groups, based on the language maps found in Muturzikin.com. Muturzikin also shows northwestern Mali as Arabic- rather than Tuareg-speaking (Tamasheq), but sources vary considerably on this score. Also of note is the fact that most of the Tuareg-speaking region lies outside of the boundaries of Azawad, as can be seen on the inset map. Finally, it is also significant that the declared capital of Azawad is the city of Gao, which was historically the capital of the Songhai Empire.

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U.S. Drone Base on Australia’s Cocos Islands?

Cocos (Keeling) Islands

Australia recently announced that it might allow the United States to establish an airbase on its remote Indian-Ocean Territory of Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Such a base would be used primarily for a fleet of surveillance drones, but it has been suggested that it could potentially serve as a partial replacement for the massive U.S. military complex on the island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago, which is leased from the United Kingdom. Australia and the United States have recently heightened their military cooperation. The U.S. is establishing a contingent of Marines in the northern Australian city of Darwin, and negotiations are underway to station U.S. aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines in the Western Australian capital of Perth. Most observers link the enhancement of military ties between Australia and the U.S. to the rapid growth of the Chinese military.

The plans for the drone base have generated opposition in Australia. Shortly after the announcement was made, Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith insisted that the proposal was merely a ”long-term prospect.” Australian opposition leaders, however, stated that they have a ”very positive” attitude about the proposed base. Australian military experts caution that major investments would be necessary before the Cocos Islands could be transformed into a drone base: “The harbour is really a lagoon while the island lacks significant infrastructure such as a shopping centre and the limited supply of freshwater significantly affects the numbers of people the islands can sustain.”

The Indonesian government has formally objected to the proposal, stating that it “threatens Indonesian sovereignty and security.”

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