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Posts Tagged ‘Yemen

Leading Indicators

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Over the weekend protesters in Yemen became convinced that the government was using some sort of nerve agent against them. They’ve even filed an official request for the WHO to come investigate, though the chances of that happening whilst there is tense and active violence remains small. The evidence for this claim is, typically, fairly thin:

“The material in this gas makes people convulse for hours. It paralyzes them. They couldn’t move at all. We tried to give them oxygen but it didn’t work,” said Amaar Nujaim, a field doctor who works for Islamic Relief.

“We are seeing symptoms in the patient’s nerves, not in their respiratory systems. I’m 90 percent sure its nerve gas and not tear gas that was used,” said Sami Zaid, a doctor at the Science and Technology Hospital in Sanaa.

Mohammad Al-Sheikh, a pathologist at the same hospital, said that some of the victims had lost their muscular control and were forced to wear diapers.

“We have never seen tear gas cause these symptoms. We fear it may be a dangerous gas that is internationally forbidden,” Al-Sheikh said.

Those symptoms generally match with some symptoms associated with exposure to nerve agents. But it sounds wrong—sarin exposure, for example, usually starts with pupil contraction and shortness of breath, then leads to involuntary bodily functions like salivation, urination, and defecation, and eventually to convulsions which result in asphyxiation, coma, and death. I hate to say it like this, but if someone got a dose of nerve agent that was strong enough to knock them into a coma for several hours, they wouldn’t be angrily giving quotes to reporters soon afterward.

That doesn’t rule out any nerve agent, it just sounds weird (contrasted with Aum Shinrikyo attack on Tokyo’s subway, for example, the symptoms sound dissimilar). There are nerve agents beyond sarin, and it’s worth investigating.

What’s more worrying is how this is subtly changing the tone of the protests. Even accusations of using chemical weapons moves the conflict across some sort of red line, and when we consider those still-uncorroborated stories with the government’s expulsion today of four foreign journalists, it’s hard not to wonder what’s coming down the line. Those reporters had been covering, in depth, the violence the Saleh regime has used against protesters.

So, assuming both events a) happened and b) have meaning, what can we actually expect in Yemen? It’s not yet certain. What seems inescapable, however, is that the U.S.’s policy of detached neutrality probably makes less and less sense as events proceed.

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Written by Joshua Foust

March 14, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Posted in Analysis

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The Heat of the Moment

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It’s very easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment when analyzing political events. In the Middle East, it’s been clear that the utopian statements of many of the reporters covering the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen are based more on the euphoria of watching dramatic history unfold in real time than any sober consideration of the consequences these uprisings will have.

In Tunisia, the uprising happened in a dramatic, and tragic way. After his vegetable cart was stolen by a policewoman Last December, Mohammed Bouazizi, unable to get help or even recognition of his plight from the authorities, doused himself with petrol and lit himself on fire (he died January 4). The shocking suicide attempt sent ripples through Tunisian society, and his cause became a rallying cry for a series of protests that led, later in January, to the sudden resignation of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. It was a delirious moment, the first time in decades that a massive protest led to the downfall of an Arab autocrat. Now, so the conventional wisdom went, Tunisia can have freedom and democracy.

If only Tunisians felt the same optimism. The revolt and soft coup has led to a wave of emigration. The flood of refugees into Italy, for example, is so great it’s sparking a mini-crisis with the EU. The tourism industry, which is a major contributor to Tunisia’s economy, has been at a standstill for months. Even more importantly, they still don’t have a government, and people remain unsure of how to proceed with crafting a future for themselves.

Egypt faces a similar dilemma: yes, it was exhilarating to watch teeming crowds of people eventually force Hosni Mubarak to resign the presidency in some way. Yet all the protests have done so far is to replace a hated tyrant with a small cabal of Army officers. Rather than proceeding immediately to democracy, the military is instead threatening the protesters in an effort to dissolve the mass movement. As the protests change from anti-Mubarak to anti-military, it is not at all clear that Egypt will see a happy end to its revolt.

Both outcomes could have been foreseen (and were by the more cynical among us). Leaderless movements can be effective means of bringing down governments, but they are terrible at creating replacement governments—to do that requires leadership, coherent ideas (and even ideology, though not necessarily), and a plan for transitioning society from now to the future. Neither Egypt nor Tunisia have that in any great abundance.

So what about Yemen? There the situation has been different from Egypt and Tunisia: by and large, the protests have been carefully planned and proceeded relatively peacefully. One observer wryly noted after witnessing the protests, “By 3pm, traditionally Qat chewing time in Yemen, everyone had packed up and gone home.”

The main reason the protests have proceeded as they have in Yemen is because the opposition movement, while fractured and beset with in-fighting over specific issues, is still relatively organized. They have limited goals for their large protests (a reform of electoral laws allowing them a fair chance in the next election is at the top of their list), and adhere, with very few exceptions, to non-violence. This week, a smaller crowd of young protestersᾹthe New York Times says hundreds while the BBC says a thousand while the AFP says three thousand—marched at the Presidential Palace in Sanaa, angrily demanding the ouster of President Saleh. They were beaten back with sticks and rocks, and there are rumors that several were beaten with batons and arrested.

Still, this is far less violence, on a far smaller scale, than either Tunisia or Egypt saw (in both of those countries, hundreds of protesters have been killed by the government). And just as importantly, the major opposition groups have not participated in these smaller, more militant protests. They are not, in other words, in the mainstream of Yemen’s opposition movement.

This is important when pondering the importance of these protests to Yemen’s political environment. In the United States and Britain, protests of under a thousand people are so common as to be not worth reporting in any real sense—even when the demands are crazy, and the crowds far larger, there’s no speculation about the “stability” of the government or its ability to remain in control of itself. Yet, in Yemen, when vanishingly small numbers of people try to make a statement and get beaten back, it’s reported as if it’s on par with the millions of people who camped in the streets of Cairo for over two weeks to force out their dictator.

It is truly exciting to see people take to the streets in protest. In fact, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the emotions of the movement, even if you don’t really have a stake in them. But this tendency, which happens even among the very educated, of assigning huge importance to very small, routine events like a few hundred people at a protest march in Yemen, can obscure our ability to think clearly about these sorts of events. We can do with a little more sobriety.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 14, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Posted in Analysis, Objectivity

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On the Utility of Link Charts

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Intelwire recently published a fascinating link chart: Anwar al-Awlaki’s “social network.” I hope they permit my reposting the image here:

This chart is meant to catalog “Awlaki’s current social and inspirational connections to terrorism,” as part of an effort to “illustrate some of his reach and influence.” It is revelatory for several reasons: for one, it shows that Awlaki is something of a hub, but not a node for terrorist activity (in the sense of he seems to connect to loners more than networks for action). For another, he’s just not very good at planning terrorist attacks (which makes it so puzzling that Janet Napolitano would sound the alarm over AQAP, of which Awlaki is middle management).

This chart, however, is also limiting in many ways. This is, in part, because of the assumptions behind it—it doesn’t help us understand who influences or inspires Awlaki himself, for example. Anwar al-Awlaki is more than just a terrorist, he is a person operating in an environment native to his family. Nasser al-Awlaki, Anwar’s father, has been begging the media to stop “demonizing” his son. It is an understandable thing for a parent to not want to believe the worst about his child; but does this make Nasser an accessory to Anwar’s terrorism?

Obviously it does not. But if Anwar’s own father has a hard time publicly condemning his son for terrorism, what of the rest of the Awlaki tribe? What of the communities the Awlaki’s call home? If they are not constraining Anwar’s terrorist activities, should they be included in his social network of aspirational terror ties? What if they’re encouraging Anwar’s militancy, since people in Shabwa tend to vehemently oppose the government in Sanaa?

These are the sorts of expansive questions one must ask when building a network of a single figure’s ties, influences, and targets. Anwar al-Awlaki is not a single figure, standing astride a vast network of eager empty-vessel recruits awaiting radicalization and instructions. He is the product of a system, an environment of factors that inspire, shape, and just as importantly constrain his rhetoric and activities. We in the U.S. have no idea what those really are: we don’t know who his closest friends are, we don’t know what his family tells him in person, we don’t know who either inspires or discourages him in conversation and in his reading and research.

In other words, we lack information that is critical to understanding his exact motivations and capabilities and intent. Yet, for some reason, we feel very comfortable assigning him tremendous importance and blame in both regional and global terrorist circles… based on little more than after-the-fact dot connecting that may or may not reveal useful information about his ties and activities. Until we close that gap, and start researching the relevant social and environmental factors that shape Awlaki’s decision-making process (and thus, by extension, AQAPs), we will continue to grasp in the dark, not knowing what will come next.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 10, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Posted in Analysis, Case Studies

Tagged with , ,

Unpacking Assumptions

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J. Dana Stuster, an intern at CNAS, has written about Yemeni President Saleh’s succession in The Atlantic. It’s worth unpacking: starting with a number of minor errors that unfortunately add up, the piece is representative of how the assumptions we make can artificially constrain our analysis.

In Yemen, people have an expression for their form of government. They call it “decorative democracy,” a poor disguise for the military autocracy that Yemen has had for decades. The president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has weathered 32 years in office, including assassination attempts, national unification, and civil war. In the early 1990s, he created the veneer of democratic institutions (including an “opposition party”) mostly for the purpose of courting foreign aid; now, with an affiliate of al-Qaeda festering in his country’s rural interior, Saleh felt his U.S. aid was secure enough to flirt with the idea of abolishing term limits.

This isn’t quite right. Saleh didn’t invent the “veneer of democratic institutions” any more than he invented South Yemen (from which many opposition parties, not just the one noted here, come). Islah, which is perhaps what Stuster is referring to, was formed outside of Saleh’s own party, the GPC, as an amalgam of tribal leaders and Islamists. Unlike Saleh’s GPC, Islah is multi-polar, despite the strong personality and occasional dominance of Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, its nominal leader. Anyway, the point is, Yemen has a thriving, diverse, and raucous opposition movement—it is not the cynical invention of the president. More importantly, these opposition parties were not invented to score foreign aid; a strong case can be made for Saleh massaging the threat of al Qaeda to increase foreign aid (and he has done so successfully the last three years), but not political opposition. The assumptions that underlie this paragraph are wrong, in other words, and thus create a poor foundation for the rest of the argument.

It might have worked were it not for the timing. Yemenis have staged their own protests for political reform in the shadows of Tunisia and Egypt, even naming February 3 their own “Day of Rage.” Saleh has disowned the constitutional amendment that would have abolished term limits, as well as rumors that he was grooming his son for the presidency, and on February 2 he announced that he will not seek another term when his current term expires in 2013.

This, too, rests on some questionable assumptions about Yemen. For one, the “Day of Rage” turned out to be anything but—it was more like a “day of mostly polite pro- and anti-government qat chews.” There is zero evidence to support the claim that the riots in Egypt and Tunisia “inspired” the protests in Yemen. So without those two critical assumptions, Saleh’s decision to rapidly back away from an unpopular decision loses most of its importance, thus undermining this paragraph’s main argument.

The rest of the piece devolves into Kremlinology—an outsider’s assessment of the strengths of various political figures inside and outside Yemen’s mainstream politics. It might be true, or it might now. Frankly, no one really knows, though I share Greg Johnsen’s skepticism of Ali Mohsen’s supposed ambitions. Johnsen also ably deconstruct’s Stuster’s misleading description of al-Zindani’s supposed connections to terrorism, none of which amount to more than rumors and guesswork.

At the end of the day, that is what we’re left with when discussing the post-Saleh political landscape. We have rumors (this guy did this, that guy likes that) and guesswork (he’ll probably do this, he’ll probably not do that). It makes a poor basis for analysis. Saying that Egypt and Yemen are similar because both have fragmented opposition movements is not only not very accurate but it draws a misleading analogy to simplify and gloss over what is, again, rumor and guesswork. Stating up front that that is all we’re working with is fine—there is nothing wrong with either rumors or guessing—but to present that as fact or informed analysis is, at best, misleading.

Further reading: Stacey Philbrick Yadav has written an excellent piece for the Middle East Report: “No Pink Slip for Salih: What Yemen’s Protests Do (and Do Not) Mean.” It is important in that it focuses on the political context of these protests, but highlights the role the U.S. plays in making Yemen’s politics worse off. “The US,” she writes, “does not seem to be listening to the opposition’s claim that meaningful political reform is the only sure path to more equitable and sustainable development.” It’s worth keeping that in mind as the new Kremlinologists dream of what future turmoil will engulf Sanaa.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 9, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Posted in Analysis, Case Studies

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