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Boston and the expanding danger of Chechen Islamist jihad

The media attention focused on the Boston Marathon bombers has continued to emphasise their Chechen origins, but there has been little investigation as to why the brothers attacked such a popular, internationally oriented gathering. One clue might lie with the longstanding conflict in the remote region of Chechnya.

Two Chechen-born, US naturalised brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have been identified as suspects in the bombing. Tamerlan, named after the 14th century Turkish-Mongol leader who established an empire stretching from Turkey to Tibet, and Dzhokhar, enjoying the name of the first leader of the post-Soviet break-away Chechen state, are thought to be linked to a 12-strong terrorist sleeper cell.

The FBI had interviewed Tamerlan two years ago regarding his interest in jihadist Islam after the agency was tipped off by the Russian government he could be a security threat. Nothing, however, was found to hold him. In January last year, Tamerlan returned to his native Chechnya and to nearby radicalised Dagestan for several months. He returned as a ready and waiting jihadist.

There is no particular connection between Chechnya, Dagestan and the US, nor has the US a history of involvement in the area. Chechen terrorist attacks outside Chechnya have been directed at Russia, and Russia and the US have long pursued very different and often competing foreign policy agendas. At a different stage of the Chechens' struggle with Russia, the US might even have been seen as an ally.

Along with the rest of central Asia, Chechnya came under Mongol rule from the 13th century but, when the Mongol empire collapsed, it came under Russian domination. In order to counter this new invader, the Chechens sought the protection of the Ottoman Empire and converted to Sunni Islam. By the late 18th century, Russia had expanded into the Caucasus region, formally incorporating Chechnya in the early 1800s. The Chechens rebelled against Russia during the 19th century and whenever Russia, or its successor, the Soviet Union, was weak. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Chechnya again pushed for independence, but its role as a key hub in Russia’s oil industry led to Russian repression and two brutal wars in which war crimes became commonplace.

Islam and national identity had long been fused in Chechnya and increasingly melded with jihadist Islam. Over the past 20 years, a radical jihadi ideology took over from the nationalist cause. Chechen jihadists are now found in jihadist war zones as far apart as Afghanistan and Mali in West Africa. Just as London experienced home-grown Islamist terrorism in 2005, it appears that Boston has experienced a similar attack.

But while the world increasingly focuses on the backstory of the Boston bombers, its view is distracted from events elsewhere. On the day three people were killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, 10 people were killed in terrorist bombings in Iraq and 75 the day after, with hundreds more injuries. Six more were killed the day after that. On the same day, around 160 people, including 30 children, were killed in Syria, and again hundreds more were injured. This is not to mention so many other places in the world regularly and consistently racked by violence.

The Boston bombing has caused the West to sit up and take notice. Again. But complacency and a limited perspective sometimes mean it misses the bigger and much more troubling picture.

Food allergies and intolerances explained

Food allergies and food intolerances are two very separate things, yet are easily confused. Knowing the differences between them determines how best to diagnose and treat them.

Why it’s ok to diss Gwyneth, but not Beyonce

Oscar-winning actress and self-styled lifestyle adviser Gwyneth Paltrow has featured in the press recently, coinciding with the launch of her second book It’s All Good: Delicious, Easy Recipes that Will Make You Look Good and Feel Great. The book reportedly presents a range of healthy recipes from Gwyneth’s own kitchen, accompanied by salubrious photos of the actress. The impetus for book, the second by the actress, was a health scare and consequent reassessment of her lifestyle – including diet.

However, it is less the book itself – which I point out I am yet to read – but more the responses in which I am interested. Among these are comments that criticise its author for the diet she advocates, the ingredients, time and resources needed to prepare the food, and her general authority to speak on such matters as diet and lifestyle.

Australia playing Sri Lanka's authoritarian game

In the dog-whistle competition between major political parties against asylum seekers and the war on alleged "terrorism", the Australian government has jailed legitimate refugees, without charge, for reasons -- extraordinarily -- we are not allowed to know about. Opposition Senator George Brandis claims refugees who are deemed a "security threat" should be jailed because they entered Australia "illegally", parroting the patently misleading line put by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

The government is more careful, simply saying a group of asylum seekers who have been granted refugee status have been found to be a security threat. Prime Minister Julia Gillard says we should not second-guess ASIO's security assessment of asylum seekers who are found to be genuine refugees but who have had an adverse security assessment:

"They know about things like the conflict in Sri Lanka. They use the best intelligence they can to give us the best advice they can. So any suggestion that these people are just naively ringing up governments around the world and saying 'What do you reckon?' is not fair to those intelligence analysts and you should not create that perception in people's minds."

This admonishment not to ask questions, however, runs contrary to what is known about the way in which the Australian government reached previous determinations on the issue. In terrorism trials against three Sri Lankan Tamil Australians in 2010, the Australian Federal Police relied on evidence provided directly by the Sri Lankan government. That case failed on the grounds that the Tamil Tigers, with which the defendents were allegedly connected, was not actually proscribed as a terrorist organisation in Australia.

While ASIO is not just naively ringing up governments around the world, at least one government is "ringing up" Australian security agencies and providing information. That information, from a government that is under scrutiny for war crimes and continuing human rights violations, has been deeply biased, hence flawed and quite often wrong.

The ASIO finding that some Tamil refugees remain committed to achieving a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka coincides with the Sri Lankan government's own assessment of their continuing, and self-serving, threat to that state. The Tamil Tigers were destroyed in 2009, along with the deaths of some 40,000 civilians, and they no longer exist.

But in Sri Lanka, Tamils are still persecuted and "disappeared", Tamil women are r-ped, and even non-Tamil Sri Lankans are increasingly living under the Rajapaksa government's jackboot. Journalists are targeted for assassination, the high court has been emasculated, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa has removed restraints on his personalised rule.

But, having fled this environment in fear of their lives, as found by the Refugee Tribunal, former combatants or or pro-independence sympathisers are now being jailed, under secret terms that, on the face of it, fit neatly with Sri Lanka’s authoritarian regime.

Racism in public: Why the majority will be silent no longer.

In response to a number of highly publicised events where people from minority religious, ethnic or other cultural backgrounds have been approached on public transport and subjected to a tirade of racist abuse in Melbourne, columnist Tim Soutphommasane wrote in The Age earlier this month that while racism cannot be entirely eradicated from society, it is time that onlookers confronted acts of public racism as a matter of civic responsibility.

What Australia owes Iraq 10 years after the war began

The 10-year anniversary of the Iraq war serves as a unique opportunity to measure the costs of the intervention, to assess the successes and failures of the goals of the war and to assess Australia’s obligations.

Let’s start with the costs. According to official figures, 4486 US military and 319 other coalition troops died during Operation Iraqi Freedom, which cost US taxpayers $806 billion. No reliable public estimate exists on how much the war cost the Australian taxpayer. In Iraq the cost was much higher. Although estimates vary on the exact figures, approximately 162,000 Iraqis have died and an untold number injured. The war has also resulted in around 1.24 million internally displaced people and 1.6 million refugees, and many people have migrated out of Iraq since 2003.

Leaked cables: US predicts Timor invasion, 'keep us out of it'

The leak of the so-called "Kissinger Cables" has shown that while the US expected Indonesia would invade what was then Portuguese Timor in 1975, it did not wish to be implicated in the affair. A cable dated August 16, 1975 said that the US' "only secret" regarding Portuguese Timor was its desire not to become involved.

The cable stated that while Indonesia's "incorporation" of Portuguese Timor would be the outcome most "beneficial" for locals and the most likely to ensure regional stability, the "decision … is not for us to make, and we are determined not to become involved in the process". The cable noted that if Indonesia used aggression in the incorporation, it could have negative repercussions for military support for Indonesia.

The cable appears to show little understanding of events in Portuguese Timor at this time, given that the local UDT party, influenced by Indonesian disinformation, had attempted to stage a coup on August 10. By August 16, Fretilin forces had all but defeated the UDT and its pro-Indonesia Apodeti allies.

Perhaps the most importand aspect of the leaked cable is that it confirms the expectation of Indonesia's invasion, more than two weeks before another leaked cable, on September 4, 1975, said that Indonesia's then acting foreign minister, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, acting on behalf of president Suharto, had proposed that Australia join with Indonesia, Portugal and Malaysia in sending UN-sanctioned peace-keeping troops to oversee Portuguese Timor’s decolonisation. The cable says the Australian embassy in Jakarta had responded negatively to the suggestion, given that then prime minister Gough Whitlam had previously refused to consider such an overture from Portugal.

By September 4, UDT and Apodeti forces had been defeated and already retreated across the border into West Timor, where they were re-organising with the support of -- and as a front for -- the Indonesian military. By September 4, too, Australia almost certainly knew that the Indonesian proposal was intended to obscure its intention to invade Portuguese Timor. It was already known by Australian diplomats that Indonesia's military intelligence had been fomenting a disinformation campaign about the dominant Fretilin party since earlier in the year, and promoting its local front party, Apodeti.
A Jakarta think-tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, closely linked to the Indonesian military and the generals who later led the invasion, had already drawn up plans for Portuguese Timor's "integration" into Indonesia. The CSIS had close relations with Australia's ambassador to Jakarta, Richard Woollcott, who in August 1975 recommended that Australia should accept the inevitability of the impending Indonesian invasion.

Whitlam had told parliament on 2 September that no definite proposal for including Australian peace-keepers had been put which, at this stage, was correct. The cable, however, reveals a more nuanced and considered response from Whitlam than has previously been portrayed by what appeared to be his acquiescence to, if not promotion of, Indonesia’s takeover of Portuguese Timor. A September 3 cable says that Australia could consider humanitarian assistance to Portuguese Timor, which Indonesia had earlier rejected. But it showed Whitlam would not countenance anything that had a "colonial character", such as sending troops.

Whitlam's concern at this time reflected the method of Indonesia's incorporation of West Papua in 1969, through a much-criticised show of hands by 1025 hand-picked tribal leaders. It also reflected Whitlam's support for the subsequent "Barwick Doctrine" of Australia not involving itself in prolonging unsustainable colonial arrangements.

The leaked cables add detail to understanding the events that led to Indonesia’s invasion of Portuguese Timor, which had unofficially begun in early October 1975 and officially on December 8. Most notably, they show how poor much US information was on relevant events at this time.

Almost four decades later, and more than a decade after Timor-Leste "restored" its independence, the cables are an awkward footnote to the now surprising closeness of relations between Timor-Leste and Indonesia.

Eating: what memories are made of

The memory of what we believe we have eaten in a recent meal is now considered an important part of regulating our appetite and hunger.

What drives us to desire food is a complex mix of hormones, psychology and physiology. One new research frontier being explored is how our recent memory of what we have eaten (termed episodic memory) can modify future food intake.

Myanmar's religious violence threatens reform agenda

Myanmar's reform program is being challenged by continuing anti-Muslim rioting, which has left 43 dead and hundreds injured in the past two weeks. The rioting has now extended beyond Rakhine State across central Myanmar (formerly Burma), with "well-organised" anti-Muslim riots in 11 Burmese cities and towns, including its second city of Mandalay, where a state of emergency has been declared, and to Pegu, just north of Rangoon.

Security forces have been accused of being unable or unwilling to control the rioting. Although Myanmar has long had a history of religious intolerance, there are also concerns the riots are being organised by factions opposed to the country's recent reforms. The anti-Muslim rioting by Buddhist nationalist extremists started in Rakhine State last December, where it left more than 180 dead. There have been reports of extremist Buddhists from Sri Lanka working with counterparts in Myanmar to promote a radical, religious-based, nationalist agenda. Burmese and Sri Lankan Buddhist communities have long had close ties, with Sri Lanka's extremist Buddhists at the forefront of Sri Lanka's increasingly authoritarian turn.

The United Nations' human rights envoy to Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, says the reluctance of security forces to crack down on the unrest suggests a possible state link to the fighting. "I have received reports of state involvement in some of the acts of violence, and of instances where the military, police and other civilian law enforcement forces have been standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes," he said. "This may indicate direct involvement by some sections of the state or implicit collusion and support for such actions."

A government spokesman has denied state involvement in the riots. President Thein Sein, who has instituted many of Myanmar's recent reforms, has warned he would use force if necessary to protect lives and property from the violence. He has said "political opportunists and religious extremists" have been involved in orchestrating the anti-Muslim violence.

While there is some possibility that religious extremists are taking advantage of Myanmar's increasing openness to press for a form of ethnic cleansing, there continues to be a military faction in the country's government opposed to its reform program. The anti-reform group has consistently been on the back foot over the past year, being replaced in senior government posts by pro-reform officers. However, the rise of religious violence has bolstered an anti-reform nationalist agenda.

Thein Sein has responded to the riots by convening a high-powered "committee" to identify and "take severe action" against the organisers of the riots. The "committee" is headed by Myanmar's Minister for Home Affairs, Lt. General Ko Ko, Aung Min (Thein Sein's "fix-it" minister without portfolio) and chief of police Brigadier General Kyaw Kyaw Tun.

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