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Archive for the ‘criminals’ Category


Saturday, May 9th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

This important and terrifying book should be read by everyone who cares about the future of human civilization.” Anatol Lieven

Warlords, inc. ; Black Markets, Broken States and the Rise of the Warlord Entrepreneur, Edited by Noah Raford and Andrew Trabulsi

Warlords, inc. a book to which I have contributed a chapter, is being launched today at The Long Now Foundation in San Francisco. Published by Penguin-Random House, Warlords, inc. was the brainchild of Dr. Noah Raford, who recruited an impressive group of experts, journalists, scholars and futurists to analyze and anticipate emergent security trends and irregular warfare among non-state actors, including terrorists, hackers, insurgents, sectarians and corporations.  With a foreword by Dr. Robert J. Bunker, the list of authors include:

William Barnes
Daniel Biro
James Bosworth
Nils Gilman
Jesse Goldhammer
Daniel S. Gressang
Vinay Gupta
Paul Hilder
Graham Leicester
Sam Logan
Noah Raford
Tuesday Reitano
Mark Safranski
John P. Sullivan
Peter Taylor
Hardin Tibbs
Andrew Trabulsi
Shlok Vaidya
Steven Weber

As editor, Andrew Trabulsi did a heroic job herding cats in editing this substantial volume and keeping all of the authors and project on track and on time. Warlords, inc. is available May 12 on Amazon and will be at Barnes & Noble and Target as well. Excited and proud to be part of this endeavor!

Narco-cartels as MBAs Doing 4GW

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]


Yale organizational behaviorist Rodrigo Canales has an interesting talk on the Narco-insurgency in Mexico ( which he correctly sees as having been as lethal as Syria’s civil war). While this won’t be news to close students of Mexico’s cartel wars, Canales explains how Los Zeta, La Familia, Knights Templar and Sinaloa cartel violence is neither random nor strictly criminal on criminal  violence but is used as part of organizational strategies to create distinctive “franchise brands”, amplify political messaging,  reinforce effects of social service investment in the communities they control and maximize market efficiency of narcotics sales and other contraband. COIN, 4GW and irregular warfare folks will all see familiar elements in Canales management theory driven perspective.

A useful short tutorial considering the cartels are operating inside the United States and their hyper-violent tactics are eventually going to follow.

Ayatollah Khameini: Crony Capitalist and Slumlord

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Reuters has begun a remarkable series on the economic dealings of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini who controls a staggering fortune of $ 95 billion dollars through a secretive fund Setad that expropriates the property of poor Iranians and religious minorities. This would put the venerable theocrat in the same superclass as Bill Gates, Carlos Slim, Warren Buffet and the Sultan of Brunei .

Up until now, former Iranian president Rafsanjani has always been the face of financial corruption in Iran’s clerical hierarchy, but to paraphrase John D. Rockefeller’s comment about J.P. Morgan, compared to Khameini ” he’s not even a rich man”:

Khamenei controls massive financial empire built on property seizures 

The 82-year-old Iranian woman keeps the documents that upended her life in an old suitcase near her bed. She removes them carefully and peers at the tiny Persian script.

There’s the court order authorizing the takeover of her children’s three Tehran apartments in a multi-story building the family had owned for years. There’s the letter announcing the sale of one of the units. And there’s the notice demanding she pay rent on her own apartment on the top floor.

Pari Vahdat-e-Hagh ultimately lost her property. It was taken by an organization that is controlled by the most powerful man in Iran: Supreme LeaderAyatollah Ali Khamenei. She now lives alone in a cramped, three-room apartment in Europe, thousands of miles from Tehran.

….But Setad has empowered him. Through Setad,Khamenei has at his disposal financial resources whose value rivals the holdings of the shah, the Western-backed monarch who was overthrown in 1979.

How Setad came into those assets also mirrors how the deposed monarchy obtained much of its fortune – by confiscating real estate. A six-month Reuters investigation has found that Setad built its empire on the systematic seizure of thousands of properties belonging to ordinary Iranians: members of religious minorities like Vahdat-e-Hagh, who is Baha’i, as well as Shi’ite Muslims, business people and Iranians living abroad.

Setad has amassed a giant portfolio of real estate by claiming in Iranian courts, sometimes falsely, that the properties are abandoned. The organization now holds a court-ordered monopoly on taking property in the name of the supreme leader, and regularly sells the seized properties at auction or seeks to extract payments from the original owners.

The supreme leader also oversaw the creation of a body of legal rulings and executive orders that enabled and safeguarded Setad’s asset acquisitions. “No supervisory organization can question its property,” said Naghi Mahmoudi, an Iranian lawyer who left Iran in 2010 and now lives in Germany.

The Persian name of the organization that hounded her for years is “Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam” – Headquarters for Executing the Order of the Imam. The name refers to an edict signed by the Islamic Republic’s first leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, shortly before his death in 1989. His order spawned a new entity to manage and sell properties abandoned in the chaotic years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

It used to be said back in the 70’s by Western intellectuals of the tweedy, social democratic, Left variety that the future would be a merging of Communism and Capitalism into a “Third Way”, perhaps, it was optimistically suggested, of the gentle Scandinavian variety with, democracy, universal free child care and quaint, bicycle-riding, constitutional monarchs. I doubt anyone thinks that today. If there is any emerging universal model at all it is that of nasty authoritarian governments being run, sometimes under a facade of elections, by a bareknuckle, crony capitalist Oligarchy that hollowed out the state.

Sometimes,the crony capitalists are merely the junior partners to the mandarins, siloviki and mullahs and at other times you could look “….from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again” and be hard pressed to tell the difference.

Khamenei’s conglomerate thrived as sanctions squeezed Iran 

….The ayatollah’s organization would go on to acquire stakes in a major bank by 2007 and in Iran’s largest telecommunications company in 2009. Among dozens of other investments, it took over a giant holding company in 2010.

An organizational chart labeled “SETAD at a Glance,” prepared in 2010 by one of Setad’s companies and seen by Reuters, illustrates how big it had grown. The document shows holdings in major banks, a brokerage, an insurance company, power plants, energy and construction firms, a refinery, a cement company and soft drinks manufacturing.

Today, Setad’s vast operations provide an independent source of revenue and patronage for Supreme Leader Khamenei, even as the West squeezes the Iranian economy harder with sanctions in an attempt to end the nuclear-development program he controls.

“He has a huge sum at his disposal that he can spend,” says Mohsen Sazegara, a co-founder of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps military force, who is now living in exile in the United States. “When you have this much money, that’s power itself.” 

Indeed. It insulates Khameini’s core supporters from external financial pressure and allows Khameini to have an arsenal of carrots, not just sticks in dealing with other members of the Iranian ruling elite.

It is often overlooked how frequently dictators, even those who were known for ruling through terror like Hitler, Stalin and Mao, could be lavishly generous with gifts and financial rewards or indulged the blatant corruption of powerful subordinates like Goering, Abukumov or Kang Sheng. Every Grand Ayatollah and Marja in Shia Islam maintains a charitable trust to which their pious followers donate. I would be extremely surprised if Khameini, whose scholarly credentials share similarities with Leonid Brezhnev’s military decorations, had not made arrangements for substantial contributions over the years from Setad to the trusts of Iran’s most respected senior clerics.

Baksheesh is an older faith in Iran than is Islam.

Heavy Metal: When Irregulars Go Armored

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

If the symbol of the 20th century insurgent was the AK-47 and a red banner, his 21st century counterpart may someday be recognized by the suicide belt and the “homemade tank”. Irregular fighters have always used light arms, civilian passenger vehicles and armor captured (or donated by) from conventional armies, but the ability to produce serviceable fighting armored cars is a new wrinkle. They could not stand up to an American or Russian tank company, of course, but they are not meant to do so.

Most prevalent and evolved in Mexico’s narco-insurgency where cartels use these “monsters” converted from SUVs and various types of light and heavy trucks to battle one another and as “troop carriers” but these DIY armored vehicles have also appeared in the recent Libyan and ongoing Syrian civil wars. Where heavy anti-tank weapons, air power and real tanks are scarce, these narco-tanks are useful additions to irregular combat power and convey an intimidating image to lightly armed police and the public.

Dr. Robert Bunker and Byron Ramirez, with the support of Small Wars Journal, Borderland Beat.com and the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, have a new scholarly compilation on the subject of irregular use of DIY armor in Mexico:

Narco Armor : Improvised Armored Fighting Vehicles in Mexico

….The wave of violence that has left thousands dead began in early 2005, when former Mexican
president Vicente Fox sent government troops to Tamaulipas to fight the cartels. For the past
seven years the government has ordered its military to fight the cartels directly, which, in turn,
has led drug cartels to improvise and develop their own methods of warfare to combat both
government troops and other competing cartels.

The extreme rivalry among various Mexican drug cartels for regional control of the drug trade
market has yielded an arms race. The following collection of articles and images addresses a
segment of the military technology utilized by violent non-state actors during this period: “narco armor” or, more accurately, improvised armored fighting vehicles (IAFV).

….Mexican cartel use of IAFVs and armored sport utility vehicles (ASUV) may yield some
important lessons for military counter-criminal insurgency efforts. Still, many unanswered
questions exist concerning the fielding of narco armor in Mexico. Reports of these vehicles
being fielded span roughly from mid-2010 to the beginning of 2012, with a spike in activity 5
surrounding them taking place around mid-2011. These vehicles had predominantly been utilized

in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas in engagements between the Zetas and Gulf cartels and in a
few other locales (see Map Locations). While it has been said that the Mexican government has
seized well over one hundred of these vehicles, only about two dozen photographic examples
exist per our research (see Picture Gallery).

….Given the apparent cessation of the fielding of narco armor since early 2012, quite possibly these vehicles have reached an evolutionary dead end, with more emphasis once again placed by the cartels on fielding more stealth-masked armored vehicles, such as armored SUVs, that better blend in with civilian cars and trucks so as to eluded identification and targeting by Mexican federal forces. Still, given the ever changing conflict waging in Mexico among the cartels and against the Mexican government, future resumption of IAFV employment will always remain a potential. 

Read the rest here.

During the Russian civil war (1917-1922), armored trains complete with heavy machine guns and artillery were used by both Bolshevik and White armies across the vast expanse of the Eurasian steppe and the armored train subsequently made spotty appearances in civil wars in China and Spain before fading away. This less likely to happen with homemade armor which is smaller and infinitely more mobile and can be created in a sufficiently large garage with time, elbow grease and a supply of scrap metal.

Some poems, Madhu

Saturday, September 28th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — some of my own poems, some of my own theology, and a damn fine French police procedural on Netflix ]

Engrenages / Sprial, season 4 episode 9


Madhu, a wonderful friend of this blog, encouraged me some while back to post some of my poems here. I don’t do it often, and I hope you will at least tolerate it when I do.

This one, for instance:

The rolling dice

That there is a murder to be committed, this the god knows, that the car
travelling through the woods contains victim and victor paired like dice strung
on a rear-view mirror, this the god knows, but it is the tops of trees
the god attends to, oblivious of the car which moves on its inerrant way
between them, the topmost branches it she or he observes, the upper
and as the car is first heard approaching, middle, and as it rolls into view
in left field, lower branches, the car now drawing his attention, riddle
of the two men still obscured by deflecting windows, roof doors tyres and

the leaves, the fallen, as though the two men from their high estate had fallen
to this, to the ground, among leaves which become mulch, the one sooner
and the other later, man become mulch as the god had become man, a
seasoning, of the ground, fall, a leavening of the earth, spring, in that primal
and primordial turning of planets and years on which between tree top
and mulch, between before and when with no after, two men’s dice are rolled.


As you know, I’m interested in the workings of the imagination, and find much of its power concentrated in the specific theologies and rituals of the world’s religions. My poems, accordingly, allow me to explore themes at the intersection of human behavior in all its light and shade, with the divine, in all its brilliant clarity, depth of heart, and, well, ineffableness, inscrutablemness, indescribability.

Indescribable? The word the Athanasian Creed uses is Incomprehensible:

As also there are not Three Uncreated, nor Three Incomprehensibles, but One Uncreated, and One Uncomprehensible.

You see, for my purposes the word god refers precisely to a greater unknown that nevertheless permeates and can inspire us — and simply saying that indescribable is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent gives us very little understanding. Inspiration and revelation are, for me, poetic openings on what cannot in any definitional sense be known, but from which our lives can glean radiance, love, clarity, courage.


In my attempt to glean some of that harvest for myself, and to spread some of what I glean around in words, I have found myself writing a long, continuing series of poems that take their central motif from films. If god, or whatever name you might use to point to that Incomprehensible — that medium “in which we live and move and have our being” — if that is indeed conscious of all that is, I’m inclined to wonder how it (he, she, other, all or none of the above) perceives, in a way that makes sense to me.

And the “seeing” that most extends my own outward perception of the world is the seeing done by cameras and brought to me by movies. So I give “god” in this series of poems all the zooms, overhead shots, close-ups, jump cuts, helicopter rides, narrative thrust, slomo, freezeframe and other tricks that film is capable of… to get a human glimpse of an omni-director who might even, like Hitchcock and Renoir, choose to make a cameo appearance in his (her its or other) own film.

And what films do I use? The one’s I’m watching between fatigue and sleep, for late-night entertainment — usually thrillers, and on Netflix. The poem above and the two which follow were written this last week, triggered by an episode of Engrenages, a French policier [trailer here] which shows in the UK under the title Spiral, and which has been called “France’s answer to The Wire” in this Guardian write-up from an early season: Meet Spiral’s feminist anti-hero.

I like it very much — but have to put it on pause from time to time, when a poem comes on through.


Okay, here are the other two poems from the set of three, drawn from my viewing of Engrenages, season 4 episode 9:

Still rolling

The spade wasn’t used, wasn’t needed, wasn’t necessary, the dice rolled,
no murder was committed, did the god know this, no, that the car
traveling through these trees would roll back the two men out of the woods
and into some new relation, clearer for being less fearful, though
he wild with hope and he sweating with regret might yet change course
as the god already knew or might know or might not if there be such
a they it she or he know, passionate impassive or nonexistent, or might
mightily decide — but the dice had rolled, the car parts the trees, departs

the woods, burial and the eventual arising of young two leafed tree sprouts
will continue though the car has left to right of view, and still, moved,
the god sees, observes, reflects, and builds, in his own extended image,
narratives of birth and eventful or eventless lives and meaningless or
on some perhaps many occasions meaningful deaths, and — who knows,
perhaps the god if any, rebirths after eventful nonevents, and thus onwards.

and this one:


And then again the car, in the woods, its doors wide open like wings,
surely the god would lift the car above treetops, clouds, into some other,
some blue, some empyrean, yonder, where murder would no longer
be needed, necessary, where no dice would roll but puffballs,
tossed clouds. hither and yon without pattern or purpose, repeating
yet that eternal pattern, that this car so still might forever roll,
this breath so quiet might breathe, life under the trees and under these
stars continue, continue, one death less than the god expected, the

car wings watching to carry the spirit windward, deprived of the death,
the murder uncommitted is no murder but if it be committed, even
here late in the day in the woods, in this word, committed, then
there is murder under the high trees a few paces from the sad car, the
corpse carrier, the fortuneless car carriage, and a man who stood
upright yet walked crooked perhaps is fallen, flat, dead and truly buried.


Caroline Proust as police captain Laure Berthaud, in Engrenages


Please feel free to comment on any or all of this: the ideas about a greater-than-human perception, poetry, cinema, Engrenages, these particular poems…

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