Slain US special forces troops on apparent assassination mission in Niger

By Bill Van Auken
25 October 2017

Three weeks after four US special forces soldiers were killed in a firefight in the landlocked West African nation of Niger, information has surfaced indicating that the American troops and their Nigerien counterparts were involved in a “capture-kill” mission aimed at the leader of a local Islamist militia operating on the Niger-Mali border.

The White House and the Pentagon has provided only a trickle of information about the abortive October 4 operation. The incident came to the public eye largely because of President Donald Trump’s initial failure to say anything about the largest loss of US military personnel since he took office, along with his subsequent lies about contacting families of slain troops and his shameful public confrontation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of the four Green Berets killed in Niger, over a callous condolence call.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Monday that the Green Berets had been engaged in a “simple reconnaissance mission,” and described the overall purpose of deploying some 1,000 US special operations troops in Niger as a “train, advise and assist mission” to support the Nigerien security forces.

It appears that Dunford’s comments were deliberately misleading on both counts.

NBC News Tuesday cited “multiple US officials” as recounting that the US detachment of 12 US special forces troops and 30 Nigerien soldiers had been on what was effectively an assassination mission, aimed at killing a senior leader of a local Islamist militia.

NBC reported: “One theory, said an official with direct knowledge of the military’s investigation, is that the soldiers were gathering information about the target, and, after learning his whereabouts, decided to pursue him. A big question would then be whether the unit got authorization, and whether the risks were assessed.”

It added that the ill-fated Niger mission was conducted under the mantle of Operation Juniper Shield, a program begun under the Obama administration and continued under Trump, which is directed at using US military force to “disrupt or neutralize” organizations deemed connected to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State across the Sahel region of central west Africa.

This military intervention is being conducted in coordination with the French military, which is waging an even more intense neocolonial operation in neighboring Mali. Both countries have mounted a campaign against an insurgent group known as Al-Mourabitoun, which has been active throughout the region. Last January, Al-Mourabitoun took responsibility for a suicide bombing against a military base in the city of Gao in Mali, killing 77. Previous attacks have targeted foreigners in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, while in 2013 the group seized a gas facility in Algeria, leading to a confrontation in which all 39 of its hostages were killed.

According to the sources cited by NBC, the Green Beret team involved in the October 4 firefight, officially known as Operational Detachment Alpha or ODA, was involved in an “intelligence-directed operation,” which included a meeting with an individual purported to have information on the whereabouts of an Islamist militant known as Abnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, who is believed to be the leader of at least one section of Al-Mourabitoun.

While the precise way in which the ambush that led to the deaths of the four US special forces troops remains shrouded in mystery, military sources have suggested that the unit was set up by hostile elements of the local population, who either led them into a trap or gave away their location to the Islamist insurgents.

Leading members of the US Senate and House—including Democratic Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Senators John McCain (chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee) and Lindsey Graham—have claimed to have been kept in the dark by the Pentagon on the escalating US intervention in the region and expressed surprise that up to 1,000 US special forces troops are deployed in Niger and on its borders.

A closed-door hearing has been scheduled for Thursday in which two senior Pentagon officials will deliver a classified briefing to the Senate Armed Services panel. The session was scheduled after McCain threatened to subpoena the administration for more information on the Niger operation.

In reality, the steadily escalating US military intervention in Africa has been a fairly open secret, provoking disquiet only after the October 4 debacle.

In February 2013, the Obama White House announced that the first 100 US troops were being sent into Niger, with hundreds more to follow. At the time, it was revealed that Washington had signed an agreement with the Niger government allowing the US military to set up a drone base on the country’s territory, creating the conditions for spreading the Obama administration’s remote-control assassination spree throughout the region.

That base is now under construction in the city of Agadez, where the US is preparing major facilities to house and launch MQ-9 hunter-killer drones.

Last Friday, the Washington Post reported that the Pentagon is instituting a “status-based targeting” system in Niger allowing its troops to hunt down and employ lethal force against suspected members of Islamist insurgent groups “even if that person does not pose an immediate threat.” This appears to be what was involved in the abortive mission that claimed four US soldiers’ lives on October 4.

The employment of such assassination squads, along with drone killings and similar methods, will serve only to intensify civil war conditions throughout the region, providing the pretext for even greater US intervention.

Indeed, the principal source of the present conflict lies in the 2011 US-NATO war to topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, which shattered the tenuous equilibrium that Gaddafi had maintained among the Tuareg and other tribal groups in Niger and elsewhere in the Sahel. The rise of Islamist groups was directly tied to the utilization of Al Qaeda elements by Washington and its allies as proxy ground forces in the war for regime change that ended with Gaddafi’s lynching and the decimation of Libyan society. In the aftermath of the Libyan government’s fall, its arms stockpiles found their way into the hands of Islamist groups throughout the region.

In the midst of the roiling controversy over the troop deaths in Niger and Trump’s response, there has been a steadily escalating drumbeat from Democratic politicians and the media for Congress to debate the ongoing US military interventions and pass a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).

This found fresh expression Tuesday in a piece in the Washington Post by the ostensibly liberal columnist Eugene Robinson, who wrote: “Congress needs to do more than investigate the deaths. It needs to authorize this conflict—or shut it down.”

Robinson went on to describe the cabal of generals—Kelly, Mattis and McMaster—that largely controls the White House and the Trump administration’s foreign policy as “the last line of defense between our great nation and the abyss.”

At the same time, however, he suggested that this military domination of the administration made it all the more important for Congress to “reclaim its war-making powers” by passing a new AUMF.

Such columns reflect the increasing nervousness within ruling circles that the ugly controversy over Niger has lifted the lid on both the ever-expanding global military operations of the Pentagon and the increasingly open turn toward military control of the government at home. Any new AUMF passed by Congress, which long ago gave up even the pretense of defending its constitutional powers, will only provide a legislative fig leaf to facilitate this process.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/10/25/nige-o25.html

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Why is the US at war in West Africa?

By Eddie Haywood
14 October 2017

The October 4 killings of four US Green Berets in Niger has provided a rare glimpse into the far-reaching American military operations throughout the African continent which have been conducted almost entirely in secret.

Pentagon officials on Friday told reporters that the ambush was carried out by a self-radicalized group supposedly affiliated with ISIS. The Pentagon additionally admitted that at least 29 patrols similar to the one that was fatally ambushed have been carried out by American soldiers in Niger.

According to AFRICOM, the US military command based in Stuttgart, Germany, the US special forces deployed to Niger are tasked with providing training, logistics, and intelligence to assist the Nigerien military in fighting militants affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Mali and Boko Haram in neighboring Nigeria. AFRICOM has officially stated that its forces interact with the Nigerien army in a “non-combat advisory” capacity.

The circumstances surrounding the ambush which resulted in the deaths of the four Green Berets expose AFRICOM’s claim of non-engagement as a lie. The killings occurred during a joint patrol of elite American soldiers and Nigerien forces in a remote hostile region on the border with Mali known for frequent raids conducted by Islamist militants. Some 800 US commandos are deployed to bases in Niamey and Agadez making quite clear the offensive role that the American military is playing in Niger.

Underlining the incident is Niger’s configuration in Washington’s imperialist offensive across Africa. The expanding levels of US military forces arrayed across the continent have increasingly taken on the character of an occupying army. According to the Pentagon, there are a total of 1,000 American troops in the vicinity of the Chad River Basin which includes northern Niger, Chad, and the Central African Republic. An additional 300 troops are stationed to the south in Cameroon.

After its establishment in 2008 as an independent command, AFRICOM has significantly expanded American military influence and troop deployments on the African continent. Measuring the breadth of US military expansion is the construction of a $100 million base in Agadez in central Niger, from which the US Air Force conducts regular surveillance drone flights across the Sahel region.

Augmenting the special forces contingent in the region are military personnel stationed at several dozen bases and outposts including a US base in Garoua, Cameroon.

The special operations units in Africa have their genesis in 1980, after the Pentagon created Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to conduct a raid on the US embassy in Tehran, Iran to rescue American hostages. Over the years, SOCOM has vastly broadened its scope, and currently has forces stationed on every continent around the globe.

Made up of various units of the US military, including Green Berets, Delta Force, and Navy Seals, SOCOM carry out a broad spectrum of offensive operations including assassinations, counter-terrorism, reconnaissance, psychological operations, and foreign troop training. Under AFRICOM, these forces form a subgroup of SOCOM designated as Special Operations Command in Africa (SOCAFRICA).

Between 2006 and 2010 the deployment of US special forces troops in Africa increased 300 per cent. However, from 2010 to 2017 the numbers of deployed troops exploded by nearly 2000 per cent, occupying more than 60 outposts tasked with carrying out over 100 missions at any given moment across the continent.

The scale of the military expansion which began in earnest under the Obama administration is part of a renewed “scramble for Africa”, comprised of a reckless drive for economic dominance over Africa’s vast economic resources which threatens to transform the entire continent into a battlefield.

The immediate roots of the Niger ambush can be traced to the 2011 US/NATO war in Libya which resulted in the removal and assassination of Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi. Under the Obama administration, Washington cultivated and armed various Islamist militant groups with ties to Al-Qaeda as a proxy force to carry out its aim of regime change. The resulting US/NATO bombardment left Libyan society in shambles, and the Islamist fighters spilled forth and out across North Africa and south to the Sahel.

In 2012, as a consequence of a US and French backed coup against the government in Bamako, Tuareg rebels in Northern Mali took advantage of the chaos resulting from the coup to stage a rebellion. After the Tuareg militants began taking control over cities and territory as it cut deeper into southern Mali, France with the Obama administrations backing deployed 4,000 troops to the country to neutralize the Tuareg rebels, eventually stabilizing the government it placed in Bamako.

While the Tuareg rebellion may have been halted by the US-backed French offensive, Islamist fighters from Libya were pouring into Mali, with many taking up arms against the Western backed puppet government. The Islamist fighters largely united into one large group, declaring allegiance to Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). The military forces of Niger and Chad which participated in the US/French intervention in Mali have become frequent targets by the Islamist militants who began conducting cross-border raids and launched attacks on patrols and garrisons.

The rise of these warring Islamist militias which have transformed West Africa into a battlefield is the end result of Washington’s decades-long strategy in cultivating these forces as a proxy army in its wars for regime change, at first, in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and subsequently in Africa.

Underscoring France’s military deployment are the French economic interests it seeks to protect not only Mali, but throughout West Africa, the region which was once part of its colonial empire. In Niger, the French energy giant Arven has established mining operations extracting the country’s rich uranium resources.

For its part, Washington has enlisted the participation of the military forces of Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Mali in its drive for dominance of the Sahel and West Africa, with all of these countries featuring US outposts or bases.

A key element of Washington’s military expansion in the region are the significant economic resources that it aims to secure for American corporate interests. On behalf of these interests, and complimentary to its military operation, Washington has constructed a $300 million embassy in Niamey.

Washington’s military interventions in Africa must also be seen as an effort to offset China’s growing economic influence on the continent. Beijing in recent years has secured investment deals with African governments in nearly every sector of Africa’s economy.

China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) purchased the permit for oil drilling in Niger’s Agadem Basin, and CNPC also constructed and operates the Soraz refinery near Zinder, Niger’s second largest city. Deals by Beijing for the construction of pipelines traversing through Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Cameroon are currently in the development stage, causing no small amount of consternation in Washington.

WSWS

Sixteen years after 9/11: lies, hypocrisy and militarism

12 September 2017

The sixteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks that killed more than 2,900 people in the United States were marked once again on Monday with ceremonies at the site of the World Trade Center’s demolished Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania where one of four hijacked planes crashed as passengers fought to regain control of the aircraft.

Thousands gathered in New York City for the solemn reading of the names of those who lost their lives to a criminal and reactionary terrorist attack that served only the interests of US and world imperialism, which ever since have exploited the events to justify wars of aggression and attacks on democratic rights the world over.

The genuine emotions of sorrow and remembrance shared by those who lost loved ones on 9/11 once again stood in sharp contrast to the banality and hypocrisy of the official commemorations staged by US officials.

This longstanding dichotomy reached a new level with the main speech of the day delivered by the fascistic billionaire con-man President Donald Trump at the Pentagon Monday. Trump, whose first reaction on the day of the attacks was to brag—falsely—that the toppling of the Twin Towers had made his own property at 40 Wall Street the tallest building in lower Manhattan, delivered remarks that consisted of barely warmed-over platitudes from previous addresses, repeated tributes to the American flag and a vow to “defend our country against barbaric forces of evil and destruction.”

Trump repeated the well-worn cliché that on September 11 “our whole world changed.” The phrase is meant to suggest that the unending wars, police state measures and sweeping changes in American political life over the past 16 years have all been carried out in response to the supposedly unforeseen and unforeseeable events of September 11, having nothing to do with anything that came before.

That this is a cynical and self-serving lie becomes clearer with every passing year.

On the eve of the anniversary, new revelations emerged linking Saudi Arabia, Washington’s closest ally in the Arab world, to the preparation of the September 11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. The corporate media, which published nothing of any significance on the anniversary, largely blacked out this new evidence. The New York Timesmarked the anniversary with an editorial detailing efforts by the New York City medical examiner to identify human remains.

A federal lawsuit on behalf of the families of some 1,400 of the 9/11 victims has presented evidence that the Saudi embassy in Washington financed what was apparently a “dry run” for the 9/11 attacks in 1999. Two Saudi agents posing as students boarded an America West flight from Phoenix to Washington, D.C. with tickets paid for by the Saudi embassy. The lawsuit states that both men had trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan with some of the 9/11 hijackers. While on the flight, the two asked flight attendants technical questions about the plane that raised suspicions and twice attempted to enter the cockpit, leading the pilot to carry out an emergency landing in Ohio. Both men were detained and questioned by the FBI, which decided not to pursue any prosecution.

This is only the latest in a long series of revelations that have made it abundantly clear that the events of 9/11 could never have taken place without substantial logistical support from high places. Despite the repeated claims that the attacks “changed everything,” there has never been an independent and objective investigations into how they were carried out. And, despite being what is ostensibly the most catastrophic intelligence failure in American history, no one was ever held accountable with so much as a firing or a demotion.

What evidence has emerged makes it clear that the 9/11 hijackers were able to freely enter the country and attend flight schools despite the fact that a number of those involved had been subjects of surveillance by the CIA and FBI for as long as two years before the attack. Two of them actually lived in the home of an FBI informant.

Twenty-eight pages of heavily redacted documents released in 2016 after being concealed from the public for 13 years established that Saudi intelligence officers funneled substantial amounts of money to the hijackers in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks, while assisting them with finding housing as well as flight schools to attend.

While Saudi Arabia was the government most active in carrying out the September 11 attacks, the involvement of Saudi intelligence really means the involvement of a section of the American state apparatus. This is not a matter of conspiracy theories, but established fact. It is bound up with very real conspiracies involving the CIA, Afghanistan and Al Qaeda going back to the Islamist group’s founding as an arm of Washington’s dirty war against the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Far from the attacks having “changed everything,” they provided the pretext for acts of military aggression long in preparation. In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union a decade earlier, the ruling class initiated a policy developed to use US military might to offset the decline of American capitalism on the world arena. Afghanistan and Iraq were targeted to secure military dominance over two major oil- and gas-producing regions on the planet, the Caspian Basin and the Middle East.

This thoroughly criminal enterprise, justified in the name of 9/11’s victims, has claimed the lives of over 1 million Iraqis and hundreds of thousands of Afghans and unleashed the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

The invocation of a “war on terror”—passed down from Bush to Obama and now to Trump—to justify these crimes has become not only threadbare, but patently absurd. The results of 16 years of uninterrupted US wars of aggression have included an unprecedented growth of Al Qaeda and related Islamist militias, largely as a result of US imperialism’s utilization of these elements as proxy ground forces in wars for regime change in Libya and Syria.

Moreover, the multiple wars and interventions conducted by the Pentagon and the CIA, from North Africa to Central Asia, can quickly metastasize into a global conflagration, with Washington simultaneously threatening nuclear war against North Korea and pursuing increasingly dangerous confrontations with its principal geo-strategic rivals, Russia and China.

September 11 did not “change everything,” but it did mark the beginning of an escalation of what George W. Bush called the “wars of the twenty-first century,” that is, escalating imperialist aggression that is leading mankind toward a third world war.

Bill Van Auken

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/09/12/pers-s12.html

Understanding the geopolitics of terrorism

8 June 2017

The latest in a long series of bloody terrorist attacks attributed to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) unfolded in Iran early Wednesday with coordinated armed assaults on the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) and the mausoleum of the late supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Imam Khomeini. At least 12 people were killed and 43 wounded.

The reactions of the US government and the Western media to the attacks in Tehran stand in stark contrast to their response to the May 22 bombing that killed 22 people at the Manchester Arena and the London Bridge attacks that claimed nine lives last Saturday.

The Trump White House released a vicious statement that effectively justified the killings in Iran, declaring, “We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote,” an attitude that found its reflection in the relative indifference of the media to the loss of Iranian lives. It is clearly understood that terrorism against Iran serves definite political aims that are in sync with those of US imperialism and its regional allies.

For its part, Tehran’s reaction to the attacks was unambiguous. It laid the responsibility at the door of the US and its principal regional ally, Saudi Arabia. “This terrorist attack happened only a week after the meeting between the US president (Donald Trump) and the (Saudi) backward leaders who support terrorists,” Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said in a statement, published by Iranian media. The attack was understood in Tehran as a political act carried out in conjunction with identifiable state actors and aimed at furthering definite geostrategic objectives.

The same can be said of the earlier acts of terrorism carried out in Manchester and London, as well as those in Paris, Brussels and elsewhere before them.

The Western media routinely treats each of these atrocities as isolated manifestations of “evil” or religious hatred, irrational acts carried out by madmen. In reality, they are part of an internationally coordinated campaign in pursuit of definite political objectives.

Underlying the violence on the streets of Europe is the far greater violence inflicted upon the Middle East by US, British and French imperialism, working in conjunction with right-wing bourgeois regimes and the Islamist forces they promote, finance and arm.

ISIS is itself the direct product of a series of imperialist wars, emerging as a split-off from Al Qaeda, which got its start in the CIA-orchestrated war by Islamist fundamentalists against the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan. It was forged in the US war of aggression against Iraq that killed close to a million Iraqis, and then utilized in the 2011 war to topple Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi. Fighters and arms were then funneled with the aid of the CIA into the war for regime change in Syria.

The latest round of terror has its source in growing dissatisfaction among Washington’s Middle Eastern allies and its Islamist proxy forces over the slow pace of the US intervention in Syria and Washington’s failure to bring the six-year war for regime change to a victorious conclusion.

The people giving the orders for these attacks live in upper-class neighborhoods in London, Paris and elsewhere, enjoying close connections with intelligence agencies and government officials. Far from being unknown, they will be found among the top ministers and government officials in Damascus if the US-backed war in Syria achieves its objectives.

Those who carry out the terrorist atrocities are expendable assets, foot soldiers who are easily replaced from among the broad layers enraged by the slaughter carried out by imperialism in the Middle East.

The mass media always presents the failure to prevent these attacks as a matter of the security forces failing to “connect the dots,” a phrase that should by now be permanently banned. In virtually every case, those involved are well known to the authorities.

In the latest attacks in the UK, the connections are astonishing, even given the similar facts that have emerged in previous terrorist actions. One of the attackers in the London Bridge killings, Yousseff Zaghba, was stopped at an Italian airport while attempting to travel to Syria, freely admitting that he “wanted to be a terrorist” and carrying ISIS literature. Another was featured in a British television documentary that chronicled his confrontation with and detention by police after he unfurled an ISIS flag in Regent’s Park.

The Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, was likewise well known to British authorities. His parents were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), who were allowed to return to Libya in 2011 to participate in the US-NATO regime-change operation against Muammar Gaddafi. He himself met with Libyan Islamic State operatives in Libya, veterans of the Syrian civil war, and maintained close connections with them while in Manchester.

What has become clear after 16 years of the so-called “war on terrorism”—going all the way back to the hijackers of 9/11—is that these elements move in and out of the Middle East, Europe and the US itself not only without hindrance, but under what amounts to state protection.

When they arrive at passport control, their names come up with definite instructions that they are not to be stopped. “Welcome home, sir, enjoy your vacation in Libya?” “Bit of tourism in Syria?”

Why have they enjoyed this carte blanche? Because they are auxiliaries of US and European intelligence, necessary proxies in wars for regime change from Libya to Syria and beyond that are being waged to further imperialist interests.

If from time to time these elements turn against their sponsors, with innocent civilians paying with their lives, that is part of the price of doing business.

In the aftermath of terrorist actions, governments respond with stepped-up measures of repression and surveillance. Troops are deployed in the streets, democratic rights are suspended, and, as in France, a state of emergency is made the overriding law of the land. All of these measures are useless in terms of preventing future attacks, but serve very well to control the domestic population and suppress social unrest.

If the mass media refuses to state what has become obvious after more than a decade and a half of these incidents, it is a measure of how fully the linkage between terrorism, the Western intelligence agencies and the unending wars in the Middle East has become institutionalized.

Innocent men, women and children, whether in London, Manchester, Paris, Tehran, Baghdad or Kabul, are paying the terrible price for these imperialist operations, which leave a trail of blood and destruction everywhere.

Putting a stop to terrorist attacks begins with a fight to put an end to the so-called “war on terrorism,” the fraudulent pretext for predatory wars in which Al Qaeda and its offshoots are employed as proxy ground forces, operating in intimate collaboration with imperialist intelligence services and military commands.

Bill Van Auken

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/06/08/pers-j08.html

Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could Be Wrong

WORLD
Journalists and public alike should regard all information about Syria and Iraq with reasoned skepticism.

Emergency responders following a reported barrel bomb attack by government forces in the Al-Muasalat area in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on November 6, 2014

The Iraqi army, backed by US-led airstrikes, is trying to capture east Mosul at the same time as the Syrian army and its Shia paramilitary allies are fighting their way into east Aleppo. An estimated 300 civilians have been killed in Aleppo by government artillery and bombing in the last fortnight, and in Mosul there are reportedly some 600 civilian dead over a month.

Despite these similarities, the reporting by the international media of these two sieges is radically different.

In Mosul, civilian loss of life is blamed on Isis, with its indiscriminate use of mortars and suicide bombers, while the Iraqi army and their air support are largely given a free pass. Isis is accused of preventing civilians from leaving the city so they can be used as human shields.

Contrast this with Western media descriptions of the inhuman savagery of President Assad’s forces indiscriminately slaughtering civilians regardless of whether they stay or try to flee. The UN chief of humanitarian affairs, Stephen O’Brien, suggested this week that the rebels in east Aleppo were stopping civilians departing – but unlike Mosul, the issue gets little coverage.

One factor making the sieges of east Aleppo and east Mosul so similar, and different, from past sieges in the Middle East, such as the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982 or of Gaza in 2014, is that there are no independent foreign journalists present. They are not there for the very good reason that Isis imprisons and beheads foreigners while Jabhat al-Nusra, until recently the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is only a shade less bloodthirsty and generally holds them for ransom.

These are the two groups that dominate the armed opposition in Syria as a whole. In Aleppo, though only about 20 per cent of the 10,000 fighters are Nusra, it is they – along with their allies in Ahrar al-Sham – who are leading the resistance.

Unsurprisingly, foreign journalists covering developments in east Aleppo and rebel-held areas of Syria overwhelmingly do so from Lebanon or Turkey. A number of intrepid correspondents who tried to do eyewitness reporting from rebel-held areas swiftly found themselves tipped into the boots of cars or otherwise incarcerated.

Experience shows that foreign reporters are quite right not to trust their lives even to the most moderate of the armed opposition inside Syria. But, strangely enough, the same media organisations continue to put their trust in the veracity of information coming out of areas under the control of these same potential kidnappers and hostage takers. They would probably defend themselves by saying they rely on non-partisan activists, but all the evidence is that these can only operate in east Aleppo under license from the al-Qaeda-type groups.

It is inevitable that an opposition movement fighting for its life in wartime will only produce, or allow to be produced by others, information that is essentially propaganda for its own side. The fault lies not with them but a media that allows itself to be spoon-fed with dubious or one-sided stories.

For instance, the film coming out of east Aleppo in recent weeks focuses almost exclusively on heartrending scenes of human tragedy such as the death or maiming of civilians. One seldom sees shots of the 10,000 fighters, whether they are wounded or alive and well.

None of this is new. The present wars in the Middle East started with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which was justified by the supposed threat from Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Western journalists largely went along with this thesis, happily citing evidence from the Iraqi opposition who predictably confirmed the existence of WMD.

Some of those who produced these stories later had the gall to criticise the Iraqi opposition for misleading them, as if they had any right to expect unbiased information from people who had dedicated their lives to overthrowing Saddam Hussein or, in this particular case, getting the Americans to do so for them.

Much the same self-serving media credulity was evident in Libya during the 2011 Nato-backed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.

Atrocity stories emanating from the Libyan opposition, many of which were subsequently proved to be baseless by human rights organisations, were rapidly promoted to lead the news, however partial the source.

The Syrian war is especially difficult to report because Isis and various al-Qaeda clones made it too dangerous to report from within opposition-held areas. There is a tremendous hunger for news from just such places, so the temptation is for the media give credence to information they get second hand from people who could in practice only operate if they belong to or are in sympathy with the dominant jihadi opposition groups.

It is always a weakness of journalists that they pretend to excavate the truth when in fact they are the conduit rather than the originator of information produced by others in their own interests. Reporters learn early that people tell them things because they are promoting some cause which might be their own career or related to bureaucratic infighting or, just possibly, hatred of lies and injustice.

A word here in defense of the humble reporter in the field: usually, it is not he or she, but the home office or media herd instinct, that decides the story of the day. Those closest to the action may be dubious about some juicy tale which is heading the news, but there is not much they can do about it.

Thus, in 2002 and 2003, several New York Times journalists wrote stories casting doubt on WMD only to find them buried deep inside the newspaper which was led by articles proving that Saddam had WMD and was a threat to the world.

Journalists and public alike should regard all information about Syria and Iraq with reasoned skepticism. They should keep in mind the words of Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria. Speaking after he had resigned in frustration in 2014, he said that “everybody had their agenda and the interests of the Syrian people came second, third or not at all”.

The quote comes from The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East by Christopher Phillips, which is one of the best informed and non-partisan accounts of the Syrian tragedy yet published. He judiciously weighs the evidence for rival explanations for what happened and why. He understands the degree to which the agenda and pace events in Syria were determined externally by the intervention of foreign powers pursuing their own interests.

Overall, government experts did better than journalists, who bought into simple-minded explanations of developments, convinced that Assad was always on the verge of being overthrown.

Phillips records that at a high point of the popular uprising in July 2011, when the media was assuming that Assad was finished, that the long-serving British ambassador in Damascus, Simon Collis, wrote that “Assad can still probably count on the support of 30-40 per cent of the population.”

The French ambassador Eric Chevallier was similarly cautious, only to receive a classic rebuke from his masters in Paris who said: “Your information does not interest us. Bashar al-Assad must fall and will fall.”

Patrick Cockburn is a Middle East Correspondent for the Independent. He has written four books on Iraq’s recent history—The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the Sunni Revolution, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, The Occupation, and Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession (with Andrew Cockburn)—as well as a memoir, The Broken Boy and, with his son, a book on schizophrenia, Henry’s Demons, which was shortlisted for a Costa Award. 

http://www.alternet.org/world/why-everything-youve-read-about-syria-and-iraq-could-be-wrong?akid=14961.265072.IftxtM&rd=1&src=newsletter1068352&t=16

On the eve of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the Aleppo gaffes show we have learned nothin

The foggy aftermath of Gary Johnson’s “What is Aleppo?” gaffe revealed how little U.S. policymakers know about ISIS

On the eve of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the Aleppo gaffes show we have learned nothing
Men inspect a damaged site after double airstrikes on the rebel held Bab al-Nairab neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, August 27, 2016. (Credit: Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail)

The 2016 campaign story of the week seemed to be Gary Johnson’s blunder during an MSNBC interview when he shockingly asked, “What is Aleppo?” That story, though, is really only the tip of the iceberg. The real story is the response to his gaffe. Quick to jump on the third-party presidential candidate for being woefully unprepared, political insiders and the media made a far worse error — the exact sort of error that led to our disastrous response to the 9/11 attacks.

Johnson couldn’t answer the question about what he would do about Aleppo. It’s bad news that a presidential candidate, even one from a third party with no shot of winning, could not recognize the name of one of the major cities in civil war-stricken Syria. This suggests that Johnson simply isn’t following the news related to one of most significant international crises today.

He later corrected his gaffe by saying he thought Aleppo was an acronym.  But the good news, is that Johnson didn’t pretend to know what it was. He didn’t just make something up or blather something incoherent as we might expect Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to do.

Johnson confessed ignorance, which shows a degree of integrity.

Not so with the corporate media and political insiders.

The New York Times committed the most egregious of the media mistakes. It chided Johnson for being wrong, then got it wrong itself. It started by describing Aleppo as the “de facto capital of ISIS.” (That would be Raqqa.) The Times then corrected that gaffe to state that Aleppo was the capital of Syria. (It is actually Damascus.) The Times finally changed its description of the city to simply be a “war-torn Syrian city.” As Salon’s Ben Norton reported, “There were five revisions to the Times story from 9:18 a.m. to 12:18 p.m. EST.”

On corporate TV news media, Joe Scarborough of MSNBC brought on Christopher Hill, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, who had fun mocking Johnson but also incorrectly identified the city: “But the capital of ISIS — very much in the news, especially in the past two days, but for last two years. And for him to draw that kind of blank — and, by the way, boy was that a blank stare on his face.” To make it worse, he wasn’t corrected.

And Richard Grenell, formerly the longest-serving U.S. spokesperson at the United Nations, also got it wrong and implied that Aleppo is controlled by ISIS, even though the organization doesn’t have a strong presence there. Norton pointed out Grenell, who has also become a prominent pundit, served as the national security spokesman for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.”

Both the corporate media and the political insiders it covers were simply wrong about basic facts regarding ISIS and the Syrian civil war. Not a little wrong — completely wrong. What’s worse is that these mistakes then go on to shape public perceptions. They fuel ideas about whether we should have “boots on the ground” in Syria and how we should handle the threat of ISIS.

But if we have no clue what these threats even are, how can we possible come up with a reasonable response?

Which brings me back to 9/11.

The attacks on the United States on 9/11 were a tragedy, but our response to them was a full-blown catastrophe. Even more important, our response was based in large part on a lack of knowledge of the basic players and a mistaken sense of geographical connections.

Consider that George W. Bush — who in 1999, as the Intercept reminds us, failed a pop quiz about the names of global leaders — ordered the disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq based on a series of mistaken associations and false “intelligence.” Now there seems to be significant evidence that many members of the Bush administration had been well aware that they were promulgating lies – but they were also surrounded by a team willing to accept the lies as truths.

The Bush administration was enabled by representatives of a corporate media all too happy to swallow their lies and ramp up the public for the war effort. As Raymond Bonner reported for The Atlantic, after the 9/11 attacks “journalists were swept up in the national feelings of fear and outrage — and failed to do their job.”

Recall from media coverage and political spin efforts the almost immediate association made between the 9/11 attackers, al-Qaida, the Taliban and the Afghan people.

Yet not one person on the 9/11 flights was Afghan or affiliated with the Taliban. The majority of the attackers were from Saudi Arabia. But those facts didn’t stop the association between Afghanistan and 9/11.

The rush to connect the Taliban with al-Qaida led to the worst possible outcome, since rather than negotiate with the Taliban, the United States pursued an aggressive push for war. As Foreign Policy Journal reported, members of the Taliban showed significant interest in handing over bin Laden; they just needed to be given a chance to do so while saving face.

Meanwhile, the U.S. media reported that the Taliban were intransigent. CNN, for instance, “reported that the Taliban [were] ‘refusing to hand over bin Laden without proof or evidence that he was involved’ in the 9/11 attacks.” But the truth was, as Abdul Salam Zaeef, an ambassador to Pakistan, explained, “deporting him without proof would amount to an ‘insult to Islam.’” But, “we are ready to cooperate if we are shown evidence,” he added. That interest in cooperation was absent in the media and political rhetoric because the truth of a collaborative Taliban didn’t match the desire for war.

The links between 9/11 and the Iraq War display an even greater breakdown in knowledge. CNN later reported that Bush and his team made 935 lies to the U.S. public in the two years from 9/11 to the start of the Iraq War. Those lies got media coverage, which then led to a massively misinformed public.

In 2003 the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found that a significant number of U.S. citizens linked Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi president, to 9/11 and al-Qaida to Iraq. There was also widespread misinformation about hidden “weapons of mass destruction” having been found in the country after the U.S. invasion, when they had not been. Twenty-five percent of those surveyed thought there was worldwide support for the war. Only 30 percent of those surveyed had none of these misperceptions.

It probably comes as no surprise that Fox News viewers scored the worst on misperceptions, with 80 percent of this group having at least one false belief about the war.

Both right after 9/11 and today political leaders and the media are too often misinformed on key facts central to issues being discussed. It’s not that they don’t know; it’s that they are wrong.

Thus, there is a significant gap between expressing Gary Johnson-like lack of knowledge and Christopher Hill-like mistakes. As scholars Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have pointed out, there’s a huge difference between being uninformed and misinformed. Folks who are uninformed can learn. Those who are misinformed are wrong. Nyhan and Reifler explained that misperceptions are extremely difficult to correct. It is far harder to change false beliefs than it is to educate someone in the first place.

As we consider the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we must realize that the problem is not just that so much public discourse is clueless; it’s that it is delusional. It’s not simply that we don’t know; it’s that we make things up then act on false information.

Before we have a chance at coming up with a good answer about we should do about Aleppo, we need to make a commitment to getting the facts right. We certainly blew it after 9/11 and could argue that those mistakes have only worsened the crisis in Syria. If we want to honor the lives lost due to the 9/11 attacks, we should start by getting the story straight.

 

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.